Formations 10.15.2017: No Longer

The Edmund Pettus Bridge crosses the Alabama River in Selma.

Galatians 3:26–4:7

In 2015, John Legend and Common’s song “Glory,” written for the movie Selma, won an Oscar for the best original song. That same year, I worked for Passport camps, an ecumenical youth camp, and every night this was one of many songs that helped us to prepare for worship. As I read this week’s passage and tried to start making sense of Paul’s vision of belonging and freedom in Christ, this song returned to me.

Its chorus, reminiscent of spirituals, goes, “One day, when the glory comes, it will be ours. One day when the war is won, we will be sure. We will be sure.” Paul shares their hope for glory, as do his opponents. In fact, they both believe that Christ’s death and resurrection had inaugurated that time, long expected in a major strain of Jewish thought, when the nations would be brought into the promise.

At more specific levels, however, Paul and his opponents disagreed. The others held up particular Jewish experiences—those that had distinguished Israel for most of its history—as necessary for inclusion into this community. Paul, however, envisioned a deeper inclusion in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (v. 28).

To be honest, I struggle to make sense of his vision in this climactic verse. These three distinctions, and others, still shape our perspectives and our experiences, even our understandings of Christian community. And often, it seems that seeing these differences as no longer present through Christ results in holding up our own particular assumptions as universal. It seems too easy to follow the path the Galatians set.

How, then, can we understand this alternative vision of Paul’s? I wonder if John Legend and Common might guide us.

We’ve seen that they express a universal hope for freedom. But when we pay attention to the song’s form and when we feel its connection to freedom hymns, we might hear them ask us to see that movements toward universal freedom always come in specific forms. One of the most obvious is the struggle to protect the voting rights of black Americans that occurred in Selma, Alabama, during 1965. But Common’s verses invite us to see that same process in Jesus’ work in Israel during the first century as well as in the contemporary struggles against systemic racism taking place in our nation.

It is the nature of questions about belonging to be unique to their context. So when certain individuals upheld certain Jewish identity markers as preconditions to inclusion in the covenant, Paul specifically pointed to the way that it separated Greek Christians from the universal promise fulfilled by Christ. It might seem that such specific language would fall short of a universal vision, but as Common tells us, sometimes “justice for all just ain’t specific enough.” And as Paul shows us, pursuing the universal vision of Christian liberty may require (1) identifying the particular times and places where this vision of freedom for all of humanity has not yet come, and (2) working for its establishment.

Paul ends this passage by asking his audience to remember their status as heirs of the law and the promise. Like Paul’s audience, we too have inherited traditions that can guide us to freedom or to slavery. In the specific places our various communities find themselves, which traditions will we embrace?

Discussion

• How have our traditions helped to bring freedom? How have they been a part of sowing oppression?
• What specific experiences have shaped your understanding of the body of Christ?
• What truths do you hold as universal? How do particular experiences, your own as well as others’, guide you to understand these affirmations?
• How do absolute truths affect the ways you respond to particular experiences, your own as well as others’?

Reference Shelf

You and We

Paul not only addresses the Galatians in an all-encompassing manner but also writes to them directly using second person plural forms, in both verb endings and with pronouns, meaning “you.” This manner of address runs through vv. 26-29, in contrast to both the verses that precede and those that follow, where one finds Paul writing of “we” and “our.” These different pronouns with their seeming difference in focus lead commentators to debate whether Paul is writing sometimes of Jewish Christians (“we”) and at other times of the Gentile Christians in Galatia (“you”). Many interpreters conclude that Paul is writing in rhetorical fashion, speaking at points to both the Galatians and at least himself (if not also to other Jewish Christians) with “we” language, and referring in other places to the Galatians alone with “you” language. This matter is much debated, as was noted above in relation to vv. 23-25, but, as stated there, Paul’s clearly inclusive remarks at 3:14 show that he used “we” as a way of referring to Jewish and Gentile Christians together.

Paul continues by declaring that the Galatians are, literally, “sons of God” (Gk. huioi theou). (Readers are asked to consult the discussion of Paul’s use of “sons” at 3:7.) The statement is more than a simple remark; it relates to the previous image (vv. 23-25) of a child under the authority of a supervisor and, by contrast, declares that “you” (the Galatians) are fully grown human beings with a newly realized relationship to God. Paul’s point here is important not only for this portion of his letter but also for the discussion of the metaphorical issues of inheritance, redemption, adoption, and intimacy of relationship with God that follows in 4:1-7.

Marion Soards and Darrell Pursiful, Galatians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015) 165–66.

Promise and Law

The emphasis in 4:4-7 on the divine initiative is strong. God is the subject of both the sending of the Son and the sending of the Spirit. The expression “the fullness of time” (4:4) is equivalent to “the date set by the father” in 4:2. In an awkward expression in 4:7 that scribes copying the manuscripts tried in various ways to make less strange, God is even made the agent of inheritance (“an heir through God”). The breaking out of bondage to the law comes only at the instigation of God. While the language here is not specifically apocalyptic, the thought resonates with the earlier apocalyptic emphasis of the letter.

The verb “redeem” (exagorazō) in 4:5 recalls the use of the same verb in 3:13 and flags the parallelism between the passages. In 3:13, Christ became a curse for us, to redeem us from the curse of the law; in 4:5, Christ is born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law. The image in both passages is that of an interchange between two parties: Christ becomes what we are (“under the law”) in order that we might be redeemed and become what he is (God’s child). (See Hooker Adam 1990, 33, 59-60.)

God’s sending of the Spirit in human hearts confirms the new status as adopted children and makes possible the cry of “Abba! Father!” (4:6). It is unusual to find here in a letter written to a Gentile audience the phrase “Abba!”, which continues the untranslated Aramaic term alongside its Greek equivalent (see also Rom 8:15). The early church obviously found something special in this intimate expression for God and preserved it in its original form. Jesus had used it in his time of anguish (Mark 14:36), and it may possibly lie behind the opening words to the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2; Matt 6:9). The Spirit now leads adopted children to address God in this unprecedented way.

The paragraph reaches a conclusion in 4:7. The result of God’s sending of the Son and of the Spirit is that “you” (singular) no longer remain a slave, but a child and an heir. The use of the singular, when the plural has been employed throughout, personalizes the affirmation for listeners in the Galatian audiences who hear the letter read. Being an heir refers to the inheritance of the promise made to Abraham that in his seed all the nations (read “Gentiles”) would be blessed (3:29).

Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 71.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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