December 5, 2020

Galatians 2:20 — A Jesus-shaped identity


I am, however, alive— but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

• Galatians 2:20
The Kingdom New Testament

• • •

Galatians 2:20 is probably my favorite verse about Christian identity in the New Testament. It tells me:

  • I have died to my old life.
  • I have been made alive again in Jesus Christ.
  • The life I live now (here, in this world and in this body) is lived in the context of his faithfulness to me — the loving faithfulness that led him to die for me.

This is “Jesus-shaped spirituality,” as Michael Spencer called it, in a nutshell.

Understanding the context of this verse in Galatians and its background in the Jewish/Gentile debate between Peter and Paul makes the Jesus-shapedness of this text even clearer.

The immediate context in which Galatians 2:20 is a part is 2:15-21.

15We are Jews by birth, not “Gentile sinners.” 16But we know that a person is not declared “righteous” by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. That is why we too believed in the Messiah, Jesus: so that we might be declared “righteous” on the basis of the Messiah’s faithfulness, and not on the basis of works of the Jewish law. On that basis, you see, no creature will be declared “righteous.” 17Well, then; if, in seeking to be declared “righteous” in the Messiah, we ourselves are found to be “sinners,” does that make the Messiah an agent of “sin”? Certainly not! 18If I build up once more the things which I tore down, I demonstrate that I am a lawbreaker. 19Let me explain it like this. Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. 20I am, however, alive— but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I don’t set aside God’s grace. If “righteousness” comes through the law, then the Messiah died for nothing. (KNT)

And this entire passage is Paul’s response to the story in Galatians 2:11-14:

11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I stood up to him face to face. He was in the wrong. 12Before certain persons came from James, Peter was eating with the Gentiles. But when they came, he drew back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcision-people. 13The rest of the Jews did the same, joining him in this play-acting. Even Barnabas was carried along by their sham. 14But when I saw that they weren’t walking straight down the line of gospel truth, I said to Cephas in front of them all: “Look here: you’re a Jew, but you’ve been living like a Gentile. How can you force Gentiles to become Jews?” (KNT)

Please note: Paul’s rather dense and hard to follow (at least for us) argument in 2:15-21 is not the answer to some abstract or complex theological question or issue that arose among his readers. It is actually a theological answer to a simple question: “Can (should) Jewish and Gentile Christians eat together at the same table?”

Peter’s error and that of the “circumcision-people” he feared, along with other Jewish believers, was that they were not yet fully grasping and living out the truth of the gospel. And that is what Paul explains in 2:15-21, using himself (as a Jewish believer) as the example.

  • Paul was Jewish by birth.
  • But Paul came to see that his identity as one of God’s people was based not on his identification with the practices of the Jewish law (as he had thought previously).
  • Instead, Paul had come to believe that he was one of the “righteous” by virtue of the Messiah’s faithfulness alone.
  • When he abandoned his Jewish identity as one righteous because marked by the law, he did not take a step backwards and fall into the category of “sinner” along with the sinful Gentile world.
  • Instead, Paul died to that old identity and took on a new identity that enabled him to “live to God.”
  • He died to his old life when he put his faith in the Messiah.
  • He was raised up into a new life in which it is the very life of the Messiah that lives in him.
  • Now Paul lives (to God), not as one marked righteous because he has the law, but because he lives within the Messiah’s loving faithfulness.
  • Paul is not about to set aside God’s grace. To go back to the law as that which marks a Jewish Christian’s identity is to do just that, and to say that Jesus’ death was meaningless.

N.T. Wright comments:

Paul’s answer to the question [raised in 2:11-14] is complex and dense, but its heart is simple. Because he, and all Jewish Christians, have “died to the law” through sharing the messianic death of Jesus, their identity now is not defined by or in terms of the Jewish law, but rather in terms of the risen life of the Messiah. The boundary marker of this messianic community is therefore not the set of observances that mark out Jews from Gentiles, but rather Jesus the Messiah, the faithful one, himself; and the way in which one is known as a member of this messianic community is thus neither more nor less than (Christian) faith.

. . . the point of justification by faith, in this context, is not to stress this soteriological aspect, but to insist that all those who share this Christian faith are members of the same single family of God in Christ and therefore belong at the same table. This is the definite, positive, and of course deeply polemical thrust of the first-ever exposition of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith. (The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology)

So then, Paul was not trying to win a theological or doctrinal argument with this intensely theological passage. He was trying to win his Gentile friends a seat at the table. He was trying to help Peter and the Galatians and everyone else who was listening understand: What makes us Christians, and what makes us one, is Jesus and his loving, faithful work on our behalf. The grace of God. Trusting and living in the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

And he was trying to help them grasp this primarily to promote love and unity, fellowship and partnership between Christians who struggled to connect and mesh with one another because of their different backgrounds.

If Paul, who described himself as: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6) — if Paul, a Jew’s Jew if there ever was one, could say, “My identity is no longer defined by observing a law that distinguishes me from those who don’t have it, but by the Messiah,” if he could make that shift and live for God by living “within the faithfulness of the Messiah,” welcoming all who trusted Jesus as his brothers and sisters, then how can I not do the same?

Isn’t it time we all kept this “life we live in the flesh” about Jesus and what he has done for us?


  1. Thanks for this, Chaplain Mike. I am in the middle of studying Galatians with my church and this is helpful context.

    For me, the challenge is in the somewhat lofty-sounding language of “I live within the faithfulness of the Son of God.” I am challenged to get a clear picture of exactly what that looks like in my day-to-day.

  2. How wonderful it is to have a fresh perspective.

    When I read the passage at the beginning, I confess that I didn’t really read it; I just skimmed. Then I read your last bullet point: The life I live now (here, in this world and in this body) is lived in the context of his faithfulness to me — the loving faithfulness that led him to die for me.

    I had to go back and reread, because I had never heard this as anything other than “The old you died when you Got Saved; you shouldn’t do XYZ anymore,” all about my faithfulness to God, rather than the other way around. Surprisingly, this ISN’T a guilt trip verse after all.

    What else have I missed?

  3. Michael Bell says

    Interesting how the translation of a single preposition can change the entire meaning of a passage. “Faith in Christ” vs “Faith of Christ”. Perhaps both are valid displaying the covenantal relationship between Christ and his Church.

    • Both are certainly true theologically, and both are affirmed in Galatians. I think Wright makes a good case for understanding it as “the faith[fulness] of Christ” in this particular passage.

      • Michael Bell says

        “I think Wright makes a good case for understanding it as “the faith[fulness] of Christ” in this particular passage.” – Agreed, fits better with the context.

  4. It’s helpful to see “law” as being “the Jewish Law” vs. a generic concept of law. Focuses and clarifies Paul’s argument. When read this way, it’s impossible to keep what Paul is saying in the realm of mere “doctrine”. That’s to miss it.

    This is NT Wright’s translation?

    • Yes, the Kingdom NT is Wright’s. And in the context, with the dispute between Paul and Peter, it has to be the Jewish law, doesn’t it?

      • Yeah, with the reference to the earlier dispute and with Paul’s overall concern in this context to “get his Gentile friends a seat at the table”, interpreting it as “Jewish law” makes sense to me – both here and elsewhere.

        I’ve come to see this “power of the law” thing as a huge concern for Paul in a different way than I once did – I guess I see it more tangibly. There is this Law that CLEARLY provides a fundamental identity to a particular people group – a foundation to keep them separate and “pure”, while also (naturally) defining who isn’t “pure” or “righteous” and is therefore “outside”. So it isn’t surprising that this purity issue with “Gentiles” would have been such a contentious one. So much is at stake! Given the tribal instincts of humanity, how does one dismantle something so pervasive and powerful to the collective consciousness? I see Paul doing that – using all sorts of metaphors and images to redefine this earlier story in light of Christ – all with the purpose of getting “his Gentile friends a seat at the table.”

  5. Yes, as the faith of Christ is essentially the whole of our faith ‘in’ him. He is after all “the author and finisher of our faith.” It’s not Him or us. It’s all Him and all us at the same time.

  6. David Cornwell says

    “Faith in Christ” vs “Faith of Christ”

    Richard B Hayes, dean of Duke Divinity School has written a book that attempts an extensive discussion of this issue. I’ve read reviews, one quite extensive, but have not as yet read the book itself, so I must be limited in my comments.

    The book is “The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11.”

    So the approach is directed at the translation and meaning of this passage, rather than the one we are looking at today, but has contextual importance.

    From Amazon, the following: “Hays shows that the framework of Paul’s thought is neither a system of doctrines nor his personal religious experience’ both of which are the most common approaches to Paul’s writing ‘but the “sacred story” of Jesus Christ. Above all, Paul’s thought is guided by his concern to draw out the implications of the gospel story, particularly how the “faith of Jesus Christ” reflects the mission of the church.”

    An extensive report on the book has been written by Chad Chambers. I think he is with the London School of Theology (perhaps a student?). It can be found in PDF form somewhere on the internet.

    Chambers considers the following conclusions:

    Galatians, since the time of Luther, has been the proof-text for those arguing that believers are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. In this argument, faith is the activity of an individual by which one secures acceptance before God. The narrative readings of Gal. 3:13-14 and 4:3-6, however, make this reading problematic because the texts do not seem to speak of pistis as a human activity or a gift given by God to humanity. Rather, pistis is the power or quality, which enables Christ to fulfill the tasks given to him by God.

    • Sounds like an interesting book.

      It’s such a delicate balance. There are larger narratives that provide essential context – err in these meta-narratives and the particulars get out of whack. And this is hard. I mean, how certain are we that we can say for sure what someone in a far different time and culture is thinking – I have communication breakdowns with the people right in front of me.

      And beyond the risk of framing these verses with the wrong meta-narrative, you have individual words – like pistis, or ”in” Christ vs. ”of” Christ – that make a huge difference, and even the finest scholars can’t agree on how to define them.

      Gotta love that Biblical perspicuity.

  7. Shouldn’t it give us pause that a man who never laid eyes on Jesus and only occasionally encountered his closest disciples (and then largely to oppose them) and who seemed singularly uninterested in Jesus’ actual deeds and words, who by his own admission received his message through personal revelation, claims to understand the real message of Jesus better than his brother and his closest disciples, the people who lived with him longest and presumably the ones who knew him best?

    • Michael Bell says

      Stephen, you obviously susbcribe to the Pauline School of sentence structure!

    • Did St. Paul say he understood the “real message of Jesus” better than the rest?

      If so, apologies to the Gnostics might be in order!

      • Well, there was Paul’s argument with Peter, mentioned above.

      • This is one of the reasons I think it’s important to maintain that Paul did actually visually see Jesus, in person, in his glorified state. At the moment of his conversion, he had a real, though extraordinary, experience within space-time. Not, as I’ve often heard, some sort of “spiritual” revelation without body, shape, or form. As if it merely some sort of inner voice followed by a profound mental change. This is what separates Paul’s ‘revelation’ from the gnostics.

    • It’s really no more out of line than the uneducated son of a common laborer claiming to understand the Torah and the writings of the prophets better than the religious scholars of his day — or a whole bunch of uneducated second-class Galilean Jews challenging those same religious scholars by claiming that the uneducated son of a common laborer was the Son of God. Tranforming the Gospel’s most bitter antagonist into its foremost proponent just sounds like business as usual for a God who gets a kick out of standing everything on its head.

    • This seems like an interesting point to me, Stephen. I’m very far from being a theologian, but I do see that many fundamentalist folks pay a lot more attention to Paul’s words than to Jesus’ words. I’ve even read some comments that imply Paul’s words would take precedence over those of Jesus, because Paul’s writings were produced earlier than the Gospels, and therefore are more likely to be “true Christianity.” I need to think about this more, perhaps.

      I’ve also read writings by Christians that say that Jesus words were just the standard prophetic sentiments, expressed by most religious leaders including say, Buddha. In the opinion of those people, Jesus’ *real* importance was to die for the sins of mankind — and what He said before the Crucifixion was more-or-less standard-issue teachings for an inspired leader.

      • Jesus, not Paul, is the exact representation of the Father, the invisible God.

        • But we only know of Jesus through the mediation of other human beings words. Paul gives his interpretation of Jesus in the Epistles, and the Gospel writers give their interpretation of Jesus through the narration of the Gospels. It’s a mistake to think that we have an unmediated, uninterpreted presentation of Jesus or his words in the Gospels. The individual Gospel writers shaped their narratives to convey theological perspectives as much as Paul does his Epistles. Paul wrote his letters earlier than the Gospel writers wrote the Gospels, though it’s likely that they both were familiar with, and working from, the same stock of oral stories and written fragments that existed before the Gospels or the letters. If Paul does not refer to the words and actions of Jesus as much as we think he should, it’s probably because he assumed familiarity with the body of oral stories, and some of the written fragments, among those whom he was addressing.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > It’s a mistake to think that we have an unmediated, uninterpreted
            > presentation of Jesus or his words in the Gospels.


            A Jesus-Shaped Christianity is *still* A-Jesus-Via-Mediation-Shaped Christianity.

    • I think it’s a a shaky argument to say that Paul was not that interested in Jesus’ actual words and deeds. It’s just that he didn’t quote the Gospels. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t interested in his words and deeds. The expectations and standards of Paul seem to be pretty consistent with those of Jesus.

      • The unwarranted assumption persists that the Gospel writers were closer to the “real” words and actions of Jesus than Paul, and that the Gospels writers did less theologizing when writing the Gospels than Paul did when writing the Epistles. This is a very traditional idea, but it’s not grounded in what we know about the history in which the New Testament took shape. Paul was as close or closer to the events of Jesus’ life than the Gospel writers were, Paul would of necessity have had to have been very familiar with many or most of same traditions about Jesus that the Gospel writers worked were, and, as you’ve pointed out, Paul does not contradict the content of the Gospels. The idea that the Gospels give us the pure, unadulterated words and actions of Jesus, without theological spin, while Paul doesn’t, is pure nonsense. Both give us Jesus interpreted.

        • It may very well have been that Paul knew more about the biographical particulars of Jesus’ life than the Gospel writers did, in the historical sense.

      • Here’s some of what Luke Timothy Johnson has to say about the relationship between Epistles and Gospels in his book The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels :

        “To summarize…I list here the points about Jesus made by New Testament writing other than the Gospels…:

        1. Jesus was a human person (Paul, Hebrews)
        2. Jesus was a Jew (Paul, Hebrews)
        3 Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (Hebrews)
        4. Jesus was a descendant of David (Paul)
        5. Jesus’ mission was to the Jews (Paul)
        6. Jesus was a teacher (Paul, James)
        7. Jesus was tested (Hebrews)
        8. Jesus prayed using the word Abba (Paul)
        9. Jesus prayed for deliverance from death (Hebrews)
        10. Jesus suffered (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)
        11. Jesus interpreted his last meal with reference to his death (Paul…)
        12. Jesus underwent a trial (Paul)
        13. Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate (Paul)
        14. Jesus’ end involved some Jews (Paul)
        15, Jesus was crucified (Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter)
        16. Jesus was buried (Paul)
        17. Jesus appeared to witness after his death (Paul)

        The most striking omission from this list is any omission of Jesus’ wonder-working…The reason may be that the New Testament epistolary literature’s focus is on the ‘signs and wonders’ worked through the Power of the Holy Spirit…in the present community., rather than those worked by Jesus in the past. It is also noteworthy that the largest number of these points clusters around the final part of Jesus’ story. To repeat, non-narrative New Testament writings datable with some degree of probability before the year 70 testify to traditions circulating within the Christian movement concerning Jesus that correspond to important points within the Gospel narratives. Such traditions do not, by themselves, demonstrate historicity. But they indicate that memories concerning Jesus were in fairly wide circulation. This makes it less likely that the corresponding points in the Gospels were the invention of a single author or group. If that were the case, then such invention would have to be early enough and and authoritative enough to have been widely distributed and unchallenged across the diverse communities with which Paul dealt.”

        Notice how Johnson uses the Epistles to corroborate the authenticity of Gospel traditions, rather than vice versa; this is how it should be, since the Epistles were composed first, and their composition is less textually and historically complicated (for the most part). When we think and speak otherwise, we are not doing so in a way disciplined by the findings of scholarship.

        • Corrections:

          1) 17. Jesus appeared to witnesses after his death (Paul)

          2) …any mention of Jesus’ wonder-working….

  8. Incredibly beautiful photograph, Chaplain Mike.

  9. I honestly don’t get the part about Psul abandoning his Jewish idrntity. Did he come to understand that differently? Sure. But “abandon” it? No – he still fadted, took a Nazitite vow at one point, refers to himself as a Pharisee, etc.

    That he firmly believed thst gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus… well, yes. But i don’t think that Paul ever gave up his own practice of Judaism, nor that doing so eould even have made much srnse to him.

  10. I look at this episode in Galatians thru the eyes of my grandfather, who would have been appalled at the idea of sitting at the same table as a black person, or as he would have referred to them a “nigra”. Would have been an abomination to him, no way he ever could have been convinced otherwise, he just had to die for things to move on. That is probably much how the Jews from Jerusalem felt about sharing a table with the Greeks.

    From the other side, the Greeks probably felt much like I did when refused communion at a church I won’t stir up sidetracks by naming here. It is an awful feeling. Those who support closed communion and back it up with theological justifications are hand in glove with those Jerusalem Jews and my grandfather.

    This muist have happened fairly early on in the story of the spreading church. Galatians supposedly was written before Paul’s other letters and it had already happened by then. I’m guessing that Paul’s dense way of dealing with it was in part because this was the first time he was thinking this thru like this. The table business doesn’t seem to come up again, tho the Jewish/Gentile divide in general continues, maybe much like our own American racial divide continues after the civil rights dust settled.

    We have been parroting Paul’s pronouncement on justification by faith now for 500 years and maybe only lately starting to gain some understanding of what Paul intended thru N.T.Wright and others. At least we stopped killing each other over it. I’m guessing Paul might have been horrified to think that wars would be fought over his words by folks that maybe didn’t even understand what they meant. Part of that may be the intellectual and legal approach Paul often took to life situations, and if anything the Protestant Reformation might be characterized as an intellectual and legal approach to God and the world.

    • I think a ‘new perspective’ reading of Galatians (in particular) gives us a much more relevant book than one that sees it as about justification by faith versus works. I don’t find justification to be much of an issue in most churches (reformed Baptists excepted!, and I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone, even a non-Christian, who was trying to earn salvation or thought they had become worthy of it). However, issues like those you mentioned are still alive and well. Galatians, when understood from the ‘new perspective’ has much to say about those issues, as well as those closer to home – e.g. who is really a Christian? with whom can I have fellowship? how do I treat those whose theology isn’t exactly like mine. Having spent 30 years in fundamentalist circles (even those labelled ‘evangelical’) I can tell you that those are live issues.

      • I think those who pit the Gospels against Paul’s Epistles are making a mistake. Both the Epistles and the Gospels mediate the life and words of Jesus to us through the theological concerns of members of the Christian community. To think that the Gospels present the unmediated, uninterpreted words and actions of Jesus is naive; they theologically shape his story and words as much as Paul does. They are not biography, and they do not quote Jesus in the way a modern biography or a newspaper story quotes; to think so is an anachronism on our part.

      • I also believe that there’s no reason to think that Paul and the Gospel writers weren’t working from substantially the same stock of oral tradition and written fragments when they wrote their texts; I think that Paul assumed that the Christian communities to which he was addressing his letters were already familiar with this body of tradition. If he didn’t spend much time referring to the words and actions of Jesus, it’s because his goals in writing the letters were very different from those of the Gospel writers. Where he does refer to the life and teaching of Jesus, nothing he says is in conflict with what the Gospel writers say; and where he refers to the narrative core of the Christian story, the suffering Servant who gave up his life for the redemption of Israel, and the world, he recapitulates in brief the same pattern that they convey.

        I think it’s this narrative pattern of the suffering Servant that arose out of Jesus’ life that really is the center of the Christian story, along with the Christian community’s experience of the resurrected Jesus. Both Paul and the Gospel writers use this narrative pattern and its content to express their theological concerns and perspectives to the rest of the community; neither the Gospels nor the Epistles are uninterpreted, unmediated accounts of Jesus’ life and words: they would be pretty useless to us as a resurrection community if they were. If you want evidence of that, take a look at the Jefferson Bible, or Crossan’s The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images. Both are interesting, but by wrenching Jesus words’, and even his parables, from the narrative sweep that the Gospels and the Epistles communicate, assume and build on, they diminish their power and singularity.

  11. I. Father, hallowed be your name.
    II. Your holy spirit come upon us and cleanse us.
    III. Give us each day our daily bread.
    IV. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    V. And do not lead us into temptation.

  12. OT, slightly continued from yesterday.

    How many verses in the Bible, in the original Greek at least, clearly show the Holy Spirit as a distinct separate person or part of the Godhead. Obviously the classical “in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit”, but there’s also verses about “the Spirit of Christ” and “only one Spirit” and stuff.

    Musing question: have bad translations and incomplete manuscripts led us to believe that the Holy Spirit is a distinct separate part of God, it’s own entity/person, when the scriptures could just as easily read “The Spirit of Jesus”, and collectively refer to the Spirit as the ideas and beliefs and philosphies and love of Jesus?

    looking at these two things, if that helps:

    • Stuart, sll of the passage latemin yhe Gospel of John where Jesus spesks of the Holy Spirit are pretty crucial to the thinking behind early Trinitarian ideas and beliefs, though thd differences over the details were many. (And disputes sometimes turned bloody.) The Nicene Creed was the result of many attempts to come up with a desvription that most people could live with. (The political machinations were and still are hortible, though.)

      If you want to get a better understanding, you will ptobably have to invest some time in reading early church history, as well as some of the Church Fathers.