Ecclesiastes 3 & 4 and Galatians 2
What we know as Christianity started as a movement within Judaism. The first Christians were Jews who became part of this new movement that Jesus started. They recognized not only that Jesus was a great guy with revolutionary ideas, but that he was also the son of God and the messiah, and that his death and resurrection shifted the course of history.
The Jews had certain traditions and customs to stay right with God and set themselves apart. They followed the law of Moses as closely as they could and worshiped at the temple. The males were also set apart physically by one particular practice called circumcision. Within a different age and culture where public nudity wasn’t that rare, you might be able to tell if a guy was Jewish by catching a glance. It sounds completely strange to us now, but it was an important marker that set them apart. Over time, the idea of circumcision didn’t just mean cutting off some skin, but started to symbolize all the things the Jews did to set themselves apart as belonging to God.
Through Jesus, the grace and promises of God that belonged exclusively to the Jewish tribe for millenia were suddenly being extended to the entire world of uncircumcised gentiles. Imagine how scandalous this would have seemed to the Jews. The gentiles didn’t have their penises cut a certain way (literally uncircumcised), but also, they hadn’t done anything else that a Jew is supposed to do to live out being the image of YHWH (metaphorically uncircumcised). It doesn’t seem fair because it isn’t.
Naturally, this caused some conflicts and disagreements in the early church. Some thought that in order for them to be truly justified, the gentiles would need to be circumcised and follow the law. You might say they would need to become Jews. Others, like Paul, thought that the gentiles didn’t need to do this. Paul had already shared the gospel with the churches in Galatia and told those gentiles that they were just fine not becoming Jews. Then others came along to them saying that they were doing it wrong and that they had to become Jews to be in the club.
When Paul heard about this, he knew he had to write this letter to the Galatians. You can almost feel his frustration bleeding through the pages. Paul says in chapter 1 that if anyone (even an angel) comes around preaching a different gospel than what he originally shared, they should be “accursed.” Those are strong words.
Paul mentions in chapter 2 that he had a big argument with Cephas about this issue. Cephas was hanging out with the gentiles until he came under pressure from the people who insisted the gentiles needed to be circumcised. So he separated himself from the gentiles to avoid criticism. Paul was rightfully disgusted by this two-facedness.
According to Paul in Gal 2:16, we aren’t justified by following the law, but by faith in Jesus (or by the faith or faithfulness of Jesus, some interpreters suggest). Jesus loves us and gave himself for us. That is how we received that grace. If we are made right with God by following the law and being circumcised, then what did Jesus die for? We can’t earn grace by jumping through hoops. It has already been given to us. The gentiles had already received the grace through Christ and were walking in the spirit. Paul was not going to let someone come along and say what they had was not real and try to heave them back to square one.
There was a lot hanging in the balance. What if Paul and others had not intervened, and the gentiles had been convinced they should become Jewish for all intents and purposes? Would Christianity among the gentiles have died away, leaving just a sect of Judaism? The message may not have spread like it did. Maybe everyone who believed Jesus was the messiah would have quietly died out and we never would have even heard the good news today. All we’d read about is some first century Jewish insurrectionist being executed by the Roman government and his strange but brief cult following.
No wonder Paul was frustrated. He knew that having the gospel twisted in such a way could have been the demise of the church. Thank God that Paul channeled his anger and pain in this matter to write an important letter of correction and encouragement. And thank God that it has been preserved and passed down so that we are able to read it today.