Formations 10.08.2017: Dance with the One that Brought You

Galatians 3:1-9, 15-18

After recounting his dealings with Peter and the other Jerusalem leaders in chapter 2, Paul launches into the main topic of his letter: “doing the works of the Law” versus “believing what you heard” (3:2). Which of these, Paul asks, is the basis for the blessings God has poured out on us? In other words, has God lavished the Spirit upon believers because of something in them or because of something in God? Obviously, it’s because of God—all we can do is believe this good news and say “thank you.”

Paul points to Abraham as a biblical justification for this view. This father of the faithful is an example of righteousness on the basis of faith. How did he become the heir of God’s promises? He simply trusted in what God told him. And these promises can’t be revoked any more than a will can be altered after its subject has died.

We have a number of expressions in English that imperfectly point to what Paul is driving home. For example, people used to say, “dance with the one that brought you.” For Paul, the “one that brought us” is grace. Why would anyone disregard grace to lavish attention on “the works of the Law”? That, Paul says, would be the height of foolishness.

Discussion

• What is at stake for Paul in this debate with the Galatians?
• Why does it matter that the works of the law do not undergird the Galatians’ spiritual experience?
• When have you been tempted to think that what you have from God is a matter of reward for service and not an expression of pure grace?
• How can a strong focus on grace change the way we look at others—both inside and outside the church?

Reference Shelf

The Grounds of Blessing in Christ

If one compares this opening argument [in ch. 3] with those that follow, paying attention specifically to Paul’s conclusions (3:9, 14, 17, 22, 29; 4:7b), a pattern emerges. Each of these conclusions treats the grounds of blessing in Christ. Moreover it turns out that blessing in Christ is present blessing as embodied concretely in the gift of the Spirit. Paul understands “the blessing of Abraham” (3:8-9), which he also calls “the promise” (3:15-18), to consist concretely in its present manifestation as the Spirit (3:14). Thus, to be an “heir according to promise” by virtue of being in Christ (3:27-29) means being in possession of “the inheritance,” which is the Spirit (4:6-7).

We may infer from the repeated point of Paul’s argument in 3:1–4:7 that the problem at Galatia concerns the grounds of ongoing life in the Spirit. Can life in the Spirit be promoted by keeping the Mosaic Law, which pronounces life and blessing upon those who do it (Lev 18:5; Deut 30:15-20)? Paul’s answer is that life in the Spirit depends exclusively on having entered into the new reality which Christ brings. Paul can describe this entrance in various ways: believing in the gospel (3:2, 5), crucifixion with Christ (2:18-19; 6:14-17), redemption and adoption (3:13; 4:4), “putting on Christ” in baptism (3:27), “justification by faith”(3:6-8, 24; 2-26). Presumably the Galatians have already become accustomed to applying much of this language for belonging to Christ to themselves. Paul reinforces traditional patterns of Christian self-understanding in the course of demonstrating from the scriptures and early Christian tradition that ongoing life in the spirit (as sustaining blessing and transcendent power in Christ) depends only on being in Christ and cannot be accessed through any other mode or being or activity.

Charles H. Cosgrove, “Galatians, Letter to the,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 315.

An Appeal to Experience

Paul moves from the predominantly autobiographical material of 1:11–2:21 to address the Galatians directly in the following section of the letter, 3:1-5. Using a sharp form of address, Paul initiates a confrontation with the Galatians about their newfound interest in Law observance. He poses a series of six rhetorical questions, ostensibly to find out from the Galatians what was happening among them. The questions are also sharp, even sarcastic at times, and they are designed to instruct the Galatians, perhaps more than they are designed for Paul to be instructed by the Galatians regarding the situation among their congregations. Indeed, Paul’s rhetoric sets a trap for the Galatians, for they can only answer the questions that Paul asks in his own way.

Furthermore, Paul continues here to critique the developments in the Galatian congregations, now by appealing to the Galatians’ own experiences of God’s working among them. The addressees are themselves eyewitnesses concerning the matters about which Paul inquires. They have firsthand information that makes it possible for them to answer Paul’s questions with ease. Indeed, the answers to the questions that Paul poses are self-evident for anyone in the Galatian churches. In turn, the answers the Galatians would give to the questions would provide the information needed by Paul to make an ironclad case to the Galatians. Thus, we see Paul building an argument that the Galatians would have to affirm because of their experience to which Paul appeals.

Paul begins in v. 1 (and continues through v. 5) to address the Galatians directly using forms of the second person plural, “you.” Although Paul had addressed the Galatians engagingly at 1:11, here he does not write with his more usual “saints” or “brothers and sisters”; rather his opening line, “You foolish Galatians!” is harsh and, even more, sarcastic. In the world of the diatribe preachers of Paul’s day, this address would have gained attention, but it would not have been completely unprecedented. Furthermore, interpreters suspect that Paul uses the word foolish with intent, for at least two reasons. First, the Galatians were moving toward Law observance, and Paul thought that development was simply “foolish”; but second, Paul may have been insulting the Galatians in a way that is not immediately apparent to later readers—viz., the Galatians had a reputation from previous times (prior to Paul’s day) of being uncivilized and barbarous people. Thus, to refer to the Galatians as “foolish” not only could have insulted them in a straightforward fashion but also could have maligned their heritage. Paul does not open this section of his letter with the most diplomatic tone or words, though despite the stinging form of address, what he calls into question is the common sense of the Galatians, not their intelligence.

Marion L. Soards and Darrell J. Pursiful, Galatians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015) 119–20.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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