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Introduction to the Book of Galatians--Part 2

Jul 28, 2010

The purpose of Paul's letter to the Galatians was to address his historic dispute with the Judaizers. Some label it the dispute between Paul and James, but this is not quite accurate, because there was no real dispute between the two men themselves. Nonetheless, the Judaizers claimed James as the head of their faction in order to add weight to their position.

The difference between Paul and James was only a matter of emphasis, as evidenced by the epistle of James. Whereas Paul showed that Justification was by Faith alone, apart from works, James' epistle shows that genuine Faith is evidenced by works. In other words, if one claims to have Faith but has no change in his life, then the faith is bogus. I have no doubt that Paul agreed with him on that point.

But the Judaizers went far beyond the issues set forth in the epistle of James. James, it seems, led the Jerusalem Church more as a manager than as a doctrinal leader. He allowed people to think for themselves, even if they were wrong. More than that, he continued to practice Judaism in nearly every way as he had done prior to the cross. The only notable exception was that he maintained a staunch witness that Jesus was the Christ. James added the Messiah to Judaism and tried hard to reform Judaism so that it would include recognition of Jesus as Messiah.

Ultimately, James failed in his mission, though he was the most important intercessor that Jerusalem had. But even James could not prevent its destruction, which had been prophesied by Jesus Himself (Matt. 24:2).

Peter was caught in the middle of this dispute as well. He did not want to offend the Judaizers in the Jerusalem Church, yet he too agreed with Paul's teaching on the equality of the believers. After all, Peter had received a vision of the sheet full of unclean animals coming down from heaven, accompanied by the command, "kill and eat" (Acts 10:13). The lesson in this was not about unclean animals but about non-Jewish people: "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy" (Acts 10:15).

When the messengers arrived from the Roman centurion a few minutes later, Peter understood this vision. He explained it in verses 34 and 35,

(34) And opening his mouth, Peter said: I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, (35) but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit upon the non-Jews proved this to Peter (Acts 10:44-48). They were baptized the same day, even though none of them had been circumcised, as the normal requirement would have been if they had gone to the Temple for conversion to Judaism.

When Peter then reported these events to the Christians in Jerusalem, they criticized him, saying in Acts 11:3, "You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them." Peter then told his story, and verse 18 says,

"And when they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, 'Well, then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life'."

There were, however, Judaizers who apparently did not hear this testimony or simply did not believe the revelation. Many years later, Peter was in Antioch fellowshiping with and eating with uncircumcised believers. But when Judaizers arrived from Jerusalem, Peter (Cephas) withdrew and acted differently in front of them. Paul writes of this in Gal. 2:11-13,

(11) But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. (12) For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. (13) And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.

Peter wanted to be diplomatic, since his ministry was to "the circumcision" (Gal. 2:7) and did not want to offend them. But Paul was of an entirely different mindset. He felt it was absolutely imperative to break down the dividing wall and to place all men on equal footing. What grated him the most was the fact that Peter had been given specific revelation of the truth of God's impartiality (Acts 10:34), but he was afraid to stand upon that Truth. And Barnabas, too, who had already preached the Gospel with Paul on their first missionary journey, joined the hypocrisy.

Paul was incensed by this and stood strong against the faction of the circumcision. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Paul nearly single-handedly tore down the dividing wall in the Church, though this revelation had been given specifically to Peter. Peter was fearless in so many areas, but in this particular issue he was quite timid and fearful.

Given the historic nature of the conflict between these two Christian factions in the first few years of the Church, it is little wonder that the book of Acts focuses so much upon this issue. It starts with the day of Pentecost, where "proselytes" are specifically included in Acts 2:10 among those who heard God speaking in their own language. Peter then followed up with a sermon about the Spirit of God being poured out upon "all flesh" (Acts 2:17).

Then we read of Philip, who went among the despised Samaritans to preach the Word. They too received the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17) without the benefit of circumcision. Philip then explained the Word to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:27), who too was baptized. This particular event fulfilled the very passage that he had been reading in Isaiah 53. That passage actually began in Isaiah 52:13, and verse 15 says, "Thus He will sprinkle many nations."

The entire record of the book of Acts is designed to prove that God is impartial in His dealings with all nations. It is designed to help break down the dividing wall that was anchored in the minds of the Jewish believers. This was the great issue of the first forty years of the Church. During that time, Paul stands alone in the dispute, with James, Peter, and even Barnabas willing to let him take the heat whenever these viewpoints clashed.

This is the historic context for Paul's epistle to the Galatians. If we do not understand its historic setting, we may misunderstand the letter, thinking that Paul was focusing upon other matters that are more peripheral. But as we will see, the central issue was whether the Old Covenant was still in force, or if it had been replaced by the New Covenant. These covenants were represented by two forms of circumcision: physical and heart. Hence, the issue was also whether or not physical circumcision was necessary for salvation (justification).

This is the "law" issue that Paul was discussing. Paul had no problem with the law as a revelation of the mind of God. The issue was whether or not one's vow of obedience (as Israel made in Ex. 19:5-8) could save a person, seeing that no man could keep such a vow. Any man could be circumcised in the flesh, but this did little or nothing to make him righteous in his character. Hence, the law itself spoke of heart circumcision (Deut. 10:16; 30:6), which shows that physical circumcision was only a type of the real circumcision that God required.

Physical circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant and its offer of salvation to all who vow obedience and actually perform their vow perfectly. No man could fulfill such a vow, and so no man has ever been saved by the Old Covenant, regardless of his good intention. Paul shows that justification has always come through the New Covenant and its heart circumcision.


This is the second introductory part of a series titled "Galatians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Galatians


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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