10 October 2012

Galatians 5:1-15

"For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (v. 1)


To understand why Paul's simmering anger finally boils over in these verses we need to remember what lies behind his letter to the Galatians. The first Christ-followers were all Jews, who believed that the risen Jesus was, indeed, God's chosen and anointed one, the Jewish messiah who would restore the kingdom of David. Quite reasonably, they assumed that this new messianic community was a Jewish movement for Jewish people. So if non-Jews (Gentiles) wanted to join them they would need to become Jews first, which meant accepting the law of Moses. Most significantly, that meant thekosherdiet and male circumcision. This was the strict position maintained by the prominent Jewish-Christian church in Jerusalem, under the strong leadership of James, the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19).

Paul, himself an ultra-strict Jew, was convinced that this was wrong. For him, the true people of God were defined, not by the law of Moses, but by the faith of Abraham. And that, crucially, came first. So to impose the law of Moses, in full or in part, on gentile Christ-followers was, for Paul, a kind of slavery and a denial of Christ. For only faith in God's promise would lead to new life - "the hope of righteousness" (v. 5).

It seems that Paul's opponents, led by James (Galatians 2:11-14), had been undermining Paul by suggesting that, in fact, he supported the circumcision of gentile Christ-followers. That, for Paul, would make Christ irrelevant. And at this point he explodes, and says that if James and his supporters were so keen on circumcision they should finish the job by cutting off their testicles too! Ouch! Not very 'Christian', you might think, but for Paul the essential truth of the gospel (good news about Jesus) was at stake, and he was very, very angry.

Of course, the law of Moses was concerned with much more than just diet and circumcision, and Paul knew he risked being criticised for rejecting it as far as gentile Christ-followers were concerned. The law made many ethical demands too, and these still mattered. The freedom he defended so passionately was not a freedom to behave as you want, but rather a freedom to live as God wants, putting the needs of others before your own. Otherwise, said Paul, the whole Church would tear itself apart.

To Ponder

  • Despite strong opposition from Jewish Christians, Paul's understanding of 'the gospel' was the one that lasted beyond the end of the first century. One unintended consequence was that Christianity rapidly lost touch with its Jewish roots and became increasingly shaped by Greek philosophy. Was that a good or a bad thing, do you think? Why?
  • There are 613 commandments in the law of Moses. How do you think Christians should decide which ones are still binding on them?
  • Which should take priority in the Church: arguing about who's right and who's wrong, or loving your neighbour as yourself? Why? Does deciding on 'right' and 'wrong' ever matter more? If so, when?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.