STUDIES IN GALATIANS No. 4
February 28, 1999
Remember, Paul is dealing in this section of his letter with the charge that has been made against him by his opponents that he is out of step with the Jerusalem apostles in his teaching of Gentile freedom from Jewish ceremonies. They are suggesting that his apostleship was derived from theirs, is subordinate to theirs, that they had taught him one thing, but that he then taught the Galatians another. So far Paul has pointed out that he got his gospel and his commission to preach directly from the Lord Christ and not from the twelve apostles.
v.1 Luke, in Acts mentions two visits to Jerusalem made by Barnabas and Paul together. One is the famine relief visit mentioned in 11:30 and the other is the visit to the Council or Synod of Jerusalem which met to adjudicate the very question at issue in Galatians, viz. whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to be circumcised. We said in our introduction, a few Lord’s Days back, that it is inconceivable that the Jerusalem Council would have already met and delivered its judgment regarding Gentile freedom, before Paul wrote this letter, and Paul not have mentioned that fact. It would have been the coup de grace against his opponents, for it amounted to the Jerusalem apostles going on record in favor of Paul’s position and, even more, publicly unmasking the judaizers as men who had pretended to have the support of the apostles when, in fact, they never did. Obviously, the fact that Paul doesn’t mention any of this is by far the most easily explained if the Jerusalem Council hadn’t yet met and delivered its judgment. Therefore, almost certainly, the visit Paul is talking about in 2:1 is the one Luke describes in Acts 11:30, when Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to bring gifts for the people there who were suffering famine.
On that trip, Paul says, he took Titus, a Gentile who had not been circumcised. His presence served as a living example of Paul’s position on the question — Gentiles did not have to be circumcised — and the fact that no one in Jerusalem complained of this fact is proof that Paul’s position was not out of step with that of the Jerusalem apostles.
There is, by the way, a great lesson in those fourteen years that Paul spent away in Syria and Cilicia. He was doing gospel work, to be sure, but it was not the great work, the primary work of his life. That was not to begin until Barnabas went to Tarsus and brought him back to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). Who would have thought that the Lord would have converted Paul and summoned him to his great work and then let him bide his time for fourteen years! (Moses’ forty years in Midian!) (Though we don’t know how significant a ministry he may have had in Tarsus, still, he wasn’t part of the strategy of the twelve and of the effort to evangelize the Roman world that he would later direct.) God’s ways are not our ways. Paul needed seasoning perhaps.
v.2 Very striking language. Paul clearly doesn’t mean, given what he has already said, that he wasn’t sure what his message should be and needed the Jerusalem apostles to confirm that for him. He means rather, it would seem, that he feared some disagreement on the point of Gentile freedom and knew very well that disagreement and friction here would be disastrous for the work, including the work he had already accomplished among the Gentiles.
v.4 It seems likely, from Paul’s wording, that the issue of Gentile freedom wasn’t even raised on this second visit to Jerusalem. That matter surfaced later when, as he says, some men took it upon themselves to contest the Gentile freedom that was already part of the apostolic message — Peter having already introduced it after God had revealed it to him at the houses of Simon the tanner and Cornelius (Acts 10-11).
v.5 It is perhaps easiest to read vv. 4-5 as if they were enclosed in parentheses.
v.6 They really are, of course, men of repute. If there is any sense of dismissiveness in “seemed” and “it makes no difference to me” it is because of the claim of Paul’s opponents that the authority and prestige of the twelve so far exceeded Paul’s own.
By the way, this is a really typical Pauline sentence, with grammar overwhelmed by passion and the rapidity of his thought. There are many such cases in Paul (e.g. his “first” with no “second” or “third” in Romans 3:2). It’s even worse in Greek; the English translators smoothed out the anacoluthon — the shift from one grammatical structure to another within the same sentence.
v.7 Paul had some work among Jews as Luke tells us in Acts, as Peter had some gospel work among Gentiles, which we also read of in Acts. But, in some way, it had been made clear that Peter’s focus would be on the Jewish population, while Paul’s would be on the Gentile. (The other apostles are not mentioned. Thomas, e.g. was supposed to have gone all the way to India!)
The NIV interprets in v. 7. What Paul says is that he had been entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised, Peter with the gospel to the circumcised. As circumcision is such an issue here, it would have been better to leave it as Paul wrote it!
v.9 Again, this is James the brother of the Lord, already a leader of the Jerusalem church, not the James the brother of John and son of Zebedee who was one of the twelve disciples. He had already been martyred by this time. It is possible that due to their close relationship with the Lord during the ministry, Peter, James, and John were regarded as the “pillars”. Then, when James was killed, his namesake was put in his place, though not as one of the twelve.
v.10 On his third missionary journey, you remember, Paul raised a collection for the poor in Jerusalem and so showed himself caring of these saints to the end of his ministry.
Now, before we get into the details of Paul’s biblical and theological argument in the letter, we have occasion in these verses to identify and consider the major theme or argument. Paul lays it before us in two ways: in v. 5 he speaks of his determination to protect what he calls “the truth of the gospel,” a phrase he will use again in v. 14. There Peter and Barnabas were not acting “in accordance with” the truth of the gospel.
And, in the second place, Paul calls those who were opposing him in Galatia “false brothers.” Paul’s sternness is most important. There is no doubt that a great many Jewish Christians and many Gentile Christians had accepted these teachers as true Christians. But Paul does not. The word he uses is “pseudo-brothers.” The error they are spreading strikes at the vitals of the gospel, it represents a contradictory and counterfeit principle of salvation by works rather than by grace. It must be opposed come wind, come weather.
It is something to remember, as we make our way through Galatians, that when Paul sets out to explain the gospel in Romans 1:17ff., he explains it in terms of justification by faith and not by works. This is fundamental. A mistake here is a major mistake! When Paul wants you to understand the gospel, he explains it in terms of the distinctions between grace and works or faith and works, which amount to the same thing.
But exactly what was the judaizers’ error? How did these men subvert the truth of the gospel? There are different answers to this question and, in my judgment, getting the answer to this question right is the most important step in a true understanding of the letter as a whole.
A number of commentators, including a good many who ought to know better, speak as if the error were that the judaizers were teaching that Gentile Christians were still obliged to obey the law of God, circumcision being just one of many commandments. Paul’s gospel did away with the law of God and with the necessity of obeying it and did so for Jews and Gentiles. The issue in Galatians, then, according to this way of thinking, is the place of the law of Moses in the Christian life. The judaizers wished to maintain a place for the law of God in the Christian life, the Apostle Paul taught, instead, that the law, having served its purpose was done away with and no longer had a function in the life of the Christian man or woman.
But, clearly that is not Paul’s meaning. He says elsewhere that his doctrine of justification by faith, far from abolishing the law of God, establishes the law. He says that the law of God is holy, wise and good. He says that Christians should keep the law of God. And so on. Here in Galatians also he does not deny that the law of God, as revealed by Moses, is still the rule of life for God’s people.
In 5:14-15 he reminds them that they are to keep the law that says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to live that way, he says, because that is the law of God!
The problem with these judaizers was not that they held to a high view of the law. The problem was precisely that they believed in a sinner’s becoming right with God by keeping the law — that is, they were legalists. They thought that obedience to the law of God was the ground of justification, of peace with God, of entrance into eternal life. Paul’s argument, as we will see when we get to it, will be that the law never was intended to serve as the way of salvation, obedience to commandments was never the way sinners got right with God, it couldn’t be the way.
Now, no doubt these men would have said that they agreed with the gospel of Peter, James, and John, even perhaps that they agreed with the gospel that the pillars held in common with Paul. But, the fact is, their assurances to the contrary, they did not agree with that gospel message, in fact, they had repudiated it. They didn’t say they had; they would have been hotly offended at the suggestion. But that is what Paul says they had done in fact.
Circumcision is not the issue! Hear me, for this is absolutely critical to a right understanding of this letter. Circumcision, the food laws and liturgical holidays that will be mentioned later in the letter, were not the issue. They were only symptoms of the true and much deeper problem. Indeed, all Christians are still under the law of circumcision today! We obeyed it this morning, though the outward form of the obedience has changed — it is now baptism. The issue is not obedience. It is the role of obedience in justification.
Let me demonstrate that conclusion in several ways.
First, Paul did not object to Jewish Christians being circumcised. He had no problem with that ever. He had been quite willing to have Timothy circumcised, even after this problem had surfaced in the church, because Timothy had a Jewish mother.
In fact, it is not clear that Paul would have objected to Gentile circumcision if Gentiles had wanted circumcision simply to express solidarity with their Jewish brethren and to share, in some outward way, in the heritage of the covenant with Abraham.
The problem came when Jewish believers came to teach that Gentile believers had to be circumcised (cf. “compelled to be circumcised” in v. 3). Here is the point: the only reason someone would take that view would be that he held to some view of the relationship between obedience and salvation, between liturgical practice and salvation that was inconsistent with the gospel. Obedience is necessary, but it has nothing to do with justification, it is not the way sinners get right with God.
That is exactly what Paul says in 2:14 where he uses the phrase “the truth of the gospel” for the second time. The withdrawal of Peter and Barnabas from Gentiles under pressure from Jews — that is, their withdrawal from uncircumcised Gentiles — was an act that was inconsistent with the gospel. No one would do such a thing who was acting in consistency with the gospel — precisely because there was nothing about the gospel that required a Gentile to be circumcised. The requirement came from something else than the gospel, indeed, it came from a principle of justification that was inimical to the gospel, hostile to the gospel, amounted to the repudiation of the gospel. Circumcision had been replaced by baptism as the initiatory rite of the Christian church. So, the only reason anyone would compel Gentiles to be circumcised would be a false principle, and, in particular, a legalistic principle.
The problem is not circumcision per se. The problem was the demand that Gentiles be circumcised, which was based, and had to be based, on a false view of the basis of justification, of forgiveness of sins, and of peace and righteousness before God.
Second, Paul makes this point explicitly here in Galatians.
He makes it elsewhere, of course. In a very important statement in Romans 10:3 Paul gives his diagnosis of the problem the Jews had with the gospel.
“Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
And that is the problem here in Galatians, as Paul will argue and as he says straightaway. These people were seeking to establish their own righteousness instead of relying on the righteousness that comes from God as a free gift.
1. 2:16: the issue is justification by observing the law (lit. by works of the law) or by faith in Christ. That is what is under dispute. The judaizers were teaching the former, Paul the latter. However much the judaizers may have put it in other words and not at all denied the importance of faith, their insistence on Gentile circumcision gave them away. At bottom they were making the observance of the law the means of justification.
2. 3:3: the issue is whether or not we obtain our goal — salvation in this case — by human effort. The judaizers were, in the last analysis, “do-it-yourselfers.” Remember, they believed in Christ as the Messiah, that he had died for sins on the cross and risen from the dead. But, at the key point, they rested man’s hopes of acquittal in the judgment of God on things a man must do, not on what Christ has done for us.
3. 3:3 again: the issue is whether God works his grace among us because we observe the law or because we believe the message we have heard. That is the issue.
4. 5:4: one last illustration (of many I might use) from later in the book. The issue is whether you are “trying to be justified by the law.”
It is not at all clear that the judaizers put it in these terms — being justified by the law. But, that was the material substance of their message. And the proof of that was their demand that Gentiles be circumcised, a demand that made no sense except on the assumption that obedience to the Mosaic command to be circumcised was required for justification, for forgiveness and peace with God.
That is the issue in Galatians. The truth of the gospel. The issue is not the abiding validity of the law of God or the necessity of obedience to God’s law in the Christian life. Paul doesn’t deny that, of course. The issue is not the transition from OT to NT, as if the only problem with the judaizers’ position was that it wasn’t up to date, they hadn’t accommodated themselves to the changes introduced by Christ and his apostles. Paul will later argue that the judaizers are as out of step with Abraham and David as they are with him and the other apostles. The issue is how is a sinner right with God. And the mistake the judaizers made was the same one their forefathers had made in the days of the prophets, the same one their fathers had made in the days of Jesus Christ. It is the same one that generations of the church have made through the ages since: turning the message of salvation by grace into a message of salvation by our works.
In this case the works principle was laid bare by the demand for Gentile circumcision. In the days before the Reformation it was laid bare by superstitious practices in regard to the Mass or indulgences. In our day it is often laid bare by a bare do-goodism. I remember making EE calls on people who would tell me — when I asked them who Jesus was — that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. But when we came to the place where I asked them what they would say to Christ, if they died and found themselves before him and he were to ask them why he should let them into his heaven, they would say, time and time again, that they had been good people, tried to be fair to others, tried to do good, raise their children right, pay their taxes, and so on. They knew enough to say that Jesus was the Son of God, but when they came to explain salvation, they turned immediately and naturally to their own works, and left Jesus Christ and his cross and the grace of God out of account.
It is the natural heresy of the human heart to think oneself the captain of one’s own soul and the decider of one’s fate. And it surfaces all the time to ruin and destroy the gospel principle of grace and God’s free gift even in the hearts of those who belong to the church.
The theological problem here is first and foremost a superficial view of sin. That is why Paul begins with sin, the comprehensiveness and virulence of human sin, when he expounds the doctrine of justification in Romans and it is why Paul will spend time here in Galatians expanding on the law’s role in convincing us of our sin, our guilt, and our hopelessness apart from the grace of God. (We will have that especially in chapter 3.) This was the nature of Christ’s contest with the Pharisees. Their problem, he said, was not first their view of God or of God’s judgment, it was not their view of the Bible, it was not even that they denied the grace of God, for the rabbis talked a lot about God’s grace. Their problem was a superficial and utterly unrealistic view of sin. Which is why the Lord Jesus is always after that in his preaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Sin reaches into the heart, he says, it beguiles and blinds a man to his own faults, it is committed in many more ways than most men think, — thoughts and attitudes can be sin — and so on.
Do you see why the Lord placed such an emphasis on the doctrine of sin? So long as a man thinks his sin problem not really so grave, he can imagine that it lies within his power to solve it by his own effort. It is only when a man sees the true enormity of his guilt before God, the profound blackness of his heart, that he knows full well that only God can solve his problem. (Dr. Krabbendam on “giving God our hearts”. No! The heart is deceitful and full of the worst desires and biases, weak beyond description when it comes to doing what is good. Give God your heart only that he might kill it, destroy it, and give you another one!)
The truth of the gospel is precisely that we are so lost and so helpless in our sinfulness that we can be right with God only if God makes us right with him: by making a righteousness for us in the life and death of Christ, and then by giving us faith in Christ and, through that faith, placing Christ’s righteousness to our account — so that we are, at last, as righteous as Christ was righteous for us, as if we had never sinned nor been a sinner.
That is the Christian gospel — that men and women may be right with God by the free gift of a righteousness that comes from God and is received by faith and faith alone. That is the issue Paul is addressing. Accept this, and you are a Christian. Stand against this, Paul says, in v. 4, and you are a “false brother.”
I make something of a special point of this not only to introduce Paul’s argument to you, but to counter a tendency surfacing in American evangelicalism, viz. a tendency to minimize the importance of a precise construction of justification. We see this especially in the new interest in rapprochement with conservative Roman Catholics. It was perhaps to be expected. American evangelicals have been growing ever more disinterested in sin and in the acknowledgement of the enormity of our sin against God and man. It was only a matter of time, in such circumstances, that we would soon lose interest in justification and begin to think it not so important an issue. Now there is an increasing number of evangelicals who are not sure that differences on the point of justification should keep us from a greater unity with theologically conservative Roman Catholics. But the Roman Catholic error, I must tell you again, seems materially identical to the that of the judaizers against whom Paul writes here.
It is very interesting how, in church history, when God revives the church and his people, he places these interests front and center: man’s sin and guilt, God’s free grace, the amazement and wonder of divine love for sinners, salvation as God’s gracious work in and for the helpless. These are not the issues front and center in Catholic teaching, I regret to say, never have been. We’ve been reading Bonar’s Memoir of Robert M. McCheyne at devotions recently and I’ve been impressed again by how much these thoughts, these convictions, dominated the mind and heart of those godly men. When the gospel is reborn in the church it is always reborn as a message about a mighty love delivering sinners in defiance of their ill-desert and their complete helplessness. That is what the gospel is and why it is such good news and why Paul would speak so extravagantly about the grace of God and the unsearchable riches of Christ.
The judaizers were taken to be Christians for their belief in Christ as Messiah, his death for sin, his resurrection, and so on. But Paul calls them false-brothers because their stress on other things unmasked a principle of legalism lying beneath the Christian veneer. We will return to this a number of times as we make our way through Paul’s argument. But, as we begin, let’s be clear about the real issue. How is a sinner made right with God? Is it by grace or by grace plus works? That is the question. And Paul’s answer is that, man being as sinful and guilty as he is, the only salvation possible is that which is God’s free gift to us and in no respect our achievement.