It is written from the perspective of the Galatian church and its people, considering circumcision.
This piece of writing will explain why Paul’s letter has changed our minds entirely, as well as clarifying the meaning of our true faith in Christ - with regards to circumcision and the law, in light of visiting missionaries. Even though the decision to be circumcised is seen as a ‘safe option’, and would be seen as a sensible (pagan) offering, we are certain of our convictions, and put all our trust in the God of Abraham, of Moses, and of the good news preached by our Pastor Paul. Morally and pastorally, Paul has rightly persuaded us not to be circumcised. However his opponents were in favour of the idea, as it is part of the Law. Circumcision is a clear teaching of Moses ( the mouthpiece of the legislations from God ) but Paul solves this dilemma by explaining that the promise to the people of God was made before the Law of Moses, and is eternal for all nations. Therefore, circumcision does not in any way affect this promise, which has always had priority.
‘You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.’ ( Gen 17:11 )
The missionaries who visited us in Galatia, were in favour of circumcision as the act had been commanded by God, through Abraham and Moses, and was a sacrifice pleasing to Him. For these heretical teachers, this was a way in which we obtained our salvation, however we have understood from Paul’s letter that this goes against true life in Christ - which is a life of freedom and love. Christ, through our Apostle Paul has transformed us and through him we have experienced Christ’s presence, and have grown in faith and communion with one another. Previously, we lived rather corrupt and immoral lives, however Paul has put us on the right path; and for this reason we trust his holy teachings. He has taught us that we are all sons of Abraham, because we have faith in the same God - Christ. Like Abraham, we are willing to give up everything for God and entrust ourselves to ‘Our Father’ ( Matt 6:9 ) in Heaven. However, we realise now that giving everything to God does not involve rules and regulations as such, but rather faith and love. Abraham himself, even though he was commanded to be circumcised, was justified by his faith and not by any physical act. His faith and trust in God occurred before his circumcision, highlighting that the act is the seal, as opposed to the cause of salvation. Circumcision did not play any part in his justification - it was his relationship and faithfulness to God the Word. The act was simply a temporary sign of faith ( ‘και σημείον ελαβεν περιτομής σφραγίδα της δικαιοσύνης της πίστεως της εν τη ακροβυστια,΄ Rom 4:11). The promise that was handed down to Abraham, applies to all human beings, regardless of physical differences. The Old Testament Scriptures foretell and lead us up to the incarnation of the Logos, and we see the promises of the prophets and the law being fulfilled in Christ Jesus.
The law was our temporary childminder, leading up to the Incarnation of Christ. This temporary guide is no longer needed as we have Christ, Who sets us free from the necessities of the Law. Paganism is centred around rituals, and practice - as opposed to true spiritual life in Christ - so perhaps we should not dwell on practical laws, rather on our relationship with the Lord and Saviour.
For Paul, freedom is the outcome of Christ’s work - and so he encourages us to cherish and abide in this freedom. In effect, we would be returning to our old condition of slavery, serving ‘the weak and base elements’ ( Gal 4:9 ) It is important to remember that Paul had brought the Gospel of Christ to our people of Galatia, as God’s representative ( Gal 1:15 ) so we must pay attention to his message. The Apostle Paul warns us that if we accept circumcision, we will not be fulfilled spiritually. This unnecessary act does not bring us the promise of inheritance, or freedom - we either choose to receive ‘all things’ ( 2 Peter 1:3 ) by Christ’s divine grace and power , or nothing at all by ignoring the Lord and adhering to the law. If we were to accept circumcision, then we would be Jewish and should therefore be subject to the law in its entirety. ( Gal 3:10 ) By becoming a Jew, we go back to the state of childhood, just like the child of Abraham, in a pre-Christ state. In Christ, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’ ( Gal 3:28 ) - however if we cast ourselves away from the Lord and Saviour, then barriers do exist and we revert back into our fallen state, without the Grace of God. The Church is one body of Christ ( 1 Cor 12 ) - a unified and undivided communion. In order to emphasise this, Paul highlights that Christianity is not centred around restrictive practices, and Jewish exclusiveness - but rather centred on faith in Christ, Who has broken these ethnic barriers. ‘All the nations of the earth shall be blessed.’ ( Gen 22:18 ) By giving the gentiles the ability to avoid circumcision, and food restrictions , this allows the Church to grow in freedom and - bridging a gap between the Jewish and pagan world. The heretical groups have told us that no gentile could call themselves a Christian unless they had first become a Jew, by submitting to circumcision and accepting the obligations of the law. Paul however, clarifies that membership of the Christian Church has nothing to do with observing the laws. Being a Christian is about rising above these dry laws , and fully committing ourselves to Christ. It is only through the Spirit, descending upon us, that we can act out of virtue and love.
Chrysostom uses an analogy of choosing athletes, based on the basis of their skin colour. ‘So when a person is to be enrolled in the new covenant, the lack of these bodily trappings does no harm, just as they do no good if they be present.’ ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any value, but faith working through love.’ ( Gen 5:6 ) We are told by Paul that if we wish to fulfil the law, of the Lord of hosts ( Mal 1:11 ) then we do this not by the act of circumcision, but in love. ( Gal 5:14 ) A simple physical act is meaningless, as it cannot change the state of our souls and hearts - however a spiritual life in Christ would truly cleanse us from our sins, as we await His salvation and great mercy. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ ( Matt 5:8 ) Therefore, it is in our spiritual interest to ‘walk by the Spirit’ rather than by the desires and interests of our flesh. ( Gal 5:16 ) Through Paul’s guidance, we proclaim that the seed which was promised to Abraham is indeed Christ ( Gen 3:16 ), and through Him we are granted a new life and creation, in freedom and in virtue. The new and eternal covenant ( Jer 32:40 ) surpasses all the laws and rules that mankind has been constrained to - and for this reason we urge our fellow Christians to not dwell on physical or ethnic differences such as circumcision, but rather concentrate on Christ, and our lives with Him, as one body.
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture - Galatians 2005, Illinois : IVP, p. 73.
Kuula, K 2003, The Law, the Covenant and God’s Plan, Helsinki : FES, p. 143-147.
Neil, W 1967, The Letter of Paul to the Galatians, Cambridge : CUP, p. 11-12.
Tarazi, P 1994, Galatians a Commentary, Crestwood : SVS, p. 265-270.
Wright, T 2009, Justification - God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, London : SPCK, p.104.