We are now properly in the season of Pentecost. As a larger framework for preaching, this season speaks of God’s provision in Christ and sustaining us for life’s journey with His Word and Sacraments within the Church.
Galatians 3:23-4:7 plays well into the theme of Pentecost. Indeed, chapter 3 can be seen as a commentary on the implications of Pentecost: What happens to the Jew-Gentile distinction when God fulfills His promises in Christ?
It starts in 3:15-29, with a concern over the role of the Law. Paul has been continuing his conversation about the identity of the true Israel — Is it the Law which defines Israel? Is law-keeping what it means to be qualified as a faithful follower of God (and therefore God’s Messiah)? If that is the case, then gentiles converting to follow Messiah must be circumcised or else how can they be of Israel.
In verses 6-14, which set up today’s lesson, Paul rehearses a history that begins with Abraham. Paul agrees Abraham’s descendants are those who, like Abraham, trust and respond to God’s promises. Since God gave His great promises to Abraham before he was circumcised and before there were any Jewish ethnic people (that is, before Israel), then it is clear such considerations do not matter now. Faith in the promise-making, promise-keeping God is what counts. Faith in God’s faithfulness through the Messiah—Jesus—is what constitutes Israel and so, being of Israel can be done with or without circumcision
God’s Messiah, by definition, represents the people of God. The king speaks and acts on behalf of his people. The Messiah, then, embodies Israel. It was Jesus who came, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17), and did so, “tempted in every way, just as we, yet without sin” (Hebrews 5:14). Jesus fulfills the covenants of human obligation to God and He does so with perfect faith. It is the faith of Jesus that saves (Galatians 2:16 = διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ).
It is Jesus Christ, therefore, who reconstitutes Israel according to faith; not works and not circumcision. But so, the Jew as well as the gentile may be saved in Christ, Jesus Himself perfectly keeps the Law and undergoes circumcision. They too are saved by faith in the faithful Christ of God where, “faith… is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 = πίστεως καὶτοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον), and, “faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ” (= Gospel, i.e. Romans 10:16-18). Things were no different in the days of Abram, who was justified by God’s grace through the gift of faith, before there was ever such a thing as an ethnic Jew or the Law that came by the hand of Moses. Paul concludes: As it is with the Messiah, so it is with those who are united to the Messiah. Hence, the reconstituting of Israel takes place in faith through baptism to both Jew and gentile alike. Baptism then, is the great leveler of the walls of demographic division.
Baptism is, therefore, “into the Messiah,” the One who is our righteousness. The One who is availing faith. The One who is the Transactor, of the New Covenant. It is the doorway through which one passes into membership in the single-family God promised to Abraham. Paul does not discuss here, as he does in 1 Corinthians 10, the problems arising from people being baptized who seem to not realize what it involves. That is a story for another day because Paul’s point here is how those who have been baptized have thus, “put on Christ,” and therefore His Law-fulfilling righteousness, possessing His faith as a gift, and thus are justified in an otherwise condemned world. They are God’s family. As a result, old distinctions cease to be relevant in terms of their divisions, segregations, legalism, bigotry, or whatever. All these are irrelevant for your status in Christ. The ground is even at the foot of the cross. Verses 28-29 state:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Consequently, in the new Covenant, there are only two categories of humanity. No, not Jew and gentile, not rich and poor, not black and white, not English-speaker and other-speaker, not Democrat and Republican, but the baptized into Christ (Israel!) and those who have yet to be baptized into Christ (the “world”). Baptism demolishes all boasting, for it is passively received and all that is received is pure gift. No one can, therefore, boast a better salvation than another:
(For) There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Israel is a problem in the New Testament because, properly speaking, there was no “Israel” in the days of Jesus. Indeed, ever since the northern ten tribes were absorbed into the nations in 722 BC, Israel ceased to exist. There were only two tribes: Benjamin and Judah. For the prophesies to be fulfilled, Israel would need to be re-created, reconstituted “from,” as it were, the gentiles.
Further notes on the text:
- V.16, “offspring” or “seed”. Either way, the intention is to refer to Abraham’s family. This is in fact the only way to make full sense of Paul’s argument. God made promises, “to Abraham and his offspring.” The Greek word for offspring or seed here is singular, meaning the Messiah – who, for Paul, represents God’s people, so the singular offspring or seed or descendant of Abraham means the single family because that single seed—the Messiah—stands for the entire fruit bearing tree, just as God always intended. The Father wanted His Son to represent a new humanity in our salvation, just like Adam once represented in our failure. And when you are a king you can do just that – represent all your people. That is what Messiah means.
- Paul’s point was to the Galatians: Now that the remedy for our sin and guilt before the Law has arrived in the coming of the Messiah, to go on insisting on doing the Law after the solution has been found contraindicates the remedy. The Sinai Law showed them how, when it came to sin, they were in the same boat as the gentiles, maybe worse since they sinned not only against God’s Law but also His grace. The Law then should have thrown them on the mercy of God, the Gospel message that YHWH is gracious and merciful, and therefore elicit faith in the promise made with Abraham.
- The problem is not with the Law then, but (first) with the sinful condition of Abraham’s circumcised offspring and (second) how the Jews thought of themselves, which was a little too much about their ability to keep the Law and that it was their distinguishing trait as the people of God. Paul said, truth be told, you are sinners too, and the Law (that you think brings life) is what condemns you before this holy God. You have no righteousness before the Law. The Law does not make anyone righteous. Instead, the Law, whether given to the whole world through the natural law or to the Jews at Sinai, serves as a steady reminder that the human race is sinful. It was in place, doing its job, right up to the time when God fulfilled the promise to Abraham, when Messiah came and fulfilled the Law on our behalf and took our penalty for failing at the Law on every point. And when He did so, the terms of the Covenant with Christ are the only thing that avails – the condition is perfect faithfulness and perfect righteousness. It comes as a gift.
- Vv. 26-27: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Does God’s word avail in baptism or not? What matters to the Father, what matters to the Holy Spirit, and what matters to Paul is how you are united to the Messiah, “In Christ.” It is a matter of belonging to a particular community, the new royal family, the Messiah’s people: sharing in His Spirit, His being, His blood. Paul’s answer here is that one participates in Christ, has a share in His faith, enters into God’s new family through the waters of holy baptism. He even says, “now that faith has come,” not, “now that you have mustered up faith.” Faith is the gift of God where salvation is preached and applied for you by the Spirit, namely, in the Word of the Gospel and the Gospel Sacrament of baptism. Pentecost and baptism are brought together in this text with the following implications, apart from the Law; hence vv. 28-29.