Galatians is all about the change that came about as a result of the Jewish rejection of the Messiah. The original plan was clear: the Messiah was to present himself to his people, Israel in order for them to crown him as king and bring into being a righteous reign, but they rejected him and ‘hung him on a cross.’ God in his mercy offered another opportunity for the nation to repent but they stoned the messenger (Stephen) to death.
In view of this, how could God’s promise to Abraham that ‘all the nations will be blessed through you’ come about? The answer was that God would set Israel aside and work directly with Gentiles.
This change did not come without huge difficulty for the Jews who did put their trust in Christ (and some infiltrators who did not!). At least some of the Jews found it hard to accept the Gentiles and furthermore had difficulty in accepting the new covenant (the promise of a change from the inside and the work of the Holy Spirit). These problems were surfacing in the church in Galatia and it seems that they came to a head as Jews demanded that Gentiles live according to the law in general and undergo circumcision in particular. This third chapter of Galatians starts to unpick this faulty thinking: Paul develops six arguments over the next two chapters.
1. By belief or law?
Sometimes we find ourselves doing things without really thinking. If you’ve ever watched one of those TV shows that follow the police around you will know what I mean: the traffic police stop the speeding car and seem to always ask the same question, ‘do you know the speed limit on this road sir/madam.’ Usually the reply is correct – ’30 miles per hour officer.’ To which the inevitable question comes, ‘so why were you doing 42 mph?’ In this first section of chapter 3, Paul plays the role of the policemen. It’s as though the Galatians know perfectly well what is correct but something drags them back to doing the wrong thing – perhaps pressure from the Jewish contingent or just a sense of trying to keep the peace, but as we have noted before this issue is simply too important to sweep under the carpet. In this first part of chapter 3, Paul asks a whole series of questions some of which express his exasperation with the Galatians (I suspect that the Police get a bit exasperated when they ask their questions too!). ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ Paul is pretty much in their face! This reflects the importance of what Paul is talking about on some things we can compromise, on others we cannot. Paul now asks the first of his important questions: ‘Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?’ The day of Pentecost had inaugurated a new way of God dealing when men and women, by simply believing they could be totally changed: the Spirit of God would indwell them and a new life would be implanted within them. The evidence for this change needed to be striking and indeed it was striking: tongues of fire, miracles and the ability to speak in foreign languages. Whilst these signs seemed to be primarily given for Jewish consumption, the implications were nonetheless clear – God was at work in a new and important way. Paul says, did this come about by observing the law? Absolutely not, it came by believing the message they heard: as Paul puts it in Romans 10, ‘faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.’
Paul’s next main question comes in verse 3: ‘are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?’ It is clear that the believers in Galatia had started well, they were true believers and had indeed received the Holy Spirit. We too receive the Holy Spirit when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But sadly, we can live as though this remarkable work has never taken place at all. I remember once being in receipt of a special offer on a British Airways flight, my business class purchase was transferred to a first class ticket. I hadn’t been upgraded to the first class section, I had been given the full rights of a first class British Airways passenger. When I arrived at the business class airport lounge I was told I was in the wrong place! I was personally escorted to the Concorde lounge, no less, and was afforded all of the benefits and rights of first class. To fully benefit from my first class status I needed to accept that I really did indeed have a first class ticket. When we believe, God does a first class job on us, but how often we trend back to live like economy class people! The Galatians were turning back to the old ways: they were ‘trying to finish by means of the flesh.’ Paul will say more on this later in this letter, but for now we can say that as believers we have two natures inside of us: the old sinful nature and the new nature. The new nature is empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The old nature is at war with the new nature and constantly battles to regain control. The odd thing is that by living according to the law is a sure-fire way to rouse the old nature. In Romans 7 Paul states that sin springs to life when the commandment comes. If you live your life according to the law you will be offering an encouragement to the flesh – the old sinful nature. This was the problem for the Galatians and I believe is often a problem for us too.
Paul’s final question is ‘does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?’ Again the answer is obvious – Peter knew it, the Galatians knew it, and the Jewish Christians knew it – but they needed to be reminded. This is no optional extra of the Christian faith, this is of fundamental importance. And in spite of the emphasis by the Jews on law-adherence, relationship with God was always based on faith rather than obedience to law.
2. Believing is faith
Those who were advocating for application of the law looked back to their forefather Abraham. Paul now does the same. Abraham did not come to God through the law but by faith. Paul says that ‘Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Abraham was not asked to believe the same thing that we are to believe – he couldn’t as he lived centuries before Jesus came, but nonetheless Abraham’s relationship with God was a faith relationship not one based on law. I’m quite impressed with the simplicity of what we are asked to do: believe. Abraham believed what God said was true, neither more nor less. So should we.
Forcing Gentiles to become circumcised and returning to the law seemed to be the key issues in Galatia and Paul is keen to point out that Gentiles would be justified by the same means as Abraham: by faith. Paul reminds his readers of God’s great promise to Abraham that ‘all nations will be blessed through you.’ This at least in part means that Abraham’s faith example is extended to Gentiles. The law cannot help, in fact the law places us under a curse: ‘cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (verse 10).’ Since none can live up to the standards of the law those who attempt to do so will come under its curse. This was actually understood by Jews and Paul proves this by quoting the prophet Habakkuk who under the dreadful circumstances of his time (as he awaited the devastation of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians) said ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith says Paul it is about what you do, not about in whom you have faith. So if the law places one under a curse what is to be done? Paul has the answer: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.’ The work of Christ on the cross permitted the benefits that were afforded to Abraham to be granted to Gentiles, ‘so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’ Falling back on the law and forcing Gentiles to be circumcised is not only of no value but is prevents people living effective Christian lives – who would want to live under the curse of the law? We will see later in Galatians that living according to the flesh will produce nothing but failure, but living according to the Spirit within us will produce attractive fruit.
3. How it works
Paul takes his readers back to Abraham. God made specific promises to Abraham and these promises were made to ‘Abraham and his seed.’ There is no doubt that the original promises to Abraham had in mind Abraham’s offspring – one group of people, not a multiplicity of peoples, so we see that the promise had exclusions such as it was given to Isaac but not Ishmael and to Jacob but not Esau. Now the problem was that the seed (Abraham’s offspring Israel) had failed to remain faithful. But Paul shows us that in spite of the failure Abraham’s seed, there is a seed who fulfils this role of bringing blessing to all nations. This seed is Christ. The law has not and will not affect this promise give to Abraham.
If the law doesn’t affect this promise, what’s the point of the law that was issued 430 years after the promise to Abraham? Paul says that the law was given as a temporary measure because of ‘transgressions.’ It was given until the seed had come. This raises the question, is the law somehow in conflict with God’s promises to Abraham? Absolutely not says Paul, the law does not in any way negate God’s promises to Abraham. Well then, we may ask with the Galatians, what’s the point of the law? Paul says that the law was a sort of minder or guardian to keep people straight until Christ came.
Paul concludes this somewhat technical argument by stating that when we place our faith in Christ we become children of God. He says that ‘you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’ Baptism means the process of being moved from one environment to another with a consequent change occurring in the thing being baptised. The word was used to describe the process of taking a piece of cloth and placing it in a dye – change of environment that effects a change. We were at one time outside of Christ but we are placed in Christ (a new environment) and this baptism into Christ results in a profound change – the Holy Spirit lives within us and energises a new life. This comes to all who believe, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. Notice that this does not stop Jews being Jews, they have a physical connection to Abraham and retain promises on this basis (as Paul explains in Romans 9-11), just as males and females retain their identity and roles too.
Finally, as we come to faith in Christ we become beneficiaries of the promises made to Abraham: ‘all nations will be blessed through you.’