Paul’s letter to the Galatians was addressed to a group of churches in Galatia. Paul wrote this letter sometime between A.D. 48 and 55. The intro is longer than normal and more complex. Refer to my page describing the New Perspective on Paul for some explanations of the terms ‘Law’, ‘Works of Law’, ‘Gospel’ and ‘Justification’.
Using Galatians and Paul’s letters I pieced together this account of the back story to the letter of Galatians.
- G1.1) Galatians were born as Non-Jewish Gentiles (not circumcised; Gal 5.2)
- G1.2) Galatians became interested in Judaism
- G1.3) Galatians began practicing works of law, but not the whole law (Gal 4.9-10; 5.1-3)
- P1) Paul persecuted the church (Acts 8.1-3; Gal 1.13-14)
- P2) Paul meets the risen Lord Jesus (Acts 9.1-8)
- P3) Paul received the gospel in the form of visions from the Lord (Gal 1.12,16; 2 Cor 12.1-4; 1 Cor 15.3)
- P4) Paul proclaims Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Acts 9.19-22)
- P5) Paul goes into Arabia and then returns to Damascus (Gal 1.17)
3 years passed
- P6) Paul goes to Jerusalem to visit Peter for fifteen days not seeing the other apostles (Gal 1.18-19)
- P7) Paul goes into the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1.21)
14 years passed
- P8) Paul returns to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to check his gospel is correct (Gal 2.1-10)
- G2.1) Galatians met Paul because he was sick (Gal 4.13-14)
- G2.2) Paul shared the Gospel, they believed, received the Spirit and experienced miracles (Gal 1.6-9; 3.2-5; 4.13-14)
- G2.3) Paul instructed them to avoid sin, obey God and pursue good works as per his standard practice (Gal 5.19-21; Eph 4.17-32; Rom 6.17; Tit 3.8-9,14).
- G2.4) Paul assured them they do not need to continue practicing works of law (Gal 2.16; 3.2-5; 4.9-10)
- G2.5) Paul left Galatian church
Peter and Paul
- A1) Peter came to Antioch and ate with the Gentiles (Gal 2.11)
- A2) Peter and others separated from the Gentiles (Gal 2.12-13)
- A3) Paul confronted Peter over his conduct (Gal 2.14-21)
Jews at Galatia
- G3.1) Jews came to the Galatian church
- G3.2) Imposed what they saw was lacking, the works of law on the Galatian church
- G3.3) Galatians again began practicing works of law (Gal 2.16; 3.1-5; 4.9-10)
- G3.4) Galatians were urged to consider circumcision to become Jews (Gal 5.2-3; 6.13)
- G4.1) Paul hears of what has happened (Gal 1.6-7)
- G4.2) Paul writes the letter to the Galatian church
The letter assumes this whole backstory. What is apparent from the letter of Galatians is that when Paul heard the Gentiles were again observing various festivals and sabbaths and were considering circumcision he took action and wrote this letter.
I mentioned before, for the Gentiles observance of the works of law is primarily a salvation issue (Gal 3.3,10; 5.1-4). They must not observe these commands because they undermine the gospel and their salvation is at stake. Why? Well Paul doesn’t clearly explain which leaves it open to numerous interpretations.
As a noted in the description of the gospel, Jesus undermines most of the works of law, albeit indirectly (e.g. Mk 7.18-19 Clean/unclean laws; 12.1-14 Sabbath; 12.33 Sacrifices and offerings). If Gentile believers assumed they must observe these commands they are undermining the gospel and rejecting what Jesus says about these commands in it.
Whatever the case, these are the main arguments he uses against Gentile believers observing works of law in Galatians;
1) Paul recounts the incident he had with Peter in Antioch (Gal 2.11-21). He says to Peter that they ‘know people are not justified by works of law but through faith in Christ’ (Gal 2.16).
This is the kind of argument Paul uses against fellow Jews who are trying to impose works of law on Gentile believers.
In light of the gospel and Gentile’s believing Jesus is the risen Christ. Paul instructs other Jews in the new way to tell who the righteous (C3) are.
They can tell by their common faith in Christ, not by the Jewish works of law.
In this statement Paul is also implying its not a sin to neglect observing these commands. This means Gentile believers should not be forced to live like Jews (Gal 2.14).
2) The Galatians received the Spirit by believing the gospel, not by their former observance of works of law (Gal 3.1-5; 4.9-10).
If the works of law were the means by which God gave the Spirit and perfected people he would have done so before Paul preached the gospel to them.
Its only when they heard the gospel (alluded to in Gal 3.1; cf. 4.13) that God’s Spirit worked through the message, brought them to faith and started performing various miracles among them.
3) Paul says, ‘All who rely on works of law are under a curse’ (Gal 3.10a).
Righteousness under the law (Phil 3.6) required observance of the whole law (attitudes, actions, prohibitions and conditional laws), not just the works of law.
Paul’s arguments against the Gentile observance of the works of law and circumcision presuppose the Galatians were not observing the whole Jewish law (Gal 5.3).
Thus those who rely on the works of law (only) are under a curse because they are not observing the whole Jewish law (Gal 3.10b).
Circumcision, festival (e.g. Passover, Weeks) and sabbath observance recall various events in the Jewish story of salvation.
The main elements of the story of the Jews are;
- S1) Story; The call of Abraham and the giving of the covenant
- S2) Law; Abraham and his offspring are commanded to be circumcised
- S3) Story; Abraham fathers many offspring
- S4) Story; These offspring are enslaved by the Egyptians
- S5) Story; God redeems the Israel from slavery
- S6) Law; God adds to the covenant and gives them the Jewish law (430 years afterward)
- S7) Story; God leads them into the promised land (Canaan)
The works of law they were observing would have inclined them to look away from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and to the story of the Jewish deliverance from Egypt.
Thus they would adopting the law imposed on the Jews in this controlling story, and not on the instructions and abrogations Jesus administered in the gospel.
Paul explains in Galatians the law was given to the Jews because of their transgressions (Gal 3.19). The law imprisoned the Jews in slavery because of their sins.
In Jesus, Jews and Gentiles experience a new exodus from slavery and are exhorted in a sense not to go back to ‘Egypt’ (Gal 4.3-7) by observing these works of law.
I’m not espousing a unique view, rather I’m merely articulating the first views espoused by the Christian church.
Augustine in particular helpfully explains the works of law looked forward to the coming of the Christ and would be fulfilled when he came. They have now been fulfilled in Jesus who died, rose again and is the Christ (Col 2.16-17).
In Augustine’s understanding, if Gentile believers observed the works of law it implied they believed the Christ had not yet come. To observe them therefore was an act of unbelief that Jesus the promised Christ had come. Hence the implication they were abandoning the gospel (Gal 1.6) and were in danger of falling from grace (Gal 5.3).
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