With popular Evangelical leaders floating around a neo-replacement theology, and ideas of “unhitching” from the Old Testament Scriptures, we could all benefit from a fresh look at Paul’s angriest letter, The Book of Galatians.
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised (if you undergo b’rit-milah), Christ will be of no value to you at all.” Galatians 5:2
The Letter of Galatians can seem harsh in places, and if misunderstood can leave you with the notion that Paul was opposed to being Jewish, being circumcised, rejoicing in the Torah, or following the traditions of Moses. In fact, an early false teaching, known as Antinomianism (literally anti-law), was a misinterpretation of Paul’s teaching. The Apostle Peter, whom interestingly enough was brought up in Paul’s Galatians, references antinomianism when writing his own letter to the church. Peter, with a tone of love and respect, even comments in that “his brother, Paul,” was, at times, hard to understand. That’s 2 Peter 3:15-16.
So, we know Paul was sometimes hard to understand; even the Apostles who walked with Jesus had to take time to chew on what he said. Beyond this, most scholars agree that Galatians was Paul’s angriest epistle. So we have Paul, who is already hard to understand, and now he is hot! But why is Paul so angry? What is happening in the church communities of Galatia that made him furious? Here’s why I believe Paul is so angry:
Under peer pressure, Gentiles were attempting to become Jewish. Why is this a big deal? It was out of order. This was not God’s plan. In fact, Gentiles trying to make themselves Jewish was an insult to God’s gracious gift to the nations, Jesus. God’s plan for the gentiles (Goyim or literally “nations”) was Jesus. For a Gentile to go back to Mt. Sinai and attempt to receive a covenant that was never intended for him was out of order and silly. When God wanted to swing wide the door of salvation to the nations, He did so through His Son, Jesus, and not through His covenant with Israel.
God made a special and eternal covenant with Israel and the Jewish people. His calling is irrevocable and not subject to cancelation. That’s Romans 11:29. If you take issue with the fact that God still has a relationship with the Jewish people/Israel, re-read Romans 9-11. Paul warned us Gentiles about becoming arrogant against disobedient Jewish people. Unfortunately, church history shows us that the Gentile church did the exact opposite. By 350 AD, seeing the horrific judgment that fell on Israel through the Jewish-Roman wars, and the fall of the Temple, the Gentile Church, lifted up in hubris by her new found favor with Emperor Constantine, wrongly concluded that God’s covenant with the Jewish people must be over. Early church fathers started to despise non believing Jews, and they boasted against Israel. Some even foolishly declared that the church was Israel. This idea came to be known as Replacement Theology. This theory was finally shown to be the silliness that it is, when God resurrected the nation of Israel in one day, in 1948 (Isaiah 66:8).
So God has given the people of Israel a special calling. But that doesn’t make the Jew any better than someone else. Much like when a follower of Jesus is called to be a great preacher. This person was simply called by God to do a task. In other words, this person was chosen by God to do something for Him and His purposes. While there is a certain honor in this calling, it does not make that person better than any other believer called to something else. In a similar fashion, Israel was called by God to bring forth both the Scripture, and the Messiah. But just like the great preacher from our example, this does not make Israel better than any other nation.
So a Gentile striving to become a Jew is an affront to the mercies of God. The Jews were given one honor. “Israel is my special possession”. That’s Deuteronomy 32:9. But to the Gentiles another honor was given. “Jesus, the Messiah, is to be a light for revelation to the Gentiles”. That’s Luke 2:32. God also said, “to those I called “Not my people”, I will say, ‘Now, you are my people.’ That’s Hosea 2:23.
Just like Paul preached in everyplace, God has shown the nations a great honor when He sent His Son to bring them back and to redeem them. For the Gentiles to despise this offer was offensive! Both to God, and to Paul.
I also believe Paul was doing one other thing with his letter to the Galatians. While speaking to the Gentiles, Paul was also simultaneously striking at the prideful attitude of some Jewish believers in this church. Paul’s rebuke is in the same spirit of John the Baptists’, when John warned the crowds of Jewish people coming to hear him preach; John said, “Don’t assume just because you are Jewish by blood that you are so great. Reject that entitled and arrogant attitude, because God could easily take these rocks right here and turn them into children of Abraham.” That’s Matthew 3:9.
Now it’s important to note: no where in the New Testament is a Jewish believer encouraged to forsake his/her traditions, or become a Gentile (Read Acts 21:17-26). But having an arrogant attitude, whether Jew or Gentile, is a stench to God!
At the end of the day, God ordained the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians as a reminder, for all people, in every generation, whether Jew or Gentile, that true righteousness comes from Him, and Him alone. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t deserve it. And we must receive it as a gracious gift through faith in His Salvation, Jesus.