Galatians 2:15–21 (NRSV)
Jews and Gentiles Are Saved by Faith
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
So much of our human existence is based on divisions; male or female, races, nationalities. The issue is that of separation. Consider for a moment the division of genders. What is the real differences? Is there something fundamentally better over one gender than the other? From a biological standpoint there are differences but those differences each complement each other to ensure survival. But what about races? Surely there is a difference in race; like gender in a biological sense the various racial features emerged to ensure survival. Which leads to nationality? If we were to look at the earth from space we would see that there the only divisions of nations are based on geological features such as an ocean, a river, or a virtually impassible mountain range. Nations could also emerge around ecological features such as a desert or rainforest. All these features require adaptations to ensure the survival of the people living in the area. The people developed cultures around these needs as well as governmental systems, languages, and methods of passing this knowledge on to the next generation.
When we look at these various differences and divisions we values on the features that we see as being of greater importance. When we look at the broader scope many of the feature that determine these various divisions have merits, there are also aspects that could improve. Within every cultural group there are aspects that attempt to control and exploit others.
Cultural anthropology can be a very interesting field of study. But that is not the point I am trying to make. We begin this portion of scripture with Paul discussing the conversation that he had with Peter and James. All those in the present in this discussion were from one cultural group. They were born into this group. They thought and acted according to the cultural understanding that was gained through being saturated in this culture. They say, “We are Jews by birth, and not Gentile sinners.” What a damning statement.
What would they mean by this statement? Paul writes this jokingly, since this is written to a nation of Gentiles. The term sin or sinner has very different interpretations, most of these interpretations are weigh heavily on cultural aspects. Mainly which side of the Jewish and Gentile division a particular human resides. So what is sin? Commonly we think of sin as a transgression of the law. That is true enough but it is only one aspect of the word. Sin is missing the mark, falling short, or even being without knowledge. So if we look at the broader definition of sin or sinner it would be someone who falls short and misses the mark because they don’t even know where the mark is. In essence they are lost people wondering around reaching out but finding nothing to grab hold of.
This is the division of the Jew and the Gentile. The Jews of Paul’s day had knowledge that had been passed down throughout their history that gave them direction to the one true, unchanging God who spoke to them through the prophets and Moses the Law Giver. The people of Israel had knowledge they were to be the light to the nations to show them the way to God, and the Gentiles were lost. They did not have knowledge and were wondering blindly living life through trial and error.
So Paul includes this divisive term in this letter, “We ourselves are Jews by birth, and not Gentile sinners.” He includes this because there were some that came to the people of Galatia that were telling them that they must take on the entire Jewish lifestyle to be a follower of Jesus. They basically said that they must become Jews or they will be left behind as Gentile sinners lost to the knowledge of God. Even to this day there are some that will teach this, and they have merit to what they say because it is true to a point. The Jewish culture has survived though times of plenty and seasons of exile and continues to this very day. Not many cultural groups can say this. But this conversation between the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and Paul did not stop there, “yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
Jewish by birth, Gentile sinners, justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law. These are deep theological words. If sin is to miss the mark or to be lost, the idea of justification is to bring back into alignment, to restore what is right, or to be found. But how do we gain this justification? This is the very back bone of the reformation of the Church. As time progressed the idea of being born into faith took hold of the church just as the ideas of being born Jewish would give you access to God. The reformation said that it is not the church that grants redemption but it is faith in Jesus. This faith is not just a simple acknowledgment of Jesus, but it is a belief that does not hold back, it is entrusting every aspect of who we are into the hands of God. Even this gets to being a debatable theological issue, how do we have faith do we have faith or were we predestined?
As I studied this passage this week I found that the phrase, “justified by faith in Jesus Christ,” could also be translated as, “justified by faith of Jesus Christ.” One word changes a great deal. One is an action of mankind the other is an action of Jesus. I want us to consider this for a moment, the idea of Jesus having faith for us. Where is our faith? Jesus taught that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed we could tell a mountain to move and it would move, as far as I know no saint has ever moved a mountain, but many have seen a way through many sizable obstacles. Jesus also spoke with a man who had a sick child and said that he would be healed if he believed. And the man responded to Jesus by saying help his unbelief. The child was healed even though the man had unbelief in his heart. One word changes things. In or of? What it really comes down to is Jesus. This is really what Paul, as well as Peter and James, were getting at. It does not matter if you follow all 613 laws or not, because if you break one you fail. Not only that if you happen to follow the letter of the law but miss the heart of the law you break it as well. Jesus taught that the law says that we should not kill but Jesus says if you are angry with a brother or sister you are liable for the same transgression as if you killed them. So how many people have we been angry with this week?
We cannot, even if we were born fully saturated in the Jewish culture, fulfill all the law. What the law teaches us is that in ourselves we cannot find our way back to God. We are lost, we are all sinners, wondering around grasping at wind. But we are brought into alignment by Jesus. It is only through Him that we have hope. He was the only human that lived his life sinless. He never missed a mark, he was always righteous. Even when he was angry he was angry in such a way that he did not sin.
We are justified by the faith of Jesus. If the reformation was built on the principle of being justified by faith in Jesus, the next great era of the Church is that we are justified by the faith of Jesus. It does not matter which denomination you look at this movement is throughout them all. There is an emergence of a new kind of Christianity that is not based on legalism but is based on relational aspects of life. This is the Justification by the faith of Jesus. The word in, gives us the power, we are still in control and can dictate what is or is not done in the name of Christ. Our confession is the key to the kingdom. But when we move from this man centered form of faith in Jesus, and move into this supernatural vicarious faith of Jesus something else entirely emerges. We work with Jesus. We are no longer servants but Friends because we know what the master is doing. Jesus is the one that is doing the realignment of those around us we know that He is working and we come along side and assist Him where He is already at work.
Paul says it like this, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Paul is telling the people of Galatia, that it does not matter if you were born a Jew or a Gentile, it does not matter if you live following the law handed down from Moses to mankind or live by the laws dictated by the kingdoms of man. What matters the most is where you are in Christ. Do you live your life on your terms or do you fully entrust all you have to Jesus?
The early Friends believed that you could live a life fully entrusted in Jesus. They fully believed that we could know the will of God in this life as well as the life to come. When George Fox traveled around the English countryside seeking out someone that could speak to his condition he took his bible out to a field and sat there in silence. According to his journal a voice spoke to him saying, “There is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to thy condition.” At that moment Fox’s heart leapt for joy because after years of seeking he was found. Not by his faith but by the faith of Jesus Christ. Fox then developed his own spiritual discipline where he would withdraw to the silence in prayer and would then go out to preach, or teach. He would go to the inns or the steeple houses where ever he felt he was being called and he would do whatever he felt called to do. He walked miles just to give someone some money, he boldly stood before judges, and in one instance a man was thought to be dead after hitting his head on a branch while riding a horse and George was lead to adjust the man’s skull on his neck and the man lived. (My chiropractor does not seem to think Quakers started chiropractic but I keep trying to convince them).
I speak of the early Friends because they lived fully entrusted to Jesus and they are the founders of our faith tradition, but they are not the only one that have done this. You could look at the lives of many saints; John and Charles Wesley, William Booth, Francis of Assisi, Augustine of Hippo, Ignatius of Loyola, and many other. Each movement that significantly changed the future of the church began by one person, male or female, living fully abandoned to God. Each of them believed that God would show them His will in some way and they would meet God there and assist in the ministry that He had led them to. They may not have had a theological understanding of what was going on but they were justified, or brought into right alignment.
Paul closes this section of scripture with this, “I do not want to nullify the grace of God; for if justification come through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” If all we had to do was follow God’s law that was given to mankind over four thousand years ago then there would be no need for Jesus. Yet Jesus came to live among mankind. If all we had to do was live moral lives of not sinning, Jesus would not have had to die. Yet he suffered on the tree for us. If all we have to do is obey rules, then Jesus would not have rose again. There is more to it all. Jesus lives, He taught a lifestyle with a rhythm to it; worship, prayer, and service. He taught us that man does not live on bread alone but by the very word of God, he even taught us to enjoy life to the fullest but to do so without sinning, or getting out of alignment. We live through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We have faith because Christ has faith.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as friends, I encourage you to consider Jesus. Consider why he came to live among us. Consider why he chose who he chose to live with. Consider why we are even here today and what that actually means. “It is not I who lives, but Christ lives in me.” Paul tells the Galatians. Ask yourself as you, “Is Christ living through you?”