Commentary on Galatians 3:28-29

Concordia Publishing House is pleased to announce the release of its twenty-sixth volume in the Concordia Commentary series: Galatians, by Dr. A. Andrew Das. What follows is Dr. Das’s commentary on Galatians 3:28 and 29.

All One in Christ Jesus by Baptism (3:26–29)

Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul heralds the benefits of Baptism in 3:28 with a proclamation of the unity of humanity in Christ. No longer is there Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. The Greco-Roman world was intensely hierarchical. The ancients celebrated and coveted the honor associated with superior status, even though that status was set, in large measure, from birth. Diogenes Laertius in antiquity attributed to the philosophers Socrates and Thales this thanksgiving: “There were three blessings for which he was grateful to Fortune: ‘first, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian’ ” (Vit. Phil. [Thales] 1.33; Hicks, LCL]). Plutarch attributes to Plato similar language. Even the Jews celebrated status in a threefold classification of their own. According to the fifth-century AD Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Judah said: “[A Jewish man] must recite three blessings every day: ‘Praised are you, O Lord, who has not made me a gentile,’ ‘Praised are you, O Lord, who did not make me a boor,’ and ‘Praised are you, O Lord, who did not make me a woman’ ” (b. Menaḥ. 43b, citing t. Ber. 6.18a; trans. J. Neusner). In the Jewish morning prayer: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a heathen. Blessed art thou … , who hast not made me a bondman [slave]. Blessed art thou … , who hast not made me a woman.”[1]

The free Jewish male found justification for these distinctions in the Law of Moses. The Law distinguished the male, who could observe God’s commandments fully throughout the entirety of a month, from the woman, who could not (Lev 15:19). The Jewish historian Josephus was blunter: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man” (Ag. Ap. 2.24 § 201; Thackeray, LCL). Likewise the slave or uncircumcised gentile was limited in ability to observe the Law. The distinctions of Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female were the product of the covenant of circumcision in Gen 17:9–14. Circumcision reinforced the boundary between Jew and Greek, the distinction between men and women, and the freedom to observe the Law fully. Paul announces that the era of such divisions is over! No longer do these distinctions hinder an individual from being a full member of God’s people. The privileges “in Christ” are not hierarchically ranked. No Christian believer is second class. “Baptism into Christ provides for a unity that cannot be realized in a circumcised community.”[2]

The final clause of 3:28 explains in what respect the relationships of Jew/Greek, slave/free, and male/female are abolished: “for [γάρ] you are all one [person] in Christ.” Paul employs the masculine form of “one” (εἷς) rather than the neuter (ἕν). Baptized believers are incorporated into a oneness with the person of Christ himself. In Christ is a new humanity, a new creation (6:15; see also Rom 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15). Paul finally resolves the central problem of Galatians 3. He finally explains how believers enjoy the benefits of Abrahamic sonship. The beneficiary of the Abrahamic promises is Christ alone (Gal 3:15–17). The baptized are “one” in and with Christ and thereby enjoy the promises and status of God’s children (3:28).

Many interpreters have read 3:28 as if Paul had written “you are all equal in Christ.” Many have considered 3:28 a “Magna Carta” for a new humanity in which the differences between men and women, slave and free, and Jew and Greek are abolished. Paul the apocalyptic thinker envisions a new age in Christ and his Spirit which invades and abolishes the distinctions of “the present evil age” (1:4). Nevertheless, that change of the eras is not yet fully realized. An “already–not yet” tension characterizes Paul’s thought. Where exactly is the emphasis to be placed? On the “already” side of the equation or on the “not yet”? In 3:28 the apostle is stressing the state of affairs that exists now in Christ. Thus the verse closes “you are all one in Christ”—present tense. Baptized believers are already enjoying these benefits.

Paul offers clues within the letter and elsewhere in his writings for the potential social implications of the pairings in 3:28. With respect to the Jew-Greek distinction, Paul does not envision Jews abandoning their ancestral rites. Paul did not cease being a Jew (Gal 2:15; Phil 3:3–8). When Paul asks in Rom 3:1 whether there is any remaining advantage in being a Jew, he responds in Rom 3:2 that there are indeed advantages. He develops his logic in greater detail in Romans 9–11. In Paul’s metaphor in Romans 11 gentiles, as outsiders, are grafted onto the olive tree that represents Israel’s unique heritage. Likewise in Galatians, Paul refers to the gentile believers as members of the Jerusalem above (4:21–31). The difference between Jew and gentile is not erased. Gentiles join God’s people as gentiles (see, e.g., 2:3, 11–14), and yet they must be incorporated into the heritage and blessings of Abraham.

Neither does Paul abolish the distinction between slave and master. Although the presence of faith has radically modified the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, Paul does not demand that Philemon release Onesimus. Slaves, if not offered their freedom, should stay where they are (1 Cor 7:17). At the same time, Paul is clear that the relationship between master and slave has been radically transformed by the presence of Christ. The master and the slave who are both Christian are dear siblings within the family of God. In Gal 4:1–7 Paul draws on the concepts of slavery and freedom in order to identify whether a person is enjoying the benefits of Christ and his Spirit, or whether he or she still remains under the oppressive powers of the Law, sin, and this evil age. Paul urges the Galatians to use their freedom “through love” to become enslaved to each other (5:13).

Paul breaks the pattern for the third pair: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female.” “Male and female” (ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ) is not the normal way of identifying men and women. These words seem to focus on gender distinction. Some have argued that Paul envisions an abolition of such distinctions entirely. Surely the biological difference between men and women is not thereby abolished. The Greek Septuagint of Genesis offers a helpful clue: God made humanity “male and female” (ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ) in Gen 1:27, before the fall into sin. An allusion to the Genesis creation account here is rendered more likely by Paul’s later mention of the dawning “new creation” in 6:14–15. In Mk 10:6–8 (|| Mt 19:4–5; cf. Mk 12:25) Jesus interprets Genesis’ “male and female” (Gen 1:27; see also Gen 2:24) in terms of marriage. In Mt 22:30 Jesus explains that after the resurrection the relationships between men and women will not be the same. Although for Paul marriage is clearly optional in 1 Corinthians 7, marriage remains a godly state. Paul does not envision an abandonment of male and female roles, as if believers would no longer be husbands and wives. The remainder of the Pauline corpus does not bear out an abolition of the created differences between men and women.

One recent interpreter, Brigitte Kahl, has contended that Paul in his letter to the Galatians is undermining any hierarchy of gender. Paul draws on the language of the male body, such as “foreskin” (ἀκροβυστία, 2:7; 5:6; 6:15) and “seed” (σπέρμα, 3:16, 19, 29), and then declares that there is “no male and female” (3:28). He describes himself as a mother giving birth (4:19). Kahl’s observations, however, do not prove that Paul is particularly concerned with the respective roles of men and women. Most of the apostle’s emphases highlight circumcision and the Jew/gentile divide, the central issues in the letter. The image of Paul as a mother giving birth paves the way for the discussion of Sarah and Hagar in the following paragraph, in which Paul makes no particular point about gender roles. Instead he contrasts two Jerusalems, one under the Law and in servitude and the other free (Gal 4:21–31).

Other interpreters have taken the opposite extreme and have limited the application of Paul’s words “male and female” to justification or salvation in Christ. They have denied any social implications in 3:28 at all. However, Paul posits a new pair of opposites in 5:6 that reminds the reader of 3:28: “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision.” The apostle envisions powerful social implications for those “in Christ” (3:28). That pair of opposites is done away with in favor of “faith expressing itself through love” (5:6). In other words, the divisions of 3:28 and 5:6 are resolved through faith’s loving expression. In 6:15 the apostle returns to “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision” as replaced by the “new creation.” Sandwiched between these two instances of the circumcision/uncircumcision pairing (5:6; 6:15) is a middle section, 5:13–6:10, in which Paul develops more fully the social implications of the “new creation.” In that section Paul envisions people filled by God’s Spirit who express the Spirit’s fruit of Christ-like behavior in love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, and more. Paul is not envisioning a revolution of society from without. He imagines something far more powerful. He is envisioning a transformation of fallen people from within, and that transformation leads any given societal relationship into a new Christ-like direction. The master-slave relationship may not be abolished, but the way the master and the slave relate to each other will be transformed by the presence of Christ and the Spirit’s fruit in action. Likewise, the roles of men and women may not be abolished, but the relationship of husband and wife will be characterized by the presence of Christ and the Spirit’s selfless fruit in action. Such Christ-like behavior is far more revolutionary than this present age can even imagine.

For Paul, male and female are one person in Jesus Christ. They do not lose their individual identities but share in the identity and personhood of Christ. As individuals, the believer bears Christ to the world. This is also a corporate identity. Paul does not countenance isolated individualism. All believers, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social class, are one person in Jesus Christ. “You are all” (3:28) stands in contrast to the distinctions in the first part of the verse. Believers all share in a new identity as they together bear Christ to the world. Paul will continue this train of thought in Galatians 5 and 6, where he returns to the pairs of opposites that are done away with in Christ. Abolishing the old division of circumcision and uncircumcision is the new reality in Christ and his Spirit. Christians are simply a different sort of people.

Galatians 3:29

And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. Paul brings together key strands from the chapter. Although the phrase “sons of Abraham” would match Paul’s reasoning in 3:7 and in 4:1–7, in 3:29 the apostle returns instead to the “seed of Abraham” (τοῦ Ἀβραὰμ σπέρμα). In 3:16 Paul introduces “seed” language only surprisingly to deny corporate Israel as Abraham’s seed in favor of the single person of Jesus Christ. The polemical edge about Paul’s denial in 3:16 suggests that the rivals probably introduced the phrase “seed of Abraham” to the Galatians. Similarly, in 3:7 Paul answers a question he had not himself asked regarding the identity of the real sons of Abraham. That verse too seems to be a response to someone else’s point. The rivals would have been pointing to the OT Septuagint, in which “seed of Abraham” functions as a synonym for the people of Israel (2 Chr 20:7; Ps 104:6 [MT/ET 105:6]; Is 41:8; cf. Rom 11:1; 2 Cor 11:22).The rivals were encouraging the Galatians to accept circumcision and thereby become members of “Abraham’s seed” and children.

Paul affirms that the promises were to Abraham and to his single offspring, Christ (Gal 3:15–18). Baptized believers are “one (person)” “in” Christ (3:28). Paul therefore declares that those who are “of Christ” are the corporate seed of Abraham and the heirs of the promises (3:29).To be in Christ, Abraham’s sole Seed and heir (3:16), is to enjoy all the privileges of Abrahamic descent. Thus even gentiles can enjoy those privileges through Baptism and faith. Paul emphasizes the Galatians’ inclusion with the emphatic second person pronoun (ὑμεῖς): “If you are Christ’s.”The conditional sentence calls on the Galatians to recognize for themselves the reality of the protasis (εἰ, “if …”). God entered into a special relationship with his people Israel. In Ex 19:5: “You shall be for me a treasured possession out of all the peoples” (cf. Deut 29:12–13 [MT 29:11–12]). In Deut 27:9: “This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God.” The prophet Jeremiah looked forward to a new covenant: “At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people” (Jer 31:1). Jewish literature regularly extols the special relationship between God and Israel (e.g., 1 En. 1.8; 1Q22 II.1: “On this day [you are going to become the peo]ple of God, your God” [trans. F. García Martínez]; 1QM XIII.9: “You, [have crea]ted [us] for you, eternal people” [trans. F. García Martínez]; 1Q34bis 3.II.5: “You have chosen a people in the period of your favour” [trans. F. García Martínez]; 1QS IV.19–23; Jub. 1.22–25). The apostle is clear that that special relationship is only enjoyed by those “of Christ” (Gal 3:29)!

Not surprisingly, key terms from throughout the chapter recur at this climactic moment, including “Abraham” (see 3:6–9) and the Abrahamic “promise” (see 3:8). The emphatic “according to the promise” entails an implicit contrast with the Law of Moses, another key aspect of the chapter. Paul introduces the “inheritance” and Jesus Christ as the one and only heir of Abraham in 3:15, 17, and 18 and returns to the theme with “heirs” here. The heir of Abraham is the “Seed,” Jesus Christ (3:16), and thus in 3:29 those “of Christ” are the “seed of Abraham” and “heirs” “according to the promise.” The “then” (ἄρα) in the middle of the verse is a conclusion not only to the conditional sentence of 3:29 but also to the chapter as a whole. The Law is unable to mediate the blessings of the Abrahamic inheritance, which are available only in Christ. There is no middle ground between Paul and his rivals.The Galatians “in Christ Jesus” (3:28) are the true descendants of Abraham. As co-heirs and sons with Christ, they enjoy the promise. Paul is clear in 3:14 that the Abrahamic promise entails the powerful Spirit. God has sent his Spirit into their hearts (4:6).The Galatians are not just the descendants of Abraham. They are the children of God (3:26)!

[1] S[imeon] Singer, trans., The Authorised Daily Prayer Book (15th ed.; London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1935), 5–6.

[2] Troy W. Martin, “The Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17:9–14) and the Situational Antitheses in Galatians 3:28.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 124.

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This excerpt has been amended from the original manuscript. Some footnotes have been omitted. From Concordia Commentary: Galatians, pages 383–90 © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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