A Bible Lesson on Galatians 1

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This is the first of a series of lessons on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Exactly which cities it was originally intended for, exactly when and where it was written, and exactly where it fits into the chronology laid out by Luke in the book of Acts are not clear. There are several theories, but they do not seem to shed enough light on the text to justify the effort that would be needed to lay them out. What is plain is this. Some group of Jewish Christian heretics were teaching in some of the Gentile churches of Asia Minor that in order to be a real Christian, one must first become a Jew and follow the Jewish law, both the moral commandments of the law and the ceremonial commandments as well. They were, for example, insisting on circumcision and the following of the dietary laws of the Old Testament. Paul saw this as a fundamental attack on the truth of the Gospel and opposed their teaching. In turn, these “Judaizers” attacked Paul personally, claiming that he had no more authority than anyone else, and that his Gospel of justification by faith and faith alone was simply pandering to the masses, to those who were slack and would be attracted by an “easy” message. In this kind of a circumstance, Paul writes the letter of Galatians.

The letter opens like the other letters of Paul, pretty much in the standard form of the time. But Paul cuts the introduction short, not including the usual prayer, or praise, or commendation, or thanksgiving. Instead there is a sense of real urgency as Paul moves very quickly to his main concern and reason for writing. He is concerned for the wellbeing of the Galatians. He sees that the heresy that they are hearing is not some light thing, but has the potential to damn their souls.

Galatians 1:1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—

It is Paul an “apostle,” one specifically chosen and sent by Christ with the good news. It is one specifically ordained to first lay out the nature of the Gospel message. Paul opens with an explicit claim to authority. The history of Greek and Hebrew words represented here by the word “apostle” indicates an emissary specially authorized to act on behalf of the one sending. And Paul’s commission is not from any human ecclesiastical body, but “through Jesus Christ and God the Father.”

2 and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:

Paul is an apostle, but is not alone. There are “all brothers who are with (him).” In order to defend the vital content of his preaching, Paul will say clearly that he’s not depending upon what he’s heard from others, including the other apostles, but upon the direct revelation of God. On the other hand, he is not out on his own, running the “Paul of Tarsus Ministry” with no one but “yes men” as company. He writes to the churches of Galatia/Asia Minor/modern day Turkey.

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,

“Grace to you and peace” He speaks grace, sheer beauty. He speaks grace, God’s undeserved generosity, His unmerited favor. Paul speaks peace, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “shalom,” all that makes for the wellbeing of humans, through the presence and favor of their Creator. Grace and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

Here is the central fact of the Christian religion. It is not a system of morality or means approving ourselves to God, but rather Christ’s gracious rescue. Christ gave Himself to rescue us from the present evil age, not in the sense of removing us from life on earth, but rather in the sense of removing us from both the tyranny of sin and from the eternal damnation of sin.

5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Amen. The facts of salvation are so wonderful as to cause Paul to spontaneously break into thanksgiving. Amen, may it come to pass!

6 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—

Without further delay, Paul getss to his main concern. “I am astonished.” This is strong stuff, but he’s stunned. Paul says that he’s seen the Galatians begin the Christian life in what seems like brilliant fashion, and then veer off course. He’s heartsick about it. But he doesn’t allow that the Galatians bear no responsibility. Yes, there has been false teaching, but the recipients of the letter are guilty of desertion! The verb translated here “deserting” means to transfer allegiance. It is used of soldiers who revolt or desert, or of men who change side in politics or philosophy. The Galatians are acting as “turncoats.” They are turning from the only true Gospel, of dependence upon God and His unmerited favor, to a plan of trying to make themselves right before God through rule-keeping.

And it is not just some theological position they are abandoning, but a Person, “him who called you.” It is He who decisively once and for all called you. Christianity is not some abstract philosophical system. It is wholly Christ Jesus. To abandon a person, THE person, the eternal merciful and gracious God, for a plan, a set of rules, a scheme to make oneself righteous is both absurd and horrific. As Paul so eloquently argued in Romans, and had surely explained to the churches of Asia Minor, a man-oriented plan of working ourselves into God’s favor is a lie, an impossibility, a slap in the face of our gracious God, and simply no Gospel at all.

7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

Not that there is another or different gospel! This “different gospel” no more than comes out of Paul’s mouth than he needs to makes sure that his hearers know he’s only using a figure of speech. There IS no second/alternative/other Gospel. Anything that would be offered as such is a denial of the Genuine. The simple message of God’s offer of salvation by faith alone is not a first step to be superseded by something further. Anything that pretends to amplify it instead attacks it.

There are those who “trouble and want to distort.” In verse 3 Paul has mentioned peace. Here there is trouble. There is only one source of real peace and that is the gracious Gospel of Christ. Innovate on it, distort it, and there inevitably comes trouble. Of course there is trouble! This is strong language. Paul knew that bad doctrine is a cancer, and speaks very strongly about those promoting it. His blast is aimed primarily at those who were teaching the heresy. It is one thing to be somewhat muddled in one’s personal thinking and doctrine. We all are to some extent. It is quite another to take muddleness systematize it and pass it on. Christian preaching and teaching is an awesome responsibility. It is a dangerous act for both the preacher or teacher, and for his hearers. Preachers and teachers need to be absolutely sure and careful about what they say. It is not a matter of just sharing personal opinions and neat ideas. Sound teachers and preachers stick to the essentials of the faith, the things that are clear and that we can be sure of. Those so-called teachers and preachers whose messages are not in the center of the Gospel must necessarily end up speculating, and end in serious distortion of the truth. Notice Paul’s judgment on those that will preach heresy.

8 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.

Let him be accursed, anathema, devoted to destruction. This is terribly serious business. Paul is absolutely impartiality in the matter. The same anathema he pronounces on others, he pronounces on himself if he wanders off base. The mention of the angels may come from the important place that angels played in the popular thinking of Judaism of the day. The tradition had become that angels were involved at the giving of the Law at Sinai. Their mention here on that ground would make sense, since Paul’s contention is that it’s salvation by grace through faith alone.

9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Lest we be tempted to think this is just Paul in a fit of peevishness over some small slight of a rival teacher, look at Mark 9:42. This is also the judgment of Christ.

Mark 9:42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Think what it is Paul is referring to. We American post-moderns, should a Judaizer come to town, might want to simply think the he or she was rather quaint, but on the whole quite harmless. Paul understands otherwise. To maintain that salvation depends upon Christ’s work appropriated through faith PLUS something else we supply, in fact denies and nullifies the whole. It is derogatory of Christ’s work and declares the cross to be redundant. This is not just quaint or harmless. Paul surely gladly and graciously reasoned with teachable individuals influenced by such a view. But a person preaching such a view is an entirely different matter, and regarding such people, Paul does not mince words.

10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

The point here may be that Paul was being accused of preaching an “easy” Gospel that didn’t require anything of converts, one that would please the immoral gentiles. Paul says, “No, I’m preaching what Christ has given me to preach, a Gospel that I didn’t make up or learn in seminary, but rather received from Christ Himself.”

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.

It’s possible/likely that another basis of attack on Paul was along the lines of him not being properly credentialed by the church at Jerusalem. Paul is not interested in arguing that. That is a non-issue to him. His authority derives from the truth of the Gospel message, not from a set of credentials. But we need to be careful here. Paul’s response is not license or a pattern for every rebellious yahoo who thinks he’s heard from God to set up shop independent of the orthodox Christian church. This IS, after all, the APOSTLE Paul. This is not just anybody speaking here. This is one of a kind. His teaching wasn’t simply another fellow’s opinion that we can debate without a second thought. It was and is the Word of God for the Galatians and for us. And the authentication of his message lies in its truth and its place in the record of God’s revelation, not in his personality or his credentials of ordination from some human body.

12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul isn’t saying that he learned the facts about Jesus by direct revelation. He surely knew those before the Damascus road experience. What he is saying is that the meaning of those facts, the truth that Jesus is both Messiah and Lord, that there is peace with God through His death and resurrection, those came to Him directly from Jesus Christ. Paul now goes on to state how the facts of his autobiography substantiate this claim. As John Stott said in his commentary on Galatians, Paul now points to the situation before, at, and after his conversion. These only make sense if what Paul is saying about receiving his understanding of the Gospel from Jesus Christ is true.

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.

14 And 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.

In the first place, Paul was firmly on another path before the Damascus road experience. People whose lives are invested in tracking down and imprisoning opponents, don’t typically one day suddenly do a 180 degree turn, especially prominent and zealous persecutors of the opposition motivated by a real sense of religious fervor. How many such cases can be named in history? But God …

15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,

16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;

In the second place, at his conversion, God intervened. Notice the change of emphasis. In verses 13 and 14, Paul speaks of what he did, of his efforts, and of his accomplishments. In verses 15 and 16, where he concerns himself with what really matters, it is what God purposed before the beginning of time, how He graciously acted in Paul’s life, and what He gave Paul to do. This wasn’t Paul’s doing at all.

And after conversion there was this.

17 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.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.

19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)

21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.

22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.

23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”

24 And they glorified God because of me.

Paul’s point is that after conversion he didn’t go to seminary in Jerusalem. In fact, he was only there for a couple of weeks, and met only a few people. How is it then that his understanding of the Gospel is in harmony with that of the other Apostles? How is it that he is found to be preaching the faith that he tried to destroy? How does he even know how it should go? It’s by the revelation of God that Paul has been able to put it all together, with the benefit of very little interaction with the disciples. This is by the hand of God! And, indeed, we glorify God for His great work in and through the Apostle Paul.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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