You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing? — if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

Galatians 3:1-9

When I was still in grade school, one of the songs we sang in Sunday school and vacation bible school was “Father Abraham.” The song was a a few short verses, and went like this:

“Father Abraham had many sons.
Many sons had Father Abraham.
And I am one of them.
And so are you.
Many Sons had Father Abraham.
So let’s just praise the Lord.”

Father Abraham

Granted, the language might need some updating to be a bit more inclusive, but the simple truth that was passed on to little ones like me and my friends was that we were part of the tribe of Abraham, part of his spiritual family, brought about by the promise that God had made to Abraham. And this truth is what Paul is trying to convey to the people of Galatia. He is continuing the argument he began with the story of Peter failing to live up to his own convictions, attempting to show the difference between faith and works.

The reason Paul is so perplexed by the Galatians is that they had already understood that they were accepted as members of God’s family, and that this status as members of the family was attained through their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. And so now, when people come along telling them that they need to first become Jews and follow all the rules and regulations of the Jewish faith before they can consider themselves followers of Christ, Paul thinks that they must be bewitched. What else could explain going from already being accepted in the family of God to suddenly trying to attain something they already had by doing work that they didn’t need to do? “Mind-boggling. It must be that someone has put a spell on them.”

But why bring up Abraham at all? N.T. Wright, and others, think that those demanding the gentiles follow the Jewish law were probably throwing around Abraham’s name, because God had made the covenant with Abraham, and had demanded circumcision as part of that covenant (Genesis 17). This would seem like a logical argument, and would explain why they are demanding that everyone need to get circumcised. But Paul reminds them that not even Abraham had been circumcised only after God had deemed him righteous (Genesis 15:1-6). So it was not works that justified Abram in the eyes of God, but his faith in God’s promise of his future lineage that did so.

And if that wasn’t enough to remind the Galatians that they were already justified before God through their faith and belief in the work of the messiah, then Paul throws in an extra little reminder: God had promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham (“or all gentiles shall be blessed in you”). This really draws home Paul’s argument, that even from the beginning of the covenant, God had the gentiles in mind. God had planned that the sons of Abraham would be the people from whom would come the blessing that would save the world (Genesis 22:1-18). And, if we follow the opening recitations of lineage in the Gospel according to Matthew, we see that Jesus, the Christ, was in the direct lineage of Abraham. And from him came the salvation of the world; through him all nations were blessed; through him all gentiles were blessed and became children of Abraham.

Divisions, Divisions

What’s interesting here, is the word that Paul uses here to describe the Gentiles is ethnos (pl. ethne), meaning “a race, a nation” and implying any nation other than Israel. It is also the word from which we get the English word Ethnic. Generally, this word, in current usage, tends not to refer to other nations. Instead, it takes on the meaning more closely related to it’s original implied meaning of “anything other than Israel,” with the new implication being that anyone who is ethnic is not like us. It is usually uttered by those who are trying to make the distinction between themselves and others, often with the intention of separating themselves from those others; in short, it often has racist overtones, even among those who would call themselves believers. It would be more akin to Peter’s attempt to remove himself from the gentiles in Galatians 2:11-24, and less like Paul’s reminder that all are welcome in the family of God, if only they believe.

In fact, it seems that over the centuries, Christians have proven that they are more adept at finding reasons for division than for unity. According to recent numbers, there are roughly 200 denominations in the United States alone, and roughly 45,000 different denominations globally1. These all represent some form of division and disagreement.

When I was in seminary, several of the people in our cohort joked about their denominations’ ability to have church splits over seemingly inconsequential things. “We’ll have a split over whether to use an organ or a piano,” one of them joked. “It’s not even a theological issue. More of a preference. But you’ll get all the righteous indignation and proof-texting to show that this is how God wanted it.” We all had a chuckle about that, but the reality is that all of these disagreements, and the resulting church splits, are damaging both to the believers in the church, and especially to the faith itself. Because who, when watching this in-fighting unfold can truly say that these believers are following The Way of Love?

Important Words and Phrases

ἀνόητοι – anontoi, from anoetos– “unswise, irrational, or foolish,” not so much in the sense of stupid, but more along the lines of lacking in wisdom, failing to reason through something with proper logic, and has overtones of a lack of moral wisdom. 2

ἐβάσκανεν – “has bewitched” – from βασκαίνω – baskaino – To “hurt by words,” slander, and then, to bewitch. The use here in Galatians 3:1 is the only use in the New Testament. “The use is figurative, but not without some realism insofar as the power of falsehood stands behind magic. In yielding to these ‘magicians’ the Galatians have come under the power of untruth.” 3

ἐπιτελεῖσθε – “being perfected, completed” – from ἐπιτελέω – epiteleo – I finish, I complete, I accomplish. 4 The idea here is to contrast it to the “starting” with the spirit, drawing together the idea that they are trying to complete things through their own power.

ἔθνη – “the nations” – from ἔθνος, ους, τό – ethnos – a race, a nation, the nations (as distinct from Israel). 5

Notes

  1. https://www.livescience.com/christianity-denominations.html
  2. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), Abridged in 1 Vol., pp 638
  3. TDNT, pp 102
  4. TDNT, pp 1163
  5. TDNT, pp 201-202

About Michael

Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He's a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn't have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride. Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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