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Issue 07

Preaching the Bible for all its Worth: Galatians

Elżbieta Dudziak, Paul of Tarsus

Why is Paul so angry? That might be the first question to ask for anyone wishing to preach Galatians for all its worth. For one thing Paul’s often scathing language for his opponents and his reproachful tone toward the Galatians can be more than a little off-putting to a modern audience. He’s not the only one that wishes he could change his tone with the Galatians (4:20)! And yet the apostle’s angry tone makes it clear that something crucially important is at stake. Knowing that his proclamation of the gospel is under attack, Paul goes into a full mother-bear defence of young and vulnerable congregations threatened by false teaching. This means that Paul’s passionate letter to the Galatians is a great place to focus on exactly what the good news of the gospel is – and what it isn’t. Five themes stand out.

We may begin with the importance of the Gentiles in Paul’s understanding of the gospel. For this apostle to the Gentiles (1:16), the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus is really only good news if it is extended freely to Gentiles apart from “works of the law” such as circumcision (2:3; 5:2, 6; 6:12, 15), the food laws (2:11–14), and the Jewish calendar (4:10–11). It’s crucial for Paul that God always intended to bless the Gentiles as Gentiles, not just as converts to Judaism. Indeed, this is essential to an understanding of the gospel (3:9; Gen 12:3). Yet why is this the case?

This brings us to the importance of the promises to Abraham. Preaching Galatians is an excellent opportunity to bring your congregation into the larger story of God’s overarching plan for redemption. As Paul makes clear, God always intended to bless the Gentiles in the same way that he blessed Abraham, that is, through faith (3:6–9). The law did come in later, of course, but it was always meant to be temporary and parenthetical. It was a necessary pause in the outworking of God’s promise to Abraham “until faith came” (3:25), that is, until in the fullness of time justifying faith in Jesus (and not the various works of the law) became the distinguishing mark of God’s people and the clear basis of their salvation.

Paul doesn’t stop there. At another and deeper level, Paul argues that God’s people are blessed through their union with Christ. They are “sons of God” (that is to say, heirs who receive the promised inheritance) not only “through faith” but also “in Christ” (that is, by virtue of their union with him, 3:26). Paul makes this point in a surprising way. He takes Abraham’s “seed” as a reference to the one seed, Jesus Christ, and not as a general reference to Abraham’s descendants. This means that the inheritance comes to believers because they are united with Christ, sharing with him in his inheritance because they share with him in his death and resurrection.

Jacob Wexler, The Exodus

Here we come to the heart of Paul’s understanding of the gospel. For Paul the death and resurrection of Jesus marks the transition from the present evil age to the inheritance of the new creation. Crucially, believers share in that transition insofar as they share in Christ: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (2:20). Paul insists that believers have died to the things that belong to the present evil age, including existence under the law (5:24; 6:14). And because the resurrection life of Christ and the Spirit is already at work in them, it is actually possible for them to fulfil the law (by love!) without actually being under it (5:16, 18; 6:15).

One important and very helpful way to express this transition from the present evil age to the new creation is in terms of the new exodus. Paul was deeply influenced by Isaiah’s vision of the new exodus, of which he was a “herald of the good news” (Isa 52:7–53:1). This works its way out in numerous ways in Galatians. God’s promise to Abraham is ultimately fulfilled in a Moses-like coming of “Faith” (3:23–25) that redeems God’s people from Egypt-like bondage “under the law” (and “sin” and “the elementals,” 3:22–23; 4:3, 9) to exodus-like freedom, sonship and inheritance (4:5, 7; 5:1). Even so, God’s people have not yet come into their full inheritance of the kingdom of God (5:21). This means that they are in the wilderness, as it were, having already been redeemed from bondage but not yet having received their full inheritance. They are, in fact, being “led by the Spirit” (in the path of Spirit-enabled love, as it turns out) just as the Israelites were led by the cloud on their way to the promised land (5:18; cf. Rom 8:14; Luke 4:1).

As far as Paul is concerned, then, his opponents have completely failed to understand the gospel because they have failed to understand the true significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The death of Jesus means that believers have died to sin and the law. The resurrection of Jesus means that they are already living, walking, and being led by the Spirit in the path of law-fulfilling love. That his opponents could not just miss the significance (that is, the good news) of the gospel for themselves but also attempt to deny it to the Galatians was no minor matter for this apostle to the Gentiles. It was an infuriating attempt to shut these Gentiles out from the blessings that come through hearing with faith and not the works of the law (3:2–5; 4:17). Hence this white-hot little letter that gets to the heart of the gospel.

Some Recommended Reading

Matthew S. Harmon, Galatians. Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2021). Author of an insightful work on Paul’s use of Isaiah in Galatians (She Must and Shall Go Free: Paul’s Isaianic Gospel in Galatians [Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010]), Harmon combines scholarly acumen and pastoral wisdom in the interpretation of every verse. The commentary concludes with over one hundred pages on “Biblical and Theological Themes.”

Todd Wilson, Galatians: Gospel-Rooted Living. Preaching the Word. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013). This is an accessible pastoral commentary with helpful notes reflecting deep learning in the back. Wilson preaches what he practices: each of the twenty-six chapters is a rich homily on Scripture. You may wish to begin or supplement your study of Galatians by reading a chapter each day over the course of a month.

Craig S. Keener, Galatians: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). For sheer breadth and depth of faithful scholarship, this commentary is unsurpassed in its explication of the original context of Galatians and its engagement with the vast literature on this letter. It also includes “A Closer Look” at numerous topics (e.g., justification, magic, Paul and the law, pregnant and nursing mothers, and circumcision) and consideration of current social and political realities (in the “Bridging Horizons” sections).

Claude Vignon, Saint Paul