After having read Paul’s arguments for the law, I started singing the lyrics to the old Temptations song, “War.” Only I modified the lyrics, “Law! What is it good for, absolutely nothing!” Of course, that just means that I was following along with Paul’s train of thought, and going right where he wanted his readers/listeners to go. After all of this arguments, we are left wondering exactly the same question that Paul starts this passage with: “Why then the law?” If the promise God made to Abraham supersedes the law, then why was there ever a compendium of rules and regulations? Why were they necessary, if the way to God could be found through faith alone?
I think most of us, when first reading this passage, can be excused for cocking our heads to the side and wondering out loud, “Could you be any more esoteric, Paul?” What exactly is he driving at with this comment about someone’s last will and testament? People change their wills all the time, don’t they? At least before they die, so why bring this up here? It seems, that Paul wants to again make the point that God had made a promise to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through Abraham. And so, this discussion about a will is really about the ultimate provider of salvation – the law, or faith.
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.
We cannot overlook that Peter, and even Barnabas joined into this division within a church of fellow believers. They heard what the people from James had said, and then turned around and refused to eat with the gentiles. Peter had understood God’s decision to include gentiles in the story of salvation. And Peter had already had a meeting with Paul, James, and John about not needing to make gentiles follow the rules and regulations of their Jewish heritage. So this decision by Peter and Barnabas to fall into a pattern of excluding people is, as Paul says, based entirely in fear. Fear that he might be ridiculed, have his authority challenged, or have his leadership threatened.