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Galatians 3:23-29

Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian liberty. And this section of the letter could rightly be called the blueprint for Christian egalitarianism. Equality is how we moderns see it, and there is certainly an aspect of equality baked into this vision, such that we should see unequivocal bans on racism, classism, and sexism in the community of Christ.

But it’s important ultimately to remind ourselves that what Paul is saying here is not about “us.” The central actor here is the Triune God, who in the larger context in which this text is embedded, made promises to Abraham to bless the nations through him, has sent the Son in the fullness of time to become a curse so that those bearing the curse of the law could be liberated and raised to new life, and has sent the Spirit in order to adopt children through baptismal faith (the larger subsection should carry from 3:6-4:7; with 4:8-31 as the second part of Paul’s discussion of Abraham). In other words, the egalitarianism in Galatians 3:23-39 is only about us insofar as it is first about what God has done in the Messiah and the Spirit for us.

And this is the importance of seeing these pairs of binaries within the larger apocalyptic (Paul uses the word “apocalypse” in verse 23) vision being cast. As important as equality is, equality serves the purpose of embodying the vision and vocation of the new humanity in Christ. God has promised to Abraham that “all the nations shall be blessed in you.” Paul even calls this “the gospel [declared] beforehand” (3:8). For Paul the gospel is not primarily about a faith decision an individual makes to get on God’s good side. Rather, God paints the gospel on a larger canvas. On this canvas individuals don’t get lost but take their place in God’s plans for larger people groups—Abraham’s family and all the families of the earth—and indeed all of creation. The gospel has necessary cosmic ramifications.

God’s promise comes to Abraham and Abraham’s seed—the word for descendants. Paul picks up on the singular of “seed” here to demonstrate that the promise would come through one seed, namely the Messiah (3:16). What Paul is getting at here is important for his readers and hearers in Galatia, primarily gentiles. Abraham’s vocation (and indeed the good news) was always about the blessing of the nations, Israel and all the other nations. So now that that promise has come to fruition through Jesus, it wouldn’t make sense for gentiles to need to become Jewish, because both Jews and gentiles have been made right in the Messiah. Because of the horrific history of interpretation it needs to be made clear what Paul is and is not saying. Paul is not saying that Judaism is bad or has to be left behind. Rather, he is saying that in the Messiah all the promises God made to Abraham’s family are coming to fulfillment. Messiah rescues God’s people. But because he understands the Messiah as Abraham’s seed, he also sees the Messiah as the rescuer of all the nations (again, it’s important to remember what he calls the gospel in 3:8). Messiah is the full flowering of blessing to all the nations and families of the earth. Therefore, there is no need for Jews to become other than Jews or gentiles to become other than gentiles, because they are all being formed by the faithfulness of Jesus, through baptism, into the new humanity.

In this new humanity, in the one new human, Jesus the Messiah, Abraham’s descendant, all people have been brought together. There is no longer a binary pair of oppositions called “Jew or Greek.” Where once these distinctions would have been definitive for who was inside the category of God’s people and who was outside, now all have been rectified and redeemed in Jesus’ faithfulness. Where once these identities would have demarcated who was the agent of God’s blessing and who was the beneficiary of that blessing, now all people have the capacity to be the people of God’s blessing work in the world. There is no longer a binary pair of oppositions called “slave or free.” In the community of Jesus, the powerful do not lord it over the vulnerable, and the slaves are not simply there for the whims of the masters. Rather, the new humanity in Jesus is a community of mutual service, with the powerful honoring the vulnerable and where slaves are gifted by the Spirit to make valued contributions to the common life of the church. And finally, there is no longer a binary called “male and female.” Though it’s important to notice that Paul changes the conjunction from “or” to “and,” perhaps referencing the creation of the first humans in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The old humanity is gone, the new humanity, created in the resurrection of the Messiah has arrived, where women and men share equally as heirs of the promise in Jesus. In all these statements, it’s not that Paul’s vision of church is about bland sameness or lack of difference in the church. As Brad Braxton argues, Paul is not advocating for “the obliteration of difference but the obliteration of dominance.”[1]

There are a couple other important aspects of this passage that should not go unnoticed. First, the concept of faith’s arrival. Paul’s use of pistis is much more robust than the single translation of “faith” can convey. It goes far beyond the idea of cognitive belief. The word can also mean faithfulness, trust, fidelity, loyalty, and allegiance. Related to this is the scholarly debate concerning how to render “pistis Christou,” whether with the objective genitive (where Christ is the object of faith: “faith in Christ”) or the subjective genitive (where Christ is the one having/doing faith: “the faithfulness of Christ”). In this passage, Paul talks about “the faith” coming (using the definite article at 3:23 twice, 25, and 26). My own reading prioritizes the subjective reading, where this is Jesus’ faithfulness that has come on the scene, that has decisively enacted our redemption. It is Jesus’ human faithfulness to God that discloses the new possibility of human faithfulness that can now be gifted to those in the Messiah by the Spirit.

Finally, the role of the law is an important issue in this text. Paul calls the law a paidagōgos, which is related to our word pedagogue. In Paul’s context, however, this was not a teacher, but rather a slave that would accompany a minor to school, a childminder would keep the youngster out of trouble. The law has a role therefore in keeping order, and it is an important role for forming the people of God to be faithful in the covenant with God, but ultimately the law’s role was to be an accompanying guide to Messiah. Now that the Messiah’s faithfulness has come, there is no longer a need for an accompanying guide. Again, this doesn’t make the law irrelevant, but it does show that it served and completed a function until the arrival of the Messiah’s faithfulness.

Paul says all were imprisoned and guarded under the law. The word for imprisoned might be better translated as “corralled together.” Both Jews and gentiles were corralled together under law. Paradoxically, though the law divided insiders and outsiders to the covenant, all people were “corralled together” under the law’s rubric. So it follows Paul’s logic to say, all these people under the law’s rubric (both insiders and outsiders to the covenant) are made right by Messiah’s faithfulness and their own responsive faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord. In Romans 11:32, Paul likewise uses this idea of all, Jews and gentiles, being corralled together, so that God might mercifully rescue all people in the Messiah (see also Galatians 3:22). It’s like God placing all of God’s eggs in one basket (by means of the law’s purpose and penalty) in order to rescue the whole basket (by means the Jesus’ faithfulness).

[1] Brad R. Braxton, No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 94.