“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
– Galatians 5:6 (ESV – Read the chapter)
Have you ever done an escape room? It’s one of the latest social trends sweeping American culture. The idea is that you have been locked in some room and in order to get out you have to work through a series of clues to find the right key. These aren’t just blank rooms with envelopes on a table, though, they are richly decorated with clues seamlessly worked into the decorations. And each room has its own theme running the gamut from cute and quaint to intense and frightening. The idea has even hit it big enough that you can buy a board game version at your local store.
My wife and I went with some friends to do one last Christmas. We had never done one before and it was a ton of fun. We even managed to escape within the time limit. The designers were really clever too. The clues were such that most of them were clearly visible when you walked into the room without ever opening anything. But, because they were simply a part of the background, you didn’t notice them until you were actually looking for them. Even then, they were easy to overlook.
There are times when we encounter things in life, but overlook them because we don’t think to look for them. This happens in the Scriptures all the time. I think this verse may be one of the chief instances of this. What Paul writes here is absolutely game changing for followers of Jesus if we really get our hearts and minds around it. But, it blends in to the rest of what Paul says and so it’s really easy to overlook.
I think the real reason we overlook it is that the second part (which is the real key for us) is hidden behind the first. In the first part here, Paul talks about circumcision. Circumcision was one of those things that was a big deal in the first century, but isn’t really a deal today at all except when the odd secular progressive politician decides to try and ban it, making it a big deal where it wasn’t before.
In the first century, more than following the Law, circumcision was the single most important indicator that marked a man as a Jew. The reason it was a big deal in the church was because there was a split among Jewish background believers on whether or not a Gentile had to become a Jew first before he could be accepted as a follower of Jesus. Paul was emphatically in the “no” camp because he rightly recognized that being a follower of Jesus was more important than being a Jew. In fact, he understood that being a follower of Jesus was the natural, theological evolution for Jews to make.
But still, the debate persisted. It persisted and served as a major hurdle for Gentiles who were interested in becoming followers of Jesus. The reason why should be clear: If the church today announced that men needed to have a little surgery down there before they could be baptized our baptism numbers would be even lower than they already are. It was doing the same thing then. And so Paul talked about it several times in his letters. Specifically, he made it as clear as he possibly could that circumcision is not a Gospel issue. Whether you have been or haven’t been makes no difference in Christ’s offer of eternal life and your ability to receive it.
Now, if that were the only thing Paul said here, it would still be a big deal. But, it wouldn’t be quite as big a deal for us as it is for them. For us, we could certainly have found some ways to make some applications to issues that are relevant for us, but it wouldn’t have been the game changer for us that it was for them.
But Paul didn’t leave it there. We’ll talk about that and just how game changing it is for us next time.