Studies in Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians

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Date: Tuesday, August 16, 2022, 5:24 AM

1. Galatians 1:1-12 - The Gospel Revealed

Paul started several churches in the province of Galatia and then moved on to other regions. Then he learned that some other people had gone to Galatia and were teaching the people that the gospel involved much more than Paul had told them. “Jesus is good,” they apparently said, “but you need to go further. You need to obey the Law that God gave his people. Faith is good, but you need the laws of Moses, too.”

Paul was furious! The people were meddling in his territory, making false accusations about him, trying to hijack the work he had done, and worst of all, leading the people away from Christ. Paul wrote a letter[1] [numbers in square brackets refer to notes at the end of this article] to defend his ministry and to explain what the gospel is. It has much to teach us today.

Introduction

Greek letters normally began by saying who wrote the letter and the people it is being sent to. Paul modifies this pattern by adding a lengthy comment about the basis of his authority: Paul, an apostle — sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — (v. 1).[2]

Several times in this letter, Paul denies that he was sent or authorized by other people, especially the apostles in Jerusalem. Apparently his opponents said that the apostles had sent Paul on a mission, a mission he supposedly had not finished, and the apostles had then sent more people to tell the Galatians about their need to obey the law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:5). Paul says that they are mistaken: They might have been sent by human authority, but he had divine authority for his mission.

The letter is being sent not only by Paul, but also “all the brothers who are with me” — he has supporters, though the letter does not name them, perhaps because the Galatians do not know them. “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 2-3, ESV). Greek letters usually began with charein, or “greetings.” Paul modifies this by using a similar word, charis, “grace,” and adding the Jewish greeting, “peace.”

In verse 1, he noted an action of the Father. Here, he describes the work of Christ: “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (v. 4). This is the gospel in a nutshell: Jesus has taken care of our sins and rescued us, giving us a place in the age to come as children of God. Paul will elaborate more on this later in his letter. Here he specifies that this rescue is precisely what the Father wanted, and it is to his “glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

An astonishing curse

Most Greek letters included a brief prayer to the gods; Paul usually expands that by thanking God for the faith of the readers and asking a blessing on them. But in this letter, Paul gives no thanks — he begins abruptly and includes a curse instead of a blessing: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (v. 6). “Paul’s expression of amazement…was a common expression of rebuke in Greek letters of his day…. The tone of rebuke pervades the…letter from 1:6 to 4:12” (G. Walter Hansen, Galatians, 36, 35).

The readers may have been astonished, too, because Paul is telling them that they are deserting God. That is not what they want to do, but Paul is telling them that’s what it amounts to. They had been called by grace, and if they give their allegiance to the law, they will be denying their call (compare with 5:2). The opponents claimed that their message was the original gospel, but Paul says that it is not: “not that there is another one” (1:7). It was bad news, not good. It was requiring elements of the old age, the age that Jesus had rescued us from.

“There are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Paul then announces his curse: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed”[3] (v. 8). Paul is not asking for personal loyalty — he wants the people to be loyal to the message of Jesus Christ.

Paul is so insistent on this that he repeats himself: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If[4] anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (v. 9).

After this strongly worded outburst, Paul asks, For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still[5] trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (v. 10). His opponents apparently said that Paul focused on grace because he was afraid of telling people about the laws of Moses. But as Paul has just demonstrated, he is not afraid of offending people. He serves Christ, not public opinion. He was commissioned by Christ, not human beings.

Paul’s commission from God

To support his point, and to show that the opponents were not telling the truth, Paul tells his story, particularly his relationship with the apostles. In the book of Acts, Luke tells us many more details, but this is Paul’s own description of what happened.[6] “The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel” (v. 11). Paul is here responding to his opponents.

“For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 12). It was not just a revelation from Christ — it was Christ being revealed to Paul (v. 16). Paul saw Christ, and that required a re-evaluation of everything that Paul had believed. Based simply on that appearance of Jesus, Paul could have understood quite a bit:

Jesus has been resurrected into glory, so he must be God’s Anointed, the Messiah. But I was persecuting his people! If zeal for the law caused me to persecute God’s people, something must be seriously wrong in my use of the law. Not only that, I was an enemy of God, and yet God spared me — I was accepted by grace, not by careful observance of the law.[7] And the Messiah did not bring political blessings, so the salvation that he brought was a spiritual one — one available to Gentiles as well as Jews.

Things to think about

  • When God called me, was I aware that it was by the grace of Christ? (v. 6).
  • Do I ever back away from the gospel because I am trying to please people? (v. 10)

Endnotes

[1] Some scholars believe that this is Paul’s earliest letter, written before the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) — it is possible that Paul did not have time to travel back to Galatia because he planned to go to that Council, yet he wanted to address the problem in Galatia right away. Other scholars believe that the letter was written a few years later.

[2] He lists Jesus Christ first, and the Father’s role is relegated to raising Jesus from the dead! Paul’s commission came from Jesus, and when Paul was struck down on the road to Damascus, he was especially stunned that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That was tremendously significant for Paul’s understanding of Jesus and his commission.

[3] The Greek word is anathema. The NIV erroneously added the word “eternally.” But if Paul could be forgiven for persecuting the church, others could be forgiven for preaching a false gospel; the word “eternally” does not seem warranted. Paul is not being vindictive or making objective theological statements — he is using the rhetoric of his day to denounce his opponents. Sometimes an anathema is appropriate, but church history shows that the anathema was sometimes pronounced for petty differences. Paul was tolerant of diversity on some issues (e.g. Romans 14).

[4] Greek has two words for “if.” In v. 8, the word for if indicates a hypothetical, unlikely condition — it is not likely that Paul or the angels will preach a perverted gospel. But the “if” in v. 9 is a different word, implying something that is likely to be true: people are already preaching an erroneous message.

[5] With the word “still,” Paul implies that he used to be a people-pleaser. He measured his success in Judaism in comparison to others (v. 14).

[6]Historians generally prefer first-person accounts, and some biblical scholars are skeptical of Luke’s accuracy, but we would scarcely be able to reconstruct a history of Paul’s travels from the letters alone. Luke tells us several important facts that Paul does not: that he was from Tarsus, that he was a Roman citizen, and that he was converted while on his way to Damascus.

[7] Three further lines of thought could have told Paul that the laws of Moses had come to the end of their validity. First, the resurrection of Jesus into glory indicated that the end of the age had come, and the law of Moses was not designed for the new age. 2) Since forgiveness is available without temple rituals, a large chunk of the Mosaic covenant had no purpose, calling into question the entire package. 3) The laws of Moses were not given to Gentiles, and never applied to Gentiles, and it would not make sense for salvation to be more difficult for Jews than it would be for Gentiles.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007, 2012

2. Galatians 1:11-24 - Paul Describes His Conversion

Paul’s commission from God

To support his point, and to show that the opponents were not telling the truth, Paul tells his story, particularly his relationship with the apostles. In the book of Acts, Luke tells us many more details, but this is Paul’s own description of what happened.[6] “The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel” (v. 11). Paul is here responding to his opponents.

“For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 12). It was not just a revelation from Christ — it was Christ being revealed to Paul (v. 16). Paul saw Christ, and that required a re-evaluation of everything that Paul had believed. Based simply on that appearance of Jesus, Paul could have understood quite a bit:

Jesus has been resurrected into glory, so he must be God’s Anointed, the Messiah. But I was persecuting his people! If zeal for the law caused me to persecute God’s people, something must be seriously wrong in my use of the law. Not only that, I was an enemy of God, and yet God spared me — I was accepted by grace, not by careful observance of the law.[7] And the Messiah did not bring political blessings, so the salvation that he brought was a spiritual one — one available to Gentiles as well as Jews.

But this is getting ahead of the story. Here’s the way Paul tells it: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (v. 13). They already knew the story, but Paul tells it here to highlight certain facts, and to present himself as a model they could imitate. If someone had been there, done that, and found it deficient, then maybe it would not be wise for the Galatians to adopt a law-based approach to religion.

“I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (v. 14). Paul had viewed Judaism as a “performance” religion, in which some people did better than others, and he did particularly well. Following the example of Phineas, Elijah, and Mattathias, his zeal for the law caused him to persecute people who were leading others astray (see Numbers 25:6-181 Kings 19:10; and 1 Maccabees 2:23-2658).[8] This is one of the ways in which he worked harder than other people his age. According to their standards, he had everything going for him (see Philippians 3:4-6). But he gave it up:

“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” (Galatians 1:15-16). The basic components of Paul’s calling are God’s grace, Jesus Christ the Son of God in him[9], and the mission to the Gentiles.

Received through a revelation

Paul’s message had its origin in God, not in the apostles. “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus” (vv. 16-17). Paul spent several days with Ananias and the disciples in Damascus (Acts 9:19), and they no doubt told him what they knew about Jesus.

Paul’s point is not that he didn’t talk to anyone, but that he did not ask anyone to tell him what to preach. The opponents in Galatia may have been trained by apostles, but Paul was not. And that’s good — the apostles did not yet know that God was calling Gentiles into his family, and if they had heard Paul talk about a Gentile mission, they probably would have tried to talk him out of it!

Paul does not tell us where in Arabia he went, or what he did there. If he began to preach in Damascus, then he may have preached in Arabia, too, perhaps in Nabatea, southeast of Judea. Jesus told him to preach to the Gentiles, so he probably did.

“Then after three years,[10] I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter’s Aramaic name] and remained with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:18). Peter no doubt told him as much as he could about Jesus, but it was not a training session in which Peter told Paul what he should preach. Paul is stressing his independence.

“But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” (vv. 19-20). Paul’s insistence that he is not lying indicates that he is responding to accusations — that he was an agent of the apostles. Paul’s opponents claimed an equal authority, so they tried to “flesh out” Paul’s message with more details. They have my story wrong, Paul says, and they have the gospel wrong, too.

Paul explained that he left the area: “Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ” (vv. 21-22). Antioch is the most likely location in Syria, and Tarsus in Cilicia. Paul’s main point is that he did not stay in Judea. Jesus had not sent him to Judea either to preach or to put himself under the apostles’ authority.

Paul’s only relationship with the Judean churches was that they heard about him: “They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me” (vv. 23-24). So Paul abandoned his pursuit of Jewish traditions, and began to preach another faith, the one we call Christianity. The Judean Jewish Christians had not brought this about, but they were in substantial agreement with Paul’s conversion and the faith that he preached.

Things to think about

  • Was there ever a point in my life when I persecuted or belittled the gospel? (v. 13)
  • Does God reveal his Son in me? (v. 16)
  • Have I turned away from a law-based religion to trust the grace of Christ?

Endnotes:

[6]Historians generally prefer first-person accounts, and some biblical scholars are skeptical of Luke’s accuracy, but we would scarcely be able to reconstruct a history of Paul’s travels from the letters alone. Luke tells us several important facts that Paul does not: that he was from Tarsus, that he was a Roman citizen, and that he was converted while on his way to Damascus.

[7] Three further lines of thought could have told Paul that the laws of Moses had come to the end of their validity. First, the resurrection of Jesus into glory indicated that the end of the age had come, and the law of Moses was not designed for the new age. 2) Since forgiveness is available without temple rituals, a large chunk of the Mosaic covenant had no purpose, calling into question the entire package. 3) The laws of Moses were not given to Gentiles, and never applied to Gentiles, and it would not make sense for salvation to be more difficult for Jews than it would be for Gentiles.

[8] What caused Paul to persecute the early Christians? Several Jews claimed to be the Messiah, both before and after Jesus, and that was apparently not considered blasphemous in itself. Three things may have angered Paul: 1) the claim that a crucified person was honored by God, when the law says such a person is accursed, 2) at least some of the Christians were perceived as being against the law (cf. Acts 6:11), and 3) the Christians were giving Jesus honors that belonged only to God. The biblical connection between violence and zeal for the law suggests that Paul saw the Jesus-disciples as violators of the law and a threat to the nation’s covenant relationship with God. 

[9] Paul does not say that God revealed his Son to Paul, but in Paul. In Paul’s work and sufferings, God continued to reveal his Son in Paul.

[10] The chronology isn’t clear. Did Paul stay in Arabia for three years, then go to Jerusalem by way of Damascus — or did he have a short stay in Arabia and then lived in Damascus three years? N.T. Wright suggests that he went to Mt. Sinai, then to Damascus, following the example of Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-15). The book of Acts says nothing about this three years.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

3. Galatians 2:1-14 - Paul Sent to the Gentiles

Someone had been telling the Galatian Christians false stories about Paul’s relationship with the original apostles and the Jerusalem church. Paul responds by recounting his history — and he uses that story as a launching pad for preaching the gospel of salvation by grace. Chapter 2 includes two important interactions.

An agreement between Peter and Paul

“After fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me” (Galatians 2:1, ESV). Grammatically, it is not clear whether this is 14 years after Paul’s conversion, or 14 years after his first visit with Peter (1:18). It may have been A.D. 48 — perhaps the famine-relief visit that Luke describes in Acts 11.[1]

“I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (v. 2). Paul described his message to the leaders in Jerusalem — he was not asking them for instructions or orders (contrary to what the opponents in Galatia apparently said). Was Paul afraid that he was preaching the wrong message? Apparently not, but he feared that the apostles might undercut his work if they disagreed with his gospel.[2]

“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (2:3). Paul hints that there was some controversy, but the apostles agreed with him on at least this much: that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised. Unfortunately, they did not seem to communicate this conclusion to the lay members, and that lack of communication later led to problems. People from Jerusalem traveled to other church areas and took it upon themselves to demand that other churches conform to their standards. The church visits may have been authorized by the apostles, but the specific requirements probably were not.

Paul says that the controversy arose “because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery” (2:4). These people claimed to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but at least from Paul’s perspective, they had missed the message. They did not just want to “spy on” believers’ freedom — they wanted to eliminate it. They wanted the new faith to be just as demanding as the old one. In Judea, tensions with Rome were rising, and some zealots were quick to accuse others of religious compromise.[3] Paul says this pressure for conformity amounts to slavery. (He will use the “slave” language again in chapter 4.)

“To them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (2:5). Paul stood against the pressure not just for the convenience of his people, but for the truth of the gospel. The gospel is not just a message of how people are saved — it requires that people be freed from obsolete obligations and social barriers.

Did the leaders tell Paul to add some requirements to his gospel? No: “From those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me” (2:6). Paul seems indirectly acknowledge that the other apostles were important in some way, but they were not essential for his mission. Although they eventually gave their approval, he did not need their approval in order to preach the message Jesus had told him to preach.

“On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles)” (2:7-8). They recognized that Christ had given Paul a mission, and they let him do it. Paul gives Peter a positive word here, but implies that he has authority only over Jewish churches, and not the Gentile church in Galatia.

So they agreed to go their separate ways: “When James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (2:9). Implied in this division of labor is that the leaders would not meddle in each other’s ministry — an agreement being broken by Paul’s opponents in Galatia, who were claiming to act with authority from Jerusalem.

“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (2:10). Paul had come to help the poor believers in Jerusalem, and his letters show that this continued to be part of his ministry (Romans 15:25-271 Corinthians 16:1-42 Corinthians 8:1-4). It was a humanitarian effort not to poor people in general, but to the poor members of the Jerusalem church. To Paul, it had theological significance, for it illustrated the unity of Gentiles and Jews.

So they agreed: Peter would go to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. But the plan failed to address one circumstance: what should be done in churches that contained both Jews and Gentiles? That is the next step in the story.

A disagreement between Peter and Paul

Paul’s next words are: “When Cephas came to Antioch…” Paul introduces this topic as if the readers already knew that Peter had gone to Antioch, and that they knew what Peter had done there. Paul’s opponents had probably told the story; now Paul tells his side: “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (1:11).

Paul backs up to give the context of the story: “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (1:12).

Old Testament laws did not require Jews to eat separately from Gentiles, but Jewish custom did (see Acts 11:3). Peter knew that this custom was not biblical, so he ignored it. However, when representatives of the Jerusalem church arrived, he changed his behavior.[4] It was a change of behavior based on a desire to please people — the very thing Paul had been accused of (1:10).

However, this separation implied that the Gentiles were second-class citizens, that they would not be fully acceptable unless they conformed to Jewish laws. Paul saw this as a violation of the gospel. If God was willing to live in these people, then the Jewish believers ought to be willing to eat with them.

Other people followed Peter’s example: “The rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy” (2:13). The change in behavior was not consistent with their beliefs, and was not consistent with the gospel, so Paul spoke to them all by addressing Peter, who had set the example:

“But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile[5] and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (v. 14).

Peter had been living like a Gentile, and he should not pretend that he didn’t. He had been ignoring the rules that separated Jews from Gentiles, but his change in behavior implied it was wrong to be a Gentile. “Peter is in effect requiring the Gentile converts at Antioch to adopt a higher standard of Torah observance than he himself would normally follow.”[6] Social discrimination violates the truth of the gospel.[7]

Unity in the church does not require that everyone follow the strictest opinions. God does not require Gentiles to live like Jews — and he does not require Jews to do it, either! Even the Jews are allowed to live like Gentiles, and the church should not feel compelled to satisfy its overly conservative critics.

Things to think about

  • Peter went to the Jews, and Paul to Gentiles (v. 9). A comparable situation today might be that one preacher agrees to focus on European-Americans, and another on African-Americans. Is this approach wise, or racist? What problems might result?
  • How well do I remember the poor? (v. 10)
  • Does the “truth of the gospel” require that we eat with believers who have customs we do not like? (v. 14)

Endnotes

[1] Ben Witherington, New Testament History, 197. Some scholars identify the Galatians 2 visit with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) instead, saying that Paul did not mention the Acts 11 visit because he had no discussions with the apostles on that visit and it was therefore irrelevant for his story. The topic in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 is the same: whether Gentiles should be circumcised. This would mean that Galatians was written after the Jerusalem Council. Support for the “late date” of Galatians also comes from the “northern Galatia” theory, which says that Paul is writing to people who are Galatian by ethnicity, and that Paul did not reach their region until after the Council.

Other scholars say that it is unlikely that Paul would have visited Jerusalem on the famine-relief visit without meeting with anyone and without discussing this topic, and in order to answer objections Paul would have had to include all his visits to Jerusalem no matter what was discussed. In Gal 2:2, he specifically says that the discussions were private, whereas the Acts 15 council was a public discussion. He says he went in response to a revelation, which comports well with Acts 11:28. And Galatians 2:10 says that the apostles wanted him to continue to remember the poor, which makes it sound like he had already done something for the poor — bringing famine relief. On a controversy like this, more than one discussion was probably necessary. This means that Paul wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council, and Paul was writing to people in Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium — in southern Galatia. Those cities were in the province of Galatia even though the people were not Galatian by ethnicity. Acts 2:9 shows that people could call themselves by their province, not just by ethnicity. The scholarly controversy about the date of the letter and location of the recipients does not affect the interpretation of the letter.

[2] “If they reject the legitimacy of this mission, it will indeed make Paul’s work futile in one sense, for their rejection will thwart God’s intent to bring Jew and Gentile together as one in Christ” (Richard Hays, “Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI [Abingdon, 2000], 223).

[3] The sociological pressures may have been similar to what we see in some Muslim regions, where radicals threaten violence against anyone who does not adhere to strict standards — for example, shaving is supposedly a sign of weakening religious loyalty, so radicals may threaten barbers who shave their customers. “We will publicly shame you as a compromiser unless you conform to our standards.” Paul calls this tyranny of judgmentalism an attempt to enslave.

[4] We do not know if the men from James demanded this separation, or if Peter was merely afraid that they would want it. Perhaps he planned to do it temporarily, to avoid offense, but ended up causing offense to the Gentiles.

[5] In this phrase, Paul has broadened the discussion beyond the question of eating with Gentiles, but it is difficult to determine exactly what he meant. In the first century, the distinction between Jews and Gentiles usually focused on circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath days. Some rabbis taught that Gentiles were required to keep the laws given to Noah. Galatians 3:17 suggests that the difference lies in the laws added in the days of Moses. Gentiles were expected to keep the laws that existed in Genesis, but were not required to keep those added later.

[6] Hays, 235.

[7] “One can betray the truth of the gospel not only by preaching false doctrines but also by engaging in false practices — particularly practices that fracture the unity of the church…. God has brought into being a new community that embraces Jews and Gentiles together as God’s people. This is not merely an implication of the gospel of an inference from the gospel; rather, it is an integral part of the gospel itself” (Hays, 248).

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

4. Galatians 2:15-21 - Justified by Faith, Not Law

Paul explains that Jews are saved by faith, not by keeping the law: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners[8]; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ[9], so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ[10] and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (vv. 15-16).

Paul’s first statement about “justification” is that it does not come through the law. This negative way of introducing the term suggests that it was not Paul’s original way of explaining the gospel. Rather, his opponents were using the word, saying that people could be justified (or declared righteous) only by keeping the law.[11] Paul uses their terminology, but turns it around. Even those who try to keep the law cannot be justified by doing the law, because everyone fails at some point or another.

We cannot claim to be righteous on our own merits — if we are going to be declared righteous, it must be on some other basis. That is why the Jewish believers, like the Gentiles, put their trust in Christ, not in themselves. The implication here is that since Jews and Gentiles are accepted by God on the same basis, for the same reason, then they ought to accept one another. Jews are not required to eat Gentile foods, but they should be willing to sit down at the same table!

A perfect source of righteousness

We are not justified by keeping the law. Does that mean that God doesn’t care whether we sin? No. Paul asks, “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!” (v. 17).[12] We are justified in Christ, by being united with him, so that he shares his righteousness with us. When we trust in Christ rather than ourselves, we admit that we are sinners, and that we cannot be declared righteous on our own merits. God accepts us even though we are sinners, but his pardon should not be interpreted as permission to sin. (The opponents were apparently saying that Paul’s gospel encouraged people to sin.)

Paul’s next statement is puzzling: “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (v. 18). It seems that Paul was accused of being inconsistent, but it isn’t clear what he is referring to.[13] An inconsistency would prove that Paul broke the law either before or after his change.

His point seems to be about sin and the law, for his next statement is: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (v. 19). Elsewhere, Paul explains that people die to the law through Christ (Romans 6:37:4). Christ suffered the worst penalty of the law on our behalf, and it has no further claim on us. Since we died with Christ, the law has exacted its penalty on us. But this does not mean that we are free to live however we please — rather, it means that we are to live for God. Paul will elaborate on that in the last third of his letter.

Paul explains his new outlook on life: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God [literally, by the faith of the Son of God], who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20). Paul no longer views himself as an individual trying his best to keep the laws of God. That old approach was flawed, and it died with Christ. Paul considers all his previous merits as good as dead (see Philippians 3:7), and his life has value now only as it is empowered by Christ, only as it is in union with Christ.

He was united with Christ in his crucifixion, and he is united with Christ in his resurrection. Whatever good he does, even his faith/fulness, is from Christ living in him. The reference point for Paul’s life is not the law, but the fact that the Son of God loved Paul and gave himself to save not just the whole world, but for Paul himself. It became personal for Paul. Christ gave himself to save Paul, and when Paul started to believe that, he abandoned his own agenda for life and began to live for God, letting his life be directed by Christ. This emphasis on Christ does not promote sin — it promotes a radically God-centered life.

Paul concludes: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (v. 21). There is a contrast: Either righteousness is based on the law, or it is based on grace. Either it is earned, or it is given. And Paul figures that if there was any way on earth that people could get righteousness by keeping laws, then Jesus died in vain — and that is simply unthinkable.

Paul had seen proof with his own eyes that Jesus was alive, that God had given him resurrection life ahead of everyone else, which meant that he was the Messiah. And God would not let the Messiah suffer the most ignominious death unless it were absolutely necessary. The fact that God let his own Son be crucified was proof to Paul that righteousness could be attained in no other way. Salvation comes through Christ, not through the law!

Things to think about

  • Why can’t people be declared righteous on the basis of keeping the law? (v. 15).
  • If “I no longer live,” why does it matter how I live? (v. 20)

Endnotes

[8] “The phrase hardly expresses Paul’s own view of Gentiles, and should probably be heard as an echo of what the group from James had said” (James Dunn, Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians [Cambridge, 1993], 74).

[9] The Greek says “the faith of Jesus Christ,” and some scholars take this literally — that people are saved by the faith/fulness that Jesus himself had (the Greek word can mean either faith or faithfulness). See Hays, 239-240. This would be similar to saying that his righteousness is imputed to us. We are saved by what he has done, not by something we do (see the last half of Romans 5:19). We need faith, but our faith is always imperfect — it cannot save us, so we must trust in Christ. Our faith and his faithfulness go together.

[10] Again, the Greek says “faith of Christ.” If the meaning is our faith in Christ, the verse is repetitious. If the meaning is his faithfulness, then the verse says that we trust in Christ with the result that we are accepted on account of his faithfulness, not on account of our works. Paul may be playing on the two meanings of the word.

[11] “Before mentioning the positive basis on which a person can be justified, or ‘righteoused’, Paul emphasizes the negative basis on which such justification is not possible. This order may well reflect the fact that the statement is made in a context where Paul is arguing precisely against those who do think that ‘the works of the law’ are necessary for all who would be members of God’s people” (David Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul [2nd ed.; T & T Clark, 2006], 77). Paul apparently had not used the word justification when he was actually in Galatia.

[12] Since the original Greek did not have any quote marks, it is not clear how much of this passage was spoken to Peter in Antioch. The NIV puts the ending quote mark at the end of v. 21, but it is possible that vv. 15-21 are an expansion of the original statement. These verses seem to speak to the Galatian situation better than the one in Antioch. “Paul merges his response to Peter into the opening statement of his appeal to the Galatians…. Galatians is what he should have said to Peter at Antioch had time and sufficient reflection allowed it” (Dunn, 73). On the other hand, Hays thinks that the quotation extends through v. 21 because Paul continues to use first-person pronouns as if he is speaking to a Jewish audience — but he notes that “the desired effect is that the Galatians will hear the speech to Peter as being addressed to their situation as well” (Hays, 230).

Paul never tells us whether Peter agreed with him; most scholars conclude from this that Peter did not agree (Hays, 231). Some Jewish Christians maintained separate churches for several centuries after Christ.

[13] Is he talking about rebuilding a barrier between Jews and Gentiles? Or were opponents saying that Paul would change his teaching on the law? Or is he using a proverb to talk about rebuilding sin, after preaching that Jesus died to destroy it?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007, 2012

5. Galatians 3:1-22 - Redeemed From the Curse of the Law

How could anyone believe it? How could the people taught by Paul himself go so quickly astray into false doctrines? Paul, who had seen many things in his ministry, was flabbergasted. He was astonished that the Christians in Galatia were attracted to a “gospel” that heaped extra requirements on them.

Some people were saying that everyone needed to keep the laws of Moses. Paul wrote a strongly worded letter to stop this nonsense! In chapter 3 Paul explains that Christ died to release us from these rules.

By law, or by the Spirit?

In Galatians 3:1-5, Paul points out that the experience of the Galatians should have made it obvious — they received the Spirit by faith, not through the law.

Paul expresses his surprise: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1, ESV). We might say, Who has pulled the wool over your eyes?

Here’s the starting point for understanding the gospel, Paul says: Jesus Christ has been crucified. That is the foundation on which we build. Paul had made it abundantly clear that Jesus died on a cross; he would have also explained that this ignominious death had a purpose: Jesus died to save us. Salvation comes from him, not from anything we do. His crucifixion changes everything, as Paul will explain.

A few questions should make it clear. “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:2). The answer was obvious: They received the Spirit by faith, by accepting what they heard. This is another foundational point.

Paul was astonished that the Galatians did not see the logical consequences of their experience with the Spirit. The Spirit was the promise of eternal life, and they already had the promise, so why would they think that more requirements might be necessary?

“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (v. 3). The Spirit was given by grace, not law, so what did they hope to achieve by observing laws, such as circumcision of the flesh? It just didn’t make sense!

The Galatian Christians were apparently being taught that they needed to add the Law to their faith. False teachers were saying that they needed to progress further in the faith by observing the Torah. They were teaching circumcision and the entire Law of Moses (Gal. 5:2-3Acts 15:5).

Paul says this is a ridiculous idea — if a person is given the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith, without deserving this gift, then Christianity is based on faith, and there is no place for works as far as salvation is concerned. (Paul will later comment on how Christians should behave in response to Christ’s work, but here he makes it clear that salvation is on the foundation of faith in what Christ has done.) Our goal cannot be attained by human effort, and that is why Jesus died on the cross. Whatever work had to be done, he did on the cross.

The Galatians had been persecuted for their faith, so Paul asks, “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” (Gal. 3:4)

Paul asks, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5). The Galatians had already seen enough evidence: miracles in their midst. And God had done this on the basis of faith, not of works of the Law. The Galatians had been doing great without the law, so why would they now entertain the idea that they needed to start keeping the law?

Evidence from Scripture

Paul’s opponents were apparently saying that Scripture required people to observe the law in order to be counted as righteous (see, for example, Deut. 6:25). They would have cited the example of Abraham, since Jews traced the promise of salvation back to him, and traced the requirement of circumcision back to him, as well.

Paul accepts the challenge and notes that the Torah actually supports salvation by faith. “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” (Gal. 3:6, quoting Gen. 15:16). His faith was counted as righteousness, without any mention of the law.

Paul agrees that people need to be part of Abraham’s family, but he says that the law is not part of the deal: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Even in the Old Testament, a right relationship with God came through faith. God counted Abraham as acceptable because he believed, not because of his obedience. God will accept everyone who believes, because they are like Abraham in this significant respect.

Can non-Jewish people really have a relationship with God on that kind of basis? Yes, says Paul, and he again quotes the Torah: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Gal 3:8, quoting Gen. 12:3).

The Torah says that non-Jews will be blessed through Abraham — and that blessing is by faith, not by the Law. Abraham did not need to be given the Law of Moses in order to receive the promise, and his spiritual followers do not need it, either. They are given the blessing even while they are Gentiles, that is, while they are uncircumcised.

Paul concludes: “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Gal. 3:9). We are blessed in the same way Abraham was: by faith. God’s blessing is by faith.

The curse of the law

Faith is one basis for being declared righteous. Is the law another? Pauls’ answer is an unequivocal “No!” The Law brings penalties, not blessing. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10, quoting Deut. 27:26).

The Law is not a way to earn favor with God. It functions in the reverse way, since we all fall short of its demands. If the law is our standard, we are under the threat of a curse. The law can point out where we failed, but it cannot pronounce us righteous; that was not its purpose. If we think we have to observe the Torah, if we want to be under the Law, we will be under its condemnation.

Paul concludes, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11, quoting Hab. 2:4). The Old Testament prophet connected righteousness with faith, not with law.

These two approaches are contradictory: “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them’” (Gal. 3:12, quoting Lev. 18:5). The problem, Paul implies, is that no one “does them” well enough.

Righteous people should live by faith, but the Law is based on performance. The law emphasizes human effort and external behavior, but salvation is given by grace through faith in what Jesus has done.

Law-keeping cannot earn us God’s favor. If we look to it, it can bring only a curse, since we all fall short. But even in the curse, there is good news — God has provided a solution to our dilemma. It is in the crucifixion of Christ:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ (Gal. 3:13, quoting Deut. 21:23).

Christ, by becoming human, became our representative. On behalf of all humanity, he experienced the penalty prescribed by the law — its curse — death. He let the law do its worst on him, but it was on our behalf. We are rescued because our representative suffered the consequences of our failure. The law has no further claim on us.

Paul is using several lines of reasoning to show that Christians are not under the authority of the Law of Moses; we are not obligated to obey it. Not only is the law ineffective, bringing a curse rather than a blessing, Jesus has also paid its worst penalty, and that counts for all humanity. Jesus’ crucifixion gives Paul the basis for saying that Christians are not under the Law.

Why did Christ do this? “So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (v. 14). The blessing is by faith as opposed to the Law. Christ removed humanity from the domain of law so that salvation would be given to Gentiles (as well as Jews) through Christ. By faith, we receive the Spirit, the guarantee of eternal life.

The law was temporary

Paul now explains with “a human example”—that of a contract: “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified” (Gal 3:15).

In Greek, a human “covenant” may refer to a business contract, or to a “last will and testament.” Once a contract has been made, neither party can change it without permission from the other. Or for a will, no one (except for the person who made it, it goes without saying) can make any changes.

Paul then compares that to the covenant God made with Abraham, which includes being accounted righteous by faith. Paul writes, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16, quoting Gen. 12:7).

Paul knows that “offspring” [literally, “seed”] is a collective word including many people (Gal. 3:29), but here he points out that the singular meaning fits well with a promise focused on one person, Christ. This scripture finds its fulfillment most perfectly in one particular Offspring: Jesus Christ. It is through him that Gentiles can become part of Abraham’s descendants (Gal. 3:29).

In verse 17, Paul compares that to the covenant God made with Abraham: “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” What “law” is Paul talking about? The law given 430 years after Abraham — the Law of Moses.

God would be going back on his word if he originally gave an unconditional promise, and then later started adding conditions. Just as a human covenant cannot be changed, God’s promise cannot be changed, either. The law of Moses cannot impose requirements that take away the promise of salvation. The laws that came through Moses cannot change the fact that God accepts people as righteous on the basis of faith, not by human efforts.

Paul reasons: “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (v. 18). Law and grace are contradictory. Salvation is either by laws and works, or by faith and gift. Paul does not try to combine the two — he is saying they cannot be combined. God gave the promise to Abraham as a gift, which means that it does not come by the law.

Purpose of the Law

Paul has made three points:

  1. Justification is by faith,
  2. The law cannot declare us righteous.
  3. The law is contrary to God’s promise.

So the obvious question is: “Why then the law?” And Paul answers, “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (Gal. 3:19). Were laws added because the people were already breaking them? Or were they added so that people could see more clearly that they were sinners? Either way, the Law of Moses was added for only a certain length of time — until Christ came.

The law showed, for one thing, that people would continue to sin even after a written law was given. The law made it obvious that humans are incapable of attaining righteousness on their own, and that righteousness can come only as a gift. The Law accomplished its purpose, and is now obsolete.

The law, Paul says, “was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one” (Gal. 3:19-20). Jewish tradition said that the law was given through angels, and the intermediary is apparently Moses, but Paul’s next point about “one” is obscure. There are three possible explanations:

  1. an intermediary implies two parties — in this case, God and the Israelites.
  2. an intermediary represents a group, not an individual — in this case, the Israelites.
  3. an intermediary implies indirect dealings, and is not as good as dealing directly with God, as Abraham did (see Richard Longenecker, Galatians [Word Biblical Commentary 41; Word, 1990], 141). Actually, the verse does not seem necessary for Paul’s logic, and perhaps we cannot see its significance because we do not know what Paul’s opponents were saying.

Paul asks, “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?” And he answers: “Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). If the Law of Moses could have given life, then God would have used it to give life. But that was not its purpose; it was not designed as a means of salvation.

If any law could give life, or make us right with God, then God would have done it that way. But by its very nature, law cannot give life — it can only condemn. People who think they can improve their standing with God by keeping the law are misunderstanding its purpose and are not accepting the biblical evidence that salvation is by faith alone, without human efforts. We receive the Spirit by faith and are counted righteous by faith; keeping the laws of Moses cannot contribute in any way to our salvation.

So what was the result of the law? “The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin…” Everyone falls short of what the law requires. The law made it clear that humanity needs a Savior.

What was the purpose of doing that? “So that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

Instead of giving life, the Law brings penalties. The diagnosis is that everyone sins and falls short of what the law requires. Consequently, the promise of salvation can come only through God’s grace. God himself provides the solution: salvation is given (by grace) to those who believe the gospel of the crucified Messiah.

Things to think about

  • In what ways have I experienced the Spirit? (Gal. 3:5)
  • Why would anyone want to rely on the law? (Gal. 3:10)
  • In what way did Jesus become a curse? (Gal. 3:13)
  • Did the covenant with Abraham have any conditions? (Gal. 3:18)
  • Should we add some laws “because of transgressions” today? (Gal. 3:19) Do laws cause more transgressions, or fewer?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2007, 2012

6. Galatians 3:23-29 - We Are All One in Christ

Paul writes: “Before faith came” [that is, before Christ], “we [the Jews] were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal. 3:23). The Jewish people were under the restrictions of the law, under its temporary jurisdiction or custody. The law gave requirements, but never rescued anyone from their tendency to sin, and this confinement lasted only until Christ came.

“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came[1], in order that we might be justified by faith” (v. 24). The law had authority from Moses until Christ. It showed that humans are prisoners of sin, unable to save themselves through human effort. It showed that salvation can be received only through faith, not by law.

Now that the Law of Moses has fulfilled its purpose, it has become obsolete: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal 3:25). The law had power in the time before Christ, showing that humans are transgressors, prisoners of sin, unable to be justified by works. But now, the law no longer has authority over us; it cannot condemn us.

Christians are not to look at the law of Moses as if it has anything to do with our salvation. It is not a way to get right with God. It is not a way to enter his kingdom nor a way to stay in his kingdom nor a way to improve our standing with God. Because of Jesus’ crucifixion, our relationship with God depends entirely on faith.

Children of God

Paul concludes that the gospel of salvation by grace through faith treats all people equally: “for in Christ Jesus you are all [children] of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). Both Jews and Gentiles receive God’s gift by believing the gospel.

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). We have clothed ourselves with him. He gives us the robes of righteousness, and our life is now after the pattern he sets for us.

But the conclusion is even more sweeping than ethnic equality: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The unity we have in Christ should have consequences in the social world. Slave-owners and slaves have equal status with God, and that should affect the way that they treat each other. If slave-owners realized that believing slaves were family members whom they should love as themselves, then the slave-owners would free the slaves. A person’s status in the church should not be limited by the status an unbelieving society puts upon them.

In the same way, males and females are one in Christ, but the consequences of that go beyond equal access to salvation (which was not an issue when Paul wrote) — it should result in equal treatment within the church.

Paul returns to the point that salvation is available to all: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29). Salvation is based on the promises God gave to Abraham, and we inherit those promises by faith, because that was the basis on which those promises were given in the first place.

Things to think about

  • Do people today make themselves “prisoners of the law” even though they are not really under the law? (Gal. 3:23)
  • Do old social divisions affect the unity of people in my church? (Gal. 3:28)

Endnote

[1] The 1984 edition of the NIV had “to lead us to Christ.” But the Greek means “into Christ,” and probably means “until” (McKnight, Galatians, 183). “We did not make our way, under the tutelage of the Law, progressively to Christ; instead, Christ came to us” (Hays, 270). In historical experience, we can see that the people who have kept the law (the Jews) have not been particularly “led” to Christ. 

The Greeks Had a Word for It: Paidagogos

“The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ,” says Galatians 3:24. The word “schoolmaster” is the King James translation of paidagogos, from which we get the English word pedagogue, meaning “teacher.”

But in ancient Greece, a paidagogos was not a schoolteacher. It is difficult to translate this word because it refers to something that does not exist in our society. The Greeks had a word for it because they had “it,” and we do not.

Paidagogos comes from two Greek words: pais, meaning child, and agogos, meaning leader. A paidagogos was usually a slave; he made sure the children went to school and did their homework. He taught manners and good behavior, but not academic topics. He supervised the children, and disciplined misbehavior. Paidagogoi had a reputation or stereotype for excessive discipline, and Greeks rarely had fond memories of the slave who supervised them.

The law was like that, Paul says. It watched over the Jewish people and gave them discipline until Christ came. He extends the analogy into chapter 4, saying that young children are like slaves — under the authority of others until a set time. And the Jews (he includes himself by using the word “we”) were enslaved until Christ came (Gal. 4:1-3). But now that the true Teacher has come, “we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:25).

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

7. Galatians 4:1-31 - Inheritors, Not Slaves

How can Gentiles inherit the promises God gave to Abraham? Some people said that Gentiles ought to keep the laws of Moses if they want to be part of the covenant people. Paul said no!

Paul ends chapter 3 by saying that Gentiles can inherit the promises of salvation without any need to keep the laws of Moses (Galatians 3:29). In chapter 4, Paul uses two analogies to explain what he means.

The underage child (verses 1-3)

“What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.” If a father died early, he might leave his estate to a young child. The child, although the legal owner, would not have authority to run the estate. A trustee would manage the estate and would have authority over the legal owner, as long as the heir was under age.

In the analogy Paul is creating, the child is Judaism. Jews had the promise of salvation, but not salvation itself. They were heirs, but had not yet inherited the blessings. They were like an underage child in another respect, too: They were under authority. In wealthy Greek families, children were supervised by slaves, and the children had to obey orders just as much as the slaves did. The child “is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.”

The law was “put in charge” for a while, but we are no longer under its supervision (3:24-25). People who put themselves under the old covenant are putting themselves back into slavery, when the Father wants them to come out.

Paul includes himself in this description: “So also, when we [the Jews] were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.” These “basic principles” are the stoicheia (the word used to describe the ABCs, the schoolwork done by elementary-age children).

Before Christ, the Jews were under the detailed rules of the Mosaic law. God was treating them like children — which was appropriate when they first came out of Egypt. Just as Paul said that “we were held prisoners by the law” (3:23), he now uses a similar analogy: “we were in slavery” — under authority, like underage children. But now the time had come for change.

Coming of age (verses 4-7)

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” For this momentous transition in the relationship between God and his people, God did not send a prophet or a lawgiver — he sent his Son. But he did not descend from heaven like an angel — he came as a human being, born of a woman.

When we introduce our children, we do not point out that they were born of a woman. Birth is so normal that it is strange to mention it. Paul says that the Son of God was born of a woman because it was not what people expected. The Son of God, though divine, became an infant — an underage child. Moreover, he was “born under the law” — obligated to keep the old covenant.

Why did the Lord of all creation become a child under the authority of the law? He did it “to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” He became under the law so he could redeem[1] people under the law. He had to become one of them in order to rescue them. He had to become human in order to rescue humans. Salvation depends on the fact that he was “born of a woman” — fully human. His birth has become one of the most celebrated holidays in Christianity.

Now that he has done this, what is the result? We have the rights of adult children: 1) we are freed from the law, and 2) we have begun to experience the inheritance that God offers.

Paul addresses the Gentiles: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba! Father!’” (4:6). “Abba” is a term of respect and affection, similar to the English word “Dad,” used by children even after they come of age. We are adult children who can call God our Dad. Since the Spirit who lived in Jesus also lives in us, we are God’s children.

The Spirit shows that God has elevated us: “So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (4:7). The same two points. God is treating us as adults, trusting us to be led by the Spirit.

Backwards into slavery? (verses 8-11)

Paul explains that Gentiles were enslaved, too: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.” The people were serving a falsehood.

“But now that you know God — or rather are known by God — how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” In other words, Now that God has treated you as adults, why would you want to go back to kindergarten? The Gentile Christians were thinking of returning to bondage. They wouldn’t have put it in those words, of course, but Paul is pointing out that this is what it amounts to.

Were the Galatians being tempted to go back into idolatry? Nothing else in this letter suggests that possibility. Rather, the letter repeatedly indicates that the problem was the old covenant law. Judaizers wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the law in addition to having faith in Christ (4:21; 5:2-4). They were being tempted with a different sort of slavery than what they came out of.

They had come out of pagan principles but were in danger of going back into another set of rules — another nonfaith approach to religion. (Paul uses the Greek word stoicheia here for principles of the Galatian heresy, the same word he used in 4:3 for the slavery “we” had under the old covenant “basic principles.” The letter as a whole indicates that the slavery the Galatians were falling back into was an obligation to old covenant customs.)

Paul is saying, You have come out of kindergarten. Why do you want to go back? You have been freed from an oppressive religion; why would you want to be enslaved to basic principles again?

Indeed, the people were already keeping some unnecessary laws: “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!” It is likely that the Galatians had begun to observe the same days and times that circumcised people kept. But if Paul was talking about Sabbaths and festivals, why didn’t he say so? It is because the Galatians were coming out of one religion and into another. Paul used words that applied to both religions to point out the similarities involved.

Pagan religions had their special days, months, seasons and years; so did the old covenant. There was a different set of days, but it is a similar idea. They felt obligated (enslaved) to something that was not obligatory. The Galatians had come out of religious bondage, and were going back into a religious bondage. So Paul asks: How could you do such a thing? Don’t you know that this can enslave you all over again?

No matter what days were involved, a focus on times is childish. Our relationship with God is based on Christ and the Spirit, not the calendar.

Have they given up on the grace they had in Christ? “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” Paul could assure the Corinthians, as immature as they were, that their labor was not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58), so why would he be worried about whether his own efforts were wasted? Paul’s comments in both letters must be viewed with some allowance for rhetorical exaggeration.[2]

Appeal for friendship (verses 12-20)

Paul’s arguments have become less biblical and more personal. Indeed, verses 8-11 are not really an argument at all — just frustrated questions and exclamations. Now he begins to plead with the people on the basis of his previous relationship with them: “I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you.”[3]

In what way did Paul become like them? Probably in the way that he lived. Like Peter, he lived like a Gentile (2:14). He was not bound by the laws that separated Jews and Gentiles, and he encourages them to be that way, too. An appeal for imitation was a common method of ethical exhortation.

“You did me no wrong.” You have always done what I have asked… And then Paul rehearses how their friendship began: “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.” Unfortunately, we do not know what Paul is talking about; Luke says nothing about it in the book of Acts.[4]

“And even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” The people apparently helped Paul recuperate, and treated him like a king, we might say, and believed his every word.

“Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” Some have speculated based on this verse (and 6:11) that Paul had an eye problem, but Paul is just using a figure of speech that was common in friendship: you would have given me your most precious possession.[5] What he is really saying is: You used to love me. What has come between us?

“Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” They had become friends because they believed Paul; why do they doubt him now? It is because some interlopers are trying to convince them that Paul did not tell the truth.

Paul says that their motives are selfish: “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.” They are sheep-stealers, trying to drive a wedge between us so that you will be loyal to them instead of me. It’s not enough to be loyal to Christ, in their book — you have to do it their way, and be in their camp.

Zeal isn’t wrong, but if it’s genuine it will be consistent, not fickle. “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.”

He throws in one more personal appeal: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,[6] how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” Paul is agitated, partly because he doesn’t know exactly what he’s fighting against. If he could be in Galatia and talk to them face to face, he might have a better response.[7]

Son of the slave woman (verses 21-31)

Starting in verse 21, Paul uses another analogy to dissuade them from the law: “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” Then he reminds them of a story in Genesis 16-21. He sees in it an ironic allegory.

“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.” Ishmael was conceived in Hagar in the normal way; Isaac was conceived as a miracle, long after Sarah had passed menopause. One was the product of the flesh; the other was the result of God’s promise.

Paul sees in this a useful parallel between those who insist on circumcising the flesh. “These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.” The covenant made at Sinai (the law of Moses) corresponds to the slave woman. This was an unexpected twist in the story; Jews never thought of themselves as connected to Hagar; her children were considered Gentiles.[8]

Although the Jews claimed to be descendants of Sarah, Paul claims that Judaism is the ideological descendant of Hagar: “Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.” In this allegory, Judaism and its followers are in slavery. Hagar represents the flesh; Sarah represents the promise.[9]

We are children of Abraham in a different way, and although we trace our faith to the same city, we are in a completely different status: “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. We, like Isaac, are children of promise.” We do not look to the flesh, so we are not concerned about circumcision.

Paul sees one more parallel in the story, corresponding with the fact that the Jews were persecuting people who felt freed from the law: “At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.”

So Paul quotes Genesis 21:10: “But what does Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ That is, get rid of those who teach slavery through the law! No one will inherit the promises of God by looking to the flesh, nor by looking to the calendar, nor by looking to the laws given on Mt. Sinai. We look to the child of promise — Jesus Christ.

In the next chapter, Paul will say more about how our freedom should be used.

Things to think about

  • Do we have different rules for children as opposed to adults? (v. 3)
  • Many people have had poor relationships with their fathers. What can they do if “Dad” is not a term of respect and affection? (v. 6)
  • Do I sometimes long for the ABCs of an earlier age? (v. 9)
  • Paul appeals for loyalty based on friendship, but what happens if the friendship actually had an erroneous basis? (v. 14)
  • In Galatians, Paul was writing to Gentiles. Would he use a word like slavery if he were writing to Jews? (v. 25)

Endnotes

[1] The word used for buying people out of slavery.

[2] Similarly, we understand that 1 Corinthians 4:8 does not mean what it says. There, Paul is using a different rhetorical technique: sarcasm.

[3] “This is a heart-to-heart moment. Almost every line is an appeal to friendship, to family loyalty, to a mutual bond” (Tom Wright, Galatians and Thessalonians, 53).

[4] Perhaps Paul became ill on the coast of Asia Minor and was advised to move to a mountainous region for recuperation — that would explain why he did not preach on the coast. Or perhaps he stayed longer in Galatia than he had planned because he became ill while there.

[5] “The theme of friendship in antiquity often associates such things as giving one’s eyes as a demonstration of the depth of one’s commitment to a friend” (McKnight, Galatians, 219). Today, we might say, “You would have given me your right arm,” without anyone thinking that our own arm was defective.

[6] A great example of a mixed metaphor: Paul has labor pains, but the baby is being formed in the Galatians!

[7] 2 Corinthians 10:10 suggests that Paul was gentler in person than he was when writing letters.

[8] Many scholars have noted that the story does not seem to be well suited to Paul’s argument. Indeed, it would be possible to use Sarah and Hagar to construct a different allegory with a different conclusion. It is likely that Paul used this story because his opponents were using it with a different conclusion. “It is just possible, though we must guess at it, that Paul’s use of the allegory here was determined by a similar appeal on the part of the Judaizers to Abraham’s son Ishmael, who was one of the fountains of the Gentiles” (McKnight, 230). Walter Hansen writes, “The [Genesis] text seems to fit the position of the false teachers better…. It appears that the Gentile believers in Galatia have already been told the story” (Hansen, Galatians,140-141).

[9] Both sons were circumcised, but Paul is exercising author’s privilege in choosing only those parts of the allegory that he finds helpful to his argument!

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2012

8. Galatians 5:1-25 - The Purpose of Freedom

Paul has vigorously argued that Christians are not enslaved to sin and not enslaved to law. How then do we live between these two errors?

Circumcision a mark of slavery (verses 1-6)

Paul begins chapter 5 with a bold slogan of spiritual liberty: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Christ lived, died, and was resurrected so that we might be free.

Judaizers were saying that Gentiles had to join the old covenant if they wanted God’s blessings and salvation (cf. Acts 15:15). In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul explains that this is false. If people submit to rules that have no authority, it would be like putting themselves into prison. In chapter 5, he exhorts them:

“Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Jews spoke favorably about “the yoke of the law,” as if the law would be a harness that helped them work effectively. But Paul turns that image around, saying that if the people turn to the law, the yoke would be one of slavery, and the work would do them no good.

Stand firm in your freedom, he says, and don’t be bullied by threats. We need not fear the day of judgment, because we are justified on the basis of faith, not works. We will always fall short when it comes to our works, but the gospel says that Christ has already done all the work we need.

If we turn to the law again, we would be saying that Christ was not enough. “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” A physical procedure cannot thwart God’s grace (see verse 6), but if it is done as a means of entering the old covenant, it shows that the person no longer trusts Christ to be a fully effective Savior.

Paul reminds them: “Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.” The law is not merely burdensome — it is a guarantee of failure. The person who turns to law has turned away from Christ:

“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” The Judaizers wanted to add the law to Christ, but these two cannot be combined. If we are trying to get right with God by obeying a law, we are no longer trusting in the grace of Christ.

Paul explains the Christian way: “For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” God’s Spirit assures us that God accepts us now, and will accept us on the day of judgment, because of Christ.

It does not matter whether we are Jewish or Gentile. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Here is something that counts — something important. It is not a means of earning salvation, but something that flows from salvation. Faith in Christ expresses itself in our behavior.

Obligation to love (verses 13-15)

Paul sums it up in verse 13: “You…were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” The word for “serve” here is douleo, the verb form of doulos, or “slave.” Do not be a slave of the sinful nature, nor a slave of the law — but do be a slave in your love for one another.

Christ does not give us freedom so we can live selfishly — that would be slavery to passions — but he allows us to live the way of heaven: love. That obligation still remains (see Romans 13:8). If we want the kind of life that God offers, we should want to live that way even now.

Paul tells us why to love: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” To paraphrase Paul’s logic: When we love one another, we have done everything that the law requires.

In chapter 3, Paul argued that the law was temporary, with authority only until Christ came. Here, he writes as if the law should still be done. Paul is using the word “law” in two senses. Law, referring to the old covenant, was temporary, but law in the sense of obligation to God and fellow humans is permanent.

Regulations about fabrics, food, and festivals are obsolete. But love is a law that is valid forever, because it is the essence of God and his realm, and that is what he wants us to share in for all eternity. The need for love did not end when the old covenant ended, because love was valid before the old covenant began. If any part of the old covenant can be said to survive, it is only because it expresses what was already true anyway.

Paul’s opponents in Galatia were probably saying that grace is not a sufficient guide to life, that we need the law to help us resist sin. Paul responds by saying that the solution to sin-slavery is not law – slavery — it is being enslaved to one another in love. If we do that, we are doing what the law required all along.

But what was happening in Galatia instead? They were bickering about fleshly rituals like circumcision, comparing themselves with each other to see who was the most scrupulous about things that really didn’t matter. So Paul warns them, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” An obsession with the details of the law does not come from love.

Life by the Spirit (verses 16-24)

Paul says more about how God’s Spirit (not the law) is the answer to the problem of sin: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” When we are led by the Spirit, our lives change. We don’t just “do whatever comes naturally” — we will put to death the habits that hurt other people.

This is often difficult: “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” We should serve one another in love, not serve ourselves in selfishness.

The Spirit is opposed to our sinful desires — but it is also opposed to the law. They are mutually incompatible: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Our allegiance is to the Spirit, not the law. The Spirit will lead us into acts of service and love, not into old covenant rituals.

Paul mentions some of the negative results of selfishness: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft…” Those are obviously wrong.

Then Paul mentions a few sins — probably including a few things that the Galatians were currently experiencing in their doctrinal controversy: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” He ends with a few more “obvious” sins: “drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” People whose lives are filled with selfishness do not even want to be in a kingdom that is filled with love.

In contrast, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” The law does not deal with most of these things — but the Spirit does. When we are led by God, we go beyond what the law required. People who are fixated on the old covenant have set their sights too low.

The law is not the solution to sin — the Holy Spirit is. We need him for living the new life we have in this age. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” In Christ, we have put those ways behind us, and now we follow the Spirit in the ways of love. “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25). Let us be led by the Spirit — that is the solution to sin.

Things to think about

  • Christ is the Savior of all people, even those who don’t believe (1 Timothy 4:10). So how could Christ be “of no value”? (v. 2)
  • How does faith produce acts of love? (v. 6)
  • Does Christian freedom mean that Christians are free to indulge their sinful nature? (v. 14)
  • When we are led by the Spirit, how do we tell the difference between what we want and what the Spirit wants? (v. 17)
  • Can we crucify our own desires and still remain the same person? (v. 24)

The Greeks had a word for it: σαρξ

The Greek word sarx, traditionally translated “flesh,” was rendered as “sinful nature” in 1984 edition of the NIV. That is because Paul sometimes uses the word to refer to evil inclinations, not just bodily appetites and physical desires. In listing “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, Paul includes mental sins and social rivalries as well as more fleshly sins such as sexual immorality.

Sometimes Paul seems to use the word as an alien power that we must fight against. “You are controlled not by the sarx but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you” (Romans 8:9).

The word sarx had a double meaning when Paul argued with Judaizers. In their focus on circumcision, they were worried about the flesh. Paul says that Christianity is focused on the Spirit, not the flesh.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2008, 2012

9. Galatians 6:1-16 - Do Good to All

In many of his letters, Paul concludes with a list of commands. In Galatians, he gives a series of proverbs. He wants his readers to be guided by the Spirit, not a list of laws, so he gives them principles that require some thought.

Restore a sinner gently (verses 1-5)

The Galatian Christians were probably concerned about sin — they were attracted to the law of Moses because it seemed to address the problem of misbehavior. But Paul is more concerned about the person than he is the sin: “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.”

What kind of sin is Paul talking about — a moment of weakness, or a persistent problem? It’s not clear, but it alienated the person from the community, and restoration was needed. This must be done gently by Spirit-led people, who know their own tendency to sin in other, perhaps less public ways. We should treat others the way that we want to be treated, with compassion and patience.

As brothers and sisters in the faith, we are to help one another: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” If you want a law, he seems to say, start with the law of helping others. Jesus served others rather than himself, and so should we. When someone is caught in a sin, we need to help the person — not make the burden heavier. This is love, which fulfills the purpose of God’s law (5:14).

Paul’s next proverb is a truism: “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.” This seems to be a warning for people who think they are spiritual giants and never likely to be caught in a sin. If you think you can stand on your own, he says elsewhere, watch out, for you could fall, too (1 Corinthians 10:12).

“Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.” We are not the judge of how well other people are doing in the faith — but we should be attentive to whether we are doing what we ought. We can celebrate that we have grown, but we should not take pride in being better than others. Each person has his or her own journey in life. As Paul says, “each one should carry their own load.”

On the surface, this appears to contradict what Paul said in verse 2. Are we to help one another, or to be self-reliant? Well, both. We should be attentive to our own life, but we should also help others—and we should recognize that we will sometimes fall short in our responsibilities, and will then need the help of others. Spiritual growth is a matter of cooperation, not competition.

Supporting teachers, doing good (verses 6-10)

Paul’s next proverb concerns financial support for the leaders of the church: “The one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.” When the people were spiritually immature, Paul was willing to support himself by making tents, but he also taught that believers should support those who labor in the gospel. If we want teachers to help us with their abilities, then we must help them according to our ability.

Paul says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” This principle could be applied in many settings; here, it seems to refer to financial support for teachers in the church. No matter how diligent our teachers are, if they have to support themselves financially, they will inevitably have less time to help others. When we give more, we receive more.

Paul applies the proverb to spiritual matters: “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” A self-centered life produces only material things that eventually waste away. A life curved in on itself doesn’t even want the kind of life that God offers.

But if we are attentive to spiritual priorities, the result will be more blessings from the Spirit. This is not a matter of earning eternal life through good works — it is simply an acknowledgment that spiritual choices have results. If we focus on ourselves, our life will produce nothing of value. But if we make decisions in life following the Spirit, we will be participating in the kind of life we will enjoy forever. The Spirit leads us and empowers us, but we still have the choice of how to live, and our decisions do have consequences.

Paul makes it clear that the works of the law cannot save us, but he has nothing against good works: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Why do we get tired of doing good? Because it doesn’t always have immediate rewards. But it will eventually have good results.

Paul concludes: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Since doing good is the right way to live, we should do good not just to our friends, but to all people — and yet Paul notes that we have a special responsibility to others in the church.

In Paul’s day, wealthy citizens often financed public banquets and new civic buildings: they were “doing good to all.” Be a public benefactor, Paul is saying, especially within the church. If you sow generously, you will reap abundantly (2 Corinthians 9:6).

Boasting in the cross (verses 11-16)

Paul now takes the quill and writes the closing words himself, as Greek authors often did. He writes in large letters either for emphasis, or simply because he was not as skilled as the secretary in writing on porous papyrus. “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!”

He adds a few thoughts about circumcision: “Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” Basically, the false teachers wanted Christianity to be a sect within Judaism, and for all Gentile believers to become proselytes. They may have offered various religious reasons, but Paul says that what they really wanted was to be accepted by unbelieving Jews.

But there is an irony here: “Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.” As a former Pharisee, Paul knew the rigor involved in keeping all the laws — and these people don’t have that kind of zeal, he says. They just want to brag about bringing proselytes into the Jewish fold.

Boasting about achievements is hazardous to our spiritual health. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” When we boast in the cross, we are “boasting” in our weakness, admitting that human effort ends only in death. We are proclaiming the gospel of what Christ has done.

Because of the cross, our old self is irrelevant. The new spiritual reality is that it doesn’t matter whether a person is Jewish or Gentile. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” In the cross, we died, and in the resurrection, we were made new. Our relationship with God is based on our connection with Christ, not on our flesh.

“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule to the Israel of God.” The “rule” is that circumcision doesn’t matter. Paul is ending with a benediction on those who accept his teaching. They are “the Israel of God.” If people want to be part of Israel according to God’s definition, they should ignore the flesh and trust in their new status in Christ.

Things to think about

  • Based on Paul’s letter, how could believers in Galatia know whether they were “spiritual”? (v. 1)
  • If I am dealing with a person caught in sin, what kind of words would help the person carry the burden? (v. 2)
  • In the support I give my pastor, am I trying to please the Spirit, or have I grown weary? (vv. 8-9)
  • How do I boast in the cross of Christ? (v. 14)

The Greeks had a word for it: kαταρτιζω

When Paul exhorted believers to “restore” a person who had sinned (Galatians 6:1), he used the Greek word katartizō. This comes from the Greek word artizō (related to the English words artistry and artisan), and the prefix kata (which can have a variety of meanings, but in this word conveys a sense of completeness).

This is the word that Mark uses to say that the disciples were mending or preparing their nets (Mark 1:19), and Jesus uses it for a fully trained student (Luke 6:40). In secular Greek, it was used for a doctor setting a broken bone so that it could heal. In general, it means to make something suited for its purpose.

By using this word, Paul is putting emphasis on the solution, not the problem. “The whole atmosphere of the word lays the stress not on punishment but on cure” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, 53). “The goal here is not punishment or expulsion of the transgressor but restoration to the person’s former state” (Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia, 422).

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 1989, 2012

10. Ephesians 2:1-10 - Saved by Grace

Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is filled with numerous theological and practical insights. Chapter 2 takes us from death to life, from hostility to peace. This chapter shows us that there is an important connection between God’s grace and human interrelationships.

Spiritual death

Paul begins by telling his readers: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live” (Eph. 2:1-2). All humans start in a state of spiritual death, whether we have many transgressions or only a few. A life not oriented to God is dead.

Paul is talking about average people, socially respectable people. When they “followed the ways of this world,” they were following the devil — “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (v. 2). In living the way they thought best, they were unwittingly imitating the devil and disobeying God.

Christians did it, too: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (v. 3). We lived with no thought other than to take care of our desires, and as a result, we were objects of wrath — under the judgment of God (Rom. 2:5).

Spiritual life

But God’s wrath is not the end of the story: “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). The judge of all humanity is full of mercy, and even when we were guilty and without excuse, he forgave us. Insofar as we sin, we are dead, but as much as we are in Christ, we are alive.

Life in Christ is much more than the physical existence we are familiar with — our new life has a different quality to it, a heavenly quality, an eternal quality. When we become Christians, our identity changes. We become new people. The old self dies, and a new person lives. We died with Christ, we were buried with Christ, and we also live with Christ.

“God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). Those who have faith in Christ are seated with him in glory. It is so sure that Paul can say that it has been done.

God did this “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). God’s grace is already at work in our lives, but the extent of his grace will be revealed with much greater clarity in the future.

Paul then summarizes the way God is working: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (v. 8). In Greek, the words grace and faith are feminine, but Paul uses a neuter form of the word this. Paul is not saying that faith is a gift of God, or that grace is a gift of God — they are, but here Paul is saying that all of salvation is a gift of God. None of it comes from from ourselves — “not by works, so that no one can boast” (v. 9). No one can brag about having faith or works. Since God has done it, he gets all the credit.

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (v. 10). Even our good works are a result of the way God is working in us. He created us for his purpose, to do his will.

Paul expects believers to be obedient. He says that we used to be disobedient, but that in Christ we are created anew, so that we might have a different foundation for how we live. This new life is a result of our salvation, not the cause of it. Our works should be good, but they can never be good enough that we deserve to be saved. We are saved by grace, by God’s mercy and love, through Jesus Christ.

Michael Morrison

11. Ephesians 2:11-22 - Unity in Christ

Paul then begins to address a practical matter within the church, the tensions between Jewish and gentile believers. Because we are saved by grace and because we are saved for good works, our attitudes and behavior toward one another ought to change.

He begins by writing to the gentiles: “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called `uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves `the circumcision’ (that done in the body by the hands of men) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (vs. 11-12).

The Jews looked down on the gentiles, calling them “uncircumcised.” This insult was a reminder than the gentiles were not in the covenant of Abraham and not included in the blessings promised to him. Although circumcision was a human work, it reflected a spiritual reality. The gentiles were separated from Christ, God, hope and promise. But that has now changed: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Once they were separated from Christ; now they are united with him. Once they were excluded; now they are included. They have hope, and they have God, through the death of Jesus Christ.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one” (v. 14). What “two” is Paul talking about? He is talking about Jews and gentiles. The peoples who used to be in different spiritual categories are now united in Christ. The Jews were just like the gentiles in being spiritually dead; the gentiles are now like Jews in that through Christ they are members of the people of God.

Jesus has made the two peoples one by bringing the outsiders in, by bringing the gentiles just as close as he does the Jews. Through Christ they both have the promises, the citizenship and the hope, and they have God. Where there was rivalry between Jews and gentiles, Jesus has made peace, because both peoples are equally saved by grace and no one has any reason to feel superior.

Abolishing the law

How did Jesus make peace between Jews and gentiles? It is because he “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14). And what was the wall that created hostility between Jews and gentiles? Paul answers this question when he says that Jesus destroyed the barrier “by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (v. 15).

The wall of hostility was the law, which had commandments and regulations separating Jew from gentile. This law defined who was on which side of the barrier, it said who had the promises and who belonged to the people of God.

Some of the Jews had created laws that made the Jew-gentile hostility worse, but Paul is not talking about human-made laws. Christ did not need to abolish human-made laws, because they had no spiritual authority in the first place, and Paul is talking about barriers in connection with God. He is talking about spiritual realities, not human traditions.

Paul is talking about laws that divided Jew from gentile in the sight of God, laws that had to be abolished by the cross of Christ (v. 16). Jesus did not have to die to eliminate human regulations. Rather, he died to bring an end to the old covenant. Ephesians 2 is therefore in agreement with what we read in Acts 15, 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 3-4, Colossians 2 and Hebrews 7-10.

The old covenant came to an end with the death of Jesus Christ. The old covenant had defined Jew and gentile, creating the distinction, and Jesus made the two peoples one by destroying that divider. Jesus abolished the old covenant with its regulations and commandments. The people of God are no longer defined by old covenant laws.

Christ’s purpose, Paul says, “was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (vs. 15-16). Before Christ, there were two kinds of people: dead Jews and dead gentiles. Both peoples needed to be reconciled to God, and this is what Christ did on the cross. The result is a new people, a people who are alive in Christ, alive to God.

“He came and preached peace to you who were far away [gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (vs. 17-18). Paul is proclaiming equality for gentile believers and unity of all Christians. People of different ethnic groups, people of different denominations, are one in Christ.

One building

“Consequently, you [gentiles] are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (v. 19). Through Christ, we are members of God’s family.

Paul then shifts to a different metaphor: “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (v. 20). Moses is not our foundation. The apostles and prophets are — and Paul is probably speaking of New Testament prophets, as he does in Ephesians 3:5. But even more important than this foundation is the fact that “Christ Jesus himself [is] the chief cornerstone.” He is our primary point of reference.

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). Our unity is in Christ, and as we are growing in him, we are a place of acceptable worship.

“And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (v. 22). As we are in Christ, through faith in Christ, through seeing ourselves as his people, we are growing closer to one another, and God is living in us by his Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is living in us, then God is living in us, for the Holy Spirit is God.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

12. Ephesians 5:1-7 - A Call for Purity

In Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace, not by our works (Eph. 2:8). But he makes it equally clear that God has made us and called us so that we do good works (v. 10). In the last half of his letter, he gives some specific exhortations for the kind of behavior that reflects our Christian faith.

At the end of chapter 4, Paul exhorts the Ephesian Christians to forgive one another, just as God in Christ had forgiven them (v. 32). We are to pattern our behavior after God himself. Paul states this general principle as he begins chapter 5: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (vv. 1-2, NIV 2011 edition in this chapter).

We should be like our heavenly Father, and the imitation of God is a basic principle of Christian ethics. We do not imitate him in authority, but in humility, because God is revealed to us most clearly in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is the clear example of forgiveness and love that we should follow. When we love others, we are a sacrifice that pleases God (Hebrews 13:16).

A call for purity

Love does not mean promiscuous sex, however: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3). Paul does not say what sort of “impurity” he is thinking of. Greed is wrong because, among other things, it is an opposite of love.

Not only should Christians avoid even the hint of immorality, Paul advises, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (v. 4). Obscenities are common in American culture now, but Paul exhorts us to conform to Christ rather than to culture (Romans 12:2). When sin becomes a joke, more people sin. Sex is a gift of God, and it should not be tarnished by referring to it as a joke or as an insult. Our speech should set a good example, and Paul suggests that if you have to say something, say something good. “Thanksgiving is an antidote for sin” (Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians, p. 276).

Paul then emphasizes how important this matter is: “Of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person — such a person is an idolater — has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). That behavior, and that sort of speech, is contrary to the character of Christ. How can we be scrubbed of such impurities? Through Christ — and having freed us from corruption, Christ wants us not to go back to wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22).

“Let no one deceive you with empty words,” he warns — let no one tell you that God doesn’t care about such things, “for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them” (Eph. 5:7-8). Paul is saying here that God is angry with people who give themselves over to corrupt behavior. Sin hurts people, and since God loves people, he hates sin, and he opposes those who persist in it.

Greed and immorality hurt people, and even though they are common in society today, we should not join in with people who do them. Indeed, we should avoid even the hint of impropriety, such as the dirty jokes. This requires a difference in behavior, not physical separation. “We cannot share the gospel if we separate from unbelievers. The light is to shine in the darkness” (Snodgrass, 278).

Michael Morrison

13. Ephesians 5:8-14 - Children of Light

In verses 8-10, Paul uses a figure of speech common in Greek literature: light as the good, as the intelligent choice: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.”

You once lived the way the world does, he says, but now you have a different standard — Christ — and in him we are people of light. When we follow him, our lives will be characterized by goodness, righteousness and truth. We need to find out what God wants, and we need to do it.

“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret” (vv. 11-12). Paul again mentions the need for us to keep our speech pure. How do we “expose” wrong behavior? With light—with goodness, righteousness and truth — setting a good example, having good words.

“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible — and everything that is illuminated becomes a light” (v. 13). I suspect a translation problem here, because no matter how much we illuminate a sin, it never becomes a light. However, people can become transformed into lights, and that fits the context: Everyone who is exposed by the light becomes visible, and everyone who is illuminated (that is, transformed by Christ) becomes one of the children of light, who live in Christ.

Paul talks about a personal transformation in the next verse: “This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (v. 14, source of quote unknown, but perhaps adapted from Isaiah 26:1960:1). Here Paul uses resurrection as a figure of speech for coming to faith in Christ (see Eph. 2:1 for a related figure of speech). In Christ, we rise to a new life — no longer a slave to the deeds of darkness.

Michael Morrison

14. Ephesians 5:15-20 - Transformed by the Spirit

Since God cares about what we do, Paul advises: “Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (vv. 15-16). Immorality and coarse jokes were common in Paul’s world, too, but he calls us to buck the trend and be different. Because sin is so common, we need wisdom in discerning how we should live — we can’t just go along with what everyone else is doing.

“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery” (v. 17). When people are drunk, they are more apt to sin in other ways too. Paul contrasts that with life in the Spirit: “Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (v. 18).

Instead of to the misery of debauchery, the Spirit leads us to joy and thanksgiving: “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 19-20). This is the kind of party we need!


15. Ephesians 5:21-33 - Submission in Marriage

Grammatically, verses 18-23 form a very long sentence: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another…submitting to one another, wives to their own husbands.” These participle clauses tell us how we are to act when filled with the Spirit: speaking to one another, singing, and submitting to one another. The grammar indicates that Paul is continuing the same subject rather than switching to something new (even though many translations start a new sentence and new paragraph at verse 21 or 22).

One of the results of the Spirit in our lives is that we “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21). We look to the needs of others (Philippians 2:4). When we respect Christ, we respect those who are in Christ.

The first example Paul gives is submission in marriage: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). Many Greco-Roman writers told wives to submit to their husbands, but Paul puts that advice into a new context: our relationship with Christ. Just as we should all submit to Christ, wives are to submit to their husbands. Paul will soon balance this with some surprising advice for husbands.

“For the husband is the head of the wife…” (v. 23). Commentators argue vigorously about whether “head” implies authority or source (the latter meaning can be found in the phrase “headwaters of the river”). Apparently the Greek word could have either meaning, but here the context (especially the word “submit”) suggests that authority is in view. We “submit” to a source if it has authority over us. Nevertheless, Paul does not focus on authority, but on responsibilities.

The husband is head of the family in the same way “as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (vv. 23-24). How well does the church submit to Christ? Imperfectly, but Christ does not beat the church into submission. That kind of behavior is inappropriate in marriage — and it is hypocritical for a husband to badger his wife about submission when he has problems with submitting himself to Christ.

Unfortunately, Paul’s words have often been used by men to demand that wives obey: “The Bible says that you are supposed to submit to me.” However, the wife could say, “Yes, but the Bible also says that you are to give yourself up for me — so stop making demands.” This sort of exchange is fruitless, because it tries to use the Bible for selfish purposes. The better way is to let the Bible speak to each person, without any self-serving “assistance” from us.

Obviously, a wife should not submit “in everything” — not to commands that are contrary to Christ. In the same way, she does not have to submit to abuse, for abuse is also contrary to Christ.

Responsibility of husbands

After Paul gives the culturally common advice to women, he gives a surprising command to the men: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). The love that Paul calls for was a radical idea in Jewish and Greek society — that husbands had obligations to make sacrifices for their wives. In using the word love, he is essentially telling husbands to submit to the needs of their wives. “In the final analysis, submission and  agape love are synonymous” (Snodgrass, 296).

What are the results of Christ’s love for the church? “…to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (vv. 26-27). Husbands cannot do this for their wives, of course, but they should have the same attitude: They need to view their wives as spotless, holy and pure, because Christ has made them so.

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28). Just as Christ sacrificed himself to serve the church, men should make sacrifices to serve their wives. They should do nothing from selfishness, but in humility regard their wives as better than themselves — and the women should do the same (Phil. 2:3). Paul is calling for mutual respect and submission.

“He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:28-30). Unfortunately, some people do hate their bodies, but Paul’s point is clear: Husbands should treat their wives as the husbands want to be treated by others (Matt. 7:12).

To show that husbands and wives are united as one body, Paul quotes Gen. 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31).

How can two people be one? Paul says it “is a profound mystery — but then he says, I am talking about Christ and the church” (v. 32). Since we are all united with Christ, we are one in him. Not just in marriage but also in Christ, our spouses are part of our body, and we need to treat them as well as we do ourselves.

Paul summarizes the discussion in v. 33: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Whether we are male or female, when we are filled with the Spirit, we should love, respect, and submit to one another.

Things to think about

  • Is it fair for us to remind other people about what God commands them?
  • Should wives really submit “in everything”? (v. 24)
  • In what way can husbands give themselves up for their wives? (v. 25)
  • Does the Bible command anyone to exercise “leadership”?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2005, 2011

16. Philippians 1:3-11 - Joy in Jesus Christ

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi says more about joy than any other New Testament book. Even though Paul is under arrest and in chains, he rejoices because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes to thank the Philippian Christians for the help they gave him and to encourage them to face their own trials with “joy in Christ Jesus.”

Prayers of joy and love

Paul follows first-century custom by first saying who he was, then the people he was writing to: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (1:1).

In some letters, Paul introduces himself as an apostle. But since the Philippians already accept his authority, here he introduces himself simply as a servant of Christ Jesus. He views his chains, his mission and his entire life in the context of doing Christ’s work. He writes to “the saints” — the holy ones, those who are set apart for God.

First-century Greek letters often began with chairein, “greeting.” Paul modifies this to charis, “grace.” Grace is part of his identity, and he begins writing with a prayer for grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 2).

He then praises the Philippians — not directly, but by thanking God for them (v. 3). Not only is this giving credit where it is due, it reminds and encourages the Philippians that God is working in their lives.

“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy,” Paul writes, “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…” (vv. 4-5). The Philippians supported Paul’s missionary work, and had sent him help (4:15; also see 1 Cor. 8:1-5). Paul rejoices that these people have such a zeal for the gospel, and this letter shows them his gratitude that God is using them in this way.

Paul’s joy is rooted in God’s faithfulness: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (v. 6). Since the Philippians had begun so well, Paul is confident that they will persevere in the faith — not on their own strength, but because God will continue to work in them. “All of you share in God’s grace with me” (v. 7).

Prayer for love

God knows how much I care for you, Paul writes — I care for you as much as Jesus himself does (v. 8). The Philippians are concerned about Paul, but here, the man in prison expresses compassion for them. As we will shortly see, they faced some trials of their own.

Then Paul tells them what he prays for: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God” (vv. 9-11).

The Philippians already love. Paul wants their love to grow into wisdom and good behavior, and this letter will help them do that. As they grow in knowledge, they will have a better foundation on which to make decisions, and their behavior will come not from their own righteousness, but from Jesus Christ working within them. And the praise will go to God, because he is the source of the righteousness.

Michael Morrison

17. Philippians 1:12-20 - Rejoice in the Gospel

Priority of the gospel

The believers in Philippi had heard of his arrest and imprisonment, so Paul reassures them “that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (v. 12). The gospel is what is important, he implies, not my comfort. So what looks like misfortune for Paul is really turning out quite well. Since he could talk to his guards, “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (v. 13).

Instead of other Christians being frightened by Paul’s arrest, they became encouraged by Paul’s boldness in captivity. “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (v. 14). Paul could be restrained, but the gospel spread even more.

Some people were trying to take advantage of Paul’s restrictions, but Paul does not worry about them. He judges everything by one standard: the gospel. “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.

“The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached” (vv. 15-18). Paul is encouraged by those who preach out of love, but he sees good even in what the others are doing, because more people are learning about Christ.

“And because of this,” Paul writes, “I rejoice.” His joy was in the gospel, not in his own advantage.

Paul has reason to be confident, because his confidence is in Christ. “I will continue to rejoice,” he writes, “for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (v. 19). Paul knows that he will be released, but in the meantime, the gospel is going to more people. So he is happy.

To live is Christ

Paul does not know whether he will be released alive, or released by death. No matter which, he is sure that Christ will give him strength to be faithful. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (v. 20). If Paul escapes alive, he will praise Christ. If he is killed for his faith, that will also be a witness for Christ.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

18. Philippians 1:21-30 - The Gift of Suffering

Paul was in jail, considering the possibility that he might be killed because he had been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. But he sees positive outcomes no matter what: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). Death can be “gain” for Paul only because he knows he will get more after death than he has in this life. He trusts his Savior for eternal life, so he uses this mortal life to serve his Savior. If he dies, he will be assured of a reward. If he lives, he can preach the gospel. Because his life is in Christ, and Christ is his priority, both possibilities are good. No wonder he rejoices!

“If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (vv. 22-23). If it were just for himself, Paul would rather die, escape his troubles and enjoy life with Christ. But he has an assignment to preach and teach, and he is convinced that he is not yet finished.

“Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (vv. 25-26). His work among the saints is to help them experience joy in their faith. His release from prison and his ministry among them will help the Philippians focus on Christ as their source of joy.

The gift of suffering

Paul then hints at troubles the Philippians themselves are facing. This may be why he mentioned the possibility of death, why he set an example of viewing death as gain, why he encouraged them to view everything through the lens of Christ. Whether in life or in death, their goal should also be to exalt Christ, to bring glory to him, to demonstrate that he is worthy of their trust.

“Whatever happens,” he writes, “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (v. 27). Their behavior should show that they trust in Christ even when threatened. “Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (v. 27). Imitate me, he seems to be saying. Face your trials just as I am facing mine — rejoicing in Christ, holding fast to the faith. And he urges unity, a point he will address again in later chapters.

Stand firm, he says, “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved — and that by God” (v. 28). If the Philippian Christians keep their faith even when threatened with death, it will be evidence that they are thoroughly convinced of a glorious afterlife with Christ. This will exalt Christ, and might convince some people that they need the salvation that these saints so strongly believe in.

Paul then writes about a surprising gift: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have” (vv. 29-30).

Yes, they are to view their sufferings as a gift, as part of their faith in a crucified Savior. Just as the Philippians share grace with Paul (v. 7), they also share in persecutions. Yet they are to rejoice, for the sufferings are part of joining Jesus in his journey to glory, and these sufferings exalt Christ, showing him to be more valuable than all earthly comforts, more valuable than life itself. Whether they live or die, they have reason to rejoice, for they have Christ!

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

19. Philippians 2:1-13 - The Example of Jesus

Paul, in prison, is writing to thank and encourage Christians in Philippi. They face their own trials and have their own problems. They, like many churches today, had some petty disagreements and selfishness. Paul points them to a better approach to interpersonal relationships and gives them three examples they can imitate.

Consideration

Paul begins by reminding them of blessings they have been given by Christ: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…” — he assumes that they have enjoyed all of these — “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:1-2).

He is not just asking them to think like one another. As he will soon explain, he wants them to be like-minded with Christ — to be encouraging, comforting, sharing, tender and compassionate, as Christ is. He wants them to have the same kind of love as Christ has, being like him in attitude and goals. That is the only sure way to be united with one another. When the Philippians put this into practice, Paul’s joy among them will be complete, for his gospel will have produced its fruit.

The bottom line, he says, is to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (v. 3). Do not be motivated by selfishness or pride, for they destroy unity and are the essence of sin. Instead, “in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Paul does not say that others are better — only that we should consider them better. Objectively, everyone cannot be better, yet Christian unity must be built on considering others ahead of self.

“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (v. 4). We may consider our own interests, but we must also look out for others. This is the way of Christ. He, the best of all humans, did not put himself first, but considered the needs of others.

Humility

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (vv. 5-7). Scholars call this passage “the Philippian hymn,” because its style and rhythm cause some to think that Paul is adopting words that Christians were already singing — words of praise for Christ Jesus.

Paul is using these words to remind his readers of the example they are to follow: someone who was divine, having the greatest of honor, yet who did not cling to his rights and privileges. The 2011 edition of the NIV puts it this way: Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Though the Philippians had important rights as citizens of a Roman colony, they were to focus on others, not themselves.

Jesus willingly set his rights aside, in humility becoming a human, serving our needs. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (v. 8). His humility, his desire to serve, was complete. He endured the most painful and most shameful form of death, just to serve our needs.

The result? God resurrected him and “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).

What is the name above all other names? The name of God. In Isaiah 45:23, God says, “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” Paul is saying that Jesus should be given the same honors as God. When we bow to Jesus, God gets the glory.

Jesus is in the highest place, worthy of worship, worthy of the name “Lord.” Because he was humble, he is now exalted. Humility is the praiseworthy way.

Contentment

How should we respond to Jesus’ humility and service? Paul pleads for action: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12). The Philippians have been a responsive church, eager to do what is good. Paul is asking them to take one more step, applying the humility of Christ to their interpersonal relationships.

They are to work not in order to get into salvation (salvation is a gift that they already have), but to work out its implications — to diligently apply it in their lives by imitating their Savior. They are to work, and yet realize that they are not working alone: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (v. 13). We cannot make ourselves more like God — only he can, and he does it by changing our desires and our actions. He does not force us, but enables us. We work, trust him to do his work, and give him all the credit (see 1:3 and 1 Cor. 15:10).

Things to think about

  • In my own experience, what role does self-interest play in squabbles?
  • When others consider me better, do I tend to agree with them?
  • Do I sometimes assume that other people want what I want? Do I “serve” them as a means of getting what I want?
  • What rights and privileges do I have? Am I willing to give them up to help others?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

20. Philippians 2:14-29 - Examples of Humility

“Do everything without complaining or arguing,” Paul writes, “so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (vv. 14-16). In other words, as you share the gospel, be aware of the example you set (see 1:27). Be content, be peaceable, and you will be seen as points of light. Society doesn’t make it easy to be Christlike, but instead of viewing this as an obstacle, see it as an opportunity to make the gospel attractive.

Paul then makes his appeal personal: “in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.” This will complete his mission, he says, bringing the people toward maturity in Christ.

Paul then elevates the significance of what they are doing — he is a sacrifice for God, and so are they. Their lives are given together as an offering to God. “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you” (v. 17). Although I am in jail, he says, I rejoice because of the way that you serve the Lord. “So you too should be glad and rejoice with me” (v. 18).

Timothy

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you” (v. 19). Paul hopes to send a friend to them, who will (if we read between the lines) report on whether the Philippians put Paul’s exhortations into practice.

Without directly saying so, Paul writes that Timothy is a good example, already doing what Paul is exhorting. Timothy “takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (vv. 20-21). Timothy does not act from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility he looks to the interests of others, of Jesus and the gospel.

“But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (v. 22). Look to him, and hear what he says. “I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me” (v. 23). As soon as I find out whether I will get out of prison, I will send him, my son in the faith, to serve your needs. “And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon” (v. 24).

Epaphroditus

But Paul did not wait. He sent his letter with someone else: “But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs” (v. 25). Epaphroditus, apparently one of the leaders in Philippi, had come to visit Paul in prison. Now Paul is sending him back with special commendation:

“For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill” (v. 26). In other words, he is looking out for your interests. He is distressed not because he was sick, but because he doesn’t want you to be worried about him.

“Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety” (vv. 27-28). I care for you, too, and I will be less anxious about you when he is there.

“Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him” (v. 29). He is setting a great example, and if you honor people who serve, more people will serve. Epaphroditus put his life on the line: “he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me” (v. 30). Be willing to serve, Paul says, and you will be great. Humble yourself for him, and he will exalt you with Christ!

Things to think about

  • If I can’t complain (2:14), what can I say about things that are wrong?
  • Can I trust God to do his work within me? Does he sometimes seem to work too slowly?
  • What examples of humility do I know locally? Do I honor them?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

21. Philippians 3:4-14 - Starting Right and Finishing Well

Paul writes to the church in Philippi to encourage them to rejoice in their trials and to be considerate of one another. In chapter 3, he comments on the foundation of the faith and exhorts them to finish well. He tells them that salvation is not by works, but he exhorts them to work. Let’s see how he balances these two thoughts.

The true people of God (3:1-3)

Although Paul is only in the middle of his letter, he indicates his transition by writing, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!” (3:1). He wants to stress that joy is found “in the Lord.”

“It is no trouble for me to write,” he says, “the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you” (3:1). In other words, I’ve told you before, but I think it will be helpful if I remind you. Then he warns them about false teachers.

“Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh” (3:2). Paul is referring to Judaizers, who taught that people must be circumcised in order to be saved. This heresy was apparently not an urgent problem in Philippi, but Paul wanted to be sure that the Philippians wouldn’t fall for it.

He uses harsh words about those who taught salvation by works — dogs, evil-doers, mutilators. He used the Gentile objection to circumcision — that it was a mutilation of the flesh. Paul was not opposed to Jews circumcising Jews, but in this letter, writing to a primarily Gentile church, he felt free to use the Gentile perspective.

“Dogs” was Jewish slang for Gentiles. Why does Paul refer to the Judaizers by their word for Gentiles? He considers them not truly the people of God, not part of the true Israel. “For it is we who are the circumcision,” he writes (3:3) — and by that word we, he is including his Gentile readers. Although they are not physically circumcised, they are part of the true circumcision (Romans 2:29).

Those who have faith in Christ have the circumcision that counts, the circumcision of the heart. We Christians, not the Judaizers, have the true worship: “we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (3:3). Our hope of salvation, he says, is not based on our flesh, anatomy or genealogy. Our confidence is in Christ.

Past performance is worthless (3:4-9)

If salvation were based on genetics and Jewish laws, Paul would do well. Even though he has those, he trusts in Christ, not in his works. “Though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more” (3:4).

Then he lists his merits: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (3:5-6).

Paul has everything the Judaizers have, and more. He was born a Jew, educated in Judea, zealous even by the standards of the strictest group. He did everything he could, but it was not enough. Not because he failed, but because even at its best, the old approach does not work. He had to start over.

No one can accuse Paul of preaching grace for his own benefit or to ease a troubled conscience. Paul has gone from being a respected rabbi, to being a persecuted apostle, for one reason only: he is persuaded that Christ is the truth, the way and the life. “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (3:7). He counts those things as spiritually valueless. They cannot bring him any closer to God.

“What is more,” he writes, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (3:8). Paul was willing to give up all his Jewish advantages, all his merits, because Christ is so much more valuable. Paul is still a Jew, of course, but genetics and traditions cannot save him.

“I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (3:8). Circumcision is not wrong in itself, but it is worthless for salvation — and actually harmful if someone trusts in it. Only Christ counts; only he is of value for our relationship to God. Paul wants something far more valuable than anything Judaism can offer, and that is Christ.

On judgment day, Paul wants to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (3:9). True righteousness does not come through law-keeping (no matter how well we keep the laws) — it comes only as a gift of God to those who trust in Christ. This is the right place to start.

Eyes on the goal (3:10-14)

Paul’s goal is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11). Now he knows only in part (1 Cor. 13:12), but he wants to know Christ fully, and he will experience this only in the resurrection.

But to share in Christ’s glory, Paul also shares in his sufferings, and by doing so, he will in some way attain the resurrection. Not that he will earn salvation through his sufferings, but that through faith he is united to Christ, including his crucifixion and death (Rom. 6:3-6). He shares in Christ’s sufferings as well as his glory. Both are part of being “in Christ” through faith. He has joined Jesus in the journey of salvation, and he is willing to follow him wherever he leads.

But Paul has not yet achieved what he wants: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). So Paul works hard to perform the work for which Jesus called him. This is part of knowing Christ — knowing his will and being eager to do it. Paul wants to experience the riches of Christ, even if they involve some suffering. His confidence in Christ does not make him complacent or lazy.

And again he says: “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (3:13-14). He does not rest on the many good things he has already done — he works, for that is what Christ called him for. Paul is not talking about qualifying or earning the prize, but about his zeal for it.

Things to think about

  • Have I been fairly successful at keeping biblical laws? Does that tend to give me confidence?
  • Do I count my past (whether good or bad) as rubbish, as irrelevant?
  • Do I want the fellowship of sharing in the sufferings of Christ?
  • Does confidence in Christ make me zealous, or complacent?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

22. Philippians 3:17-4:1 - Our Allegiance Is in Heaven

Good examples

Paul has a reason to explain his eagerness — he wants the Philippians to share his approach. “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (3:15). Those who are mature recognize that they are not yet complete, but the immature sometimes claim victory prematurely. So Paul adds, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (3:15). As you mature in Christ, you will learn to think this way, too.

“Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (3:16). Those who are in Christ should live like it (Eph. 4:1); we should let Christ make a difference in our lives, changing us, giving us zeal for his work. And to reinforce this active faith, we are to be attentive to good examples. “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you” (Phil. 3:17).

Be zealous for Christ, he says. “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18). Here Paul equates the gospel with “the cross of Christ.” The good news is based on a crucified Savior, for salvation comes through what Christ did, not on what we do. But many people are embarrassed by the cross and stress works instead.

“Their destiny is destruction,” Paul says (3:19). “Their god is their stomach” — they seek financial support — “and their glory is in their shame.” They glory in the flesh, in circumcision and works of the law. But now that Christ has come, it is shameful to choose these things instead of Christ, or to insist on both, when Christ is all that we need. Paul concludes, “Their mind is on earthly things” (3:19).

In contrast, Paul says, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). Our minds are set on heaven, not on earth. We focus on the spirit, not the flesh. Our hope is in the future, not in this world. “We eagerly await a Savior from there [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (3:20-21).

When Christ returns, we will be like he is (1 John 3:2). He will give us the righteousness we need, and that is why we can so eagerly strive to do his will. “Therefore,” Paul concludes, “that is how you should stand firm in the Lord” (Phil. 4:1). We cannot trust in our imperfect performance — we must trust in Christ and in the transformation that he will bring us when he returns (3:21). By keeping a clear focus on Christ, we can stand firm until the end.

Things to think about

  • Can I trust God to teach people who think differently than I do?
  • What is my attitude toward the cross of Christ?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

23. Philippians 4:1-9 - Think on Good Things

As Paul nears the end of his friendly letter to the church in Philippi, he encourages his readers to focus on the positive, and he closes with thanks and praise that can encourage us.

A plea for peace

Verse 1: “Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” As he explained in chapter 3, we cannot trust in our imperfect performance — we must trust in Christ and in the transformation that he will bring us when he returns (3:21). By keeping a clear focus on Christ, we can stand firm until the end.

As he exhorts them, Paul reveals how much he likes these people who have helped him: he loves them and longs for them. They give him joy and honor, and he can appeal to them as friends.

Paul then turns to a specific problem within the Philippian church, mentioning two women by name: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord” (4:2). The disagreement between these Christians was apparently not a private matter, but had caused problems within the congregation. Paul does not cast blame and does not give orders, but treats them both the same.

Paul then asks someone to help: “Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (v. 3).

Paul not only pleads — he praises. These women had been a big help in Paul’s evangelistic team, but good gospel workers can have weaknesses in other areas, and these two needed some help in patching up their differences. So Paul calls on an unnamed but faithful friend to be a mediator. After all, these women are in the book of life and will live forever with each other, so they ought to try to get along now.

Peace and joy

Paul then goes back to a persistent theme in this letter: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (v. 4). But it’s hard to rejoice when we have persecution and personal disagreements. Nevertheless, we are to rejoice, for we are in the Lord. We have much to be happy about: a salvation that no one can take away from us.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near,” Paul exhorts. This is good advice for anyone, anytime, whether in a time of persecution or a personal squabble. Gentleness is better than retaliation.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (v. 6). We are encouraged to pray about everything that concerns us, confident that God will take care of our needs. Rather than worrying or fighting back, we can be thankful, even in times of trial. Paul is helping the Philippians to concentrate on the positive.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). With confident prayer, we can have inner peace. Although circumstances around us may be in turmoil, we can have a peace that by normal standards doesn’t make sense. But our faith is in Christ, not the circumstances of this world.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (v. 8). If you want inner peace and interpersonal peace, then think on good things. Love looks for good things, not bad (1 Cor. 13:5-6). If you have a problem with someone, look for whatever is true and good and praiseworthy. Give your problems to God, and you will find peace.

“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). Paul again appeals to his own example among the Philippians. He tried to live the gospel as well as to share it, and he encourages the readers to do the same.

Thinks to think about

  • Would I want my name to be in a public letter, with an apostle asking me to quit arguing with another member? (v. 2)
  • Am I willing to give all my anxieties to God in prayer? (v. 6) Am I willing to be thankful even in difficult times?
  • How well do I concentrate on the praiseworthy, rather than the things that irritate me? (v. 8)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

24. Philippians 4:10-23 - Closing Thanks

A thank-you note

Paul then thanks the church for the help they sent him while he was in prison: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it” (v. 10). Although Paul is thankful for the physical help they gave, he also uses this opportunity to point the readers away from the physical, toward faith in Christ:

“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (vv. 11-13).

Paul had times of plenty, and times of poverty. In both cases, he looked to the Lord, not to his physical circumstances. He was content even when in poverty, because he looked to Christ. Christ did not give him strength to break out of jail, but to stay in jail. Christ did not give him the ability to turn stones into bread, but to endure hunger. This is the kind of strength Christ gives — perhaps not the kind we want, but the kind we need most.

Verse 13 is sometimes lifted out of context to say that Christ enables us to do anything we want, such as to succeed in business. But this is not what Paul meant. Rather, Christ enables us to endure all circumstances. The 2011 revision of the NIV makes it clear that we need to consider the context: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” He can be content, even in poverty, through Christ.

Paul does not preach in order to get a salary, and he is not dependent on anyone. But Paul praises them for the help that they gave, because it reflects a spiritual virtue within them. “Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need” (vv. 14-16).

When Paul was ministering in Corinth, for example, he received financial help from Philippi (2 Cor. 8:1-2) rather than being supported by the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:7-14). Although the church at Philippi was poor, and some of the Corinthians were wealthy, the Philippians supported Paul’s missionary work. And in Thessalonica, too, they continued to help him.

Paul appreciates this not so much for his own benefit, but because it is a spiritual value for the Philippians. “Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account” (Phil. 4:17). Frank Thielman says, “The imagery is of a bank account that receives compounded interest” (Philippians, p. 237). God will reward them for the good that they have done, and Paul was eager for them to be blessed as a reflection of their generosity. When we serve God in physical ways, we benefit spiritually as God is working in us.

“I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (v. 18). This financial help is more than enough for me, he says, and then he points out its spiritual significance: It is a sacrifice that pleases God. We worship God in our offerings, whether they are given to the poor or to missionary workers.

And in return, “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (v. 19). The reason that we can be generous is because God will supply everything we need, including the strength to endure difficulties.

Closing comments

Paul ends his letter with a traditional doxology, praising God: “To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (v. 20).

Then, as a customary postscript, he adds a few personal greetings: “Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send greetings. All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (vv. 21-22).

Who are these people from Caesar’s household? We do not know — they may have been part of Caesar’s staff that worked in various parts of the empire. Paul mentions them here perhaps to drop a hint that the gospel is bearing fruit in significant places.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen” (v. 23).

Things to think about

  • Poor people are more likely to be Christians than wealthy people are. Do I find it easier to trust in God when I am poor, or does wealth tempt me to trust in my money? (v. 12)
  • What kind of strength is Christ giving me in my circumstances? (v. 13)
  • Do I view my offerings as a form of worship, or as payment for services that I want to benefit from? (v. 19).
  • How often do I greet saints in other cities? (v. 22)

Author: Michael Morrison