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Reflections on Galatians

Saint Paul

Galatians 5

Nothing is more heartbreaking than to see brother set against brother. In our country, one of our darkest hours was the civil war when brother literally took up arms against brother. It took generations for the bitterness of that war to go away. But perhaps the strangest civil wars of all are the wars that go on in churches, where brother is turned against brother in a church that claims to follow the prince of peace. I suppose it should be no surprise to find that the seeds of such fratricide were sown in the church right from the start.

Jesus made it clear enough that He was taking his disciples out into new paths. Consider what he told them in Matthew 16:13 ff. See the notes there and on the link to Luke 5:33 ff. dealing with old wine in new bottles.

The problem in the first century church was that a large number of disciples did not understand this. They tried to fit the teachings of Jesus, his resurrection, his messiahship, into the old structure of Judaism. This was a structure that believed the law was a means of salvation and of justification before God–the definition of legalism. The problem with legalism is that it leads inevitably into division, because no two people are going to interpret the law the same way. And it also leads to a situation where a few people try to control the rest. A classic example of this is found in the story of the healing of the man born blind (John 9).

I know it is a little hard to grasp, but the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisess was a matter of power and control. So what happened on the day of Pentecost when 3000 people were added to the church, many of whom were Pharisees? In the months that followed, a kind of Christian Judaism developed among a portion of the early church. This conflict developed into a significant rift in the early church. When this Christian-Judaism reached the churches of Galatia, it split them wide open. It was a classic illustration of what happens when you try to contain new wine in old wine skins. So when Paul here writes of liberty, he is talking about liberty from men who wanted to get them under their thumb.

(Galatians 5) Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. {2} Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. {3} For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.

By "the whole law" here, I think Paul means oral and written. The whole legal package of Judaism.

{4} Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.

This is the issue. Not whether the law still defines what sin is, but whether or not the law can justify us–make us righteous when we have sinned.

{5} For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. {6} For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. {7} Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? {8} This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. {9} A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. {10} I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be. {11} And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. {12} I would they were even cut off which trouble you. {13} For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. {14} For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. {15} But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. {16} This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. {17} For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. {18} But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. {19} Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, {20} Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, {21} Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. {22} But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, {23} Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. {24} And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. {25} If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. {26} Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.

And this is what all the power plays in the church boil down to.

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