Justification by faith at the end of the age: another example from Galatians

Separation from Pagan Greeks

I argued last time that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith rather than works of Law—regardless of what we think of the New Perspective on Paul—performed an essential social function: to separate communities that would inherit authority in the next age from communities that would inherit destruction at the coming of God’s judgement. Since the Greeks who came to believe in Israel’s God and his Messiah were no longer able to tolerate Greco-Roman idolatry and lawlessness, they abandoned a complex pagan social web and threw in their lot with the churches. The negative consequences of this social withdrawal were sometimes severe. Greek believers were shunned, marginalized, and persecuted for their newfound faith; a faith which appeared backward and subversive to their pagan countrymen. Yet, it was this faith in Israel’s God and his anointed for justification on the day of judgement that distinguished the Greek churches from the idolatrous systems within which they were planted. Paul’s gospel message sliced Greco-Roman society in two; Greeks now had to choose between two incompatible modes of life: justification by faith in Christ or justification through the pagan cult. As Jesus warned:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household (Matthew 10:34-36).

Separation from Jews

Justification by faith, at least as it was formulated by Paul, also generated division between the church and the synagogue. Just as Paul’s message forced Greek believers to choose between the church or the temple, so too did the gospel of justification by faith force Greeks to join either the church or the synagogue. The choice was black and white for Paul, either circumcision or Christ (Galatians 5:2). To accept one was to reject the other. Gentile believers could either stand with the beleaguered church, awaiting a glorious future, or be circumcised into the synagogue, enjoying the legal protections and honors Judaism secured from Rome. Paul begged his gentile converts to take the harder, more narrow road; to hope in Christ, the power of his resurrection and return, not in Israel’s law, Temple, and rulers.

Which brings us to Paul’s allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4. Paul appropriates the story of these two women to illustrate two incompatible ways of being: life according to God’s promise (non-circumcision) and life according to the flesh (circumcision).

Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery.  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.  But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother… Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman (Galatians 4:24-26, 28-31).

Paul here outlines two Jewish communities, a present Jerusalem and a Jerusalem that comes from heaven. The gentile Galatians, as long as they resist circumcision, are people of the promise, people set to inherit the Jerusalem above. They are in fact “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). But all those who would force them to circumcise are people of the present Jerusalem. These, as Paul alludes, are the authorities of Second Temple Judaism, those who muster their political clout to persecute the churches. They are the synagogues of the Greco-Roman world which hinder the progress of the gospel at every turn. They are even Jewish Christians who force the Galatians to take on the Law. But this presently powerful form of Judaism, this present Jerusalem of the present evil age, is passing away (Galatians 1:4).

So given these apocalyptic expectations, Paul advises the Jerusalem of above to rend itself from the present Jerusalem. He commands the Galatian churches to “drive out” anyone who would have then be circumcised. For only the people of the promise will “inherit” the new Jerusalem when it arrives on earth in history. Those communities which circumcise and attach themselves to the synagogue, however, will have no place in this inheritance. They will share their fate with Second Temple Judaism. The community destined to rule with Christ when he subjected the kingdoms to himself were those Greek churches which suffered humiliation at the hands of both the synagogue and pagan Rome, the churches justified by faith. By this faith Paul’s churches would escape the wrath coming upon the pagan and Jewish social systems of their world.

Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the fleshFor many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself (Philippians 3:2-3, 18-21). 


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