Category Archives: Galatians

What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!

**GENERAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLKIT**

Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology

 

** OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT

**GENERAL NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)

**GOSPELS**

General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”

Mark

Mark is Longer

Luke

Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt

John

Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names

**ACTS**

Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)

 **PAUL’S EPISTLES**

Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)

Romans

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)

Theo-logic

Examining Ourselves

 Galatians

A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit

Ephesians

Military Mnemonics

Philippians

Providing Perspective

Philemon

The Mouse that Roared

**NON-PAULINE EPISTLES**

James

Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith

**REVELATION**

Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, 123 John, Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Galatians, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, James, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Old Testament, Parables, Paul, Peter, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans, Synoptic Gospels, The Revelation

In Step with the Spirit

[Text:  Galatians, especially Gal. 5-6]

As I noted in my previous post, Galatians is hard going, and most of us, I bet, breathe a sigh of relief when we arrive at chapters 5 and 6.  Here the complicated theological arguments, examples and allegories of the previous chapters transition into practical instruction for the Christian community, complete with memorable lines about “keeping in step with the Spirit” and having “the fruit of the Spirit.”  This is stuff we resonate with, not to mention recognize.  We can handle this part just fine.

Not to spoil the party, but our eagerness to move on to the “relevant” teaching of these later chapters does a disservice to Paul’s message in this letter.  Reading in this way, we treat Galatians as if chapters 1-4 (and maybe the beginning of 5) were written to The People Back Then, who had this obscure issue with circumcision and Jewish law-keeping, while chapters 5-6 were written to US.  In this post I’d like to try to show how the original context of the epistle to the Galatians extends all the way to the end of the letter, and why this matters for our contemporary attempts to interpret Paul’s words.

You know the gist of Paul’s concern, I’m sure:  Gentile congregations in Asia Minor, once happily converted, were now being plagued by the teaching that their salvation in Christ was not, in fact, complete; what was missing was adherence to Jewish laws, specifically circumcision (but probably Sabbath-keeping, holidays, and dietary rules as well).  Paul’s passion for these people, and for the true gospel, comes out in his fiery words.  “Don’t let ANYBODY mess with your minds,” he says, “not even an angel of God!  There is only ONE gospel, and you’ve already got it.”

Crucial to his argument, and to our understanding of the later “practical” chapters, is the history of the Galatians’ initial encounter with the Holy Spirit.  You remember the scenes in Acts, right, where certain conversions were accompanied by highly visible and audible “signs and wonders”?  In the early days of the Church, when the original Jewish believers were first venturing outside their ethnic boundaries with their message about Jesus, God apparently turned up the volume on the Spirit’s presence—especially in born-again Gentiles, just so there would be no mistake about his acceptance of them.  As Peter put it to a council of his brethren, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”*

In Galatians, written very early in the newborn Church’s history,* Paul could appeal to these Gentile believers’ unmistakable  experience of divine acceptance in an attempt to get them to see the logic of their situation.  “Didn’t God supply the Spirit and work miracles among you, just because you believed?” he asks.  “Did he wait to welcome you into Abraham’s family until you had jumped through all the hoops of the Jewish law?  Of course not.  So having begun by the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?  That makes no sense!”

Note the contrast there, between “Spirit” on the one hand and “flesh” on the other.  Paul is emphasizing the Spirit’s obvious acceptance of these believers, and the consequent uselessness of flesh-bound  Jewish identity markers.  But we have been conditioned to decontextualize these terms, reading them not with their historical references in mind so much as “what they mean to me today.”  And “what they mean to me” naturally has to involve something other than a Jewish-Gentile tension about law-keeping, because that subject was laid to rest long ago and in a faraway land.

In our context-free interpretation, then, any mention of the Spirit is automatically understood to refer to prayerful, pious, spiritual behavior and thinking, maybe involving an inner “nudge” in a godly direction.  In contrast, flesh is sinful—often specifically lustful or sexually impure—behavior and thinking, or sometimes it is whatever we do to “try to earn God’s favor.”  Our revision of Paul’s main subject into terms that are familiar to us becomes a speedy bypass to contemporary relevance:  why belabor that first-century ethnic tension, when we are trying to keep in step with the Spirit in the twenty-first?

Here’s how the interpretive bypass plays out in our reading of the practical instruction of Galatians 5 and 6, and what we lose because of it.  I’ll give a couple illustrations, and you can test this idea further on your own.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Given our interpretative leanings, we are likely to take from this verse the idea that if we pursue pious, prayerful behavior and thinking, we will not be overcome by lust and other vices.  But is Christian morality Paul’s chief concern here?  I don’t think so: his driving passion is to protect already-believers from the unnecessary, destructive, and merely-human teaching that salvation was contingent on Jewish law-keeping.  “Walking by the Spirit” is, very simply, all about continuing on as you have started, secure in the knowledge that salvation doesn’t need the extra boost of circumcision or keeping kosher.

But what about the list of vices associated with flesh, and the virtues said to be the “fruit of the Spirit” at the end of chapter 5?

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, etc. . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc. . . .

Again, we are inclined to limit Paul’s discussion to questions of morality, seeing in these lists a cesspool of vices to avoid and a wellspring of virtues to cultivate.  Certainly human morality is in view here, but the original context remains important.  What would lead a person down the path to the cesspool of vices?  Why, accepting the false gospel and giving in to those who would add Jewish law-keeping to a Christian’s “To Do” list!* On the other hand, what path leads to the wellspring of virtues?  Why, the one they are already on, salvation by grace through faith!

Finally, consider this principle from chapter 6:

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

It seems a fairly intuitive equation—if I pursue the ungodly passions of my sinful nature, my moral character will degenerate; but if I remain prayerfully guided by the Spirit, I will get to heaven.  Actually, considered closely, the theo-logical conclusion of our intuitive interpretation should give us pause—since when is our eternal life contingent on our behavior?

It’s appropriate to have second thoughts about this familiar understanding of Paul’s principle, because a different interpretation is in fact more fitting.  Remember that “corruption” is not necessarily moral degeneracy; in fact, in the Bible it most often refers to the physical degeneration of the body after death.  Now the contrast works smoothly:  the way of the flesh, here the way of Jewish law-keeping and circumcision, is NOT the way of the gospel, and so it ends in death.  But the way of the Spirit—the way these Galatians first knew Christ, which everybody could plainly see in the signs and wonders that accompanied their conversion—is the one and only way to eternal life.

So Paul is still talking about circumcision versus plain-vanilla faith, even when we think we hear him talking only about moral choices.  Even these practical parts of Galatians are anchored in a historical context that is alien to us.  What can we hope to take away from these words, if we must shed our familiar assumptions about moral instruction and “Spirit v. flesh” in these passages?

Why not take away the message that simple, uncomplicated belief in Jesus leads to eternal life?  Be affirmed in your faith, and become familiar with the character traits that will mark you as one of Abraham’s offspring, part of God’s Church.  There’s plenty of good to strive for in Paul’s depiction of life along this path of the Spirit.  Just don’t get confused, overinterpreting his warnings about “the flesh” as a decontextualized call to struggle against our sinful nature.  As necessary as that struggle is in the believing life, it’s not a priority for Paul in Galatians.

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*Acts 11:17

*Probably around 48AD.

*Note, by the way, the shocking association of Jewish law-keeping with vice!  Paul intends to shake them up by way of this stunning incongruity, as he did when he connected Torah-keeping Jews with the decidedly un-Jewish figure of Hagar in his earlier allegory.

All Bible quotations are taken from the ESV, though sometimes I have paraphrased things.

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Literacy, Biblical Theology, Epistles, Galatians, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Theology

A Tale of Two Jerusalems

[Text: Galatians, especially ch. 4]

Paul’s impassioned letter to the Galatians can be a tricky one to track with.  Our vast cultural and historical distance from the peculiar concerns of the newborn Church leaves us baffled in the dense theological sections, and probably lets us off too easily as we sail through the “more relevant” practical parts.  In this post I want to offer some guidance through the mountainous terrain of Galatians 4, where biblical history and allegory collide; in a future post I hope to take a second look at the way we’ve always read Paul’s instructions in Galatians about “keeping in step with the Spirit.”

If you’ve read as far as Galatians 4, you’ve probably already figured out Paul’s chief concern:  these Gentile believers, who originally received the gospel message and the Holy Spirit with no strings attached, have come under the influence of some Jewish believers who insist that Hebrew law-keeping is a necessary component of everybody’s conversion.  Specifically, circumcision is being proclaimed as an imperative for these non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

Paul’s letter hits them in the middle of these deliberations.  He urges the Galatian Gentiles to reconsider the theological reality of their already-accomplished salvation, and to turn aside from the temptation to upgrade their status by way of religious requirements like circumcision.

Since circumcision is a representative example of following Jewish law, you’d think that Paul would have a lot to say about that law, and how its specific life-ordering rules had been rendered obsolete by the coming of the Messiah Jesus.  And you’d be right – in fact, that’s the gist of our Galatians 3.  In chapter 4, though, Paul does some fancy rabbinical-rhetorical footwork, playing with the flexible word “law” (Greek nomos, Hebrew torah) and making our heads spin.

Just before launching in on that difficult bit about Hagar and Sarah, he writes:

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons…”

Pause here, before we hit the two Jerusalems that are these sons’ mothers, and consider how Paul is playing with the word “law.”  Maybe these Gentiles (and maybe many of us reading today!) would typically define “law” in the Bible as all of those Jewish regulations and statutes and rituals.  But the Hebrew Torah, the big-L Law, is actually a collection of five books that includes both law (in a legal sense) and story.  And it’s the Story part of the Law that holds the key to unlocking the chains of the (legal) law that threatens the Galatians’ freedom.

Paul proceeds to identify the five dramatis personae in the part of the Story that he’s talking about:  Abraham, the slave woman and the free woman, and each woman’s firstborn son.  It must have been a familiar narrative by now even to the Galatians, who had, after all, hosted the great storyteller Paul himself on more than one occasion.  Here Paul is claiming that this Patriarch and his family history have repercussions even for former pagan Gentiles in Asia Minor:  through the continuity of the promise, even those outside Abraham’s bloodline are included now in God’s people.

So that’s the first curve ball in Galatians:  “Law” includes “story,” and it’s Story that matters in this wrestling match between faith and law-keeping.

The second curve ball involves another bit of rhetoric condoned by rabbinical scholars:  the allegorical use of real historical figures to convey a point.  Hagar and Sarah are convenient place-holders for the “law-keeping” and “promise-believing” contingents; and the respective locales, Sinai/earthly-Jerusalem and heavenly-Jerusalem, reinforce the contrast.

What ought to take the reader by surprise (but probably doesn’t, in our case) is that the Hagar/slave-woman/earthly-Jerusalem figure is the one associated with Mount Sinai, and therefore Jewish law-keeping.  There is NO WAY that this would be a comfortable allegory for a pious first-century Jew (or Jewish Christian).  Of the two women, Hagar is exactly the wrong figure to associate with all that defines Jewish identity, religion, and obligation.

And this discomfort is precisely Paul’s reason for structuring the allegory in this way.  Hagar and her son are cast off in the story, made strangers to the covenant that God had sworn to Abraham.  In the same way, God through Jesus has “cast off” Jewish law-keeping.  You don’t want to be associated with lost and abandoned Hagar, Paul insists.  And you always were associated with the other one, the Sarah/free-woman/heavenly-Jerusalem figure, because when you came into the family of faith you did it in a Sarah-way, by believing!

There is irony upon irony here, if we have eyes to see it:  the law, the pride of Judaism, linked allegorically to a despised slave woman; the law-keepers, now cut off from the covenant; non-Jewish believers in Jesus, identified with the ultra-Jewish heroine Sarah; and the despised Gentiles, now heirs of the promise.

Paul wraps up this rhetorical excursion to the two Jerusalems with these firm words:

“So, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”

Interesting that he includes himself in this statement:  the former Pharisee here implicitly distances himself from Jewish law-keeping, at least as it relates to salvation (i.e., being counted among the people of God).* Through the allegory of the two Jerusalems, each identified with one of the women in the story of the promise, Paul has mapped out for the Galatians the alternatives presented to them by the true and the false gospels they have heard.  He prays that they will realize once and for all that they already belong to Sarah’s side of the family.

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*Though Paul internalized the implications of the gospel so radically that he could behave as a Gentile among Gentiles, it was often deemed prudent (by Paul and by other Church leaders) for him to maintain Jewish practices when among Jews.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Biblical Theology, Epistles, Galatians, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Old Testament, Redemptive History