Galatians 6: Parting Comments

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14 ESV).

What makes a community?

Relationship words binding;

….Redemptive words restoring;

……..Burdens shared; sacrifices made;

………….Spirit sowed; life reaped.

What makes a community?

The Apostle Paul’s closing remarks divide into two parts:  A series of proverbs (vv 1-10) followed by a restatement of the main theme of his letter (vv 11-18).

The proverbs can be summarized as:

  • Forgive and restore (v 1),
  • Bear each other’s burdens (vv 2-5),
  • Support your teachers (v 6),
  • You reap what you sow (vv 7-8), and
  • Keep on doing good works (vv 9-10).

These proverbs often pair mutual accountability and personal responsibility[1].

Paul highlights his summary of the letter by wrapping this summary in highly personal remarks.  Before the summary, he signs this letter by claiming that he wrote it with his own hand (v 11).  After the summary, he asserts his apostolic authority claiming that his body bears the marks of Christ (v 17)[2].

The summary then goes on to discuss those advocating circumcision.  Paul makes these points—they want to force circumcision to avoid persecution in spite of not following their own advice and to brag about their influence over you (vv 12-13)[3].  By contrast, Paul basically says—look, I only brag about the cross of Christ and about the scars on my own body, not yours (vv 14, 17).

If you have ever met an evangelist who pulled down his shirt to display the scars on his back from torture, then you know how persuasive Paul’s argument really is.

[1]Scot McKnight (The NIV Application Commentary: Galatians.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1995, 288) makes this point following John Barclay.

[2]The word for marks here—stigmata (στίγματα; v 17) is used nowhere else in the New Testament and only one other place in the Greek Old Testament (Song of Solomon 1:11).

[3]McKnight (1995, 299).

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Galatians 5: Healthy Boundaries

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV).

An interesting conversation going on in missionary circles concerns the definition of a Christian.  Is a Christian someone who has been baptized and confirmed?  Or, is a Christian someone has consistently grown closer to Christ as a disciple?  While only God knows truly who is saved, the definition of a Christian is important in understanding the role and articulation of the institutional church.  This is particularly a problem in non-western countries where persecution threatens both life and livelihood.

In Paul’s ministry among the Galatians, the question of who is a Christian was upfront and personal.  Is a Christian a sect within Judaism or an independent faith?  Being circumcised identified one with the Jewish faith, but in the first century it more importantly marked one politically as a Jewish nationalist.  And it was also not just something that your wife would notice.  Entry into the temple in Jerusalem required a ritual bath (purified, e.g. Acts 24:18) and sports in the gentile world were also frequently practiced “in your birthday suit”!  Both activities made circumcision a public event in a way that we might overlook today.

How does Paul answer the question of who is a Christian?  Ironically, Paul stands with Moses when he said:  Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart (Deuteronomy 10:16).  In Paul’s words:  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (v 6).  Neither Moses nor Paul accepted the idea that by itself circumcision placed any claim on God.  Faith working through love, as Paul says, speaks to changes in the heart.

Paul’s comments have immediate application in our cultural environment.  In our context, Paul would say:  neither baptized nor unbaptized; neither communicant nor non-communicant; counts for anything.  Going through the motions to join a church does not count.  The question remains: is your heart moving closer to Christ or not?

Movements of the heart might seem rather private but this does not imply that one can be a Christian incognito (secret Christian).  Our freedom in Christ is freedom to love our neighbors as ourselves (v 14).  Do you think that your neighbor will notice?  If money and time are involved, do you think your spouse would notice?  How about your kids?

In drawing healthy boundaries, Paul offers both a list of vices (vv 19-21) and a list of virtues (vv 22-23).  Interestingly, while the list of virtues will not guarantee admission to heaven, practicing the vices will keep you out (v 21).  In Paul’s mind, grace includes law, but is not limited by it.

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Galatians 4: Slave and Free

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

And because you are sons and daughters, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child, then an heir through God (Galatians 4:6-7).

Aren’t you glad that our relationship with God is not transactional?

What if God were like a Facebook friend who after one “bad hair day” simply unfriended you?  Who would ever be comfortable in their relationship with such a god?  Could you ever really love God knowing that you were constantly being evaluated?  Or, turning the question around, could you ever really love God knowing that your love was purchased with wealth or fame?

Aren’t you glad that our relationship with God is a real relationship?

In Galatians 4, the Apostle Paul describes what it means to be a child of an (unconditional) promise.  When we are promised a gift (like friendship), we need only believe in the promise.  The promise is unconditional.  We do not have to do anything to earn the gift.  That is what the word, gift, implies.  The good news is that God’s grace is a gift.

Law works differently.  Law is a conditional promise.  If you obey the law, then you earn the reward promised under the law.  For example, if you apply to become a U.S. citizen, the law covering citizenship applies.  If you meet the conditions of this law, then you are eligible to become a citizen.  If you do not meet the law’s conditions and you desire the reward of the law, then you are a slave of the law (and your desire) until you meet those conditions.

With this argument concerning conditional (law) and unconditional (grace) promises, Paul is making two points:

  1. Being under law is like kids waiting to be old enough to inherit from their parents (vv 1-3).  Being under law implies immaturity.  Mature adults are under no such restrictions.  What adult would prefer to be a kid again?
  2. Being under gospel implies freedom from law, but it does not imply freedom from relationship.  We are God’s adopted children—children of the promise (vv 5-7, 23-28).  Free people do not behave like slaves because they are in relationship with their parents which includes having an inheritance (v 30).

Paul’s discussion of our freedom in Christ continues into chapter 5.

Paul’s discussion of the relationship between Abraham and his two wives, Hagar and Sarah, has generated a lot of discussion over the years.  Paul argues that being under the Mosaic covenant (the Law of Moses) is like being a slave to law.  Because Hagar was a slave woman, he equates the two (law and Hagar) in his allegory.  This causes heartburn for Jewish interpreters because the Jews were biological descendants of Sarah, not Hagar.

Paul’s argument revolves around God’s covenant with Abraham.  The Jews have not taken to heart the second half of the covenant to Abraham:  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV).  The covenant with Abraham required that Abraham become a blessing (וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה) [to the nations]—which essentially means that the Gospel needs to be told.  The Galatians were like Sarah (and the Jews were not) because they more completely fulfilled Abraham’s covenant obligations.  At a minimum, sharing the love of God has to start with sharing who God is!  Niceness is not enough; obeying the law is not enough (Galatians 5:14).

Our question is:  Are we children of Hagar or of Sarah?

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Galatians 3: Law and Gospel

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith (Galatians 3:10-11 ESV).

The question of the relationship between law and Gospel is one of the hottest debates today; perhaps, this could be said of the entire history of the church.

F.F. Bruce, in his Commentary on Galatians (1982. NIGTC.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.  147-191), divides chapter 3 of Galatians into 7 sections:

  1. The primacy of faith over law (vv 1-6)
  2. The blessing of Abraham (vv 7-9)
  3. The curse of the law (vv 10-14)
  4. The priority and permanence of the promise (vv 15-18)
  5. The purpose of the law (vv 19-22)
  6. Liberation from the law (vv 23-25) and
  7. Jews and Gentiles one in Christ (vv 26-29).

Every verse is carefully parsed in book after book because the content of these 29 verses seriously affects our attitude about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the secular society.  Clearly, a one-page reflection cannot address all that is being said here.

For example, we read in verse 2:  Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? (v 2).  Here the Apostle Paul makes the assumption that the Galatians know firsthand the work of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. The inference is that this experiential knowledge of the Holy Spirit is not only evident, but the sole source of eternal salvation. This question alone condemns religions focused on law as insufficient to warrant salvation. Among Christians, this statement would likely identify you as a charismatic. Do you think Paul is a charismatic?

In this same vein, one could argue that verse 28 defines the basis for social progress over the past 2,000 years, but especially in the modern and postmodern eras.  Paul writes:  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.  Tim Keller, in his study guide (Galatians for You. 2013. Good Book Company. 92-93), observes that Paul has broken down three important barriers:  the cultural barrier (neither Jew nor Greek), the class barrier (neither slave nor free), and gender barrier (neither male nor female).  Do you think Paul is politically correct?

Paul’s comments about who is chosen probably got him in the most trouble. Verse 6 quotes Genesis 15:6: And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Abraham is not righteousness of himself, he is counted as righteous. Why?  Because he believed God’s promise of providing him an heir. Why is this remarkable?  Abraham was 100 year old at the time and his wife was 90.  This principle of justification by faith alone expressed here (v 11) and in Romans 3:20-27 was the foundation of the protestant reformation [1].  This is because time and time again parts of the church have erred in adding other requirements, especially cultural requirements, on believers beyond that of faith in Christ.  What cultural add-ons to faith can you identify today?

Does justification by faith alone mean that we can ignore the law?  Certainly not! (v 21). The law of Moses was given to restrain evil, to instruct us, and to guide us until we come to faith (vv 24-25).

Elsewhere Paul wrote:  But whatever gain I had [under law], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7 ESV).

[1]Martin Luther was nearly martyred for his faith at the Diet of Worms; but his own journey of faith began with understanding of this passage (Roland H. Brainton. 1995.  Here I Stand.  New York:  Penguin Group.  49-50, 146-149).

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Galatians 2: Jews and Gentiles

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

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 (Galatians 3:28 ESV).

Are you led by the spirit?

One of the most striking things about the Apostle Paul is that he was led by the Holy Spirit.  Paul writes:  I went up [to Jerusalem] because of a revelation (v 2). In Acts 16:7-9, 14, we read that Paul was forbidden by the spirit to enter Bithynia and later had a vision of a man of Macedonia bidding him to come.  Following this vision, Paul entered Macedonia where he met a woman named Lydia in Philippi—an unlikely place to start a church because it was a Roman city.  Yet, the Philippian church was not only established, it became one of Paul’s strongest supporters.

Why would the spirit lead Paul to Jerusalem and into open controversy even with Peter over the relationship between Jews and Gentiles?

Paul’s ministry was on the line.  He writes:  set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain (v 2).  Paul was teaching that salvation was available to anyone—Greek or Hebrew—through Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ alone (v 4).  Others were teaching that one needed to become a Jew and obey the law of Moses in order to become a Christian (v 16).

After Paul shared his teaching with church leaders in Jerusalem, it was resolved that Paul and Peter taught the same Gospel.  However, Paul’s ministry focused on Gentiles while Peter’s focused on Jews (vv 7-9).  Paul was reminded, however, that he needed to remember the poor—which he was happy to do (v 10).

The Jerusalem discussions did not, however, settle the problem.  Peter and others, such as Barnabas, were pressured to adhere to Jewish dietary regulations (vv 12-13).  The pressure must have been great because Peter himself was one of the first to argue for evangelization of Gentiles and he personally witnessed a Gentile Pentecost in Jappa (Acts 11:1-18).  For this reason, Paul felt compelled to confront Peter openly during a visit to Antioch about his backsliding on the question of eating with Gentile converts (vv 11-14).

What was the heart of Paul’s concern?  Our salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, not through obeying the law of Moses (v 16).  Our faith is in Jesus alone; our faith is not in Jesus plus other things.

While the Holy Spirit may lead us into different ministries and we must all care for the poor, Christian unity lies in Christ alone.

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Galatians 1: Christ Alone

Christ_alone_01062014By Stephen W. Hiemstra

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14 ESV).

How do you introduce yourself?

Paul’s first statement after his name is to say he is an apostle and, not through men, but through Jesus Christ (v 1).  In other letters, Paul refers to himself either as an apostle or as a slave (δοῦλος) of Christ.  Moses is likewise referred to as a slave of the Lord (מֹשֶׁ֖ה עֶ֣בֶד יְהוָ֑ה (Joshua 1:1 WTT))

Paul’s introduction as an apostle is surprising because in the Greek apostle (ἀποστολικός BDAG1010) means messenger, envoy.  For most of the apostles, the term referred to disciples who were specifically appointed by Jesus and had served Jesus for three years (Mark 3:16-19).  By contrast, Paul never knew Jesus during this ministry and never followed him.  Quite the contrary, Paul persecuted the church (Acts 8:3). Paul’s commissioning as an apostle came through a vision of the risen Christ (Acts 9:4-19).  Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus led him to a dramatic change in faith and calling much like the prophet Ezekiel (2:1-3).  We might expect that Paul would brag, not about his call, but about his education under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

After his introduction (vv 1-2) and a blessing (vv 3-5), Paul gets down to brass tacks:  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6 ESV).  Paul basically accuses them of heresy and twice lays down a curse (ἀνάθεμα) on those that might preach it (vv 8-9).  Verse 6 accordingly sets up an important theme for the entire letter.  What is the “grace of Christ”; what is this “different gospel”; and how do they differ?  Paul then goes on to justify his authority to offer this critique—the focus of the rest of chapter 1.

Paul’s careful introduction of himself and his autobiography form an important foundation for the gospel that he presents latter in his letter.  His unusual credentials as an apostle called directly by the risen Christ, not by men (v 1), serves to initiate this foundation.  He then argues that the gospel of Christ is a revelation, not of men, but of Christ himself (vv 10-12).  Paul’s schooling as a pharisee (in this different gospel) and persecution of the church make it unlikely that he simply thought up a new doctrine (vv 13-16).  Neither was Paul taught by the Jerusalem church nor Christian leaders whom he only visited after 3 three years in Arabia (vv 17-20).  In fact, he was already preaching and teaching in Syria and Cilicia before he had any contact with the church (vv 21-24).  The point of this long biography is to reinforce the uniqueness of the gospel of Jesus Christ which Christ and Christ alone revealed to Paul.

How does your faith story affect the faith that you profess?

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Introduction to Galatians

Galatians_12312013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6 ESV).

What exactly is the grace of Christ and what is the Gospel?  What is this different gospel that Paul writes about?  Over the coming six weeks, I hope to explore what Paul has to say about these and related topics.  My purpose today is to provide some background for this study.

Authorship, Location, and Date.  No one disputes that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter (epistle) to the churches in Galatians.  However, since the nineteenth century, there has been a controversy among scholars as the location of these churches because the region of Galatia changed over time and included different ethnic communities.  In general, if Galatia refers to the southern part of Galatia, then the letter corresponds to Paul’s first missionary visit to the region (AD 49); if it corresponds to the northern part, then it corresponds to the second missionary visit (AD 53-57).

Other controversies revolve around lining up Paul’s trips to Jerusalem mentioned in Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 with corresponding verses in the Book of Acts.  Further disagreements arise in lining up the different passages where the region of Galatia is mentioned in the New Testament (NT).  These passages are:  Acts 16:6, 18:23, 1 Corinthians 16:1, Galatians 1:2, 3:1, 2 Timothy 4:10, and 1 Peter 1:1.  The details of these arguments are beyond the scope of this review [1].

Themes.  The scholarly debate over Galatians is spirited because the letter compactly states the core themes in Paul’s theology.  Topics addressed include the relationship between law and gospel and between Jew and gentile.  Answers to these questions help define the nature of God’s grace, the role of our faith, and, in effect, the scope of Christian freedom.  The brevity of Paul’s letter forces scholars to interpret statements made in Galatians in terms of Paul’s other letters and the scope of other authors in the NT.

Hermaneutics.  Hermes was the messenger god; hermeneutics is according the study of interpretation.  While there are many important schools of interpretation, three dominant interpretive views stand out: author, scriptural, and reader.  The author view asks:  what did the author mean to say?  The scriptural view asks:  when something is unclear, is there a clear statement elsewhere in scripture?  The reader view asks:  what does it mean to me?  John Calvin asked each of these questions and required also that interpretations consult the original languages of scripture—for example, Galatians was written in Greek.

Commentaries.  It is helpful to use a wide variety of resources in Bible study even if time and energy are limited.  I plan to use these commentaries:

Bruce, FF. 1982.  The Epistle to the Galatians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Hansen, G.W.. 1993. “Letter to the Galatians” pages 323-334 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letter. Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorn, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press.

Keller, Timothy.  2013.  Galatians for You.  USA:  TheGoodBook.

McKnight, Scot. 1995.  The NIV Application Commentary:  Galatians.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Of these, the Keller commentary is the most accessible to a lay reader.

I also make frequent reference to the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (Novum Testamentum Graece, 2012, Munich:  Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft) which includes an excellent concordance.


[1]If you are interested, check out:  (Hansen 1993, 327-328).

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