Coming alongside the Galatian congregation so as to listen in as Paul’s letter is read to them, we hear “We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. But if while seeking to be justified in Christ we ourselves have also been found to be sinners, is Christ then one who encourages sin? Absolutely not! But if I build up again those things I once destroyed,” which would be the covenant markers that served as barriers between Jew and Gentile, that were used to exclude Gentiles from the covenant rather than being used to reveal the Creator God, and stood in the way of God’s people fulfilling His purposes for them and for the world, “I demonstrate that I am one who breaks God’s law” (2:15-18).
What law does Paul here have in mind that is being flouted and broken by this separating activity and all that it implies? Though it will not be on offer for a few more chapters, what we can confidently assert that Paul has in mind is “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). Surely, the actions of Peter and those that were carried away by his hypocrisy does not live up to this ideal.
Predictably, the conclusion Paul draws from this has him saying “I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness,” that is, the right standing with God that results from being justified (included in the people of God based on belief in Jesus and His ultimate faithfulness to God’s purposes as He stood in for Israel and for all of humanity, experiencing the ultimate curse of death and subsequently overcoming that curse), “could come through the law,” or if the status of justified could be attained by all peoples through the adherence to the old covenant markers, “then Christ died for nothing!” (2:21)
Clearly, Paul has reflected on the actions of Peter and other members of the church at Antioch (earlier in the letter) for a specific purpose. The members of the congregation of Christ-followers in Galatia were behaving in similar ways (separating from Gentiles at the meal table), operating with similar thoughts, and allowing a similar message in regards to the necessity of the old covenant markers to be promulgated. Paul cannot abide this, especially considering the fact that he firmly believes that such teaching and actions, the thinking that undergirds said teaching and actions, and what results from such teaching and actions, results in the dismissal of the death of Christ. If the death of Christ is emptied of its value, then the Resurrection also is emptied of its value, the new creation has not begun, there is no kingdom of God in existence, Jesus is not the Lord of all to whom all must submit, there is no Gospel message, God is not faithful to His promises, the history of Israel has been nothing more than a pointless exercise in futility, all his labor has been done in vain, and death wins.
Considering that, Paul’s response to the Galatians is quite predictable. He writes “You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or be believing what you heard?” (3:1-2) Paul asks them if they are participating in the new creation (Spirit is often Paul’s shorthand for the age of new creation and that which attends it, just as “flesh” is often Paul’s shorthand for the old age, though Spirit can and should be here understood as the work of the Spirit of God to convince them that a crucified and resurrected Man was now Lord of all) via their belief in Jesus as Lord (the Gospel) or via their adherence to the old covenant markers? He continues with, “Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?” (3:3) This is another contrast between the new covenant marker and the old covenant markers.
Maintaining his thoughts along the same lines, we go on to hear Paul ask “Have you suffered so many things for nothing?---if indeed it was for nothing” (3:4). This suffering may have been the social ostracizing that they would have experienced outside the church because of the new demands placed on them by their oath of loyalty to Jesus and the new way of living that it demanded (rejection of civic activities in honor of the gods, the Caesar, or the empire, and therefore being perceived as contributors to disunity, disorder, and disharmony, which could also lead to an inability to access food and various public goods). He also asks, “Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you,” which, within the context provided, is the inclusion of Gentiles within the fold of the covenant people, with walls of separation between Jew and Gentile eliminated in a way that would see them openly and freely sharing meal tables without division---a miracle indeed, especially in a world that divided itself along a number of lines “by doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?” (3:4-5)