Let’s get to the heart of the matter. What issue is Paul referring to in Gal 2:4. To answer that, we need to read the preceding verse. Paul had a private meeting with the leaders at Galatia and that’s when the issue became apparent.
3 But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.
It was an issue over the Jewish tradition of circumcision. We read that and think, what’s the big deal? What’s so harmful about observing certain traditions like circumcision? I’ve read this book many times before and even when I was re-reading it this week, I thought, what IS the big deal?
On one level, traditions are harmless. If you were a Jew and you were circumcised as a young boy, you were obeying the law from the Old Testament. You did it with an intention to obey God and to visibly demonstrate to the other nations that you are set apart, you are different, you will do things purely because God asks you to. But even back then, what caused the people to become the chosen people of God? In other words, what allowed for their salvation? Was it the act of circumcision in and of itself? Or was it their faith in a God who asked them to circumcise themselves and so it was their faith that saved them and the act of circumcision was just an external proof, a sign that their faith in God was genuine? We know the answer. Faith saved the Jews of the old covenant and faith saves us today as people of the new covenant.
6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.
The circumcision of the old covenant which came through the Law was a picture, a pointer to the circumcision of our heart we received when Christ came and gave us the new covenant. And instead of letters engraved on stone like Moses and Mt Sinai, the Spirit himself writes the law on our hearts. So on one level, traditions are harmless. If you are a Jew and you were circumcised, that’s fine. Likewise, if you are Gentile and you are not circumcised, don’t fret. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything.
Paul’s point is that traditions ultimately accomplish nothing of any lasting spiritual significance. Except for the ordinances of baptism and Lord’s Supper. Besides those, only faith working through love matters. And only the Spirit through faith in Christ can accomplish real spiritual transformation deep enough in our hearts so that we can become loving people.
At another level, tradition can be extremely dangerous. Why? If the choice to get circumcised or the choice to refrain from circumcision accomplishes nothing, then why does talking about circumcision get Paul so riled up?
Here at Corinth, Paul tells Titus, don’t even think about getting circumcised. But in Acts 16, Paul seems to contradict himself by encouraging Timothy to be circumcised. Timothy was a half Jew so he was not circumcised as a young boy. But Paul had Timothy circumcised as an adult so that he could be a more effective minister among Jews, some of whom would be stumbled by the fact that he was not circumcised. Was Paul being hypocritical when he did that?
I don’t think the apostle was being hypocritical at all. This is a very interesting historical situation that the New Testament records for us. Paul circumcised Timothy and then refused to circumcise Titus, and this became a major controversy in the early church.
In terms of ethics, God allows for certain things and he prohibits other things. God is a god of morals. Sexual immorality goes against God’s morality so certain things are prohibited. There are positive things like loving others that we are commanded to do because they align with God’s moral character. There are also things that are basically neutral in the ethical sense—those things that in and of themselves have no moral or ethical significance. For these neutral things, Paul allows for freedom and flexibility to choose.
The problem is, the Judaizers sprang up and threatened to destroy the infant Christian church by seeking to impose circumcision on every convert to Christianity as if it were an absolute law from God. In Acts 15, Paul had to go to Jerusalem because the leaders there started to teach that you had to be circumcised in order to be saved. They took a morally neutral practice and made it an absolute.
This is the point. Whenever people make their preferences the absolute law of God, they are crossing over a dangerous line to legalism, which is completely antithetical to the gospel of free grace. Once you become legalistic in your faith, you will lose the essence of the gospel.
Recall what I said earlier, the observance or refraining from observing certain practices that are ethically neutral accomplish nothing so there is freedom to choose. But if there only 2 paths–flesh vs. Spirit–as the root of our lives, then there are underlying motivations that cause many to prefer legalism and flesh over the Spirit.
Let’s take a moment to see how Peter fell into legalism. A famous confrontation is recorded in Galatians between Paul and Peter, two pillars of the early church. Basically, Peter preached the gospel of free grace and lived out the gospel of free grace until the Judaizers came for a visit. And because the Judaizers were present at the church, Peter began to distance himself from the Gentile believers who were not circumcised and he started to hang out exclusively with the Jewish believers. Gal 2:11-12–
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. 12 For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party.
Why did Cephas or Peter separate himself from Gentile believers? Because he FEARED those from the circumcision group. This verse is really helpful in getting into a legalistic person’s mindset. In contrast to Peter whose behavior was influenced in a sinful direction by the presence of the Judaizers, listen to what Paul says a few verses earlier in Gal 2:5-6.
5 But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you. 6 Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism)—they added nothing to me.
Look at Paul vs. Peter. An important group of leaders, presumably from Jerusalem came for a visit. They were important in terms of their influence and their stature among the churches. And before these Judaizers, Peter changed his behavior because he feared man. Unlike Peter, Paul came into contact with the same important group of leaders and he recognizes that these people are VIPs, but who cares? They added nothing to me. He stood his ground.
This is the principle. If you live in fear of man, God will become small in your eyes. If you live in fear of God, man will become small in your eyes. If you live in fear of man, it is likely you will participate in traditions that cause you to feel superior over others. Consider the centuries of Jewish tradition that preceded the coming of Christ. The Jewish converts prided themselves in their ethnicity and their long tradition. They thought they were better than the other nations. Why else would they encourage Gentiles who had no clue about their Jewish traditions to get circumcised? It’s an issue of man-centeredness and elitism and hierarchy. All of these things flow directly from the flesh.
The Spirit of God does not elevate one group over another. The Spirit of God does not separate one person from another. The Spirit of God does not enslave people to tradition. The Spirit sets us free. Who better to share about freedom in Christ than Paul who was the Pharisee of the Pharisees? Listen to his salvation testimony.
13 For you have heard about my former way of life in Judaism: I persecuted God’s church to an extreme degree and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, because I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
Paul was a highly religious legalist, but the gospel of Christ set him free. Slavery and freedom is one way to look at it. You can also look at it in terms of the spiritual principle of sowing and reaping.
7 Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, 8 because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
He sowed in the flesh even though he thought he was doing the work of God. What did he reap in his life before he met Christ? Hatred, murder, he killed Christians. Paul is known as the apostle to the Gentiles, but he was actually very effective as an apostle to the Jews. Because he was a Jewish legalist freed by grace.
If you are sowing in the flesh, you will reap from the flesh and if you sow in the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
Paul is so frustrated in this letter by the false teachers who are sowing in the flesh that he says in Gal 5:12.
12 I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated!
Paul is not shy about expressing himself, is he?
The verses that follow, Gal 5:14-15, also talks about sowing and reaping.
13 For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.
If you sow in the Spirit, you will reap love. If you sow in the flesh, you will reap a heart that bites, devours and consumes others.
I want to end with one final verse.
15 For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation.
At the end of the day, traditions like circumcision that are morally neutral have no bearing. You can choose to be circumcised and God is fine with you. You can choose not to be circumcised and that is fine. But there is a danger. If you are sowing in the flesh and you’ve become legalistic by turning moral neutral issues into moral absolutes, then chances are, you are not a new creation. Only those who are born of the Spirit can display evidence of the new creation.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.