Don’t forget to look for the publishing of my newest book, “Parashot Drashim- A Commentary on the Weekly Torah Readings for Both Jews and Gentiles” due out in September.
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“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.”
This is the ending of the letter Shaul (Paul) wrote to the Messianic community he had started in Galatia. His letter was written for a specific purpose, which has been terribly misunderstood, pretty much since the time he wrote it. It has been used as a polemic against circumcision, as well as justification that Torah observance is just for the Jewish people.
The worst usage of this line has been by Replacement Theologists, who claim that “Christians” are now the Chosen people of God, who rejected the Jewish people as his because they rejected his son.
Poppycock. But that is for another time.
I always found this one line to be very confusing, and have tried to figure out what he could have possibly meant by writing that. I am glad to say that
That’s one of the best things about reading the Bible over and over: suddenly, one day what you couldn’t understand for years will be made clear to you. I like to think that this happens when God thinks you are ready for it.
So, nu? What’s the big revelation? I’ll let you in on it…Shaul wasn’t talking about a who; he was talking about a what!
Let’s go back to the reason for writing this letter. The members of this congregation were being “Judaized”, meaning the Gentile converts to Judaism were being told they had to undergo B’rit Milah (circumcision) in order to be saved. This was under the system called “Legalism”, which was being proliferated by Believing Jews who were infiltrating the new Messianic communities composed of Gentile Believers. Shaul was never against obedience to the Torah; he was against this legalistic approach to it.
Let’s stop here for a moment to make sure we’re all on the same page. Legalism was the belief that no one could be “saved”, i.e. found to be righteous in God’s eyes, unless they obeyed the Torah commands. Under legalism, faith is secondary to performance. Shaul’s constant battle against Legalism is why he has been so misunderstood. Shaul never said not to obey the Torah at all, he said not to obey the Torah as the means to become righteous.
This letter was to get the Galatians back on track by obeying the Torah as a result of faithful obedience and not
I always have known there was a battle going on in Galatia; the new Believing Gentiles were wrestling with legalism vs. faith. I understood that this dynamic was the reason Shaul contacted them. And my revelation came when I suddenly remembered what “Israel” means. We are told this in Genesis 32:29 (taken from the Soncino issue of the Chumash)-
And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
The comment notes in the Chumash state that the name “Jacob” meant “the Supplanter,” who prevails over others by deceit. “Israel,” on the other hand, is said to be a title of victory, probably “a Champion of God.” The children of Israel, the Israelites, are Contenders for the Divine, conquering by strength from Above.
Remembering what “Israel” means I realized why Shaul called the Galatians “the Israel of God”: he was identifying them as ones battling with both men and God. They were being wrestled with by men who wanted them to be legalistic in their actions, and with God who wanted them to show faithful acceptance and not try to earn their salvation through performance. The Galatians were just like Jacob: on the one side they had to deal with men (as Jacob had to deal with Esau) and on the other side they had to deal with faith in God (Jacob wrestling with the angel, representing his faith in God to save him from Esau.)
The “Israel of God” could be used to describe each of us as we struggle with our faith in God and Messiah Yeshua against worldly pleasures and our naturally sinful tendencies and desires. Christians also wrestle with the (usual) teaching that the Torah is only for Jews against the faithful obedience that God has required of all who worship him.
To the Replacement Theologists out there, sorry; the “Israel of God” is not meant to be Christians. It isn’t really who someone is, it is what condition someone (or some people) are suffering through. And that condition is wrestling with our iniquity and with God’s will for our lives. Obedience to Torah is only one form of this battle between flesh and spirit, which was the message Shaul was addressing to the Galatians.
As we wrestle with our salvation, being pulled between earthly desires and spiritual fulfillment, we also go through that same “Israel” experience the Galatians did. Let us fight the good fight so that we, too, can be the “Israel of God”- one who has conquered by strength from above.