The Ten Commandments

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

“And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:1-2).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Why, as Christians, do we need to know about the Ten Commandments? The short answer is because Jesus tells us to “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18).. Reformer John Calvin reinforced this point and said that the law had three chief purposes: to teach us about God’s will, to aid civil authorities, and to guide our daily lives (Haas 2006, 100).

Still, as postmodern people, we have contempt for law. We live undisciplined lives, ignore posted speed limits, and cheat on our taxes. We want to be independent and in control of our own lives. We do not want anyone, not even God, telling us what to do. The Ten Commandments remind us that we remain rebellious sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

Our rebellion against God is called sin. Sin takes at least three forms: falling short of expectations (sin), breaking a law (transgression), and not doing something we should do (iniquity). I sin when I try to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, but fail to do so consistently. I transgress the law when I murder someone. I commit iniquity when I ignore (dishonor) my parents in their old age, leaving their care to my siblings when I am able to help but refuse to. Although these three words are used interchangeably, these distinctions remain helpful.

In our rebellion, the law comes as an act of grace pointing us the way back to God. The Ten Commandments can be thought of as God’s healthy boundaries for life in the Christian community and as an example to the world.

So what is helpful to know about the Ten Commandments?

The Bible tells us that God is the Lord of lords and uses covenants to define His relationship with us. A covenant is a treaty or agreement outlining the duties and obligations of the ruler to the ruled. The Bible outlines covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David and the New Covenant with Christ. The Ten Commandments are part of the covenant with Moses.

Jeremiah prophesied the coming of a new covenant that would be written on our hearts (Jer 31:30-31). Matthew’s Gospel describes this new covenant with five explicit commandments given by Jesus: Matt 5:17-20, Matt 17:9, Matt 19:16-21, Matt 22:36-40, Matt 28:18-20. Two of these have already been mentioned: obey the law (Matt 5:17-20) and the double love command (love God; love neighbor in Matt 22:36-40).

Why do Christians need to understand the Ten Commandments? The Ten Commandments help us to understand what it means to be God’s people and to follow Christ’s commandment to obey the law.

References

Haas, Guenther H. 2004. “Calvin’s Ethics.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93–105. Edited by Donald K. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Ten Commandment

Also see:

Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

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Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms, Part 2

Gordon J. Wenham. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Most Christians have a longstanding, often personal relationship with the Psalms. 

In my case, when I went to Germany as a foreign student in 1978, I carried a New Testament with Psalms—the only book in the Old Testament (OT) that I spent much time with at that point in my life. Later, I took an active interest in the entire OT and added a Psalm to my daily devotions.

As a chaplain intern at Providence Hospital in 2011-2012, when I asked patients their favorite Bible verse, six out of ten answered Psalm 23. Pentecostals often answered Psalm 91, but many times mentioned even more interesting verses. Chances were good, however, that these other verses were also Psalms.

Introduction

In his book,Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, Gordon Wenham notes that the Psalms and Isaiah are the two Old Testament (OT) books most often cited in the New Testament and as many as 121 out of 150 Psalms are cited or alluded to (181-182). Examples cited by Wenham include:

  • Luke’s Gospel amplifies the Psalter’s concern for the poor and women (182). 
  • The New Testament focuses on the righteous suffering highlighted in the laments that pervade the Psalter (185). 
  • First Peter has been described by some as a sermon based on Psalm 34 (186-189). The first three chapters in Paul’s letter to the Romans draws heavily on the theology of the Psalms, particularly regarding the nature, effects and consequences of sin (193).

He takes other examples from the Book of Hebrews (194-197) and Revelation (197-201).

In part 1 of this review, I gave an overview of Wenham’s argument. In part 2, I will look more closely at three of his arguments: the focus on law, reading the psalms, and comments on the precatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 cited in part 1.

Law in the Psalms

The relationship between the law and the Psalms is highlighted as a theme for Wenham’s book in its title: Psalms as Torah. Torah is the Hebrew word for law, but it also means instruction, as Wenham reminds us (7). Using the poetry of the Psalms to teach the law is a bit like using stained glass windows to teach the illiterate stories from the Bible in years past or, today, coming out with a comic book edition of the Bible for the functionally illiterate.[1]

Wenham argues his case for the law being found in psalms first through the structure of the psalms. The Psalter divides into five books just like the Pentateuch and the first psalm (1) and the longest psalm (119) both focus on law. In the first sentence of Psalm 1, we read:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”(Ps 1:1-2 ESV)

Likewise, we read in Psalm 119:

“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Ps 119:1)

In both topic sentences, the first word is blessed and it is related to delight and walking in concert with the law, which is an obvious source of emphasis to a postmodern reader. 

Less obvious is why Psalm 119 is highlighted in the Hebrew requires some explanation. Psalm 119 stands out in the Hebrew for three reasons: It is the longest psalm, it is an acrostic psalm, and it is found in the middle of book five. The first two reasons are related—an acrostic psalm has strophes beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—aleph to tau. The last reason—being in the middle—is the point of emphasis in a chiastic literary structure. Think of a chiastic structure as a journey where you go (ABCD), then return by the same route (DCBA), and the purpose of the journey is focused on your destination (D). Each of these three reasons highlight the importance of Psalm 119 to the overall purpose of the Psalter and Psalm 119 focuses on the law.[2]

Wenham make two other interesting points about the law in the psalms. First, the law appears in the Psalms often stated in positive terms rather than prohibitions found in the Ten Commandments. Instead of talking about adultery, for example, the psalms emphasize the blessedness of family. Second, Psalm 119’s acrostic structure pictures the law encompassing widely God’s will for humanity, not narrowly, as found in the Ten Commandments which anticipates Jesus’ interpretation of the law, not the compliance attitude adopted by the Pharisees.Just like Psalm 1 talks about delighting in the law, Psalm 119 expands rather than contracts the Ten Commandments.

Reading the Psalms

Wenham offers numerous pointers for reading the psalms, many times simply in passing, in part, because the ethical instruction provided by the psalms frequently is unconscious (1). Many psalms, for example, are written in the first person, addressed to God, and report on events that are outlined very briefly. The fifty-cent theological word that describes this sort of writing is laconic—using very few words—which my Old Testament professor repeated in practically every lecture.

Wenham summarizes speech act philosophy defining these words:

  • Performative acts—words that change our status, like a marriage vow.
  • Commissive acts—words that offer a promise.
  • Expressive acts—words that name an emotion.
  • Declarative acts—words that affect a change.
  • Assertive declaration acts—assertions that carry the weight of a declaration (65-67)

In prayer we often do more than one of these acts, a kind of exchange of vows with God. Noting the use of the first person, the kinds of acts, and the poetic and laconic language highlights the highly personal nature of the psalms and their use in prayer.

Justice and Pecatory Psalms

Pecatory psalms stand out in the Psalter because they are prayers that wish someone ill. Many times critics of the Bible will highlight these psalms in their complaints because they are decidedly not politically correct.

Wenham notes:

“Wheras modern readers see judging primarily as condemning the guilty, the Old Testament views judging primarily as an act vindicating the weak and exploited.”(113)

This point highlights the change in social position between the average first century Christian and today’s Christians in the United States. People routinely experiencing persecution will look on justice differently than those insolated from persecution. Thus, reading the pecatory psalms requires a change in perspective.

Let’s return a minute to Psalm 137, cited in part 1 of this review:

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”(Ps 137:8-9)

The writer of this psalm is a Jew living in exile in Babylon. When female slaves are taken, their babies are typically murdered so the psalmist here is evoking lex talionis, a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exod 31:23-25; Lev 24:17-21; Deut 19:19-21) or, in modern parlance, the punishment should fit the crime. Wenham notes that the psalmist does not suggest that they will take revengence themselves—punishment is left to God. In other words, the psalmist is simply asking for justice that has up-to-this-point been denied (112-113). 

If our postmodern sensitiivites have been offended by these pecatory psalms, it is only because we are accustomed to living in a relatively just society.

Assessment

Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is an unusually clear guide to reading and understanding the Psalms, which should be interesting to any serious believer wanting to deepen their faith. I suspect that scholars will be citing this work for a long time.


[1]Wenham notes that most ancient societies encouraged enculturation through memorization and use of music. Hymns, poetry, and songs are memory aids for a periods before the modern era when paper was expensive and people learned their scripture through memorization.

[2]The middle of the first book of the psalms, Psalm 19, likewise focuses on law. 

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2019

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Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms, Part 1

Gordon J. Wenham. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you have ever thought of the Psalms as mysterious, you are not alone. The structure and the content of the Psalms can mystify. While no one would quibble over the majesty of passages like:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”(Ps 19:1-2 ESV)

But what do you make of:

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”(Ps 137:8-9)

Postmodern readers are unlikely to hear such passages advocating child smashing as anything less than praying for God to commit war crimes. So, the Psalms clearly mystify us.

Introduction

Gordon J. Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically sets forth these objectives:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”(1-2)

Wenham goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).” (7)

This relationship between the Psalms and the Pentateuch proved interesting to me and motivated my purchase of this book.[1] 

Background and Organization

Gordon J. Wenham studied Old Testament (OT) at Cambridge University and has worked also at King’s College London, Harvard University, and in Jerusalem at the Ecole Biblique and the Hebrew University. He is the author of OT commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and numbers, and several other theology books.[2]

Wenham writes in ten chapters:

  1. Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms
  2. Critical Approaches to the Psalms
  3. The Psalter as an Anthology to be Memorized
  4. The Unique Claims of Prayed Ethics
  5. The Concept of the Law in the Psalms
  6. Laws in the Psalter
  7. Narrative Law in the Psalter
  8. Virtues and vices in the Psalter
  9. Appeals for Divine Intervention
  10. The Ethic of the Psalms and the New Testament (vii)

These chapters are preceded by several prefaces and an introduction. They are followed by conclusions, a bibliography, and several indices.

Memorizing the Psalms

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.”(57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

Assessment

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of Wenham’s argument. In part 2, I will look more closely at some of his arguments, especially the innovative form that law takes when presented in the Psalter. I will also go over his view on the precatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 cited above.

Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is an unusually clear guide to reading and understanding the Psalms, which should be interesting to any serious believer wanting to deepen their faith. I suspect that scholars will be citing this work for a long time.


[1]In seminary I did word studies in seminary to track this very relationship and found relatively few direct citations of the Ten Commandments or of Moses because some liberal scholars have alleged that the Pentateuch was a later development contrived by Israelite kings, such as David, to invent an ancient history that did not exist. Why? If Moses did not exist, he could not have authored the Pentateuch and various provocative prohibitions. Likewise, the miracles surrounding the creation of Israel, which liberal dispute, could not have been real. 

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Wenham.

Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Problem of Boundaries

 

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Undefended boundaries are an invitation to abuse and thievery. Whenever pain shows itself, we need to establish a new rule and defend it.

If our primary identity is in Christ, then we emulate Christ in all that we do, our duties in life are defined by Christ, and we act in all things expecting Christ’s return. Our boundaries reflect this life process both in our emotions and thinking.

The Good Samaritan

Cloud and Townsend (1992, 25) explain boundaries in these terms: 

“Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

Cloud and Townsend apply their concept of boundaries in interpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells this story in Luke’s Gospel:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back (Luke 10:30-35).

Why is this story about the Good Samaritan rather than about the Great Samaritan? The Samaritan did not walk on the other side of the road like the priest or the Levite, but he also did not drop everything and nurse the man back to health. Instead, the Samaritan focused on what he was able to do. Then, he delegated further assistance to the innkeeper and continued his trip (Cloud and Townsend 1992, 38-39). In other words, the Good Samaritan saved the man’s life and, still, displayed healthy boundaries.

A Personal Audit

Cloud (2008, 69) suggests that a good place to start working on boundaries is with an audit. The purpose of this audit is to measure where you spend your time, disconnects between time spent and personal values, and what personal issues contribute to the problem.  This method of analysis is reminiscent of what Miller and Rollnick (2002, 38) referred to as gap analysis—highlighting the discrepancy between present behavior and broader goals and values.

Christian Boundaries

The concept of boundaries sounds a lot like law which raises a deep theological controversy about the relationship between law and Gospel, particularly when Gospel is defined in highly licentious terms. In parsing this controversy it is helpful to recognize that in the Gospels the Pharisees are pictured presenting a narrow interpretation of law to make it doable while Jesus normally widens the interpretation making compliance impossible without God’s divine intervention. More generally, Jesus speaks about principles while the Pharisees speak about rules.

When law in the commandments are expressed in principle, sin is also a violation of the principle of love in relationships with God and with neighbor (Matt 22:36-40).  Matthew outlines Jesus providing five cases where Mosaic Law is enlarged by considering underlying attitudes rather than technical compliance:  murder, adultery, the taking of oaths, application of lex talionis, and love of neighbor.⁠1  Each is introduced with an expression:  “you have heard it said.”  The case of murder is illustrative:  

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matt 5:21-22).  

In other words, the act of murder starts with an attitude of anger.  It is, therefore, sinful to become angry for the wrong reasons because it leads to murder and, implicitly, violates the attitude of love.

In this context, it is clear that Jesus is not relinquishing the law or diminishing it in any way, as Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17) In this context, fulfilling the law implies a more stringent condition than the law, not a more lenient one, where three states of nature are possible: noncompliance with law (transgression), technical compliance (Pharisee position), and fulfilling the law (Gospel). Contrasting law and Gospel would be to compare the latter two states.

By widening the law, Jesus makes it obvious that we must make room in our lives for God and live within his healthy boundaries. The Ten Commandments cannot therefore be abandoned; mere compliance is an indication that we have not centered our lives on Christ. The point is not to try to become the “Great Samaritan,” but rather to lean on the Holy Spirit to guide on what to do and what not to do.

References

Cloud, Henry.  2008. The One-Life Solution:  Reclaiming Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success. New York:  HarperCollins.

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Miller, William R. and Stephen Rollnick. 2002. Motivational Interviews: Preparing People for Change. New York: Guilford Press.

1 Matt 5:21, 5:27, 5:33, 5:38, and 5:43.

Problem of Boundaries

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28. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webFather of Creation, Beloved Son, Spirit of Truth,
Bind our wayward hearts with your law; sing to us of your love. Gather our confused thoughts in your grace; center them on your truth. Separate us from evil influences, harsh temptations, and trials we cannot bear. Walk with us when the sun fails to shine, the rain draws near, and our paths become unclear.Sit with us while storms rage, our strength weakens, and our health flees. Guide us when our friends are distant and our troubles are ever near. Grant us strength for the day; grace for those we meet; and peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Galatians 4: Slave and Free

Pencils 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?

Questions

  1. How was your week? Did anything special happen?
  2. Who attended the Worship Workshop and would like to give a report?
  3. Do you have questions from chapter 3?
  4. According to Paul, how is a child like a slave? (vv 1-3)
  5. What does this analogy have to do with law? (v 3)
  6. What is the role of Christ? (vv 4-7)
  7. What is the “fullness of time” mean? What about “born of a woman”? (v 4)
  8. What is the argument—that was then; this is now—that Paul is making? What transition is he referring to? (vv 8-10)
  9. What is a transition? (beginning, middle, and end)
  10. What is Paul’s fear, as expressed in this rant? (vv 11-20)
  11. What is Paul’s argument here in verse 11?
  12. What is Paul’s analogy to Hagar and Sarah? (vv 22-31)
  13. How is the law like Hagar; how is it not? Why would Jewish interpreters be upset?

Galatians 4: Slave and Free

Also see:

Galatians 5: Healthy Boundaries 

Galatians 3: Law and Gospel 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Introduction to Galatians

GalatiansBy 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 in his letter to the Galatians.  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.

Footnotes


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

Introduction to Galatians

Also see:

Galatians 1: Christ Alone 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2zRkNMJ

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