I’m thinking about Galatians 3:28.
First off, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, when you read the letters of the New Testament, you have to understand them as historical documents. That is to say, they are anchored in the historical lives of a few of the first followers of Jesus. Thus Paul writes to Timothy (in 2 Timothy 4:13): “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.”
It’s a piece of particular, personal chitchat.
However, Paul himself distinguishes between what he says on that personal level and what he writes as a church leader. “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)” (1 Cor 7:12). This has been fairly paraphrased as: “Now, I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the Lord…”
But our task, as modern followers of Jesus, is to discern the “translatable principle” from this ancient document. In the book of Revelation, the repeated phrase “The Spirit says to the Church…” is helpful here. Our task is to hear what the Spirit is saying through the letters (indeed, through the whole Bible) and having heard it, to translate it into lifestyle, into action, into “Church.”
What then do we make of Galatians 3:28? Here it is: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It’s not a personal aside, and neither is it Paul’s own comment on a point of order. It is stated as something of a principle. So how does it “translate” into how we live today?
First we have to assess the context of the whole letter. The letter centres the attention of the reader on two dominant themes: (1) the new “standing by faith” by the believer in Jesus which negates the old performance ethic, and (2) the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the indwelling energizer of the spiritual life in Christ. Galatians is a three-part sermon: the first two chapters contain a personal statement about Paul’s gospel teaching and his claim to be an accredited apostle. The next two chapters contain an exposition of what the gospel is, a lifestyle of grace-given faith. Part 3 (Chapters 4-6) wrap up with a “How to” section. It’s a call to live that Jesus lifestyle out in the power of the Spirit.
So Galatians 3:28 falls within Paul’s description of how gospel freedom contrasts with the “slavery” of the old “Law” system. With the sonship has come a real freedom before God releasing all the faithful, ( whoever you are, whether Gentiles, slaves, or women), from life under that Old Covenant bondage. Wherever you have come from, you are now family.
V26 justifies this new status. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus”. The children have attained their majority and are sons, freemen of God, through a faith that has brought them into union with Christ. The second person plural of the subject, “you are,” with the modifying adjective, “all,” underlines the participation of all believers in the new status. The universal privilege of sonship in the present age through union with Christ is Paul’s point, and it sets the tone of the context for interpreting v28. Paul’s emphasis is on spiritual status in Christ, the spiritual privilege of being the sons of God.
In v27 Paul explains how the relation of sonship came into being. He writes, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”. What does that mean? According to F.F. Bruce, these last words, (often translated “have put on Christ”), represent a metaphor probably derived from the Roman custom by which a youth, on attaining manhood, removed the crimson-bordered toga praetexta, the garment of childhood, and put on the toga virilis, the garment of manhood. At that time the young man would take his place in the family councils, taking on the responsibilities of maturity and enjoying the freedom that went with his new position.
So v28 raises the question of just who these privileged people are. Answer: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. The old distinctions of race, social rank, and gender are nullified in Christ.
This was as radical then as it seems to be today, maybe more so. In fact, as often noted, the apostle seems to have in mind the morning prayer of Jewish men, in which the men thanked God that they were not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. Those classes were limited in certain spiritual privileges open to Jewish males. The reason Paul gives, introduced by the “for” of the last clause, is that Jew and Greek, slave and freedman, male and female are “one person in Christ Jesus” (NEB; cf. v29).
One person. One whole new entity. The new reality is Christ. Nothing less.
Now, having stated the principle, we are called together to figure out how all this works out in life. Since Paul’s entire argument is designed to bring people out of bondage and into gospel liberty, he’s not about to lay down a bunch of new rules and regulations as to how this should be.
He never rails against slavery, for example, as a social injustice that must be legislated against. He states the principle of equality and we see how it works out in the case of Onesimus (in the letter to Philemon), or in the letter of James (“God has no favorites”) or in the slave names that are included in the greetings that conclude his letters.
Romans 16 (for example) shows the equality-in-Christ revolution in action. We see women in positions of service and leadership; we see slaves honored as helpers, we see rich and poor working together… because in Christ all those distinctions of rank, race and gender have been nullified.
It’s possible that Paul knows just how radical this all is, because at one point he pauses in his greetings with a by-the-way remark: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.” (Romans 16:17,18)
So here we are, family. Called to be together and to love each other to demonstrate Christ in the world. No pecking orders, no hierarchies, no business organization system, no pension plans. Just one body of Christ. One faith. One head.
There is only one privileged position, and if we are in Him, we are already in it.