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Singularity of the Gospel of Jesus, the Messiah

Tuesday, 11 October 2016  | Mark Thiessen Nation

The Singularity of the Gospel of Jesus, the Messiah: On Keeping First Things First

Galatians 3.1-29, especially 3.28[1]

Mark Thiessen Nation

I. Introduction: Galatians 3.28 - ’the pinnacle of [Paul’s] whole thought’

From time to time I mention that at the beginning of my Christian life I became a conscientious objector and a pacifist. This initial ‘conversion’ came through engaging the Sermon on the Mount.

Less frequently have I mentioned that only a few years later another ‘revolution’ happened in my thought and approach to life, animated by Galatians 3.28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’.[2] I think in the mid-1970s I thought something like this: ‘Wow, there seem to be important, relevant connections all over the place here - racism, feminism, diversity, inclusiveness, etc.’. Particularly in relation to issues of race, ethnicity and gender this text was the beginning of a transformative journey. Reared within a determinatively all white community, I knew that the explosive challenges contained within this verse must live with me for the rest of my life. Though the challenges regarding gender made more sense to me immediately, I still knew that living with the implications of this profound text would never be simple.

As a couple of Christian scholars have commented, Galatians 3.28 is often seen to be ‘Paul’s most radical claim’, ‘the pinnacle of his whole thought’, ‘the magna carta of liberation and equality’.[3] I have known people and read many authors who believe exactly this. However, as I have continued to live with Paul’s letters and the ways in which Galatians 3.28 has sometimes been misused - perhaps even abused - I have come to have questions. In what follows I will only hint at what I mean; the hint unfolds through the realization that it is distorting to rip a verse like this out of its original textual context. As someone has said, a text without a context is often a pretext for our own ideology.

II. The Singularity of the Gospel of Jesus, the Messiah: A Summary of Paul’s Argument in Galatians 3

It has become increasingly obvious to me over the years that many of the distortions brought into the preaching of Paul’s letters is because we don’t take the larger contexts into account when preaching from select passages.[4] The epistle reading listed in the Common Lectionary for June 19, 2016 is Galatians 3.23-29. As I re-read chapter 3 I had to agree with New Testament scholar Richard Hays that if we are to understand the last few verses of this chapter we need to begin at least as early as verse 6.[5] That is to say, we need enough of the text in front of us that we can see the full, very Jewish theological argument that Paul is making. I decided to have the whole chapter read for my sermon. The argument is complex. What follows in an attempt to capture the key points.

 ‘You foolish Galatians!’ These are the opening words of chapter 3. We hear echoes of 1.6: ‘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!’ Paul is passionate about what he is saying here. For the very definition of this new and fragile body of Christ is at stake.

If it wasn’t obvious before, by chapter three in Galatians it is apparent that Paul is making a very Jewish argument - to underscore the claim that believers in Jesus, followers of Jesus, do not need to be Jewish in order to be believers.

The whole chapter, like Galatians itself, is framed around Jesus, the Messiah.[6] ‘In my sermons’, says Paul, ‘a picture of Jesus Christ marked by crucifixion was painted before you’.[7] Moreover, he continues, it is because this proclamation has elicited your trust in God that you have received the Spirit - and have seen God act in extraordinary ways among you (Gal. 3.2, 5).

Paul here, as in Romans, uses Abraham as a way to make his argument regarding a newly formed covenantal people. He does so for three reasons. First, Abraham is the one through whom God made the covenant with Israel through circumcision; and second Abraham lived before there was any law given to Israel. In light of those facts, Paul claims that it must have been because of Abraham’s trust in God that he was reckoned as righteous by God (not because of keeping the law). Finally, it was to Abraham that God promised to bless all nations/Gentiles.[8]

By the time he finishes, Paul will have made the bold claim that if we have faith in Jesus, the Messiah, then we - all of us, Jews and Gentiles - are the offspring of Abraham. (This may not seem revolutionary, much less offensive to us. But to Paul’s fellow Jews it certainly did.)

Underlying everything Paul says here is a claim in Galatians 1.4: that we are all as humans—Jews and Gentiles—enslaved by ‘the present evil age’. In light of that we know that it is only Jesus Christ crucified who liberates us; the Spirit who gives life and acts in miraculous ways; and God who enables us to embody the fruit of the Spirit rather than the works of the flesh (as he will name them in chapter 5).

Woven throughout this argument are reminders that the law, as given by God, is powerless in itself to do any of this. It had its purposes; God has used it in the past. But now a new reality - a new identity - defines who we are. Thus Paul reminds his fellow Jews that they do not - should not - trust in the law, but rather in God (and the gospel of Jesus, the Messiah). And similarly, Gentiles do not need to be circumcised, do not have to be Jews. For both Jews and Gentiles receive the Spirit through having a living faith in a living God.

III. The Singularity of the Gospel of Jesus, the Messiah

Once we have noticed the particulars of the Jewish argument Paul has made then we can see that this whole letter is about the singularity of the gospel of Jesus, the Messiah. And what is this gospel, named and sometimes assumed, throughout Galatians? Simply put it is the following.[9] The cross of Christ - as a symbol of God’s ultimate act of loving sacrifice for the world - liberates us from the ‘present evil age’, from all powers that would enslave us (1.4; 2.20-21; 3.1, 13-14). Hearing this good news, we respond through trusting in this living God who acts on our behalf (Gal. 2.16, 20). Trusting then in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ we are ‘rectified’, set right with God and with each other (2.16, 20; 5.13-15; 6.1-10). It is important that we realize we are ‘adopted’ as children of God; thus we know our identity as members of this family is a gift (3.29-4.7). Following this we recognize ‘that ‘faith’ is not the precondition for receiving God’s blessing; instead, it is the appropriate mode of response to a blessing already given in Christ. As such, it is also the mode of participation in the pattern definitely enacted in Jesus Christ: as we respond in faith, we participate in an ongoing reenactment of Christ’s faithfulness’.[10] This is why Paul says ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2.19-20). Or as he puts it near the end of chapter 3, ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ (3.27). So ‘clothed’ we become united, bound together in faith and love within the body of Christ. Being given true life in the Spirit we are empowered ‘through love’ to ‘become slaves to one another’ and to embody the fruit of the Spirit expressed through acts of justice and righteousness (and the power to avoid the works of the flesh) (Gal. 5.13, 16-26).

Thus Paul is effectively saying that all of us who claim to be in Christ have a new identity. We can no longer be ‘Gentile sinners’ (2.15) nor can Jews trust in the law. No, we are all ‘clothed with Christ’. This is our identity. As New Testament scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa has said, there is a singularity to the claims of this gospel.[11] Its claims upon our lives are centrally defining and about all of life - all clearly rooted in the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. Therefore through faith and love we live in the Spirit in unity and ‘fulfill the law of Christ’ (6.2).

IV. The Singularity of the Gospel of Jesus, the Messiah: On Keeping First Things First

Now we return to Galatians 3.28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’.

C. S. Lewis has often uttered words of wisdom. The following words, I believe, have pertinence to our reflections on Galatians 3.28: ‘Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things’.[12]

Verse 28 of chapter 3 must be seen in light of the singularity of the gospel. If we understand the rich wonders of this holistic gospel then we will grasp the profound and revolutionary implications of this one verse. However, if we grant a meaning to 3.28 that is not encompassed by this holistic gospel then we are in danger of losing both the singularity of the gospel and the truly revolutionary meaning of 3.28.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa helps us to begin to see what this entails: ‘Taken out of context, [Galatians 3.28] becomes a manifesto for various liberation movements, or it becomes a disturbing call for a universalism that tramples over difference.[13] Or it is domesticated with the claim that Paul is speaking in a limited sense of unity in the realm of faith without concern for the actual differences among humans. But, of course, the minimizing reading of 3:28 is unimaginable in a Pauline context; in Paul’s thinking, God’s liberating action in sending Jesus Christ ‘to rescue us from the present evil age’ (1:4) can scarcely be limited to some narrowly delimited ‘spiritual’ sphere. All the arenas, the distinctions, the statuses, the differentiations—they are all wiped away. Differences remain, but they are nondividing differences, differences subordinated to the gospel; more than that, every source of human identity is taken up by and into the gospel’.[14]

Her phrases ‘subordinated to the gospel’ and our ‘human identity is taken up by and into the gospel’ have huge implications. As Gaventa continues, ‘the gospel is singular in that it is all-consuming: there is no more εγώ [I]. And the gospel is also all life-giving: ‘Christ lives in me’. The living ‘I’ now lives in the realm of πίστις [faith], which comes from and is given by the Son of God’.[15] Once we realize our identity as being in Christ, then indeed we recognize that our daily life is defined by this holistic gospel of Jesus. Then, since the gospel is comprehensive - about all of life - and of central importance, we realize it will, in some ways, be in competition with any other isms or ideologies. And though it is about our spiritual life it is also about our embodied life - individually and corporately. Furthermore, it is vital to notice that 3.28 is defining those who are ‘clothed with Christ’ (and thus requires careful discernment to know how it relates to realities in the larger world beyond the Christian community). Once we see all of this then we realize that 3.28 is not, for instance, about undiscerningly ‘celebrating human diversity’ or some inclusiveness of all people. For human beings are first of all captive to ‘the present evil age’, says Paul (1.4). Left to ourselves we tend to embody the works of the flesh (5.16-21). Only through a living faith in a living God - a God who has died for us and grants us the power of the Holy Spirit - can we begin to embody the fruit of the Spirit (5.22-26) thus fulfilling ‘the law of Christ’.

As N. T. Wright has said, passages like Galatians 3.28 should not be understood to ‘mean that God runs the [church] as a democracy, or that he simply validates and accepts everyone’s opinion about everything, or everyone’s chosen lifestyle. It means that there are no ethnic, geographical, cultural or moral barriers any longer in the way of anyone and everyone being offered forgiveness and new life. That is a message far more powerful than the easy-going laissez-faire tolerance which contemporary Western society so easily embraces. [In the Book of Acts, for instance] Cornelius didn’t want God (or Peter) to tolerate him. He wanted to be welcomed, forgiven, healed, transformed. And he was’.[16]

John Barclay has named this very well by reflecting on how the gift of Christ grants to us life and worth - establishing then a certain form of life. ‘In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female (3:28), not because these social/physiological conditions cease to exist, but because they cease to carry the symbolic value they enjoy outside of Christ; they are relativized not by a doctrine of equality but because those baptized into Christ are reconstituted by a gift that disregards all traditional differentials in worth’.[17] He continues,

‘the highest goal of existence “in Christ” is not self-knowledge or self-mastery for the sake of individual perfection, but a pattern of prosocial behavior represented by the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). Paul’s cryptic reference to “the law of Christ”, whether it gestures to a reconfigured Torah or to a Christ-determined regulative norm, indicates how their social life is now to be shaped by the newly paradigmatic Christ-event (2:20). “Christ crucified” has shattered the believers’ previous structures of allegiance; by recalibrating their values, it instills the mutuality of love as the essence of their new community’.[18]   

Because of this believers do not take pride or see our worth or our identity outside of our life in Christ. We ‘boast’ in nothing but the cross of Christ (6.14-15). In fact

‘by its strategic indifference to pre-constituted evaluations of worth - ethnic, social, sexual, or other - the community declares and enacts its freedom. By its “crucifixion of the flesh” (5:24) - its break with the dispositions that stand contrary to the values of the Spirit - it demonstrates an alternative allegiance derived from an alternative source of “life”. In resisting the tendencies to intra-communal rivalry, it affirms its special identity as a community beholden to the “law of Christ” (6:2). … The truth of Paul’s gospel must be both recognized and enacted - in fact, recognized in its enactment. It is only as communities are remolded in exclusive allegiance to “the law of Christ” that they may be said to affirm the baptismal confession “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9). Social practice is not, for Paul, an addition to belief, a sequel to a status realizable in other terms; it is the expression of belief in Christ, the enactment of a “life” that otherwise can make no claim to be “alive”’.[19]

I still believe that decades ago I rightly heard challenges to my previous understandings regarding women and issues of race in the church (and implicitly, in our country) from Galatians 3.28. Now I also am firmly convinced that C. S. Lewis is right: ‘Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things’. We are to be clothed with Christ - for Christians everything else follows from this.[20]

Mark Thiessen Nation teaches Theology and Ethics at Eastern Mennonite University at Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.

[1] Based on a sermon preached on June 19, 2016, for Early Church, a Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, VA. It has now been expanded into an essay.

[2] Translations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Judith M. Gundry-Volf and Miroslav Volf, ‘Paul and the Politics of Identity’, Books & Culture (July/August 1997): 16-18, here 16. This article is a review of an extraordinary book by postmodern Talmudic scholar, Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1997). This book is itself a challenge to a potentially oppressive universalizing that is sometimes animated by Galatians 3.28. (Of course I am also aware of those who see Paul contradicting the implied claims of Galatians 3.28 in some of his other writings.)

[4] As Andrew White reminded me, Peter had some interesting words to say about Paul. He says, ‘there are some things in [Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scripture’ (2 Peter 3.16). My friend Doug Harink has commented: ‘One of the tactics of heretics is to divide and conquer the unified witness of scripture—for example, to set the ‘new and liberating’ witness of the apostles against the legalistic and outdated prophets, or to set the ethical Jesus against the doctrinal Paul, or to pit one apostle (e.g. Paul) against others (e.g. James, Peter, Jude), or even to set some ‘authentic’ (Protestant) letters of Paul against other ‘spurious’ (Catholic) letters claiming to be by him. Peter will not have it’ (Douglas Harink, 1 & 2 Peter [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009], 187).

[5] Richard Hays, ‘Galatians’, 181-348 in The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), here, 274. Though I consulted several commentaries for my preparation for this sermon, this commentary was the main one I drew from.

[6] I here use the transliteration of the Hebrew, i.e. Messiah, rather than the transliteration of the Greek, i.e. Christ, simply to highlight the Jewish nature of the argument.

[7] This is the translation of J. Louis Martyn, The Anchor Bible: Galatians (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 5.

[8] In Greek the word ethnos can be translated as either nation or Gentile.

[9] Most of what follows in this paragraph is drawn from: Richard Hays, ‘Galatians’, 187, which is a one page summary by a respected New Testament scholar who wrote his doctoral thesis on Galatians and wrote this commentary. I am well aware there are other ways briefly to name the theology of Galatians. I glanced, e.g. at: James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[10] Richard Hays, ‘The Faith of Jesus Christ (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983), 249. This book was revised, expanded and re-published by Eerdmans in 2002.

[11] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, ‘The Singularity of the Gospel’, in Pauline Theology, Vol. 1, ed. Jouette M. Bassler (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 147-159. Also see: Beverly Roberts Gaventa, ‘The Singularity of the Gospel Revisited’, in Galatians and Christian Theology, ed. Mark W. Elliott, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 187-199.

[12] C. S. Lewis, in a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, April 23, 1951.

[13] This is what Daniel Boyarin’s book is about (in footnote 3). To begin to name this would be complicated. The review mentioned above by the Volfs, along with a review by N. T. Wright (‘Two Radical Jews’, Reviews in Religion and Theology 3 [August 1995]: 15-23.), are helpful in naming some of the issues involved.

[14] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, ‘The Singularity of the Gospel Revisited’, 187-199, here 196.

[15] Gaventa, ‘The Singularity of the Gospel Revisited’, 195.

[16] N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 170. Wright had the word ‘world’ where I put church. I think both for Acts 10, which he was commenting on, and Galatians 3, the church is in mind, not the world. (Significant implications are connected to this difference, not unrelated to questions raised by Daniel Boyarin; see footnote 3.)

[17] John M. G. Barclay, ‘Grace and the Countercultural Reckoning of Worth’, in Galatians and Christian Theology, ed. Mark W. Elliott, et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 306-317, here 308. Barclay is uniquely qualified to write this essay because he has written a book on ethics in Galatians (Obeying the Truth), a book on Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora and an exhaustive recent book on grace in Paul’s writings (Paul & the Gift).

[18] Barclay, ‘Grace and the Countercultural Reckoning of Worth’, 309-310.

[19] Barclay, ‘Grace and the Countercultural Reckoning of Worth’, 317.

[20] Thanks especially to Michael Medley and Andrew White for their detailed comments regarding an earlier version of this sermon-become-essay.

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