Conflict in Galatians

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is his response to a controversy in the churches of that region. The issue was the status of Gentile believers. Must they conform to Jewish practices and submit to the regulation of the Mosaic Law, especially circumcision? At the heart of his response was his contention that “in Christ” the old distinctions between “Jew” and “Gentile” no longer apply, the covenant promises have found their fulfillment in Jesus, the “seed of Abraham.”

According to Paul, the basis that determines membership in the covenant community is not the “deeds of the law” but the “faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Church graveyard - Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash
[Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash]

The Mosaic law is much more than a statement of theological principles, or a set of moral codes designed to regulate human conduct. In the summary statement made at Mount Sinai, God declared that He chose Israel as His treasure “
above all other nations.” The Law was part of the covenant between Yahweh and the entire nation of Israel -(Exodus 19:3-6).

The pronoun “you” in the passage in Exodus is in the plural number. It was not each Israelite that accepted the covenant one by one, but the entire nation proclaimed in unison, “All that Yahweh has commanded we will do.” The Law was given to Israel, NOT to any other nation. Her obedience to the Torah was vital to her possession of the land of Canaan.

Effectively, the Torah was a national contract between Yahweh and Israel, one that included a sacrificial system, dietary restrictions, laws of inheritance, civil regulations, penal codes, and so on.  Some of its regulations were specific to the nation residing in Canaan, including the cities of refuge and regulations governing inheritance.

The Law was intended to keep Israel holy and separate from the surrounding nations.  The dietary restrictions, for example, are designed to keep Israelites distinct from pagans and to maintain their ritual purity - (Leviticus 20:24-26).

None of this means the religion of Israel was closed to Gentiles. The Law provided the means for them to join the covenant community, and this included circumcision (for males) and submission to ALL the obligations of the Law. In effect, Gentile “converts” become citizens of Israel. And since circumcision was THE fundamental sign of the covenant, it was not optional.

GENTILE INCLUSION


Originally, the church was composed of Jews and Jewish proselytes. It did not view itself as a new religion but as a messianic movement within Judaism. Jesus did not abrogate the faith of Israel, but he fulfilled it.  The first chapters of the Book of Acts record how this new “way” spread among the Jewish people.

It was not until sometime later that the Gospel was offered to Gentiles when Peter visited the house of Cornelius. The latter was a “centurion of the band called Italian.” Although a Gentile in the service of Rome, he was also “devout and feared God… doing many alms to the people and supplicating God continually.”

Cornelius was an adherent of the precepts of the faith of Israel, He loved the Jewish people yet remained uncircumcised. By the time Peter arrived, he was not yet a Jewish proselyte - (Acts 10:13-28).

The opening of the Gospel to the nations necessitated divine intervention through visions received by Cornelius and Peter. The latter saw a sheet descending from heaven filled with ritually unclean animals. A voice commanded him to eat. This he refused to do.  As a devout Jew, “at no time had he eaten anything common or unclean.” The voice responded, “What things God has cleansed do not make common.” Following his vision, two men from Cornelius arrived and told Peter:

  • Cornelius, a centurion, a man righteous and fearing God, well–attested by the whole nation of the Jews, has been instructed by an angel to send for you to his house and to hear words from you.”

Though uncircumcised, Cornelius was well-regarded by many Jews. God did not choose just any Gentile for this pivotal event. He selected one known by many Jews for his devoutness and high moral character. Despite his well-attested character, Peter responded, “You well know how it is unlawful for a Jew to be joining himself or coming into one of another race.”

His statement highlights the obstacle to welcoming Gentiles into the covenant community. Regardless of how righteous a man is, he remains outside the covenant and ritually unclean if he is uncircumcised. As Peter continued:

  • Yet to me has God pointed out that I should be calling no man common or unclean...of a truth, I find that God is no respecter of persons but in every nation, he that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”

During his sermon, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles while Peter was speaking. This amazed the Jews with him since “upon the Gentiles also the free gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out.” God had given the very same gift to uncircumcised Gentiles that He had bestowed on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost- (Acts 2:1-4; 10:29-48).

Only when the Gentiles received the Spirit did Peter confess that people from every nation are acceptable to God if they fear him and live righteously regardless of whether they are circumcised. The “revelation” on that day was the acceptability of Gentiles AS GENTILES into the church.

Some believers in Jerusalem faulted Peter for his actions. He fellowshipped with “men uncircumcised and ate with them. He justified his actions by pointing to the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles - “If the same free–gift God gave to them as even unto us when we had believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that could withstand God?” – (Acts 11:1-3).

The fact that God gave the Spirit to Gentiles while they were still uncircumcised was irrefutable proof that He accepted them because of their faith in Jesus. After hearing Peter’s defense, the church in Jerusalem glorified God and declared, “Even to the Gentiles has God granted repentance for life.”

IN GALATIA


In Chapters 1 and 2 of his Letter, Paul details how he received his Gospel for the Gentiles by divine revelation, a commission confirmed by the leadership of the Jerusalem church. He also describes how certain “false brethren, secretly introduced, slinked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus.”

Paul refers to an earlier controversy in Antioch when Jewish believers from Jerusalem infiltrated the Assembly to spread disruptive teachings, including claims that it is inappropriate for Jewish believers to eat with uncircumcised Gentiles. Paul would have none of it:

  • (Galatians 2:14) - “But when I saw that they were not walking with straightforwardness regarding the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before all: If you, although a Jew, like them of the nations and not like the Jews live, how do you compel them of the nations to live like Jews?

The key phrase in the preceding passage is “compelling Gentiles to live like Jews.”  The Greek verb is a strong one and means “to compel, force” (anangkazō – Strong’s - #G315). The infinitive rendered “to live like Jews” occurs only here in the New Testament (Ioudaizo – Strong’s - #G2450). It refers to efforts to compel non-Jews to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.

This was the crux of the matter. Some Jewish believers were “compelling” Gentiles to conform to Jewish practices. And to refuse to eat with Gentiles insinuated there was something defective in their faith.

The controversy in Galatia focused on circumcision (“If you are getting circumcised Christ will profit you nothing”). The opponents were “compelling you to get circumcised.” To be members in good standing, must Gentile believers add circumcision to the “faith of Jesus”? - (Galatians 5:12).

This controversy is not surprising.  The first disciples were all Jews.  It was only after the incident with Cornelius that the Gospel was opened to Gentiles. Was not Jesus the promised Jewish Messiah? Questions about how Gentiles must enter the covenant community were inevitable.

The new community founded by Jesus is connected to the faith of Abraham.  It is natural for Jewish believers to look to the old covenant for what defines the people of God.  Inevitably, circumcision becomes an issue. After all, it is the original sign of Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham, and it even predates the Torah.

In Galatia, proponents of circumcision had a strong scriptural case. Did not the Law already provide the means for Gentiles to enter the covenant community, namely, circumcision? This is the situation in Galatia that Paul addresses in his Letter.


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