Divisions and Interpretations in the Early Church
[Galatians 2, verses 11-21]
Today we will be finishing up the second half of chapter two of the Book of Galatians. As we open our study, we find the apostle Paul continuing his letter to the church at Galatia. As we begin at verse 11, we find Paul moving on to another related subject as he continues writing.
“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’ We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by our faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one would be justified.” (Galatians 2, verses 11-16, NIV)
At first glance, it appears the apostle Paul is writing about some long-forgotten disagreement between Jewish and non-Jewish believers, but that is not the case. As I pointed out in a previous study of Second Corinthians, there has been a longstanding Jewish custom of staying among themselves and being separate from the rest of the Christian world. This is yet another example of that very thing, with Paul being on one side of the argument and Peter on the other. Paul, after he was converted on the road to Damascus in Acts chapter nine, turned away from the Jewish customs, teachings and traditions of his fathers. Peter, the first apostle called by Jesus, was also a Jewish man, but one who walked and talked with Christ. Evidently, he chose to retain and honor at least some of his Jewish traditions for whatever reason he had. I strongly believe that this was the main substance of their argument.
Just as evidently, Paul’s followers and supporters followed in his footsteps and took Paul’s teachings to heart just as Peter’s followers undoubtedly followed Peter. This is another documented case of schisms and offshoots within the early Church that grew into the wide variety of Christian denominations as we know them today (at last check, there are over 4000 denominations in the United States alone). Was either one right or wrong? Actually, neither as far as God is concerned. Man-made arguments, theories, postulations, deductions and conclusions are mere child’s play to Almighty God. But I think the apostle Paul made his point very well when he wrote, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”. Whether one is Jewish or not – and by extension any race, religion or nationality – whether one is Protestant or Catholic, Christian or Muslim, black, white or whatever, it’s all completely besides the point! It’s an intellectual and emotional trap from which there is no escape, like an enigma wrapped in an unsolvable riddle. Strip it all away and the only thing left underneath the surface is Jesus Christ, the Savior himself. He was, and still is and always will be, the basis for all things! He is, always has been and always will be the center of my universe and my reason for living! Having established these facts while hopefully motivating others to do the same, let’s continue our study starting at verse seventeen.
“If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2. verses 17-21,NIV)
Through the cross and resurrection Jesus died and yet lived. Through our unwavering faith, even though we were born dead as sinners, we yet live for Christ, having hung our old selves on the cross to die so that we can be truly “born again”. Aside from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s gospel, this is one of the best explanations I can find throughout the New Testament of what it means to be a “born again Christian”. Just as Jesus sacrificed himself upon the cross, so we are to emulate our Savior by sacrificing our old, sinful selves upon our own cross, a cross which we must be willing to carry up our hill of Calvary as Jesus carried his. This hill of Calvary of ours can be anything that is undesirable or unwanted, such as a character flaw or personality defect, like a bad temper. It can also be something that seems stuck or otherwise immovable to us, such as a bad past, overcoming mental illness and addiction, or being long-term unemployed as I once was. It is not possible to be born again until our former selves have been put to death, and we must do so willingly because Jesus went willingly to the cross for all our sins. This does not necessarily have to happen all at once. We can believe and be born again at the moment we place our trust in Christ, but climbing our own hill of Calvary takes time, as I learned myself starting 23 years ago. It is an ongoing process for all of us, and we are all at varying stages along the way in our development as children of God. Just as children grow up under the watchful eye of their parents, so we are to grow up in the watchful eye of Jesus, becoming students of the Master Himself. There is no other way to be saved, Paul once wrote, and it’s just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.
Let’s consider this carefully, then. Salvation in Christ is far more than assuming a set of beliefs, rituals, or other pomp and circumstance. Our actions and personal sacrifices have nothing to do with salvation in and through Christ. Our salvation in Christ is only made possible by the shedding of Jesus’ blood as he died on the cross. It is by His supreme sacrifice, by our faith and by His grace (in that order) that we are saved, Paul wrote, and not by the works of our hands. That means no matter whether we are a “good person” or not, or how much we tithed or gave to charity, or whether we were “nice” to everybody or not, is neither here nor there as far as Jesus is concerned. Salvation in Christ means becoming a whole new person, an entirely new creation crafted in His image and likeness, and it is often the opposite of the old. He replaces us with Himself, dwelling within us in a marvelous harmony that emanates from the human heart. His Spiritual indwelling is literally a cohabitation that exists within ourselves, which is exactly as it should be. And His cohabitation in the Spirit brings with it the peace of Christ – an internal peace with God, with others, and with ourselves that is so sublime that it is indescribable and defies human comprehension. That, brothers and sisters, is a goal worth shooting for every single day.