I told a story in the preview post about how I was not right. I made the stupid decision to smack my head against a beam. Maybe you’ve done very dumb or very bad things as well. My guess is that just about all of have at one time or another. Do you need to be made right? The truth is that we all need to be made right. And the good news is that we can be made right! Keep reading to learn how.
In the previous post, we learned that Paul in Galatians 2 brings up circumcision. To our contemporary ears, that might sound odd. Why is Paul talking about something so private in a letter to churches? Notice that Paul says in verse 5 that he and Titus did not give in to the false Christians, so that the truth of the Gospel might remain with them. That is a key point. The truth of the Gospel is opposed to slavery. The truth of the Gospel is in line with freedom.
So far, this might sound confusing. But stay with me. What have we heard thus far? That Paul is very upset, so he tells a story about Titus refusing to get circumcised, about false Christian spies, freedom in Jesus, and the true Gospel. How do all these seemingly unrelated details fit together? Paul doesn’t yet tell us. Instead he continues his story. In Galatians 2:6-10, he explains that while Peter was the apostle to the Jews, Paul was the apostle to the non-Jews, called Gentiles.
Then in verses 11-14, Paul tells us about a surprising confrontation he has with Peter! Before I read these verses, we need to know something about Peter and Paul’s differing reputations and status in the church. Peter is the #1 guy, the top leader in the church. Paul is the up and comer. He’s the new kid with the sketchy background. In that culture, the clear power dynamic is that Peter is vastly superior to Paul. Given that power dynamic, it is possible that people in Galatia would be listening to the letter thinking, “Oh we know what’s coming next. Peter is about to put Paul in his place.” Look what happens. Read Galatians 2:11-14, and you’ll get a surprise.
Paul puts Peter in his place! Paul says, “Peter, what are you doing? You’re giving in to the false gospel of the false Christians.” Paul wants the readers of the letter to know beyond the shadow of the doubt that just because the top leader of the church, and some other high-level people like Barnabas, were led astray by the false Christians, it was wrong! Peter was wrong. Barnabas was wrong.
Think about this. Paul is publicly calling out Peter, the top leader of the church. This word would get around to the churches, as the letter was passed around and read and reread from house church to house church. We’re still reading it today, for goodness sake! That’s how important this teaching is for Paul, he is willing to publicly talk about his boss in a negative light.
So what did Peter do that was so bad? Paul says that he used to eat with Gentiles, the non-Jewish Christians, but when some people from the circumcision group showed up, Peter was afraid of them and changed his tune. There’s that word “circumcision” again. Now we learn there was a circumcision group? What in the world is that?
It might sound super odd, but if you are Jewish, it makes sense. The Jewish Law, given by God to the people of Israel thousands of years before, required that Jews circumcise their baby boys on the eighth day of their little lives as a sign that those boys are part of the covenant with God. We read about this in the story of Abraham in Genesis and in the story of Moses in Exodus. If an uncircumcised adults wanted to become Jewish, they would be circumcised too, as a sign of their covenant relationship to God. To be Jewish, you had to be circumcised.
But Paul was a missionary to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. Like many of the people in the churches in Galatia, they weren’t Jewish, so they didn’t grow up with this religious ritual of circumcision. That became a huge issue for the Christians who did have a Jewish background, and it leads to the major question Paul addresses in this letter: Do Christians need to follow the stipulations of the Old Testament Law? If you answer “Yes,” then those adult Galatian men will need to be circumcised. If you answer “No,” then you are saying that Christians have freedom from the Law, which, to the Jews, sounds super disrespectful to God.
The circumcision group answered “Yes.” Paul clearly answered “No.” Peter started out answering “No,” but then changed his tune when the circumcision group were around. What is the right answer? That’s what Paul gets to next in verses 15-16, some of the most important verses in the letter. Read those verses, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
In these verses, Paul uses two more very important words, “faith” and “justify.” He says it is not the law, but faith in Jesus that justifies us. Let’s examine these two words.
What is faith? The people who started my church in 1968 though it was so important they put it in our name, Faith Church. And for good reason. Faith is that important. But faith is not just believing ideas about something. That is only part of it. We ask a person, “Do you believe in God?” and they might respond, “Yes, I believe God exists.” Or they might even go so far as to say, “I believe Jesus is God and that he was born, lived, died and rose again.” Those are important ideas to believe.
But that is only part of faith. You cannot be a Christian by looking at a doctrinal questionnaire and checking all the right boxes. You also need the second half of faith. You need the part of faith that shows that it is real faith. You know what I’m talking about? The actions. Your life choices show what you really believe. That’s what Paul is talking about when he talks about faith. We need both parts of faith.
Paul also writes that no one is justified by observing the law. Instead we need to put our faith in Jesus. It is faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection that justifies us. What is justification? The word Paul uses means “to be made right.” That’s why this same word is sometimes translated “righteousness.” Another word that helps me understand it better is “rectification.” When you rectify a wrong, you make it right. Paul is saying that before God, human attempts to keep the Law can never make a person right. Jesus can though.
And that brings us to one of my favorite verses, which we’ll discuss in the next post.