Paul, the torah, and the people of God: Galatians PT 1

Before diving into Galatians, it would be helpful to delineate my precise position on the torah so that what I am saying, and what I am not saying, will be evident.

Preliminary points:

First, I believe the position of the new testament is that the torah no longer functions as the demarcation of God’s covenant people; the torah no longer marks them out as God’s people; Jew or Gentile.

Second, the Jews are free to celebrate their ethnic badge of Jewishness by observing the Torah, as long as they understand that the Torah, in no way marks them out as God’s people. Those who do not observe the Torah, but who have entrusted themselves to Jesus the Messiah, are just as much in the family of God with full membership, as Jews who have trusted in Jesus and who also follow the Torah.

Third, the Jews who celebrate their ethnic identity via the Torah, are forbidden to require the Gentiles to follow the Torah in the ways that they do.

Fourth, this includes especially the ‘badge‘ or ‘marker‘ of circumcision.

Paul and the Torah:

To lay out this position we will take a look at Acts 21 and Galatians 2 with a further comment from 1 Cor. 7.

Acts 21: And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the JEWS of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach ALL THE JEWS who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.

So lets get this straight. Paul has come to Jerusalem, and he is welcomed there by James. And James informs Paul that there is a rumor (apparently false) going around that Paul has told the Jews, specifically the Jews who are among the Gentiles, not to observe the torah, not to circumcise their children, or follow its customs. This is not going to go over well in Jerusalem so James says to Paul, “purify yourself along with the four men, and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.”

This should not surprise us, Paul in one of his letters says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (1 Cor. 9)

After Paul has been purified to show that he is observing the torah; ‘to those under the torah, becoming as one under the torah, even though he himself is not under the torah;’ there is a key phrase that begins with “But.”  Verse 25, “But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.”

Clearly, Paul had told the Gentiles not to circumcise their children, or submit to the torah; the false accusation was that Paul was telling Jews not circumcise their children, which wasn’t true. How do we know that Paul was telling the Gentiles not to circumcise their children? In two ways, 1. The false accusation is concerning what Paul is telling THE JEWS. Once it becomes clear that Paul did not tell the Jews not to circumcise their children (etc), James and the elders said “but as for the Gentiles” clearly intimating that they were not responsible to follow what the Jews had chosen to follow. 2. Paul clearly says in 1 Cor.7 “18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”

1 Cor. 7:18 is huge: Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Followed by Verse 19: “circumcision doesn’t count for anything.” What does he mean by that? I submit that he means exactly what I said in preliminary points one and two above: that the torah no longer functions as the demarcation of God’s covenant people, etc…

What then does Paul mean by “keeping the commandments of God?” Wasn’t circumcision one of those commandments in the torah? Of course it was. But now circumcision doesn’t count for anything. Notice again that I am not saying that Jews are wrong for circumcising. What I am saying, and what Paul is saying that they are to recognize that it doesn’t function as the boundary marker or identification of God’s true covenant family. This is precisely Paul’s point in Galatians 2. Paul made a trip with Barnabas to Jerusalem and he brought along Titus. He went because he had a revelation to set before them the gospel that he was preaching to THE GENTILES. He brought Titus along as his Test case. Titus, a uncircumcised Gentile, was a believer and follower of Christ. What was the conclusion of his status? “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.” (Gal. 2:3) Here again Titus, a gentile, is not placed under the authority of the Torah to be marked out as a member of God’s Family.

How then can we tell who God’s covenant family is then, if not by Torah observance, and more specifically circumcision? That is what Galatians chapter 3 is all about.

Galatians 3: Paul will move to defend his stance that God’s people are “marked out” by faith, they receive the Spirit by faith, they are declared to be in God’s single family by faith (justified); and he will appeal to the context of exile to defend his position. God’s people, Paul is saying, are not “marked out” by works of torah; they don’t receive the Spirit by works of torah; they are not declared to be in God’s single family on the basis of works of torah. This is his case from 3:1-3:9.

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