Life and Death in the Writings of Paul: Foundations for Understanding Galatians1
Developed by Bob Young

The purpose of this essay is to survey the ways in which Paul uses the concepts of life and death in the New Testament, in order to provide some background for the study of life and death concepts in Galatians. The primary focus will be on Paul's references to life and death as they are applied to Jesus as the framework in which we can understand our own life and death issues as Christians. Our procedure will be (1) to introduce briefly the concept of life as used in the New Testament, (2) to survey Paul's use of the concept (word), and (3) to explore the applications to various passages in Galatians.

(1) References to life occur in all the NT books. John and Paul most clearly express to doctrine of life. NT references are generally thought to reflect OT, late Jewish, and Greek elements. The Synoptics reflect the OT view of life more than other NT literature. In contrast to the present (physical) life there is the life to come (cf. Mk. 10:30 and 1 Tim. 4:8). This is eternal life (cf. Matt. 19:16; Mark 10:17; Lk. 18:18; Matt. 25:46; 1 Tim. 1:10). Paul refers to immortality. References to the future life do not depreciate the value of present life. In fact, the present life and the future life are shown are correlative.

(2) Paul's view of life is obviously rooted in the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:4) which provides the power of divine life over death (Rom. 14:9). Christ embodies the power of divine life by conquering death and raising the dead (2 Cor. 13:4). Christ authors life through his own death and resurrection. Christians who participate in this newly authored life (more than physical life) do so by the life of Christ (Gal. 2:20). The life, death and resurrection of Christ are mere metaphors to describe our own life, death, and resurrection spiritually. For Paul, the process can occur only through participation with Christ in the process, and in one sense, we go through his process. Christ is the reason for our life (he justifies our life, Rom. 5:18) and he saves us (which means that we get a new life, Rom. 5:10). The life of Christ is mediated to Christians not as a power (the Gnostic view) or in some mystical union, but by the word of life (Phil. 2:16, cf. 2 Tim. 1:10 again, also Tit. 1:2f) and by the quickening Spirit (Rom. 8:2,6,10f; 1 Cor. 15:45).

Christians who participate in this "new" version of life do not escape everyday life into Stoicism, Gnostic dualism (indifference), or asceticism. Paul sees a different method and a different result. Christians serve others responsibly, regardless of their situation. Christians no longer live for/to themselves (Rom. 14:7) but for God (Rom. 6:10f) and Christ (Rom. 14:8; 2 Cor. 5:15). Our "new" (spiritual?) lives have results in our physical lives (Gal. 5:25,26). We actually take up Christ's cross (2 Cor. 4:9f). This is a paradoxical truth of the Christian life: we are treated as dying and behold, we live (2 Cor. 6:8f). Our life (in the Pauline sense) comes through death (not living). Not living means loving others--living for, living with.

This life for the believer carries a tension between present reality and future hope-seen in Galatians through the admixture of indicative and imperative (Gal. 5:25). This new life exists but is not fully manifested (Col. 3:3,4). Thus Christ's resurrection is pledge of our resurrection to eternal life. The process is one of living, dying, resurrection, living, dying resurrection, where the first life is spiritual communion with Christ before sin enters, the first death is death because of sin, the first resurrection is the resurrection of the new birth, the second life is our life in Christ, the second death is the death of our physical bodies, and the second resurrection is to spiritual, that is, to a celestial body (1 Cor. 15:22-58 passim).

Ultimately, life is the conquest of death. The new life in Christ is not confined to temporal experience, but points forward to the time death is vanquished (1 Cor. 15:26; Rom. 6:22; Gal. 6:8).

(3) Romans 5-8 provides a foundation for understanding Paul's application of these concepts. (Complete work assignment #1 below). In Galatians the following passages are significant: 2:20, 3:21; 6:8. (Complete work assignment #2 below). What is Paul saying in these passages in Galatians?


Work Assignment #1

Work Assignment #2

1Some of the content of this essay has been edited from "Life," in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, edited by Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 476-484, with additional content and expanded commentary by this author.

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Last updated November 25, 2010.