We can’t meet as ecclesias at the moment, so perhaps this is a perfect opportunity to reflect on what true religion is all about separate from what we normally do on Sunday mornings or midweek class. It’s something the Galatian ecclesias had to think about because they were in danger of losing the Truth altogether. Paul was the perfect person to deal with what was going on with the Galatians. Having become brothers and sisters in Christ they were going back to what they had previously left behind – the Law of Moses and rites like circumcision, along with many Jewish traditions. Paul himself had experienced both worlds and that’s why he gives a short biography of his life in chapter 1. “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (v.23) is what the brethren were saying about him. Paul said, “so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (v.14) but now “I have been crucified with Christ” (2:20). He understood what it was like to be under law, but he also understood the vast superiority of being in Christ and so could appeal to the Galatians with authority.
What was it that changed Saul of Tarsus into the apostle Paul? It was, of course, his experience on the road of Damascus when God, as Paul said, “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (v.16). It was the fact that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead (which Paul mentions in the very first verse of the epistle) that convicted Paul. One of the things Paul realized (thinking back to our thought for the day from Monday) was that his employer, the Jewish high priest, had had his power stripped away from him. There was a new high priest in heaven and Paul now belonged to him.
Much of the New Testament is about what Paul himself went through, coming out of the false religion Judaism had descended into, and embracing the grace of God which comes through Jesus Christ. A lot of what Jesus taught, particularly in his parables, was about the failure of the religious elite and how the new covenant would replace the old. We read about that throughout Luke’s gospel record. Paul deals with it here in Galatians, Romans and Colossians, it’s also the topic of Hebrews and touched on in many other books of the New Testament.
But now the Galatians want to go backwards to something Paul calls “a different gospel” (v.6). He goes even further than that in his negative description of failed Judaism, likening it to idolatry in chapter 4. In fact, Paul’s words throughout the epistle are very strong in admonishing the Galatian ecclesias. But Paul needed to use such strong language because of the extreme pull the Jewish religion had on its former adherents. Paul himself “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (v.13), seeing the new Christian movement as a threat to his whole worldview and way of life. What caused such zeal and such desire on the part of the Galatians to go back to what Paul calls a different gospel? One of the main reasons is the power of the traditions Paul mentions in verse 14. The Jewish religion itself had existed for one and a half thousand years, delivered by an angel of God to Moses, the servant of God. The subsequent one and a half millennia of Jewish history had ingrained tradition into the Jews. Of course, it was hard to leave and the pull to go back was immensely strong!
Perhaps we under appreciate the enormous paradigm shift the Jewish converts of the first century had. Leaving behind centuries old tradition for an entirely different gospel was no small thing. I wonder if sometimes, because we don’t have that fifteen hundred years of tradition, we don’t fully understand the huge difference between what the Galatians had embraced in Christ and what they were being pulled back into. In fact, sometimes I fear that we are seduced by the pull of a law-based religion ourselves, not realizing how damaging it is to the true gospel message. Look at the difference between Saul of Tarsus and the apostle Paul. He went from murdering brothers and sisters in Christ to being crucified in Christ and giving his life in service to those he once persecuted. The difference between what the two religions produced in Paul was immense. And he wasn’t a fringe half-hearted member of either community. As a Pharisee he was a keen Bible student. But as an apostle he saw the spirit behind the Bible message which he was entirely blind to before.
Such was the dramatic change in Paul’s life, along with all the other Jews of the first century, that it required something as powerful as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth to convince them. But the lesson for us is no different. The death and resurrection of Christ put an end to law-based religion. That religion does not work. It produced a murderer in Saul of Tarsus, and it produced murderers who put the righteous Son of God to death. The resurrection of Christ should have a powerful impact in our lives too. Do we understand what was demonstrated by our Lord going through what he experienced? When we’re tempted to go back to law, and when we feel the pull of our own man-made traditions that can tend to define our religion, remember where that sort of thing leads to, the shedding of innocent blood, whether literally or symbolically in how we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. As we read through Galatians let’s remember how important that lesson is, and pause for a moment to take in the very strong language of the apostle as he exhorts us to leave behind law and cling onto the grace of God which comes through faith in the risen Son of God.
Simi Hills, CA