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.

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