Perverting and confusing, biting and devouring, bewitched and confused (Gal 5; Pentecost 3C)

The lectionary is currently providing a short series of excerpts from one of Paul’s earliest letters—the one he wrote to the Galatians, possibly in the late 40s, more likely (in my view) by the middle of the 50s.

This letter is distinctive in a couple of ways. The audience is not a gathering of believers in one city (as in Thessalonians, or Philippi, or Corinth, or even Rome), but the various communities of believers across the whole region of Galatia, which was one of the Roman provinces in the area we today call Turkey.

A second distinctive feature is that this letter completely omits any of the “friendly overture” elements that are typically found at the start of the letters widely recognised as the authentic letters of Paul. Many of these letters, after the requisite formalities (Paul, to the believers in X, grace and peace to you), contain a prayer of thanksgiving: “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly …” (1 Thess 1:2–10); “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus …” (1 Cor 1:4–9), “when I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus …” (Phlmn 4–7); “first, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world …” (Rom 1:8-15); and in the letter known as “the friendly letter”, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …” (Phil 1:3–11).

The second letter to the Corinthians replaces this prayer of thanksgiving with an extended blessing: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction …” (2 Cor 1:3–7); that pattern is followed by the anonymous scribe who wrote decades later, modelling his circular letter on earlier Pauline examples, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …” (Eph 1:3–14), just as the unknown person who crafted a letter to Colossae likewise followed the model of the earlier prayers of thanksgiving: “in our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints …” (Col 1:3–14).

The letter to the Galatians has no indication, either of a prayer of thanksgiving, or of a blessing. Instead, this letter cuts right to the chase, in direct words which accuse and denounce: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel … there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ … if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:6–9). The letter continues swiftly, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10).

*****

This opening accusation is reflected in words that we find in the section offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (5:1, 13–25) when, five chapters after this direct opening, Paul rounds back on his audience, declaring that “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:15).

In a striking juxtaposition, however, the letter continues on from this warning, to provide a contrast, which has become well-known, between “the desires of the flesh” (5:16–21) and “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22–26).

I have no doubt that most, if not all, sermons that are preached on this lectionary offering will focus primarily, if not exclusively, on the nine qualities identified as the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23).

Swimming against the tide, I intended to reflect here, not on the fruit of the Spirit, but on those earlier words, about “biting and devouring one another”.

(I have written an earlier reflection on one of those fruits, gentleness, at https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/)

To understand the reason for Paul’s direct words, we need to understand the presumed situation in Galatia which he was addressing. We can glean a number of clues about this from references and statements in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

It is evident from Paul’s opening comments that other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught them things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. He derogatively labels them as “some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7), and later as those who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1) and, by inference, those who “prevented [them] from obeying the truth” (5:7). As a result, he calls the Galatians “foolish” (3:1) and expresses a wish that “those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (5:12).

These teachers, in Paul’s opinion, proclaim “a gospel contrary to what you received” (1:9)—namely, what Paul himself had taught them, when he had earlier visited the Galatians, a time “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (4:8). The Galatians turned from their gentile faith to adopt faith in Jesus, by which “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (4:9). It is “for freedom [that] Christ has set us free” (5:1). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/15/for-freedom-christ-has-set-us-free-galatians-pentecost-2c-3c-4c/

*****

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we do not have specific information about the identity of the addressees of this letter or their location.

Acts indicates that Paul had preached in a number of locations in Galatia: initially with Barnabas he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–52), Iconium (14:1–5), Lystra (14:6–20) and Derbe (14:6, 21–23). Subsequently he revisited the area, once passing through swiftly with Timothy, saying nothing (16:6), and later going “from place to place” in the region, “strengthening the disciples” (18:23).

In the first two cities there were Jews who were opposed to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas: they persecuted them in Antioch and attempted to stone them in Iconium. However, such figures are common in Acts, for in almost every place Paul encounters such Jewish opposition. We learn no specifics of the Galatian churches from the Acts accounts.

Paul argues that the gospel he proclaims brings believers into the unity of being “one in Christ” (3:28). 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). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/19/inclusion-welcome-unity-gal-3-pentecost-2c/

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of these teachers, that true faith requires, first, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are the ones whom Paul blames for the destructive behaviour of the believers in Galatia, as they bite and devour one another, because they have been (in Paul’s view) bewitched and confused. (So much for the wonderful days of the “golden era” of the early church … … …)

Paul has much to say about the teaching of these people, identifying circumcision as the central issue, but actually dealing with a whole set of matters regarding the place of the Jewish Torah, the law, in the communities which recognised Jesus as Messiah. Paul comes back to this is his final chapter of the letter, which is what the lectionary offers us on the Sunday after next … so more musings on that, next week.

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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