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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Galatians 2:16

The last post ended with the promise to take-up the notions of “works of the law” and of “faith somehow related to Jesus” as competing options by which to be justified.  Justification has often been understood as the rough equivalent of “to be declared sinless or pure.”  To understand Galatians, it is unfortunately necessary to “unlearn” what we have been taught in order to hear Paul authentically.  The reader is urged to see “justification” and “righteousness” (the words are close-kin to one another) as expressions of a covenant relationship.  And I have earlier posted on this blog a series of lessons that explain covenant relating.

God is righteous, by which we mean that God is wholesome and reliable in the way He relates to His covenant partners.  It is a solemn responsibility and an uncommon privilege to be selected as someone’s covenant partner—especially God’s!  One does not grant this kind of personal access to everyone met on the street.  It is reserved for people who accord the relationship with the highest honor.  So when God, the righteous God, admits covenant partners, He “justifies” them.  He declares them to be acceptable to join Him in covenant.

I’m thinking now of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.  A king sends out invitations, basically to anyone who will accept and respond.  When the first round of invitations doesn’t yield enough responses, the king sends out his servants again.  They are to carry the call of invitation not only to the thoroughfares and main roads, but down the alleys and side roads, with the goal of bringing-in anyone and everyone.  At the event, a fellow is spotted not wearing clothing appropriate to the occasion.  He is unceremoniously cast out.  The message is that the New Covenant relationship carries a wide invitation, but a narrow acceptance limited only to those appropriately attentive to the solemnity of relational responsibility.  Many are called, but few are chosen.

As Paul writes Galatians, the only people “justified” to be acknowledged as the people of God are Jews.  The rare exceptions in which Gentiles find acceptance is when they abandon their natural cultural and religious inclinations and bend in a Jewish direction.  They become “proselytes” who embrace Judaism and the God of Israel.  This understanding ensured that the Jewish “social map” was organized around the Torah, the covenant-law of Israel.  And for some time, for long centuries in fact, that social map was valid.  Jews were right to be exclusive, and to blur the lines of fellowship and justification would necessarily dishonor God.  The lesson here is not that exclusivity in the covenant was wrong, that people should be more accepting, or—in modern American perspective—should be more “multi-cultural.”

The careful marking of “one of us” from “one of them” was essential and appropriate, until Jesus died on the Cross and was resurrected to newness of life.  That Person, that Event, changed everything.  It necessitated a re-drawing of the longstanding social map.  On the Cross, Jesus demonstrated most thoroughly and most dramatically and most meaningfully the “faith” or “faithfulness” that He embraced all through His life.  The word “faith” (or “belief”) carries several meanings.  We who are children of the “scientific age” tend to use it as in the question, “Do you believe in Bigfoot?  Or, in UFO’s?  Or, the Loch Ness monster?”  In this sense, belief in Jesus means that one accepts as historically true His existence, perhaps even His miraculous activities and rising from the dead.  But “faith” can mean more and different things:

--trust.  When a friend makes a promise and you trust the friend to keep it, you are showing faith.

--faithfulness.  When one partner responds to another in a way that honors him/her and that honors the relationship itself, they are being faithful to one another.  They are “keeping faith” or “being true” to one another.  Btw, when Jesus declared, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32), doesn’t it seem more likely that His meaning was not, “You will be set free when you realize these things are actually true.”  Instead, Jesus offered “freedom” to those who embrace the “truth” that one partner keeps for another partner.  The joys of faithful relationships unleash a freedom from a tortured inner spirit and psychology.

It is said that every potential meaning of the word “faith” is exhausted to the fullest by a martyr.  One who would accept death before dishonoring God and the relationship shared with Him demonstrates “faith(fulness).”  When Jesus took the Cross and martyrdom, He exhausted faith of its many meanings and ran each meaning to its fullest expression. 

In Ben-Hur, Charleton Heston is fastened by each hand to two teams of horses that pull in opposite directions.  Jesus faced similar stress when He held faithfully to God with one hand, and held faithfully to people with the other.  The demands and resulting stress were such that He would be forced to let go of one or the other, or find Himself destroyed and pulled apart.  Jesus might have been expected to continue a faithful grip on the Father God who had always been faithful to Him, while releasing His grip on sinful, faithless people.  Jesus would have been spared, and that would have been fair and just.  But, expressive of pure grace and breathtaking mercy, Jesus also refused to let go of us.  Those two obligations, met full-strength, forced Jesus through a trial in which not only His face, but His honor, was spat upon.  Refusing to let go then forced Jesus through whips and scourges, until His back was laid bare.  He might have quit, might have let go His grip, at any point.  But He held even when the resulting responsibility pulled His spirit from His body, killed Him, on the Cross.  That is “faith”, bearing meaning and carrying definitions that leave nothing short.

Let us return to Paul in Gal. 2:16.  “…yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”  The first option here (which Paul denies flatly), by which one might find justification, is “by the works of the Law.”

Even though this possibility meets an unequivocal denial from Paul, we have to be sympathetic to the concerns of those who demand it.  Jewish people faced a struggle to maintain their traditional identity, religion, and faith that forced many of them to die as martyrs.  When Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean region under the domination of Greece, the various sub-cultures now dominated were forced to accept Greek culture and religion.  This was called Hellenization, and it was compulsory.  Of course, the Jewish people resisted and clung stubbornly to God and His Law.  And, they suffered terribly for keeping their allegiance and faithfulness.

It was important to identify “one of us” from “one of them” in such situation.  To identify themselves as faithful Jews to one another, they used “works of the Law.”  These were acts of compliance to Torah, the Old Covenant Law and each worked as a “badge” of identification.  The “works of the Law” consisted essentially of three Law-keeping obediences:


--kosher-food diet.

--keeping Sabbath.

Think of the way Amish modes of dress and comportment serve to identify themselves with other Amish, and also distinguish them from others (“the English”).  The standard clothing styles are like uniforms, identifying their “soldiers” from enemies in the cultural and religious clash.  The “works of the Law” likewise enabled one to distinguish insiders from outsiders, the faithful from the corrupt.  And, as we have already said, these identifiers were meaningful and valid, until Jesus died in faith.

So, if not “works of the Law”, how might one be justified to be included among God’s people (and so find a seat at table)?  The phrase “by faith in (Jesus) Christ” can be translated from the Greek, and English Bibles traditionally and almost universally get it wrong.  The phrase can also be translated, “by the faith(fulness) of Jesus.”  In other words, justification comes not because we believe in Jesus, but because Jesus himself was faithful.  It is His faith, not ours, that brings justification.

Put another way, justification comes through the action of God rather than through the action of people.  God was acting “in Jesus”, even through His crucifixion, to bring a new way by which people might find acceptance.  This translation is finally being brought up in new Bible translations, like the CEV (Common English Version).  Accepting it means that we accept the startling conclusion that Paul, nowhere in Galatians, presents Jesus as the object of human faith.

Of course, our faith is still essential once we accept the “faith of Jesus.”  What is required is that when we consider “saving faith” or “the faith that saves”, we should allow ourselves (or force ourselves, contrary to what we probably have always been taught) to think first of the faith of Jesus!  In other words, to think first of the Cross.  It is here, and in Him, that we find the faith that is of such exhaustive quality that it saves us.  And then, after this consideration of Jesus, we might consider our own faith that is responsive to His.

It is curious that the phrase “faith(fulness) of Christ” occurs in Paul’s writings only seven times, and it usually is coupled with a clear reference to human faith.  His faith and ours are conjoined (which is what we should expect in a conversation regarding covenant relating).  The seven places are Romans 3:21, 26; Gal. 2:16 (twice), 20; 3:22, and Phil. 3:9.  In the following quotations of these Scriptures, the bold text will show human faith, and the other references will be re-translated to the faith(fulness) of Jesus:

--“But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through [the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ] unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction” (Romans 3:21-22, ASV).

--“yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through [the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ], even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified [by the faith(fulness) of Christ], and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal 2:16, ASV).

--“and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through [the faith(fulness) of Christ], the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil 3:9, ASV).

In each of these three references, Paul is speaking about the basis for our justification/righteousness.  And in each case, he conjoins the “faith of Jesus” with the faith of a Christian.  We will say more about this joining or “marriage” between His faith and ours later, but for now it is enough to see that for Paul there must be a re-drawing of the social map.  The necessity is obvious for anyone who understands the Cross.

The new social map will allow Gentiles to be accepted as “insiders.”  The old map did not.  And usually, that old map was drawn in the minds of Jewish people.  It became visible through who was, and who was not, allowed a seat at table.  And it also became visible in the Jerusalem Temple, where courts separated by boundary walls replicated the social map of Judaism.  The Gentiles (with surprising allowance of diversity) were allowed to enter the Temple grounds, but were restricted to their own area and were forbidden to enter the court reserved for Jewish men (Jewish women had their own court).  On the wall was a posting that declared just how serious the social map was regarded:  “No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the barrier around the sanctuary.  Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”  Jews are insiders; Gentiles are outsiders, and the barrier between them is solid.

But the map was being redrawn.  Some insiders would now be regarded as outsiders, and some outsiders now found acceptance.  When the Cross is made the new organizing center (instead of the Torah), Gentiles find a place inside.  They are justified or declared righteous.  Paul described this erasing/redrawing by making explicit reference to the Temple barrier:

“Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:  and he came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh:  for through him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father.  So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:11-22, ASV)

You can bet that when Paul sees Jesus as the “chief corner stone” of this new fellowship, that bring both Jews and Gentiles inside the people of God, he see Jesus in such exalted and vital position by virtue of His “faith.”  This is the new, and now the only, means by which a person may be justified.





Saturday, December 14, 2013

Galatians Two (vs. 11-16)

In 2:11, we encounter the famous showdown between two apostles, Paul and Peter (Cephas).  And again, if even they conflict, who are we to think we are above it?  What is crucial is to carefully note the fundamental issue and not let go of it as the conflict moves toward resolution.  The issue is "table fellowship."  It is about who, on the basis of common Jewish scruples (based on Torah/the Law), is able (or not able) to eat with whom???

It is also significant where this argument is located.  Antioch is famous for two things.  By the way, there are two places named Antioch.  The one here is Syrian Antioch, the one closest to Israel.  It is famous for being the first place at which disciples of Jesus were called "Christians."  And, it is famous for being the location of the first church that blended into a single fellowship both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  Though we may scarcely raise our eyebrows at this, given our historical and cultural position, this was a monumental accomplishment!  It was so unprecedented that the "mother church" in Jerusalem sent an investigator to look-in and report-back.  His name was Barnabas, and he appreciated and approved of what he found at Antioch.  For whatever reason, he left here for Tarsus, the hometown of Saul (Paul), and brought him to Antioch.  Paul was a new Christian who, without a doubt, struggled to find a place inside the Christian fellowship that he had even recently persecuted.  In his official role in Judaism, Paul had imprisoned and even killed Christian Jews (like the martyr Stephen).  Now Paul and Barnabas are found at Antioch, and how interesting is it that they are joined by none other than the apostle Peter, who has the distinction of bringing the first "raw Gentile" (Cornelius) through a Christian conversion!

Paul confronts Peter with the charge of hypocrisy.  Previously, Peter would eat (share fellowship) with Gentile Christians.  In Acts, we recall that Peter's conversion of Cornelius came only after a three-times-repeated vision in which food animals notoriously outside of the "kosher" dietary limitations are set before Peter, and he is commanded:  "Kill and eat!"  Peter, like any good Jew, refuses, again and again.  But finally the message attending the vision is that he should, no longer, consider "unclean" what God has, now at last, pronounced to be "clean."  The message is two-fold.  The kosher food laws are now abrogated and taken off the books (recall that Jesus had settled this when he declared defilement to originate, not with what one might eat, but with whatever evil proceeded from the human heart.  Easing dietary restrictions was only part of the revelation; the other half of the message is that "unclean people" (again, unclean in reference to Jewish limitations) were now to be regarded as "clean".  That means that Gentiles are now fit to be "insiders" that take their place in fellowship with God's Jewish people! 

Peter understood all this, and the evidence is his conversion of Cornelius.  He preached the Gospel of Jesus to the Gentile household, and baptized them.  But, suddenly, Peter withdrew himself and would no longer eat with Gentiles who were insiders to the Christian fellowship.  Paul rightly perceived hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was taken-in by it!  What caused this reversal?  Certain men were sent from James in Jerusalem (just as Barnabas had been sent earlier).  These men were Christians, Jewish Christians, who still believed that the central organizing focus of God's people was the Torah, as it had been for centuries for the Jewish people in the theocratic nation of Israel, and as it now continued to be (they thought) for God's people in the church.  They were willing to admit Gentiles into the fellowship, but only insofar as they respectfully embraced Judaism.  Essentially, a Gentile could be accepted if he/she first became a Jew.

Paul takes careful aim with his first rebuke of Peter:  "But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Cephas before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest as do the Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, how compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" (Gal. 2:14, ASV).  Here Peter had set aside Jewish scruples and gave a place at his table to Gentiles.  In Jewish perspective, this was "living like a Gentile".  But now, to refuse such dinner guests is not only a social rejection, it implicitly carries pressure.  If the Gentiles, who formerly shared table with Peter, want to ever again take a seat at the table then they must comply with Jewish restrictions.  They would have to "live like Jews." 

Vs. 15 presents the "social map" marked out when Torah is the organizing feature.  It was the map, indicating insiders and outsiders, as recognized by Law-observant Jews.  The Gentiles were located in the sphere marked-out for "sinners", and this would then locate Jews in some different sphere, marked perhaps by "holiness" or "cleanness" or "righteousness."  The conflict arises because Paul does no longer accept this social map.  He once did, but no longer.  Paul now has a new map.

The key topographical feature on the competing "maps" is "righteousness" or "justification" (both English words stem from the same, identical Greek root).  You may have to set aside what you have been taught about these words, and may have to learn to think of their meaning in a new way.  What Paul is communicating is the basis on which a given person (Gentile or Jew) may "rightfully" or "justifiably" take his place as an insider among God's people (this has implications for the place then taken at table).  By tradition accumulated over centuries of history, a Jewish person would "justify" only those people located as God's on the "social map."  And since that map was organized around the Law as its focus, that meant only "Torah-honoring Jews" could be justified.  If a Gentile should seek inclusion, they would have to become one of those.

Paul used to think in these terms also, but since Jesus had been nailed to the Cross and resurrected, Paul could no longer do so.  What God did in Christ Jesus was so significant that, for anyone who understood it, it would mean a re-drawing of the social map.  The Cross had to become the new center, the new focal point, the new organizing feature that determined insiders and outsiders.  It was the new means of "justification."  Notice the contrast Paul offers:  "yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." (Gal 2:16, ASV).

We may need to change our thinking and change the definition of words that we have accepted.  Since the Protestant Reformation in the 1500's, "works" have often been understood as "works of merit" or "human accomplishments" that might be held up to God to earn one's salvation.  After all, this was the way Catholics in the days of Martin Luther used the word "works."  And ever since then, the common assumption is that Paul faced exactly the same "legalism" or attempts at "self-righteousness" that Luther faced in medieval Catholicism.  He did not.

Studies of the Judaism that existed in the times of Jesus and Paul (the era of "Second Temple Judaism") simply was not legalistic, in these terms.  Jews did not try to accumulate deeds that were moral or religious to "justify" themselves to God.  If you are thinking that this is what Paul argued against, you will not read Galatians.  You will mis-read Galatians, and never understand what Paul was saying.  By the way, the studies of Judaism that are now changing our thinking on these matters is called "the new perspective on Paul" and was touched-off by a scholar named E. P. Sanders.

What Paul meant by "works of the Law" and by its opposite "faith somehow referenced to Jesus" will be the subject of the next post.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Galatians Two (vs. 1-10)

Galatians Two (part one)

Paul is in the middle of telling his personal history, which demonstrates the impossibility of receiving his apostolic gospel message from any human source, especially from the apostles or other leaders (together viewed as “pillars”) of the Jerusalem church.  There is a conflict raging, and the issue may pit Paul against Jerusalem.  That would put Paul at a disadvantage, first, because Paul was not one of the Twelve apostles who walked with Jesus during the incredible three years of His messianic ministry.  Paul will deny this inferiority on the grounds that his gospel, no less than that preached by any of the Twelve, was sourced directly from the Lord by means of revelation.  A second disadvantage might come against Paul if any can successfully demonstrate that Paul gets his message or his authority from Jerusalem.  In such case, Paul would be obligated, if there is some discrepancy, to go back to Jerusalem and to concede to them.  As we enter Chapter Two, Paul has demonstrated that his time in Jerusalem totals 15 days over 17 years, that he met only with Peter (Cephas) and James (the brother of Jesus), and that he had been working his gospel message in active ministry before any of this.

Now, 14 years after the first visit, Paul makes a second to Jerusalem.  He takes with him Barnabas and a Gentile (uncircumcised) Christian named Titus.  Barnabas is important because he had been an emissary from Jerusalem to Antioch, where he was sent to investigate the mixing of Gentiles and Jews in Christian fellowship.  And, it was Barnabas who sought-out Paul and brought him to Antioch.  Titus is even more important.  As an uncircumcised Gentile Christian, he is a living example of the result one might expect after Paul’s gospel message is preached.  He is “Exhibit A” for the case that Paul wants to present at a meeting with the top-tier authority in the church established by Jesus.

Paul attends this meeting in response to a revelation.  This would seem to be the episodic sort of direction that Paul sometimes received, and not the revelation (mentioned in 1:12) that first brought to Paul the message that he was to preach.  It is important to note that, in this meeting, Jerusalem is not dictating to Paul and looking to see how he measures up.  He is the one presenting to “those who were of reputation.”  The authority of the Jerusalem leaders was recognized within the church, but Paul is positioning himself to discount that authority if it should deny the validity of his gospel.  Paul knows its source, and thus its validity.  Any discrediting of his gospel thus implies a fault in the critic(s), even if they possess uncontested authority from people.  Still, Paul is worried at the possibility, past or present, of “running in vain.”  This should not be understood as if Paul were toying with the possibility, after all, that his gospel message might have been flawed.  Rather, Paul understands that those who are potential opponents in this conflict are his brothers.  They belong to the same team.  And should a rift between them be indicated, it would mean the team members were working against rather than working with each other.  This would have meant “running in vain.”

The outcome of the meeting is that Titus leaves just as he arrived—uncircumcised Christian.  The Jerusalem leadership did not compel him to go under the knife to keep his status as an insider to the Christian community.  He was accepted, as is!  This, in itself, is a demonstration that Paul’s gospel has been validated, not faulted, by the top authority in Jerusalem.  However, a third group attended this meeting.  Besides Paul’s company and the Jerusalem leaders, there is a group of “false brothers” who were brought in to “spy out the freedom to be had in Christ Jesus.”  It looks suspiciously as though the meeting has been sabotaged, that someone has set Paul up for a confrontation.  My guess is that the instigator here was James.  He is identified in 2:12 as the one who sent a delegation to Antioch, and Paul would have also considered them to be false Christians.  In fact, they seem to be the ones targeted by the curse attached to preaching a “different gospel” in 1:6-9.  They are Jewish Christians who, since they believe the Law/Torah is still the identifying center for the true people of God, believe that compliance with the “old covenant” is binding upon Christians, even if they happen to be Gentiles.  And compliance was bound up primarily in three “works of the Law”:  circumcision, kosher food requirements, and keeping Sabbath. 

Paul resisted their pressure and saw it as a threat to the truth of the gospel.  It is important to attend to the issues of “slavery” and “freedom/liberty” that first surface here, for they begin a theme that flows through the letter.  Having just emerged with Titus intact, Paul refuses to credit Jerusalem with making any improvements on what Paul brought to the table.  The quality of his gospel was there without their help.  In fact, their esteem and prestige (in the eyes of people) offered nothing to Paul; nor to God!  Literally, Paul says that “God does not receive a man’s face.”  Recall in 1:22 that Paul declared himself to be “unknown by face” to the Judean churches.  And watch in 2:11, where Paul will oppose Peter “to his face.”  These face references are an interesting window to the culture in which this conflict takes place.

In spite of the interference of the false Christians, who would impose Jewish law on non-Jews, there is no rift between Paul’s side and the Jerusalem side.  However, they jointly agree to divide their labors in ministry into separate spheres of responsibility.  Paul will attend to Gentiles (the uncircumcised); Peter will focus on evangelizing Jews (the circumcised).  Both ministry endeavors advanced the purpose of the same Lord.  The team was intact, and working cooperatively for shared goals.  The cap on the validation of Paul’s gospel came when, as the meeting concluded, Paul and Barnabas were extended “the right hand of fellowship” from Jerusalem.  The only additional burden placed on Paul (and it involved not the slightest tweaking of his gospel) was that he attend to the poor.  Paul complied gladly, and his fundraising within his Gentile churches would bring famine relief back to Jerusalem.