Saint Paul and the Galatians

Dear Saint Paul, travelling miles everywhere to preach the Gospel to everybody who would listen, and there always followed in his wake other preachers who tried to get the new Christians to become judaised, taking on superficial symbols of Jewish belonging (such as circumcision). The Galatians were residents of the central part of Asia Minor, around the cities of Iconium and Lystra. Paul had visited them multiple times, of course, and Saint Luke makes some narration of his adventures in that region, such as when the inhabitants of Lystra witness a miracle of Paul’s and, in a rather comic moment, take Saint Barnabas and him to be Zeus/Jupiter and Hermes/Mercury, respectively:

“There was a lame man sitting at Lystra, crippled from birth, so that he had never walked, who listened to Paul’s preaching; and Paul, looking closely at him, and seeing that there was saving faith in him, said aloud, ‘Stand upright on thy feet;’ whereupon he sprang up, and began to walk. The multitudes, seeing what Paul had done, cried out in the Lycaonian dialect, ‘It is the gods, who have come down to us in human shape.’ They called Barnabas Jupiter, and Paul Mercury, because he was the chief speaker; and the priest of Jupiter, Defender of the City, brought out bulls and wreaths to the gates, eager, like the multitude, to do sacrifice. The Apostles tore their garments when they heard of it; and both Barnabas and Paul ran out among the multitude, crying aloud: ‘Sirs, why are you doing all this? We too are mortal men like yourselves; the whole burden of our preaching is that you must turn away from follies like this to the worship of the living God, who made sky and earth and sea and all that is in them.'”

Acts of the Apostles, 14: 7-14

How horrifying for Paul, a Jew and a Pharisee, to find himself being worshipped as a god! But, coming back to the theme of this letter to these recent converts in Galatia, Paul is anxious to tell his new Christians that they don’t have to become Jews, that is, they don’t have to embrace circumcision and so take on the full burden of the Law of Moses. He wished them to know that what he has taught them about the freedom of the Gospel from the slavery to the Law that Jews suffered was not his own teaching or that of another man or men, but had been given him by Christ Himself:

“Let me tell you this, brethren; the Gospel I preached to you is not a thing of man’s dictation; it was not from man that I inherited or learned it, it came to me by a revelation from Jesus Christ. You have been told how I bore myself in my Jewish days, how I persecuted God’s Church beyond measure and tried to destroy it, going further in my zeal as a Jew than many of my own age and race, so fierce a champion was I of the traditions handed down by my forefathers. And then, He who had set me apart from the day of my birth, and called me by His grace, saw fit to make His Son known in me, so that I could preach His Gospel among the Gentiles.”

Galatians, 1: 11-16

Not only was his message from Christ, but he was a Jew and a Jew zealous for the traditions handed down by his forefathers. And, yet he had received the Christian Gospel and acquired the freedom of that Gospel. He had shared that freedom with his new Christians in Gentile lands, and now he had discovered that those same Christians were trying to become Jews, in effect abandoning the freedom he had preached to them and enslaving themselves to the Law of Moses. He had even defended the freedom of the Christian from the Law against even Saint Peter, the Prince of the Apostles!

“Afterwards, when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him openly; he stood self-condemned. He had been eating with the Gentiles, until we were visited by certain delegates from James; but when these came, he began to draw back and hold himself aloof, overawed by the supporters of circumcision. The rest of the Jews were no less false to their principles; Barnabas himself was carried away by their insincerity. So, when I found that they were not following the true path of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, Since thou, who art a born Jew, dost follow the Gentile, not the Jewish way of life, by what right dost thou bind the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Galatians, 2: 11-14

Even Peter had succumbed to a type of insincerity, in his attempt to put on Jewish customs before the arrival of the envoys of the extremely orthodox Jewish-Christian bishop of Jerusalem, Saint James, who is sometimes said to have been a Nazirite (like Saint John the Baptist, and not less strict than he). So, were they, the new Christians in Galatia, to challenge Paul in casting doubt on that freedom, by running after circumcision? He continues by demonstrating that the patriarch Abraham was justified by his personal faith, long before the advent of the Law of Moses. He enjoyed a freedom that the Hebrews lost when Moses came down from mount Horeb, and gave them the Law. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy to demonstrate the burden of attempting to observe every single piece of the Law, what the evangelists in the Gospels called ‘every dot and iota of the Law.’ And even that, he says, does not make us acceptable to God:

“Remember how Abraham put his faith in God, and it was reckoned virtue in him. You must recognize, then, that Abraham’s real children are the children of his faith. There is a passage in Scripture which, long beforehand, brings to Abraham the good news, ‘Through thee all the nations shall be blessed;’ and that passage looks forward to God’s justification of the Gentiles by faith. It is those, then, who take their stand on faith that share the blessing Abraham’s faithfulness won. Those who take their stand on observance of the law are all under a curse; ‘Cursed be everyone (we read) who does not persist in carrying out all that this book of the law prescribes.’ And indeed, that the law cannot make a man acceptable to God is clear enough; It is faith, we are told, that brings life to the just man…”

Galatians, 3: 6-11

So, why did the Law arrive at all? Why would God have wished a particular people to be so disciplined? That’s the key. Discipline. The Law was itself not life-giving. But by clearly distinguishing right from wrong, life from death, the Law was taking up the role of a schoolmaster, preparing the people for the Offspring of Abraham, Christ, Who would indeed bring life and the promises (made to Abraham) home to the people. 

“Doubtless, if a law had been given that was capable of imparting life to us, it would have been for the Law to bring us justification. But in fact Scripture represents us as all under the bondage of sin; it was faith in Jesus Christ that was to impart the promised blessing to all those who believe in him. Until faith came, we were all being kept in bondage to the law, waiting for the faith that was one day to be revealed. So that the law was our tutor, bringing us to Christ, to find in faith our justification. When faith comes, then we are no longer under the rule of a tutor; through faith in Christ Jesus you are all now God’s sons.”

Galatians, 3: 21-26

So, would the Galatians like to enter under the tutelage of the Law or be free as the sons of God in Christ? No! For God has sent His very Spirit into our hearts, crying out within us, ‘Abba Father!’ We are not slaves, but sons. Why should we want to take up the superficial observances of the Jews? ‘Oh, my little children…,’ cries Father Paul in distress:

“My little children, I am in travail over you afresh, until I can see Christ’s image formed in you! I wish I were at your side now, and could speak to you in a different tone; I am bewildered at you. Tell me, you who are so eager to have the Law for your master, have you never read the Law?

Galatians, 4: 19-21

Paul now proceeds to tell his readers that the Law (in the book of Genesis) refers to Agar, the Egyptian maidservant of Sara Abraham’s wife, as her slave and that this Agar represented the old dispensation of the Law, her children being raised in bondage. We are to avoid such spiritual bondage, which is the natural result of a Christian’s embracing circumcision.

“The word of Paul is your warrant for this; if you are for being circumcised, Christ is of no value to you at all. Once again I would warn anyone who is accepting circumcision that he thereby engages himself to keep all the precepts of the Law. You who look to the Law for your justification have cancelled your bond with Christ, you have forfeited grace. All our hope of justification lies in the spirit; it rests on our faith; once we are in Christ, circumcision means nothing, and the want of it means nothing; the faith that finds its expression in love is all that matters.”

Galatians, 5: 2-6

At the same time, the freedom of the Christian gospel cannot give Christians a licence for behaving immorally. That’s the last warning. Paul doesn’t mean that the Christian’s freedom from the observances of the Law mean an absolute freedom from the Law. Rather, the Christian Gospel presents the heart of the Law – charity – which rules moral behaviour:

“Only, do not let this freedom give a foothold to corrupt nature; you must be servants still, serving one another in a spirit of charity. After all, the whole of the law is summed up in one phrase, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself;’ if you are always backbiting and worrying each other, it is to be feared you will wear each other out in the end. Let me say this; learn to live and move in the spirit; then there is no danger of your giving way to the impulses of corrupt nature. The impulses of nature and the impulses of the spirit are at war with one another; either is clean contrary to the other, and that is why you cannot do all that your will approves. It is by letting the spirit lead you that you free yourselves from the yoke of the Law. It is easy to see what effects proceed from corrupt nature; they are such things as adultery, impurity, incontinence, luxury, idolatry, witchcraft, feuds, quarrels, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, dissensions, factions, spite, murder, drunkenness, and debauchery. I warn you, as I have warned you before, that those who live in such a way will not inherit God’s kingdom.”

Galatians, 5: 13-21

And that’s it! Peace to all and don’t worry Father Paul so much again:

“Peace and pardon to all those who follow this rule, to God’s true Israel. Spare me, all of you, any further anxieties; already I bear the scars of the Lord Jesus printed on my body. Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.”

Galatians, 6: 16-18
Outside the basilica of S. Paul, outside Rome
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