Beyond the Lectionary Text: Galatians 5:1-15

by Bill Sytsma

Comments and Observations

Unity is often confused with uniformity. When every individual within a group has the same opinion, practices the same habits, and has the same preferences; unity seems to be natural. What happens, however, when individuals come from different racial, cultural, economic and educational backgrounds?

We can be tempted to believe that unity is achieved when there are no significant differences between people. To be fair, it is easier to feel close to people when we speak the same language, enjoy the same hobbies, and listen to the same style of music. The desire for these common points of interest becomes a problem when we turn them into prerequisites for community. When this dynamic happens within a community of Christ’s followers, we can create the impression that one must conform to the church community in order to receive the saving grace of Christ.

In the early church, the ability to be united became much more difficult when Christ’s apostles brought the good news of Jesus Christ to people who were not part of the Israelite community. For centuries, the laws of Moses and the stories of God’s redemptive work had shaped the nation of Israel. Abraham’s descendants had shared common dietary restrictions and standards of cleanliness.

When Gentiles started to join God’s community, the sense of unity was threatened. Some insisted that the new Gentile Christians had to observe the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, including the requirement of circumcision. Circumcision was more than just a community preference; it was a standard that God had required of Abraham’s family as a sign of the covenant relationship God had established with Abraham (Genesis 17).

In spite of this historical precedent, Paul takes a strong position in Galatians 5. He does not argue that the requirement of circumcision should be dismissed because it was inconvenient and painful. Rather, he argues that insisting on circumcision was creating a false barrier for Gentile Christians that contradicted the truth that Christ’s grace was sufficient to save.

Context

Outline of Galatians 5:1-15

Textual Highlights

Application in the Sermon