Saturday, January 30, 2010

Galatians Journal: Chapter 6, verse 12

Galatians 6:12 Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.

Paul sums up the points he has made throughout the book as he begins to close the letter. He returns to the two main intertwining themes of the letter – both are essential to emphasize and equally important. First, the point for which this letter has usually been recognized throughout the ages – following the law and obeying rules doesn’t make us right with God, but only faith in Jesus Christ, is the theological issue. But also the second theme, that we cannot define ourselves by the outward things – race, ethnicity, culture, tradition, or other social practices – is a social issue. But both go hand in hand.

The word translated here as “compel” is rendered as “constrain” in the King James Version. It implies something done by force, or by threat. It certainly implies bondage. If you go back to Galatians 2:3, Paul noted, using the very same word, that at the time he submitted his ministry to the elders at Jerusalem (all of whom were culturally Jewish) the elders did not “compel” his Greek born companions to undergo circumcision. This is hypocrisy on the part of the Judiazers (see the next verse) and the bondage Paul had warned the Galatians to avoid back in Galatians 5:1.

And what was the Judiazer’s motivation for all of this? To avoid persecution because of the “cross of Christ?” What does he mean by that?

If you only consider the theological issue – in short, the Law versus the Promise (see Galatians 3:6-25), this seems confusing. The Judiazers recognized Jesus as the Messiah! They were nominally Christians. Any general persecution of Christians would have included them. Even by insisting that the Galatians become culturally Jewish, they would not have escaped being ostracized by the Roman authorities or the general Greek/Pagan society these churches existed in – the Jews were viewed with the same sort of jaundiced eye aimed at Christians. No, the real motivation for the Judiazers to “compel” or “constrain” their Gentile brothers in Christ was to avoid being persecuted by Jews. The Temple authorities were generally opposed to Christianity (see Acts 5 & 8, and Paul’s “ministry” prior to his conversion – Galatians 1:13). A way to appease them and stay in their good graces would be to prove that the Savior was a “true Jew,” and that his followers were also. The concept is really no different than the attempted blending of ethnic cultures in American communities. Those who take inordinate pride in their own culture, or who fear or dislike the people of the “new” or unfamiliar culture will seem to be “tolerant” but they wil insist on the new folks being “more like us.” Any difference is amplified. Resistance to the assimilation is ostracized.

That is the issue – the Judiazers wanted to prove to the “folks back home” that Christians (in particular Gentile Christians) were culturally acceptable. The circumcision argument can be presented as a theological point. But at the core of the matter, its an issue of RELATIONSHIP. “You can’t be one of us unless you are like us” Outwardly like us. Its no different than many of the denominational rifts in America today. The theological issue is usually immaterial – a minor quibble, a “disputable matter.” (see Romans 14:1). However, the cultural ramifications become amplified. “That’s not a real church, they don’t worship in the same way as us.” It is as insidious a heresy as the circumcision issue. Because when we define ourselves by a cultural standard, rather than by the promise – by the sacrifice of Christ – we are the same as the Judiazers in the book of Galatians. This is the great sin of the American church.

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