Saturday, September 05, 2020

Galatians and Righteousness (6) Works of Torah

In Galatians 2:15-16, Paul explains that no one can be justified by works of the Law.

A person is not justified by the works of the law
but by faith in Messiah Jesus:
even we ourselves have believed in Christ the Messiah,
so that we might be justified by faith in the Messiah
and not by the works of the law,
because by the works of the law no human will be declared righteous.
This raises an important question. What are the works of the law (Torah) that the Jewish believers were relying on for their righteousness?

The works of the law cannot be the entire Torah, because it was a document for a community of people, so much of it cannot be practised by an individual, especially an individual Gentile Christian.

  • Laws for the punishment of crimes have to be carried out by a community, so they cannot be practised by an individual Christian.

  • Tabernacle sacrifices provided spiritual protection for unrighteous people. They had to be implemented by priests in a holy place, so they could not be practised by Gentiles in Asia Minor (although they were still being offered in Jerusalem at the time when the letter was written).

  • The laws about sexual immorality in Leviticus 18 and 20 described things to avoid for spiritual protection, so they could not be practised by an individual Christian, although hopefully the evils described will be avoided by people who are being led by the Holy Spirit.

  • Much of the law is expressed negatively, giving penalties for things that are wrong. These laws cannot be explicitly practised as works by Gentile Christians.

These cannot be the works of the law that Paul was referring to.

The works of the law have to be positive commands that tell people under the Torah things that they must do.

Many of the guidelines for economic life were expressed positively. They were the kind of things that loving people could do to strengthen their community. They do not seem to be what Paul was talking about as works of law to be avoided, because he seemed to continue fulfilling most of the guidelines for economic life.

The other group of positive commands are the cultural markers designed to keep the Jews separate from the nations for their spiritual protection. There were three main cultural markers.

  • Circumcision
  • Sabbath
  • Food laws.
Note: Eating separately was not a requirement of the Torah, but the food laws were used to justify this common Jewish practice that marked them off from Gentiles.

Under the Old Covenant, being in the right came through birth into the chosen people. The people who entered the promised land had been born in the wilderness after their parents escaped from Egypt. Moses' covenant applied to everyone born as an Israelite. Paul understood this well. He was born into the tribe of Benjamin as a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Phil 3:5). This gave him a “legalistic righteousness” (Phil 3:6).

In this context, demonstrating that you were part of the chosen people was really important. Circumcision and Sabbath were the key cultural markers that Jews relied on to show that they were part of God’s elect.

The Jewish Christians challenging the Galatians were concerned about proving their righteousness. Naturally, they focussed on the aspects of the law that would mark them out as being born in the right nation, ie circumcision, food laws and sabbath. These were the works of the law that they required the gentile Christians to do, as marks of the righteousness that came through having born again into God’s people.

The Jewish Christians thought that the Gentile Christians needed these external markers to show they were no longer part of the world. Paul explained that there was a far better way for followers of Jesus to show that they no longer belonged to the world. The first was the gift of the Spirit. They should be full of the fruit of the Spirit, so people would know that they were different (Gal 5:22-26). The other sign that demonstrates that followers of Jesus are not part of the world is their love for each other (Gal 6:2).

Paul explained that external symbols that mark out believers are a waste of time. The things that should mark of followers of Jesus are their love for each other and the presence of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:2,14). Christians only need external identifiers like different haircuts or clothing, if they have forgotten how to love one another and lost the gift of the Spirit.

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