Galatians 2:1-16, John 8:31-36
Paul's account in the second chapter of his letter to the church in Galatia is remarkably candid. Fourteen years after he first went to Jerusalem, at the beginning of his ministry, he returns to meet in private with "those of repute" to discuss the gospel he is preaching to the Gentiles. Paul says a revelation led him to return, implying that he was not responding to a summons from the authorities of the church in Jerusalem. Yet, clearly there is a conflict among the leaders of the early church, and Paul can hardly contain his anger. At stake is whether his ministry has been in vain.
Reports have been brought back to Jerusalem by men Paul describes as "false brethern" (Revised Standard Bible) or as "sham Christians" (Revised English Bible). They are spies who evidently have been gathering information for the leaders of the church in Jerusalem about what Paul describes as the "freedom we enjoy in the fellowship of Christ Jesus." Paul says these men want to bring the Galatians into bondage, which in this context can only mean they want to require all the Christians in Galatia to keep the Jewish law.
Paul's defense is that he has been entrusted to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, as Peter has been called to bring the gospel to the Jews. Paul's gospel is that salvation comes by grace through faith, to Jew and Gentile alike. Salvation does not require keeping the tenets of the Jewish law, Paul asserts, and therefore Gentile converts need not be circumcised or abide by the dietary restrictions of the law of Moses in what today we call the Torah or the Pentateuch.
In Jerusalem Paul meets with James, the brother of Jesus, Cephas (Peter) and John, who Paul describes with sarcasm as "those reputed to be something." Clearly, these three apostles were the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and, as James is named first, we may assume that he had the greatest authority. (His authority over Peter is verified a few verses later when Paul describes what happened at Antioch.)
Paul tells the Galatians that James, Peter and John gave him "the right hand of fellowship" in an agreement that allowed him to take the gospel to the Gentiles and only required of him that he gather contributions from the Gentiles for the poor of the church in Jerusalem. Yet, the events that Paul describes in Antioch suggest that either the agreement was not as clear as Paul says or that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem went back on their word. (Acts 15 has a different account of this meeting and the agreement between Paul and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.)
In Antioch, Paul tell us, Peter at first ate with Gentile Christians; but after messengers arrived from James in Jerusalem, Peter drew back and persuaded other Jewish Christians also to avoid eating with the Gentile Christians. Either Peter's arguments or the authority of James vested in his messengers was so powerful that even Paul's partner in ministry, Barnabas, turned against Paul and took Peter's side.
For Paul, this is an issue concerning "the truth of the gospel." Paul tells Peter: "We ourselves are Jews by birth, not Gentile sinners; yet we know that no one is ever justified by doing what the (Jewish) law requires, but only through faith in Christ Jesus." That, for Paul, is the gospel truth. Obviously, however, Peter is persuaded otherwise or, at least, is unwilling to go against the authority of James. (Gentiles, from the Jewish perspective, are “sinners” simply because they do not keep the commandments of the law of Moses requiring circumcision and dietary restrictions.)
At the beginning of the letter to the Galatians Paul describes how he was converted from persecuting the church and spent three years in Arabia before taking up the ministry that ran for fourteen years before he visited Jerusalem for a second time. This information helps us see that Paul is writing about seventeen or eighteen years after the death of Jesus. At this point in the history of the church, it is clear that the leaders in Jerusalem are trying to impose restrictions on Paul's mission to the Gentiles. Among these first Christians, we see, there was a conflict about the nature of the gospel message.
We need to keep this conflict in mind, as we read the gospel of John. Paul never refers to any of the gospel accounts in the New Testament, even though in many ways they support his view of the gospel. This fact suggests the gospels were written after Paul's letters. Might the gospel accounts have taken sides in the argument within the early church over the importance of Jewish law for Christians? It seems that the gospel of John is very much concerned with this controversy.
The gospel of John is filled with arguments between Jesus and "the Jews," and these arguments are all about the "freedom in Christ" that Paul asserts is the mark of faith. In the sixth chapter of the gospel Jesus says, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never by thirsty." Earlier in the gospel Jesus told Nicodemus, a Jewish teacher, that he had to be "born anew" to be saved. Then Jesus spent several days in a Samaritan (Gentile) town, where many became "believers." In the gospel of John the focus of faith is Jesus, and the beliefs of many Jews about the law and Gentiles are seen as an impediment to the good news.
The gospel of John tells us the teachings of Jesus "led to a fierce dispute among the Jews." (6:52) In the fourth gospel Jesus is reported to have said, "I am the living bread that has come down from heaven . . .. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him." (John 6:51, 56) Today, we take this statement symbolically rather than literally, but it should not surprise us that this language would be shocking to Jews, who according to the Law of Moses are not to eat the blood of an animal. For example, Deuteronomy 12:23 reads: "you must strictly refrain from partaking of the blood [of an animal], because the blood is the life; you must not eat the life with the flesh." No wonder then that after the gospel of John reports that Jesus told his disciples to drink his blood, "many of his disciples exclaimed, 'This is more than we can stand!'" (Jn. 6:60) And from "that moment," we are told, "many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him." (Jn. 6:66)
This is the background for the passage read today from John 8:31-36. "Turning to the Jews who had believed him," it begins, "Jesus said, 'If you stand by my teaching, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'" (Jn. 8:31) In the gospel of John those who oppose Jesus are former disciples who have rejected teachings that are contrary to the Jewish law. This should remind us of Paul's struggle in Galatia and Antioch against James, Peter and other former disciples who were leading the church in Jerusalem.
We can see, therefore, that this conflict in the early church has been written into the gospel of John. The argument for freedom from Jewish law, which Paul made in his letters, is presented by the gospel of John in the words of Jesus. Yet, if Jesus had actually said what the gospel of John reports, surely Paul would have quoted Jesus in his letter to the Galatians. Moreover, if Jesus had actually said that those who followed him were free from the tenets of Jewish law, then it would have been impossible for his former disciples in Jerusalem to challenge Paul's ministry among the Gentiles.
There is other evidence in the gospel of John that the teachings of Jesus are largely if not entirely the words of the author of the gospel. In the first three gospels Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, tells parables, confronts in brief encounters scribes and Pharisees he accuses of hypocrisy, weeps in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, and is filled with agony on the cross. In the fourth gospel Jesus only refers on one occasion to the kingdom of God, does not tell parables, has lengthy arguments with "the Jews," prays with confidence in the Garden of Gethsemane, and dies on the cross without agony — aware he has accomplished his mission.
The gospel of John is so different from the other three gospels we cannot avoid the conclusion that it is a story expressing the gospel proclamation rather than an historical account of the life of Jesus. And once we look more closely at the other three gospels and notice the differences among them, we will see that they, too, are not merely biographies of Jesus. All four gospels preach the good news that faith in Jesus Christ is saving. In different ways and to varying degrees, all the gospels of the New Testament proclaim and practice the freedom in Christ that Paul preached to the Gentiles.
Why is it important for us to understand this today? First, if the truth will set us free, as the gospel of John proclaims, then we need to know the truth about the New Testament. It is not an historical account, although it has history in it. The letters of the apostles and the gospels were written to support the Greek-speaking churches in the Roman Empire that were, in fact, a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians. The entire New Testament seeks to make sense of the first and second century Christian communities in the predominately Gentiles cities around the Mediterranean Sea.
Second, when we see that the letters of Paul and the gospels are the work of men who were involved in passionate disputes with other leaders in the church, then we will realize that those who claim the Bible is the literal or inerrant word of God are wrong. Moreover, we will be careful about claiming that our interpretation of scripture is the word of God. If the first apostles were divided over the gospel, we ought not to be surprised that Christians today will also have disagreements. Humility, not arrogance, ought to be the mark of a Christian.
Third, the criticism in the New Testament of "the Jews" must be understood as the view of some early Christians and not as the word of God. Jesus was a Jew. All his disciples were Jews. The scriptures that he, his disciples, and Paul read were the Jewish scriptures. The good news of the gospels should not be understood as bad news for Jews, although the history of anti-Semitism in the church has understandably led Jews to believe that. The truth about the New Testament will set us all free. Paul's harsh words about Jewish law are part of his argument with Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem. In the gospel of John the strident teachings against "the Jews" are not a condemnation of the Jewish people, but a rejection by one group of Jewish Christians of other Jewish Christians "who had believed in him."
The good news proclaimed by Paul and by the gospel of John is that we are free in Christ. The gosopel message is that we are saved by the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is why Paul can confess, "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:19) We are not saved because we are good, or wise, or moral, or just, or forgiving. We are saved, the New Testament teaches, because God is love.