If God Lives Inside Us (or, when Paul called Peter out for being a Mean Girl)
I watched the television show Saturday Night Live just about every week in the early 1990s, one of its best eras, in my opinion. One of the regular features was “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy.” Jack Handy would read a pithy statement as its text scrolled across the screen, set to some relaxing piano music and an image of various nature scenes in the background—a beach, some mountains, etc.
The thoughts were all farcical. One of the most memorable ones was,
If God lives inside us, like some people say, I sure hope he likes enchiladas, because that’s what he’s getting.
The apostle Paul is one of those people who says God lives inside us. Jack Handy implicitly raises the question—what does that really mean?
Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This is one of the most theologically dense parts of Galatians, especially so far. What does it mean that Christ lives in me?
In this post I’ll offer an attempt at answering that question, based on my sermon last Sunday. To that end I’ve reproduced the text of Galatians 2:11-21 with my comments below.
The play-by-play: high school cafeteria and (almost) Matt Damon-style
Gal 2:11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
One writer notes that this phrase Paul uses, “opposed him to his face,” is used in the Old Testament for situations where a people successfully wards off an invading army. Paul looks at Peter as an imperial oppressor. Translation: Paul’s getting ready to throw down.
Gal 2:12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
It’s like the high school cafeteria all over again! You’re willing to sit with the kids at the awkward people table, until someone you’re trying to impress comes along and sees you, then all of a sudden… “I’m not sitting here! These aren’t my people!”
It’s a similar dynamic here. Some men came from James, one of the big leaders in the Christian church in Jerusalem. All of a sudden, Peter is afraid to eat with Gentiles. There were Jewish purity laws on the books that called for Jew and Gentile to eat separately, but in Christ, Jew and Gentile were supposed to already be one at this point. Which is why Peter was eating with them in the first place.
So Paul calls him out for changing on that:
Gal 2:14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
How can you make people follow what you yourself don’t follow, Paul says? They were “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” I love this—the Gospel, according to Paul, is not just something you believe. Not just a set of propositions, though it does include that. It’s a way of life! And Peter is not living that life here.
This is Peter! You may know him from such works as 1 Peter… and 2 Peter. He’s a big deal:
If look back at Galatians 1:8, Paul has said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” Even if we or an angel from heaven… or the apostle Peter should preach a gospel other than the one we preached…! Strong words for Peter here. You get the sense this is about to turn into a Matt Damon action movie.
Gal 2:15 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
This “Gentile sinners” is sarcastic. Of course, Paul is saying, we’re all sinners. We all fall short of God’s standards.
But we are not made right with God by what we do. We’ve already seen Paul address this as a major theme in the letter. The grace of God in Christ wasn’t enough for the Galatians, who were being led astray by other teachers. They wanted to add to the requirements one had to fulfill to get right with God.
Three times in verse 16 Paul says—not justified by observing the law. We’re not reconciled with God that way. Three times in verse 16 Paul says, it’s by “faith in Jesus” that we can stand before God.
Gal 2:17 “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.
The law, in other words, is dead to me. Requirements of ritual, keeping days like the Sabbath—Paul will say elsewhere those are still good things! They’re just not what justifies a person—makes a person right—before God.
An answer for Jack Handy
20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Again, a person isn’t righteous—or made right, holy—because of things they’ve done; it’s because of what Jesus has done.
And here we’re back to Jack Handy—“If God lives inside us, like some people say….”
What is Paul getting at?
What he doesn’t mean is that we’re robots, somehow brainwashed, sterilized, and taken over by some sort of Divine Control. We still have personality. We still have these bodies. These bodies are good—all that God has created is good.
But we also know that these bodies and these personalities aren’t all that they could be.
There is the story of John Newton—a sailor and slave trader in the 18th and early 19th century. He talked about sinning “with a high hand.” “I made it my study,” he said, “to tempt and seduce others” to sin.
After a dramatic conversion on a boat that was fast filling with water in the middle of the night, Newton went on to become an Anglican clergyman and slave trade abolitionist. And he gave us one of the best-known and well-loved hymns of all time: “Amazing Grace.”
“I am not what I might be,” he once wrote, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be; but I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.'”
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
Even if we don’t have a story as dramatic as Paul’s or John Newton’s, we who have turned to Jesus can say with Newton, “I once was blind, but now I see.” “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live”—it’s the death of the “old me.”
“Out with the old, in with the new.” As one commentator puts it, “The old life of self-effort has been condemned and put on the cross.”
To put it another way (as this truth has captivated musicians and lyricists throughout the ages): “My sin… not in part, but the whole… is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more!”
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.
But I’m not dead—there’s still a self here. It’s just a self that Christ inhabits, lives in. Christ lives in me.
Samuel Ngewa, a Kenyan seminary professor, writes, “This experience is difficult to define…But the meaning is clear. Christ so dominates Paul’s whole experience that Christ-likeness is all that is seen in him.”
Christ lives in me.
Having been changed by grace, we are transformed by Jesus, inside and out. Christ lives in us, and “Christ-likeness is all that is seen in [us].”
But it’s not just personal!
Looking at the rest of Gal. 2:20: The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Faith is personal, on the one hand—I believe the promises of Jesus. I believe that what God says about himself is true. I believe that what God says God will do… God will do.
And to live life by faith is a highly social activity, too. It’s not just “Jesus and Me.”
Remember that Paul’s theologizing here arose out of that high school cafeteria lunch scene—Peter was not living out the Gospel in his interactions with others.
To “live by faith in the Son of God” means to live by faith in my interactions with others. It means to remember that Christ lives in me and to live like it!
One of the ways I’ve tried to do that is through short phrases I call to mind, prayers I pray in the midst of a situation that calls for faith.
Alcoholic Anonymous arms themselves does a similar thing (and they do it well), using short phrases in the time of struggle. “Easy Does It.” “First Things First.” “One Day at a Time.”
Here are some others, as we try to live life by faith in Jesus: “Lord, show me your will.” Or maybe God’s will seems to be clear in a situation, so we’d do better to pray, “Not my will but yours be done.”
Or just a simple, “Jesus, you live in me.” A prayer of affirmation to God that is also a reminder of who I am. “Jesus, you live in me.”
“God, please give me strength.”
Many other short go-to prayers we could commit to pray—perhaps starting this week.
Because we have been crucified with Christ, it is not just we who live, but Christ-in-us. We have been transformed through and through.
This is the Gospel that Paul so eagerly upholds in Galatians. This is the Gospel he calls them to, that in those moments when they are tempted to rely on what they can do in a given situation, they would call instead on Jesus, who lives in them, who has saved them, and who continues his saving work each day.
The Revised Common Lectionary is going through Galatians in six weeks, and I’m preaching on it. See my first Galatians post (Your Grace is Enough?) on Galatians 1:11-12 here. My second (Your Christian testimony has no shock value? No matter–it’s still compelling) is on Galatians 1:11-24, and is found here.