Context Is Everything
One of my criticisms of the use of verses in Bible translations is that it fosters proof-texting, meaning lifting fragments or sentences in scripture out of context to prove a point that they would not otherwise support. Verses by definition indicate poetry or mystical writings, and this is not the genre for most of the Bible. A case in point is Gal. 3:28, which is typically translated similar to this example:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (NIV)
Most interpret this sentence as Paul telling the Galatians that all sorts of people can be saved. But a case will be presented here that this is not so and cannot be supported by the context. But even before we examine that context, we can see that this verse has the word “for”, from the Greek conjunction gar, whose semantic range is “because, for, since, seeing that”. The interpretation is then, “The reason there is no division among you is because you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Even so, some would insist that it is properly understood as, “There is no difference in how people come to be in Christ Jesus”. At least we can conclude that it can be taken two ways, even without its context.
But with its context, all ambiguity disappears. The over-arching context is that Paul has heard that the believers in Galatia have quickly turned from the freedom bought by Jesus and enslaved themselves again under the laws of either false religion or Moses. We know Paul is referring to Moses rather than the traditions of the Pharisees, because in 1:13 he begins build his case with his own former enslavement to that law. And he goes on for quite a while about Abraham and how the Promise made to him was not nullified by the Law that came much later.
In chapter three he expresses his exasperation over how quickly the people could forget the simple Gospel of salvation by faith rather than obedience to law. And this is how we know he is not talking about who can be saved in 3:28; there would be no exasperation if they had not understood and accepted the Gospel in the first place. It is all in the context of people who formerly practiced religious works but who had turned away from them toward the risen Messiah. These are saved people that Paul is addressing, and they were not confused about whether Gentiles, women, or slaves could be saved.
It is in verse 15 that Paul begins his teaching about the scope and purpose of the laws of Moses. He explains that it was like a custodian or tutor whose purpose was to bring the people of Israel to maturity, to the point where they were ready to accept their Messiah and be justified by faith rather than works. At this point there was no further need for a custodian. Then in verse 26 Paul states again, in the clearest terms, that the Galatians already are “children of God through faith in Christ Jesus”. These people do not need to be told how to be saved, and there has been no evidence of them having told Gentiles or slaves or women that they could not be saved the same way.
It is after Paul has explained the limits of religious law that he makes the statement under examination. Since the people know full well that being saved means not being under law, Paul explains the implications of this freedom: no more barriers, no more discrimination, no more ranking among brothers and sisters. And he follows in verse 29 with the purpose of bringing this up: because they belong to Jesus (not how they can belong to Jesus), they are descendants of Abraham and heirs of the Promise. Everything leading up to 3:28 was to show that whoever is in Christ is an heir of the Promise and has no need of Law.
To summarize the flow of Paul’s argument:
- How could you Galatians have turned so quickly from freedom to bondage?
- The purpose of law was not to save you, but to bring you to maturity.
- You were saved by faith, not by works or legalistic performance.
- Since you are already saved, there can be none of the old barriers or divisions among you, because you are unified in Jesus. (see also Col. 3:11)
- Since you are unified in Jesus, you are heirs of the Promise, which is independent of the Law.
After this, Paul goes on to explain that they, as children of God rather than slaves, are throwing it all away when they turn back to religious performance. And in 4:17 he exposes the motives of the one teaching them to do this: to cut them off from Paul and take them for himself. How can it be possible to continue reading and not understand that Paul is writing for the purpose of correcting a grave error being committed by people who clearly understood the Gospel? Again, they surely knew how to be saved, and they had not been giving different Gospel messages to different groups of people. Instead, some false teacher had been envious of Paul and wanted to steal his followers, by enslaving them again to rules and rites.
To take Gal. 3:28 as being only about how salvation is available to everyone, is to ignore the entire letter and its purpose. It disregards the context on every level and inserts an irrelevant topic into the middle of an essay on the futility of turning back to religious practice.