Epistles: Galatians 1 – The Gospel Revealed

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.


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.

But this is getting ahead of the story. Here’s the way Paul tells it: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (v. 13). They already knew the story, but Paul tells it here to highlight certain facts, and to present himself as a model they could imitate. If someone had been there, done that, and found it deficient, then maybe it would not be wise for the Galatians to adopt a law-based approach to religion.

“I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (v. 14). Paul had viewed Judaism as a “performance” religion, in which some people did better than others, and he did particularly well. Following the example of Phineas, Elijah, and Mattathias, his zeal for the law caused him to persecute people who were leading others astray (see Numbers 25:6-18; 1 Kings 19:10; and 1 Maccabees 2:23-26, 58).[8] This is one of the ways in which he worked harder than other people his age. According to their standards, he had everything going for him (see Philippians 3:4-6). But he gave it up:

“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” (Galatians 1:15-16). The basic components of Paul’s calling are God’s grace, Jesus Christ the Son of God in him[9], and the mission to the Gentiles.

Received through a revelation

Paul’s message had its origin in God, not in the apostles. “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus” (vv. 16-17). Paul spent several days with Ananias and the disciples in Damascus (Acts 9:19), and they no doubt told him what they knew about Jesus.

Paul’s point is not that he didn’t talk to anyone, but that he did not ask anyone to tell him what to preach. The opponents in Galatia may have been trained by apostles, but Paul was not. And that’s good — the apostles did not yet know that God was calling Gentiles into his family, and if they had heard Paul talk about a Gentile mission, they probably would have tried to talk him out of it!

Paul does not tell us where in Arabia he went, or what he did there. If he began to preach in Damascus, then he may have preached in Arabia, too, perhaps in Nabatea, southeast of Judea. Jesus told him to preach to the Gentiles, so he probably did.

“Then after three years,[10] I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter’s Aramaic name] and remained with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:18). Peter no doubt told him as much as he could about Jesus, but it was not a training session in which Peter told Paul what he should preach. Paul is stressing his independence.

“But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” (vv. 19-20). Paul’s insistence that he is not lying indicates that he is responding to accusations — that he was an agent of the apostles. Paul’s opponents claimed an equal authority, so they tried to “flesh out” Paul’s message with more details. They have my story wrong, Paul says, and they have the gospel wrong, too.

Paul explained that he left the area: “Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ” (vv. 21-22). Antioch is the most likely location in Syria, and Tarsus in Cilicia. Paul’s main point is that he did not stay in Judea. Jesus had not sent him to Judea either to preach or to put himself under the apostles’ authority.

Paul’s only relationship with the Judean churches was that they heard about him: “They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me” (vv. 23-24). So Paul abandoned his pursuit of Jewish traditions, and began to preach another faith, the one we call Christianity. The Judean Jewish Christians had not brought this about, but they were in substantial agreement with Paul’s conversion and the faith that he preached.

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)
  • Was there ever a point in my life when I persecuted or belittled the gospel? (v. 13)
  • Does God reveal his Son in me? (v. 16)
  • Have I turned away from a law-based religion to trust the grace of Christ?


[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 just 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.

[8] What caused Paul to persecute the early Christians? Several Jews claimed to be the Messiah, both before and after Jesus, and that was apparently not considered blasphemous in itself. Two things in particular may have incensed Paul: 1) the claim that a crucified person was honored by God, when the law says such a person is accursed, and 2) at least some of the Christians were perceived as being against the law (cf. Acts 6:11). The biblical connection between violence and zeal for the law suggests that Paul saw the Jesus-disciples as violators of the law and a threat to the nation’s covenant relationship with God.

[9] Paul does not say that God revealed his Son to Paul, but in Paul. In Paul’s work and sufferings, God continued to reveal his Son in Paul.

[10] The chronology isn’t clear. Did Paul stay in Arabia for three years, then go to Jerusalem by way of Damascus — or did he have a short stay in Arabia and then lived in Damascus three years? N.T. Wright suggests that he went to Mt. Sinai, then to Damascus, following the example of Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-15). The book of Acts says nothing about this three years.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2007, 2012

Was this Article Helpful ?  

Help us provide more content like this by giving today