Bible: Problems birthing a new community

February 5 — Galatians 3:26-4:7; February 12 — Galatians 4:8-20

Jan 30, 2017 by

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Our February lessons are a long way from delighting in God’s creation through the Psalms, as we did last month. Centuries have gone by, and instead of “fire, hail, snow and frost,” we now confront parts of the Apostle Paul’s fiery letter to the Galatians. But rather than a letter, this is a judicial speech. Imagine Paul standing like a lawyer in a courtroom, developing a passionate case against his opponents in six arguments (3:1-6:10). Unfortunately, our lesson lands us right in the middle of his speech, so it’s hard to know whom he’s debating.

Reta Halteman Finger


Context is necessary. The province of Galatia runs through the middle of what is now Turkey but was then part of the Roman Empire. Acts 14:1-20 records Paul’s missionary work in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, cities in southern Galatia. After planting house churches composed of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas move on to new mission fields.

But now Paul has heard that some believers in Galatia have been influenced by other Jewish missionaries who are more conservative than he is. They sound like the Christian Pharisees in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1) who insist that non-Jewish male believers must also be circumcised if they want to belong to the Jesus movement. To them, Paul is a flaming radical trampling on the most basic command in Scripture: male circumcision.

The text for Feb. 5 — Gal. 3:26-4:7 — comprises most of Paul’s fourth argument for Gentile freedom from Hebrew law. Although the law was good, it was only “our disciplinarian until Christ came” (3:24), much like a parent who uses rules to keep children in line until they are mature. But now baptism is the physical sign of faith in Christ that overcomes the old barriers that privileged some people over others by race, class or gender. Interestingly, though Paul uses “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free,” he says “no longer male and female” (3:28). With the baptism of a transgender Ethiopian eunuch previously forbidden to enter the Temple (Acts 8:36-39), rigid gender categories become blurred. Now foreigners, slaves under the Empire, women and eunuchs are as eligible for leadership in God’s new community as are Jews, upper-class people and men.

In 3:29-4:7, Paul refers to Abraham, whose only heir was his son Isaac. Now Abe’s former slaves are redeemed and adopted as heirs with Isaac and can call God Abba!

Although some Bibles have a break between verses 7 and 8, verses 8-12 is still part of Paul’s argument about baptism as the only accepted ritual of the new community in Christ. Some Galatians, we learn, are not only constrained by the Jewish law of circumcision but by “elemental spirits” and special observances from their former religions. This paragraph opens a window into the ways fearful former pagans may try to cover all bases in order to earn their salvation.

Paul’s fifth argument (4:12-20) is emotional rather than rational. It concerns the friendship and love shared between him and the Galatian believers. Paul had originally come to them in physical weakness. In that condition (an eye problem? see verse 15), he apparently was warmly received instead of “scorned or despised.” Now he is perplexed and suffering because his “little children” seem to be rejecting his message. As their mother, he still labors in childbirth until Christ and his freedom might be formed in them.

Question for Feb. 5: If equal baptism is the entry into the new community in Christ, why do some churches limit women’s leadership?

Question for Feb. 12: People often try to hide their physical or emotional problems from others. What can Paul’s experience teach us about being vulnerable with each other, including those in leadership roles?

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