Beyond the Lectionary Text: Galatians 5:1-15
by Bill Sytsma
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.
In Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem gathered to make decisions about new Gentile believers. Paul and Barnabas had been teaching that new believers did not need to observe the Old Testament custom of circumcision in order to faithfully follow Christ. Some, however, had a different perspective, and taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation (see Acts 15:1).
After some discussion, the church leaders in Jerusalem decided to send a letter to new believers in Antioch to confirm what Paul and Barnabas had taught them. The Church leaders also told the new believers that they should not eat food that had been sacrificed to idols, blood, nor the meat of strangled animals. They were also to refrain from sexual immorality.
The book of Galatians picks up the argument that is discussed in Acts 15. Throughout the letter, Paul’s frustration is evident. In chapter 2 he describes a confrontation he had with Peter over the issue of eating with Gentile Christians. At the end of chapter 3 he makes it clear all who are baptized in Christ are children of God, without distinction. The unity of the early church was not found in the observation of Old Testament practice, but in the grace of Christ that makes all of His children heirs of the promises made to Abraham.
In Galatians 5, Paul is addressing fellow believers who are teaching that circumcision should be a requirement for new believers. Paul’s is obviously angry about this teaching. He does not wish for Gentile Christians to be treated as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. He was adamant that the followers of Christ avoid a kind of hierarchy based on observing ceremonial customs. Membership in God’s Kingdom is not something that is earned, but given by Christ.
I. Circumcision is part of the old law that enslaves us. (vss. 1-6)
a. If you are circumcised, Christ is no value to you. (2)
b. Circumcision obligates you to the law. (3)
c. Faith expressed in love is more significant than circumcision. (6)
II. Those who insist in circumcision lead others astray. (vss. 7-12)
a. You have been hindered from the truth. (7)
b. A little leaven spreads through the entire lump. (9)
c. I wish the false teachers would emasculate themselves. (12)
III. Christ’s grace frees us from to love one another. (vss. 13-15)
a. You have been called to freedom. (13)
b. The law calls us to love. (15)
Freedom and Slavery (vs. 1) – Paul’s disgust with those who insist on new believers being circumcised is not based on the inconvenience and pain of a difficult procedure. Rather, he makes the point that this insistence will plummet Christ’s followers into the same patterns of legalism that the Pharisees had fallen into. Paul understood this kind of legalistic pattern. He had been a Pharisee who had persecuted the church. He recognized that the grace of Christ had freed him from the futile attempts to keep all of the laws in order to be pure and acceptable in God’s eyes. Circumcision would not make anyone pure in God’s eyes, and would only lead new believers into the problematic patterns of reaching for a goal that was unattainable, and missing the grace that God had offered in Jesus.
A Little Yeast (v. 9) – Paul compares the teaching about circumcision to yeast, which affects the entire batch of dough. This comparison could be meant in one of two ways. Paul could be indicating that those who insist on circumcision are like a little yeast, and their teaching could stir up trouble for the entire group. Paul might also be indicating that insisting that circumcision is necessary for new Gentile believers could act as a little bit if yeast that could corrupt the entire teachings of the church, eventually leading to slavery to the law.
Emasculate Themselves (v. 12) – Paul’s frustration becomes evident as he expresses a wish that those who insist on circumcision would make a mistake in the process of circumcision. This is probably best viewed as an indicator of Paul’s level of frustration, and not as an example of civility in disagreements. Paul is not afraid of harsh words in this debate.
Serve One Another in Love (v. 14) – Circumcision had been the mark that identified Abraham’s descendants as God’s covenant people. Paul suggests a new mark that seems to be consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7, “nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean,’ …rather it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” Christ’s followers were supposed to be recognized for the way they lived, rather than for the customs and ceremonial laws they had observed.
When we preach on Paul’s letters, we will often find instructions that seem to be immediately applicable to our contemporary circumstances. Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians, “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18); can be easily understood and applied to Western Christian living in the 21st century. When Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians to “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11); contemporary Christians can see the value of encouraging each other, too. We understand that the instruction “he who has been stealing must steal no longer,” (Ephesians 4:28) is not so culturally bound that it is difficult for us to understand and apply in our churches today. We recognize that sexual immorality is a temptation that faces Christians in our day. We believe that the value of encouraging words spans many different cultures. We know that stealing is not acceptable in any cultural context. The words of the New Testament in these cases are not too difficult to apply to contemporary circumstances.
There are other sections in Paul’s letters that require a little deeper understanding of the cultural context. When Paul gives instructions about eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8), we probably need to help listeners understand the significance for our day, because it is likely that very few people in our congregations have struggled with the temptation to eat sacrificial food. Similarly, when we preach on Paul’s words about circumcision in Galatians 5, we should recognize that the concept of circumcision is probably not viewed as a covenantal sign of unity with God’s people. For many of our listeners, circumcision might be seen as an elective medical procedure for newborn baby boys.
In order to help our listeners grasp the significance of this text, we will want to explain the principle of the text (and Paul’s argument) in order to apply it to our contemporary circumstances.
Although the statement, “We do not need to be circumcised,” is true and consistent with our text, it probably does not offer much guidance for our listeners. We need to help our listeners understand the teaching of this text; and give some guidance so that they grasp how those truths affect our lives today. It is helpful to craft clear statements that reflect the truths of this text, as well as some pastoral guidelines for applying those truths. Below are some suggestions:
Galatians 5 teaches us:
1. Ceremonial laws cannot make us righteous.
2. We can nullify the power of the cross if we believe that our religious practices can enhance our standing in God’s Kingdom.
3. The grace of Christ is our sole hope for salvation.
4. Demonstrating love is the most concise summary of the law.
Pastoral Guidelines for Application:
1. The teaching of Galatians 5 helps us consider the expectations we place on new believers. We should not expect new Christians to understand the practices, habits, and standards that are understood by those who have been participating in the life of our church for decades.
2. Galatians 5 might cause us to consider whether we have created standards for righteousness that could potentially enslave us and cause us to devalue the work of Christ on the cross.
3. Galatians 5 is almost certainly NOT teaching us that Christ’s followers shouldn’t have to endure inconveniences. Paul is not arguing for the end of circumcision because is a painful procedure. Furthermore, Paul often faced difficulties such as prison, accusations, and persecution because of his faith in Christ.
Bill Sytsma is the pastor of New Life CRC, Highland, IN.