The third chapter of Galatians is a situated argument where Paul is trying to reason against the Judaizers calling for Gentile Christians to live under the Mosaic law. At some point, we in Christian leadership would hope that the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 (convened c. 50 AD) would sort these issues out, but it is evident to any who have led the church, we know that much work needs to be done after decisions are made by leaders.
Paul, who was once among the staunchest defenders of the law, takes the mantle of pastor/missionary to the Gentiles and regularly finds himself defending the practices and place of the Gentiles in the faith by pointing to the inability of the law to save or transform. In fact, Paul using jailing terms, here, to describe the law. The law is the bars, the key, the guardian of the jail. It locks us up. It lords over us. I judges us guilty.
Our only chance is to be justified!
Justification is such an interesting theological concept. It seems that we want to focus so much on forgiveness. We want to talk about Jesus saying, “go and sin no more!” We holiness folk can err so heavily on the side of control. But, justification means that we were shown to be in the right. In NT Wright’s theological response to John Piper’s critiques, Justification, he notes that Paul uses this dramatic image of justification from the law court to declare that Christians are acquitted of the cosmic accusations against them (cf. 43). This image is a radical affront to Judaizers who desire precisely that the law would expose the cosmic accusations against sinners and Gentiles alike.
The key to freedom from our bondage or accusation of the law is faith/belief. This is a radical theological turn for strict law abiders. No longer do you have to live up, shape up, or straighten up. Justification is by faith in Jesus Christ. Believe in him, and you are handed a get out of law created cosmic jail free card. This is - and Wright acknowledges this in Justification - God’s enduring project, beginning with his Abrahamic covenant: to bless the whole world through Abraham’s descendants (cf. 67).
Continue on in this pericope, and you see Paul making the connection that Wright wants to make! If you clothe yourself in Christ, you become co-heir to Abraham’s blessing because you become his seed. This is good news to the Christian convert in Galatia, and remains good news to Gentiles to this day.
What is most famous - and perhaps most revolutionary - in this text is the assertion that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. This indicates the radicality of this justification, for not only are we free, but there is no longer privileged positions in Christ. Being male, Jewish (or Greek, depending on perspective), and free were the most privileged of perspectives in the day. Paul’s assertion that these designations no longer existed in Christ were an invitation joined with Christ’s prophetic words that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” In Christ, the economic and social structures of this world are turned upside down - and as such there are important racial, cultural, and sexual implications.
Such implications are found in emerging Christian practices that distinguished them from Jewish piety. For example, the three berakot (blessings) found at the beginning of the Jewish cycle of morning prayers were: “Blessed be He [God] who did not make me Gentile, blessed be he who did not make me a boor [slave, peasant], and blessed be He that did not make me a woman.” Analgous statements could be found in Greek writings as well. On the other hand, Christian baptismal candidates would give special confession that through Christ, their old racial schisms and cultural divisions had been healed.
The question that must be asked, when preaching this text, is what are we radically saved to? We have become so adept at declaring - even if vaguely - what we are saved from (sin, Hell, damnation, bondage, etc.). But what are saved to? What is the radicality of justification? What could it mean that our neighbor - perhaps even neighbors whose lives repulse us - have not simply been forgiven but have also been justified in and by Christ? What are the social, racial, gender boundaries that still need to be reconciled in Christ? If we struggle to find an answer, have we simply neutered a radical text?
(1) Barney Fife as “the law” trying to keep those in Christ bound by the Mosaic Law is an image that could appeal to Senior Adults in our churches.
(2) There are many television shows sampling law and order: Prison Break, The Wire, Orange is the New Black are some popular television shows that could be sampled.
(3) Cultural images of imprisoned who we believe are innocent: Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption as one of the most famous images.
Worth Considering (if you feel brave): Galatians 3:28 is increasingly cited in the conversations around the justification of homosexual unions. It is not under the purvey of this work or webpage to make declarations in favor or against such a hermeneutic, but it is likely important for a preacher of this text to be aware of its potential conversations in LGBT inclusion debates. Familiarization of arguments using exegesis of this text is advised.