|| Painting: St.
Paul by Rembrandt van Rijn
Introduction, A Church Divided
While Paul was at Corinth (About 51 A.D. and when Paul was about 55 years
old) some very troubling news arrived from the Galatian churches. The best
scholarship suggests that these churches were in Southern Galatia. I think
they were the churches of Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium, that are described
earlier in Acts. The cities are in what today would be in southeastern
The churches established there were the results of the first real
thrust of the Gospel into the Gentile world. There were Jews and gentiles
in these churches, but they were, in the main, Gentile. Paul had just gone
through these churches, confirming them in the faith, and delivering the
decrees from Jerusalem regarding what was required of Gentile Christians.
There was no question of the validity of the Ten Commandments or the
written law, but they were not required to be circumcised or to enter into
all the requirements of Judaism (See on Acts 15).
As you read Paul’s letters you will encounter repeatedly what seem like
contradictory statements relative to the law. Paul’s does not believe the
written law was abolished, but he takes great exception to the legalistic
attempts to impose the system of Judaism on the church.
Galatians is a difficult book. It is nearly 2,000 years old. It comes
from a foreign culture in a language that is not only foreign, but
obsolete. But what really makes Galatians difficult is that you are
reading someone else’s mail. The Galatians knew what this letter is all
about. We don’t. We have to glean our knowledge of the problems in Galatia
from the letter itself. We can understand a lot of it–perhaps most of it.
But we have to be careful not to be too dogmatic in the tricky areas. One
thing is clear. The old circumcision party from Jerusalem had arrived in
Galatia and were trying to pull the same deal that they had tried in
Antioch. If you haven’t already reviewed
Acts 15, this would be a good way
to start the study of Galatians.
It is odd how man seems to be so dissatisfied with God. Seriously. We
seem to think that we can improve on what He has done. It is one thing
when we do this by creating a new Rose, or a new breed of dog. It is
another thing all together when we think we can improve on His religion.
And we do. If we weren’t so busy improving on God’s religion, there
wouldn’t be so many varieties of religions in the world.
At the time Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem, there was a dominant
religion there. It was a kind of Judaism. Perhaps a proto-Judaism. During
and after the Babylonian exile, the Jewish sages had begun the development
of the Mishnah–a formalization of their oral traditions, memorized and
passed down from generation to generation. Their religion centered on the
study of the law. The problem was That as they developed their tradition,
they "improved" on the law considerably. The result was Judaism.
Judaism, though, was not homogeneous. It was quite sectarian, as human
nature would lead us to expect. The Pharisees taught both the Oral and
Written law. The Sadducees taught only the written law, and the Essenes
thought both of them were corrupt.
Then along comes Jesus, and he rejects sectarian Judaism in all its
forms, finding himself in regular conflict with both Pharisee and
Sadducee. And here we come to one of the most fundamental mistakes people
make about Jesus, in fact about the entire NT.
Sectarian Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament. Judaism,
rather, is the response of the Jewish people to the revelation of
God in the Old Testament, But it is much, much more than God ever
revealed. Judaism is a cultural response to God. It is, in the
main, an honest response and deserves our respect as such.
But while Jesus observed the law of God and never sinned, He was not a
"Torah observant Jew" in the sense that a "Torah observant Jew" considered
the Oral Law and tradition a part of the Torah. There is a wide gulf
between the Law of God as expressed in the Old Testament, and the law of
the Jews, as encountered in the New Testament.
Not a few modern teachers confuse this issue. They take note of the
rejection of the law of the Jews by both Jesus and Paul, and they
interpret this as an rejection or abrogation of the Law of God. But the
written law of God is confirmed by both Jesus and Paul.
The issue becomes complicated early in Christian history, because the
fledgling church was divided almost immediately by those who wanted to
retain the full package of Judaism as a part of Christianity. These
believed that the gospel Jesus brought was an expansion of Judaism. After
all, Jesus was a Jew, all the disciples were Jews. They were the chosen
people. All the rules they had created relative to Gentiles, then, were
still to be observed.
On the one hand, you had a group called "believing Pharisees" who
considered the new faith a Jewish faith, and on the other a group (Which
included Peter and Paul) who understood that the gospel was to go to the
gentiles–the whole world. This conflict defines most of Paul’s ministry,
and dominates many of his letters. If you don’t know the players and the
issues, it is very easy to misunderstand Paul.
Many teachers believe firmly that Paul taught the abolition of the Law.
But in fact, Paul confirms the law of God, while he "abrogates" the
law of the Jews. This is nowhere more evident than in his letter to the