Some time ago I spent a year studying the New Testament book of Galatians with a group of college students. One evening we got into a discussion comparing know and know.
It sounds like a play on words—know versus know—and it sort of is to us who speak English, but not to the writers and readers of the New Testament in biblical times. The majority of the New Testament was originally written in a form of antiquated Greek called, Koine (pronounced, coin’-a, with a long “a” sound).
Before looking at the complexity of Paul’s argument in Galatians, which is what’s really on my mind as I write to you, here is the comparison between know and know laid out more simply by John. He quotes Jesus speaking about God and writes, “You have not come to know Him, but I know Him” (8:55).
Know versus know. Same word to us, but Jesus is obviously making an important comparison that isn’t evident—without some help from the original Greek.
In the first use of “know”, Jesus uses a Greek word suggesting a process. His hearers, and John’s Greek-speaking readers, immediately grasped that Jesus was talking about a process of coming to know God. They were knowing God, but their knowledge was not yet complete.
The second time Jesus uses “know”, “…but I know Him (God),” John records a different word indicating that Christ fully knew, entirely understood, His Father, God. His knowledge of God was fully and entirely complete.
The first “know” is a process. The second “know” conveys a knowing that is entirely completed and fully understood.
We could camp here for a very long time—knowing about God versus knowing God. In and of itself, this is a profound focus leading into a new year.
But with this insight from the Greek language, I want to explore Galatians 2:16. In this letter from Paul to the church located in Galatia (today’s eastern Turkey), he says, “Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ….”
Paul’s “knowing word” to the Galatians was, “Nevertheless you fully and completely understand (know) that a man is not justified by the works of the Law….”
This is interesting. Galatians is certainly the most passionate, angry book in the New Testament. The rational and systematic writer, Paul, is so incensed he doesn’t even get off to a courteous start when he pens his letter.
What gives? Why is Paul upset with the Galatians?
Oddly enough, the reason he is so peeved is that the Galatian Christians had departed from sound theology, i.e. the sufficiency of Christ, and were attempting to amalgamate human effort and divine provision. They were hoping to merge legalism—things they could do to earn God’s favor—and the complete work of Jesus Christ to reconcile them to God. Law and grace don’t mix. Never have, never will. Paul is informed of their theological diversion and takes pen in hand.
Obviously, the verse we are looking at, 2:16, is a third of the way into the letter. Paul’s been chewing them up for a chapter and a half already, and here’s why: The Galatians couldn’t claim ignorance as the reason they were persisting to live according to the law as opposed to the new covenant of grace. Paul makes this perfectly plain later in the same verse, “…since by works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.”
His point is clear: You know this, Galatians. You fully and completely understand that law and grace go together like oil and water.
The question then is,” If the Galatians so clearly understood that they could not be justified by the law, i.e. with human effort, why were they persisting to live according to the Mosaic Law and religious law?
I think there are three primary reasons—and these are pertinent enough that I want to share them with you: First, the Galatians must have felt like they needed to live under the Law’s demands. They were crafting theology based on how they felt as humans before God instead of the faith outlined by God.
We can’t throw the Galatians under the bus, at least, not without our fingers crossed. We all struggle with the same issue, don’t we? We are SO taken with the idea of connecting with God that we endeavor to add to what Jesus Christ accomplished fully on our behalf. The reality that there is nothing we can do to entice God to love us more—or less, for that matter—just begs for us to pile on with human effort.
Second, there is also the harsh reality that when we assemble ourselves together we are intolerant of anything that we think doesn’t look like Christianity—at least, the Christianity contrived in our minds and defined by our own performance. Anyone that doesn’t look right, walk right, speak right, act right, live right, dress right, sing right—oy vey! Anyone or anything that doesn’t fit, we are prone to manage with rules and standards of performance that we believe will make God happier, because if we can manage behavior, we will be happier (we think). Certainly the same must be true of God, we reason.
Never mind Romans 1:17, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” Period. Faith, i.e. complete, utter, full confidence in the work of Christ Jesus on our behalf. This is far too simple and straightforward for our theology, but it is our full theology. If we compromise faith by amalgamating something of our own, we pervert the work of Christ. Hebrews says that in so doing it is as if we crucify Christ again.
In our studies, probably like the Galatians, we teach grace, but in our practice we require law. I mean, without the law how can we ever hope to control our peers?
There’s quite a study within the book of Galatians on the pressure from peers, authorities, and others. Paul unceremoniously calls out Peter who had fallen prey to the Galatians bad theology. He had succumbed to outside pressures—pressures not indicative of what he knew (there’s that word) to be unequivocally true.
Jeepers! I can identify with this struggle also.
I remember one of the college students commenting one evening as we studied, “These principles are important to me, but you (the grown-up in the room) really have to work at these because you live and work in the real world.”
Insightfully, he realized that peer pressure does not go away when you graduate. In fact, he discerned that it only increases. The real world plays for keeps!
The Galatians were caught in the middle between Law and grace, performance for God and the provision of God. They felt obligated and indebted to God, thus inspiring them to attempt repayment. And, they felt pressure from each other to perform.
There is a good verse on this pressure in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”
“According to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world.” Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. Yin and Yang. The thing that’s so challenging about grace is that we can’t earn it, repay it, or supplement it. We can only accept it and live from it without edit or addition.
Our focus must be on Christ. The Mosaic Law demonstrated it was incapable of providing life, which we were in need of. It further demonstrates that attempting law’s standard produces frustration, not fulfillment. Only Jesus Christ can supply life and only grace can make life abundant.
Third, I think the Galatians and those trying to influence their thinking were being swayed by the pressure to keep traditions. “It’s the way we do things—the way we have always done things,” we are prone to proclaim.
Many of the things that comprised the traditions of these people were good things. After all, their tradition was tied to the Law and Scripture tells us it was good. The Law just did not possess the power to give life to dead men, nor was it intended for that purpose.
Hebrews 5:11-6:3 paints a clear picture: Christians are to pursue maturity and the deeper things of God. They are to practice honing their discernment skills. They are to leave (not abandon, just move on past) the elementary things of the word—none of which are bad, all of which are good, they are just elementary. It seems that so many of the things that tie us down—entangle is the word used in Hebrews—smack of tradition and religiosity instead of what we know (there’s that word) to be true via Christ Jesus.
You know, just like the Galatians, we have a thorough understanding of what it means to be justified by faith—“justified by faith alone,” as Martin Luther put it—but we lose sight of God’s gift to us in His Son and we try to gain favor with God via some form of law, some form of performance-based acceptance. “What can I do to get God to accept me more/better/completely/without reservation, etc.?” becomes the covert, and many times overt, life-motto for so many Christians.
As you turn over a fresh leaf and make a new start this year, what are the implications—in your life, for you—to what you have just read?
Like the Galatians, we must not let our personal acceptance and right-standing with God be taken captive by the law—any law—whether of men, the church, traditions, society, etc. We are not people of the Mosaic Law or any other law. We are people of grace.
The antidote against amalgamating anything with grace must be continually injected into our bloodstream: Christ must be viewed as the sole Author, Perfector, and Finisher of our faith. You and I bring nothing to the table save our new hearts and deep desire to live as He lives.
Happy New Year to you!