Epistles: The Gospel Revealed (Galatians 1:1-12)


Paul started several churches in the province of Galatia and then moved on to other regions. Then he learned that some other people had gone to Galatia and were teaching the people that the gospel involved much more than Paul had told them. “Jesus is good,” they apparently said, “but you need to go further. You need to obey the Law that God gave his people. Faith is good, but you need the laws of Moses, too.”

Paul was furious! The people were meddling in his territory, making false accusations about him, trying to hijack the work he had done, and worst of all, leading the people away from Christ. Paul wrote a letter[1] [numbers in square brackets refer to notes at the end of this article] to defend his ministry and to explain what the gospel is. It has much to teach us today.

Introduction

Greek letters normally began by saying who wrote the letter and the people it is being sent to. Paul modifies this pattern by adding a lengthy comment about the basis of his authority: Paul, an apostle — sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — (v. 1).[2]

Several times in this letter, Paul denies that he was sent or authorized by other people, especially the apostles in Jerusalem. Apparently his opponents said that the apostles had sent Paul on a mission, a mission he supposedly had not finished, and the apostles had then sent more people to tell the Galatians about their need to obey the law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:5). Paul says that they are mistaken: They might have been sent by human authority, but he had divine authority for his mission.

The letter is being sent not only by Paul, but also “all the brothers who are with me” — he has supporters, though the letter does not name them, perhaps because the Galatians do not know them. “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 2-3, ESV). Greek letters usually began with charein, or “greetings.” Paul modifies this by using a similar word, charis, “grace,” and adding the Jewish greeting, “peace.”

In verse 1, he noted an action of the Father. Here, he describes the work of Christ: “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (v. 4). This is the gospel in a nutshell: Jesus has taken care of our sins and rescued us, giving us a place in the age to come as children of God. Paul will elaborate more on this later in his letter. Here he specifies that this rescue is precisely what the Father wanted, and it is to his “glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

An astonishing curse

Most Greek letters included a brief prayer to the gods; Paul usually expands that by thanking God for the faith of the readers and asking a blessing on them. But in this letter, Paul gives no thanks — he begins abruptly and includes a curse instead of a blessing: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (v. 6). “Paul’s expression of amazement…was a common expression of rebuke in Greek letters of his day…. The tone of rebuke pervades the…letter from 1:6 to 4:12” (G. Walter Hansen, Galatians, 36, 35).

The readers may have been astonished, too, because Paul is telling them that they are deserting God. That is not what they want to do, but Paul is telling them that’s what it amounts to. They had been called by grace, and if they give their allegiance to the law, they will be denying their call (compare with 5:2). The opponents claimed that their message was the original gospel, but Paul says that it is not: “not that there is another one” (1:7). It was bad news, not good. It was requiring elements of the old age, the age that Jesus had rescued us from.

“There are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Paul then announces his curse: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed”[3] (v. 8). Paul is not asking for personal loyalty — he wants the people to be loyal to the message of Jesus Christ.

Paul is so insistent on this that he repeats himself: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If[4] anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (v. 9).

After this strongly worded outburst, Paul asks, For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still[5] trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (v. 10). His opponents apparently said that Paul focused on grace because he was afraid of telling people about the laws of Moses. But as Paul has just demonstrated, he is not afraid of offending people. He serves Christ, not public opinion. He was commissioned by Christ, not human beings.

Paul’s commission from God

To support his point, and to show that the opponents were not telling the truth, Paul tells his story, particularly his relationship with the apostles. In the book of Acts, Luke tells us many more details, but this is Paul’s own description of what happened.[6] “The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel” (v. 11). Paul is here responding to his opponents.

“For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 12). It was not just a revelation from Christ — it was Christ being revealed to Paul (v. 16). Paul saw Christ, and that required a re-evaluation of everything that Paul had believed. Based simply on that appearance of Jesus, Paul could have understood quite a bit:

Jesus has been resurrected into glory, so he must be God’s Anointed, the Messiah. But I was persecuting his people! If zeal for the law caused me to persecute God’s people, something must be seriously wrong in my use of the law. Not only that, I was an enemy of God, and yet God spared me — I was accepted by grace, not by careful observance of the law.[7] And the Messiah did not bring political blessings, so the salvation that he brought was a spiritual one — one available to Gentiles as well as Jews.

Things to think about

  • When God called me, was I aware that it was by the grace of Christ? (v. 6).
  • Do I ever back away from the gospel because I am trying to please people? (v. 10)

Endnotes

[1] Some scholars believe that this is Paul’s earliest letter, written before the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) — it is possible that Paul did not have time to travel back to Galatia because he planned to go to that Council, yet he wanted to address the problem in Galatia right away. Other scholars believe that the letter was written a few years later.

[2] He lists Jesus Christ first, and the Father’s role is relegated to raising Jesus from the dead! Paul’s commission came from Jesus, and when Paul was struck down on the road to Damascus, he was especially stunned that Jesus had been raised from the dead. That was tremendously significant for Paul’s understanding of Jesus and his commission.

[3] The Greek word is anathema. The NIV erroneously added the word “eternally.” But if Paul could be forgiven for persecuting the church, others could be forgiven for preaching a false gospel; the word “eternally” does not seem warranted. Paul is not being vindictive or making objective theological statements — he is using the rhetoric of his day to denounce his opponents. Sometimes an anathema is appropriate, but church history shows that the anathema was sometimes pronounced for petty differences. Paul was tolerant of diversity on some issues (e.g. Romans 14).

[4] Greek has two words for “if.” In v. 8, the word for if indicates a hypothetical, unlikely condition — it is not likely that Paul or the angels will preach a perverted gospel. But the “if” in v. 9 is a different word, implying something that is likely to be true: people are already preaching an erroneous message.

[5] With the word “still,” Paul implies that he used to be a people-pleaser. He measured his success in Judaism in comparison to others (v. 14).

[6]Historians generally prefer first-person accounts, and some biblical scholars are skeptical of Luke’s accuracy, but we would scarcely be able to reconstruct a history of Paul’s travels from the letters alone. Luke tells us several important facts that Paul does not: that he was from Tarsus, that he was a Roman citizen, and that he was converted while on his way to Damascus.

[7] Three further lines of thought could have told Paul that the laws of Moses had come to the end of their validity. First, the resurrection of Jesus into glory indicated that the end of the age had come, and the law of Moses was not designed for the new age. 2) Since forgiveness is available without temple rituals, a large chunk of the Mosaic covenant had no purpose, calling into question the entire package. 3) The laws of Moses were not given to Gentiles, and never applied to Gentiles, and it would not make sense for salvation to be more difficult for Jews than it would be for Gentiles.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2007, 2012

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