This chapter, the beginning of the third major division of the letter, opens with a direct exhortation. The RSV correctly includes a “therefore,” tying chs. 5-6 to chs. 3-4 in a causal relationship. If indeed the readers are not the children of slavery but children of promise, they are to stand firm in freedom, not allowing themselves to become enslaved. The epitome of slavery was the ritual of circumcision by means of which a proselyte was accepted into Judaism with the understanding that he was then expected to observe all of its laws and ceremonies. The argument of Paul is direct: One need not, in fact, must not, become a Jew in order to become a Christian. To do so would imply the legitimacy of the law as a means of attaining righteousness with God. In addition, to do so would deny implicitly salvation through faith in Christ, to hold that the death and resurrection of Christ were inadequate for salvation. Those who do this “cut themselves off from Christ” (Arichea and Nida, 74). They have “fallen from grace.” Wesley noted, “You hereby disclaim Christ, and all the blessings which are through faith in him” (Notes, 5:1; BBC, 18:84). Arichea and Nida emphasize that it is not that “grace has been taken away from them, but . . . that they have turned their backs on it” (p. 108).
V. 5 shows how Paul can use the idea of salvation in different ways: Salvation is something that was realized in the past in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the present—in one's own personal acknowledgment of its efficacy for oneself and, finally, in the future—the realization of the final consummation. The word hope is here used in the true sense of the anticipation of a certainty so that one can live in the present with that anticipation. It is the glory of this relationship to Christ that makes circumcision and uncircumcision equally irrelevant. Neither the ceremony nor the lack of it has any value in God's sight.
In vv. 7ff. Paul expresses shock and disappointment at his readers' being so easily persuaded by an influence that did not come from God. He refers to this influence as a little yeast that is working through the whole batch and having its effect on the churches. Nevertheless, Paul expresses his confidence that they will heed his warning and turn from the one(s) turning them from Christ. He declares that whoever is confusing them will receive the punishment due from God himself.
In v. 12 Paul strongly denounces the Judaizers. He goes so far as to say that he wishes the agitators who advocate ceremonial circumcision would totally castrate themselves. Jewish tradition held that an emasculated male was no longer a part of the covenant. Paul seems to be saying that those who insist on Gentiles becoming Jews in order to become Christians are totally in error. To be obsessed with circumcision is to put oneself in danger of losing one's own place in God's kingdom!
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