God’s Project in Christ Jesus (Reflections on Gal 1:4)

April 21, 2018 Author: Dr. Jacob Palliparambil OCD 0 Comments

It was God’s project in Christ Jesus to create a new civilization of love. In Paul’s understanding God this  project was inaugurated  in the death and resurrection of  Jesus.

Death of Jesus, the Son of God and Messiah, on the cross was an enigma to the believers from the inception of Christianity.  It was scandalous to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.  Yet the Christians made it the foundation stone of their faith and proclaimed Crucified Christ as the Saviour of mankind.  Exponents of the Primitive Church were very serious and earnest to explain the death of Jesus on the Cross in the light of Scriptures.  In the New Testament, we find various justifications for Jesus’ death. They never considered it as a failure of human justice, even though they do not spare the authorities of their times of their lack of responsibility in Jesus’ death. They do not also explain it as an inevitable fate that befell on Jesus, the Innocent victim of the hatred of human beings.  They consider it simply as the fulfilment of the Scriptures. In fact, the death of Jesus is attributed to words of the Scriptures, when they coined the first faith formulation.  They made the confession of faith that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3).  St. John in his Gospel underlines with insistence, Jesus underwent his passion and death willingly, with no kind of pressure from any one (Jn. 10:17-18).  Paul, the Apostle in his letters, has centred a lot of his attention to the salvific death of Jesus and God’s involvement in it.  One of the richest texts in Pauline letters on the death of Jesus and its salvific significance is Gal 1:4, in which God’s will is closely connected to Jesus’ death.  Our attempt is to bring out God’s grand project in favour of man in the death of Jesus on the Cross. Let us analyze this text to unveil this mystery of God for the salvation of mankind, which forms the central theme of our Christian faith.

Contextualization of the Text:

Paul writes in the protocol of his letter to the Galatians: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to tear us away from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:4).   This introductory statement of the Galatians’ letter can be considered a summary of the whole letter.  This letter was written at a time when the churches at Galatia faced a critical situation in her life of faith. Paul had preached the Gospel in this region during his missionary journeys. Members of these churches were manly Gentiles.  They had become believers in Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross and resurrection and had declared genuine members of the new covenant community without the tangles of the Mosaic Laws and prescriptions.  Paul had accepted these Gentiles from Galatia into the fold of the new covenant community without circumcising them or demanding from them obedience of the Judaic laws.

Everything went on very fine for some time in the churches of Galatia. But, as Paul left the region in search of other missionary locations in Europe, the so-called Judaizers from Jerusalem arrived at Galatia.  They demanded from Christians of Galatia that they be circumcised and obey the laws of Moses.  They threatened that unless they do so, these Christians would not be saved by Lord, when He returns in glory. The Judaizers adjoined that Paul had not received any authority from the Apostles in Jerusalem and had not been called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ at all.  Against such insinuations and instigations of the Judaizers, Paul claimed in first part of the Galatians’ letter that he was appointed an apostle of Jesus Christ and has been sent by God to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.  In the second part of the letter,  he proved that the law of Moses had become nullified and obsolete with the advent of Jesus Christ and His Spirit.  Paul also proclaimed that  God the Father is now saving all men through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His Son.

Pre-Pauline Confession Formula with Pauline Insights

Paul begins the letter to the Galatians with greetings of grace and peace to the churches at Galatia as it was his custom at the beginning of every letter he wrote.  Grace and peace are gifts that reach the community from God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was rendered capable to obtain these blessings for his believers from God His Father through his self-surrender by death on the cross. He died in obedience to the will of the Father.  Paul summarizes the whole redemptive plan of God in one sentence: “who (Jesus Christ) gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God the Father”.  There are Pauline scholars who group the above statement under the category of “Proclamation Formula” of the Primitive Christian Community and suggest that Paul has borrowed it from the tradition and has stamped it with his own “self-immolation motive”.  Evidently it is pre-Pauline and goes back to the liturgical and confession formula of the early Christians. Paul has transformed it with his own insights about the saving death of Jesus on the Cross. These are the Pauline insights about the death of Jesus on the cross and of God’s active involvement in this redemptive death.

Jesus’ Death as Voluntary Self-Surrender:  In the early letters of Paul, namely letters to Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and Romans, Paul uses the Greek verb apothneskō  (1Thess 4:14; 5:10; 1Cor 8:11; 15:3; 2Cor 5:15;  Gal 2:21; Rom 5:6.7.8; 6:9.10; 14:9.15) and the noun thantos  (1Cor 11:26; Rom 5:10; 6:3.9; Phil 2:8; Col 1:22) for the event of Jesus’ death  on the Cross.  But the Greek expression,  didōmi heauton ” to give himself”  for the same event of Jesus’ death  is found only in the Pastoral letters (1Tim 2:5-6; Tit 2:11-14).  We also find twice another similar expression, paraidōmi heauton “to give himself” with the same significance in Ephesians (5:2.25). 

The Synoptic Gospels use didōmi heauton ” to give himself”  for the death of Jesus (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28; Luke 22:19).  Now it is quite significant that the expression was traditional both among the Jews and the Greeks to designate the violent death of the martyrs.  When the Early Christian tradition made use of this expression to denote the death of Jesus on the Cross, they too wanted to underline that Jesus’ death   was the sacrifice of a martyr.  He had died for a cause or an ideal or the motherland.  Paul has used the expression in this sentence in the genitive aorist participle form, tou dontos heauton. This underlines the uniqueness of Jesus’ death in terms of time.  It hints that the self-gift in death of Jesus is the very definition of Jesus Christ himself.   Jesus Christ therefore could be called: “The One-Given-To”.  It affirms strongly that Jesus died voluntarily and underwent it without any pressure from outside and constraint from others. It means that the early Christian community as well as Paul wanted to assert that  Jesus’ death was an unconditional and voluntary gift of himself to the whole humanity and that He was someone given up for others totally even unto the most violent death on the cross.

Self-Surrender in favour of others:

The unconditional and voluntary self-surrender of Jesus to death was in view of the whole humanity. No one is excluded from that saving death of Jesus. Both the Jews and Gentiles have equal access to the benefits of the saving death. Paul was aware that this generalization can also bring with it shallowness and superficiality.  Paul did not mean a general, aimless and common statement about the preciousness of Jesus’ self-surrender in death.  This death was for each human person who forms part of the humanity in the past, present and future until the end of times.  The personal application of Jesus’ self-giving is brought to light, when he applies it to his own life: “the  life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself me” (Gal 2: 20b). The same he does, when he appeals to Christians to live according the new life that has been granted to them through Spirit in the baptism.  Love of Christ, manifested in His death on the Cross, is used by Paul as the motive of persuasion to his exhortations to the Christians: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:25). In the family life, he reminds the husbands to follow the self-less sacrifice for their beloved wives:  “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself for he” (Eph 5:25). 

Stimulant for Acts of Self-sacrifice

Though the exhortations focus the attention on the moral behaviour and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as an example and stimulant for action, yet the underlying faith of Paul is that Jesus had died for them personally and owned him gratitude. This gratitude is to be translated into action through sacrificial love towards one another.  Not only that!  Jesus’ sacrificial self-surrender on the Cross was also stimulant for Paul’s apostolic fervour and undertakings. He writes to the Corinthians, when he speaks of his service (diakonia) to the communities: “For love of Christ controls, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2Cor 5: 14-15).  The love of Christ so shockingly and crudely revealed in the death of the Cross should be understood as personal love and it should stimulate and provoke the Christians to apostolic ministry, service to brethren and to honest and good behaviour.

Jesus’ Death as Representative Death for sins:

Jesus’ self-offer, an act of unconditional and voluntary love, was “for our sins” or “on behalf of our sins”.  The exact content of this phrase it be gathered from other parallel texts of Paul on the redemptive nature of Jesus death on the Cross.  On the one hand, Paul uses the phrase such as “for our trespasses” (Rom 8:25) instead of “for our sins” as in our text (1Cor 15:3; Rom 8:3). On other hand, there are other uses which are much more personal like “for us” (1Cor 1:13; 11:24; 2Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; Rom 5:8; Eph 5:2; Tit 2:14) or “for us all” (2Cor 5:15; Rom 8:32; 1Tim 2:6) or “for her (Church)” ((Eph 5:25) or “for the sake of his body” (Col 1:24).  The phrase “for our sins” seems to the vestiges of a traditional catechetical formula which the early Christian community used in order to instruct the new members who were being prepared to receive baptism.  Hence we could reasonably conclude that Paul’s use of this phrase in this context is not Pauline in origin, but a part of a traditional confession formula. 

Death of Jesus and personal sins:

Paul’s use of the Greek word hamartia, for “sin” conveys three basic ideas.  First of all, it refers to the individual sins committed by each person (1Cor 15:3; 2Cor 11:7; Rom 4: 7; 7:5). Secondly, it indicates the human nature which is hostile to God (1Cor 15:17; Rom 3:20; 5:13-20; 6:1; 7;7; 8:3).  Thirdly, it underlines sin as power which is personified (Rom 3:9; 5:1-7:20).  Of all these three ideas of sin, the most applicable significance in Gal 1:4 is that of personal sin committed by the individuals.  Hence, Jesus died for sins of the individuals and there is a personal relationship between Jesus’ death on the cross and the human personal sins. Even more, it conveys the most fundamental message of Christianity that the death of Jesus was representative or substitutive.

Death of Jesus and sin of Adam:

With this idea we have to also bring to the fore Paul’s teachings on Jesus as the new Adam, expounded in the letter to the Romans.  Paul’s basic claim with regard to it is this: as through the disobedient deed of first Adam there came the nexus between sin and death for all humanity, so also now through the obedient deed (death) of Jesus, the New Adam, there came victory over sin and death to the whole humanity.  By Jesus’ death on the cross, power of sin and death over humanity is overcome (Rom 5: 12-21).  This representative death of Jesus for the whole humanity is to be clarified in the light of Suffering Servant of Yahweh, foretold by Prophet Isaiah.

Death of Jesus and the Suffering Servant of Yahweh:

The words, “who gave himself for our sins” have their resonance in the Isaiah’s fourth Canticle on the Suffering Servant of Yahweh.  “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6) and “Because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors and he bore the sin of many” (53:12)   are significant words of Isaiah in this regard.  They clearly manifest the representative nature of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh.  The New Testament writers had identified Jesus with the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, especially in the passion narratives.  It is also closely connected to the early Christological traditional expressions of the Primitive Church which Paul has used in other letters (1Cor 15:3-5; 11: 23-25; Rom 4:25; 8:34; Phil 2:6-11).  Paul is teaching the Galatians that Jesus’ death was in accordance with the prophecy of the Old Testament.  However, we can attest here that the original Sitz  im Leben of the expression, “he gave himself for us” must have been the baptismal confession formula of  faith used by the early Christians . 

Liberation from Clutches of the Sinful World: 

Death of Jesus on the Cross had a definite purpose: “that he might tear us apart (exelētai) from the present evil age”.  The Greek verb used by Paul to convey the idea of “tear apart” is  exaireō.  This verb occurs only once here in the letters of Paul, but Luke in the Acts of the Apostles employs it on different occasions in the contexts of great dangers due to persecution.  In the sermon delivered by Stephen before being stoned to death, he uses this term to speak of the deliverance that God gave to the people of Israel in the land of Egypt (Acts 7:34).  When Peter was is delivered from Herod’s prison by an angel, Peter says: Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (exeilato me) from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting” (Acts 12:11).  Luke makes of the same verb  twice, when Paul escaped from the fury of the Jewish people (Acts 23:27; 26:17).Luke’s insistent use of the same term for similar situations can allude to the fact that this was a traditional vocabulary among the early Christians  for God’s miraculous and unexpected interventions at hopeless ad helpless situations of the believers.  This verb also carries the nuances of a sudden and violent breaking in of God into human history and saving his faithful in a quite unexpected and unpredictable manner.  Keeping in mind these significances of the expression used by Paul here, we have to understand that for Paul, the death of Jesus was a decisive intervention of God in human history, because his much loved and cherished people are in a dangerous and moral situation.  Paul describes this situation as “the present evil age”.

“The present evil age” is that critical situation, which stands in opposition to the world that would come.  The situation is defined as “evil”, because it has within itself evilness and in it are revealed the machinations of evil.  The crude, cruel and violent death of Jesus, the true Son of God and the Messiah, on the Cross is blatant manifestation of evil that is at work in the world.  In Pauline mentality the rulers of this present world and their wisdom are evil and they are soaked in evilness.  It was their evil machinations that led to crucifixion of the Lord (1Cor 2:6-8).  Every man of every age is in some way caught up or imprisoned in this evil milieu.  This present evil world wins over human beings by means of the law, which makes them conscious of their sin and thus multiplies occasions of sin.  This leads them inevitably to death (Rom 5:20).  Through his death Jesus liberates man from this situation of sin and death and therefore from the clutches of the present evil age.

Justification and Reconciliation through Jesus’ Death:  

The deliverance of which Paul speaks is not merely ethical or eschatological, but is a positive reality, which takes place in those who believe in Jesus Christ.  It is the act of God’s justification and reconciliation of man through the death of Jesus Christ: “Since, therefore, we are no justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For, if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  Not only, so but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom 5: 9-11).  This implies that all those who believe in Jesus are delivered from the evil machinations and insinuations of the present world  and they are now justified and reconciled to God and to one another.  H

Hence the death of Jesus was in view of every man and woman who live in this world of all ages. No one is excluded from this beneficiary result of Jesus’ representative and substitutive death. Paul affirms that the death of Jesus on the cross was not an accidental happening in the history of mankind as many other violent death and painful crucifixions that have taken place in the annals of our human history.  It is unique and salvific because Jesus underwent it for the sake of his brothers and sisters of all ages.  This is God’s  project for man from all eternity. 

Jesus’ Death: the eternal project and commitment of God:

The origin and the result of Jesus’ death on the Cross were “in accordance with the will of God the Father”.  It means that both the death of Jesus and human deliverance from the present evil age are part of “the eternal and mysterious project of God”.  This was the understanding of “God’s will” by the Fathers of the Church. For example, Clement of Rome (Epistola ad Corinthos I, in P.G.I, col.311) and John Chrysostom (Epistolam ad Galatias, in P.G.61, col. 619)  present God’s will  in this vein.  Paul’s introducing “God’s will” at the end of this statement about the death of Jesus and its purpose to deliver the humanity from  the sinful world is conscious and purposeful.  We have already mentioned that there are traditional elements of the primitive church’s faith formula in Gal 1:4.  They believed not only that Jesus gave himself for our sins, but also that it was in accordance with God’s plan.  Both ideas formed the basic tenets of the confession formula.  This is evident from the way that the Acts of the Apostles proclaims the death of Jesus in the sermons of the Apostles.   They all testify that the death of Jesus was in accordance with the Scriptures as was foretold by the prophets. This is the testimony of Peter on the day of Pentecost: “This Jesus , delivered up according to the definite plan and knowledge  of God, you crucified and killed by hands of lawless men” (2:23).  In the sermon to the people gathered in the Portico of Solomon, Peter affirms once again: “”I know that you acted in ignorance; ad did also your rulers.  But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that hi s Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18).  In the letter to the first Corinthians Paul reminded the Christians that he handed over to them at his first preaching the traditions that he had received.  He cited then the confession formula that Jesus died, buried and was raised from the dead on the third day “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Cor 15: 3-4). With this short phrase, “in accordance with the Scriptures”, the early Christian community wanted to assert that the death of Jesus on the Cross was in complete harmony with the sayings of the Prophets.  The Prophets in their turn were foretelling the divine plan with regard to Messiah and human salvation.

However, when Paul introduces this phrase in Gal 1:4, Paul was expressing the same faith in more incisive manner.  Death of Jesus is underlined expressively and concisely in all its uniqueness and universality.  Paul seems to affirm that God had a definite hand in the violent death of Jesus on the Cross. It was the result of God’s own saving commitment to man.  It was in complete agreement with the Old Testament thought on the Suffering Servant of Yahweh.  In fact, Prophet Isaiah mentions that the bruising the servant of Yahweh and putting him to grief were all in accordance with the pleasure / will (hphs) of God (Is 53:10).

Paul’s addition “according to God’s will” has rich theological content.  On the one side, it stresses on God’s involvement in the redemptive death of Jesus, which brings to man the possibility of obtaining justification and reconciliation through faith.  It speaks of God’s eternal commitment towards the welfare and wholeness of man. On the other side, it implies the submissiveness of Jesus to God, His Father.  Jesus surrenders his life to the plan of the Father with humble obedience and invites his followers to do the same.

Let us keep in mind that Paul is writing this letter to a group of Christians were until recently pagans and following the pagan customs.  While they have the new faith and assurance of their salvation, there are those who disturb them with stringent laws of Moses and with the demand of external practices such as the physical circumcision.  They are tossed between different groups and opinions.  To them faith in the Crucified Son of God was ridiculous and foolishness.  Paul writes about Cross as “foolishness to the pagans” (1Cor 1:18; 2:14) and “scandal to the Jews” (1Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11).  Moreover, there was the injunction of Deuteronomy: “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree” (21:23), which was applied to those who were crucified by the Jewish people.  In the letter to the Galatians later on, Paul will cite this text of Deuteronomy and affirm that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by means of his hanging on the tree (Gal 3:13).  This is to say that in the divine plan the cross, a means of violent and crude form execution of the criminals, became the means of salvation for man.  This is a mysterious project of God from all eternity that was realized in time on Calvary.  It is a inscrutable mystery of God’s divine project in realizing human salvation.

The introduction of “God’s will” with the death of Jesus implies also the total surrender of Jesus to God’s project with regard to human salvation.  In the letter to the Romans, Paul presents the death of Jesus as obedience to God’s demand because of God’s righteousness.  Since the sin of the first Adam brought death to the whole humanity, so now the death of Jesus brings salvation to humanity.  By it all are made righteous before God.  Man was under the wrath of God through the disobedience of the first Adam, but now man is made righteous before God through the obedience of Jesus in his death on the Cross.  Both these aspects belong to the divine project of God (Rom 5:17-19).  Jesus’ death on the cross was a total submission to this divine project.  Christ willingly accepted the will of the Father. This willingness of the Son is sung in the Christological hymn of the Philippians: “Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Phil 2:8).

The project in conformity with which Jesus died is said to be that of God the Father. By that it is made evident the implication of love in this death of Jesus.  The relation between Jesus and God is that Father and Son, and therefore of love. God is not a cruel God who puts Jesus to death on account of an unforgivable crime or on account of God’s unquenchable wrath,  but it is the highest and most noble sentiment of love that impelled the Father to impose and for the Son to undergo this horrendous and hideous death on the Cross.  The ultimate winner is man, who is liberated from the sinful and evil world.

This analysis of Gal 1:4 brings to focus the fact that the death of Jesus on the Cross for Paul was a unique event in the history of salvation. The result of that death is lasting and perennial, because it was carried out in accordance with an mysterious project with regard to human salvation designed by God.  This is what made to write: “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).

Call to Experience God’ Project in Christ Jesus

Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, was well aware of the significance of Jesus’ death on the Cross in the divine project for the salvation of mankind.  He had his own personal experience of the Risen Lord from the dead.  He shared his experience with his fellow Christians supported and enhanced with the traditions about Jesus from the primitive community.  The role of Jesus is unique and universal for Paul and this is even greater when he speaks of Jesus’ saving death on the Cross.  In the letters of Paul we discover several titles and honours that manifest the uniqueness of Jesus.  Let us recall here a few of them.  Jesus is called the Lord, the Son of God, First and Last Adam, the First-born from the dead, the Head of the body, the Image of the Invisible God and Fullness of God.  At the background of all these titles and appellations, Paul had discovered the importance of Jesus’ death on the Cross.  There is also an inner thread among them, which transcends the external elements and is rooted in the personal experience of Paul.  Paul himself experienced the inner deliverance which Jesus obtained for humanity from the sinful world.  It gave inner strength and courage for Paul to proclaim Jesus Crucified as the saviour and redeemer.

We are invited to experience the freedom that Jesus has brought to the world through his death on the cross. This the ultimate project of God for the entire humanity in Jesus Christ.  Like Paul we too should be able to say that Jesus Christ loved me and gave himself up for me.  This experience of love is the ultimate purpose and project of God with regard to man. God is committed to it.  This is proved by the historical event of Jesus’ death on the Cross which was designed under the eternal project of God.  In every age and every generation people are invited to experience this freedom in love. It is also the duty of the Christian community to proclaim it in every generation in all the corners of the world.

The knowledge that Jesus died for our sins should be personalized and help us shun the allurements of the sinful world.  As we discover the love of the Father lying behind the death of Jesus on the Cross and Jesus’ own love to represent or substitute us for our sins should inspire us to come out of slavery to sin and its entanglements. Jesus’ death is thus not a sad event of the past to be regretted and lamented or cried over, but it is to be rather an impetus to overcome our tendencies towards evil.  Death of Jesus always leads us to victory over sin and conquest of death. We are called to life a life of resurrection.

To conclude, death of Jesus on cross as self-immolation for others should invite us to imitate Jesus.  Our life receives fullness and realization, when we, following the mentality of Christ, offers our lives for the sake of others. In all spheres of life, men and women are called to self surrender to the will of the Father and self-sacrifice for the welfare of their brethren. No one can gain his/her life, unless he/she loses it for others.  The most secure and sure way to liberate ourselves from all entanglements of the present evil world is to seek the good of others. Jesus’ love in giving His life for us must be the ultimate stimulant for us to live and die for others.

Author: Dr. Jacob Palliparambil OCD