Galatians Jewish New Testament and comments of David H. Stern

chapter 5
1. What the Messiah has freed us for is freedom! Therefore, stand firm, and don’t let yourselves be tied up again to a yoke of slavery.
The freedom which the Messiah has freed us for is the subject of this whole chapter, previewed at 3:1-5 (compare Romans 7-8). This freedom consists in a life of trust, faithfulness and love (vv. 5-6, 13b-14, 22), and it produces good fruit (vv. 22-23) because it is empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, with the old nature put to death (vv. 5,16-18,24-25). In contrast, the life of legalism(vv. 1-4,13) produces all kinds of sin(vv. 15,19-21,26), because it is controlled by the old nature (vv.6,13a, 16-18,24). When we live by the Spirit all our circumstances help us (Ro 8:28), and our path continues growing brighter (1 Yn2:8,1С 3:17-18).

A yoke of slavery to legalism (see 2:16bN). In Judaism the "yoke of the mitzvot" is regarded as joyful to bear (Ac 15:10&N); and if the Torah is understood as requiring first of all trusting faithfulness, then, as Yeshua put it, "My yoke," the yoke of obedience to the Torah's true meaning, as upheld by the Messiah (6:2&N), "is easy, my burden is light" (Mt 11:28-30&N). The yoke of the mitzvot becomes slavery only when the Torah is perverted into legalism (3:21-23&NN), as the Judaizers would have these Gentiles do. 

2. Mark my words — I, Sha’ul, tell you that if you undergo b’rit-milah the Messiah will be of no advantage to you at all!
3. Again, I warn you: any man who undergoes b’rit-milah is obligated to observe the entire Torah!
4. You who are trying to be declared righteous by God through legalism have severed yourselves from the Messiah! You have fallen away from God’s grace!
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the message of these verses is directed to Gentiles, specifically to Gentiles who have been told by the Judaizers that they not only must believe in Yeshua but also must become Jews in order to be acceptable to God. A Gentile who heeds them and gets circumcised loses the advantage of the Messiah and has fallen away from God's grace precisely because he is trying to be declared forensically righteous by God (2:16aN, 2:21N) through legalism (literally, "by law"; see 2:16bN).

The truth, says Sha'ul, is that now that the Messiah has come, a Gentile becomes part of God's expanded people, the Messianic Community, through trusting in God and his Son. This entails his turning from sin, seeking God's forgiveness, and being immersed into the Messiah (3:27&N). But it does not entail his becoming Jewish. So if hi: turns back to the earlier procedure for joining the people of God, he is denying the Messiah and the new procedure which he has inaugurated. What a tragedy that a Gentile believer, already declared righteous by God on the ground of his trust alone, by becoming dissatisfied and heeding the Judaizers' mistaken preaching that his trust is insufficient, would lose everything God has freely given him!

But none of this applies to Jewish believers. Sha'ul himself circumcised the Messianic. Jew Timothy (Ac 16:1-3&NN). His actions during his last visit to Jerusalem were directed specifically at disproving the false charge that he told Jewish believers not to have their children circumcised (Ac 21:20-27&NN). The New Covenant through Yeshua no more cancels b 'rit-milah, the "covenant of circumcision" established by God with Avraham (Genesis 17:9-12), than the Sinai covenant through Moshe cancels God's promises to Avraham (3:15-18).

Thus it is any Gentile man who gets himself circumcised as a result of heeding the Judaizers who is obligated to observe the entire Torah. It is interesting that even though Sha'ul disagrees with the legalistic system which non-Messianic Judaism made of the Torah he nevertheless respects the integrity of its initiation process.

When Sha'ul wrote, a Gentile initiated into God's people Israel had to
(1) immerse himself in a mikveh for ritual purification,
(2) offer a sacrifice at the Temple (a requirement which ended when the Temple was destroyed) and. if a man,
(3) be circumcised. In other words, circumcision is part of an initiation rite which makes a Gentile part of the Jewish community. At that point he ceases to be a Gentile, becomes a Jew and voluntarily obligates himself to do everything a Jew is expected to do. And what is a Jew expected to do? Obey the Torah. In fact, at his initiation a Gentile convert to Judaism undertakes to observe the Torah even before he fully understands what his commitment means! (Compare Lk 20:18N.)

But this raises an interesting question. In a world containing more than one stream of Judaism, which version of the Torah is a proselyte expected to obey? For in the first century there were several streams of Judaism, just as there are today. Today if a Gentile becomes an Orthodox Jew, he obligates himself to obey the Torah as expounded in Orthodox Judaism, with the details of halakhah as developed in the Oral Torah. A Conservative Jewish proselyte is expected to obey halakhah, but with the interpretative variations developed in that movement. Reform Jews do not expect a convert to observe halakhah at all, since Reform Judaism grants its members freedom to follow or not follow specific customs. Likewise, it is reasonable to suppose that in the time of Sha'ul, if a Gentile was converted by Pharisees, they expected him to keep the "Tradition of the Elders" (Mk 7:3) as set forth by the Pharisees. But Sadducees or Essenes would naturally have expected a Gentile converted by them to follow their brand of Judaism.

In the light of the above, I want to raise a question which has implications for today. Could a Gentile believer, one not influenced by Judaizers or attempting to gain favor with God through legalistic works but sincerely wanting to join the Jewish people, convert to Messianic Judaism, get circumcised, and obligate himself to follow the Torah as Messianic Judaism expounds it without falling away from God's grace? In principle, I believe he could, although such a person would be the rare exception and not the rule. The following discussion of the issue, up to the final paragraph, is adapted from my book Messianic Jewish Manifesto, pp. 175-180.

Given that no Gentile needs to become Jewish in order to be saved (Ac 15:1-29), why would a Gentile Christian want to convert to Judaism? One can imagine conversions of convenience for the spouse of a Messianic Jew, or for a Gentile Christian living or wanting to live in the State of Israel; but no religion, Judaism included, looks favorably on converts with ulterior motives. Judaism rightly considers yirat-HaShem, "fear of God," as the only legitimate reason for converting. If a Gentile Christian's fear of God includes not only commitment to the Messiah, but equally a commitment to the Jewish people, including the desire to serve God and his Messiah as a Jew, does the New Testament allow him to convert to Judaism?

The main texts on the subject are 1С 7:17-20 and vv. 1-6 here. For years I understood them as absolutely prohibiting Gentile Christians from converting to Judaism, but the Orthodox Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod wrote an article which changed my mind ("Judaism and Evangelical Christianity," in Marc H. Tanenbaum, Marvin R. Wilson and A. James Rudin, Evangelicals and Jews in Conversation, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978, pp. 34—52). In it he notes that rabbis are required by halakhah to discourage potential converts in order to winnow out those who are insincere and suggests that Sha'ul's remarks are of this character, not absolute prohibitions.

Since Wyschogrod is a philosopher and not an historian, I had doubts. This "normal discouragement" is known from third-to-fifth century sources (Ruth Kabbah 2:16, Yevamot 47a-47b), but Sha'ul was writing in the first century, when Yeshua spoke of the 7ora/i-teachers and P'rushim who "go about over land and sea to make one proselyte" (Mt 23:15). That is the opposite of "normal discouragement"!

Was there any first-century precedent for discouraging Gentiles from converting to Judaism? Yes; according to Josephus, Izates, King of Adiabene (near the Persian Gulf) from 36 to 60 C.E., was convinced of the truth of Judaism by a Jewish merchant named Ananias (Chananyah); his mother Helena, however, feared that if he got circumcised the people would not submit to his rule. Chananyah reassured him "that he might worship God without being circumcised, even though he did resolve to follow the Jewish law entirely; which worship of God was of a superior nature to circumcision." He was persuaded for the time being, but he had not lost his desire to convert completely; so when another Jew named El'azar (who evidently was more missionary-minded) saw him reading from the Torah and chided him for not doing what the Torah says, he had himself circumcised. This took place before he became king in 36 C.E. (See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20:2:3-4; Encyclopedia Judaica 1:267-268, 924; compare Genesis Rabbah 46:10.)

This evidence convinces me that if a Gentile Christian wants to identify fully with the Jewish people, the New Testament in principle would permit him to become a Jew. He should accept the whole Torah as understood in the form of Judaism to which he is converting (this is implied by v. 3, where "Torah" evidently includes the Oral Torah), except where it conflicts with the New Covenant.

Most non-Messianic Jewish converting agencies have, at the very least, grave reservations about accepting into Judaism a Gentile who continues believing in Yeshua. Nevertheless a number of Gentile Christians have undergone Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jewish conversion while retaining their faith. Sometimes this has been possible because the officiating rabbi simply did not ask whether they "still believe in Jesus"; while in several cases with which 1 am acquainted, the rabbi knew that the candidate retained his belief in Yeshua but permitted him to convert anyway. 1 know of an instance in which a Gentile Christian studied Orthodox Judaism for over a year; when he was about to enter the mikveh for the conversion ceremony he informed his rabbi that he still believed Yeshua is the Messiah. The rabbi was taken aback but allowed the ceremony to continue and eventually (after an unusual delay and several requests) mailed him a conversion certificate.

A Jewish believer commented that even though this man had not concealed his faith, the rabbi had probably not understood him; instead of realizing he was serious, the rabbi had probably thought he was making a casual remark and that in the light of his year of Jewish study and practice his vestigial concern for Jesus would soon drop away. In other words, the man spoke, and the rabbi heard, but there was no real communication. I will leave the discussion here, unfinished as it is, adding only that while some Jews would regard any Gentile Christian conversion to Judaism as fraudulent if the convert continues to believe in Jesus, others respect whoever voluntarily and sincerely throws in his lot with the Jewish people, even if he does retain his faith in Yeshua.

Arnold Fruchtenbaum has pointed out another problem Messianic Judaism has with regard to conversion of Gentile Christians by non-Messianic Jewish rabbis, namely, that if we honor their conversions we are implicitly recognizing their authority in our own community. Doing that is something which ought to be discussed, not assumed.

In principle there is no reason why Messianic Judaism could not perform conversions. But the practical difficulties make it impossible at present. First, until Messianic Judaism has a clearer idea of what being Jewish in a Messianic setting means, it seems premature to convert Gentiles, enjoining them to observe the entire Torah before we ourselves have reached some consensus about what the "entire Torah," understood from a New Testament viewpoint, is! Second, no institutional arrangcmeni exists whereby a Gentile could be converted and have his conversion recognized either by the Jewish community or by Christians — since the Jewish community docs not regard Messianic Judaism as Jewish, and most Christians believe these verses prohibit conversion by a Gentile believer to any form of Judaism, even Messianic.

For Messianic Jews there is one final point, a sociological one: if many Gentile Christians were to convert to Judaism (whether through Messianic or non-Messianic rabbis), their numbers could overwhelm the born Jews in the movement, adding another problematic dimension to the relationship between Messianic Jews and the non-Messianic Jewish community.

In sum, Sha'ul in these verses is not addressing the Gentile believer who sincerely wants to cast in his lot with the Jewish people, but the Judaized Gentile, who undergoes circumcision because he thinks that by this legalistic work of his own he gains entry to God's "in-group" and attains a higher spiritual level of being. Verse 3 warns Gentiles influenced by the Judaizers that if they undergo conversion to Judaism, they obligate themselves to become Jewish completely, and at the same time they lose the benefits of having supposedly trusted in the Messiah. The Judaizers downplayed this obligation to obey the Torah because they didn't obey it themselves (6:12-13). But an instruction dealing with a specific problem cannot be generalized to apply to everyone everywhere throughout all time. Sha'ul does not absolutely rule out all Gentile conversion to Messianic Judaism, even though at present it is impractical. 

5. For it is by the power of the Spirit, who works in us because we trust and are faithful, that we confidently expect our hope of attaining righteousness to be fulfilled.
6. When we are united with the Messiah Yeshua, neither being circumcised nor being uncircumcised matters; what matters is trusting faithfulness expressing itself through love.
Neither being circumcised nor being uncircumcised matters, so far as being accepted by God on the ground of trusting Yeshua is concerned. See 1С 7:19&N, where Sha'ul says the same thing; also 6:15 below; and see above. 3:28&N.

What matters is trust and faithfulness, expressing themselves through good deeds done in love. In both the Tanakh and the New Testament ""love" refers to works, not mere feelings. Thus v. 6 powerfully refutes the idea that Christianity and Messianic Judaism elevate belief over action, creed over deed. Good deeds, though always of value to those bcnefitted, will be of value to those who do them only if they spring from the love which comes through the power of the Spirit, who works in us (v. 5). This is how, as others are helped, we ourselves progress toward attaining behavioral righteousness (see 2:16aN, 2:21N). The importance of our own holiness cannot be sidestepped by claiming that one should not be preoccupied with one's own spiritual progress but should be concerned with the well-being of others. The two are not mutually exclusive; one must indeed be concerned for others, but without countenancing sin in one's own life (see Yn 17:15-17, Ya 1:27). 

7. You were running the race well; who has stopped you from following the truth?
8. Whatever means of persuasion he used was not from the One who calls you.
9. “It takes only a little hametz to leaven the whole batch of dough.”
Chametz. "leaven," is familiar to Jews from the Passover ritual; here it could stand for sin, wrong ideas or ungodly people ("One bad apple spoils the barrel"). See 1С 5:6-8N, where Sha'ul quotes the same popular proverb. 

10. I am confident that since you are united with the Lord, you will take no other view; and I am confident that the one who has been disturbing you, whoever he may be, will have to bear his punishment.
Compare 1:6-9. 

11. And as for me, brothers, if I am still preaching that circumcision is necessary, why am I still being persecuted? If that were the case, my preaching about the execution-stake would cause no offense whatever.
Apparently there was a group of people (call them the Out-of-Touch), whom we have not encountered prior to this verse, who had not kept up to date with what Sha'ul was actually saying and doing. They claimed he was .still preaching that circumcision is necessary for Gentiles who wish to join God's people, as he had before he was saved. The Judaizers misappropriated this false rumor as evidence that Sha'ul himself approved their insisting on circumcision of Gentile believers.

Sha'ul's answer makes implicit reference to a second hitherto unmentioned group; I will call them the Super-Jews. They are zealous non-Messianic Jewish missionaries, the kind Yeshua said would "go about over land and sea to make one proselyte" (Mt 23:15). It is interesting that when Sha'ul wrote — in contrast with now — his proclaiming Yeshua as the crucified Jewish Messiah would have caused him no difficulties in the Jewish community, had he continued preaching that Gentiles who come to faith in Yeshua must then convert to Judaism. It was not because of his preaching about the execution-stake that the Super-Jews objected to and persecuted him. By itself, Sha'ul said, that would cause no offense whatever. Rather, it was his claim that Gentiles can join the people of God without getting circumcised. Sha'ul insisted that trust alone was sufficient, and for this the Super-Jews persecuted him. Their persecution refutes the Judaizers' false claim that Sha'ul is still preaching that circumcision is necessary. 

12. I wish the people who are bothering you would go the whole way and castrate themselves!
I wish. Sha'ul's choleric personality leads him to make intemperate use of his gift for sarcasm, neither his first nor his last; for another, see Ac 23:2-5&N, and compare his behavior as a nonbeliever at Ac 8:3.

The people who are bothering you about getting circumcised are neither the Out-of-Touch nor the Super-Jews (v. 11&N), but the Judaizers. Would go the whole way and castrate themselves, literally, "would indeed cut themselves off." The Torah declares a castrated coheir unfit to perform priestly duties (Leviticus 21:20); and, "He who has been wounded in the stones or has had his sexual organ cut off shall not enter the assembly of Adonai" (Deuteronomy 23:2). But there is also a punning reference to being cut off from one's people, a common sanction in the Torah: Sha'ul wishes these pests would be deprived of contact with the Messianic Community. 

13. For, brothers, you were called to be free. Only do not let that freedom become an excuse for allowing your old nature to have its way. Instead, serve one another in love.
Until now Sha'ul has been preaching freedom; but here he issues a necessary caution against antinomianism, defined as abusing freedom by turning it into license. 

14. For the whole of the Torah is summed up in this one sentence: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18);
The whole of the Torah is summed up in one sentence, Leviticus 19:18, which Sha'ul also used in this way at Ro 13:8-10&NN; compare Ya 1:27&N. Judaism contains a number of epitomes of Torah; one of the best-known passages naming several of them is in the Talmud:

"Rabbi Simlai said, '613 commandments were given to Moses — 365 negative mitzvot, same as the number of days in the year, and 248 positive mitzvot, same as the number of parts in a man's body. David came and reduced them to eleven (Psalm 15), Isaiah to six (Isaiah 33:15), Micah to three (Micah 6:8), and Isaiah again to two — "Observe justice and do righteousness" (Isaiah 56:1). Then Amos came and reduced them to one, "Seek me and live" (Amos 5:4) — as did Habakkuk, "The righteous one will live by his trusting" (Habakkuk 2:4).'" (Makkot 23b-24a, abridged)

Also see Mt 7:12&N. 

15. but if you go on snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, watch out, or you will be destroyed by each other!
Factionalism is a major threat to the communal life of God's people; compare v. 26; Yn 17:21; 1С 1:10ff., 3:1ff. 

16. What I am saying is this: run your lives by the Spirit. Then you will not do what your old nature wants.
17. For the old nature wants what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit wants what is contrary to the old nature. These oppose each other, so that you find yourselves unable to carry out your good intentions.
This is essentially the same advice as in Ro 8:4-13. The term "old nature" renders Greek sarx ("flesh"; see Ro 7:5N). See Ro 8:4-13NN for the refutation of the idea that New Testament religion elevates the spiritual over the physical. 

18. But if you are led by the Spirit, then you are not in subjection to the system that results from perverting the Torah into legalism.
See 3:23bN. 

19. And it is perfectly evident what the old nature does. It expresses itself in sexual immorality, impurity and indecency;
20. involvement with the occult and with drugs; in feuding, fighting, becoming jealous and getting angry; in selfish ambition, factionalism, intrigue
21. and envy; in drunkenness, orgies and things like these. I warn you now as I have warned you before: those who do such things will have no share in the Kingdom of God!
There are believers who do not take these verses seriously, who think they can continue in adultery, fornication, pharmakeia (a Greek word which gives us our word "pharmacy" but combines the ideas of sorcery and drug use, as in the JNT rendering; see R v 9:21N), and the other sins enumerated here without having to pay the price. They suppose that a loving God will accept them regardless of their sins, or that having once long ago professed their faith guarantees them entry to heaven. Sha'ul's response is brief and severe: I warn you now as I have warned you before: those who do such things will have no share in (literally, "will not inherit"; compare 3:29-4:7) the Kingdom of God! The phrase, "those who do such things," is the Greek word "prassonies" ("practicing").

It is not those who fall short of perfection who are excluded from the Kingdom, for that would exclude everyone, but those who wilfully continue to practice their sins instead of turning from them sincerely to seek God's forgiveness (1 Yn 1:9). While some of the listed sins can be performed alone, note how many involve abuse of other people and breakdown in human relationships (see v. 26&N). 

22. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
23. humility, self control. Nothing in the Torah stands against such things.
Fruit does not come from efforts (of legalistic rule-following) but grows naturally (out of trust). "A tree is judged by its fruit," said Yeshua (Mt 12:33-37). Arguments for the objective truth of the Gospel are necessary, yet a most convincing form of evidence is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.

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24. Moreover, those who belong to the Messiah Yeshua have put their old nature to death on the stake, along with its passions and desires.
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25. Since it is through the Spirit that we have Life, let it also be through the Spirit that we order our lives day by day.
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26. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
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