Monday, February 8, 2010

Galatians Journal: Chapter 6, verse 18 (closing out the Book of Galatians, and my Journal!)

Galatians 6:18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

The last verse of the entire book/letter. We could pass over this quickly if we’re not careful – it just seems like a typical “doxology” style closing. Not bereft of meaning, but ostensibly not a lot of practical application. But if we dismissed this so easily, we’d be wrong – we'd miss Paul’s final sentence summary/emphasis on the major themes of the book.

Paul uses this type of blessing to sum up and close many of his letters (see Romans 16:20, Philippians 4:23, 2 Timothy 4:22, Philemon 1:25). But in the context of Galatians, this simple blessing serves to help sum up the entire message.

If we pick this simple sentence apart, there are 4 sections and concepts to emphasize. “Grace;” “Lord Jesus Christ;” “your spirit;” and “brothers.”

“Grace” The foundational concept for the book of Galatians. It is not what we do, or what we try to make ourselves into that brings us favor with God – it is the promise, it is God’s merit-less favor, His merciful kindness that unites us with Him, and nothing more.

“Lord Jesus Christ” It is Christ’s merciful kindness, His sacrifice that opens the gateway to our relationship with God. It is His Grace, and his Grace alone. Plus, he is “Lord.” He is the King of Creation, and the Universe. Each of us is part of his divine plan and purpose, and he lives us enough to have died for us.

“with your Spirit” The word here for Spirit is the same word used to describe the Holy Spirit – the third person of the trinity. This word can be used to describe the Spirit’s personality or character (as in “Holy” Spirit) or to emphasize His work and power (i.e. the “Spirit of Truth”), but the emphasis here shows that “Spirit” is not some depersonalized force – this is a Person, with a real and distinct identity, the co-equal of God the Father and God the Son. But because of the transformation of our lives in Christ – the “new creation” – He is now “our Spirit.” Paul has emphasized throughout the letter (Galatians 3:2-5; 5:16-26) that once we’ve been baptized in the Spirit, and filled by the Spirit, we “walk” with him in a supernaturally transformed life. Fulfilling the law was impossible (see Galatians 3:10-12), but now that Jesus has paid the price for the curse and the Spirit has filled and empowered us, we can walk in the fullness of the kingdom and please God. (see Galatians 5:16-18, 22-24).

“brothers” And here is the second major emphasis in the book of Galatians. The word for “brothers” here is a very powerful Greek term. “Adelphos,” a term we Americans recognize today from the name of the city of Philadelphia, the city of “brotherly love.” The ancient Greeks used this term to describe a sibling relationship, or in more general terms, to describe people of the same race or nationality. It might also be used to describe any fellow human being in the sense of a common bond of humanity (i.e. “the brotherhood of man”), it implies an extremely strong bond of affection. Paul, a Jew by birth (and an aristocratic one at that) was closely identifying himself with the ethnically Greek Galatians as if they were part of his family. Paul’s use of this term, I believe, is meant to show that ethnicity has no place in the Kingdom of God as far as acceptability to God or each other is concerned. The great heresy of the Galatian churches was as much ethnic prejudice as it was theological – the two concepts are inextricably wed to each other. The great sin of the American churches no different – we separate by ethnicity and culture as well. Many of us American Christians have correct theology to start – we believe in the promise, believe in salvation by grace, and recognize that obeying a set of rules will not make us right with God. But then we use a standard of cultural conformity to reject whole classes of other Christians, calling it “theology” when its really all about race, ethnic culture, or denominationalism. 1 John 2:9 say “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in darkness.” Many of Christians here in America today have a correct view of theology, but walk in that same darkness. I pray for a gift of repentance for myself and my brethren, that we may turn from our arrogance and pride in our ethnicity and traditions and embrace the truth. We need to grasp the essence of Paul’s message in Galatians if we are to be effective witnesses of the Gospel in the world today.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Galatians Journal: Chapter 6, verse 17

Galatians 6:17 Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

“Finally, let no one cause me trouble” Throughout this letter, Paul has been on the defensive. The heresy of the Judiazers threatened his whole ministry and purpose, as well as the purity and fundamental truth of the Gospel. The “trouble” I believe he is trying to head off is the concept of the Galatian Christians continuing to put him in a position where it is necessary to vindicate his apostolic authority (as he did in Galatians 1:11 – 2:10) and the divine truth of the message he brought to the Gentiles (as he did in Galatians 2:11 through 4:7). He is really concluding this letter by stating that the issues he’s discussed and the conclusions he’s reached are settled – there is no more reason to debate any of these concepts.

“for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” The word for “mark” here is the Greek word “stigma.” It literally means to make a mark on the skin through sticking or pricking. It’s a word that describes the process of tattooing the skin, or branding with a hot iron, or even cutting the skin so as to leave a distinctive mark. In Paul’s day, slaves, criminals and prisoners of war were tattooed for identification. Certain pagan religious cults, such as those in Egypt and Syria, also used tattoos to show devotion to their Gods or to designate that a person was set apart to serve the Gods. Tattoos were used to show to which master the person being marked belonged. The mark was a testimony to whom the person belonged, or to whom the animal belonged (the Greeks and Romans generally associated tattoos with barbarians, and branding was reserved for animals). The law of Moses specifically prohibited tattoos, so Jewish tradition allowed for other outward signs of a slave or servant – an earring, for example.

But this Greek word “stigma” had broad application, and could be used to describe any mark or puncture wound. Our modern English use of the word “stigma” is a direct descendant of the Greek usage. The mark placed on a slave or criminal denoted shame. Today, in English, “stigma” means something that serves to be a mark of shame or infamy, a stain, or reproach, especially regarding a person’s reputation.

So what did Paul mean by “marks of Jesus” that he bore in his body? I believe he meant it both literally and figuratively. Paul did bear actual scars and wounds that evidenced the persecution he suffered for the sake of Christ. He had been stoned (Acts 14:19), beaten (Acts 16:22, 2 Corinthians 11:25) suffered a variety of illnesses, some of which may have been the product of the stoning and beatings (2 Corinthians 12:7, Galatians 4:13-14). These physical “scars” marked him as a servant of Christ (see Galatians 1:10 and 2 Corinthians 4:10) in the same way the slave’s tattoo marked his as a bond servant.

But there is, of course, a deeper, spiritual meaning. Christ’s wounds were affected through the concept of sticking or pricking or piercing. Literally, in the meaning of the ancient Greek word, “stigma.” Thus, the ancient Greeks would have used the very same word to describe the wounds that crucifixion produced – nails driven through the hands (or wrists) and feet, the spear thrust into Christ’s side. Indeed, the Latin derivation of this word – “stigmata” – has been used to describe not just the wounds of Christ , but a cultic practice among Roman Catholic ascetics whereby the wounds of Christ ostensibly and purportedly supernaturally appear on the hands and feet of a person devoted to Christ. Paul certainly isn’t referring to that – but crucifixion is a major theme in this book – being crucified with Christ, dying to self, and walking in the newness of life in Jesus just as Christ rose from the dead. Paul noted that he – and all believers – are “crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). Paul had not been literally crucified (no actual “stigmata” in his body), but was one with Christ’s death and resurrection in the Spirit. Therefore, he bore the “marks” of Jesus in the Spirit. (Galatians 6:14). For while the word here for “body” literally means the human body, it can also be translated simply as “me.” I do think Paul is referring to literal marks on his body from the wounds he received in persecution, but we miss so much if we don’t also consider this deeper meaning.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Galatians Journal: Chapter 6, verse 16

Galatians 6:16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.

There is an interesting parallelism at the opening and closing of the book of Galatians. In 1:3, Paul blesses his readers with “grace and peace,” here, the third verse from the end of the letter, he blesses them with “peace and mercy.” As we discussed in the comments for Chapter 1, verse 3, the pronouncement of blessing there was connected to the common custom in ancient Greece to wish “peace” as a greeting, sort of the way we modern Americans say “Hello.” A greeting of “peace” was also common in Hebrew culture (“Shalom!”). Paul’s introductory greeting and blessing seemed like an effort to sort of bridge the two cultural forces that came together in the Galatian churches – recognizing the validation of the roots of each culture (Greek and Hebrew) while looking forward to a unified, newly forged cultural identity that has more to due with Christ than ethnicity.

Here, in 6:16, Paul does a similar turn, but the emphasis is on the other side. That is, in Chapter 1, the greeting felt more slanted towards a “Greek” sensibility, tempered for the Jewish listener. Here, its completely the opposite, and for good reason –

“Peace and mercy” By connecting this phrase with the concept of Israel at the end of the verse, this becomes more than just a benediction – the phrase “peace be upon Israel” was a cultural icon to the Jews. It was extremely common for a Jewish person in that time to bless others with the phrase “peace be upon . . . “ Jewish tombs often bore the phrase “Peace be upon Israel.” These same words were also the common closing prayer in services in Jewish synagogues – the formal benediction known as the “Amidah,” with its origins in Psalm 125:5 and Psalm 128:6. Paul is pronouncing the benediction and blessing upon the Christians of Galatia in the same manner as a Jewish Rabbi.

“to all who follow this rule” The Greek word for “all” here is translated in the King James Version as “as many as.” The poetic image of the latter is a more fitting translation, in my opinion. While it implies “everybody,” the English word “all” also seems to imply something finite. The Greek word means “as great as,” “as far as.” “whoever,” etc. It implies a number that is always increasing. God’s economy has no limitations, his love and mercy have no boundaries. Salvation is a gift given freely – everyone – “as many as” – will have the opportunity to make this choice.

“follow this rule” the word here for “follow” literally means to “walk.” As discussed in the commentary for Galatians 5:16, where Paul speaks of “walking” in the Spirit, the concept of “walking” with God was a distinctly Jewish cultural consideration, expressed in the Hebrew concept of “Halakah.” But the “Halakah” implied strict discipline and rigid conformity to the rule – the Greek word for “walk” used here implies an orderly walk, like soldiers marching in a line. As emphasized in Chapter 5, the “walk” here, the “rule” of discipline is one of freedom. The very covenant is following a rule, but one that is manifested in the freedom of Christ, rather than slavish devotion to statutes. When viewed in the context of Paul’s entire message to the Galatians, this blessing proves to be the perfect bookend, and exact opposite of the curse pronounced against the disasters of following the Law in Galatians 1:8-9.

“even to the Israel of God.” Paul has been arguing both impliedly and directly throughout the letter that defining our Christianity by culture and ethnicity is wrong. Circumcision is more than just an issue of obeying the rules, but in the context of the argument used by the Judiazers for the Galatians to submit to it, its an issue of ethnic intimidation. The “rule” Paul is encouraging us to follow is embracing a relationship with Christ, not of ethnic traditions. And while the Messiah comes out of Israel, and is the fulfillment of the Law, Paul puts that in proper context here.

In 1 Corinthians 10:18, Paul uses the phrase “people of Israel.” Literally, it means “Israel according to the flesh.” When we put together all of Paul’s arguments in Galatians, we see a picture of the people of God that has nothing to do with “the flesh.” The many churches of Galatia were made up of believing Jews and Gentiles of various ethnic groups, the new “seed” of Abraham according to Galatians 3:15-20, and the heirs of the promise according to Galatians 3:29 (see also Romans 9:6 and Philippians 3:3). Some bible scholars insist that by using the phrase “Israel of God,” Paul is limiting this to Christian Jews. But that doesn’t fit in to the overall context of Paul’s message. “Israel of God” means all believers, the spiritual heirs of Abraham, Jew and Gentile together. But by making his final blessing distinctively Jewish, he is both giving the right emphasis and proper place of honor to the Jewish people and culture (for after all, Jesus himself was culturally Jewish, and the Jews were God’s chosen people), but he is also putting the Judiazers in their place – showing the true purpose for the Law and the promise. Its ironic – at least to those who insisted on obedience to the Law in order to be a “proper Christian” – the blessing here has a distinctively Jewish flair that depicts a distinctively Jewish promise fulfilled in a distinctively Jewish Messiah that was always meant for all people – Jew and non-Jew alike.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Galatians Journal: Chapter 6, verse 15

Galatians 6:15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.

In a single sentence, Paul sums up his entire message as he closes his letter.

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” As we’ve emphasized throughout this journey through the book of Galatians, this concept works on two levels, and we know Paul intends his message to work on both of these levels because of the manner in which he makes this statement. Most Bible scholars down through the years have emphasized Paul’s arguments in this book that deal with salvation, or how a person is made acceptable to God. The focus is on approaching God by following the Law – i.e. obeying the “rules” or “being good” I order to earn our way into the good graces of God – as opposed to salvation by grace through faith – believing in and accepting Jesus as Messiah and Savior, and trusting in His sacrifice on the cross as all we need to be right with God. Paul spends some time in this letter focusing on this, and framing his arguments in this way (see in particular Galatians 3). This is the essence of the Gospel. Understanding this truth is what brought me in to the freedom of Christianity, after years of struggle thinking I cold somehow please or appease God by “being good.” Of course, this truth is foundational to our faith and is vital to understand what Paul is saying in this book.

But it’s not enough. If this were all Paul wanted to emphasize, he could have closed the letter by saying “It’s faith in Jesus that counts, not following the Law” or some similar conclusion. He frames his conclusion around a single, specific point of the Law. This particular issue had been the point of controversy in the Galatian churches, to be sure, but a single point nonetheless. The point he emphasizes is a concept that defines the culture of the people involved. As discussed in the last verse, circumcision was the very thing that seemed to separate the Greek and Jewish cultures here, or at least was the focal point, the rallying point for the differences. Jewish and Greek cultures were about as different as two cultural philosophies could be. Plus, the Jews had a chip on their shoulder. Over the centuries, starting with the occupation of the Alexandrian empire, the Greek culture had infiltrated Jewish life and eroded many of the traditions Jews felt were vital, to the point where the offense was so great that the Jews rebelled against their Syrian overlords (heirs of Alexander’s disintegrating empire) many generations prior to the coming of Christ. (This led to the Maccabean Kingdom and the origin of Hanukkah). The Jews were as offended by the intrusion of Greek culture into their society as modern African Americans are about slavery. So in Paul’s time, the irony was the Jewish people had come back to the Greeks with “the answer” – their Messiah, their Deliverer, in the person of Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham – now they were supposed to share this ultimate, amazing truth with the very people they hated, with the very people they viewed as having already sullied their own society. This was an intolerable concept to many Jews – an insult. What Paul is saying here is that the offenses of the past must be laid aside. Ancestry is irrelevant. So is any aspect of culture – race, mode of worship, language, food, music, dress, hair style, attitude – whatever is unique to a particular cultural group. Yet, these are the things that ostensibly divide Christians in America today. And just like the Judiazers of Paul’s day, modern American Christians will cloak their prejudices in theology or religion to make them palatable. In Galatia, the believers were told they needed to be circumcised in order to truly be a Christian. The underlying message was in order to be acceptable to God, one must be acceptable to the Jewish community. They were required to give up their Greek culture, and become like Jews. We do the same thing in American church culture. For example, the exuberance displayed in African American churches makes others who are used to a more staid, traditionally "European" church environment uncomfortable. Folks whose church experiences have always been to just follow the order of the service every Sunday find manifestations of God’s power in the form of the miraculous, charismatic gifts, or a prophetic utterance jarring. Or it works the other way around. The charismatic Christian will judge his more traditional brethren for sticking to a church program he has determined no longer works any more. It doesn’t matter what the setting is, or the particular issue. The modern day “Judiazer” will use scripture interpretations or simple pious platitudes to prove the other person’s culture is inferior, or worse, heretical. And worst yet is where the overall offenses of a particular cultural group are carried over and transferred to their church community. Our churches tend to be defined by our culture – there is really nothing wrong with that; we have to worship in a sense of familiarity and comfort – but when we amplify cultural differences through negative stereotypes and offenses, we get the same wrong and evil spirit that motivated the Judiazers.

For example, if I have an innate prejudice towards black people, their particular, unique cultural expressions will offend me, the same way the Greek culture offended the Jews in Paul’s day. I will then filter their church experiences and expressions through this narrow, hateful lens, and view those things as inferior or wrong, not just because they’re different, but because of my prejudice. This is a form of the Spirit of Anti-Christ, and the church in America needs to repent. Ultimately, what Paul is saying is that cultural differences mean nothing. The focal point needs to be Jesus. In fact, I believe the New International Version translation does us a bit of disservice here. The original Greek states that “In Jesus Christ, circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing (the King James Version gets it right!). We must emphasize Jesus.

“What counts is new creation.” These five words should be transcribed and hung as a sign, everywhere. On t-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards, on the refrigerator – everywhere. This is the entire message of the Gospel in a nutshell. “New creation” means just that. The life of the future world of perfection in heaven, the glory of being in the presence of the Lord forever had begun in the life of believers on earth NOW! Whenever Paul speaks of the new creation, he uses the present tense. (See Galatians 5:5-6 and the commentary there). This is reality – the old is gone, and Jesus has us completely new! (See 2 Corinthians 5:17).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Galatians Journal: Chapter 6, verse 14

Galatians 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

In the previous verse, Paul closed with a comment about the Judiazers boasting in their own achievements in convincing the Galatians, as Gentiles, to submit to the Jewish Law and Jewish cultural norms. To submit to the circumcision procedure – which amounted to surgery – would have certainly been a painful sacrifice. But even as a cultural concept, circumcision would have been a sacrifice for the Galatians as well. Greek and Roman society was horrified at the concept of circumcision, viewing it as the mutilation of the body. They would have seen it as sensible as removing your lower lip or nose, and because it involved the male reproductive organ, it was particularly distasteful – even shameful. But here, Paul takes the metaphor for cutting and wounding to what would be for both Jews and Greeks a new cultural low point. The Jews viewed circumcision as badge of honor, and ethnic identification. The Greeks viewed it as horribly barbaric and shameful. The Judiazers believed and argued that bearing the wounds of circumcision in their own bodies was pleasing to God, something to boast about. In this verse, Paul calls attention to a very different type of wound. Throughout the letter, he has emphasized the concept of the law as expressed in the act of circumcision versus the concept of faith as expressed in the promise to Abraham, fulfilled in Jesus. Here he connects the physical concept which expresses the fulfillment of the latter concept in our lives. The argument is transformed from law versus promise, or circumcision versus promise, to circumcision versus crucifixion. Paul advocates boasting in and relying upon a wounding that is much more severe than the minor surgical procedure of circumcision. And while Greek and Roman society viewed circumcision with disdain, as something shameful, the most shameful and painful form of death in the Roman world was crucifixion. The Judiazers were coercing the Gentile believers to undergo circumcision out of their own sense of fear of persecution and rejection by Jewish religious leaders – sort of like being afraid of bringing your boyfriend/girlfriend home to meet Mom and Dad because they are not from the same race or culture as your family. Paul doesn’t care about that – he will boast in the concept that is most shameful, because it is actually the greatest treasure.

The concept of “boasting” in God is found throughout Paul’s writings – e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:31 – as well as the concept of focusing on the cross. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, Paul states that “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” The word translated as “never” here in Galatians 6:14 is about as powerful a negative as once can use in the original Greek – the King James Version translates it as “God forbid.” Coupled with the word “boast,” the implication is to not boast in anything or anyone except in the crucifixion of Jesus. The word “world” here means everything that exists that is against God. See James 4:4 and 1 John 2:15.

Earlier in the book, Paul has already discussed how we experience Christ’s crucifixion in our lives – in Galatians 2:19-20, and 5:24. It is a process in our lives that has nothing to do with our performance, or what we do, that puts to death the sin nature in us and produces a “new creation” and spiritual fruit that comes only from an intimate relationship with Jesus. As Paul said in Galatians 5:25, there is no law against that, or that even can STOP that. It is not only the only thing we should boast or brag about, it is all we can rely upon.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Galatians Journal: Chapter 6, verse 13

Galatians 6:13 Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.

“Not even those who are circumcised obey the law.” Paul’s accusation against the Judiazers here is two sided. Obviously, he is pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of their position. Many of the Jewish converts to Christianity were not necessarily observant of every detail of the law of Moses. Recall Paul’s confrontation with Peter back in Galatians 2:14. Peter was no longer observing the Jewish dietary restrictions, and perhaps never had, living as a fisherman. Paul knew this. Yet Peter was trying to force these restrictions regarding eating upon the Gentiles, who had never had to observe them before. The ironic thing about all the arguments the Judiazers advocated – whether insisting on observing the dietary rules or submitting to the rite of circumcision – is that these rules were as much part of Jewish culture as they were an objective moral code. Paul points out in Romans 2:14-15 that the Gentiles often lived lives that reflected the essence of the law’s moral code, even though they did not “know” the law. It is possible to follow the spirit of God’s rules and not be circumcised, even outside of the concept of the argument of the law versus faith, or law versus promise. The Jewish traditions of Paul’s day even recognized this. Jewish culture begrudgingly accepted the concept of a “moral gentile.” But the insistence on following rules that were really completely outward and completely cultural – that was a matter of convenience for the Judiazers. All of the then, raised in Judaism from birth, had all been circumcised as infants. To require submission to the rule of circumcision in order to be a Christian was no sacrifice to them – it was nothing! They hid their cultural biases behind the concept of “it’s the rule.” What they were really doing was hitting the Gentiles – whom they culturally despised – in a soft spot – LITERALLY! Yet they themselves were not necessarily following the other points of the law. Think about it – the Judiazers insisted that every male Gentile convert to Christianity have the foreskin of his penis surgically removed, while their acceptance of Christianity meant no pain or change in their lives, yet, hypocritically, they were otherwise “ala carte” followers of the law – like Peter back in Chapter 2, picking and choosing himself what they did or did not want to follow in the law of Moses. (Sounds a lot like most evangelical Christians as they hop from church to church). This was covert discrimination, wrapped in the cloak of theology. The same sort of thing happens in American churches all the time. A church with strong ethnic connections wil have the same sort of inclinations – the German Lutherans, the Dutch Reformed, the Irish/Polish/Italian/Hispa
nic Catholic parishes. If you have the right last name, the right heritage, if we know your Dad or Grandad – you’re in. Faith or morality is secondary, at least at first blush. This is the great heresy of the Galatians as much as the concept of a works based theology – become “one of us,” and you’re in.

The second angle of Paul’s accusation meets the Judiazers’ arguments even where they might be insisting on total obedience to the law, and such insistence was completely sincere and without hypocrisy. Even those who sincerely try to obey the law in every respect do not “obey” the law, because perfect obedience is impossible (see Galatians 3:10-14). If we fall short in one area we fail completely. So, while I believe that Paul is focusing on accusing his enemies of hypocrisy, even those who were not so inclined could not stand up to the argument.

“that they may boast about your flesh” This is where the accusation regarding hypocrisy sticks. The word translated as “flesh: here is the same word Paul used throughout Galatians Chapter 5 which the NIV translated as “sinful nature.” This is NOT a Holy Spirit inspired concept here – not in the least. Back in Galatians 5:7-12, Paul used the “cutting” metaphor in the circumcision debate to sarcastically suggest that the Judiazers might emasculate themselves in their vigor. That imagery also plays out here – its as if the effort of the Judiazers to achieve some measure of Jewish cultural conformity in the Gentile members of the church has them figuratively presenting the foreskins of the Galatians as trophies to the Temple authorities. Paul spent the bulk of Galatians 5 arguing that the “acts of the sinful nature” need to be avoided by living or walking in the Holy Spirit. Here, he simply shows that the entire Judiazer philosophy is an “act of the sinful nature.” (Galatians 5:19). The “glory” of the Judiazers, that which they seek to “boast” about, is to force the Galatian believers to behave in the manner described in Galatians 5:19-21. That is the ultimate product of ethnic and cultural division within the church.