Freedom from the Law
Formations: October 15, 2017
Scripture: Galatians 3:26-4:7
I remember a day when I was told:
- Black people don't have a soul, God made them to serve white people
- Women have a place in the home, not the pulpit
- God has already decided who will go to heaven or hell, so we need not worry about that
Sad how easy it is to twist God's truth into something that builds walls, locks people in cages of hopelessness and ignores the truth of God's love and grace. This letter to the Christians in Galatia confronts the destructive authority of religious legalism and human prejudice. Paul sums up the heart of Christianity with a simple statement: “You are all God's children through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:20).
The world in which Paul lived was composed of three kinds of people: pagans, Jews and Christians. Paul was an anomaly in his own tradition when he, as a Jew, also became a follower of Christ and determined to spend his life pointing the world to the Savior. The first demolition of an established wall of prejudice occurred when the Jewish Christians fled Jerusalem because of persecution by traditional Jews. That's when Philip, a deacon in the Jerusalem church, went to Samaria and preached the good news to people the Jews considered traitors and half-breeds (Acts 8). Paul, formerly Saul the Pharisee, became the prominent evangelist to the Gentile world. Of all the New Testament writings, only two (Luke and Acts) were written by a Gentile. What is remarkable is the rapid spread of the message of Christ across the empire, where all kinds of barriers stood between people. The Apostle John succinctly states the reason for the gospel overcoming so many barriers: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Some Jewish believers found it difficult to give up the traditions of their earlier faith in God and continued to teach that a true follower of Christ would adhere to circumcision, rituals and the Law. There were also strict traditions about gender roles. Paul confronts these divisive ideas as he wrote to Gentile followers of Jesus in Galatia (and other regions as well) with his inclusive statement: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:27-28).
We are masters at dividing ourselves by rules about music in worship, laws of behavior, gender roles in church and society, and traditions. Paul knew the power of religious legalism, but he found a liberating and joyful new life in following Christ. Some scholars believe these two verses (vv. 27-28) may have been a commonly used declaration when a new convert was baptized. In my younger years, when I asked a preacher about this passage, he explained that Paul was talking about our spiritual standing in the eyes of God and it did not change the “biblical order that God designed for blacks to be servants and women submissive to men in the everyday world!” Such an interpretation makes a mockery of God's grace and makes human prejudice the fault of God.
Paul is speaking of God's liberating grace in ways that sweep away our class distinctions, debilitating prejudices and political abuses. Paul never diminishes moral law or the importance of religious practices, but he declares the foundation of our relationship with God cannot be cemented by rituals or laws. Faith comes first and behavior must follow. Paul clearly states that his Gentile readers are descendants and heirs of Abraham (v. 29). The Law was established by God to guide and guard the people called Israel until the coming of Messiah. But in Jesus Christ the fullness of time has come. Both Jews and Gentiles can experience what it means to be God's people without the restrictions of the Law. This does not dismiss the truths and guidance of the Law, but we no longer need to attend primary school when we can sit at the feet of the greatest Teacher of all eternity!
Paul uses two images to describe the transition to a new life in Christ. First, a child becoming an adult was more clearly defined in that day. A Jewish son became an adult on the first Sabbath following his twelfth birthday, when his father took him to the synagogue and declared him to be a “son of the commandment” (Aramaic, bar mitzvah). In the Greco-Roman world there was a clear legal division between a minor and an adult son. A child had no legal standing or power, with no control over his life, much like a slave. Only when he reached the age of majority could a son receive his inheritance or make any legal decisions. Paul says the spiritual realm is like that: before Christ “we were also enslaved by this world's system” (4:3), but Christ came into our world and set us free.
Paul's second image is that of a slave becoming a free person. There were several ways to make such a transition. One was for a master to bring his slave before a magistrate, where a formal decree was issued and public statement made. Every five years a Roman census was taken and slaves could be freed with a master's consent and the slave registered as a new citizen. Any master could simply choose to free a slave for personal reasons. There also existed a legal way for a master to adopt a slave and thus grant his freedom. A master could also make a slave free through a statement in his will.
All these images of a slave becoming free would have been known to the Galatians. One day you were a child, then the next you were an adult with surprising freedom and challenges. One day you lived under oppressive rules of behavior, but the next you were guided by God's love and grace.
Life is totally different under God's grace. What a change between living as you please without a though about consequences or values and living to embody the love and goodness of God. Paul came to see God in a much different way when he was free from the never-ending requirements of the Law and countless sacrifices and rituals. In Christ, Paul found God's acceptance and forgiveness in contrast to uncertainty and fear. Paul saw people in a new way. There were no longer the “chosen few” but a world of people that God loves and welcomes into his family through Christ. When you live in the hope of God's grace you see beyond the obvious darkness of the world to what can be when we follow the example of Jesus and share his love. God loves each of us, regardless of our culture, race, experiences and flaws. Nothing we do can earn God's love. God has taken the initiative, reaching out to us through Christ. We are invited to a freedom and fullness of life no one but God can offer.
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
The PDF download requires the free Acrobat Reader program. It can be downloaded and installed at https://get.adobe.com/reader (uncheck optional offers first).