27 June 2016

Galatians 3:6-14

“Those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.” (v. 7)

Psalm: Psalm 112


Pauls' letter to the Galatians was written in approximately AD57, though scholars are not agreed on its exact date. It was written to the people of Galatia, who lived somewhere in modern day Turkey. They were descendants of the Celts who had invaded Greece in around 279BC. The Celts were defeated by Rome in 189BC.In 25BC Galatia became a Roman province.

The letter is addressed mainly to Gentiles (non Jews). Its tone is often angry. The main theme running through the letter is that Gentiles who had received the gospel message did not need to adopt Jewish practices. The Judaisers were insisting that Gentiles be circumcised. It was customary to circumcise male children when they were eight days old, though this sometimes happened in adolescence. The first mention of circumcision in the Bible is in Genesis 17 when God made a covenant with Abraham. Thus circumcision was a sign that someone had entered into a covenant with God. But Paul argued in this letter that circumcision was not necessary, since this would mean that the New Covenant would be meaningless.

Chapter 3 starts with Paul accusing the Galatians of foolishness (Galatians 3:1-5). Even though they knew of Jesus' crucifixion, some were still insisting on strict observance of the law. Verses 6-14 provide a practical explanation of what Paul is hoping to put across to his readers.

Abraham lived long before the law. It was to Abraham that God promised a blessing on future generations (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham did not know about the law; he was a man who believed and took God at God's word. It was for that reason that he was prepared to leave his home in Haran and journey to a strange land (Genesis 12). And it was because of Abraham's faith that he was willing to sacrifice his only son (Genesis 22). While it is true that Abraham was circumcised, this was a mere sign. One could not use that as a reason for insisting that Gentiles be circumcised. Abraham was blessed not because he observed the law, but because he had faith:  "The one who is righteous will live by faith" (v. 11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4). It was this verse which made Martin Luther realise that the Church of his day had got it wrong by insisting on outward rituals. Paul also quotes the example of Abraham in Romans 4 where he elaborates it in more detail.

Thus Abraham was a forerunner of Christ, the one who sealed the new covenant. One could never observe the whole law. Belief in God does not depend on observing the law, but on a personal relationship with God. This does not mean that people can do as they please, but rather that salvation does not depend on observing outward rituals. Insistence on circumcision, was, in a sense, a step backwards, needing an outward sign when the Holy Spirit had already been poured out God's people.

To Ponder

  • To what extent does the Church still place too much emphasis on the observance of outward rituals?
  • What does being a descendant of Abraham mean for you in practice?

Bible notes author

The Revd Lynita Conradie

Lynita Conradie is a Methodist presbyter in the Nottingham North Circuit. Originally from South Africa, she was a human rights' lawyer before entering the ministry and being ordained by the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.