God somehow must invest these religious actions with new meaning. He did this with the Old Testament sacraments. Sacrifice of animals for the benefit of the wrath of the gods, became God’s self-giving exercise to free humanity from this cycle of violence. God became our sacrifice to show us our violence, and thereby to put an end to sacrifice.
If these ceremonies are repeated in our gatherings today, invested with these transformed meanings, they are beneficial. There is nothing wrong with these ceremonies in themselves. It is rather the meaning we invest in them. If they point to our self-giving lives, meaning that God brings healing to our communities by loving service, not through the punishment of substitutes, then they serve us well.
Not Against Ceremonies
So, Paul is not on a crusade against ceremonies in our worship. He is not on a crusade against the Jewish forms of worship. He is not saying that today, we should distance ourselves from those among us who worship with a ceremonial form and tradition that we aren’t comfortable with. This isn’t Paul’s point. His point is rather the opposite. The ceremony isn’t important. We are called to accept and love each other, with our different forms of worship, and extend grace towards each other, even celebrating our differences as varieties of God’s grace.
The point Paul is making is our legalistic use of these ceremonies, when they become markers of our fellowship. And this is common. We commonly use our ceremonies to show us who we include and who we don’t include. This is when they are wrong. It isn’t the ceremonies that are wrong, but ourselves, the way we use them. It is making the ceremonies the substance, which they are not. It is what they point to, the self-giving love of God, that is the substance. This is the substance we must celebrate together as one people.
Paul isn’t making a faith verses ceremonies debate. This is a mindreading of the debate. It is rather a faith/fulness verses withdrawal issue. We are either faithful to our community through service, or we withdraw from others with self-centred motives.
This was the debate Jesus had with the Pharisees. It wasn’t their ceremonies Jesus disliked, but the way they used them. They used them to withdraw from the sick on the Sabbath, from the poor at their gates, from those who were hungry but hadn’t washed their hands, from their parents who needed support. Ceremonialism became a way of scapegoating all those in their societies who needed care and love. This was the whole point Jesus was making. Jesus had come to expose and overthrow this in our communities, through his example of true religion, self-giving care of the community. This was the law and the prophets Jesus came to fulfil.
Paul called observing rituals a form of slavery. Slavery means being given to a practice that is of no use. It doesn’t free the community. The practice, that we say is a religious form of blessing, becomes something that masters us. Instead, we should be mastered by love, by promoting good, healing relationships. When we are mastered by ceremonies, these things rob our true inheritance of faith and shalom. A slave is someone who is in bondage to repeated activities, but who reaps no personal benefit from it. This was Israel, locked up under meaningless traditions.
Paul calls these ceremonies the elemental spiritual forces. In Colossians 2:8-11, Paul calls these the principalities and powers that ruled over the people, bringing them into division. I think what Paul means by this is ceremonies are only pointers, they are not the substance of true fellowship. But if we make them the substance, by forming a legalism into them, then they become divisive powers that break lives apart.
Just like Jesus pointed out, if we don’t serve the sick and the foreigner because we are observing regulations, then we are destroying their lives. This is a principality and power of destruction, ruling over childish communities, bringing a satanic rule into the world. This is what Paul is writing to overthrow, by allowing true gospel love back into the Galatian church.
In Colossians, Paul says that outward circumcision isn’t anything, but circumcision of the heart, which means faith/ fulness towards neighbour. He said the same about baptism. It isn’t arguments about how we are baptised that help our community, but inward baptism of the heart by faith. This is what Paul said mattered. Arguing about the form means we are being ruled over by destructive powers. If we argue about forms of worship among Christians today, we are being ruled over by satanic powers. We are doing this selfishly, rather than building community. This is slavery.
In Western circles, we have come against all sacramentalism in worship, thinking that this was Paul’s message. In the Prophets, I think their point was that sacramentalism is distasteful to God if there comes a disconnect between the religious and the secular life. I think this can happen in any form of worship. In the West, we can rid our churches of ritualism, but still build a largely private faith.
Sacramental language isn’t necessarily wrong, so long as the language is interpreted plainly into every day human life. If mustn’t remain in the religious sphere, but transform our social world. Even in Western Christianity, we have a kind of dualism in worship, separating the spiritual and the secular, private and public worlds. This dualism is what we come together as one family to work against, to care for each other and for our entire world. God is one, and he makes his people and creation one, to heal. Coming against each other’s form of worship breaks down this care.
This “God is one” point was made by Paul in Galatians three. It means that he is bringing his creation together, Jew and gentile, in Christ, to heal his entire world. He is bringing all things together in Christ, as Ephesians says, to become God over all, for the shalom of all. And he is doing this through faith/ fulness, not through our traditions.
The Jews knew this “God is one” call, as part of their Hebrew shema (Deut 6). In the shema, one God unites the world in a transformed creation. In the shema, the creation of Genesis becomes new, refashioned by the living word/ Torah in our hearts. When Paul uses this “God is one” statement in Galatians, it’s a deliberate reference to God’s end-times program: one God making one family to bring together one creation. Paul says this is fulfilled in the gospel of love.
Like a friend of ours said, “The gospel gets rid of our dualisms; between heaven and earth; between our spiritual and social lives; between us and our neighbour.” The gospel brings us together.
The rituals were invented by mankind, due to our sin consciousness. Temples were around long before God instructed Moses to build a similar styled tabernacle. So was sacrifice, which did not originate from God’s command. The law also was brought in by mankind, which God modified somewhat when giving a better code to Moses.
But the reality of all these things is love. Love is the sign of the covenant of grace: “By this shall all people know you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” This is our true sacrament/ sign now. This love neither insists on the traditions of the law for fellowship, nor forbids them.
If we use other peoples’ sacramentalism as an excuse not to love and serve them, then we are doing exactly what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time, and what Paul was correcting at Galatia. We are separating ourselves for selfish reasons. It is lack of service, faith/ fulness that is the point. It is service of neighbour, sinner and enemy, that the law, the prophets and the gospel mean to bring into our lives.
The Circumcision Party
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.”
Now Paul is direct with the Galatians. They are following the Jewish believers at Antioch, insisting the gentiles keep the Jewish law. They had gone back to observing the temple rituals. They weren’t just observing then in a voluntary sense. They were “scrupulously observing them” (from the Greek.) This suggests an insistence that the gentiles follow their regulations. Just as we see in Acts 15:5, “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The Jews who were demanding this had gone back “under the law” (verse 21). The same party of the circumcision which infected Antioch had come to Galatia (verse 17). They were insisting upon gentile circumcision (Gal 5:2.) It may have not been a large group at this stage, as Paul remarked, a “little leaven soon spreads through the whole body” (Gal 5:9.) Paul is speaking to the Jews here. By insisting the gentiles do this, the Jews were putting themselves back under the law also.
“I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong.
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now?” Paul returns to his question at the beginning of Galatians three. “Did they receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or through faith?” When Paul first preached at Galatia, both Jewish and gentile believers received the Spirit by faith. Nobody put any requirements on them about the Jewish traditions of the law.
This is the same argument Paul made about his journey to Jerusalem to see the apostles. They added no requirements to this gospel to the gentiles. The gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised and keep the other requirements of the Jewish traditions to believe and join the community of faith.
This is what Paul is saying in Galatians four. When Paul first came to the Galatian area to preach the gospel, they took him as an angel (messenger) of God. They accepted his gospel of faith, and the Jews who believed accepted the gentiles, without adding their law as a condition of faith and fellowship. Now Paul is asking, why have you turned against me? Why are you now rejecting the gospel I first preached? Why are you now adding something to the gospel?
So, Paul pleads with the Jewish believers to become as he is, “for he himself is as they are” (Literal from the Greek.) The Jewish believers should be free from the law, as Paul is, for Paul is a Jew just like they are. Paul, as a Jew, is free, so they should emulate him, and not emulate the “circumcision party.” He is a Jew, so he knows what he is talking about. So, they should follow him.
Paul still followed the law. He was still “all things to all men.” He was free. He was still a Jew, but he didn’t follow the law in a legalistic sense. He knew what the law pointed to, in its witness to love, and he sought instead to follow this love in his relationships with gentile believers. He called the Jewish believers in Galatia, to live like he does. He wants Christ formed in the Galatian believers, so they would love and accept the gentiles as Christ loved and accepted us all.
Freedom to Serve
“Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.” Paul turns to Hagar and Sarah, as an allegory of the gospel. Note, this is an allegory only. It does not show God’s view of Hagar or Sarah in a political sense, as many have used it since. If we use this politically, then we are slaves ourselves.
Sarah depicts the new people of faith, redeemed to build an inclusive community with the gentiles (Isaiah 54.) It’s important to see Paul’s background picture in which he is writing. Here, it is the Jewish exile in Babylon, and the liberty they are brought into through God’s gracious return. This is what Paul means by the liberty of the gospel. When we read the narrative about Sarah which Paul quotes, invoking the Servant Song of Isaiah, we see Paul is referring to the new Jewish/ gentile family which renews the creation.
Paul claims those who resist this liberty/ grace of gospel fellowship with gentiles remain in slavery, under their former judgment of the law in Babylon. They are in the flesh. They are in selfrighteousness. We need to understand self-righteousness in its first century context. It doesn’t mean the same thing as is often argued by Evangelicals today. Today, the faith/ tradition debate is to do with our personal sanctification.
But this isn’t why the first century Jews sought self-righteousness from the law. For them, the issue wasn’t about a personal struggle with sanctification. They weren’t thinking about this the way Luther expressed it. They were rather thinking about their group and who belonged to it and who didn’t.
They said these rules were to show who was in their group.
To Paul, righteousness meant the return from exile in Babylon, fulfilled in the gospel. This was a return to inhabit their land, as a community, to rebuild its waste places. It was a righteousness fulfilled in a new community, renewing the whole land of God’s creation. This community would be built by grace, not by an obsolete covenant. To Paul, righteousness was also about the group, but a group marked by inclusive service.
When we misread Galatians, we end up committing the same error some of the early Jews did.
When we say Galatians is about our personal sanctification, which we say is by faith, then we separate from those believers whom we say follow traditional forms of worship. We say they are adding to the faith. Galatians is used today, maybe more than any other portion of the New Testament, as our pretext for separating from other believers This puts us in the flesh, just as much as Hagar and the Jews who were in error. We need to look past our traditional forms and see their genuine faith in the Lord Jesus, in his cross and resurrection, and then accept and love others, as the one family we are, called by God to restore our habitations. We need to see each other in liberty, not through the eyes of slavery to the powers that divide us.
Paul uses Hagar and Sarah as an allegory for the flesh/ slavery and for freedom/ Spirit. He develops his use of these themes in Galatians five. Freedom is the Spirit, which means love and service. This is how Paul uses the term Spirit, meaning to be inhabited by the person who leads us to serve in freedom.
Liberty means freed from captivity, bringing Christ’s fragrant aroma of salvation to the gentiles, through cross-shaped service, sweeping them up into one new community of faith, transforming the new creation.