Galatians Is About What?
Who Is Part of the Body of Christ
A Different Way through the Letter
Observing the Storyline
A Good Story
Reading Galatians Better
Interpreting the Story
Living into the Story
Who Is Part of the Boby of Christ
The central problem that Paul is addressing in the book of Galatians is about who is a part of the body of Christ: how you get in, how you stay in, and how you move forward. The problem within the churches in Galatia was an inner-church squabble between two Christian groups, the Jews who became Jesus followers and believed that as the people of God who had been giving the Law, they should retain their adherence to the Law. Another group, equally Christian, were the gentiles who had become Jesus followers and did not follow the law code of the Jewish Jesus followers.
Reading and understanding the book should give us some indication of how inner-church squabbles might be handled. Wouldn’t that be a great set of lessons to learn? Lord knows, many squabbles occur and go unresolved often causing brothers and sisters to dissolve relationships, shattering the unity of the body of Christ.
Here is a thought to keep in mind as you read Galatians. This book, as with all Second Testament books, was written to solve church problems, not individual problems. Galatians is written to solve a specific problem in which the ecclesiae in Galatia had stumbled. In reading and understanding Galatians, one must look first for meaning for the local church before one looks for personal meaning. Unfortunately, the Enlightenment Project with its focus on the autonomous individual and his or her consumerism has caused us to narrowly focus on what is in it for me (WIIFM) as an individual, while seldom if at all, looking for what its meaning is for the church. In looking for personal meaning, it must land squarely within the meaning of the ecclesiae. I realize that it is a hard row to hoe in that we have been taught for years that the Bible is written to help us as individuals become more like Jesus when all the time it was written to help the ecclesiae to become more like Jesus. Second Testament books were written to help body 2, the ecclesiae, sync with body 1, Jesus.
I spent many hours in my dad’s barbershop listening to baseball games on the radio with him and some of his customers. Barbershops were great community gathering places to listen to the elders of the community share stories galore. Just a couple of doors down from my dad’s barbershop was the beauty salon where the women gathered to have their hair done and share their stories as well.
My dad was a barber for almost fifty years. When he began with this occupation, it was before anyone had ever heard of electric tools. His entire toolset was plain old non-electric tools. There were some basic tools that he had to learn. He had to learn to use a barber’s comb. These combs were built with two different teeth sizes. While the top of the comb was straight, the comb teeth had more separation at one end of the comb and the teeth grew shorter as they moved from one side to the other. About halfway along the length of the comb the teeth grew closer together and began to get smaller in length. The reason the comb was built this was helped the barber trim the hair with scissors to different lengths. He had to learn to use scissors. The kind he used had a small little piece on the finger end to place one small finger. He had to learn to use a handheld clipper before electricity for manual clipping and then learn again to use a handheld clipper when there became electric. He had to use a straight razor that had to be sharpened a sharpening stone and then a leather strap was used to take the rough edges of the blade. For a shave, he also had a shaving mug with some kind of lathering bar and a brush to put the lather on the face. The lather was warm when placed on the face.
He knew nothing about any of this when he started. He had to learn to master the tools to make a living. When he started barbering, it was “shave and a haircut, two bits.” Usually, and according to the barber in the early part of the twentieth century, a haircut was on average about fifteen cents each, so twenty-five cents (2 bits) was a bargain.[ref] dictonary.com, “Two Bits,” dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/two-bits (accessed March 24, 2016). For information on the origin of “two bits,” see the website listed above. [/ref]
Mom and dad had four children and one of them my older brother, Kendall, tried to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a barber. He went to a barber college. I was one of his first trial haircuts after he graduated. My dad spent half an hour trying to fix what he had done. My brother decided on a different career.
So What? Well, what you might say is that in any endeavor that one enters, the tools of the trade have to be learned and as they change learned again. Such is true with reading and studying the Bible. Without learning the basic tools, it will be impossible to hear what God means by what he has said in his book.[ref] Winn Griffin, God Has Spoken, But What Has He Said? 3 Reasons for and 3 Approaches to Hearing God in Scripture. (Woodinville, WA: Basilia Press: An Imprint of Harmon Press, 2013). Take a look at this eBook for some additional help with this subject. https://amzn.to/3hdgrVG [/ref] This is our first concern as we open this book to read and study Galatians. So, we will review some of the tools that are needed.
A Different Way through the Letter
As you open any Bible and look at the letter to the Galatians, you will notice something very familiar to you as a reader of Scripture that is almost unseen, but not unseen: chapters and verses. As you may know, the chapters and verses that we find in our present Bibles did not come from the hand of the biblical authors. They were placed into the text beginning about 1,000 years after the last books of the Bible were written. These additions were not the first attempt to reduce the Bible into some other form than its original form. The creator of chapters, about AD 1200, added them so that writers could cite passages in their commentaries. The verse divisions were added to the New Testament beginning in AD 1551 by a printer who wanted to produce a concordance. The additions of chapters and verses were not meant to mark out intentional units within the biblical text. Their intended purpose: commentary citation and concordance making. But, as Westerners we have taken what was added and made an art form out of quoting these little tidbits of information we call verses, a disease I call versitis in my book God’s EPIC Adventure.[ref] Christopher R. Smith, The Beauty Behind the Mask: Rediscovering the Books of the Bible (Jacksonville, FL Clements Publishing, 2007), 13-39. https://amzn.to/39fwpMq See also: Winn Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure: Changing Our Culture by the Story We Live and Tell. (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2013), 13. https://amzn.to/3ha02kO [/ref] This disease is pandemic in Christianity. Another way that we have learned to used the pesky little additives is to select a variety of them and put them together to talk about a topic. I have named this unhealthy action, topicalits.[ref] Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure, 13. https://amzn.to/3fKtfme[/ref] Chapters and verses produced a rather human mechanical version of the text, all being roughly the same size. This additional material keeps the reader from reading the text as a story by enforcing artificial breaks into the text. It is much more appropriate to look for the internal clues of the author of a piece of the sacred text to discover how he wanted to break it down.
In this book, we have broken the text into reading sections that most of the time run across the present chapters and verses scheme found in almost all Bibles. These sections are taking from The Books of the Bibletm which is a version of the text in which all chapters and verses have been removed. Since chapters and verses serve no real purpose in the text except to help find things. It has only been in the last few years that Bible publishers have pushed ahead to go back to the future to help readers engage in a text that is good for reading. Some leaders in this arena are the late (d. 2018) Eugene Peterson’s The Message, a paraphrase, and the before mentioned The Books of the Bibletm a translation. In the following pages, you will have the opportunity, if you haven’t before, to read the text without the chapter and verse additives in the interpretative paraphrase.
The sections in this book are broken in the text where it is determined that the original author made thought breaks. These sections are listed below in this book as Reading Sections with a number. They appear without the original additive chapter and verse numbers. I trust that you discover reading the text in a brand new and hopefully helpful way is beneficial to you as you work through reading this book.
Observing the Storyline
As Paul writes Galatians, he creates a storyline in eleven sections as follows. Here’s how the Reading Sections that were listed below flow.
- Paul begins his letter by announcing that he was a true apostle (Reading Section 1: Paul Here Listen Up!1.1-6).
- He immediately addresses those who were accepting the agitator’s “different” gospel (Reading Section 2: You Changed to What? 1.6-10).
- He writes a summary of the controversy and includes a personal confrontation with Peter and other church leaders (Reading Section 3: It’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It! 3: 1.11-2.10).
- He argues that if acceptance by God was ordained through becoming a national Jew (circumcision, food laws, feast days, etc.), then the death of Jesus was pointless and vain (Reading Section 4: Conflict Between Paul and Peter: 2.11-21).
- He reminds them that their newfound life in Christ is a gift of the Spirit of God (Reading Section 5: Why Have You Changed? 1-4.11).
- He demonstrated the teaching of the First Testament about the grace of God with Abraham. He explains the purpose of the Law (Reading Section 6: What Happened to You? 4.12-20).
- With this undergirding in mind, Paul turns his case to living in the freedom of the Spirit. We become the people of God because of the faithfulness of God (Reading Section 7: Allegory or Typology? 4.21-5.6).
- Paul called these people of God to freedom and life in the Spirit by contrasting the “works” of this present evil age (Reading Section 8: Freedom 5.7-12).
- He provides his readers with an understanding of the church’s lifestyle of the age to come (fruit of the Spirit) (Reading Section 9: Works of the Flesh / Fruit of the Spirit 5.13-36).
- He closes Galatians by sharing that Christians should help each other (Reading Section 10: Being A community Without All the Additives 6.1-10).
- And finally, I told them that what counted moving forward was the “new creation” of God (Reading Section 11: Not Circumcision but New Creation 6.11-18).
A Good Story
Everyone likes a good story. Folks tell stories all day long to their friends, business associates, family, and almost anyone who will listen. Some of the stories are short and to the point while others are detailed with colorful characters and scenery. It seems that our ears are always tuned for a good story. In my own family, I have told stories to my kids for years. Once while visiting my kinfolks in Florida, I was sitting with two of my nieces and telling family stories to them, some they had never heard. They were amazed and were glued to the process asking questions that would bring another story to mind. Their conclusion: this is great fun and it’s so wonderful to learn about our family that we never knew.
From our earliest age, we were told stories. No one that I am aware of would settle down their kids at night, get them all snuggly and tucked in, and then set on the edge of the bed and say, “Honey, I going to give you a three-point lecture and an application.” Point One: Life is unjust and oppressive as the two vein daughters and a godmother reveal. Point Two: The Prince invites all the ladies of his kingdom to a ball to choose a wife. Point Three: The ball and subsequent choosing of a young lady to marry the Prince occurs. Application: Just stick to your dreams and they will all come true.” Then in a tender moment, the parent pats the child on the head and says, “Good night.” On the contrary, they would never tell or read them the story of Cinderella in this way.
Stories have come to be known by their story arcs which is a continuing or extending of the storyline in smaller episodic stories. In my book, God’s EPIC Adventure,[ref]Griffin. God’s EPIC Adventure. 8-10.[/ref] I use a six-act-play model which I expanded from Tom Wright’s five-act-play model[ref] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol.1 (Christian Origins and the Question of God (Paperback). Minneapolis, MN (Fortress Press, 1992), 140. https://amzn.to/32AX9Wq [/ref] to suggest the story arc of the whole story of the Bible. It is a grand narrative that moves from God creating the world in all its splendor and through a world after having been defiled by a bad choice of the first created humans and moves through historical timeframes of centuries to the new creation of the world again in all its splendor. The six acts that take us through the story are Creation, Chaos, Covenant, Christ, Church, Consummation.
Hearing that the Bible is a story and not a group of isolated verses of Scripture is often a stretch for some folks. Let’s drop from the larger overview of the acts and take a quick journey through Scripture’s story arc. The story begins in a newly created garden with two humans given the work of keeping a garden. Everything they need to do their job is at hand or within their imagination to create. This created state was not static but a dynamic project created by a loving friend and daily chatting mate. What was created was like a signpost by the side of a road that points toward a destination. There was only one boundary in the garden, don’t eat the fruit of just one tree, everything else was fair game to eat and enjoy.
One day, the humans in the garden, had a conversation with a creature in the garden. This creature challenged them to eat of this one tree so that they could be like the one who created them. After they thought about it, they took some of the fruit and ate it. That act brought on a crisis in their life and their life drastically changed. The signpost of creation pointing forward was now bent over and was pointing toward the small parcel of earth it had been planted in. Humans were exiled from the gracious creative environment in which they had all the freedom in the world and became bound on the outside of the garden fighting for any kind of freedom they could obtain to survive. The disobedience of the first humans grows in their kinfolks like an avalanche.
As the story moves forward and humankind grew in numbers, the loving Creator chooses a couple with whom to covenant. Why? So that the creation project which had been damaged in the garden could once again find its way forward. The choice of Abraham and Sarah allowed humans to undo the problem caused in the misguided fruit-eating moment and once again set the signpost back up and pointed it forward again toward what creation was to become. The rest of the story of what we call the First Testament[ref] I prefer to refer to the New Testament as the Second Testament. The reference of Old and New Testament congers up ideas that the “Old” one is not useful anymore, while First and Second allows one to begin to think of the sacred text as a whole with a first part and then continuing with a second part. [/ref] was in one way or another pointing toward this underlying intention of the choice of Abraham and Sarah. The narrative was moving forward again, undoing the problem of Genesis 3 and putting the creation project back on the track of Genesis 1 and 2.
The larger story of the First Testament is centered around the Creator’s vision of having a world to rule. There are two important covenants in addition to the one made with Abraham and Sarah. First, the so-called Mosaic covenant, which was made with the community of Israel after their exile ending walk through the Sea of Reeds to Mt. Sinai. It was created like an ancient Lord-Servant Treaty for the period which demonstrated in a tangible way how God’s children were to live as agents who demonstrated what it was like to be the children of the Creator of the Universe. Second, the covenant with David was given by a loving God pointing forward to a day in which the true king would come finally inaugurating the fullness of the kingdom. The story of Israel is full of intrigue as they gain ground and lose ground, moving from one exile to liberation to another exile and liberation.
When the fullness of time had arrived. God sent a true human being into the world to keep the signpost firmly pointing toward the conclusion of the story, a new heaven and earth, which was a new creation for humankind.
The story picks up in what we call the Second Testament with the life and ministry of Jesus as the apex of the story that occurred in the middle of history. The four Jesus story-writers all tell their stories in one way or another as to how the story of Israel had come to fulfillment in the life of Jesus. At long last, the Messiah of the Jews had put the creation project back into full swing by bringing new life into the inauguration of a new creation by the creative power of the Creator. Easter was the birth of a new creation powered by God and peopled by “new humans,” who were and are agents of his kingdom rule, empowered builders of the bricks that will build the final future new creation, living between the times of the king’s first coming and his second coming.
Nice story huh? But a bit painful because it was not told with the usual wording of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s okay for you to struggle with this telling of the story. What I can hear some of you thinking is: So, what does this have to do with Galatians? Great question! Galatians as we will see is the first written occasion to deal with the issue of keeping additives out of the storyline as hard-line ideas that the trouble makers in Galatia insisted had to be a part of the ongoing story. Let’s call these hard-line ideas boundary markers. Paul saw these boundary markers as other opportunities for knocking down the new creation signpost and cause the story to go backward as a different story and not forward as the continuing story.
It was as if Paul said, “No you can’t treat the signpost that way. You can’t point it backward and think that you are moving forwards. It doesn’t work that way.” So, let’s take a look at the signpost and see which way it is pointing.
But, before we go, I going to share some concepts that will help you read the book of Galatians better and hopefully help you read this book better as well.
Reading Galatians Better
Being Christian without All the Additives is a useful series of explanations about the letter to the Galatians, which was written by Paul and was the first book/letter written by the authors of the Second Testament. I intend to provide you with a guide through Galatians. It is not a replacement for reading the text of Galatians. It is my opinion, that any book that your read that offers explanations about the sacred text should be used to help you comprehend what the text might be saying, not be used to replace the actual reading of the text.
At the beginning of each Reading Section, there is a lead-in Story that suggests some of the salient points of the section being read. Then a segment called Observing the Storyline which is an overview of the section of text which is being explained. As a reader, you will want to know what the text says. So, I will provide you with a quick overview of the reading section. When I was a kid and took a vacation with my parents and there were always interesting things to see along the way. This was exciting for a kid from a small Southern town. One of the ways that the creator of the road systems that we traveled provided us with the ability to see all the wonderful sights was something called Observation Points. Someone had taken the time to suggest that travelers stop and see something that could be interesting that might help them understand the context of what they were seeing much better. Such is the idea behind Observing the Storyline sections in this book.
Next, you will encounter an Interpreting the Storyline segment which takes you through a specific reading section in the Galatians. Hopefully, we will see what the text may have meant to the Galatians and what Paul’s intention was in writing as he did. Hopefully, this section will help you gain an understanding of the meaning of the text as those who first heard or read it may have understood it.
Finally, there is Living into the Storyline which is the segment that offers some suggestions about how to live into the story that the text presents. The concept of application of Scripture to your life is different than living “into” the story of the text. In the latter way of thinking, you become an actress or actor who discovering her or his part begins to play it within the overall narrative of the whole story. As an actor or actress, you get to use your imagination as to how to play your part while improvising the actual playing of your part. This is a different mindset than announcing an application of a one-size-fits-all approach to incorporate the text into your life. Rather, than me trying to figure out how this applies to you, I couldn’t even if I wanted to, you get to be creative within the parameters of the text to live and move and have your being. Of course, this is not a human-only initiative. You learn to rely on the impetus of the Holy Spirit to work with you and through you to live into the story of God.
On occasion, we will add what I call WordTreasures. There I will provide some definitions of keywords and phrases that will open up the text to you as a reader. On occasion, we may focus on historical information, which I call Behind the Scenes. This is the stuff that is going on undetected to the eye of the present reader that brings a breath of fresh air to the reading of the text. Finally, I may offer Resources information, which are places that you can go to take a broader look at some other stuff that might be helpful in your discovery of how to live into the story of Galatians.
Working through Galatians with a community of folks is much preferable to just working through it by yourself. Strange suggestion huh? So, I have made a small list of suggestions for how you can use this book to interact with others.[ref] See Appendix 1.[/ref] Of course, together, you the reader, and me the author make up a small community.
Once when I was a kid, the doctor gave me some green pills for what he thought was wrong with me. I could not seem to get the hang of swallowing those pills. My mom tried everything, including rolling a piece of bread around each pill. That never made sense to me. In this case, the additive to the pill was the bread. In those days we live just across the street from the local drug store with a full serve fountain including hand-packed ice cream. So, my parents devised a plan to get me to take the medicine, each night my dad would go across the street and purchase a pint of hand-packed vanilla ice cream. My mom would put it in the bowl along with the green pill which had been crushed. The problem was that when I got to the bottom of the dish the small amount of melted ice cream always had these green specs, so I would complain that there was something besides ice cream in the bowl. My parents made up all kinds of stories about the green specs. The one that I remember the most was, the owner of the drug store who had hand-packed the vanilla ice cream had just finished packing some lime sherbet for a previous customer and they told me what I was seeing at the bottom of my bowl was just lime sherbet. Well, that made no sense to me either. I complained that he should wash the scooper before he packed the ice cream. It didn’t occur to me until later that what my parents should have done was to get me lime sherbet instead of vanilla ice cream, the camouflage would have been better. But, the reason they got vanilla was that neither of them liked lime sherbet and they wanted some ice cream each evening as well. To this day, I don’t like vanilla ice cream by itself. I remember once at Christmas dinner that a friend made an ice-cream desert in the shape of a green Christmas tree. When I tasted it, it was vanilla ice cream with green food coloring in it. I came close to leaving the ice cream on the Christmas table. So what? Vanilla ice cream by itself would have been great but it had an additive, a green pill, and the combination was not received well. Even when the original is smooth, sweet, and taste good, additives harmed the enjoyment.
Just pick up any bottle of over-the-counter medication, or pick up almost any food item and read the labels. What do you find? Additives! One has to wonder if you are going to take cinnamon, why there is a need for all the other stuff that goes into the cinnamon capsule. Cinnamon is good for lots of human ailments. It has been suggested that it can lower your LDL cholesterol. Some studies claim that it might help those with diabetes to regulate their blood sugar. Some think it has an anti-clotting effect. All these things may be the result of taking cinnamon. Of course, some think there are side effects from taking cinnamon as well, But, what about the additives? In one over-the-counter cinnamon product, I discovered the following additives: Kosher gelatin (capsule), rice flour, silicon dioxide, and magnesium stearate. Rice flour? Silicon dioxide? Magnesium stearate? Just look at the latter one; Magnesium stearate. It is a kind of salt that seems to be okay for human consumption. It has lubricating properties. It is used to bind sugar in hard candies. But, why is it needed as an additive in a cinnamon capsule? One wonders. Additives have been fostered onto the buying public and no one seems to care that they are there.
Is it a problem? Maybe, maybe not! For Paul’s dealing with the ecclesiae in Galatia, it was a problem. Kind of like my vanilla ice cream and the green pill additive. His argument: you cannot add anything to the gospel: nothing! The additive makes the original valueless, worthless, and of no account. That may raise some eyebrows, I’m sure. So, what does the Galatian problem have to do with the problems faced by the local ecclesia at the beginning of the twenty-first century? While they may have had different additives then, and surely they did, we have additives now, and surely we do. The issue is not only about the additives themselves, but that Messiah-followers today should not be crippled with additives to the gospel of Jesus. We will see how that plays out in our conversation about Galatian.
First, let me say a word about paraphrase. I was first presented with the idea of paraphrasing the text of Scripture in my Bible college days. I took a course from Dr. Russ Spittler, he required us on every exegetical paper we wrote to write a paraphrase of the text we had worked on. If it couldn’t be said in an everyday language then we were faced with the issue that we may still not have grasped some of the meaning of the author or passage that we were studying.
In this book, I offer you what I call an “interpretative paraphrase.” The truth be told, all paraphrases are interpretative not unlike all translations include interpretation. In the paraphrase I offer within these pages on Galatians, I present you with both the author’s suspected intention while adding some of the proposed understanding of the audience to whom the letter was being written. To some extent, reading Paul and others in the Second Testament is like listening to one side of a phone conversation. What I am endeavoring to do in this “interpretative paraphrase” is to give you, the present reader, both Paul’s side of the conversation and how the first reader/listener may have heard it when it was read to her or him in a small fellowship in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, or Derbe, or other cities of Galatia. I hope that it will make this reading of Paul more accessible to you as a present reader both for your community of faith and for you individually.
Remember, Galatians was the first book written in the Second Testament. I know, to some readers that will come as a shock, since many believe that Matthew was the first book in the Second Testament because it appears as the first one that appears when you begin reading the Second Testament. There is a difference between reading canonically[ref]Reading canonically is the traditional fashion that most Bible readers read their Scripture beginning with Genesis and ending with Malachi in the First Testament and beginning with Matthew and ending with Revelation in the New Testament. If you as a reader memorized the books of the Bible, all the rage with growing up, this is the order you memorized. [/ref] and reading chronologically. [ref] Reading chronologically is the storied way of reading the Scripture beginning in the First Testament with the stories in Genesis and ending with the book of Ezra-Nehemiah and reading the Second Testament in the same fashion beginning with Galatians and ending with Revelation. Reading chronologically is a more natural way to read the whole story of Scripture. [/ref]
When reading the different books in the story of the Second Testament, it is important to have a preunderstanding of any book that you are reading. Reading whole books is much preferred to reading fragments of books. Fragmented reading seems to produce fragmented understanding that goes on to produce a fragmented living.
Four important aspects of history are important for your preunderstanding of any book or passage of Scripture. I know, when you hear the word history, most of you reading will have a slight pause: “Is this going to be like taking history at school. I never really liked history classes,” you might reflect. The obvious answer is, “No! This will not be a history course,” but to comprehend a book written thousands of years ago, it goes without saying, even though I am saying it, that knowing something of the history of the time is important. Hopefully, it won’t be as boring as those courses that may have caused you pain and agony in your school years. The four aspects of preunderstanding are authorship, date, audience, and purpose. Knowing these aspects will help you control the urge to read some twenty-first-century idea back into the first-century language that is used to tell the story you are reading.
It is also important to understand a bit about the present author of this book as well. I often tell my students that if they are reading about baptism and want to know if the person writing about the subject believes in “immersion” or “sprinkling” they need to read the short bio of the author if it is available. If she or he is a Southern Baptist, most likely baptism would mean immersion. However, if the author was Episcopalian, sprinkling might be the mode under consideration. While this suggestion is painting with a large brush stroke, it makes the point I think. We need to know a bit about who we are reading.
We all have a story to tell, so, here’s part of my story and I’m sticking to it:
I was born and raised by Southern parents in a small town in central Florida, I lived there for eighteen years graduating from high school and then leaving a year later to join the United States Air Force. In January of the year that I left, I was attending the small Pentecostal church that I had been a part of since nine months before I was born, truth be known, I think I was there the Sunday after my conception. After a mid-week service, a young girl who was sitting on the same pew as me looked down the pew and dared me to go forward during the traditional altar call which occurred at the end of every service. I was going to show her, so I got up, walked toward the middle aisle of the building aiming to turn to my right and walk out the back door. But, as it happened, I must have had some sort of dyslectic moment, I turned left instead and ended up at the altar bench at the front of the church and found myself overwhelmed with the need to confess my sins to God, as I knew them. It was a cathartic moment. But, it was not unlike lots of other times that I had made that pilgrimage. It seemed like I did this every time an evangelist came for a revival meeting which seemed to occur about once a month.
What made this one different? I wondered aloud as I walked the two blocks home after the service. I set in my room, still somewhat emotional from the previous moments, and offered God a solemn promise to follow him. For whatever reason, I had made what I thought to be a right turn to get out the door had been the “right” turn into the door opened by Jesus. I simply wanted, in those moments, to follow Jesus. I didn’t have story language then, but the previous story, going forward to an altar every time an evangelist came to town, was not the story that I should have been living into. As I reflect back now all these decades later, as I am writing this, my motives as I understand them were real. What I didn’t know at that moment was that while I was becoming free, I was at the same time going to begin a journey that would cause me to leave all the additives that little Pentecostal church infused in me as I was growing up. It has taken a lifetime to shed most of those additives, but there are still some lurking around from time to time that pops their ugly head up and challenges the present story of my life.
I had the privilege of marrying up to my lovely wife Donna Faith and together we have produced two children that we love dearly, Jason Jonathan and Jeramie Joy. Jason added to the family the lovely Lynn Valiquette in 2019. Over my life, I have been privileged to earn a Bachelor, Master, and two Doctor of Ministry Degrees, the last one at the beginning of this century. Over the years I have taught lots of folks the overall concept of the EPIC story found in the First and Second Testaments. My last degree offered me an opportunity to pull lots of that stuff together and write a book, God’s EPIC Adventure that overviews the story of God from Genesis to Revelations and offers its readers a way of thinking about the flow of the great Story in a way that a reader can live into the story of the text.
Here’s a question for you: What do you think this says about me and how I will handle the text that is before us?
Interpreting the Story
Scot McKnight suggests that…
Whenever we pick up the Bible and read it, even in a contemporary version like the Good News Bible, we are conscious of stepping back two millennia or (in the case of the First Testament) even more. We travel backward in time, behind the microchip revolution, the electronic revolution, the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolution, until we find ourselves in an alien world which long ago ceased to exist. In consequence, the Bible feels odd, sounds archaic, looks obsolete, and smells musty.[ref] Scot McKnight, Galatians (The NIV Application Commentary Book 9) (Kindle Location 6655). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. https://amzn.to/2OGqBC4 [/ref]
Some of the important things for a reader to know and understand is authorship, date, audience, and purpose. Understanding these four components will give you a better idea of what was being said. So, we now turn to those elements for an overview.
Understanding who the author of the Scripture book or passage you are reading will help you place the book into some historical context. So, if you are going to read the letter to the Galatians, it would be helpful to know who the author is. Not just for the sake of knowing the name of the author, but knowing something about the person that will help you understand what the person may mean in his or her documents. I know, I know, if you been around the church for more than five minutes you are thinking: The author of the book of Galatians is Paul. And you would be right in thinking that, But, the real question might be, “Is Paul that you think is the author, which has most likely come from brief fragmented sound bites from sermons and Bible studies that you have heard, Paul the first century Jew? Is he the Paul of Biblical history or the culturalized Paul of today? Sometimes, I have discovered in conversation with ecclesia congregants that the Paul we think we know is not the Paul we ought to know.
In the first sentence of his letter to the Galatian ecclesiae, the author introduces himself as “Paul an apostle” (Gal. 1.1). All but a few scholars accept his authorship of this book today.
There is little information about Paul from his birth to his appearance in the book of Acts as the persecutor of the Church. What is known about him is mainly drawn from his self-portraits in his documents (Gal. 1; Rom. 9; Phil. 3). Reading those texts will give you a start at knowing him. His birthplace was Tarsus (Acts 16.27; 21.29; 22.25). Tarsus was a commercial city and a center of learning in the ancient world. It is still a city in modern Turkey.[ref]Take a moment when you have time and open a browser on the net. Key in “Tarsus” (without the quote marks) and you can see some images from that city. [/ref] It was there he became acquainted with various Greek philosophies and religious cults. He was raised by his mother (Acts 22.3) and later moved to Jerusalem for his education, which he received from Gamaliel (Gal. 1.13ff.). Paul was a functioning member of the Roman world, i.e., he was a citizen of Rome with all its rights and privileges; of the Greek world, i.e., with its language, customs, and thought-forms; and of the Hebrew world, i.e., with its language, customs, and thought forms and the narrative of God’s story. After his conversion, Paul began the process of subverting each of these three worlds that overlapped, which made up the culture to which he brought the gospel.
While living in Jerusalem he was given authority to direct the persecution of a new cult of Jesus followers. He was officially sanctioned by the Sanhedrin to go to Damascus and bring bound to Jerusalem any Christians that he found. It is difficult to think about Paul in the same framework as we think about a modern terrorist. In 1995, Yigal Amir, a Jewish Law Student told the magistrate in his trial that he drew on the Halacha,[ref] Wikipedia, “Halakha,” Wikipedia. ps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halakha (accessed April 8, 2016). [/ref] which is thehtt legal part of the Talmudic[ref] Wikipedia, “Halakha,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halakha (accessed April 8, 2016). [/ref] literature, that is an interpretation of the laws in Scripture. He believed that it was God who had called him to kill Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This student was so zealous for the Law that he was convinced that killing Rabin was the God-thing to do. Paul was so zealous for the Law that he could sanction the death of Stephen, who he considered a Law-breaker.[ref] It should come as no surprise that in today’s world that those who have been radicalized within the Muslim faith believe that it is their calling to kill as many folks as possible who do you follow their own religious writings.[/ref] This action and explanation by Yigal Amir may be one of the closest scripts in modern times of what it was like to live in Paul’s shoes before he was liberated by Jesus on the road to Damascus. It might well in our time and space give some indication about terrorism at the beginning of the twentieth-century and non-political solutions.
Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was a rather sudden jolt to Paul, as well as to his friends in Judaism. After three years of instructions from the Lord and teaching in the synagogue in Damascus, he made his first post-conversion trip to Jerusalem after a close escape with his life from Damascus (Acts 9.23; 2 Cor. 22.32). He had a brief stay in Jerusalem with the disciples who were in continual fear even after three years. Some of his old friends wanted to kill him. He escaped back to his home in Tarsus (Acts 9.26-30). It was approximately ten years before Paul was heard about him again in the story. Barnabas found Paul in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch to help teach the church there (Acts 11.25ff.). Then, Barnabas and Paul made a famine relief trip from Antioch to Jerusalem. They brought John Mark[ref] An interesting note here is that you have two authors of Second Testament books together. Surely, they must have had early conversations about their perspective views of Jesus and the times they lived in.[/ref] back with them (Acts 12.25). Acts 13 and 14 shares with us the First Church Planting Mission of setting up outposts in the Roman world who could share the story of a new world led by the crucified and risen Jesus. Upon return from his first trip, Paul reported to the church at Antioch everything that God had done on this mission trip. From there, he wrote the book of Galatians, which he sent back to the churches that he had planted, to help them take care of a problem that had arisen after he left.
We need all kinds of tools in our toolkit to help us manage the information that a Second Testament book or letter will offer us. One of these tools is the date. If we can pretty well pinpoint the time the book was written, we can get a firmer grasp on the incidents within the storyline and what their parameters of meaning might be. As an example, if we thought about the sport of basketball, we would be remiss to think that the way basketball was played in 1891 when it was created in Canada is the same as it is today. The essentials are the same, but the particulars are very different. So, if you were talking about three-point shots, it would be helpful to know that teams played basketball for several decades without a three-point shot. Knowing history improves one’s chances of understanding a subject.
It is usually suggested that Galatians is the earliest of Paul’s writings. One of the reasons is that he does not appeal to the first larger collaborative meeting that occurred in Jerusalem which you can read about in Acts 15. This meeting in Jerusalem was centered on the question: Does a Gentile have to be circumcised to be a member of the family of God? As they debated among themselves, they concluded that there were only a couple of items that Gentiles should consider, but circumcision[ref] In the early phase of the church, circumcision was one of the boundary markers that needed to be passed along to anyone who became a Jesus follower. In short, it was an outward symbol to demonstrate that one was going to follow the Mosaic Covenant stipulations, often referred to as the Ten Commandments. Their early version of being a Jesus follower was Jesus Plus and the additive in the Plus was the Mosaic Covenant and its instructions about the boundary markers of circumcision, food laws, and calendar events. [/ref] was not one of them. So, the reasoning goes, if the boys in Jerusalem had decided such, then all that Paul’s would have had to do was to point the churches in Galatia to the decisions that had been made about circumcision in Jerusalem. Case closed. But, because Paul did not do this, it would surely mean that the meeting in Jerusalem had not yet occurred, so the incidents in Galatia and the letter to give directed solutions for the problem was written before the Jerusalem gathering which would have been in the later forties after he first journey that Paul took from Antioch to the area of South Galatia. We can put the date tool back in the toolbox for now and be happy that we did not skin our knuckles as we used it.
The tool “audience” plays a major role in our understanding of a Second Testament book. One might suggest, that the circumstances determine the book. Understanding the makeup of the receiver will help you as a reader begin to solve the mystery of understanding the text.
This letter is addressed “to the churches (ecclesiae) in Galatia[ref] Galatia was part of what today we call Turkey.[/ref] ” (Gal. 1.2). The geographic location of the Galatian churches was the area of Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe in South Galatia, although some believe that the document was sent to North Galatia. These South Galatian churches were part of the group of churches that gave in the collection for the Jerusalem church (1 Cor. 16.1). The first-century writer Livy says, “those forefathers of ours had to do with true Gauls, born in their own land, these now degenerate, of mixed race….” They were pictured by ancient Latin and Greek historians as barbaric warriors who invaded and ransacked neighboring areas. They participated in the worship of Agdistis, the Mother of all gods, in a great temple whose sanctuary and porticoes were made of white marble and was an object of great veneration. The form of government was totalitarian.[ref] Conrad Gempf, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 381. https://amzn.to/3jkts1K [/ref] By the time of Paul, the Roman province called Galatia was connected by paved roads that were about eleven and a half feet in width that allowed for easy walking travel and could be used by wheeled carts.[ref] Gempf, The Book of Acts. 384. https://amzn.to/3jkts1K [/ref] These were wonderful standards for the day. When I was growing up in Central Florida in the mid-twentieth century, some major streets were still not paved and were a mess of mud and ruts when it rained. But, these mud-rutted roads were better than no roads at all. Okay, “audience” can go back to the toolbox.
It is believed by most Second Testament specialists that the authors of our sacred books and letters during this time were written to solve problems that were occurring in the new communities of Jesus followers. These writings were not just written for the sake of writing. They were written to solve ad hoc problems within the growing church in the Mediterranean world. Knowing the problem(s) associated with a book helps us as readers comprehend the solutions to the problem(s) the author was offering. It also helps us began to look for parallels in the myriad of problems faced in today’s institutional church and in so doing help us find solutions to those problems from this ancient text. There is nothing new under the sun.
Two questions need to be answered to help us read and understand the purpose of the text of Galatians. First, what was happening in the churches at Galatia that caused Paul to write this letter? Second, who were the opponents, the agitators, that he was directing his comments to within the letter
In the traditional view of Galatians, Paul is thought to be writing the Galatians because a group of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who were agitators urging Gentiles to ‘Judaize’.[ref] Wright, N. T.; Bird, Michael F. The New Testament in Its World (Bound 396. Kindle 712). https://amzn.to/2DSO6FK Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition. “Paul’s opponents are sometimes called ‘Judaizers’, which is a misnomer because Jews do not ‘Judaize’. To ‘Judaize’ means ‘to try to become Jewish’. Only gentiles can technically ‘Judaize’. Jews can ‘proselytize’, that is, urge male gentiles to become proselytes or converts to Judaism by being circumcised; whereas gentiles who follow Jewish customs, particularly by adopting circumcision, are said to Judaize. So it is more accurate to say that the Jewish-Christian teachers/ missionaries/ intruders are trying to ‘proselytize’ Paul’s gentile converts by urging them to ‘Judaize’.” (Wright, N. T.; Bird, Michael F. The New Testament in Its World. 712. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.) Scot McKnight takes a more traditional view of Judaizers when he writes in his Galatian commentary: “…some Jewish Christian teachers who infiltrated these Galatian churches with a polluted message that was, according to Paul, endangering the entire gospel. For two millennia we have referred to these intruders as the “Judaizers.” This term will be used throughout this commentary to refer, not to Jews in general, but to a specific movement in earliest Christianity that believed conversion to Christ also involved a further conversion to their (Pharisaic) form of Judaism. Scot McKnight. Galatians (The NIV Application Commentary Book 9) (Kindle Location 332). Zondervan. Kindle Edition https://amzn.to/3eGe0Jz[/ref] These Jewish-Christian teachers had followed him to Galatia and were telling the new followers of Jesus that they had to take on the yoke of the Law to truly be Christians. This traditional view attempts to answer both of the questions above.”
Here is what Stephen Westerholm, a Canadian Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, writes about this tradition:
Martin Luther, Reformer, is charged with misreading Paul, apostle, confusing the latter’s first-century controversies with his own idiosyncratic and sixteenth-century concerns, thereby distorting for centuries the understanding of Paul held alike by undiscerning scholars, unsuspecting preachers, and the masses that know not the law.[ref] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The Lutheran Paul and His Critics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 22. https://amzn.to/2DYTRls The above link is quoted in Winn Griffin, Was Paul an Early Lutheran? [a Kingdom Praxis Solo] (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Digital Press, 2013), (Kindle Locations 60-63). https://amzn.to/2WCOu1F [/ref]
The problem with the traditional view, i.e., there was a group of folks who were labeled as Judaizers, is that there is no historical evidence that such a group ever existed. Rather, after Paul left Galatia, word had reached him that a group of agitators arose within the ecclesiae throughout Galatia telling Paul’s ex-pagan converts that the gospel that he had preached to them was incomplete. This group of agitators seemed to be convinced that every gentile who entered into a relationship with Jesus had to be circumcised as a promise to keep the Jewish Law. In short, until they were circumcised, they had not yet completed the requirements of being part of the covenant family of God, they remained second-class citizens in the church. Thus the book of Galatians is a treatment of an inner-Christian dispute where both agitators and Paul were both followers of Jesus. On the one hand, the Galatian agitators believed that anyone in a Jesus outpost who had become a Jesus follower must be circumcised. On the other hand, Paul argued that they should not be circumcised. While some have seen this as an inner struggle about two kinds of “religion,” it was and is not. It is about the ecclesiae and how to live life as a true human moving forward in this present evil age. Jesus had arrived to bring the long-awaited age to come or he had not come to bring the age to come. The ‘agitators’ wanted ‘to shut folks out who did not submit to the rite of circumcision. These agitators were in effect forcing such people to ‘Judaize’ to belong to the Body of Christ.
Thus, Paul was battling a group of opponents who were participants within the ecclesiae in Galatia. These opponents were Jewish Christians who wanted to circumcise the Galatians, alienating them from their own Gentile culture, and proving to the Jews in Israel that they were true Jesus followers in their proclamation of the gospel.
Sound familiar? To this day the “ecclesiae”, which is often referred to as ChurchWorld and by that I mean the “institutional church” in all its groupings/denominations, is still fighting the first-century fight. You hear things like, to be a member here, you need to attend services here, tithe, and hopefully pray the “sinner’s prayer” so you can go to heaven when you die.
As we suggested above, the only problem with that way of thinking is that there is no historical data to support the idea of a theological party called the Judaizers. But, there was a problem and that was not a group of people being asked to add on First Testament practices, the problem was the act of Judaizing oneself. Judaizing was what pagans/gentiles were doing to become Jews, not what Jew were requiring pagans to do to become Jews.[ref] See footnote 21 above and N. T. Wright, “Jesus, Paul and Israel” [Tape G, Side 1] (Vancouver, BC: Regent Audio). https://www.regentaudio.com/products/paul-jesus-the-people-of-israel [/ref] With that information in mind, it is most likely not true that there was a Judaizing party who followed Paul across the Mediterranean world trying to undo his proclamation of the gospel to the gentiles.
Yes, these agitators wanted to impose their own Jewish culture on the Galatians but they were not Judaizers. What was at stake was the thought that to be a fully redeemed Christian, the Galatians had to accept the boundary markers of Judaism (circumcision, food laws, and calendar events), and today other kinds of additives to the gospel. Paul argues against this view throughout the letter to the Galatians. For Paul the concept of faith in Jesus was enough, there did not have to be any additives to complete one’s entry into the covenant family of God.
Why do I as a reader of Scripture have to know all this somewhat dense material? Imagine the following:
A person enters into the ChurchWorld, s/he becomes a follower of Jesus. There are those in the same gathering that s/he attends that have differing views about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. One party takes the new convert aside and tells him/her all the rules that have to be followed. This seems to happen most frequently in churches who hold a dispensational/fundamental form of theology whether in a Pentecostal, Charismatic, or a so-called Bible-believing church. Some of the additives that these folks were insisted to live under are things like: no alcoholic drinking; not smoking, no cursing, no adultery or fornication, no going to movies, no watching TV that was a biggie when I was growing up, no jewelry, in the clothing department, for women they were required to wear blouses that came down to their wrist and buttoned up to their necks. Skirts that had to be hemmed below the knees. No pants or pantsuits. For swimming attire, no bikinis, and to boot, no “mixed bathing” as it was called, which meant that males and females could not swim together at the same time in a lake or a beach, often called “mixed bathing.” (There were not many swimming pools in the little town where I grew up.) In addition, not tithing and not going to church on Sunday morning and evening plus the mid-week service, usually on Wednesday night. You could not gamble, which included playing cards even if not gambling. Playing pool, bowling. Working in movie theaters, bars, bowling allies, frequenting places that served alcoholic beverages, including grocery stores. These are just a small list from my church heritage. I’m sure that those of you reading might have others to add to the list or some that might be deleted from the list. As an example, a friend who grew up in the Catholic church told me that he had to place a call to the local parish priest if he was not going to attend services on Sunday.
When Donna and I functioned as youth pastors in a small pentecostal church in Southern California, we were chaperones for the youth depart. On one occasion we accompanied the youth group to a summer camp. One of the activities was swimming. Of course, the additive was no “mixed bathing.” One afternoon when it was time for our part of the camp to go swimming, one of the other chaperones form the church told all the girls that they had to wait until the boys were through with their time. The problem, the camp did not abide by the pentecostal church taboo on mixed bathing and there were no separate times in the schedule to separate swimming allocated. So, this chaperone told the girls that they could not swim in their two-piece suites and had to take off the top and put on a t-shirt. When I intervened, she was hopping mad. I told her that what she was trying to cover up with a t-shirt was going to be much more revealing with a wet t-shirt. She didn’t get it and threatened to squeal on me to the pastor when we returned to the church after the camp days were through. I smiled and thought to my self. This is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. She believed that she dressed to be “holy” so men would not lust after her. She had testified to that often in the church’s testimony time. She was a bit on the hefty side. She wore what looked like dresses made flower-patterned cloth that was more smock than dress. Her hair was long, really long, and flowed down her back ending up about the back of her knees at all different lengths. She was correct about one thing, no man would “lust” after her. She believed that she was a “better” Christian because of her dress code and the fact that she did not practice “mixed bathing.” Go figure!
Stop for a moment and take out a sheet of paper or open up a document in your word processor on your computer and list the kind of church you grew up in and then some of the requirements that could be viewed as additives in your church tradition.
Against this Jesus Plus way of thinking and following Jesus, a new convert should be instructed that Jesus is enough and there are no additives to the proclamation to which they responded.
Let’s expand the concept of no additives.
Paul’s theology was grounded in the story of Israel. Israel’s story undergirded and informed the life of Paul as it is demonstrated in his mission and writings. We must be in touch with the fact that Paul was a first-century zealous Pharisaic Jew whose theological belief was concerned with monotheism, the belief in one God, and the election of Israel as the vehicle through which God would bring redemption to his world. Paul never came to believe anything other than what he believed as a Second Temple (ca. 400 BC-AD 135) believing Jew. His theology was concerned with redefining or reframing the story of Israel based on what Jesus had done (Christology) and what the Spirit had accomplished (Pneumatology) in Israel in the first century.
Even though there is a long tradition in the evangelical church that suggests that the problem that Paul addressed in Galatians had to do with how a person becomes a Christian or how a person finds a relationship with God, this is not the case. The problem he addressed was: Should those who had been converted from paganism be circumcised or not? He was asking: How does one define the people of God? Should the boundary markers, additives of the Jewish faith (circumcision, food laws, and calendar events) define the new followers of Jesus? For the first-century Jewish person, circumcision was not a moral issue and it did not have anything to do with moral effort or earning one’s salvation by good deeds (keeping the law). It was simply a mark that said that the person was part of the Jewish nation.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not an attack on some form of Jewish legalism. The Jews did not believe that their observance of the law made them have a right standing with God. Their problem was not legalism, it was nationalism. It was a form of cultural imperialism. They were convinced that God’s blessings were given to the people of God (Israel) and that only those people were the people of God. They insisted that all gentile followers of Jesus had to become part of the Jewish nation before they could enjoy the full blessing of God. The Jews saw their entire religion and society as threatened by Paul’s “law-free” gospel because he was allowing people to find the grace of God without becoming socially conformed to the law.
The act of Judaizing was the act of nationalization, not a kind of legalism that is so often thought of today in the “Western church.” The gospel is and never was about nationalism. It was not a nationalistic gospel of Jesus plus Moses. Paul’s gospel was not about being a follower of Moses, a nationalistic Jew, and then you can become a follower of Jesus Christ. This central message of Paul was thought to be a “different gospel.” To respond to the additives of the gospel being perpetrated in Galatia where he had spent several years proclaiming the grace-filled message of Jesus, he penned a charter to the ecclesiae in Galatia to help them regain the freedom that freed them to live with Jesus without any additives proposed by the Jewish agitators.
If you pause and think a moment about this systemic problem of nationalism, one can surely see some similarities with Christianity in USAmerica as well as many parts of the Christian world, which have been influenced by the colonialization of USAmerican missionaries. We have come to identify ourselves as God’s favorite nation.[ref] Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007). https://amzn.to/2CtyNmv See also: Winn Griffin, “USAmerica Is Not a Christian Nation. It’s a Myth,” ChurchWorld.org. http://wgriff.in/ancn_325 (accessed July 21 2020). [/ref] Sometimes one can’t tell the difference between this form of politics and the story of the church, which is not in tune with the Story of God.
Living into the Story
It is always important to live into the Story of Scripture. Pause at the suggestions below and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to help your community and you to meditate on and begin to live into.
- How have your local ecclesia Judaized a new convert after s/he becomes a follower of Jesus?
- Who taught you to Judaize?
- How does the idea of “cultural imperialism” strike you about the problem in the Galatian ecclesiae with the same problem today faced by the church?
- How is “cultural imperialism” practiced in your local ecclesia and society today?
- What parts of the life of your local ecclesia are influenced by the idea that USAmerica is a Christian Nation?