June 23: Galatians 3:2-5, 14

Galatians 3:2-5, 14

Paul’s references to the Spirit in Galatians follow those in 2 Corinthians 3:1-18 (discussed in the last two notes), in the context of his pointed contrast between the old and new covenants. This is to be expected, given that the central theme of Galatians involves the relation of believers to the Law (Torah). I have discussed the subject at length in the series “The Law and the New Testament” —cf. especially the articles on Galatians in “Paul’s View of the Law”. The very point and reason for his writing to the Galatians is to assure (and convince) them that it is not necessary for them, or any other believers, to observe the regulations of the Torah (such as circumcision or the dietary laws). Even though the question relates specifically to non-Jewish (Gentile) believers, the arguments Paul uses would apply equally well (and even more so) to Jewish Christians.

Chapters 3-4 make up the heart of the letter—the probatio, in which arguments are presented in support of the main proposition (propositio, 2:15-21). The first argument (3:1-5) is based on the Galatians’ own experience as believers—the fact that they received the Spirit. Paul treats this as self-evident proof, in light of his fundamental contrast between the Spirit (pneu=ma) and the flesh (sa/rc). The logic of the argument runs as follows:

    • as believers, they received the Spirit
      • the flesh is opposed to the Spirit
        • => they should not wish to be involved with things of the flesh

Paul is more caustic and biting in his presentation of this argument, as we can see in verse 3:

“Are you thus without a (sound) mind? (Hav)ing begun in (the) Spirit, you are now (to be) made complete (relying) upon (the) flesh?”

The implication here, of course, is that observance of the Torah regulations is part of the “flesh”, in the sense that it involves work and effort (i.e., Paul’s frequent expression “works [e&rga] of the Law”). More than this, however, in Galatians (as subsequently in Romans) Paul connects the Torah with the bondage experienced by humankind (to the power of sin) in the current Age. This association with sin helps to explain how Paul can characterize the Torah as “the flesh”. The entire created order is in bondage to the power of sin, and the Torah is part of that old order of things that passes away in the New Age—i.e., the new arrangement of things (diaqh/kh, “covenant”).

Paul deprecates the Torah observance for believers by contrasting it with their experience of receiving the Spirit at the beginning—i.e., at the time of baptism, after they first came to trust in Jesus:

“This only do I wish to learn from you: (was it) out of works of (the) Law (that) you received the Spirit, or out of (the) hearing of trust?” (v. 2)

The point is clear: they received the Spirit through trust in Jesus (in response to the proclamation of the Gospel), and not by observing the Torah. The Torah is part of the old covenant, and has nothing whatever to do with the new, and believers are under no obligation to observe its various regulations. Thus the barb in verse 3 is stinging indeed: having begun with the Spirit (the new covenant), would you now go away from this (back to the old covenant)? His wording in verse 4 suggests how misguided and confused this is: “Did you suffer so many (thing)s with(out any) purpose [ei)kh=, i.e. rashly, randomly]?” The further suggestion in verse 5 is that this turning toward the old covenant (Torah) is contrary to the will and purpose of God Himself (and His Spirit):

“(So) then, the (One) leading the Spirit upon you, and working powerful (deed)s among you, (is it) out of works of (the) Law or out of (the) hearing of trust?”

The second argument (3:6-14) of the probatio draws upon the example of Abraham from Scripture—a line of argument that Paul would repeat in Romans 4. His use of Abraham is interesting in the way that it takes the argument back to a time before the establishment of the Sinai covenant (and the Torah); indeed, this fact is central to Paul’s point. Not only does the new covenant of the Spirit supersede that of Moses and the Torah, it is actually the fulfillment of the original blessing promised to Abraham, the father of the Israelite people. The argument here develops the basis for this claim, stating it clearly enough in the concluding verse:

“(It was so) that unto the nations the (words of) good account [eu)logi/a, i.e. blessing] of Abraham might come to be, in (the) Anointed Yeshua, (and so) that we might receive (the fulfillment of) th(is) message about the Spirit, through the trust (in Yeshua).” (v. 14)

For more detail on the Abraham argument, see the earlier articles on Gal 3:6-14 and Romans 4 in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”.

Paul turns again to the Abraham traditions in the midrashic argument in 4:21-31, expounding the flesh/Spirit contrast in terms of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. This follows the same old vs. new covenant dualism (v. 24), but with a stronger association of the old covenant with slavery and bondage (Hagar being a slave). A particular interpretation of the tradition—i.e. that Ishmael ‘persecuted’ Isaac—also leads Paul to emphasize how the old covenant (of the flesh) persecutes the new covenant (of the Spirit):

“But just as then [i.e. at that time] the (one) coming to be (born) according to (the) flesh pursued the (one born) according to (the) Spirit, so also now.” (v. 29)

This relates to Jewish persecution of the early Christians, well-documented in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters, but also to the issue at hand in Galatians—of Jewish Christians pressuring Gentile believers to observe the Torah regulations (circumcision, dietary laws, etc). Paul’s words against these proponents of the need for Torah-observance are extremely harsh (1:7-8; 2:4; 3:10; 4:17; 5:10-12; 6:12-13).

Thus, if we are to summarize how Paul’s line of argument in Galatians relates to a development in the early Christian understanding of the Spirit, it rests in his sharp contrast between the old and new covenant. The old covenant is part of the old order of things (in the current Age), while the new covenant marks the beginning of a new Age. The people of God (Israelites and Jews) in the old covenant were governed by the regulations of the Torah (which represented the terms of the covenant); by contrast, in the new covenant, the people of God (believers in Christ, both Jewish and non-Jewish) are governed by the indwelling presence of God’s own Spirit. For believers in Christ, the old covenant has passed away, and they/we are free from its binding terms (i.e. the Torah).

This is a uniquely Christian development of the Prophetic tradition regarding the role of the Spirit in the New Age of Israel’s restoration. As we have discussed in earlier notes, the sixth-century prophets—particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel—express the promise of a coming time when the people of Israel and Judah, upon their return to the Land, would be given a “new heart” and the “new spirit” so that they will be able to remain faithful to YHWH. This inward transformation of the heart/spirit is achieved by the action of God’s own Spirit being “poured out” upon them (cf. the notes on Isa 44:3 and Joel 2:28-29). The key passages on this in Ezekiel are 11:19ff; 18:31; 36:26-27, and 37:14 (cf. notes). The great “new covenant” prophecy, of course, is Jeremiah 31:31-34, in which God promises to write His Law (hr*oT, Torah) upon the hearts of the people (v. 33). Though the Spirit is not directly mentioned in this passage, it is to be inferred as the means of writing (on the writing of the Torah, and the general equivalence between the “finger of God” and the Spirit of God, cf. the prior note).

The main difference between Paul and this Prophetic line of tradition is that the Prophets clearly assume the continued binding authority of the Torah, while Paul states repeatedly (and unequivocally) that this is no longer so for believers, who are freed from the old covenant. For the Prophets, the writing of the Torah on the heart simply means that the people will be willing and able to observe it faithfully. Paul understands this idea quite differently, though, in his own way, he upholds a comparable premise—that believers effectively fulfill the Law, even without being bound to observe its specific regulations. The Law is similarly written on the hearts of believers, through the presence of the Spirit. This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

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