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What Did Paul Tear Down? (Galatians 2:18)

For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. (Galatians 2:18; ESV)

As I continue to write about the central message of Galatians, I would encourage readers to make sure you have read my previous posts here and here so that you are up to speed.

What was Paul tearing down in his ministry for Jesus Christ? Would it really be a safe statement to declare that the apostle Paul was tearing down the Law of Moses? Even Jesus himself declared that he did not come to destroy (abolish) the Law of Moses but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Why would Paul feel compelled to destroy the Law that Jesus was unwilling to destroy? Further, as we have noted previously, the problem with the Galatians and in Antioch does not seem to be centered on obedience to the Law of Moses. Paul is writing to Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The conflict is within Christianity, not Jews versus Christians.

Galatians 2 spells out the problem that Jewish Christians were demanding Gentile Christians to be circumcised to have their faith completed. Circumcision was not part of the Law of Moses, but was part of the promise to Abraham as the sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). Jewish Christians were also demanded separation from Gentile Christians and seem to have been keeping the dietary laws. Circumcision, the dietary laws, and separation from Gentiles were all symbols that showed the world that one was part of God’s special people, Israel.

Paul was not tearing down the Law of Moses. How can anyone tear down something given by God through angels to his people? Just as an aside, we must make sure that we do not malign or criticize the Law of Moses as legalistic or slander it in any other way. The Law was given by God. The Law was not faulty; the people were faulty in keeping it (Hebrews 8:8). Paul was not tearing down the Law of Moses, but was tearing down the dividing wall between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Paul’s argument in Galatians 2:18 is that he would be found a sinner if he was rebuilding the hostility that he was working to end. Further, Paul is not eliminating the need for obedience to God’s laws. He is eliminating the thinking that these external acts of circumcision, dietary laws, and separation between Jews and Gentiles were needed to be identified with God’s family and have one’s faith made complete.

The point to the Galatian audience is that circumcision, dietary laws, and separation of Jews and Gentiles cannot be necessary to be part of God’s family. If it was, then Paul would be a sinner because he has been tearing down those very distinctions and walls.

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