Jesus is a Liberal and a Libertarian according to some bumper sticker gospels that I read. “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1 It is amazing to see all the different things that scripture will do for you if you are not concerned with the context or the original meaning. If Christ wants us to be “free”, who can tells us what to do? That is the way that many people will hear this text. But Paul is not making a case for an every-man-for-himself moral standard. Nor is Paul making a straightforward argument against legalism or efforts to earn one’s salvation. Paul’s main concern is that the followers of Jesus don’t act as though Jesus hasn’t already inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!
As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! Galatians 1:8-9
This is pretty forceful language and we are forced to wonder what Paul was so earnest about. What other gospel is being preached? It appears, according to the rest of the letter to the Galatians, that Jewish believers are starting to eat separately from Gentile believers. There was a Gentile table and a Jewish table and this had Paul up in arms! (Galatians 2:11-14) This appears to be Paul’s main reason for writing. Not only are there two separate tables for the two people groups, there is also pressure being put on Gentiles to be circumcised. It might even be called more than “pressure”. It is being treated as a requirement for recognition as family members in Israel’s covenant with God. Why is this a problem? God’s people had always been recognized by the marks of the Torah, “the Law”, and not least, circumcision. Why are things different now? Many people believe and will argue that Paul has become a Christian and is no longer concerned with the legalism of Judaism; In fact, he is against is. Paul, they argue, is against required physical signs of an inward faith. But Paul has not become a "Christian", He is a Jew and a good Jew at that. Paul did not become a follower of Jesus because He was no longer a Jew but because Jesus is what Judaism was waiting for all the time! Paul has become convinced of Jesus’ claim to be Messiah. This does not mean that He is no longer a Jew, it means that He believes that the long awaited new day for Israel has dawned. Paul makes reference to this new day in the first paragraph of the letter: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age…” Galatians 1:3-4. Being rescued from the "present evil age" and being brought into the age of God’s sovereign rule in the earth was the heart longing of all good Jews. Because Paul believes that day has arrived in Jesus does not make him less of a Jew, except in the eyes of those who saw Jesus as a false Messiah. Writing to the Galatians, however, Paul is not addressing non-believing Jews, but believing Jews. This is why He speaks so forcefully. If the Messiah has come and has launched God’s Kingdom on earth, then the old sign posts that were pointing into the future must be put aside now that the future has arrived. Certain things were supposed to happen when God’s Kingdom was final inaugurated. One of those things is that the Lordship of the Messiah would expand to cover the whole world and “all peoples would serve Him.”
“May he (the Messianic King) also rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth…and let all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.” Psalm 72:8,11 There were many signs in the scriptures that not only the Lordship of the Christ, but the benefits of the Christ would spread to all the nations. Paul brings out a central text to this end saying:
The scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” Galatians 3:8.
Now that this day has come, it is not right that Jews and Gentiles should eat at separate tables as though they were not equal members of the same family. This is nearly equal to denying the gospel altogether and Paul insists that it is inconsistent with the message they are preaching.
When it comes to circumcision, the stakes are higher. There is nothing wrong with an outward expression of an inward faith. I don’t think that Paul has a problem with that. Baptism is also an outward sign of an inward faith. But circumcision is an outward expression that is ethnically exclusive. As Paul reminds the Galatians, "if you receive circumcision, you are under obligation to keep the whole Law", which includes not eating with Gentiles. The Jews were no longer called to keep themselves “pure” in the sense of separated from other ethnic groups. Jesus has brought the long story of Israel to its’ intended climax and has summed up the nation in Himself. Therefore, if you want to belong to the Israel of God, that is, the people through whom God is rescuing the world, you must come into Jesus. Israel under the Torah displayed its’ own weakness to bring about God’s intended goal. The Torah displayed their slavery to sin and death. But Jesus did what Israel under the Torah could not do. Therefore, offering for people to come under the Torah is no good. What must be offered is for Jews and Gentiles alike to come into Jesus. This is where the freedom is, because Christ in us produces the fruit that the Torah never could. “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1 Freedom is not doing whatever comes into your fancy. Freedom is being who God made you to be.