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by Peter Pett
In this letter Paul is writing to a group of churches which has been wrongly influenced by visiting preachers. These preachers have tried to direct them away from their simple trust in Christ and obedience to Him. They have tried to make them legalistic by stressing that unless they rigidly observe certain points of ritual in the Law of Moses, such as circumcision, strict sabbath-keeping, the observance of certain Feasts, abstaining from ritually unclean food, ritual cleansing before meals, observing the Law’s requirements as expanded by the Rabbis, and so on, they would not be saved. Paul replies by stressing that salvation is not through religious observance or following a set of regulations, but is through faith in the sacrificial death of Christ, and that alone. Nothing else is required. And the result of that will be a practical righteousness which will result from the work of God’s Spirit within, a righteousness which will far exceed that required by the Pharisees and the Judaisers.
This reminds us that a great problem to be sorted out in the early church was as to how far a Christian should become a Jew. All the earliest Christians, including the disciples, were Jews. Jesus Himself was a Jew. Indeed He was a member of its deposed royal family. All were circumcised. All recognised the need to keep the Jewish Sabbath and the Feasts. That Jesus observed the basics of Pharisaic teaching comes out in that they rarely criticised Him on that account. Thus they generally observed ritual cleansing. All of them offered sacrifices in the Temple when in Jerusalem.
But the question was, what about Gentiles who became Christians? Were they also to become Jewish proselytes and be circumcised, and commit themselves to all the requirements of Jewish teaching? Were they expected to fully ‘observe the Law’, both ceremonial and moral? Many said, ‘Yes’. But Paul replies that that would be simply to return to the old ways and would thrust the cross into the shadows. It would make Christ but an added extra. The basic question therefore was, had the coming of Christ, and His death and resurrection, done away with the need for the Old Testament ordinances, calling on men rather to directly trust in Jesus Christ for their whole salvation?
That was what Paul taught. He taught that the cross had replaced the sacrifices, because it was in itself a full and sufficient sacrifice for sins. He taught that the work of the Spirit in the heart, acting as a seal on their faith, replaced circumcision. He taught that the bind of continual ritual cleansing was no longer necessary, being replaced by being able to come personally to God for forgiveness through the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7). And he had the agreement of Peter, John and the other Apostles.
The first part of Acts demonstrates the slow progress of the new people of God towards this position. But there were still many who would not be won over. They wanted all Christians to become Jews and come into line with Jewish requirements, including being circumcised, the observance of ritual washings, and the observance of feasts, holy days and sabbaths. And some of these travelled the Christian world seeking to enforce these demands, some more, some less. These were ‘the Judaisers’. And they had arrived in the province of Galatia and the result was that there was great division.
Paul’s reply was swift. The Law, he pointed out, when looked at as a way to God, has in fact done its job in pointing us to Christ. It is like a mirror in which we look to see how dirty we are. It has shown us our sinfulness. Now therefore it has been replaced. Once the mirror has shown us how dirty we are we do not use the mirror to scrape the dirt off. We put it to one side. We turn to cleansing agent and water. In the same way the Law is no longer required by us as Christians, except as a means of reminding us of our sinfulness, and as a guide to show us how to live. It is unable to cleanse. So now we turn from the Law and recognise that our acceptability to God, and our being ‘put in the right’ with God, comes from our putting our trust in Christ and in His sacrificial death on our behalf, and in nothing else. He is the cleansing agent Who cleanses from all sin (1 John 1:7). The result will then be that we will receive the Spirit and will begin to live lives of Christian love under His control. We will begin to fulfil the moral law. Observance of legal ritual has been replaced by the response of faith, and that faith is to be in the crucified and risen Christ and in Him alone, for through Him we have been crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to us.
This idea of faith responding to the grace of God was actually what really lay at the basis of the original covenant in Exodus 20:0, which was originally called The Testimony. That covenant bore witness to God’s acceptance in mercy of His people whom He had delivered and set free (Exodus 20:1-2). And it was because He had exercised His power on their behalf and had delivered them from bondage, that He called on them to reveal their gratitude and faithfulness by observing His commandments (Exodus 20:3-19). So the revelation of His goodness and mercy towards them came first, and it was only then followed by the covenant requirements which they were expected to fulfil out of gratitude for what He had done and as evidence that they were His people. And when the Law showed them that they had fallen short, they turned to God’s way of dealing with sin through offerings and sacrifices. Salvation was even then of grace (G_R_A_C_E - God’s Riches And Compassion Extended). It was later Jewry that turned the covenant into a means of salvation, for they felt that if only they could fulfil the covenant God would bless them, and that partly involved striving to keep the Law.
We do not intend to argue fully within the commentary the question of how Paul’s visits to Jerusalem fit in with Acts, for Acts had not been written when Paul wrote to the Galatians, and he wrote as he saw things and knew them to be. That is a question to be dealt with elsewhere.
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34