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Galatians 2:15-21

April 11, 2016

Here we have what may be the most important passage in Galatians: it is Paul’s summary of his understanding of the essence of the good news–especially as it relates to Gentile inclusion. But how we understand the passage depends on how we interpret some key words and phrases, and how we answer some questions.

The first question is: Is this passage a quotation of what Paul said to Peter when he confronted him in Antioch? The NIV translation opts for “yes,” whereas the NRSV translation opts for “no.” I think both are right. Verses 15 and 16, at the very least, are meant to be Paul’s response to Peter; but as the passage moves along, it gradually moves away from being a quotation of what Paul said to Peter and instead becomes what Paul wants to say to the Galatians. Ancient Greek writing has no punctuation or quotation marks, so we have to make our own guesses about what Paul intended. I doubt that Paul intended to give the Galatians an exact quote of what he said to Peter on that occasion; rather, Paul is giving the Galatians the kind of argument he made or would have liked to have made to Peter–an argument that is also relevant to the questions facing the Galatians.

So, what is Paul’s argument? Here is my best understanding of what he is saying:

Verses 15-16. A key word in this passage is “justified.” But “justified” has connotations in English that are foreign to what is meant by this word in Greek. The underlying meaning is to be made just, or made right, put in right relationship. This is something God does, not us. God saves us, God rescues us, God vindicates us, God brings us into right relationship with God. How does God do this? The traditional translations say “by faith in Jesus Christ.” But the original Greek is just as open to being translated as “by the faith of Jesus Christ.” I think this is what Paul actually means because it puts its emphasis on what God has done through Christ, rather than on what we do. God has saved us and brought us into right relationship with God through something amazing God has done: Jesus Christ has died for us. This was an act of complete faith or faithfulness by Jesus Christ.  We are saved, not by our faith, but by Jesus’ faith/faithfulness. We then respond to Christ’s amazing act of faithfulness by turning ourselves over to him–which is also an act of faith. In Greek, the same word can be translated as “faith,” “believe,” or “trust.” The central sense is of being faithful or trustful. I think we would understand Paul much better if every time we see the word “faith” or “believe” we replace it with the word “trust.” One other key phrase here is “works of the law.” Paul is not talking about our efforts to be good, and he perhaps isn’t referring to Moses’ laws as a whole. He is probably focusing especially on those laws which distinctively identify Jews as part of God’s covenant relationship: circumcision and dietary laws. Paul’s point is that these identity markers are not what save us.

Keeping all of that in mind, here is my own paraphrase/translation of verses 15-16. Paul is telling Peter, in effect, “You and I were born into God’s saving covenant as Jews. We are not ‘Gentile sinners’ who are outside the covenant and God’s laws. But even so, we Jews who believe in Jesus know that we are saved, vindicated and made right with God, not by being circumcised or following Moses’ food laws, but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who went all the way to death for us. By putting our trust in Christ Jesus we are made right through his faithfulness, not through our Jewish identity markers; no one is saved that way.”

Paul’s argument with Peter is that since we all agree that God is saving us through the death of Jesus Christ, it makes no sense to divide Jews from Gentiles who are both putting their trust in Christ. Circumcision and food laws, as important as these have been in the past for marking out a special covenant people, are not ultimately what saves us. God’s great act to save humanity has now been completed in the death of Jesus; so Jewish identity markers are not relevant for fellowship and inclusion in the church.

Verse 17. I think the meaning of this puzzling verse is that Paul is saying: “Since we are not depending on these identity-marker laws to save us, does that then make us lawless sinners like the unsaved Gentiles? No!”

Verse 18. I think Paul is saying here that if he once again becomes an advocate for the need for circumcision and food laws in order to be saved, then he has indeed been violating the laws of God by preaching that we are all saved by putting our trust in Jesus’ saving act of faithfulness.

Verses 19-20. What happens when we put our trust in Christ’s faithfulness? Our self-centered nature gets crucified with Christ. The selfish ego dies. In its place, Christ-centeredness lives in us. A new Spirit lives in us and through us. Paul is not suggesting that he has lost his own unique personality by belonging to Christ; rather, he has lost his selfish ego center.

Verse 21. This final verse is the crucial linchpin of his argument. If we could be made right and vindicated and saved by God through following the covenant law and fulfilling its identity markers, then what was the point of Christ’s death? For Paul, Christ’s death is the starting point for understanding Jesus and understanding what God is doing to save humanity. The only way to make sense of the crucifixion of the Messiah is to see in it an act of God that finalizes God’s rescue of humanity. Jesus has been completely faithful to God all the way to death, and so that death makes us all faithful to God when we put our trust in Christ, crucifying our old nature with him.

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From → Galatians

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