top of page

Galatians 2:15-21

Galatians 2:15-21 We’ve all been there: the awkward dinner. Or maybe for you it was a breakfast. Either way, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps the mix of people at the table was just not right. Somehow the staunch Republican got seated next to diehard Democratic and somebody brought up healthcare. Or maybe for you, it’s a family meal and the raucous drinking cousins were riling up your teetotaler aunt. Whatever your story, you know the feeling. Awkward! Let’s be honest, separate tables would just be easier. In our Galatians text, Paul has just recalled what I imagine to be the most awkward dinner party of all time. The Gentile believers tried to join the Jewish believers for dinner and things got weird, especially when Peter made a scene of refusing to eat with the Gentiles. Paul is mortified by this hypocrisy, calls out this behavior, and jumps into a theological defense of his position on the matter where our text begins. The temptation we have as preachers is to remove this pericope from the context of the awkward dinner party and the book of Galatians as a whole. The typical reader’s eyes immediately hit upon “works of the law” and “justification” and, with our invisible 16th century theological baggage to give us a nudge, we declare this passage to be all about not earning salvation by doing good things works but rather about just trusting in Jesus. While this might make for easy preaching and hearty amens from the congregation, it does not take begin to tap the depths of Paul’s assertions in this passage, nor does it do justice to the story of Galatians as a whole. In Galatians, the message of justification cannot be separated from story of covenant. The entire book of Galatians is asking (and answering) the question: what does it mean to be a part of the family of God and how does one get included in that family? Paul declares that there is one Gospel and thus one family of God and we all enter it on the same grounds: the faithfulness of Jesus. So what is this family of God like? How do you get included in that family? Paul states unequivocally, it is not by the works of the law. As faithful preachers, we must stop at this point and define our terms for our people. For too long, this phrase has been reduced to simply mean doing good things in an attempt to earn salvation. Again, this reductionist interpretation does not do justice to the context of our passage. We forget that God’s first covenant with the people of Israel to the father of Israel, Abraham, preceded the giving of the law by centuries. To suggest that any God-fearing Jew saw themselves as included in the covenant of Abraham (justified) by following the Mosaic law is an anachronism. Rather, the works of the law (such as food laws, holy days, circumcision, etc.) served as external indicators to demonstrate who was justified, meaning who was a part of the covenant family already. Consider a marriage. There are certain things that you do and don’t do in the context of a marriage covenant. However, those acts do not create or absolve the marriage. The marriage is created when the couple enters into that covenant. The marriage is dissolved only when that covenant is intentionally and legally abandoned. The acts performed by the members of the covenant do not “make or break” the marriage, but rather indicate the partners’ commit to the covenant already established. So too in the biblical covenant. God established his covenant with God’s people based on God’s self-giving love. The law prescribed a way of life that would be indicative of faithful commitment to that covenant. Works of the law did not establish the covenant, but served as indicators of justification, of faithfulness and family identity, of being a part of the family of God. Paul d