Paul writes as an apostle who has been called by God through the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. "Grace and peace," Paul begins, "from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us out of the present wicked age as our God and Father willed." Paul joins in this simple phrase an important word within Greek thought, which is translated into English as grace, with a central word in Hebrew scripture, which is translated into English as peace. In this phrase, therefore, he affirms both the Greek and Hebrew understandings of the Gentile and Jewish members of the church in Galatia.
Paul admonishes the Christians of Galatia for turning away from the gospel that he has preached to them in order to follow "a different gospel." Clearly, Paul is struggling against a movement within the church that is undermining his ministry to the Gentiles. He tells the Galatians to ban anyone "who preaches a gospel other than the gospel I preached to you." The threat must have been substantial for Paul to speak so harshly of other Christians who have a different view of the good news. Paul says that it is a matter of defending the gospel he received "through a revelation of Jesus Christ."
Paul reminds the Galatians how, as Saul, he sought to defend Jewish teaching and tried to destroy the church until God revealed "his Son in and through me" so that he might to preach Christ among the Gentiles. Moreover, Paul describes how he visited with Peter (often identified in the New Testament as Cephas, his name in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples) and James, the brother of Jesus, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. James and Peter, Paul says, confirmed his ministry to cities around the Mediterranean Sea. Fourteen years later, Paul writes, he returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and with Titus, a Greek Christian, and there he reaffirmed his calling to bring the gospel to the uncircumcised (Gentiles), even as Peter (Paul claims) had been called to bring the gospel to the circumcised (Jews).
Paul notes that during his second visit to Jerusalem James, the brother of Jesus, as well as Peter and John — the leading apostles of the church in Jerusalem — at first agreed with this division of the church's ministry. The apostles in Jerusalem asked only that in bringing the gospel to the Gentiles Paul collect funds for the poor in Jerusalem, which Paul says he is happy to do. Afterwards, Peter came to the church in Antioch and ate with Gentile Christians, although this was contrary to Jewish law. Yet, when James sent representatives of the Jerusalem church to Antioch to enforce the dietary restrictions of Jewish law on all Christians including Gentile converts, Peter and even Paul's close companion, Barnabas, separated themselves from the Gentile Christians during meals. Paul condemns this "hypocrisy" and defends the freedom that Jewish and Gentile Christians know in Jesus Christ.
This account implies that James, the brother of Jesus, had more authority over the church in Jerusalem than Peter. In the gospels we do not hear that James, the brother of Jesus, was a disciple of Jesus, although in the gospel of John there are reports of Jesus' brothers traveling with him. Furthermore, the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell a story that is critical of the family of Jesus for not supporting his ministry. (Mt. 12:46-50, Mk. 3:31-35, Lu. 8:19-21) But Paul tells us in a letter written before the gospels were composed that James, the brother of Jesus, on behalf of the church in Jerusalem is directing the opposition to Paul's ministry among Gentiles. It seems likely, therefore, that the portrait of the family of Jesus in the gospels has been influenced by Paul's refusal to accept the authority of James, the brother of Jesus, who is apparently the most powerful leader of the church in Jerusalem during the time of Paul's ministry.
It is important to note that in the church in Galatia, Paul says, there were "Gentile Christians" and "Jewish Christians." Before the messengers from James came from Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians seemed to be eating with the Gentile Christians. Peter, at first joined them, but drew back in the face of criticism from the Jewish Christians from the church in Jerusalem. Paul says that Peter "was afraid of the Jews." Here he is using the phrase "the Jews" to refer to "Jewish Christians" from the church in Jerusalem. As we read the letters of Paul and the gospels written after them, we need to keep in mind that Paul's struggle with the Jewish Christian leadership of the church in Jerusalem is a struggle among Jews and not a conflict between Christians and Jews.
Many Christians, however, have read the letters of Paul and the gospels as a battle between Christians and Jews, as though many of the Christians are not also Jews. This misunderstanding of the New Testament has for centuries been used to justify the persecution of Jews. Today Christians must confront this terrible history by repenting for the sin of the churches and remembering that Jesus, the apostles, and the authors of the New Testament were Jews who believed that the promise of the law and the prophets was being fulfilled in their time.
Paul describes how he confronted Peter and accused him of hypocrisy. "We ourselves are Jews by birth, not Gentile sinners; yet we know that no one is ever justified by doing what the law requires, but only through faith in Christ Jesus.” In the first century Jews identified Gentiles as sinner because they did not keep Jewish law. The word “sin” did not mean, as it later does for many Christians, a moral failing. Paul affirms what the death of Jesus means for him. "I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me; and my present mortal life is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me." This is, for Paul, the gospel: faith in Christ Jesus offers new life.
In the third chapter of Galatians Paul argues that the Spirit is given to those with faith. Clearly those who have come with "a different gospel" are emphasizing the law rather than faith and are promising spiritual gifts as a result of keeping the law. Paul points to Abraham as a way of countering this claim. "Look at Abraham: he put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness." Those who have faith, as Abraham had faith, are his sons. Thus, Paul asserts, scripture "declared the gospel to Abraham" even before the time of Jesus. Paul is using the Greek word for "faith," which means trust, to assert that trusting in God, not keeping the law, is the key to salvation. In Jesus Christ the blessing of God given to Abraham has been extended beyond the Jews, Paul argues, so that the Gentiles might receive the good news and respond to it.
Through faith people are united with Christ Jesus, Paul affirms, and this unity overcomes all the differences that are given importance in the everyday world. In faith there "is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus." Those who have faith are the heirs of Abraham because, like Abraham, they trust in God. Paul explains that the Jewish law given by God to Moses was an interim measure, which has been replaced by faith. All those who "belong to Christ" are the true descendants of Abraham and, therefore, will inherit the promise given to him by God.
We should be aware that Paul interprets Genesis 15:6 very freely in drawing a distinction between salvation by faith and by the works of the Jewish law. Genesis 15 begins by reporting that the "word of the LORD" came to Abram in a vision promising him an heir. (LORD stands for the Hebrew letters YHWH, the secret name of God, which in English has been written as Yahweh or Jehovah, because German translations of the Old Testament used the letter J, which is pronounced in German as Y, instead of Y. As YHWH was not spoken by Jews, the vowels were unknown. In the Hebrew Bible and worship YHWH is replaced by the word “Adonai," which is translated into English as Lord.)
Then verse 6 (in our English Bibles) records that: "Abram put his faith in the LORD, who reckoned it to him as righteousness." When Abram questions God's promise, he is told to sacrifice several animals. At twilight, as he waits among the carcasses, Abram falls into a trance and hears again the word of the LORD, which confirms the promise of descendants and land for them to settle.
The point of the story seems to be that Abraham, as he is named later when the LORD God appears to him a second time, will be rewarded for being faithful. It is hard to imagine that any Israelite or Jewish interpreter of this story before Paul would have suggested the interpretation that Paul gives. The story has nothing to do with the law revealed to Moses, as this event has not yet taken place, and thus does not undermine Jewish law. Abraham trusted in God, and before the law was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai God took Abraham's trust to be a sign of his righteousness. After the law is given, keeping the law will be a sign of righteousness. For the Jew, the law of Moses merely makes specific the trust in God that Abraham exemplifies. In the Jewish tradition, the faith of Abraham that is recorded in Genesis 15:6 has nothing to do with Gentiles, and this faith does not in any way justify setting aside the commandments of the Jewish law.
None of the New Testament gospels refer to the faith of Abraham as Paul does to argue that faith, rather than keeping Jewish law, is all that God requires. But the gospels do tell of Gentiles that have faith, even exemplary and extraordinary faith. It may well be that the gospels have written Paul's call to faith into the teaching ministry of Jesus.
In Galatians 5:6 Paul says: "If we are in union with Christ Jesus, circumcision makes no difference at all, nor does the lack of it; the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." Paul has no love, however, for his enemies in the church. Six verses later he attacks those preaching a gospel contrary to his own: "Those agitators had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves!" Castration is what Paul wishes upon those sent by the church in Jerusalem to counter Paul’s preaching, which deviates from what the former disciples of Jesus and his brother, James, assert as the gospel truth. Surely, these are the angry words of Paul and not the word of God.
Paul concludes his letter to the churches of Galatia by urging the faithful to serve one another. "You, my friends, were called to be free; only beware of turning your freedom into license for your unspiritual nature. Instead, serve one another in love; for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Galatians 5:13-14) In verse 22 of the same chapter Paul proclaims that "the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self control." Therefore, those who let the Spirit direct their lives, in faith, will not need to keep the law.
We may be surprised to find in the early churches such an angry dispute over circumcision and eating restrictions, because we do not generally think about the teaching of Jesus as addressing these concerns. Nonetheless, as we saw earlier, it seems clear that the gospel writers were largely on Paul's side of this divisive argument in the life of the early church. In the gospels of Mark, Luke and John we find that Jesus ignores the requirements of the Jewish law. The gospel of Matthew affirms Jewish law, but makes fulfilling the spirit of the law even more important.
Paul's reference to the teaching from Leviticus 19:18 to "love your neighbor as yourself" should remind us of the teaching in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke where the Jewish law is summarized as loving God and our neighbors. (Mk. 12:31, Mt. 22:39, Lk. 10:27) If these gospels had been written at the time Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia, surely he would have referred to this gospel teaching to bolster his argument that only the moral commandments of the Jewish law are required of those who follow Jesus Christ.
Perhaps it was remembered that Jesus did say this, even if the gospels had not yet been written. If so, it is surprising that Paul does not cite such a helpful teaching by "the Lord" for his mission to the Gentiles. Therefore, it may be that the teaching in the gospels to love our neighbors comes from Paul and reflects the importance within the Gentile churches of emphasizing love rather than the requirements of Jewish law. When the gospels were written, the teaching would have been included in the story of Jesus. However, whether or not during his ministry Jesus actually used Leviticus 19:18 in the same way as Paul is beside the point. The New Testament uses this teaching in Jewish law to justify including Gentiles in a new community of faith created by Jews following a Jew.
The first communities of Christians involving Gentiles as well as Jews were facing unprecedented questions. How were they to be faithful to the Jewish heritage of faith that had nurtured Jesus, and yet extend life "in Christ" to the Gentiles? Clearly, Gentiles had been baptized, had received gifts of the Holy Spirit, and were active members of the Christian communities. This exciting but challenging fact was, for Paul, a glorious testimony to the power of the risen Christ to call and save Gentiles as well as Jews.