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Galatians 4:21-5:12

May 16, 2016

In this section Paul speaks as passionately, creatively–and crudely–as anywhere in his letter. This is the summing up of his argument and his devastating attack on his opponents.

Many scholars think that Paul’s opponents were using the story of Ishmael and Isaac as an argument for Gentile believers to be circumcised. After all, Isaac, the promised child born to Sarah who becomes the ancestor of the Jewish people, was circumcised; Ishmael, the child of the slave woman Hagar, becomes the ancestor of the Arabs–a related people, but not the chosen people. Paul’s opponents may have been making the argument that, without circumcision, Gentile believers were like the descendants of Ishmael–partially related to the chosen people but not part of them.

Paul turns this argument on its head: it is the circumcised Gentiles who are like Ishmael, and it is the uncircumcised Gentile believers who are like Isaac! How does Paul accomplish this switch of positions? He does it by pointing out that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh”–that is, in the normal way. But Isaac was born due to a miracle–a promise to an elderly woman and her husband. To be circumcised is to be “born” “in the flesh”–through a physical process. But to be made right with God through trust in Jesus’ faithfulness is to be “born” in a spiritual way, a miraculous way based on a promise of grace. So Isaac represents living by grace, and Ishmael represents living by Law–living by physical ritual and ethnic identity.

For Paul there is another correspondence: just as Isaac was born to a free woman and Ishmael was born to a slave, so living by faith empowers and frees us while living by the Law keeps us bound to our self-centered limitations. Which covenant do you want to live under? The covenant of Moses and the Law which, though it had a good purpose, is incomplete and keeps us bound, or the covenant of Abraham which is based on trusting in God’s promise and grace–a covenant that results in miraculous birth and fulfillment?

Paul then quotes from Isaiah 54:1 to make the point that it was the childless Sarah, not the fertile Hagar, who ended up with numerous and specially blessed descendants. God does the opposite of what we expect. Part of that reversal of expectation is that Gentiles are now becoming the promised descendants!

Paul then makes two more comparisons with the Sarah/Isaac/Hagar/Ishmael story. Just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Genesis actually says he played with him, but the rabbis interpreted this as malicious play), so now the missionaries who are opposed to Paul are persecuting the Gentile believers who do not get circumcised (presumably by refusing to eat with them or fully include them in the church). And just as Sarah then insisted on driving away Hagar and Ishmael, so Paul is saying that the Galatians must now drive away these missionaries and their followers!

This sounds extreme to us, but for Paul there can be no compromise on this issue. If you’re going to achieve righteousness by being circumcised, then you are buying into the whole Mosaic Law system. The Law is an entire way of life regulating everything. That system couldn’t be more different from living by the Spirit which comes through faith in God’s grace. Indeed, if one could be made right (righteous) through observing all the rules of the Law, then what was the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross? The cross is God’s ultimate act of grace toward us, removing all barriers, destroying the power of sin, undermining the power of death, giving us a new center and a new Spirit. For Gentiles to decide to now live by the Law makes no sense and is a step backwards, a step away from trusting in God’s grace. The only true way to be saved from the power of sin and death and be made right with God is by “faith expressing itself through love.”

This verse (5:6) is a real beauty. Faith and love are held together. Trust in God’s grace that does not express itself through love is no faith at all. As James says, “faith without works [of love] is dead.”

Unfortunately, this beautiful summary of what it means to be made right with God in Christ is then followed a few verses later with Paul’s most ugly statement: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” There is, of course, a bit of humor in this line. The missionaries who have been hounding Paul and undoing his work have been insisting that the male Gentile converts must be circumcised–which entails cutting off some skin around the penis. Paul is wishing they would let the knife slip and castrate themselves! As this letter is read aloud at a Galatian house church, we can imagine the congregation gasping at this line–but at least some of them also laughing out loud. It is a brilliant–but very crude–rhetorical climax to the letter. Today, it may be hard for us to understand how this got by “the censors”–how this became holy scripture. But it may well be that the punch of this line is what made this letter convincing to the Christians in Galatia–so convincing that they kept the letter and kept copying it until it became scripture.

But what does our spiritual sensitivity tell us today? Was Paul right to call for the Jewish-Christian missionaries and their followers to be driven out of the church? Was he right to insist that their understanding of the gospel was so wrong that it was an anti-gospel? Was he right to conclude that there could be no common ground, no compromise, no solution that would keep everyone together in Christ?

Without being there and knowing all the details of what was going on I don’t think we can truly answer this question. But I am saddened that Paul’s solution is the same as the one used by his opponents: exclusion. “Either agree with me and do it my way or leave!” On the other hand, Paul is articulating a spiritual principle that remains crucial to the Christian faith: we are made right with God, not by what we do, but by what God does. To truly live in God’s fellowship is to live by trust in God’s grace, expressed through joyous, Spirit-inspired love.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we find a very different approach to resolving a spiritual and ethical conflict. The Roman church was divided by those who would or would not eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul found a way to keep everyone together by respecting everyone’s conscience and finding common ground in giving thanks to God for God’s gift of food. Perhaps we today can find more solutions like this one.


From → Galatians

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