Freedom and unity: themes in Galatians

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery … For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters” (Gal 5:1, 13).

Paul’s letter to the Galatians continues in the Revised Common Lectionary for a number of Sundays. This Sunday, the focus is on freedom.

In last week’s reading, we saw that the gospel which Paul proclaims has the capacity to make believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). 

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers, that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that they want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes that they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13). 

Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12). 

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Phil 3:5 (a fact which he omits when he rehearses his past at Gal 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant? 

He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts. 

Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage which lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law. 

Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Gen 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, which secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.

This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law. 

The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens “(6:2) and “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel which brings liberation in community (3:28) will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).

Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom which it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?

Image: Painting of Paul from Cave of St. Paul in Ephesus c. 450 AD

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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