Thursday, March 1, 2018

Bible in a Year: Galatians and Ephesians

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Shameless plug: I wrote a short study book on Galatians for Abingdon Press, published in 2000 and still in print. What a fascinating epistle!

Galatia was a section of central Asia Minor. As I remember from researching that book, the Celts in Ireland and the Gauls in France were part of the same ancient peoples who settled different regions--but in this case, a group went all the way to what's now Turkey. The predominantly Gentile congregation had received the Holy Spirit, a wonderful sign of God's salvation and blessing! But now they believed they had to bolster their faith with Jewish practices like circumcision. Paul writes this sharp and sometimes sarcastic letter, reminding them that God has already favored them, and so they were really showing a lack of faith by adding Jewish rites—-just to make sure God was pleased enough, so to speak.

Paul even dispenses with the conventional words of thanksgiving at the beginning of the letter, right away to accuse the Galatians of “deserting” Christ. Again—Paul SOUNDS like he is hating on Judaism, but he is not. Rather, the Galatians are starting to believe that they must adopt circumcision for the men as an aspect of their faith in Jesus, and that's why Paul is so upset.

He reminds them that he is a Jewish teacher to the Gentiles, accepted by the church as such. He even scolded Peter for avoiding Gentiles in some circumstances. This is so important because it strikes at the heart of Christ’s gifts and, indeed, at the example of father Abraham.

Galatians is a more sharply-word complement to Romans, where Paul also discusses Abrahamic faith and Christian freedom. As the non-Hebrew Abraham was declared righteous by God, over 400 years before the Mosaic law, so God is blessing non-Hebrews (like the Galatians!) through Abraham’s descendant Jesus. Thus Paul argues: while Jews have the Mosaic law, Gentiles are gathered by God into a new though related covenant fellowship. It serves no purpose for Gentile Christians to practice Judaism, because that’s not the nature of Christ’s covenant.

Paul becomes quite sarcastic and rather crude. We might think of Ezekiel (especially his chapters 16 and 23) as an Old Testament example of an attempt to shock. Paul writes that the teachers of circumcision (those who are visiting the Galatian congregation in Paul’s absence) are (in effect, if not literally) just showing off their circumcision to prove how spiritual they are, and Paul wises they’d just go ahead and castrate themselves if they’re so  keen on genital surgery!

Jews follow the Mosaic Law, but what do Gentile Christians follow? Interestingly, Paul doesn’t specify Jesus’ teachings but teaches that the Holy Spirit provides gifts of love, patience, kindness, self-control, and others that guide morally and ethically, as well as being transformative (Gal. 5:16-25). We might think of Matthew's gospel as a complement to Paul, where Jesus' own Sermon on the Mount teaches his own approach to Torah.

A favorite verse:

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 (2:19b-20).

The King James has a wonderful cadence: "nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me".

Galatians 3:28, about the oneness of people in Christ, is surely my favorite verse of this letter. In one of my seminary classes a few years ago, we kept spontaneously coming back to this verse as a theme and agreed that, today, "gay and straight, white and black" would be part of the inclusive vision.

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.

The oneness of people in Christ is also a theme of Ephesians. What a beautiful letter, perhaps my favorite New Testament book. The letter may have been written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, and yet the polished style of the Greek (compared to the restless and sometimes tangential way other letters are written) and the comparative absence of personal points have caused scholars to think that the letter is is pseudonymous, perhaps a summary of Paul's teachings written by one of his students as a tribute. On the other hand, the author does display some of Paul’s writing style, for instance, the way he breaks off at 3:1 to make a long point about God’s grace, and then resumes at 4:1. Even if it is written by a disciple of Paul, it is lovely. 

The letter begins with a long affirmation of the wonders of Christ (1:3-14 is a single sentence in the Greek). A prayer for the congregation is followed by an encouragement for the building up of the church. Because of Christ’s elimination of barriers and divisions (chapter 2), the church witnesses to Christ in all his reconciling wonder. 

The unity to the church is reflected in the way that the aspects of the church work together, and the way the church people support and “equip” on another in their gifts (4:11-16)

Paul urges the church to uphold moral standards, to be imitators of God and walk in love, and put alway not only the “serious” sins but the everyday foolishness as well (4:17-5:20). 

He urges certain relationships within the family, drawing an analogy between the family members and Christ and the church (5:21-6:10). 

Another well-known passage is 6:10-17, where he makes metaphors of pieces of military armor to the gifts and Gospel of God. 

Some favorite passages:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast (2:8-9)

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God (2:19-22).

THERE is a very key connection to the Old Testament: a new kind of Temple theology wherein the Spirit of God dwells in the "holy place" of believers. 

 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (3:20-21). I have considered asking my survivors to place all or part of this verse on my tombstone. God's ability to accomplish"abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" is a truth to which I can witness in my and my family's lives!  

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (4:5-6)

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love (4:11-16). "Equipping the saints" has certainly been a theme of many church-ministry studies over the past several years. 

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger (4:26) I've told this verse to myself many times! I tend to nurse hurts and slights, which is not a good trait!


At the conclusion of chapter 6 of his book, Comparing Judaism and Christianity, E. P. Sanders writes (p. 195), "...[A]t the very point where Paul seems to break so decisively with everything for which Judaism stands, when he states that God gave the law to condemn and enslave, and that one must die with Christ to escape, he was being very Jewish. He was facing the problem caused by monotheism and providence: the theology that whoever happens is the result of the will of the only God. Why Paul picked on the law, instead of the circumstances of history, is another question. If we pursued it, we would see that even this choice shows that he stayed within the framework of Jewish problems and solutions. Since he thought that the climatic revelation of God came in Jesus, he naturally had to ask about the status of the principal prior revelation, the giving of the law. His eye, that is, was fixed on Heilsgeschichte rather than on ordinary Geschichte, on the history of salvation rather than on political, military, social, and individual circumstances. But in charging God with the present evil state, and in looking to death as the way out, he was as good a Jew as he could be, once one grants that the recent revelation to him gave him a new lens, through which he viewed all else."

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