From the Church on the Hill
by D. Eric Williams
Pastor, Cottonwood Community Church
For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:13-14 NKJV).
A particular obstacle to interpreting God’s word is understanding the world of the original audience. For instance, our modern concept of “religion” was foreign to first century society. Everyone, Jew, Gentile, barbarian, Scythian slave and free, all alike understood that God or the gods were part of every aspect of life. So, when Paul speaks of his “former conduct in Judaism” in the passage cited above, he is not talking about religion as we understand it. In other words, he does not bring up Judaism in order to contrast legalism with grace. Rather he is referring to “Jewish practice . . .especially in contexts of nationalistic resistance against foreign cultural impositions” (Keener, Galatians). Indeed, the term, Ioudaismos “appears to have been coined by Jews in opposition to Hellenism, the Greek way of life that threatened to supplant the native, ancestral customs in Judea” (deSilva, NICNT, Galatians).
Thus, Paul is not contrasting one narrow definition of religion with another. Instead, his letter to the church in Galatia is about a clash of worldviews. Judaism encompassed everything. According to the gospel that Paul preached, Christianity encompasses everything. Therefore, they are mutually exclusive; neither leaves room for the other – or for anything else for that matter. It is a case of all or nothing. Judaism claimed to embrace and define every aspect of life. Christianity does the same. If one is true, the other is false. To see this as a simple clash between legalism and grace is naive.
Paul develops and explains this clash of worldviews throughout the rest the letter. He tips his hand to what lies ahead in verse 13 when he says he had “persecuted the church of God.” This phrase - church of God or assembly of God - is familiar to us and we tend to think nothing of it. Nevertheless, the import of Paul’s choice of words must be understood in the context of the first century. The “assembly of God” is a term used throughout the Old Testament to refer to Israel, the people of God. To our thinking, Paul’s use of the term is inconsequential. We understand that the church – those in Jesus Christ – is the church or assembly of God. And Paul could have used the term “church of Christ” without raising a single first century eyebrow. However, in the first century, “assembly of God” was normally reserved for Israel. Paul’s frequent use of the phrase for the Christian church was not accidental. Truly, “’the Church of God’ (ekklesiatoutheou) represents almost as massive a theological shift as ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16” (Wright, Galatians). For, here in the first section of the letter, Paul reveals what the remainder of the missive will develop; the world upending truth that the Church is Israel now.