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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Galatians 2

 

 

Verse 1

(1) Fourteen years after.—From what date is this fourteen years to be reckoned? The phrase “I went up again” seems to be decisive in favour of reckoning it from the visit to Jerusalem just mentioned. We should therefore have to add the three years of Galatians 1:18, in order to reach the date of the Apostle’s conversion The relation of the present narrative to that in the Acts will be more fully discussed in an excursus. (See Excursus A: On the Visits of St. Paul to Jerusalem.)

In the meantime, it may be assumed that there appear to be sufficient reasons for identifying the visit to Jerusalem here described with that recorded in Acts 15, commonly known as the Council of Jerusalem, which is placed by the best chronologists about A.D. 50 or 51.

And took Titus with me also.—In the corresponding passage (Acts 15:2) we are told that “certain others” were sent with Paul and Barnabas. St. Paul mentions especially Titus because of the part which he subsequently played in the history of the Council, and because of the importance of this for his present argument.


Verses 1-10

II.

(1-10) The argument proceeds, still taking the shape of vivid personal retrospect:—The next visit at which I had any communication with the elder Apostles was after an interval of fourteen years. That, too, only served to bring out at once the independence and the soundness of my teaching. I spoke on the subject freely to the whole Church, and besides I had private conferences with the leaders; but no alteration was made either in my teaching or in my practice. One crucial instance was that of Titus, my companion, who, Gentile as he was, was not compelled to be circumcised, though his circumcision was urged upon me, not by the free motion of the Apostles themselves, but to silence the malicious rumours set on foot by certain Judaising spies who had found their way into our midst. To these Barnabas and I did not give way for a moment. And the upshot of the matter was that my mission was fully recognised by the leading Apostles, and that we agreed to go different ways—they to the Jews, we to the Gentiles—with the one condition, which I needed no prompting to accept, that we should not forget the poor.

Thoughts and arguments crowd in upon the Apostle with great vehemence. His amanuensis cannot take them down fast enough. Sentences are begun and not rightly ended, and much of the sense is left to be supplied by conjecture. The general drift of the passage is sufficiently plain, but there is much uncertainty about the details. This will appear in the Notes which follow.


Verse 2

(2) By revelation.—Revelations seem to have been vouchsafed to the Apostle in various ways—most frequently in dreams or nocturnal visions (Acts 16:9; Acts 18:9; Acts 23:11; Acts 27:23), but also in a state of trance (Acts 22:17), and through other undefined modes of intimation (Acts 16:6-7; Acts 20:22-23). By what particular form of revelation he was guided in this instance does not appear. It would seem that this inward spiritual guidance granted privately to the Apostle coincided with a formal commission from the Church at Antioch (Acts 15:2), which, as the external and apparent side of the transaction, is naturally related by the historian, while it is just as naturally omitted by the Apostle, whose thoughts are directed rather to his own personal conduct and motives.

Communicated unto them—i.e., the Church at Jerusalem. A distinction appears to be drawn between what the Apostle said in his public intercourse with the Church and the more detailed conference or conferences into which he entered privately with the Apostles.

Which I preach.—The present tense is noticeable. The gospel which the Apostle had been preaching up to the time of the Council of Jerusalem was the same as that which he still preached at the time of his writing to the Galatians. It had undergone no change in its essential features, especially in the one doctrine which he was most anxious to impress upon the Galatians—the doctrine of justification by faith.

Privately to them which were of reputation.—Better, more simply, to them of repute. The present tense is again used, the Apostle hinting, not only at the position which the Judaic Apostles held at the time of the Council, but also at the way in which their authority was appealed to by the Judaising partisans in Galatia. There is a slight shade of irony in the expression. It is not so much “those which were of reputation” in the gathering at Jerusalem as “those who are still held to be the only authorities now.”

Who are meant by “them of repute” appears more distinctly from Galatians 2:9, where James, Peter, and John are mentioned by name.

Lest by any means.—The Apostle did not really want confidence in his own teaching. And yet he was aware that it rested solely upon his own individual conviction, and upon the interpretation that he had put upon the intimation to him of the divine will. There was, therefore, still a certain element of uncertainty and room for confirmation, which the Apostle desired to receive. His character hits the happy mean between confidence in his cause (self-confidence, or self-reliance, as it would be called if dealing with a lower sphere), without which no great mission can be accomplished, and opinionatedness or obstinacy. He, therefore, wished to “make assurance doubly sure,” and it is this confirmed and ratified certainty which animates his whole language in writing to the Galatians. Something of it, perhaps, is reflected back upon his account of the earlier stages in the process through which his opinions had gone, given in the last chapter.

I should run, or had run.—St. Paul here introduces his favourite metaphor from the foot-races, such as he might see in the Isthmian games at Corinth. (Comp. especially, for a similar reference to his own career, Philippians 2:16; 2 Timothy 4:7.)


Verse 3

(3) But neither Titus . . .—This and the two following verses are parenthetical. The result of the private conference with the Judaic Apostles is not given till Galatians 2:7; but without waiting for this, the Apostle turns aside to give one emphatic piece of evidence that his practice in regard to the Gentile converts was not interfered with. The question of principle was raised in the case of Titus, and there he stood his ground, in spite of the pressure that was put upon him.

In addition to its bearing upon the main argument, there is probably a special reason for this mention of the case of Titus. At the beginning of his second missionary journey, on taking with him his youthful convert Timothy, St. Paul made so much of a concession to Jewish prejudices as to have him circumcised (Acts 16:3). We shall see later that this gave rise to a charge of inconsistency, which the Judaising party in Galatia were not slow to make use of. (See Galatians 5:11, and Notes there.) There was indeed some real inconsistency, but not more than any one who is engaged in the struggles of active life will constantly find himself drawn into. The meeting at Jerusalem was a crisis in the history of the Church. The question of principle was at stake. Concession herein would have been ruinous and fatal, and the Apostle stood firm. On the other hand, the circumcision of Timothy was merely a practical compromise to smooth the way for the preaching of the gospel in new regions. The Apostle was too wise to incur needless opposition, which would bar the way to essential truths on a point which, though in some of its aspects involving principle, was yet in others of quite minor importance. Besides, there is this to be noticed, that whereas Titus was by descent wholly a Gentile, Timothy was, on his mother’s side, a Jew.

Turning to the phraseology of the passage, we may observe that the opening clause would be better translated, But not even was Titus . . . compelled to be circumcised. “Not even” refers to the prominence which Titus assumed as being associated with St. Paul in his ministry. This was a special reason for insisting upon his circumcision; and yet he was not circumcised.

Being a Greek.—Rather, a Gentile. It is observed that the Peshito version translated the word here rendered “Greek” by “Aramæan” or “Syrian.” All idea of pure Hellenic descent has dropped out of it.


Verse 4

(4) And that because of . . .—The sense is here, in any case, broken and imperfect. It seems, on the whole, best to supply the missing clause thus: “But (or, though) on account of false brethren . . . [I was urged to have him circumcised].” The leaders of the Church at Jerusalem took the ground, not of insisting upon circumcision as a necessity, but rather advising it as a matter of policy, to allay the ill feeling excited against St. Paul by designing men, traitors in the camp, who, though Christians in name, were Jews at heart. Many commentators, however, adopt the rendering of the Authorised version: “And that because of false (or rather, the false) brethren,” understanding that he was not compelled to be circumcised. The reason why Titus was not circumcised was the evidently interested and treacherous motives of the Judaising partisans who clamoured for it.

Unawares brought in, who came in privily.—These two words correspond to each other in the Greek, and bring out in a graphic and forcible way the insidious and designing character of the party most violently opposed to St. Paul. Professing to be Christians, they were really Jews of the narrowest sort, who only entered into the Church to spy into and restrict its liberties.

Which we have in Christ Jesus.—The Christian Church is the Messianic kingdom, which derives all its attributes directly from its Head. If it is free, Christ has won for it its freedom, by relieving it from the burden of the Law, by abolishing race distinctions, and offering all the Messianic privileges to those who through faith are united to Him.

Bring us into bondage.—The “bondage” is, in the first instance, that of the Mosaic law, and through it the personal domination of the Jewish partisans.


Verse 5

(5) To whom—i.e., to the Jewish agitators, though probably not so much in their own persons as through the Apostles who advocated concession to their views.

We gave place.—St. Paul himself, with Barnabas and Titus.

By subjection.—By yielding to them the submission which they claimed of us.

No, not for an hour.—It is strange that the negative here and the relative at the beginning of the verse are wanting in some Latin authorities, including Irenæus and (partially, at least) Tertullian. This, however, is only interesting as pointing to a very early corruption of the text, and not for any bearing that it has on the exegesis of the passage.

The truth of the gospel.—The gospel in its true form, with all the liberty which its essential doctrine of justification by faith involves, not mutilated or restricted by any false conditions.

Might continue with you.—The words used in the Greek are expressive of undiminished continuance: “Might reach to you and persist among you in its full extent.”


Verse 6

(6) The Apostle returns from his digression on the case of Titus to give the result of his experience with the elder Apostles, in continuation of Galatians 2:3. “I did indeed hold conference with them privately; but with all their advantages, real or assumed, I learnt nothing from them that I did not already know, and they ended by recognising the independence and validity of my mission.”

But of these who seemed to be somewhat.—Translate rather, But from those who are reputed to be somewhat. The phrase corresponds to “them which are of reputation” in Galatians 2:2; and here, as there, it is important to keep the present tense. It is not only “those who were of authority at the Council,” but “those who are the great authorities with you Galatians now.” The Apostle speaks with a certain amount of irony. “From these very great authorities, these persons of such especial reputation [I got nothing].”

Whatsoever they were.—We shall, perhaps, not be wrong in keeping to the Authorised version, though some of the best commentators translate rather, What they (once) were, with a stress on “were,” and referring to the advantage which they possessed over St. Paul in having “known Christ after the flesh” through their early call to the Apostleship.

God accepteth no man’s person.—This phrase is a curious instance of a Greek expression framed after the analogy of the Hebrew, and yet in the process contracting a different signification, through the influence of the idiomatic use of one of the Greek expressions involved. “To accept the face” in the Old Testament is used in a good sense of “showing favour” to any one, but without any imputation of partiality. “To accept the face” (or person) in the New Testament always carries with it the idea of partiality; the word for “face” being idiomatically used for “a mask,” and hence coming to mean “the outward, assumed, accidental characteristics of a man” as opposed to his real and inward character. (Comp. Matthew 22:16; Luke 20:21; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; James 2:1; James 2:9; Jude 1:16.) The meaning here is that even if the elder Apostles had “seen with their eyes,” and “looked upon and handled the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1), God would not regard the advantages implied in this more than any other external advantage of birth, position, natural gifts, &c.

For they who seemed to be somewhat.—The same phrase as in Galatians 2:2 : they who were of reputation. There is here another break in the regular construction of the sentence. The Apostle begins as if he were going to finish differently: “From those who are reputed to be somewhat . . . I received nothing in the conference which I had with them;” but he suddenly changes his point of view: “From those who are reputed to be somewhat” (sentence left unfinished) “to me, I say, these reputable persons added nothing.”

In conference added nothing.—“Added in conference” is all one word in the Greek, and corresponds to “communicated” in Galatians 2:2. The idea of “adding” (i.e., imparting fresh knowledge) seems, however, to be derived rather from the context than from the form of the Greek compound, as our translators apparently supposed.


Verse 7

(7) Gospel of the uncircumcision—i.e., a gospel for the uncircumcised. The elder Apostles recognised St. Paul because they saw that his teaching was fundamentally the same as their own. At the same time, the success of St. Paul among the Gentiles proved that his mission to them had the divine sanction, just as the success of St. Peter among the Jews specially marked him out as the “Apostle of the circumcision.”


Verses 7-9

(7-9) So far from contributing anything new to my stock of doctrine, they were content to confirm and ratify what I taught already.


Verse 8

(8) He that wrought effectually in Peter . . . the same was mighty in me.—This is an instance of that capriciousness in our translators which was due to their free poetic handling and superabundant command of words. “Wrought effectually” and “was mighty” are the same word in the Greek, and there does not seem to be any sufficient reason why the translation should be altered. “In Peter” and “in me” would be better translated for Peter and for me. He that wrought effectually for Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same wrought effectually for me towards the Gentiles.


Verse 9

(9) James, Cephas, and John.—In some few MSS. and patristic quotations the reading is Peter and James and John. This doubtless arose from the tendency to exalt St. Peter, though the reading (which is found in Tertullian and Origen, and therefore must run up into the second century) is too early to be directly connected with the pretensions of the Papacy. The way in which St. Paul speaks respectively of St. Peter and St. James is in strict accordance with the historical situation. When he is speaking of the general work of the Church (as in the last two verses) St. Peter is mentioned prominently; when the reference is to a public act of the Church of Jerusalem the precedence is given to St. James.

Who seemed to be pillars.—Rather, who are held (same word as reputed above) to be pillars. The metaphor is a natural one, and is found not unfrequently in classical writers. It was in common use among the Jews as a designation for the great Rabbinical teachers.

Right hands of fellowship.—The giving of the right hand is a symbol of friendship. Instances occur, both in the East and West (comp. Xen. Anab. ii. 4, 1; Tac. Hist. i. 54, ii. 8), in which images of clasped right hands were sent in suing for alliance.


Verse 10

(10) The poor—i.e., at Jerusalem and in Judaea. St. Paul had already been the means of bringing contributions from the wealthier churches of Antioch to Jerusalem (Acts 11:29-30). This seems to have been gracefully received, not only as an act of charity, but as a recognition of the claims of the mother Church. The Apostles expressed a hope that the same good feeling might continue, to which St. Paul willingly assented. That he did not forget his promise appears from Acts 24:17; Romans 15:26-27; 1 Corinthians 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:1 et sea. (See Notes on Romans 15:25-27.)


Verse 11

(11) When Peter . . .—The true reading here is undoubtedly Cephas. The visit alluded to probably took place soon after the return of Paul and Barnabas, in the interval described in Acts 15:35, shortly before the separation of these two Apostles and the departure of St. Paul on his second missionary journey.

Because he was to be blamed.—The Greek here is simply, because he was condemned. The act carried with it its own condemnation.

The blame thus imputed to St. Peter was a subject of much controversy in antiquity. It was made a ground of accusation against both Apostles. The Ebionites—as represented in the well known heretical work, the Clementine Homilies—charged St. Paul with hostility to the faith, asserting that by calling Peter “condemned” he was really accusing “God who revealed Christ in him.” On the other hand, Marcion, the Gnostic, saw in the incident a proof of the antagonism between Judaism and Christianity (as he understood it), represented by their several champions. The heathen critic Porphyry attacked both Apostles alike, the one for error, the other for forwardness in rebuking that error, and points to the whole scene as one of ecclesiastical wrangling.

The unfortunate result of these criticisms was that they led to attempts, on the part of the orthodox writers, to explain away the simple meaning of the narrative. Clement of Alexandria maintained that the Cephas here mentioned was not the Apostle St. Peter, but an inferior person, one of the seventy disciples. A more popular theory was that which was started by Origen, elaborated by Chrysostom, and defended with great vehemence by Jerome in a controversy with Augustine. This theory was that the two Apostles had arranged the scene beforehand between themselves, and acted it out for the edification of the Judaisers. St. Paul was to represent the view sanctioned by the Church, and St. Peter was to give an eminent example of submission. This view, though it held its ground for two centuries, was finally put down by the straightforwardness and good sense of St. Augustine.

The true explanation of the incident is to be found in the character of St. Peter—at once generously impulsive and timidly sensitive to the opinion of others. An inconsistency very similar to this appears in his ardent confession, followed by the betrayal of his Master (Mark 14:29; Mark 14:66 et seq.). It had been seen at an earlier date in his attempt to walk upon the water (Matthew 14:28-33); and is, indeed, one of the features in his character most conspicuous in the Gospels. A little more attention to this would have saved many doctrinaire objections to the narrative of the Acts, where the inconsistency, which is really one of character, is treated as if it stood in the way of the objective truth of the events.


Verses 11-14

(11-14) The next phase in this question was at Antioch. On his coming thither Peter was guilty of a great inconsistency. He began by eating freely with the Gentile converts, but the arrival of a party of the stricter Jews from Jerusalem was enough to make him alter his practice. He gradually withdrew and held aloof, and a number of others, including even Barnabas, followed his example. This conduct of his I openly reproved, asking him why it was that at one moment he himself did not hesitate to adopt the custom of the Gentiles, while at another he insisted upon their conforming to those of the Jews.


Verse 12

(12) Certain came from James.—The expression used leaves it an open question whether the persons intended brought, or claimed to bring, any sort of official authorisation from St. James (comp. Acts 15:24), or whether they merely belonged to the Church of Jerusalem, in which, if St. James was not actually bishop, he at least exercised a sort of presidential jurisdiction.

He did eat with the Gentiles.—By eating with Gentiles a Jew contracted Levitical defilement. St. Peter had been accused of this before, on account of his intercourse with Cornelius. (Comp. Acts 11:3.) He had not, however, stability and firmness enough to treat the question of principle as settled for him then once for all, and he yielded to a repetition of the old remonstrances. Our Lord Himself had braved Jewish opinion on this point. (Comp. Luke 15:2.)

When they were come.—The reading of the oldest MSS. here is “when he came,” of which it seems impossible to make any satisfactory sense. It may have been a slip of the pen, either in the original or in some very early copy. Other instances of mistakes in the oldest MSS. would be—Mark 4:21, “under a candlestick,” instead of “on a candlestick;” John 1:15, “he who said,” for “he of whom I said;” and a Greek form in Philippians 2:1.

Withdrew and separated himself.—The Greek expression brings out the timid and gradual withdrawal, ending in complete separation.

Them which were of the circumcision.—This appears to mean, not merely “those who advocated circumcision,” but “those who were made converts from a state of circumcision”—i.e., from Judaism.


Verse 13

(13) The other Jews . . .—i.e. converts from Judaism, as distinct from Gentile converts, in the Church at Antioch.

Dissembled.—The “dissimulation,” or “hypocrisy” (the literal sense of the Greek word), consisted in suppressing their real convictions, and acting as if from a set of convictions different from their real ones.

Barnabas also.—Rather, even Barnabas, my own familiar friend, and so recently my ally in pleading the cause of the Gentiles. The beginning of the breach which soon afterwards led to the definite separation of the two Apostles would seem to be traceable here.


Verse 14

(14) Walked not uprightly.—This is a single word in the Greek, and found here alone in the New Testament. It means, literally, “to walk on straight feet”—i.e., erect and straightforwardly, as opposed to “shuffling.”

Unto Peter before them all.—The true reading is again Cephas. The Apostle lays stress upon the publicity of his remonstrance, as showing that in his controversy with the Apostles of the circumcision he did something more than hold his own.

Being a Jew.—“Being” is here emphatic, and means, “with all the antecedents of a Jew.” It is implied that a different rule must be applied to the Gentiles, with totally different antecedents.

Livest after the manner of Gentiles—i.e., in the matter of eating promiscuously with those whom the Law (or rather, the Pharisaic tradition) forbids you to eat with.

Why.—The great preponderance of MSS. is here in favour of the reading how—i.e., how does it come about that?

Compellest.—Do what you can to compel.


Verse 15

(15) Who are.—It will be seen that these words are in italics, and have to be supplied in the Greek. The Received text, which is followed in our version, also I omits a connecting particle, found in the best MSS., at the beginning of Galatians 2:16. Restoring this, a better way of taking the whole passage appears to be to supply only the word “are” in the present verse, and make the next mark a certain opposition to it: “We are (indeed) by birth Jews . . . but” (or, and yet), “knowing as we did that the Law cannot justify any one, we believed on Christ.” The first clause is concessive: “We grant you that we were born Jews, and not Gentiles: members of the chosen race, and not sinners.” The next clause explains why it was that, with all these privileges, the Christian, though thus born a Jew, transferred his allegiance from the Law to Christ. The reason was that the Law failed in the one great object—to justify us or obtain our acquittal in the sight of God.

By nature—i.e., by birth. The privileges of the Jew belonged to all Jews alike, simply by the more fact that they were Jews.

Sinners.—The word was almost a synonym for “heathen” in the mouth of a strict Jew. Hence there is a slight irony in its use by St. Paul. “I grant you that from our lofty position we can look down upon those poor Gentiles, sinners by virtue of mere descent.”

Of the Gentiles.—”Of” in the sense of natural descent: “Of Gentile parentage (and therefore) sinners.”


Verses 15-21

(15-21) The section which follows is, in form at least, still a continuation of the rebuke addressed to St. Peter; but the Apostle soon drifts away from this, and begins imperceptibly a comment upon his own words, which is addressed directly to the Galatians. We are thus led, without any real break, from the historical and personal to the doctrinal portion of the Epistle. It is impossible to say exactly where the speech at Antioch ends and where the comment upon it begins; the Apostle glides from one to the other without any conscious division in his own mind. A similar mingling of narrative and comment is found in St. John’s Gospel: compare, e.g., John 3:14-21; John 3:31-36, the first of which sections formally belongs to the discourse with Nicodemus, and the second to the reply of John the Baptist, though it is clear that much after comment of the Evangelist’s is interwoven with them. If we are to draw a dividing line at all in the section before us, it might be said that Galatians 2:15-16 were still most nearly a paraphrase of the words actually addressed to St. Peter; while from Galatians 2:17 onwards the Apostle is giving the rein more freely to his own reflections. The sequence of the thought seems to be somewhat as follows:—

We belong by our birth to a privileged people. We are not of Gentile descent, and therefore abandoned to our sins. And yet, with all our privileges, we found that we could get no justification whatever from the Law; and this sent us to Christ. We thus abdicated our privileged position; we put ourselves on the same level as the Gentiles, and became (in the eye of the Law) sinners like them. Sinners? Must we then admit that all Christ has done for us is to make us sinners? Far be so irreverent a thought. Our sin consists not in quitting the Law, but in returning to that which has once been abandoned. The function of the Law was preparatory and transitional. The Law itself taught me to expect its own abrogation. It was a stage on the way to Christ. To Him have I given in a complete adhesion. In His death I am severed from ancient ties. In His death I ceased to have any life of my own. All the life I have, man as I am, I owe to Christ, my Saviour. Thus I accept and do not reject and frustrate the gift so freely offered me: whereas, by going back to the Law for justification, I should be practically declaring the death of Christ useless and unprofitable.


Verse 16

(16) Is not justified.—Here the Apostle introduces, for the first time in the Epistle, the word which plays so prominent a part in the Epistle to the Romans—“pronounced just or righteous”—free from guilt, and therefore from punishment—in the sight of God. This condition could not be produced by works done in obedience to the Law.

But.—The sense of the Greek is not clearly brought out by the Authorised version. A more strict translation would be except, which is made to refer only to the word “justified,” and not to the previous negation of works, as the cause of justification. “A man is not justified by works (nor is he justified at all), except by faith in Christ.”

By the faith of Jesus Christ.—The preposition “by” occurs five times in this verse. In every case except the present it is represented by the same word in Greek. There is, however, no substantial difference of meaning; the only difference is that in the other cases stress is laid rather upon the cause, here rather upon the means. “Faith of Jesus Christ” means, as we are more accustomed to say, “faith in Jesus Christ.”

Even we.—Rather, we too. Jews as we are, in spite of all our privileges.

Have believed.—Rather, believed. This was the great motive of our conversion. We found that the Law could not justify us and that Christ could.

By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.—This is a quotation for which no exact equivalent is to be found in the Old Testament. The nearest appears to be Psalms 143:2 : “In thy sight shall no man living be justified.” This, as written under the dispensation of the Law, naturally applied to that dispensation, so that the Apostle was justified in adding “by the works of the Law.” The same quotation, in the same words, is made in Romans 3:20.

The inability of the Law to justify comes out in two ways. (1) The only way in which the Law could justify was through a complete obedience to its provisions. But it was impossible to render a complete obedience to it: and to offend in one point was “to be guilty of all;” so that practically, as a matter of fact, no one was justified by it. (2) Nor did it help men to justify themselves. It was something dead and lifeless—a mere written letter, possessing none of those “means of grace” which are offered by Christianity. Christ Himself, through faith in Him, is the great means.


Verse 17

(17) We sought justification in Christ. But if, with all our seeking, something more was needed: viz., a rigid performance of the Law—that Law which we had abandoned—then there was still something wanting to our justification. We were sinners on a par with the Gentiles, and all that Christianity seemed to have done for us was to lead us deeper into sin. A profane thought!

By Christ.—Strictly, in Christ—i.e., by the relation into which we are brought with Him. The reference is here, however, not exactly to the mystical union with Christ, which is regarded by the Apostle rather in connection with sanctification (the actual growth in holiness) than with justification (the judicial absolution from guilt). In the present instance the Apostle is speaking of justification; and when he says that “we are justified in Christ,” he means practically through faith in Him, or through that circle of forces within which we are brought by faith.

We ourselves also.—We who were by our birth Jews, as well as the Gentiles.

Are found.—Strictly, were found—i.e., at a time subsequent to our embracing Christianity, if the only result of our Christianity was that we were still sinners.

Sinners.—Sinners actually, through our positive transgressions, and sinners theoretically or judicially (in the eyes of God), through the fact that we have lost the old Jewish justification through the fulfilment of the Law; while, according to this Judaising theory which St. Paul is combating, our new Christian justification is insufficient.

Is therefore Christ the minister of sin?—Our English version is probably right in making this a question. It is put ironically, and as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the Judaising position. The Judaisers maintained the necessity of a strict fulfilment of the Mosaic law. They, however, still called themselves Christians; and here St. Paul had a hold upon them. “You call yourselves Christians,” he says, “and yet you insist upon the Mosaic law. You say that a man cannot be justified without it: it follows that we, who have exchanged the service of the Law for the service of Christ, are not justified. In other words, our relation to Christ has made us, not better, but worse—a thought which no Christian can entertain.”

No doubt St. Paul used some such argument as this in his controversy with St. Peter at Antioch, but it would probably be stated in a simpler and less speculative form: “If you still fall back upon the separatist Jewish observances, what is the good of being a Christian?” Here, in writing to the Galatians, the Apostle paraphrases what he had said in language more suited to a theological treatise and to the natural speculative bias of his own mind.

God forbid.—The Judaising theory was quite sufficiently condemned by showing the consequences to which it would lead. It makes Christ Himself a minister of sin—a suggestion which the Apostle puts away with pious horror.


Verse 18

(18) But Christ is not a minister of sin. The thought is not to be tolerated. For, on the contrary, the sin is seen, not in leaving the Law for Christ, but in going back from Christ to the Law. The sin is seen doubly: for on one theory—the theory that the Law is valid—it was wrong to give it up; while on the other theory, that Christianity has taken its place, it is still more wrong to restore the fabric that has once been broken down.

For.—The connection is with the words immediately preceding: “God forbid that Christ should be the minister of sin.” The idea is absurd as well as profane. For, instead of the Pauline Christian (who follows Christianity to its logical results) being the sinner, it is really the Judaising Christian who stands self-condemned—i.e., in returning to what he has forsaken.

If I build again.—The first person is used out of delicate consideration for his opponents. The Apostle is going to put a supposed case, which really represents what they were doing; but in order to soften the directness of the reference he takes it, as it were, upon himself.

St. Paul is fond of metaphors taken from building. Comp. Romans 15:20 (building upon another man’s foundation), 1 Corinthians 3:10-14 (Christ the foundation), Ephesians 2:20-22 (the Church built on the foundation of Apostles and prophets), and the words “edify” and “edification” wherever they occur. The idea of “pulling down” or “destroying” is also frequently met with. So in Romans 14:20 (“for meat destroy not the work of God,” the same word as here used, in opposition to “edify,” immediately before); 2 Corinthians 5:1 (“if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved”—pulled down or destroyed); 2 Corinthians 10:4 (“mighty to the pulling down of strongholds”)—a different word in the Greek, but similar in meaning.

We may compare with the whole verse the well-known saying, “Burn what you have adored, and adore what you have burned.”

The things which I destroyed—i.e., the Mosaic law, the binding obligation of which had been done away in Christ.

Make myself.—Show, or prove myself to be: the same word as that translated “commend” in Romans 3:5; Romans 5:8.

A transgressor.—Hitherto the Apostle had kept up a sort of studied ambiguity in his use of the words “sin,” “sinner.” The Jews called the Gentiles “sinners,” simply from the fact of their being Gentiles. The Pauline Christian placed himself on the same footing with the Gentiles, so far as the Law was concerned, and therefore he, too, in the same phraseology, was a sinner. But now the Apostle uses a word that could not be mistaken. A sinner the Christian might be, in the Judaising sense of the word, but the Judaiser himself was the real sinner: it was he who offended against the immutable principles of right and wrong.


Verse 19

(19) In the last verse the Apostle had been putting a supposed case, but by a not unnatural process of thought he gradually takes the “I” rather more in earnest, and appeals directly to his own personal experience. The “I” of Galatians 2:18 is really St. Peter or the Judaisers; the “I” of this verse is St. Paul himself. The object of his appeal is to make good his assertion that to restore the dethroned Law to its old position is positively sinful.

Once having done with the Law I had done with it for ever. The Law itself had prepared me for this. It was a stage which I could not but pass through, but which was in its very nature temporary. It carried with it the sentence of its own dissolution.

For . . .—This assigns the reason for the use of the word “transgressor” in the verse before. It is a transgression to rebuild the demolished fabric of the Law, because the true Christian has done with the Law once for all.

Through the law am dead to the law.—In what sense can this be said? The Apostle himself had got rid of his obligations to the Law—not, however, by simply evading them from the first, but by passing through a period of subjection to them. The road to freedom from the Law lay through the Law. The Law, on its prophetic side, pointed to Christ. The Law, on its moral side, held up an ideal to which its votaries could not attain. It did not help them to attain to it. It bore the stamp of its own insufficiency. Men broke its precepts, and its weakness seemed to lead up to a dispensation that should supersede its own. St. Paul would not have become a Christian if he had not first sat at the feet of Gamaliel. If we could trace the whole under-current of silent, and perhaps only half-conscious, preparation, which led to the Apostle’s conversion, we should see how large a part was played in it by the sense, gradually wrought in him, of the Law’s insufficiency. Thus the negative side was given by his own private meditation; the positive side, faith in Christ, was given by the vision on the road to Damascus.

That I might live unto God.—We might not unnaturally expect here “unto Christ,” instead of “unto God.” But the Christian lives unto Christ in order that he may live unto God. The ultimate object of the Christian scheme is that he may be presented righteous before God. By the Law he could not obtain this righteousness. It is obtained in Christ.


Verse 20

(20) In the last verse the Apostle had spoken of himself as “dead to the Law, and living unto God.” The prominent idea in the first half of this clause had been the release from that burdensome ceremonial which the Judaising party wished to bind upon Christian consciences. By a natural transition, the Apostle’s thought had passed from what the Law could not do to what Christianity could do.

The Law could not make men righteous before God. In Christ they were made righteous. How? Here, too, there was death. The Christian died with Christ to something else besides the Law. With his eye fixed upon the cross, he died a spiritual death and rose to a new spiritual life. The “old man” in him, the self-seeking and sinful element in his nature, is slain, and for it is substituted a life of such close and intimate communion with Christ that it seems as if Christ Himself were dwelling in the soul. Living upon the earth in a body of human flesh, as he is, he is animated by an intense faith in the Saviour who has given him such proofs of self-sacrificing love.

Here we come upon the same vein of mysticism that is developed in Romans 6. One main way of conceiving of the specially Christian life is through the idea of union with Christ. This idea, when ultimately pressed to precise logical definition, must necessarily contain a certain element of metaphor. Consciousness, rigorously examined, tells us that even in the most exalted souls there is no such thing as an actual union of the human and divine. At the same time, there is possible to man an influence from above so penetrating and so powerful that it would seem as if the figure of union could alone adequately express it. Nor ought this to be questioned or denied because the more common order of minds do not find themselves capable of it. (See the Notes on Romans 6, and Excursus G to that Epistle.)

I am crucified . . .—The idea is something more than that of merely “dying with Christ”—i.e., imitating the death of Christ after a spiritual manner: it involves, besides, a special reference to the cross. It is through the power of the cross, through contemplating the cross and all that is associated with it, that the Christian is enabled to mortify the promptings of sin within him, and reduce them to a state of passiveness like that of death.

Nevertheless I live.—This death unto sin, death upon one side of my nature, does not hinder me from having life upon another side. The fact is that I live in a truer sense than ever before.

Yet not I.—It is, however, no longer the old natural man in me that lives: it is not that part of the human personality which has its root in matter, and is “of the earth, earthy,” but that part which is re-formed by the Spirit of Christ.

Now.—In my present condition as a Christian opposed to the old condition prior to the conversion.

In the flesh.—In this bodily human frame; man though I be. The Christian is outwardly the same as other men; it is his inner life which is “hid with Christ in God.”

By the faith.—The article is better omitted: by faith. The Apostle does not quite go so far as to say that faith is the cause of his physical life, though we may see, by other passages, that he is at least prepared to look upon faith as the great pledge, and even cause, of the physical resurrection. Here he is speaking of faith rather as the element or atmosphere in which the Christian lives. He is, as it were, steeped in faith.

Of the Son of God—i.e., faith of which the Son of God is the object; faith in the Son of God.

There is a curious variation of reading here. Some ancient authorities (including the Codex Vaticanus) instead of “faith in the Son of God,” have “faith in God and Christ.” This might appear to have some internal probability, as the less obvious expression of the two; but it may be perhaps explained satisfactorily in another way. On the whole, it seems best to abide by the Received text, which is that of the majority of MSS.

Who loved me.—Christ died for the whole world, but each individual Christian has a right to appropriate His death to himself. The death of Christ was prompted by love, not for the abstraction humanity, but for men as individuals.


Verse 21

(21) In thus attaching himself devotedly to Christ, the Christian escapes the charge of refusing and thwarting the free gift of justification which God has offered to him in His Son. He has made his choice of Christ, and not of the Law. On the other hand, if he had chosen the Law, and gone to it, and not to Christ, in his search for righteousness, he would have practically declared the death of Christ to be a useless and unnecessary sacrifice.

Frustrate.—An exactly literal translation of the Greek word, which means “to render nugatory or ineffectual.” The grace of God goes forth with a certain mission to perform; but the Judaising party, by still clinging to the Law, prevented it from taking effect, and made it “return void” unto its Giver.

If righteousness come by the law.—What all men seek is justification in the sight of God. This is given to the just or righteous. But there were two ways of becoming thus just or righteous. The Law professed to make righteous those who complied with its provisions. But this was only a profession, for no one could really keep the Law. The Christian, therefore, rightly falls back upon faith in Christ, which brings him both an imputed righteousness, and also, in part, at least, a real righteousness. A deep and genuine faith in Christ is allowed to atone for the many unavoidable breaches of the Law, and that faith by degrees operates a real and vital change in the character and life of the man.

Then Christ is dead in vain.—If the Law had been enough to give actual righteousness to its votaries, and with righteousness the judicial declaration of freedom from guilt, then there would have been nothing for Christ to die for. His death would have had no object and been of no benefit to mankind.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Galatians 2:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/galatians-2.html. 1905.

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