Posted: 19 Mar 2011 12:00 AM PDT
THE BEGINNING AND THE ENDING OF Galatians 5, taken together, tell us a great deal about the Gospel that Paul preaches.
In the first part, Paul is still trying to persuade his Gentile Christian readers in Galatia that adding Jewish heritage and ritual to their Christian faith does not add something to it, but subtracts something from it. In particular, if they submit to circumcision, then "Christ will be of no value" to them at all (Gal. 5:2). Why not? What harm could arise from being circumcised? Paul explains that the Gentile who allows himself to be circumcised "is obligated to obey the whole law" (Gal. 5:3). That was the symbol-significance of circumcision: it was the mark of submission to the law-covenant. But to take that step betrays a massive failure to understand the true relationship between the law-covenant and the new covenant that the Lord Jesus Christ introduced. The former prepares for the latter, announces the latter, anticipates the latter. But to commit oneself to obeying the terms of the law-covenant is to announce that the new covenant Jesus secured by his death is somehow inadequate. These Galatians, who have in the past clearly understood that men and women are justified by grace through faith, are now "trying to be justified by law," and in so doing "have been alienated from Christ"; it means nothing less than falling away from grace (Gal. 5:4). The ultimate righteousness will be ours at the end, when Jesus returns. Meanwhile, "by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope" (Gal. 5:5). To understand the crucial significance of Christ this way means that those who believe in Christ Jesus—what he has accomplished for us in his central place in redemptive history—know full well that circumcision itself is neither here nor there (Gal. 5:6). But circumcision actually subtracts from Christ if one undergoes it out of a desire to submit to a covenant that in certain respects Christ has made passé.
While in the first part of the chapter Paul talks about the work of Christ, he slips in a brief mention of the Spirit: "By faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope" (Gal. 5:5, italics added). Already the Spirit is given to believers, consequent upon Christ's work. Christians, then, are those who "keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25), who display the lovely fruit of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22–23). Pursue those things; there is no law against them, and they stand over against the wretched acts of our sinful nature (Gal. 5:19–21; cf. Prov. 6:16–19) against which the Law pronounced but which it could not overcome.
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