INTRODUCTION TO GALATIANS
The book of Galatians is an explosion of joy and freedom which leaves us enjoying a deep significance, security and satisfaction—consumed with the life of blessing God calls His people into.
Why? Because it brings us face to face with the gospel. Man, kinds only hope. It’s very common in Christian circles to assume that “the gospel” is something mainly for non-Christians. We see it as a set of basic “ABC” doctrines that are the way in which someone enters the kingdom of God. We often assume that once we’re converted, we don’t need to hear or study or understand the gospel—we need more “advanced” material.
But in this short letter, Paul outlines the bombshell truth that the gospel is the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live as part of the kingdom. It is the way Christ transforms people, churches and communities.
We’re going to see Paul showing the young Christians in Galatia that their spiritual problem is not only caused by failing to live in obedience to God, but also by relying on obedience to Him. We’re going to see him telling them that all they need—all they could ever need—is the gospel of God’s unmerited favor to them through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We’re going to hear him solving their issues not through telling them to “be better Christians”, but by calling them to live out the implications of the gospel.
We’re going to watch Paul challenge them, and us, with the simple truth that the gospel is not just the ABC of Christianity, but the A to Z—that Christians need the gospel just as much as non-Christians.
Paul will explain to us that the truths of the gospel changes life from top to bottom; that they transform our hearts, our thinking and our approach to absolutely everything. The gospel—the message that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope—creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth, for obedience, and for love.
Galatians is all about the gospel, which all of us need throughout all of our lives. It’s dynamite, and I pray that it explodes in your heart, and makes you passionate to see it do the same work in others’ hearts, as you read this book.
Below, I’ve briefly summarized the historical setting of the letter; and in an appendix, I’ve touched on some modern debates over its message. But if at this point you want to get into Galatians itself, turn to page 13.
The historical context
The apostle Paul was a church-planting missionary. After he planted a church and left a region, he continued to supervise new congregations through his letters. One of these letters is this epistle to the Christian churches in the area of Galatia in Asia Minor. Most scholars agree that this letter was written by Paul around AD50 (only 15–20 years after the death of Christ). It is helpful to recognize the following three things from the historical setting, which will help us understand this epistle:
■ This letter addresses a social and racial division in the churches of Galatia. The first Christians in Jerusalem were Jewish, but as the gospel spread out from that center, increasing numbers of Gentiles began to receive Christ. However, a group of teachers in Galatia were now insisting that the Gentile Christians practice all the traditional ceremonial customs of the law of Moses, as the Jewish Christians did. They taught that the Gentiles had to observe all the dietary laws and be circumcised for full acceptance and to be completely pleasing to God.
■ Although this specific controversy may seem remote to us today, Paul addressed it with an abiding, all-important truth. He taught that the cultural divisions and disunity in the Galatian churches were due to a confusion about the nature of the gospel. By insisting on Christ-plus-anything-else as a requirement for full acceptance by God, these teachers were presenting a whole different way of relating to God (a “different gospel”, 1:6) from the one Paul had given them (“the one we preached”, 1:8). It is this different gospel that was creating the cultural division and strife. Paul forcefully and unapologetically fought the “different gospel” because to lose one’s grip of the true gospel is to desert and lose Christ Himself (1:6). Therefore, everything was at stake in this debate.
■ The most obvious fact about the historical setting is often the most overlooked. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul expounds in detail what the gospel is and how it works. But the intended audience of this exposition of the gospel are all professing Christians. It is not simply non-Christians but also believers who need continually to learn the gospel and apply it to their lives.
GALATIANS CHAPTER 1 VERSES 1–9
1. THE UNIQUENESS OF THE GOSPEL
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the opening of Galatians is Paul’s tone, and the frame of mind that lies behind it. He is surprised. And he also seems angry. His language, almost from the outset, is remarkably strong. Where normally Paul’s letters move on, after his greeting, to a thanksgiving for those he’s writing to (see, for example, Philippians 1:3–8; Colossians 1:3–8; 1 Corinthians 1:4–9), here he simply says: “I am astonished …” (verse 6a*). What has made Paul so emotional?
First, Paul is astonished because these young Christians are taking hold of a gospel† that isn’t really a gospel (v 7), so they are in enormous danger. They are in “confusion” (v 7b).
Second, he is directly angry at the ones who are misleading the converts of the church—those who are “trying to pervert the gospel” (v 7b). He calls down condemnation on them (v 9). More indirectly, he is also angry at the Galatian Christians themselves, warning them that they are deserting the God who called them (v 6b)—a serious charge!
We’ll see as we walk through Paul’s letter that what caused his opening outburst was a group of teachers who were teaching Gentile Christian converts that they were obliged to keep the Jewish cultural customs of the Mosaic law—the dietary laws, circumcision and the rest of the ceremonial law in order to be truly pleasing to God. To the Galatians, this probably didn’t appear to be a radical difference from what they’d been taught. Surely the whole point of the Christian life is to be pleasing to God! But Paul says: This is an absolute repudiation of all that I have been telling you.
He is not pulling his punches! But if we believe what Paul believed about the gospel, then we will find his attitude justifiable. If the Galatians are really turning their backs on God and taking hold of a gospel that isn’t a gospel at all, then their condition is dangerous. The anxiety and anger that Paul expresses is the same that any loving parent or friend would experience if a child or companion was going seriously astray.
Paul’s Right to Speak
But who is Paul to write to these Christians in this way?
An “apostle” (v 1)—a man who has been sent with immediate divine authority. The Greek word apostolosmeans to be “sent”. Paul’s phrase “not from men nor by man” drives home the uniqueness of the first apostles. Those who are called to ministry by the Holy Spirit today are not “from men” either—the ultimate cause of their ministry is Jesus’ call, and the ultimate authority for their ministry is Jesus’ word in the Bible. But they are appointed “by man”. (The Greek word here—dia—means “by” or “through”, as in our word “diameter”.) This means that though ministers ultimately receive their call from God, they are called through the intermediaries of other human ministers, or through the election of a congregation, and so on.
Paul is claiming something more than this for himself. He is saying that he did not receive his apostolic commission through anyone else at all. No other apostles commissioned him. He was commissioned and taught directly by the risen Jesus Himself (see Acts 9:1–19).
Second, in verses 8–9, Paul says he was sent with a particular divine message—the gospel. This means his divine teaching is the standard for judging who is orthodox and who is heretical, as he says in verse 9: “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” Even an apostle cannot alter, revise or add to the message of Christ. What he says is not the result of his study, research, reflection and wisdom. It is God-given, and both unchanging and unchangeable.
We might wonder: are there any more apostles today? Not in the full way of Paul and the Twelve. In the early church, others were called “apostles of the churches” (for example, 2 Corinthians 9:3). Barnabas was “sent” to Antioch, and in that sense was an “apostle” (Acts 11:22, and see also Acts 14:14). However, while they were sent out as missionaries, they were commissioned by the other, original apostles or by the churches—“by man”. Barnabas never met the risen Christ; he was never taught and tutored in the gospel by the bodily-present Christ, as Paul and the Twelve were. So we can call people who have unusual leadership gifts, then and now, “small-a” apostles. But Paul is a “capital-A” Apostle, commissioned directly by Jesus. The “capital-A” Apostles had, and have, absolute authority. What they write is Scripture.
What is the Gospel?
And so this divinely appointed Apostle reminds the Galatian Christians of his particular divine message—the gospel. In his opening, he gives them a quick, yet pretty comprehensive, outline of the gospel message:
Who we are: Helpless and lost. That is what the word “rescue” implies in verse 4. Other founders of religions came to teach, not to rescue. Jesus was a great teacher, but when Paul gives us this nutshell version of Jesus’ ministry, he makes no mention of that at all. The average person on the street believes that a Christian is someone who follows Christ’s teaching and example. But Paul implies that’s impossible. After all, you don’t rescue people unless they are in a lost state and a helpless condition! Imagine you see a drowning woman. It doesn’t help her at all if you throw her a manual on how to swim. You don’t throw her some teaching—you throw her a rope. And Jesus is not so much a teacher as He is a rescuer. Because that’s what we most need. Nothing in who we are or what we do saves us. This is what theologians call “spiritual inability”.
What Jesus did: How did Jesus rescue us? He “gave himself for our sins” (v 4a). He made a sacrifice which was substitutionary in nature. The word “for” means “on behalf of” or “in place of”. Substitution is why the gospel is so revolutionary. Christ’s death was not just a general sacrifice, but a substitutionary one. He did not merely buy us a “second chance”, giving us another opportunity to get life right and stay right with God. He did all we needed to do, but cannot do. If Jesus’ death really paid for our sins on our behalf, we can never fall back into condemnation. Why? Because God would then be getting two payments for the same sin, which is unjust! Jesus did all we should have done, in our place, so when He becomes our Savior, we are absolutely free from penalty or condemnation.
What the Father did: God accepted the work of Christ on our behalf by raising Him “from the dead” (v 1) and by giving us the “grace and peace” (v 3) that Christ won and achieved for us.
Why God did it: This was all done out of grace—not because of anything we have done, but “according to the will of our God and Father” (v 4d). We did not ask for rescue, but God in His grace planned what we didn’t realize we needed, and Christ by His grace (v 6) came to achieve the rescue we could never have achieved ourselves.
There is no indication of any other motivation or cause for Christ’s mission except the will of God. There is nothing in us which merits it. Salvation is sheer grace.
That is why the only one who gets “glory for ever” is God alone (v 5). If we contributed to our rescue … if we had rescued ourselves … or if God had seen something deserving of rescue, or useful for His plan, in us … or even if we had simply called out for rescue based on our own reasoning and understanding … then we could pat ourselves on the back for the part we played in saving ourselves.
But the biblical gospel—Paul’s gospel—is clear that salvation, from first to last, is God’s doing. It is His calling; His plan; His action; His work. And so it is He who deserves all the glory, for all time.
This is the humbling truth that lies at the heart of Christianity. We love to be our own saviors. Our hearts love to manufacture glory for themselves. So we find messages of self-salvation extremely attractive, whether they are religious (Keep these rules and you earn eternal blessing) or secular (Grab hold of these things and you’ll experience blessing now). The gospel comes and turns them all upside down. It says: You are in such a hopeless position that you need a rescue that has nothing to do with you at all. And then it says: God in Jesus provides a rescue which gives you far more than any false salvation your heart may love to chase.
Paul reminds us that in the gospel we are both brought lower and raised higher than we can imagine. And the glory for that, rightly, all goes to “our God and Father … for ever and ever. Amen” (v 5).
Questions for reflection
1. Paul’s tone reminds us that Christian faith is a matter of heart, as well as head—feelings, as well as intellect. How does this encourage you? How does it challenge you?
2. When do you find it hardest to accept the authority of apostolic New Testament teaching? Why?
3. How would you explain the gospel to someone who asked you today what you believe?