Continuing our series of reviews of Scripture:
St Paul has a problem. The Christian believers in Galatia are beginning to believe they have to follow the Jewish Law, despite his teaching them that they are free in Christ. But this means Paul has to explain why it was neccessary for God to make the Law binding through Moses and then reverse this decision through Jesus Christ.
Galatians 1 emphasises St Paul’s personal calling to be an apostle, and his concern to communicate faithfully what he has received in a direct revelation from Christ. Chapter 2 continues this theme and establishes his authority for saying that followers of Christ need not be bound by Jewish dietary laws. The chapter concludes with a clear statement that no-one can be “reckoned as righteous” (or “justified”) because they obey the Jewish law, but only through “the faith of Jesus”. The same ambiguity exists in the original Greek as in English – the “faith of Jesus” could simply mean His faithfulness (by going through with the Cross) or the faith the “justified” person places in Jesus. Chapter 3 asserts that “all who believe” are children of Abraham but again, this could be applied to “all believers” or could pick out Christ’s unique role as the perfectly faithful one through whom Abraham’s blessing could come to the Gentiles (3:14, 3:16) – all who are baptised into Christ are counted as Abraham’s offspring (3:29).
3:19-26 clearly reflects Paul’s ponderings on why God had given the Jewish Law (Torah) only for it to become redundant upon the death of Christ. He sees it as “added” because humanity sinned, providing a temporary disciplinary code for people to deal with their faults, and in some way required so that Jesus could faithfully fulfil the Law. 3:19-20 contains a confusing reference to the Law coming “by angels through a mediator” – not easy to interpret but perhaps Paul is pointing to a Jewish tradition about how the Law came, and saying the Mediator could not have been separate from God, but the Word of God “was” God?
In Chapter 4, Paul mixes images of Christian believers as “adopted children” and as “heirs”. As adopted children in God’s house, we have “come of age” at the death and resurrection of Christ and share in our Father’s authority within the house – an idea we will also find in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The concept of “heirs” is more difficult because it depends on the execution of a will – but our Father has not died, and our eldest brother has been raised. It is implicit that Jewish people who don’t embrace Christian faith are still “slaves” rather than “heirs” in God’s household. This image is not as damning as it might sound to modern ears: in Roman society, to be a household slave did not always imply poor conditions and backbreaking work, but could indicate some status and rights as part of the family of the paterfamilias of a household. The image of slavery is subverted in the next chapter, where Christians are called to be “slaves to one another”.
The fifth chapter focuses on sin, understood as works of the flesh: the beginning of a long New Testament tradition of speaking of “flesh”, our bodily humanity, as a source of temptation. The flesh can be responsible for sexual immorality, other acts of intemperance, human conflict and recourse to magic – all who practice such things are said to forfeit the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the final chapter, Paul speaks of the need to bear our own burdens but also to bear one another’s burdens; perhaps we all have to be ready to do the former but should aspire to the latter. We are also to correct one another gently when we fall into sin, and ensure that Christian teachers are provided for within the community.
One other point of note – Paul clearly hints that when God’s Word was preached in Galatia, they experienced some kind of manifestation of the Holy Spirit (3:2, 3:5), reprising a theme in I Thessalonians.