Whoever wants to have a half-Christ loses the whole – Tuesday, 28th Week in ordinary time – Galatians 5:1-6
A WORD OF CAUTION : This text of Paul must be read in the larger context of Galatians and not out of context.
Paul was certainly not out to win friends and influence people, at least not the way we understand it to be today. The world pushes itself to be as pleasing and accommodating. Paul would certainly not fit into our world but interestingly he did not fit into his world. This was a community he loved and now they did not love him back. He begs and pleads and curses and rants; it’s the whole nine yards. But one thing Paul will not do is back away from the truth of the message he has come to believe; the law cannot save you and neither can circumcision.
Galatians was written by Paul because a dispute had broken out in the Churches of Galatia over the issue of circumcision. Paul has already insisted that freedom in Christ is freedom from the requirements of the Jewish law. In Galatians 5:2-12, Paul insists on one of his central points throughout the letter that Christian freedom is freedom from the requirement of male circumcision, as well as from the required keeping of the whole Jewish law.
Chapter 5 is a final appeal to walk in the liberty of Jesus. in light of all that Paul has previously said, he now challenges the Galatians to walk in the truth he has presented. He asks them to ‘stand fast’ in ‘freedom’ given to us by Christ and not to be entangled in the yoke of bondage.
Significantly, it is Christ who has made us free. We don’t make ourselves free. Freedom is a gift of Jesus, given to us and received by faith. When we struggle to free ourselves, we just become more entangled again with a yoke of bondage. But the freedom that Christ gives us is not a freedom to do what every we want. It may seem as freedom but is a false liberty. Christ does not just offer us freedom but he offers us ‘the’ freedom from having to earn our way to him. He offers us the freedom from sin, from guilt, from condemnation. So the Galatians must put in every effort to ‘stand fast’ and not be swayed by the false teachers or else they will be entrapped in the yoke of bondage.
The Jewish teachers spoke of the law as ‘a yoke’ and they used this term in a favourable way. For them the law was good and to be yoked by it was a good thing. For Paul, the practice of law could only be a yoke of bondage. The law could not make them free, rather it enslaved them. This is why Christ offers us his yoke, which is easy and light and not burdensome. Christ gives us his law of love rather than a slavish relationship to the law of Moses which had more than 613 prescriptions that had to be kept. Keeping every prescription of the law was truly slavery.
To accept circumcision has broad implications. It would then mean that the person is subject to every dot and iota of the law and will have to slavishly fulfil it; this in itself is an impossibility and yet this is the choice that the Galatians are making by falling for a mark of circumcision. For Paul, one can’t hold on to the law and to Christ, because by holding on to the law Christ is no longer our righteousness; we attempt to earn it ourselves.
The legalists among the Galatians wanted them to think that they could have both Jesus and a law-relationship with God. Paul tells them that this is not an option open to them; the system of grace and the system of law are incompatible. Whoever wants to have a half-Christ loses the whole. When the Galatians made an option to be circumcised they made an option to now become debtors to keeping all the 613 prescription of the law. That is a heavy burden to bear. The Galatians thought they could cherry pick. The legalists among the Galatians wanted them to think they could observe some aspects of the law without coming under the entire law. But when we choose to walk by the law, we must walk by the whole law. We will later see that Paul didn’t care one way or another about circumcision (Galatians 5:6). What he detested was the theology of circumcision as presented by the legalists.
In conclusion: If a Galatian; Jewish or Gentile Christian viewed circumcision as a necessary requirement then they were denying the truth of the Gospel. Paul asserts that one cannot attain security by performance of religious and moral duties but only by faith. One has to learn to surrender all attempts to win one’s way with God.