Paul really gets to the heart of the matter in today’s reading. Recall that Paul is writing this letter to the Galatians because some converts from Judaism are advocating that conversion to Christianity still requires adherence to the Jewish law and practices (“Judizers”). Paul is leaving no stone unturned in his case against that position.
First, Paul describes that he, having been sent as the Apostles to the Gentiles, went up to Jerusalem and confirmed his teaching with the Apostles – who of course had at first been Jewish. Thus Paul is making the point that the leaders of the Church who are themselves Jewish converts and who are the superiors to the Judizers that have come to Galatia have previously confirmed Paul’s teaching that adherence to the Jewish law is no longer necessary.
Paul then makes the point that on this journey to Jerusalem when he met with the Apostles he had brought with him Titus, a gentile convert. The Apostles in Jerusalem did not require Titus to be circumcised. Thus Paul is demonstrating that both in word and in action the Apostles did not require the gentiles to be circumcised to become Christians.
What Paul describes next is interesting but a little hard to follow because he seems to be describing three groups of people. Here is the verse from Young’s literal translation:
4 and [that] because of the false brethren brought in unawares, who did come in privily to spy out our liberty that we have in Christ Jesus, that us they might bring under bondage,
5 to whom not even for an hour we gave place by subjection, that the truth of the good news might remain to you.
6 And from those who were esteemed to be something – WHATEVER THEY WERE THEN, it maketh no difference to me — the face of man God accepteth not, for — to me THOSE ESTEEMED DID ADD NOTHING,
7 but, on the contrary, having seen that I have been entrusted with the good news of the uncircumcision, as Peter with [that] of the circumcision,
8 for He who did work with Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, did work also in me in regard to the nations,
9 and having known the grace that was given to me, James, and Cephas, and John, who were esteemed to be pillars, a right hand of fellowship they did give to me, and to Barnabas, that we to the nations, and they to the circumcision [may go]..
Paul is taking here about 3 groups of people. Himself and Barnabas, the apostles and a group of “false brethren”. These false brethren were likely Jewish Temple Priests who had converted to Christianity. We can make this inference because they were “esteemed to be something” but Paul indicates that this esteem comes from their past position. Also, we know from the book of Acts that on a previous trip to Jerusalem, Paul was influenced to go to the Temple and help those taking the Nazzerite vow. We know that Paul was made to do this in part to keep the piece with the Jewish element in the Church. So Paul is saying that on his subsequent trip to Jerusalem the influence of this group has waned (because they were no longer listen ted to).
This explains the next evidence that Paul presents in his case against the Judizers. He relates the story of them coming to Antioch while Paul was there with Peter. Paul describes that while he was there Jewish converts sent from Jerusalem by James had arrived. Paul refers to them as “the circumcision party” thus they are of the same mindset as the Judizers. James likely sent them to Antioch because they were causing trouble in Jerusalem. James likely expected that when they arrived in Antioch they would get rebuked by Peter. But upon the arrival of the Judizers in Antioch, Peter in deference to the new arrivals, stops sharing table fellowship with the gentiles. Paul must have thought he was taking crazy pills. Didn’t they deal with this group at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15)? So he rebukes Peter. Paul is making the point, in the most dramatic fashion that he can, that even Peter, the highest member of the Church, cannot divide the Church between Jew and Gentile converts.
Up to this point Paul has repeatedly established the evidence that there is no separation between Jew and gentile in the Church and no requirement to follow the Jewish law. With the evidence established, Paul now states that conclusion.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by WORKS OF THE LAW but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by WORKS OF THE LAW, because by WORKS OF THE LAW no one will be justified.
Works of the Law is an idiom for works, ceremonies and practices required by the Mosaic law. Paul is making it crystal clear to the Galatians that Christians are no longer subject to these requirements. In fact, Paul says that it is worse. If they go back and make themselves subject to the law that no longer applies then they are “transgressors”. Paul then delivers one of his most famous and important passages:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Christians should take this passage literally. Through faith we are united to Christ. On the Cross he felt our sufferings and thus we “have been crucified with Christ”. As he died, we must die to self so that it “is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” and become his workers in this world.