This Hebrew vision of the gospel was expressed by Hannah, when she received news she was pregnant with Samuel. Samuel would judge Israel, bringing justice to a nation where the poor languished. This same vision and prayer was taken up by Mary, expressing the fulfilment of Hannah’s cry and the cry of the Hebrew freedom Beatitudes.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53) To Mary, this was the gospel. It doesn’t seem like our Western vision of the gospel. The hope of righteousness, isn’t our personal salvation and flight to heaven. It is a renewed creation, in which the poor and the outcast receive justice and care, resulting in peace. Mary said this is the Messianic vision.
The Messiah would build a new community, where there is no rich and poor, bond or free, male nor female, Jew nor gentile, but we are all one. This means one family of care. This is the hope, the liberty from exile in Babylonian oppression, that the gospel is bringing to Galatia.
But for them to live in this, they must stand fast in this new freedom of serving each other, and not be entangled in the slavery of division and destruction. If they go back to insist on circumcision, they are rebuilding their divisions, denying their liberty to receive and love each other. They are placing themselves back under the law, back under the curse in exile, back under a Babylonian type oppression, and the gospel will be of no profit to them.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
In Christ, the sign of covenant membership isn’t circumcision, but faith/ fulness, which works through love. This is what builds family, builds renewal of our lives and brings us into the liberty of God’s promised return from exile, to his new land. This fulfils Isaiah and Ezekiel, about Israel’s flourishing with the gentiles in a curse free world. This fulfils the hope of the Hebrew gospel.
This stand against nationalism and the politicising of the gospel, is a stand for the liberty of our brothers and sisters, a stand for the care of our wider family. This is the church’s witness in a world where the gentiles and nations rage, and constantly imagine a vain thing about power and riches, a vanity that destroys lives.
The Offense of the Cross
“Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.”
The basis of Paul’s persecution was his cutting across the nationalism of the Jews. This was the same reason the Anabaptists were persecuted, both by the Catholics and the Protestants. They had joined with their respective national powers, and the Anabaptists refused to recognize these powers as determinative for their fellowship. They refused the associated nationalism and they refused to fight their wars of national interests.
Paul was calling for the acceptance of Israel’s enemies as joint heirs, equal in faith. This would have huge repercussions on the national interests of Israel. At least, this is how fallen man sees it. It would diminish Jewish control over the faith and a huge drop in revenue at the annual Jewish feasts in Jerusalem would be the result.
But the fallen human view is wrong. Their nationalism brought wars and brought their destruction in AD 70. Paul’s gospel would have saved them. It would have built them into caring community with their neighbours, which would have enhanced their wellbeing as a wider people. It would have built them into a secure future, but a future they had to share with others.
We face the same security issues today. We can retreat into our nationalism and seek security in separation, in war. Or we can build neighbourliness with others and seek a future security through the wellbeing of us all. The first is the human way, the second is the way of God’s new kingdom. Paul preached the second way, as the only hope for Israel and their future. We must share our future with others, seeking justice for everyone. This is the kingdom Isaiah envisions, which is the church Paul is defending at Galatia.
This is the offense of the cross. It calls us all away from law, to grace, to receive each other. It destroys our separations. It destroys our advantages over others and calls us to serve. It destroys our self-righteousness, which we believe is our reason for maintaining a better life than others, and shows us our bankruptcy, calling us to a grace relationship with our neighbours.
Works of the Flesh
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
You were called to be free. This is the liberty Paul spoke on in the previous chapter, with Sahara, and the new Jew/ gentile united family. Don’t go back to indulging the flesh. This is Hagar, by allegory only, going back to the law. It is called flesh, because it is indulging in separatism, for selfish motives.
Instead of going back to the law, know that the whole law is fulfilled in love of neighbour, in the liberty of receiving each other in the Spirit, which we are called to. But if they go back to the law, they will be under a curse, the curse of destroying each other in selfishness. This is what the law does in our hearts. It makes us judge and destroy others, rather than serve and heal. Paul warns that this is what will happen to the church community, if they go back to the law. They will indulge all forms of the flesh, as they become enemies of each other.
“So, I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Walk in the Spirit. The Spirit receives us by grace. Receive each other, from our diverse backgrounds, by the same grace. Then we will not be under law. If we place ourselves under the law, then it will stir up all kinds of aggressive behaviour among us, and lead us into “works of the flesh,” meaning a self-justifying aggression towards others.
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
The acts of the flesh are contrary to what builds God’s kingdom. These things tear apart community.
If we put ourselves under law, thinking we are being holy, the law stirs up enmity in our behaviour towards others, which breaks apart community. This isn’t holy. It doesn’t achieve the righteousness of God, which is a renewed community.
When we walk in the Spirit, which means receiving and walking in love towards our neighbour, we don’t indulge in these lusts of the flesh. We seek the other person’s wellbeing and not our own will and good. The party of the circumcision were promoting a self-good, for their group. Seeking our self-interests brings us into the works of the flesh which Paul lists, all of which destroy lives, family, community and the wellbeing of our society. It is putting self interest ahead of the interest of others.
All who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. This is a cause and effect, sowing and reaping issue. When we sow to the flesh, meaning we sow destruction into the lives of others around us, then we reap that in our own lives. We lose value for God’s kingdom and stop desiring it.
We count ourselves out of it.
We don’t inherit God’s kingdom life, whether in this life, or in the life to come, in the resurrection.
The kingdom Paul is speaking of is one that begins now in our community, but has its ultimate fulfillment in the resurrection and fully realised new heavens and new earth.
The Fruit of the Spirit
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” This is the freedom the Spirit brings to our community. When we receive each other, based on the cross, where Christ received us, we only seek the graces and good that Christ sought for us. This kind of liberty fulfils the law. It brings us into a faithful love for neighbour, putting their interest ahead of our own, just as Jesus did for us. This is the law.
Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh. They are dead to the law; the demands of the law being put to death in the body of Christ. Being freed from the law, the flesh that is empowered by the curse, by our condemnation, and our resultant self-focus and hostility towards our neighbour, has been crucified.
Now, since we live by the Spirit, that is, we have our acceptance and life freely given us by grace through the Spirit, then let us keep in step with this, let us walk in this way towards those around us.
If we don’t receive each other in this same grace, by which God has received us, then we can only go back to a life of “not being received,” in which we live non-reconciled lives with the wider world.
So, it is in the Spirit that the exilic prophecies to Israel are fulfilled. “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh…” These are the ones that have come out of exile with Christ, who have returned with Ezekiel into the resurrection life of faith, to build a new creation community with gentiles. This is what Paul’s discussion on the fruit of the Spirit is about. Being led by the Spirit binds us together with gentiles in post-exilic flourishing.
Isaiah and Ezekiel spoke of a new Jew/ gentile community bringing liberty to the creation. This is Paul’s subject here in Galatians. He said that these promises aren’t fulfilled by the Old Covenant, which came under judgment, but by the new covenant, which is given out freely by grace. The Jews had to learn to receive the gentiles by this new way. It was this walk in the Spirit, this reaching out in reconciliation to their neighbour, without the law, that could fulfil the prophetic visions of the law, a new world.
A walk in the Spirit with our neighbour, which means inclusive grace, brings about the fruits of the Spirit, which bring us to peace. This is Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom of peace, the Prince of Peace, coming to the world with his victory over the oppressive forces of the world powers, that divide and conquer.
“I will accept you as fragrant incense when I bring you out from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will be proved holy through you in the sight of the nations.” (Ezekiel 20:41)
This is central to Paul’s view of his mission to the gentile people. I mentioned this passage from Ezekiel above. Ezekiel uses the Exodus as a backdrop, as a type of Israel’s new return from captivity.
In the Exodus, Israel came out of Egypt, to receive the Torah, to be God’s renewing people in the nations. It was a new creation.
This is what Ezekiel said the gospel would fulfil. The renewed Israel would be a fragrant incense to God among the nations. Paul referred to this Ezekiel passage in Ephesians 5. He said that Christ was this fragrant incense. He fulfilled Israel’s return from captivity. Christ’s obedience in the cross, his love in the face of evil, showed the true nature of God to the nations. It showed the contrasting values of his kingdom, his acceptance, forgiveness and peace.
Ezekiel said Israel would go on and display this same grace, this same fragrant incense, in the gentile nations. They would live out this new kingdom life that Christ had revealed and initiated. They would mingle with the gentiles, bringing about a new kingdom. This is Paul’s view of his mission to the gentiles and why he insists that the Jews show this grace in their relationships.
The question to the Jewish people in Paul’s day, was how are these promises of God going to be fulfilled? How will God’s new creation purpose be achieved? How will the life of Torah, the Exodus values of Israel, renew the world? This is Paul’s answer. It is the walk in the Spirit, the extension of reconciliation to the gentiles, by their self-giving service, by calling the gentiles to be one with Israel, by the free grace Christ showed to us on the cross. This grace is the Spirit’s walk, the fulfillment of the law in love.
The walk in the Spirit in Galatians five above is Paul’s new creation. It is our Exodus from Egypt. It is the Torah fulfilled in us. It is Israel’s return from exile, to new the creation with an inclusive gentile people, breaking down our oppressive empires and walking in reconciling, restoring lives with their neighbour. This walk in the Spirit with our neighbours from diverse backgrounds, is Paul’s answer to how God’s promises of a new world will come to pass through the church.