3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 3:28 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. 3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
These verses can be divided into three statements:
Firstly, the means of justification with God, namely “through faith” (3:26);
Secondly, the description of justification, using many different metaphors, namely “sons of God” (3:26), “in Christ Jesus” (3:26, 28), “baptized into Christ” (3:27), “clothed … with Christ” (3:27), “belong to Christ” (3:29) and “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29). These metaphors all have more or less the same meaning.
Thirdly, a consequence of justification, which is the main purpose of these verses, namely that people that have been set right with God are all equal. Differences, such as “Jew … Greek… slave … free man … male … female” (3:28), have evaporated.
There is neither Jew nor Greek.
But the question remains, in what respect is there no distinction between these people? Obviously physical differences remain between Jews, Greeks, slaves, free men, males and females. The sameness or equality refers to something else. To understand what Paul is saying we have to consider the context:
Judaism made a sharp and harsh distinction between Jew and Gentile. It presented Israel as God’s special people (Romans 11:1), but Gentiles as “sinners” (2:15). Judaism allowed Gentiles to join Judaism, on condition that they be circumcised and observe the Jewish customs.
When Paul refers to the circumcised and the uncircumcised (2:7; 5:6; 6:15), he includes the circumcised Gentiles under the circumcised. Such people were accepted by Jews.
Jewish Christians, by arguing “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:3; 6:13, 12), and by compelling “Greeks”, such as Titus, “to be circumcised” (2:3; 6:13), maintained the difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised Christians. This caused a rift in the church and tension between circumcised and uncircumcised Christians.
It is this rift that Paul was trying to heal. It is in this context that Paul’s declaration of equality must be understood. It is a correction of the distortion that argues that there remains a difference between circumcised and uncircumcised Christians from God’s perspective. What Paul effectively is saying is that there remains no need to circumcise Gentile Christians. The statement that all are equal “in Christ” is equivalent to saying “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” (5:6). Paul’s primary purpose in writing the letter to the Galatians was to prevent the circumcision of Gentile Christians.
Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise
God gave to Abraham both the promises and circumcision (Gen 17:10). God called circumcision “the sign of the covenant between Me and you (Abraham)” (Gen.17:11). Paul sets aside circumcision. By calling it nothing (6:15), he sets circumcision aside for both Gentile and Jewish Christians. But Paul does not set aside the promises. These promises remain valid (3:29). However, to the discomfort of many Jewish Christians, he taught that Gentiles are now regarded as “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29; 14), but without circumcision. As stated by Ephesians:
“… when you read … my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known … that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:4-6)
Israel in prophecy
Large church groups today maintain a future special but separate role for Israel in God’s plan. This view was opposed in articles on Romans 9 and 11 on this website. Galatians as follows confirms that literal Israel no longer exists as a separate entity in God’s plan:
- Circumcision is “the sign of the covenant between Me and you (Abraham)” (Gen.17:11), but Paul argued “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision” (6:15; 5:6). Since circumcision has been annulled, physical Israel, as a separate entity in God’s plan, has expired.
- Christian Gentiles are now also “Abraham’s descendants” (3:29), while non-believing Jews are not (3:16, 29).