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This social crisis in the church of Antioch was exactly the same as the crisis faced by the churches in Galatia: Gentiles were being forced to live like Jews in order to be acceptable to Jews. Behind this social crisis, however, a more fundamental theological issue was at stake: Is the truth of the gospel or is the law the basis for determining fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians? In this next section of his autobiography, Paul addresses this fundamental issue raised by the social crisis in the church of Antioch and the churches in Galatia. As we work through his theological arguments, we must not forget that he was responding to a social crisis: division in the church along racial lines. His complex theological definitions are aimed toward the practical goal of healing this racial division in the church.
We can follow Paul's affirmations if we observe that he first presents a point of agreement (vv. 15-16), then a point of disagreement (vv. 17-18) and then his own confession of faith (vv. 19-21). Although he expresses all of these affirmations in intensely personal terms, they provide a pattern for all Christians to follow.
Paul begins with a point that all Jewish Christians acknowledged and affirmed. The subject of the verb know in verse 16 is given in verse 15: we who are Jews by birth and not "Gentile sinners" know . . . Paul is developing the same kind of argument that he used against Peter in verse 14. If Peter, being a Jew, lived as a Gentile and not as a Jew, how could he require Gentiles to live as Jews? Paul continues this line of reasoning by saying that if we who are Jews by birth and not "Gentile sinners" (v. 15) know that we, too, believe in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law (v. 16), then we must recognize that "Gentile sinners" can be justified only by faith in Christ Jesus, not by observing the law.
Jews considered themselves to be God's covenant people; Gentiles were considered to be sinners because they were not part of that covenant people. But Jewish Christians recognized that God's judicial pronouncement that someone is part of the covenant people is not based on this Jew-Gentile distinction. The covenant is no longer conceived in nationalistic terms. Even though as Jews they claimed a privileged status, now as Jewish Christians they knew that only those who believe in Jesus Christ are justified, declared by God to belong to the covenant family.
In the context of Paul's account of the disputes at Jerusalem (vv. 3-6) and Antioch (vv. 11-14), the phrase observing the law refers to circumcision and the Jewish purity laws. The Jewish people were identified by their observance of these laws. So what Paul is denying in this context is that identification with the Jewish people through observance of these distinctively Jewish practices is not the basis of membership in the covenant people of God. Paul is appealing to the common affirmation of Jewish Christians themselves that believing in Christ Jesus, not following "Jewish customs" (v. 14), is the basis of being justified. In the final clause of verse 16, Paul paraphrases Psalm 143:2 to show the universal scope of this affirmation of Jewish Christians: by observing the law no one will be justified. The main emphasis of Paul's argument here is that faith in Jesus Christ replaces and excludes Jewishness as the determining criterion for belonging to the people of God.
We will see that this point of agreement was confirmed by the experience of the Gentile believers at Galatia (3:1-5). Just as Jewish Christians came to know that they were justified by faith in Christ, and not by any Jewish privileges or customs, so Gentile believers experienced the Spirit, the sign of covenant blessing (3:14), by their faith response to the message of Christ, not by their acceptance of circumcision, Jewish food regulations or sabbath observance (see 4:10). The exclusion of observing the law as a basis for justification is developed more fully in 3:10-14. There the law is expanded to include all the works commanded by the Mosaic law.
Second, Paul summarizes the central point of disagreement in the dispute between himself and those who forced the Jewish Christians to separate from Gentile Christians. His summary of his opponents' accusations against him consists of two premises and a conclusion: first premise--if, while we seek to be justified in Christ; second premise--it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners; conclusion--does that mean that Christ promotes sin? (v. 17). From the perspective of the opponents, while Paul was seeking justification in Christ, he was at the same time living like a sinner; therefore Christ promoted sin. In other words, if his identification with Christ led him into sin, then Christ was the cause of his sin.
Certainly Paul would accept the first premise. As he clearly states in verse 16, all Jewish Christians knew that they were justified not by observing the law but by faith in Christ. But would Paul have accepted the second premise of this accusation? That depends on how we interpret the second premise. The key to the interpretation of this premise is the meaning of the word sinners. Does this term refer to the preconversion status or the postconversion status of Jewish Christians? It might appear from the logic of verses 15-16 that sinners referred to the recognition of Jewish Christians before their conversion that they too, like Gentiles, were sinners and hence could attain justification only through faith in Christ. But this line of interpretation fails to provide a reason for the accusation that Christ promotes sin. After all, the recognition of one's sinful position and total dependence on God's grace was a basic tenet in Jewish faith. Within Judaism, the acknowledgment of sin and the forgiveness of sin through the sacrificial system did not imply that the sacrificial system promoted sin.
The interpretation of sinners as a reference to a preconversion recognition of sin also fails to fit the context of this passage. Paul is writing these words in response to the conflict in Antioch. The criticism of Paul, Peter and the other Jewish Christians in that conflict was not because of their admission of sin before or in their conversion experience, but because of their practice of breaking Jewish purity laws by eating with Gentiles. When we keep this context in focus, it becomes clear that the term sinners refers to postconversion activity. The Jewish Christians in Antioch were accused of sinning after their commitment to Christ. They were not accused of all kinds of immoral behavior: sexual immorality, deceitfulness, stealing and so forth. They were accused of a specific sin: breaking the law by eating with Gentiles. Such behavior put them on the same level as Gentiles; they were sinners outside the covenant people of God.
This interpretation makes sense of the accusation that Christ promotes sin. The accusers understood correctly that the Jewish Christians were eating with Gentile Christians because of their common faith in Christ. Therefore their faith in Christ led them into the sin of breaking Jewish purity laws. If identification with Christ promoted unlawful identification with Gentiles, then, it was argued, Christ promotes sin.
Paul frames this argument of the opponents in the form of a question and counters it with an indignant Absolutely not! (v. 17). Paul refuses to accept the conclusion that Christ promotes sin because he refuses to accept the second premise. From the perspective of his accusers, eating with Gentiles is sinful, because the law forbids it. But from Paul's perspective, eating with Gentile Christians is not sinful, because the gospel demands it. Withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile Christians was hypocrisy; it was a violation of the truth of the gospel. The conclusion that Christ promotes sin is wrong, because what was judged to be sinful (eating with Gentiles) according to the law is not really sinful according to the gospel.
Paul's statement of the accusation leveled against his position in Antioch also reflects the argument of his opponents in the Galatian crisis. Just as the failure of Jewish Christians at Antioch to observe Jewish food regulations caused them to be demoted to the category of "Gentile sinners," so the failure of Gentile Christians at Galatia to observe circumcision kept them, it was argued, from being promoted to the category of the children of Abraham. The point of attack was the common failure of Jewish Christians at Antioch and Gentile Christians at Galatia to keep the law.
Paul's countercharge to the accusations leveled against him is stated in verse 18: if I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. The object of the verbs rebuild and destroy must be understood from the context. In verse 16 Paul affirms that observing the law is not the basis of justification. In verse 17 he denies that the law can be used as a valid basis for criticizing his practice of eating with Gentile Christians. And in verse 19 he affirms that through the law he died to the law. So it is his past relationship to the law that has been destroyed and must not be rebuilt.
The law can no longer be used as the basis for judging the practice of Christians (v. 17). To rebuild the law means to reinstate the law for the supervision of the Christian life. If the law is reinstated, then the Christian is proved to be a lawbreaker. Some have interpreted Paul's argument to be against rebuilding the law on the grounds that rebuilding the law will prove him to be a lawbreaker. In other words, the transgression of breaking the law is admitted only if the law is reestablished. If the law is established for supervision of the Christian life, then eating with Gentiles is sin, since it is forbidden by the law.
If we keep the context in mind, however, we will see that the transgression referred to by Paul in verse 18 is actually the rebuilding of the law rather than the breaking of it. According to verse 14, Peter's real transgression was that he did not live consistently according to the truth of the gospel. The gospel had destroyed all essential distinctions between Jews and Gentiles and rendered inoperative all laws that upheld those distinctions. Whoever observed all the Jewish law--and so maintained such Jew-Gentile distinctions--violated the truth of the gospel. Duncan makes this point:
If it is regarded as "sin" for a Jewish-Christian to eat with a Gentile, it is sin only in the sense of a technical breach of a regulation; but if a Christian allows such a regulation to stand between him and eating with a brother-in-Christ, then he is breaking God's law in a much more heinous sense, for he is doing violence to the will of God as clearly revealed in Christ. (Duncan 1934:69)
In chapter 3 Paul develops the theological basis for his assertions here regarding the role of the law in the Christian life. Our study of that chapter will lead us to consider in more depth what Paul means when he asserts that "we are no longer under the supervision of the law" (3:25). We must note here, however, that the whole discussion of law and gospel is the result of a division between the Jewish and Gentile believers in the church. That racial division threatened the effectiveness of Paul's mission to the Gentiles. It is in defense of his God-given mission that Paul spells out the relationship between law and gospel. His goal is to prove that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek (3:28). The unity and equality of all believers in Christ is the foundational principle and overarching aim of Paul's entire argument.
Although it may be difficult to follow each step of his argument, we can at least appreciate the lengths to which he goes to defend the unity and equality of all believers in Christ. And the more we grow in our understanding of the steps in his argument, the more we too will be able to protect the equality and unity of all believers in Christ.
The points of agreement and disagreement that Paul sets forth in response to the crisis in Antioch (and Galatia) are founded upon his own personal confession of faith in Christ (vv. 19-20). His faith in Christ involved both a death and a new life. When Paul says Through the law I died to the law, he is not speaking of physical death. In his vocabulary, to die to something means to have no further relation to it (see Rom 6:2, 10-11). So to die to the law means, in this context, to cease to be under the supervision of the law.
Paul's death to the law was accomplished through the law (v. 19). The phrase through the law is taken by some interpreters as a reference to Paul's own subjective experience under the law. The law led him to discover his inability to keep the law and its inability to make him righteous. Thus it was through the law that Paul was finally led to abandon the law as the means to righteousness and to seek salvation in Christ. But this interpretation is not warranted by the immediate context. Paul does not say in this context that he died to the law because of his terrible sense of guilt and frustration under the law. Instead he declares that his death was accomplished by identification with the cross of Christ--I have been crucified with Christ (v. 20). When we interpret through the law in light of this declaration, I have been crucified with Christ, then we can see that death to the law through the law is accomplished by identification with the death of Christ. Paul explains in the next chapter that the law pronounced a curse on Christ as he hung on the cross (3:13). In this sense Christ died through the law. By crucifixion with Christ, believers also die because of the curse of the law on the one who hangs on the cross--and so, in this sense, they also die through the law. The perfect tense of the verb have been crucified points to the permanent condition of Christians in relation to the law: we remain dead and fully punished. Therefore the law can no longer condemn us.
The result of dying to the law is a new kind of life, not a life of moral license, but a life for God--that I might live for God (v. 19). This new kind of life is not ego-centered but Christ-centered: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (v. 20). This new life of faith is motivated and guided by the sacrificial love of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (v. 20). Participating by faith in the death of Christ (I have been crucified with Christ) and the resurrection life of Christ (Christ lives in me) is the only way to live for God. But attempting to attain righteousness through the law sets aside the grace of God and negates the value of Christ's death (v. 21).
In succinct, compact form, Paul's confession of faith expresses his own experience that Christ, not the law, is the source of life and righteousness. The reason for his personal confession was his insistence that Jewish and Gentile believers should not be separated as the law demands, but united as the truth of the gospel demands. His new spiritual identity--I no longer live, but Christ lives in me--is the basis of his new social identity: "There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ" (3:28).
When we make Paul's confession of faith in Christ our own, we must keep in mind both the spiritual and social dimensions of our union with Christ. Without the social dimension, our faith in Christ degenerates into individualism. We then become interested only in our personal faith and neglect to maintain and express our union with all believers in Christ. Such individualism has been a root cause of constant division in the church. But without the spiritual dimension, all efforts to maintain unity in the church are fruitless. Not until we can truly know and experience the reality of Paul's affirmation--I no longer live, but Christ lives in me--will we be able to live in true harmony with our brothers and sisters in Christ. For until then we will be ego-centered, not Christ-centered.
The experience of union with Christ as expressed here by Paul is a mystical experience in the sense that it transcends rational explanation: direct, intimate communion with God in Christ cannot be fully described. This mystical experience, however, should not be confused with the mysticism prevalent in the Hellenistic mystery religions of Paul's day, or the mysticism of Eastern religions touted by New Age prophets in our day. Both Hellenistic and Eastern types of mysticism emphasize ascetic disciplines leading to absorption into the divine, negation of individual personality and withdrawal from objective reality. The mystical experience of union with Christ is not accomplished by human effort but granted by God's grace (I do not set aside the grace of God); it is not a loss of individual personality but a renewal of true personality (the life I live in the body, I live by faith); it is not a withdrawal into isolation but an involvement in service ("serve one another in love"--5:13).
Mystical union with Christ also needs to be understood from the historical perspective: it is not a totally subjective experience divorced from objective historical reality. Just as a person who becomes a citizen of the United States has decided to live within the historical reality created by events in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, so the person who becomes identified with Christ has decided to live within the new historical reality created by the events of the cross of Christ and his resurrection. Paul places the subjective experience of faith in Jesus Christ in the context of God's redemptive work in history (3:6-25).
The practical outworking of union with Christ comes into focus in Paul's ethical appeal (5:13--6:10). There we find that the experience of union with Christ includes both passive (being led by the Spirit) and active (walking in the Spirit) dimensions. So it would be a mistake to take Paul's words I no longer live, but Christ lives in me as a proof text for total passivity in the Christian experience. The very next phrase underscores the necessity of active faith: The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God (v. 20). We do not become just empty pipes that God's power flows through, as I've heard preachers say. I no longer live as an egocentric person in obedience to all my selfish passions and desires, for Christ is now at the center of my life. Now I live in obedience to him, for he loved me and gave himself for me.