As is the case in many of his letters, Paul uses his opening words to the Galatian churches to summarize his message. But for a letter so devoted to the topic of justification by faith, Paul’s introductory note rings a surprisingly apocalyptic tenor. More surprising still, neither faith nor justification is mentioned.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
It appears then that we have not sufficiently integrated Paul’s message concerning “freedom” from “the present evil age” with his message concerning justification by faith. In my view a historical-narrative model, rather than a theological one, can help bridge that gap.
Paul’s message about justification can be shown to serve his historical-apocalyptic expectations. As such, the concrete social separation engendered by faith in Christ was to be the engine by which the churches escaped the concrete fate of the present evil age and entered into the concrete age of the kingdom. At the same time, those believers who attached themselves to doomed institutions, whether the Law-abiding synagogue or the idol-worshiping temple, would share in those institutions’ fate. In this lies the urgency of Paul’s plea to the Galatians not to be circumcised and thus yoked to the synagogue.
Set free or removed?
To reach the above conclusion we must first remove the spiritualizing glasses through which we often read the New Testament. The NRSV’s misleading translation of ἐξέληται (ἐξαιρέω) as “set free” in Galatians 1:4 is just one example of this spiritualizing tendency. For most readers, to be “set free” from the present evil age is to be spiritually liberated from the power of sin and the fear of death.
In spite of this translation, I argue that Paul has not emptied his words of all but their spiritual connotation. On the contrary, ἐξαιρέω most decidedly evokes Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Exodus 3:8, 18:4-10, Judges 6:9, 1 Samuel 10:18, Jeremiah 41:13), undoubtedly a physical, historical, political, and spiritual event in the minds of its historiographers. As in Matthew 5:29 then, ἐξαιρέω generally conveys a sense of physical removal: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out…”
Thus, unless we arbitrarily constrain the meaning of ἐξαιρέω to the non-physical realm, Paul is envisioning something much more expansive than spiritual/ethical empowerment and life after death. Rather, like Moses to the children of Israel, Paul is proclaiming the looming separation of the believer from the unbeliever within history. Therefore there remains for Paul a concrete exodus-like hope by which God’s will is to be manifested on the earth.
Justification by faith at the end of the age
We can now return to our primary question: How does the letter’s central concern—justification by faith rather than works of the Law—relate to the imminent concrete removal of the churches from the present evil age?
If we consider the experiences of the first Christians, Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was as much a social category as it was a theological one. Acceptance of the doctrine resulted in the believer’s immediate detachment from and marginalization by two corrupted and perishing authorities belonging to the present evil age: the Jewish synagogue and the Greco-Roman cult (Galatians 6:8-9, 1 Corinthians 2:6, 2 Cor 2:15). It was this concrete social separation that ensured eschatological salvation when the day of judgement ushered in the full end of the age.
Paul thus saw mainstream Judaism as practiced in his day as condemned to destruction. Torah-observant Second Temple Judaism was like a compromised vessel taking on water; it would not reach the shores of the coming age. Christian Greeks who attached themselves to the synagogue by means of circumcision would thus drown when the storm came. Only the vessel of the church of faith, distinct from both Judaism and paganism, was seaworthy; it would survive the storm and reach the eschatological shore (cf. Matthew 14:22-34).
Paul’s set-apart churches then, those that resisted the temptation to embark on sinking vessels, would survive the coming judgement. When Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism were ultimately dissolved, these faithful churches would enter into their inheritance on the shores of the new age. At that moment the church—not the synagogue or the pagan temple—would serve as God’s royal priesthood, entrusted to rule with wisdom and justice over the nations of the known world.
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth. (Revelation 5:9-10)