No smoking. No dancing. No movie-watching. Requirements for membership in the church where I grew up. Leaders meant to keep us from sin. But they implied people observing the ban helped make “real Christians”. Specifics in the 1st century Galatia churches differed, but in principle were the same. In today’s text the apostle Paul concludes his argument against justification by human rule-keeping . . .
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1). “Christ redeemed (or, set us free from) the curse of the law . . . ” (3:13) so we could be free from “a yoke of slavery” (futile law-keeping as the way to justification with God). “Stand firm,” Paul urges. “stubbornly resist, hold your ground against the slavery-yoke Judaizers want to hang on your Gentile necks!”
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (Galatians 5:2-4). With “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you” Paul asserts his apostolic authority and issues three warnings . . .
First, get circumcised and Christ will mean nothing at all for you. Second, get circumcised and you’re legally bound to obey all God’s laws. And, third, try to be right with God by law-keeping and you’re cut off from Christ and, like withered blossoms on a flower, you’ll have fallen away from God’s undeserved, unmerited love and favor.
But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:5,6). But, writes Paul, we who are justified by faith in Christ, are waiting by means of the Spirit the glorification in righteousness we hope for. We are justified now. Are being sanctified now. And will be glorified in the new creation.
That’s because joined to Christ the circumcised Jewish believers have no advantage and the uncircumcised Gentile believers have no disadvantage. Only one thing matters: faith—faith that shows itself through acts of love. Paul doesn’t mean faith plus love equals justification. He means the faith that justifies works by doing love. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law [circumcision being the identifying mark of the law covenant]” (3:13). ” . . . the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (5:14).
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be (Galatians 5:7-10). Using a race analogy, Paul ruefully reminds them how well they were running. But someone cut in and blocked them from continuing to obey gospel truth. God who calls you, Paul asserts, isn’t the source of this change-your-course persuasion! Like “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough”, the Judaizers are affecting the whole church. Yet, I’m confident because of the Lord, says Paul, the Galatians will focus on the gospel I preach and the confusion-planter will pay!
Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:11,12). Puzzling what Paul means by “if I am still preaching circumcision.” Perhaps the Judaizers argued, “Look, Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). And he doesn’t stop the Jewish tradition. He still is pro-circumcision. So get with it and get circumcised. Paul retorts: “If I’m preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? If I were preaching circumcision, the offense of the cross would be a non-issue.” (The Jews viewed a crucified Messiah as a shameful, offensive idea.) To say it another way, Paul is being persecuted by Jews for the offense of the cross.
Let’s not “biblically correct” Paul’s words in verse 12. He really means he wishes the gospel-agitators would slip with the knife and castrate themselves. Slash off the whole of the private parts. Paul is furious at the offense this heretical preaching brings to Christ and at the harm it ravages on Christ’s church.
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other (Galatians 5:13-15). Taking a deep, calming breath, Paul calls his readers “my brothers” and repeats their call to be free (see 5:1)—free from justification by law-keeping. But they must not use their freedom from law-keeping to “indulge the sinful nature”. (Justification and adoption by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we still possess a sinful nature as long as we’re in this body. We’re not to gratify its lusts.) Freed from the slavery of law, not freed to indulge our sin-nature, but freed to be servants in love to one another!
What’s going on in the Galatia churches? Chaos and division. The Judaizers are preaching “a different gospel”. Some are buying in, others aren’t. Think of church splits you’ve been part of or heard of. Believers become animals, “biting and devouring one another”. Paul calls them back to what the law in summary calls them to: love. And he couples that call with a terrible warning: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
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When we add rules and regulations to faith in Christ for justification, we make the cross valueless and puff up human pride. Rule-keeping is like meriting a chest of medals. (My medals are more than yours!) And pride breeds “biting and devouring one another.” Through faith in Christ we’re free. Not to gratify our lusts. But to serve each other in love. Only Christ can make that happen.
This is one reason right doctrine is so important. What we believe matters. And what we must believe and stubbornly stand firm in is the truth of the gospel . . .
We have been crucified with Christ and the old “us” no longer lives.
And the life we now live we must live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved us and gave himself for us.
We must not nullify the grace of God,
for if righteousness were through rules,
then Christ died for nothing.