Called to Freedom
(A Meditation for Ordinary Time, Proper 8, Year C, II)
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Virtually every aspect of life among ancient cultures in biblical times was centered around a nation's own temple and it's god. All people of all ancient nations thought this way.
To have communion with the gods, so it was thought, you needed a house for your God to dwell in. And once your God had taken up residency among you and your people, it claimed that territory as its own, and it claimed ownership of everyone within it. Your God reigned as lord over your tribal territory, and even over your household. And if you wanted to stay in the land your god gave you, if you wanted favorable provisions in life from the hand of your god, you needed to become its household slave. Being a slave of a king or a god wasn't a bad thing, by the way. It was, in fact, a highly privileged position to be in.
But just because your god dwelled among you and your people, that did not mean everyone else around you or your people had direct access to your god. In order for your neighbors to have access to this special relationship with your god, they needed to submit to the laws of their temple, which were the laws of their gods. The laws of their gods were the sacramental tapestry holding all of ancient social order together.
This is the background of the "slavery" imagery which Paul uses throughout his letter to the Galatian Christians, except here, in chapter 5, we learn that there is one catch to Paul's rhetoric: with the coming of Israel's messiah, Jesus Christ had set all Christians free from such slavery.
Another important bit of background information worth remembering is that when Paul writes to the Galatian Christians, he is condemning specific types of "false-brothers" secretly planted among them, who are trying to take away their liberty in Christ (2:4). Paul is not condemning obedience to "laws" or "commandments" in the abstract. Paul is only condemning the patterns of life exhibited by such "false-brothers" who want to enslave Christians under the Law taught in Judaism (of which he, Paul, used to be an "advanced" and zealous advocate; 1:13-14). The "false-brothers" of Judaism were those who had fellowship with Christians but still insisted upon life under the law taught within Judaism, the law which centralized the liturgical and social structures of the old covenant temple, and separated Jews and Gentiles (and others) from direct access to God.
Paul condemns the law under first century Judaism, not because the old covenant law per se was intrinsically "bad," but because of two other significant reasons. First, Paul condemned the law under Judaism because in the first century, the application of God's "Law" had become incredibly corrupt, abusive, and manipulative—and all for the sake of building up an empire lead by corrupt Jewish authorities, whom Jesus also condemned. Secondarily, Paul condemns the law under Judaism because Jesus came and replaced that first century Jewish temple with the temple of his body, making all of God's laws fulfilled and centralized in Christ's Body.
So when Paul spoke of Christ "freeing" the Galatian Christians "for the sake of freedom," telling them to submit to Christ and not to a yoke of slavery, his concern was very specific. Certain Jews had crept into the Christian church masquerading as disciples of God, but instead of promoting the work of God's Spirit in building his new temple, they were persuading Gentiles to enslave themselves to the old covenant temple and the laws of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. They taught that in order to be a slave of God's house—which, again, was a highly privileged position to be in—you had to yoke yourself to the whole system of Jewish Law, which was centralized in their temple within Jerusalem.
In other words, the desire of these "false-brothers" was to make disciples of Judaism, not disciples of Jesus. Keep in mind, also, that it was John the Baptist and Jesus who first spoke out about the corruption of Judaism and God's condemnation of their entire religious system. First century Judaism, as Paul understood best, was a yoke of slavery requiring obedience to uniquely Jewish laws as an entrance point into life and communion with God. But when God came down to earth in flesh and lived among men in the flesh, that changed everything about the relationship between God and men. That crossed a temple boundary enshrined in law which had never been crossed before in ancient history. Through faith in Jesus, Paul knew that the "false-brothers" of the Christian churches were deadly wrong in their understanding of communion with God, and any committed, first century disciple of Judaism was doomed to destruction along with the destruction of their temple (which was destroyed in 70ad). The whole sacramental fabric of Judaism's social order was doomed to die in 70ad via the prophecies of Jesus reaching their fulfillment. Life under the temple-centered mindset of Judaism was of "the flesh," Paul says, and that "lust of the flesh" brings death. Only the Jesus-centered desire of the Christianity was of the Spirit, producing life.
With all of this in mind, it's important to understand why Paul emphasizes "living by the Spirit" in contrast with living "under law."
Did Paul mean to teach his Christian disciples that the law of God had now become obsolete—that the law of God is no longer a lamp unto our feet and a light for the path they walk on?
I think that if we are studying the letter to Galatians carefully, it's clear that for Paul the Law of God itself as a whole had not become obsolete. It's temple and God's covenant in relation with that temple had become obsolete, but not the law of God itself. Rather, Paul insists, the Law of God is fulfilled in Christ and his body. In Christ, God's Law had become the Wisdom and Spirit of God personified.
Note carefully how this is evident by what Paul says in verses 13-14:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be slaves to one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
In these two verses, Paul not only quotes a portion of God's Law word for word to endorse Christian love (Lev. 19:18), but he seems obligated to reveal such an objective standard for love because it is already well-known that the whole law has been fulfilled in Christ and his Body. Paul's exhortation to love one another would be meaningless if the whole law was not fulfilled by Christians. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, Paul says. You fulfill the whole law, Paul says. And in context, Paul seems to be saying that they ought to do so by the Spirit of the Law, just as Jesus did, and not merely the letter of the Law, as the false-brothers of Judaism did.
Therefore, it can be safely asserted that Jesus fulfilled the law for us so that we might walk in him, fulfilling the Spirit of the Law to serve one another.
It is precisely because Christ has fulfilled the law that the church also shares in active fulfillment of God's law as well. But Christians ought not to do so by reconstructing society according to the letter of the law. That's what Judaizers did! The Judaizers could not grasp the idea of Jesus replacing their temple in Jerusalem. The holy city of Jerusalem, and it's temple sanctuary was mistakenly believed to be central to their identity with the living and true God, instead of Jesus being central. Likewise, many Christians today mistakenly centralize the Church in their own particular denomination instead of in Christ alone. Even worse, many Christians today have gone beyond the sin of first century Judaism by centralizing themselves individually as the temple of God, instead of committing to the health and well-being of the local, visible church. If you've ever heard a professing Christian say, "I'm spiritual, but not religious," you know what I'm talking about. The fundamental danger of that kind of reasoning is that the life within Jesus' Body (i.e. the baptized body, the Church) is not believed to be integral or necessary for life with Jesus himself. But that's like separating the head (Jesus) and a finger (one's self) from the rest of it's body (the visible, baptized body), and claiming that the finger can live perfectly healthy severed from the body as long as it knows the "head" (Jesus) it belongs with. But life in Christ is more than mere personal belonging to Jesus. It is a mutual belonging and indwelling of all members of the body, including it's head.
So how is it that we, the Church, can actively fulfill the whole law of God, as Paul commends here in Galatians?
Well, as a starting point, I suggest that when Christians today look back at the Law of God in such places like Leviticus 19, we should do our best not to reconstruct that exact system and its relationship to the temple of Jerusalem. Sadly, that is what most fundamentalists today desire (shown most explicitly among dispensational fundamentalists). Instead, Christians today should want to build up the body of Christ—the new covenant temple—with the Spirit of God's Law. Christians are fools if they go to God's law as a blueprint for reconstructing a Christless society. Instead, Christians ought go to God's Law to find Christ in it and to retrieve the fruits of his Spirit taught within it. If God's Law is not used by Christians to construct a Christlike culture, then whatever culture God is building through them cannot and will not ever be godly. Our American Christian culture is suffering greatly today, not because it needs God's law or because it is opposed to God's Law. It suffers because it lacks the Spirit of God's Law.
As the Spirit of God's law in Leviticus 19 teaches us, Christians have a responsibility before Christ to provide for the poor from their own fields. Christians ought not to steal or deal falsely with one another, or lie to each other, tearing apart the social fabric of godly integrity. Moreover, the Spirit of the Law teaches us that we ought not oppress our neighbor, or even rob them by withholding or delaying the wages they worked for—wages Christian employers might owe them. The Spirit of the Law teaches us to care for and treat those who are disabled exceptionally well. They are not to be treated as outcasts, because in Christ they are loved. The Spirit of the Law teaches that we ought to judge justly in civil matters. We ought to avoid the slander of our neighbors, not hating our brothers in the heart, but rather reasoning frankly with them, and not taking vengeance against them or bearing a grudge. Not only is that what the Spirit of Leviticus 19 teaches, but that is also what the Spirit of Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-26, 33-42). The Sermon on the Mount is what living by the Spirit of Leviticus 19 looks like—it looks like the Law of the Greater Moses, Jesus Christ and the commandments he gave.
One last thing about Paul's letter to the Galatians is worth noting carefully.
Remember, Paul has the Judaizers of Galatia in mind when he quotes a portion of God's law as a standard for the whole of Christian love. Paul is not opposed to a Christian transfiguration of God's Law, because it is Christ-centered; and because it is Christ-centered, it is also Christian-Church centered. Paul (just as much as Jesus) was opposed to the way the Judaizing system of God's "Law" promoted "legal" corruption and wicked behavior, contrary to the works of God's Spirit. Throughout Paul's letter he describes the disciples of Judaism as "fleshly" and deadly, not spiritual and alive.
This is why, toward the end of the letter which we read, Paul gives a long list of unspiritual, ungodly behavior. The works of "the flesh" are found in Gal. 5:19—21. Interestingly, God's Law has something to say about all of those behavioral categories, and the Spirit of God's Law condemns and transfigures such behavior. For, Paul says, those who belong to Christ Jesus have "crucified the flesh" with such lusts and passions (5:24).
Instead of standing condemned by God's Law, the Spirit of God's law revives us, granting Christians the liberty to produce the fruits of God's Spirit. What are those fruits? Galatians 5:22—23 provides a list for us. Yet notice carefully, again, how Paul concludes his list of Spiritual fruits. He says that against such Spiritually fruitful behavior "there is no law."
What Law is Paul referring to? I would contend (along with many other Christians in history) that Paul is referring to the very well-known law—the same Law that condemned the listed "fleshly" behavior in the previous three verses. From this, we can conclude that there is no law of God which stands against the fruitful behavior of Christ's Spirit within a believer. And if we behave by the Spirit, we are not merely obeying laws of God, as those of first century Judaism who did so to build up their own tribe. Instead, the Spirit of God gives us liberty to fulfill God's Law in various ways. And as the Church is filled-full with the Spirit of God's Law, the world grows into what God wants His Temple to look like. It looks godly. It looks like our God and our King, Jesus.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of the Spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.