For the previous post in this series, click here.
*Before I move into Galatians, a quick additional point to my previous post on the Gospels that I forgot to include: many contemporary NT scholars, such as E. P. Sanders and Scot McKnight, see Jesus’ singling out of 12 Jewish disciples as an intentionally symbolic act expressing the hope of Israel’s restoration: the regathering of the lost 12 tribes of Israel from exile is occurring through Jesus’ ministry. If this is true, it would be another indication that Jesus saw the future of Israel being redefined around himself and his mission, and likewise the call and identity of Israel being taken up by his followers.
In the same fashion as my cursory examination of the Gospels, I limit myself today to the features of Galatians that strike me as the most significant for my chosen theme: the theological relationship between ethnic Israel and the Church of Jesus Christ. I admit beforehand that Galatians is at the heart of the controversy betwen the three views I elaborated upon in my initial post in this series, and several passages in particular (6:16!) are the subject of unending disputes. I do not pretend to offer the final word on anything here, but I do hope that the more cumulative, big-picture view of Galatians I now present may cause some of the individual pieces of the puzzle to be seen in a fresh light, interconnected as they all are. I also acknowledge that my own view will be impossible to hide any further in the exposition to follow.
I begin with only the most piecemeal background to Galatians. Paul writes this letter to a group of Gentile believers who have converted not long ago from paganism to Christianity. Whether Paul himself founded this church is unclear; personal details are scant. The tone of the document is harsh (it is the only Pauline letter that includes no thanksgiving for the addressees) and combative. Paul perceives these young believers to be on the brink of apostasy and destruction (1:6-9, 5:2-4). The stakes are high. The problem would appear to be that ethnically Jewish Christians (or at least professing Christians, as Paul’s interpretation of them calls into radical question their spiritual status) have come into this community of believers and insisted that these Gentile Galatians undergo circumicision and begin to observe the Mosaic law as part of their committment to Jesus. No hint is suggested that these “Judaizers” (a term derived from the verb in 2:14) are encouraging the Galatians to turn away from or renounce their faith in Jesus or that they themselves deny the death and resurrection of Jesus.
To summarize: the Galatians are being pressured to become Jewish in order to be Christians. Paul’s letter erupts into this confusion with blunt condemnation for these false teachers as he urges the Galatians to turn away from them and look to Christ alone for their identity and salvation. The basic thrust of Paul’s counter is that Gentiles do not need to become Jewish in order to enter into God’s people, to inherit His promises, or to be vindicated before Him on the last day as His own. All they need is Jesus. Plus nothing.
1.) Christians are the seed of Abraham (3:7, 14, 29). “Seed”, of course, reoccurs persistently throughout the Genesis narrative, and traces the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (the father of Israel) to make of him a great nation and to bless the world through him. Arguably, by contending that these Gentile Christians are the true offspring of Abraham (though they are not ethnically related to him) Paul is saying that they are the true Israel (though they are not physically descended from the Jewish people). At the very least, Paul is saying that all of God’s promises to Abraham now come to fruition through faith in Christ, not through observance of the Mosaic Law. Furthermore, these ex-pagan Gentiles stand in more continuity to God’s work in the OT than ethnic Jews who place their confidence in circumcision (this theme pervades the entire letter, but see 4:21-31). Does this still shock us?
2.) Circumcision and uncircumcision are matters indifferent to Paul, in and of themselves (5:6, 6:15). By this, Paul means that the ground at the cross is level, with respect to both sin and grace: Jews have no inherent advantage with respect to justifying grace, and Gentiles have no disadvantage. All are one in Christ Jesus (3:28). What matters is faith (in Jesus!) working through love (5:6). What counts is new creation, not clinging to the old order (6:15). There is, perhaps, an intentional twist of irony in Paul’s devilish hope that the circumcised Jewish troublemakers will slip with the knife and emasculate themselves (5:12) and his later reference to the physical marks on his own body (i.e. from his suffering for the gospel, in 6:17). Similarly to the role reversal of Philippians 3:2-3, circumcision has now become pagan mutilation, and suffering for Christ has become the true mark of God’s people. And this, Paul says, is all that matters.
3.) Just as it is clear in the OT that not all physical descendants of Abraham are, a priori, necessarily part of Israel–remember Esau, remember Ishmael?–so once again, in Christ, another “parting of the ways” has taken place in God’s economy. Though both Jacob and Esau were genetically related to Abraham, the line of promise (“seed”!) only went through Jacob. The same held true for Isaac and Ishmael–only Isaac’s children were “children of promise” (4:21-31) from that time onward. No orthodox Jew would say that the descendants of Esau or Ishmael belonged to Israel simply because of their physical lineage. Paul picks up on this to argue that, since Jesus is the true, ultimate “seed” of Abraham (3:16), it follows that all those who descend spiritually from him are the true heirs of God’s promises to Abraham. Like Abraham and like Isaac and like Jacob, what marks out those who belong to Jesus is faith. Faith is preeminent in all of God’s dealings with His chosen people. On the contrary, those who identify with “Hagar” (that is, those who look to the law covenant and their obedience to it as the ground of their reception of God’s promises) are, once again, found to be on the outside. And once again, they are ethnic Jews.
4.) The Spirit, being possessed by these Gentile Christians through faith alone apart from obedience to the law (3:1-5, 5:5), is the proof of their membership in God’s people. In the OT, the future outpouring of the Spirit upon God’s people is associated with God’s restoration of Israel under a “new” covenant (see Ezekiel 36, Joel 2, etc.). Through God’s Spirit, Israel would one day be “resurrected” to new life in the land (Ezekiel 37)! The Spirit’s presence among the Galatians is demonstration enough for Paul (“this only I need to find out from you” in 3:2ff) that they are member of God’s new covenant people. And the manner of their reception of the Spirit–by faith in response to the proclamation of the gospel, without circumcision or law observance–insinuates that these Galatians have no need of becoming Jewish to share in God’s promises to Abraham and Israel. Instead, they must continue as they began–trusting in Christ crucified and risen.
5.) I come, finally, to the dreaded “Israel of God” of 6:16. My case will not hang on this, but in my view this is the clearest example in the NT of Christians being directly labeled as “Israel.” I believe this idea or concept is present at dozens of other places in various ways, but this would be the most blatant. In brief, here are the reasons I believe Paul refers to the Gentile Galatian church as “the Israel of God.” First, because he’s already been doing this very thing the whole letter. “Seed of Abraham” is synonymous with “Israel”, as are “children of promise” and “heirs” and “sons of God”. Second, because if Paul distinguishes here at the finale between those who boast only in the cross and are marked out as God’s new creation (6:14-15), and a second group of ethnic Jews (“Israel” on this understanding) and offers God’s blessing upon both for different reasons (and two different boasts!), then he undermines the very heart of his argument in Galatians. Many commentators have pointed this out, and I am compelled by it. The entire letter is one complex demonstration that Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ and that there is no distinction between them with respect to receiving God’s grace and being counted as His people. Those who belong to Jesus–both Jew and Gentile, by faith–are now, at the end of the ages, the true Israel of God. Or so it seems to me.
One concluding reflection to wrap up: it is never explicitly communicated in Galatians, but if 1.) the “Judaizers” were demanding that these Gentile converts receive circumcision and observe the Mosaic Law and 2.) Paul uses multiple images, phrases and ideas associated only with Israel in the OT (“seed”, “heirs/inheritance”, “children of promise”, “sons of God,” “Spirit”, perhaps even the title “Israel”), then what must be the overarching presupposition behind this whole controversy that draws forth Paul’s fierce ire? Have we missed the most obvious thing simply because it was right in front of our eyes all along? This entire conflict is over the conditions for entering God’s renewed Israel and sharing in the promises He has made to His people in Abraham. That’s why the Judaizers held their stance–because to enter into Israel meant becoming Jewish in their minds. If Christianity were understood to be some brand new religion on the scene, or the Church was interpreted as a second, completely separate reality from Israel, then why all the fuss from either the Judaizers or Paul? This is precisely why Paul’s argument takes the shape it does–because the Israel of God has been redefined around Jesus, exclusively and completely and permanently. And those are fighting words.
What Galatians says nothing about is the continuing significance (if any) of ethnic Israel or the advantage of being Jewish in the New Covenant era. But Romans soon awaits us with this.
Next up: 1 & 2 Corinthians