The book of Galatians might be the earliest of Paul’s epistles and it is definitely the harshest. When this letter was written to the churches in Galatia, Paul was steaming mad with righteous anger because false teachers were corrupting the churches he planted on his first missionary journey. Here are a few things I noticed in Galatians about the gospel, the promises of God, the Law of Moses, and the Spirit.
Distorting the Gospel
Paul dealt with a particular problem throughout his ministry: Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be considered part of the community of faith. In Galatia, it seems there were some Jewish church leaders who gave into this way of thinking primarily out of fear. Paul said they started teaching this idea “in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”
These Jewish church leaders knew they could escape persecution if they were to say to their Jewish persecutors, “No, we aren’t part of that radical group of Jesus followers. We are not fraternizing with uncircumcised people. These Gentiles we eat with are converts to Judaism. See, they have been circumcised and they keep the Law.”
Out of fear, these Jewish Christians taught their Gentile brethren, “It’s great that you believe in our Messiah, but now you also need to be circumcised and keep the Law. But if you remain uncircumcised, then I can’t even eat with you.” They taught that the Law was the true basis for a right relationship with God and circumcision was still the sign that a person was part of the covenant people of God.
Paul called the ideas being spread in Galatia a different, distorted, and contrary gospel.
Now, let me clear on something. It is not fair or accurate to call every teaching with which you disagree a “distortion of the gospel” or a “different gospel.” If someone has different views on some things, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has “fallen from grace” or believed “another gospel.” In fact, it seems to me that a lot of folks accuse others of distorting the gospel when they themselves often have very little understanding about what the gospel really says.
What is the gospel? Most of us probably know that gospel means “good news.” But “good news” about what? What is the good news? What has “the cross of Christ” really accomplished? We really ought to learn to think and speak within the categories laid out in books like Galatians.
If there is one phrase in Galatians that defines the gospel it would be this, “Jesus Christ…gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.” And there is another phrase that Paul actually says is the gospel being preached to Abraham, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
The gospel is not a set of rules. The gospel is not a new law from God. The gospel is that Jesus has given himself to deliver people of all nations from the present evil age and secure for them the inheritance God promised to Abraham. That is the gospel. So, the next logical question is, “Who are the people being delivered from the present evil age and who will inherit these blessings?”
Heirs of the Promises
Christians today tend to ask very different questions than the questions actually being addressed in Scripture. We ask questions like, “What do I need to do to make sure I get to go to heaven?” Do you notice how that doesn’t sound anything like what Paul addresses in this (or any) letter? Paul isn’t addressing how to go to heaven, he is addressing who are the heirs of the promises God made to Abraham.
Do you remember the story we started all the way back in Genesis? We haven’t switched stories. The Bible hasn’t suddenly changed storylines on us. It hasn’t suddenly become a story about floating on a cloud for eternity.
What Paul wrote in Galatians is that Gentiles who have given their faithful loyalty to King Jesus have become descendants of Abraham, heirs of the promises God made to their father Abraham. Paul writes:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
A Gentile woman, a slave boy, a pious Jew, a Gentile landowner, Jesus has given himself to deliver all of these people from the present evil age and make them heirs according to promise. It would be hard for a Jew to accept, but Paul really did claim that through Jesus, every believer in Jesus could consider himself or herself a descendant of Abraham.
Paul also made the point that the presence of God’s Spirit within their lives is the evidence that uncircumcised Christians really are full-fledged members of the covenant community of God. In other words, circumcision is not the sign of belonging to God, the sign is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And he emphatically reminded them that the Spirit, and not the flesh, needs to be their concern.
Some of the people in Galatia were concerned with whether or not a man’s “flesh” had been cut away, but they needed to be concerned with whether or not a man was full of, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These qualities are from the Spirit. This is the fruit the Spirit of God produces in a person’s life when he or she walks by the Spirit instead of by the flesh.
It seems to me, Christians today walk by the flesh when we are overly concerned about the appearance of things rather than the work of the Spirit in our lives. Like the Galatians, we also need to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh. We need to learn not to put yokes of slavery on one another. We need to learn to embrace our identity as Abraham’s children, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, delivered from the present evil age, and awaiting our inheritance from “the Jerusalem above” to which we belong.
I love you and God loves you,