Beyond the Lectionary Text: Galatians 3:1-14

by Chelsey Harmon

Comments and Observations

In the letter to the Galatian church, Paul pleads for the believers there to cling to the faith that unites them and reject what others have argued as being the most important component to knowing who one is: keeping the law, especially the parts of the law that easily identified the community of God (i.e. circumcision).

Ben Witherington III’s commentary, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, argues quite effectively that Paul is using a well-known rhetorical system that leads the audience to deliberate one course of action’s superiority over another’s. In this case, Paul is hoping to convince the believers in Galatia that they already know what they need to know— that they have already experienced the truth that they are being tempted to doubt— and that they are being led backwards in matters of faith, not forwards into fuller maturity.

To do so, Paul uses the Galatians’ own past experience, then appeals to the greatest patriarch in history while also appealing to the Scriptures. Immediately following in verses 15-18, Paul attempts to connect the whole situation with a then modern parallel. At each stage, Paul’s intent is to show them that any turning from faith as the foundation of life with Christ in the Spirit is a fool’s errand.

Paul even calls them foolish. Foolish and the victim of someone’s evil eye! “Just tell me one thing,” Paul says, “when your life with Christ began, did it start with keeping the law or hearing and believing that Jesus is Lord? When God came to you, was it because you did something, or did you simply receive the Spirit by believing what you heard? Why are you making this more complicated?”

The thing that Paul cannot understand is how the Galatians could fall for this trap. When he first presented the gospel to them, they understood it so readily it was as though they themselves witnessed the events of the cross in person. They heard the good news and they believed it. The Holy Spirit’s presence came and made its home in them and none of this happened because they were keeping a set of rules for the religious life. They did not earn this gift from God, they simply received it. As a result, their lives changed as they lived for God as the Holy Spirit had its way in them.

Paul reminds them that the Holy Spirit is at work in their midst is not contingent on their lawkeeping. It seems as though there are new voices in the community telling them that it is important to curry God’s favour by keeping his Mosaic law. But Paul tells them, “The Holy Spirit was at work because you believed in Jesus!” and not because they pleased Jesus with their actions. Righteous living results from believing in God, it does not precede it.

You can’t help but feel like all of this is a circular argument. Paul certainly talks in circles about it. But that’s because the link between faith and works/lawkeeping actually is circular. In both the Old Testament and New, faith and works are deeply connected: “faith without works is dead,” “the righteous shall live by faith,” belief with life-service is superior to law-abiding actions without a faith behind them. Faith circles round and produces works; works point back to a genuine faith. What Paul is saying here and elsewhere is that the circle has to start somewhere, and it starts with the gift of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ.

In the new covenant of Christ, it is Jesus who justifies, not the law. And if it’s Jesus who justifies us, then what is required of us is faith and trust in him. Paul goes on to argue that faith in God has always been the starting point— even when the law and circumcision were instituted under the old covenant. Allegorizing from Genesis 15 and 17, Paul argues that Abraham was righteous in God’s eyes because he believed in God even before the covenant marked by circumcision was instituted. Therefore, Abraham is the example of faith and righteousness in relationship with one another: because Abraham was faithful, he kept God’s law. Because Abraham is the father of faith to whom the promise to bless the nations was made, the Gentiles in Galatia who exhibit faith are the seed of Abraham, connected to the old through Jesus and his new way to the Father.

Furthermore, no one can keep the law perfectly- we all, including Abraham, fail. The law curses us with our shortcomings but Jesus fills us with his righteousness. To live freed from the curse by Jesus, we must believe and have faith that that’s actually true.

Let’s face it, using a list of rules as your guide for everyday living rather than basing your life out of a relationship with a living God (i.e. living within the mysteries of faith which requires you to be in conversation with him) can be appealing because it’s seems simpler. “But!” Paul wants to scream, “to do so is to subject yourself to the very thing Jesus died on the cross to save you from doing!” Christ endured the curse of the law so that we wouldn’t have to live under its unending and unyielding yoke. We will never measure up to the holiness standard espoused in the law of God. But Jesus did. He did so for us, and he chose to take on the undeserved curse so that we could be free of it. Instead of living to the law, Jesus made it so that we could live for him. The law is a sorry, unsatisfying substitute for the God who offers himself, Father, Son and Spirit, through the gift of faith. When the Galatians first heard it, they got it. But now others feel threatened by this new way and are trying to shake them of their firm foundation. Paul’s working even harder to convince them otherwise.

Cultural Context Points