Bible Reading Plan – November 5-11

Galatians

Bible Project Reading Plan (Week 45):
2 Corinthians 1-13, Galatians 1-2, Psalms 1-5, 149-150


Galatians is one of the most heated books written by Paul. And not without reason! Paul saw his people, those whom he loved and who had loved him in return, starting to be torn apart by wolves who would preach to them a gospel that would only lead to their condemnation. But, because of the nature of the epistle, there is much work to do if we are to understand the problem facing the Galatians rightly. We are, in a sense, hearing only one side of the conversation, without any idea how Paul heard of the problem, or what was actually reported to him. We must, the best we can, fill in the gaps. It is not possible or necessary to fill in them all, but rightly understanding the problem that faced the Galatians is to rightly understand Paul’s argument. Likewise, to mistake the problem, to mis-characterize it and to warp it, even unintentionally, will throw off our interpretation, and allow Paul to sound like he is saying things that he never intended. Let us make sure, to the best of our ability as we begin the book, to rightly understand the problem that Paul lays out.

To set the problem in the right light, we need to begin with one of the strongest denunciations that Paul utters in any of his epistles. We find this, surprisingly, where we might expect a note of encouragement for the Galatians, in 1:6-9

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Galatians 1:6-9 (ESV)

The first question that we must face is the nature of what is being said to the Galatian believers. How is this gospel “different,” but alike enough to pass as the true gospel? Is there anyway that we can make sense of our answer in the book itself?

Many, upon reading Paul’s words here, assume that he only ironically calls the gospel that is preached to them a gospel – which is why he corrects himself in v. 7 when he says “not that there is another one.” Paul has spoken with his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, but doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand. This “other gospel”, it is supposed, is the dreaded “gospel of works” – the news that speaks well of Jesus, but requires extra work in order to gain salvation. This is not wholly wrong, but does misrepresent the wording that Paul uses somewhat.

Let us suppose that Paul didn’t misspeak when he called it a “different gospel” in v. 6; that is, it really was a gospel, but a different kind. It isn’t quite different in substance, but was meant for a different group of people, and thus came with different cultural implications. These implications, placed upon the wrong cultural context, “distort” the real gospel and make it into no gospel at all.

Given how the rest of chapter 2 plays out, we are likely right to suppose this. Paul makes much of the distinctions between Jew and Gentile. Notice the way he continually speaks of Peter as an equal apostle who delivers the same gospel to a completely different context: Paul meets the apostles in Jerusalem and places before them the gospel “which I preach to the Gentiles,” his gospel is “to the uncircumcised,” and his apostleship is for the Gentiles even as Peter’s is to the “circumcision.” In other words, the same gospel looks different when preached to the Jews and when preached to the Gentiles. Preached to the Jews, non-essential bits of Jewish culture were allowed to continue, so long as they didn’t impune the core of justification in Christ alone that Paul sets out in 2:15-16. That meant, among other things, that circumcision was allowable for the Jews.

But when these agitators went out to the Gentiles, and made a concession (circumcision) an imperative, they wrongly applied the gospel from one context to another, perverted it, and sinfully stood against the implications of justification in Christ alone. This is what Paul meant when he said they are turning to a different gospel, yet that there is one gospel. They are turning to the gospel that is preached to the Jews, which is the same as the one Paul preached to them, but with different implications. These implications make all the difference – making Gentiles become circumcised brings the law in through the back door, even if unintentionally. It is anti-Christ and condemnable.

Friends, here is why this is important: we likely all know better than to tell people that they can be made right with God on the basis of our works before him. Such preaching is the preaching of hucksters and those ignorant of sound doctrine. The question is not one of works, so much, but what brings one into a right and full relationship with God and how one receives his blessing. The Jews were exporting. . .  well, Judaism – this way they might ensure that the Gentiles were fully incorporated into the blessing of Abraham. If you live this way, if you do these things, then you will be fully brought into the blessings. These Jewish agitators were separating out justification (being declared righteous by God) and all of the other blessed realities of being unified with Christ (adoption, co-heirs, reception of the Spirit, etc.). This is why Galatians 3 and 4 exist.

We don’t need to preach justification through works in order to fall into line with the agitators and their heresy. We just need to separate the benefits of union with Christ into different badges to be achieved. Sure, you’re justified, but here’s how you gain the Spirit. Yeah, forgiven, but how do you know God is your Father? Perhaps you are declared innocent, but only by being a Jew are you connected to Abraham’s blessing. Friends, you don’t work to get the Spirit, you don’t work to get Abraham’s blessing, you don’t work to be able to call God “Abba, Father!”

Christ, as the church Fathers said, is indivisible. You get all of him, and all of his implied benefits, or nothing at all. If you can’t earn part of it, you can’t earn any of it. This is part of what makes the gospel such glorious news: even to those who have done nothing, God gives everything. You don’t get in and work your way up. You don’t work for promotions. As Paul says elsewhere:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Romans 8:32 (ESV)

All you can add to this, friend, is your own condemnation, which is fully deserved. Rest in Christ, and in him alone!