When the Apostle Paul sends a letter, he isn’t just writing to say, “Hello.” Paul writes epistles to churches because of real world issues. He has his feelers out in all the churches. When he receives a report, he is delighted with progress, and is dismayed by problems. From a troubled heart, he sits down with an assistant and dictates a letter. Prayerfully, he puts the letter into the hands of a trusted leader who delivers his words in person. As the letter is read, those who are guilty of the division Paul addresses squirm in their seats. Others nod their heads in approval. The letter is a truth bomb. The church must respond in a wise and timely way.
Two-thousand years later we open Paul’s letters looking for a personal word from the Lord. Without an understanding of the original audience and the struggle they were facing, our grasp of the content is weakened. Studying the Bible requires studying the culture.
Last Sunday at Quaker Gap we referred to a verse found in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches. It’s a beautiful verse emphasizing the unity of the body of Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
This is one of those instances where we need to pay attention to the occasion of Paul’s letter. If we read our cultural baggage into this passage of Scripture, we can come up with all sorts of interpretations foreign to Paul and Galatia. For instance, our view of the word slave and the first century view are different. While not defending the institution of slavery in any way, it needs to be understood that the chattel slavery of American history differs from what was happening in the Roman Empire. One of the most important distinctions is that Roman slaves had the opportunity to earn money on the side so that they could eventually buy their freedom from their master. This option was unavailable to slaves in the Americas. Another distinction is that Roman slaves were diverse in cultural background, while American slaves were largely of African descent. A third distinction is that many slaves in the Roman world performed higher status duties, managing businesses, and even serving as doctors. American slaves mostly performed hard labor. Slavery in the Roman Empire was established practice with much less of the stigma of American slavery. Scholars have approximated that most Roman cities were populated by as much as 40% slaves, 40% freedmen (former slaves) and 20% Roman citizens. Perhaps this was the case in Galatia. Paul’s declaration concerning the gospel would have impacted many hearers of the letter.
Another distinction to which we need to pay attention is the difference between women’s rights in Rome vs. today. Women were considered property of their husbands in the Roman Empire. They couldn’t vote or hold political office. A woman’s education in Rome largely consisted of preparation for household duties. While we know from the Bible that some women ran businesses and acquired wealth, the opportunities afforded to them were much smaller than that of men. This makes Paul’s teaching with regard to the gospel, that there is neither male nor female, even more revolutionary.
Perhaps the most important distinction is between the Jew and Gentile. As we read this in our day, we attend churches largely made up of Gentile believers. So much so that we don’t even refer to ourselves as Gentile anymore. But in Paul’s day, the church was made up of two distinct groups. There were Jewish people who had come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and Gentile people who had come to faith in Jesus as their Savior. Jewish believers continued to practice their cultural and religious lifestyles which the Gentiles did not. This is where the problem arose in the Galatian churches. It was a problem the early church faced all the way up to its leadership. Do Gentiles need to become Jews in order to become Christians? How much of Jewish religious practice should Gentiles be responsible to adapt in order to fit into the church? Can Gentiles who don’t follow Jewish law be true followers of the Messiah? These questions erupted into full divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers over areas like dietary choices, ceremonial practices, and circumcision. What a mess.
Paul writes his letter to the churches of Galatia with the Jew and Gentile controversy in mind. The growing threat is that the church will fall apart along racial lines. He handles the conflict by emphasizing the gospel of Jesus Christ. From the beginning of the letter, he highlights the gospel message that he taught them when the churches were planted…
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God's curse! (Gal. 1:6-8)
This is serious business. Paul teaches that those who are adding Jewish religious practice to the gospel message are violating the grace of God. In so doing, they are usurping the authority of the Lord, and there is hell to pay. Incorporating law into the gospel is a mistake. Later, he writes…
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Gal. 2:21)
Paul stresses that salvation is by faith in the crucified Jesus and not through works of the law. He rebukes those who place the burden of law-keeping to believers in Christ who have received grace. He even reaches back into the Jewish law to prove that Gentiles are on the same level as Jews when it comes to faith in Christ…
So also Abraham "believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. (Gal. 3:6-7)
Gentiles, in Paul’s understanding of the gospel truth, are just as much children of Abraham as Jews. Together in Christ, they become brothers and sisters. Within the church, the distinction between Jew and Gentile no longer matters. Paul understands that his Jewish countrymen will likely continue their Jewish practices. His concern is that they won’t attempt to enforce these practices within the church. Gentile believers should not be considered second-rate citizens of God’s kingdom.
So, what is the point? Paul delivers his piercing words into the Galatian churches to change their attitudes regarding the family of God. These are groundbreaking truths. While the world is known for dividing people into classes, levels of importance, and castes, in Christ these manmade partitions dissolve. While outside the church it is business as usual, inside the church family Christ demands unity. There are no second-rate Christians. In Christ, the Roman citizen worships alongside the slave with no expectation of special treatment. We are commanded to humbly wash one another’s feet. In the church family, men and women worship together (Philemon 1:2), serve together (Romans 16:1), prophesy together (Acts 21:9), and work together (Romans 16:12) for God’s glory. And in the body of Christ, tribal distinctions dissolve, looking forward to the day when we all stand together around God’s throne as one great, integrated kingdom.
Though this sounds beautiful, we confess it is the aim and not the experience of the church. Paul’s letter didn’t solve the problem of prejudice within the early church. To this day equality and unity suffer in the body of Christ. It is the responsibility of each individual believer to strive for Paul’s unifying vision. Let’s do our best, church, to set aside manmade categories that suppress in favor of celebrating unity in Christ. The gospel demands it.
Dr. Jack Darida