I just wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves. Galatians 5:12 (NLT)
What we read in God’s Message can easily be confusing without the historical context. Paul’s letter to the Jesus followers in Galatia is a great example.
At the time Paul was writing his letter, the rite of circumcision in which the foreskin of the male penis is cut off and removed had been part of the Jewish religion for over a thousand years. The tradition dated back to the days of Abraham in the book of Genesis. In the early days of Christianity there was a huge debate raging whether you could be a follower of Jesus without keeping the labyrinth of Jewish laws, rules and regulations such as circumcision. Because Jesus and all of the disciples had been Jews, many were teaching that following Jesus required converting to Judaism with all of its requisites, including circumcision.
Paul had gone to Galatia and taught the message of Jesus which is actually very simple: turn away from your wrong doing, believe in Jesus and invite Him into your heart and life. Then, follow Jesus teachings and love others. Many in Galatia believed and there was a growing group of Jesus followers in the town. Paul left to go to other cities and in his absence some men came to town claiming to be of greater authority than Paul. They started telling all the Jesus followers that they were required to convert fully to Judaism. All the men who believed in Jesus would have to have the foreskins of their penises cut off.
Paul was righteously ticked off. In fact, the English translators who translated what we read from the original Greek language in which Paul wrote are always so careful with the verse above. In the original Greek, what Paul is really saying is “I wish those who are teaching that you have to be circumcised would go all out. They shouldn’t stop with the foreskin of the penis, they should go ahead and castrate themselves.”
We can scarcely imagine what huge theological issues the early church grappled with as those who followed Jesus differentiated themselves from the Jewish traditions from which they emerged. The entire letter Paul writes to the Jesus followers in Galatia is about this one major theme. Jewish tradition was about zealously keeping all the rules of the law of Moses. It was a system built on rules, rites and sacrifice. Paul is telling them to forget the letter of the law and focus on the Spirit of the law: love God, love others.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We no longer have these same theological conflicts, but the heart of the conflict remains. People still like to make faith in Jesus about keeping rules and regulations so as to appear righteous before others. Just last night I had a conversation with my daughter who has been recently chastised by someone for not toeing the line of their religious rules. My advice to her came right from Paul’s letter: Follow Jesus and choose love.
I didn’t add “let the religious rule police go castrate themselves”….but I thought it. Like Paul, I felt a little ticked.