Galatians and Grace Alone
14th Sunday of the Year, C
Today we're going to look at Galatians chapter 6. Open your books to page 25. It's the very end of Galatians. We're literally getting the last five verses here. We actually have to backtrack eventually at one point, but for right now we're just going to these last verses, as presented here.
There is going to come a point where I'm going to have you put your books down or put your finger in there because you're not going to need him for a long stretch but I don't want you to put them away.
So Galatians, especially this part, is like an onion. There's many layers and you start peeling back the easy layers and starts getting trickier and trickier. So we start off with actually a really easy line and a beautiful one. The very first line there: "Brothers and sisters, may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Man, what a great line: "may never boast except in the cross of Jesus.".
It's a great motto. You can see, it sounds great in songs. We have songs with it. You can put on the back of your car as a bumper sticker, put it on a shirt, put it on your water bottle, or your Yeti tumbler, you know whatever you want. It's a great line to advertise. "May we always glory only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." That's that's that great first layer.
Then you peel back another layer in the next line and it gets a little weirder. Because he says, about this cross, "...through which the world has been crucified to me and to the world.".
"Crucified to the world." What does that mean exactly? I mean it sounds cool. Sounds tough. I mean, crucified to the world. But what's it mean?
Does it mean I need to die to myself? Doesn't mean I need to suffer for the world? Paul invites us in other places to do that. Does it mean I need to die to the world? That I need to escape the world.? It's a little confusing what it means.
And actually it has an interesting parallel earlier in the book in chapter two. In Galatians chapter two, Paul says something similar. He says: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.".
Here [chapter 6] he is saying, not specifically "crucified with Christ" but I've been crucified the world. So there's a bit of a parallel and we'll actually see other things from that chapter [two] later. So that's another look.
Now you put the layers of the onion back even further. Go farther in all. Now it gets even weirder. Paul says: "For neither does circumcision mean anything nor uncircumcision, but only a new creation." Okay now it's weird. Now we're talking about circumcision.
How did we get there? We started off talking about glorying in the cross and then having been crucified the world. And now we're talking about circumcision or non circumcision or new creation. Where are we? What are we doing here? It's getting confusing.
Now there is a way of reading Galatians that pulls all three of these together— glorying in the cross, being crucified like Jesus, with Jesus to the world, and this idea of circumcision. Many Protestants read it in this way, and a lot of Catholics honestly, too, read it in this particular way. And we will look at this way of peeling back the onion right now.
But I want you now to put your books to the side or put your finger in it because we're gonna pause on that for a little bit.
So first, how do we read those three? First of all. Everyone agrees the Galatians is about an argument that happened about 50 A.D. Paul is very wound up in this letter. He's a little spicy. It's one of the earliest letters of Paul, maybe even his very first letter.
OK so first, what is it that everybody agrees upon? Everyone agrees that Paul preaches Jesus to the Jews. Many of them believe and are baptized into the Messiah's family. Then he preaches to the Gentiles. Many of them believe and are baptized into Jesus the Messiah's family.
And the people then ask Peter and Paul both: "Don't these people—now that they're coming into God's family—don't they need to do 'the rest'? They're entering the Messiah's family in baptism. They're worshiping the one God like Israel does. Don't they need to do more? We are saying that they're now in the people of God, so don't they need to be like the rest of the people of God, like the nation of Israel? We know they can't be made into Jews genetically, by blood, but don't they need to do the other things? Don't they need to be physically, anatomically a Jew, in terms of circumcision? Don't they need to be legally, ritually a Jew in terms of what they eat, how they dress, how they do their chores, and stuff like that? —following all the things of the Law, the Torah, the Hebrew "Law". And Peter and Paul both say: "Nope. They don't need to do that."
But now, people begin to disagree with Peter and Paul, both in Galatia, which is southern Turkey, and in Antioch in Syria, which is north of Galilee. A faction arises within the Christian body. These are Christians. And history calls them Judaizers, which literally means "people who want to make people Jews", make them into Jews. These are people who are ethnically Jewish, but who believe in Jesus. They are practicing Christians, but they see a problem in there being a group who are like them in belief and worship but still seem like Gentiles to the rest of the world. And we're going to come back to that problem—"how does the world see these guys"—near the end.
So these Judaizers go around and they start convincing other Christians that Gentile converts either need to get fully Judaized (go all the way in with all the other stuff) or they would need to sit and eat and wash and dwell apart from them because really they're still Gentiles. They're still different from the Jewish people.
Now this is where the interpretations differ. This is where you get the different ones. The one that, again, many Protestants and some Catholics take is that these Judaizers, or maybe all Jews, or least kind of the Pharisee-type of Jews, that they are trying to win their salvation by their works. That being circumcised, following all the purity laws, including the food laws, would win them heaven. That they thought they could earn salvation. When you hear the expression "works-righteousness", this is the idea coming up: that they're doing works that will make them righteous in the sight of God.
And then the idea is that along comes Paul and he argues that it's not circumcision, or any other part of the Jewish law, or any work of any kind that saves us, just faith in Jesus. Specifically that Jesus' death on the cross did all the work. And so now we do not—in fact, we cannot—add anything else to that. So you don't need any Jewish works or rituals or anything else. Just believe in the saving power of the cross. And so Galatians (the book) is, in this interpretation, all about Paul arguing for salvation by faith in Jesus vs. salvation by works, especially works of the law.
You've probably heard something like that before. And again even if it sounds like kind of a basic version of the Gospel as described by Luther or Calvin, many Catholics would generally agree that that's what the letter is about, but just tweaking it: understanding a balance of faith and sacraments and stuff like that.
Catholics and Protestants both often assume the Galatians is an argument about faith vs. works, specifically "the works of the law" vs. faith in Jesus' death and resurrection, and then they try to rally their other arguments from there, the normal Catholic/Protestant debating points.
This [take] seems to tie together the three things that we just read: I glory in the cross of Christ, I am crucified to the world, and circumcision and uncircumcision don't matter. And earlier I referenced how this ending part of Galatians 6 parallels an idea in Galatians 2. And actually if I read more of Galatians 2 you'll see that it actually seems to tie in more, because it does seem to back up this interpretation.
The longer excerpt from Galatians 2 is: "For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I've been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God for if righteousness could be gained through the law Christ died for nothing."
There's a lot of word-echoes there between those two passages, and with other things that we often hear: law, crucified, faith, gave himself up for me, grace, righteousness, and again, the idea of law. So yeah, the idea of "saved by grace through faith vs. obtaining righteousness by my efforts through doing works of the law" is a pretty clean narrative; it seems to click with what we've said.
But there's three flaws I want to point out to you in that reading [i.e. interpretation]. Not saying that anything is totally wrong there. But it's a different reading of Galatians, and I think it comes at Galatians backwards. It's looking at Galatians instead of in the first century, we're trying to understand [it through] the 16th century, with arguments between Catholics and Protestants.
So these are the three flaws in this interpretation: One, is it doesn't focus on what Jews actually thought about works. Two, Paul's own very weird words here in the ending. And three, what the Jewish Christians especially these Judaizers were actually worried about.
So flaw #1, how did the Jews think they'd be saved? First off, if you read the Old Testament and the other Jewish works around Paul's and Jesus' times, there's hardly any discussion of how you die and get to heaven. That's not what they're talking about.
The word "salvation" in that time almost [exclusively] means salvation in this world. Salvation from under Pharaoh in Egypt. Salvation from Roman domination. Salvation to be able to worship the one God freely and exactly how he wants us to.
And secondly in those same Jewish writings and even in the writings of Paul himself—who would know these things—there is no evidence that any Jews thought they could earn their salvation. Or God's blessing. Or God's love. Or any other reward from God. And in fact the Jewish people are the original believers in Grace Alone, "sola gratia"—that it's all grace. Grace, remember, literally means "the gift". A free unearned gift from God.
The Jews sang day after day of God's merciful love and his gift of calling them to be his people.
God choosing Abraham and his family? Pure gift.
God saving Israel from out of Egypt? Pure gift.
Giving them the land, a temple, the Torah? Pure gift.
How did you receive these blessings from God as a Jew? How did you receive his salvific love? By the sheer unearned gift of being born into the family in Israel.
You couldn't plan that. You couldn't choose that. You didn't earn that.
Everything that the Jewish people had was "gift". Everything was grace.
And if they had any views of being saved in a world beyond this one, it was going to be bound up in that unique gift of being in God's chosen people. Being in the family of Israel, which actually helps us understand [the letter to the] Galatians. If the Jewish law, the old Torah and its instructions, aren't about getting saved and getting to heaven, what are circumcision and the food laws about? Why is this big a big thing? [Answer:] They're not about how do you get saved. They're about "How do you know who's in God's family?" Who is Israel?—There are those who keep the law, the Torah. They are Israel. The works of the law, the diet and the washings and the circumcision, were a badge of membership so you'd know who's in God's family. They were how you knew who was in the people of God. Who's in there.
Okay now you could pick up your books again. Back to page 25. So that was Flaw #1: What did Jews actually thing about salvation? And it's not works righteousness.
Flaw #2. That [interpretation] isn't really paying attention to what Paul says at the end here. Some people think that the good news, the gospel that Jesus and Paul preached, was that this is the ending of Israel. This is at least the end of the Torah, the law. Those things are done and put away. We've moved on from them. But look where we left off: We're on the bottom of the first column. Paul has just said: "For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation." And then he immediately says, "Peace and mercy be to all who follow this rule and to the Israel of God."
"Follow this rule" (literally "this canon", [i.e. law] ) and he talks about "the Israel of God." The people of God isn't being deleted or canceled or revoked, but it is being reshaped around the family of the Messiah. And you get into his family, not by family lineage or genetics or even by doing the works of the law: circumcision, kosher foods, etc. How do you get into Messiah's faith family? You get there by faith, which means baptism. That's why faith is so important; that's how you get into his family. The new badge of family membership is to be baptized into the Messiah, through faith. And Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, chapter 5 that those who are baptized into the Messiah "are a new creation". We just saw him say, "not circumcision or uncircumcision, but only a new creation."
He is saying baptism is the thing that matters, not circumcision. And then he says [for them to "follow this rule". In fact, he says "peace and mercy to all who follow this rule" of new creation instead of circumcision], this new Torah, and now they are the Israel of God. He's saying: Ok, Israel has been reshaped by something else; it's shaped around Jesus; it's shaped through baptism and faith, not through a set of laws and practices: Torah and kosher and stuff like that.
Which brings us very briefly now to Flaw #3 in the "faith vs. works" interpretation. (You've actually put your books away again.) And this is this problem: Paul tells us at the end of the letter why the Judaizers wanted people to be circumcised. It's not because they thought that's how you're going to be saved. It's not even because that's how they thought you become the people of God. It was fear of Rome.
Let me explain. In the Roman world, everyone in the Roman world can basically do what you want. But you gotta do two things: you have to pray to two gods; you to pray to Roma as the goddess, and Caesar as the god. The Jewish people were given an exception. Herod the Great's dad saved Julius Caesar when he was besieged in Alexandria, and so when [Judea] was brought in the empire [the Romans] said: "We're gonna give you a special exemption. You don't have to worship the Roman gods; you can keep your one God and pray to your God for the Emperor instead." They're the only people that got that exemption. This is very important. This makes them stick out very uniquely in the Roman world, and they're seen as weirdos, but it's a thing that they need and they're like, "We can live with you if we have this [exemption].
So now, see why there's a problem: If people can come along who don't eat like Jews, live like Jews, dress like Jews, behave like Jews in other ways, and then say, "I worship the one God; I [can't worship] Caesar; I [can't] follow the pagan gods,"—now there's a problem. And people are going to look at them and say, "Hey, Jewish people, get your people in line," and [the traditional Jews] are like, "They're not really our people; they're Christians." But the Christians say, "We believe in the one God too." It creates this rift and no one knows really who's on what team.
The Jewish plan of "Do you dress like us, eat like us, are circumcised like us?"—that showed them who's on the team. That was the worry. They are actually afraid of being rejected or even persecuted, maybe even losing their exemption. And the way we know this is [the context] Paul is talking about is that the three verses before what we just read say this. This how Paul end the letter: he says, "See with what large letters I am writing in my own hand..." Back then you didn't write your own letters. You had voice-to-text. You had your own Siri. It's called a secretary. You paid the money; they write faster than you and better than you and they and they auto correct. Right? And so you have them do it. But Paul writes in his own hand the ending, the thing we've been reading.
But before [our verses today] he says: "It is those Jews who want to make a good appearance in the flesh that are trying to compel you to have yourselves circumcised." Why?? "Only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ."
In other words, they're worried. They're worried that if you don't have to do [these signs], if you can't be immediately identified as a Jew, then they're all going to get in trouble. They're all going to lose their legal protections. They might even get attacked and they're going to get blamed for things. He even says right after that: "Not even those having themselves circumcised observe the law themselves. They only want you to be circumcised so that they may boast of your flesh." In other words they may turn to their Roman friends and say, "Hey, these guys are Jews just like us. They do the Jewish thing. Give them the protection. They're still Jews who worship God. And then there's [other] people who worship all the Roman gods."
But Christians made for a problem. If the badge of membership isn't kosher laws or circumcision, and the badge of membership is faith and baptism—it's something inside—then that causes a problem.
And when Paul then keeps talking about the cross he's like, "I would love to make this easy. I would love to tell these people to follow the Jewish laws. But if I do that, I rob the cross of its power. I rob Jesus' death of its power because I'm saying it's not the thing that matters anymore. I'm saying something else matters."
That's how these [three weird Galatians 6] pieces tie back together. He's saying, "If we really believe that the cross made a new creation in people, and people having faith makes them a new creation through baptism, then we have to say they're going to worship the one God and they're part of his family. And whether the Romans like it or not, I don't care. Whether they blame us or not, I don't care. Whether they persecute us or not, I don't care."
"They have the problem, not us," is what Paul is saying. And that's why he is saying, "Don't make trouble for me. I already bear the wounds of Christ in my body. Don't make trouble for me. I know where I'm at. You have to decide: are you going to bow to the Roman world, and the Jewish people who are scared of the Roman world, or are you going to stick with the cross of Christ and say it changed everything? It made a new creation. Circumcision, uncircumcision, doesn't matter. The cross is what matters. Baptism is what matters. It hit the reset button on the people of God and that's what we have to stick with, even in the face of persecution."
[Author's Note: This could've been even longer. We didn't even touch on how Paul's reference to "this rule" and "the Israel of God" coming as they do at the end of a letter all about the new work of God in the Messiah's death confirm that Jesus, as he himself said, didn't come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, and likewise he isn't coming to supercede Israel, but to be the faithful Israelite and fill up Israel to the full. The cross is not the rebuke of Torah, it's the completion of it. Paul in Romans 3, at the conclusion of his dense passage on Jesus' sacrificial death for our justification "by faith, apart from works of the law" says: "Do we then nullify the Law through faith? By no means! On the contrary we establish/uphold the Law."]
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