Paul’s Propositional Statement

OVERVIEW - Paul presents the points of agreement and disagreement with his opponents at GalatiaGalatians 2:15-21.

Presentation - Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash
In the first two chapters of Galatians, the Apostle Paul explained how he had received his gospel for the Gentiles by divine revelation, a commission confirmed later by the leaders of the Jerusalem church. And he detailed how certain “false brethren were smuggled in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus” in a similar controversy at the church in Antioch - [Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash].

In the city of Antioch, “certain men from Jerusalem” infiltrated the assembly to disseminate disruptive teachings, especially the claim that it was inappropriate for Jewish believers to eat with uncircumcised Gentile disciples. If implemented, their policy would prevent Jewish and Gentile believers from participating together in the “Lord’s supper,” let alone any other communal meal. The pressure to conform was so great, even Peter and Barnabas were caught up in the practice. Then, Paul confronted Peter:
  • When I saw that they are not walking straightforwardly regarding the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all:  ‘If you, being a Jew, are living like Gentiles and not like Jews, how are you compelling the Gentiles to Judaize?’” - (Galatians 2:11-14).
The conflict concerned the status of Gentile believers. Were they acceptable members of the covenant community without submitting to circumcision?

The key phrase in Paul’s statement is “compelling Gentiles to Judaize.”  The Greek verb is a strong one and means just that: “to compel, force” (anangkazō – Strong’s - #G315).  The infinitive, “to Judaize,” occurs only here in the New Testament, and is from a Greek word that denotes one who lives like a Jew, to adopt a Jewish lifestyle - (Strong’s - #G2450).

This was the crux of the matter. Some Jewish Christians were “compelling” Gentiles to conform to their customs and practices, effectively, to become Jews.  And to refuse to eat with Gentiles would insinuate there was something defective with their faith, that on some level they were not full-fledged members of God's covenant people.

Paul’s opponents did not deny God’s grace or the necessity for faith. Instead, circumcision was presented as a necessary component of the Christian life, a requirement in addition to faith. Getting circumcised was necessary to “complete” one’s faith:
  • (Galatians 3:1-5) “Having begun in Spirit, are you now to be made complete by the flesh?”
Paul in Antioch
His opponents had a strong case, biblically speaking. After all, circumcision was given by God to Abraham as the “sign” of His “everlasting covenant.” Any male not circumcised was “cut off from Israel,” since “he has broken my covenant.” Because Christianity originated from the faith of Israel, the confrontation 
over the matter became inevitable once the gospel was preached to Gentiles - (Genesis 17:7-14, Acts10:44-48).

The letter to the Galatians was Paul’s response to this group of agitators. In it, he compiled a series of arguments why it would be a mistake for the Galatians to submit to circumcision, and otherwise, to place themselves under the jurisdiction of the Torah. If Gentile disciples adopted circumcision, they would place themselves under the Law with all its obligations:
  • (Galatians 3:10) – “For as many as are from the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written: Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.”
  • (Galatians 5:2-3) – “Behold, I, Paul say to you, that, if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothingYea, I testify again to every man that receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”
The first disciples were Jews. Initially, the gospel was preached only to Jews.  Only later was it opened to Gentiles.  The church did not view itself as a new religion, but instead, as the messianic fulfillment of the faith of Israel.  Jesus was, after all, the promised Messiah of Israel.

The inevitable question was: What is the basis on which Gentile believers become acceptable members of the covenant people? Secondarily, if Gentile believers are not set right with God from the Law, and therefore, not required to submit to circumcision, what was the purpose of the Law? Paul addressed both questions in chapter 3 of his letter.

The immediate bone of contention was circumcision. To be full members of the covenant people, must Gentiles also add circumcision to their faith in Jesus? Paul’s emphatic answer was “NO!

The Apostle did not charge his opponents with compelling Gentiles to keep the entire Law, nor did he accuse them of repudiating faith in Jesus.  The indications are that his opponents insisted Gentiles must conform only to certain requirements of the Torah, not to the whole Law. This included circumcision and, most probably, calendrical observations and Levitical dietary restrictions.

His main proposition is found in chapter 2. In it, first, he presented what he held in common with his opponents (verses 15-16). Second, he summarized the areas of disagreement (verses 17-21).  He began by explaining the basis on which a man is acquitted before God:
  • (Galatians 2:15-16) - “We ourselves by nature Jews and not sinners from among the Gentiles, know that man is not declared righteous on the basis of the works of the law but through the faith of Christ Jesus; even we believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be declared righteous on the basis of the faith of Christ and not on the basis of the works of the law; because from the works of the law will no flesh be declared righteous.”
The proposition begins with an emphatic pronoun, “we ourselves.”  Rather than a rhetorical statement, Paul stated something on which he and other Jewish believers agreed; that a man is not put in right standing with God “from the works of the Law but, instead, from the faith of Jesus Christ.” This was common ground.

The Greek does not read, “by faith in Jesus,” but instead, “from the faith of Jesus.” It refers to something that Jesus had or did. The noun can be rendered as the “faithfulness” of Jesus. Most likely, this shorthand for his faithful obedience unto death. This understanding is confirmed in verses 21 - (“I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up in my behalf”).
Acquittal before God is based on the act of faithfulness by Jesus, not on the Torah or the deeds it requires. The agitators wanted to add things to this faith. Paul reminded his audience that, Jewish believers also responded to the gospel by faith in Jesus - (“even we believed in Christ Jesus”).

The issue was not good works in general, but a specific category of works:  The works of the Law. That is, the deeds and requirements stipulated in the Torah. Elsewhere, Paul spoke of the necessity of good works and even referred to “the law of Christ” - (Galatians 6:21 Corinthians 9:21).

In the context of the letter, the “works of the law” can only refer to the things required by the Mosaic Law. Next, Paul laid out the key areas of disagreement:
  • (Galatians 2:17-21) - “Now, if in seeking to be set right in Christ we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  For if the things that I pulled down these again I build, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For I, through the law, died to the law that I might live to God. With Christ have I been crucified; and I am living no longer, but living in me is Christ, as long as I now do live in flesh, I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up in my behalf. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if through the law is righteousness, then Christ died without cause.”
Most likely, the agitators claimed that if the Law did not regulate Christian life, then moral anarchy would result. But this would make Jesus responsible for all subsequent sin, a false charge rejected emphatically by Paul.

To return to the Law after being freed from it was the real transgression. By rebuilding the former way in which one walked, the Christian transgresses by stating that Jesus died in vain.  This was transgression of the worst sort, since, intentionally or not, it declared that the death of Jesus insufficient to acquit a man before God.

The Christian has “died to the Law” on the Cross - (“I through the law died to the law that I might live unto God”).  In Paul’s parlance, to die to something was to cease to have any relationship to it.  The crucifixion of Jesus released believers from the Law’s jurisdiction and its potential curse.

According to Paul, what defines the people of God and determines membership in the covenant community is Jesus Christ, especially the Messiah revealed on the cross, and nothing else! This does NOT mean the Law serves no purpose; however, it is not the basis for determining who is and who is not a member in good standing in the people of God.




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