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).

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