Day four of our 30 Days of Paul Reading Challenge brings us to Galatians 3 and 4. And like I posted earlier, Paul really lays into the Celtic followers of Jesus in Galatia! He calls them “irrational” (3.1, 3) and questions if their experience in Messiah was “for nothing” (3.4).
Paul has one question for the Galatian followers: “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by believing what you heard?” (3.2). This is a crucial question. Some people take this question out of context and make it about “works versus faith” (and it’s usually directed at our Catholic sisters and brothers because Catholicism is so misunderstood by a lot of Protestants). But that’s not what the question’s about. Paul’s very specific here. This question is about following the Law of Moses. The New Testament writers call Jewish people who were zealous for the Law but claimed to be followers of Jesus “Judaizers.” Today we might call this movement “Messianic Judaism.” It’s about people who believed and taught that to be a real follower of Jesus the Messiah, one must first become a Jew. In the first century, that meant being circumcised and keeping the Law of Moses.
For Paul, it seems that you can’t be both. You’re either in the body of the Messiah or you’re in the body of Moses (see 1 Corinthians 10.2). Certainly, as we’ll see in a moment, one could be a Jew and be in Messiah (Paul was, as well as most of the early followers of Jesus). But that meant something else in this context.
Perhaps a better way of saying it is one doesn’t need to be circumcised to be in the body of the Messiah. For Paul, a Gentile being circumcised and following the Law was a step away from Messiah and a complete misunderstanding of the Law. In fact, Paul stated that one who then followed the Law was under a curse (3.10).
How could he say that? Because, as he states elsewhere, the Messiah is the “goal of the law” (Romans 10.4). If one has reached the goal, why would one need to go back to the path that leads to the goal? Or, as he says here, “the Law became our custodian until Messiah so that we might be made righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian” (3.24-25; emphasis added).
In other words, the Galatian followers had already reached the goal; they were already in the Messiah! Of course, they didn’t reach the goal by taking the same path as the Jews but that didn’t mean they needed to go back and start the journey all over again. To Paul, that’s what it looked like the Gauls were doing. But the Galatian followers were already part of the family; they didn’t need to start over. As Paul says in the next verses:
“You’re all God’s children through faith in Messiah Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Messiah have clothed yourselves with Messiah. There’s neither Jew nor Greek; there’s neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you’re all one in Messiah Jesus. Now if you belong to the Messiah, then indeed you’re Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (3.26ff; emphasis added).
I sure wish today’s followers of The Way of Jesus would embrace this passage. It could bring such healing to the world. We all get there by different roads, but we’re all still “God’s children.”
In 4.1-11, Paul gives another example of what he’s trying to explain. He says that the child of a wealthy family — an heir to the throne, if you will — is no different than a slave when she’s still a minor. She’s placed under the care of custodians until a predetermined time set by her parents. When that time comes, she receives her inheritance.
Some of us do something similar today. If we have a child who received a large amount of money from a wealthy relative, the money’s placed in a trust fund until she reaches a certain age, say, 21 years old. She can’t draw against that trust fund until she turns 21. But on her 21st birthday, she can now access the trust fund and do with it as she wishes.
Paul’s point was that the Law was a custodian for the Jews until an appointed time — the coming of Messiah. But when the appointed time came, the Messiah came and the custodian’s no longer needed.
Likewise, the Celts in Galatia were enslaved to other things. But, because Jesus is the High King of all creation, the Lord of the Elements, they, too, were set free. To return to either way of living (first century Judaism or heathenism) would be to enslave oneself all over again (4.8-11).
Paul then makes some really bold statements that, if we don’t keep them in context, we’ll surely misunderstand what he’s saying. In the remaining part of the chapter (4.21ff), Paul tells a story about Sarah and Hagar, and their children, Isaac and Ishmael, respectively. In Paul’s telling of story, he equates the first century followers of The Way of Jesus with Sarah and Isaac, as people of the promise. Likewise he equates the first century Jews with Hagar and Ishmael.
Next he quotes Sarah and relates it to the situation between first century Judaism and first century followers of The Way of Jesus: “Throw out the slave woman and her son, because the slave woman’s son won’t share the inheritance with the free woman’s son” (4.30). Paul’s point is that, during the transitional period between the resurrection and the War of the Jews and the Romans, people needed to pick a side. As noted above, you’re either in the Messiah or you’re not. And if you’re not, woe betide you when the war starts!
Again, this is about the peoples of the first century — it’s not about people today. Paul was desperately trying to keep the Galatian followers from going backwards into Judaism. Paul’s biggest opponents were Jewish followers of Messiah who were zealous for the Law of Moses. In their eyes, the only way one could really be in Messiah was through physical heritage. Therefore, they were creating havoc within the communities of Paul who was all about freedom from the Law. In his mind, the Law was only a temporary thing (3.19-24) that led the Jews to Messiah. Since Messiah had come, the temporary thing wasn’t needed anymore.
So, how does all of this relate to us today? I can see a lot of parallels, especially in relation to our religious traditions. Can you see anything within your tradition that would be viewed as a “custodian”? Something that might be used to enslave others who didn’t quite “fit in” or don’t “do it” like everyone else? What steps can we take to remove these custodians and free G‑d’s people?
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC