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Galatians 1:1-12 Biblical Commentary:
Galatia was a region in central Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Paul established churches in Galatia, composed primarily of Gentiles who received the Gospel eagerly (4:14-15). He believed that they were “running well” (5:7).
But after he left Galatia, he learned that Judaizers (Greek: Ioudizo—those who live by Jewish practices, 2:14) had persuaded these Galatians to adopt Jewish practices—circumcision in particular. These Judaizers were Christians who believed that it was essential for Christians to adopt particular Jewish practices. They were not trying to persuade Christians to abandon the Christian faith in favor of Judaism.
In some circles, the term Judaizer has fallen into disrepute, because those people believe that the word suggests that the Ioudizo tried to persuade people to adopt the Jewish faith. However, the book of Galatians makes it clear that the Ioudizo were Christians who were trying to blend Christian and Jewish practices. While it is appropriate to call them Judaizers, another appropriate name would be Syncretizers—those who try to blend beliefs from more than one religion. However, I prefer Judaizers for three reasons:
• First, it is the traditional translation of Ioudizo in 2:14.
• Second, the word Judaizer has always had two meanings. While it has sometimes referred to Jews trying to impose Judaism on Gentiles, it more often referred to Christians adopting Jewish practices, as was the case in Galatia.
• Third, Syncretizers could represent any religion trying to impose its values or practices on Christians—but the problem in Galatia was specific—Jewish Christians trying to impose Jewish practices on Christians.
The issue is more important than it might sound. The Gospel is the Good News that we are saved by grace—the grace bestowed by Jesus Christ. We are free from the constraints of the Jewish law, which was impossible to follow without exception. Under the law, people were always more or less guilty, but Jesus’ blood wipes away sin totally.
The point was/is that, we are saved EITHER by adherence to the law OR by the grace of God made possible by Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross. The New Testament makes it clear that the grace of God is the answer to the problem of sin. Adopting Jewish practices would take the focus off grace and muddy the waters.
GALATIANS 1:1-5: GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE
1 Paul, an apostle (not from men, neither through man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead), 2 and all the brothers who are with me, to the assemblies of Galatia: 3Grace to you and peace from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father—5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
“Paul, an apostle (not from men, neither through man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead)” (v. 1). It was customary for people of that time and place to begin their letters by introducing themselves (quite different from our letters today, name of the author at the end), and Paul follows that convention by introducing himself at the beginning.
The word apostle means “one who is sent.” Jesus chose apostles to be sent out to continue his work.
Paul immediately mentions that he is an apostle. It is important that Paul establish this upfront. If Christ has called him to be an apostle—has endowed him with apostolic authority—then these Galatian Christians must listen to him.
When Paul describes his call as “not from men…but through Jesus Christ,” he is alluding to the story of his call in Acts 9:1-18. His name at that time was Saul, and he was a persecutor of the church. Jesus confronted him in a vision, and Saul the persecutor became Paul the apostle.
“and all the brothers who are with me, to the assemblies (Greek: ekklesia—churches) of Galatia”(v. 2). We don’t know who these brothers were—or what they did in relationship to the churches of Galatia.
The Greek word ekklesia (assembly or church) is comprised of two words, ek (out) and kalein (to call)—so it means “to call out.” When Paul speaks of “the ekklesia (church) of Galatia,” he means the Christian community in Galatia, which probably involved several congregations. Keep in mind that Galatia was a region, not a town.
“Grace (Greek: charis) to you and peace (eirene) from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). Paul characteristically links grace and peace as a special form of blessing in the opening of his letters. Grace (charis) involves the giving and receiving of something that has the potential to bless both giver and receiver. The classic definition of grace is “the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.” Peace (eirene) has its roots in the Hebrew word shalom—which speaks of an inner kind of peace—the kind of well-being that is derived from a deep relationship with God.
“who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (v. 4). This is known as substitutionary atonement, which has to do with making amends for sins or repairing the spiritual damage caused by sins. It also has to do with restoring relationships that were broken by sin — in particular the relationship that we enjoyed with God prior to the introduction of sin into the world. Our sin (our failure to do God’s will — our willful disobedience) broke that relationship, because God is holy (morally and spiritually perfect) and expects us to be holy as well (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15).
Our sin, therefore, creates a conflict for God. On the one hand, God is repulsed by our sin, but on the other hand, he loves us. On the one hand, he cannot bring himself to invite us into full fellowship while we are tainted with sin, but on the other hand, he cannot bring himself to dismiss us totally.
So, in keeping with his holiness (which demands that we be punished) and his love (which demands that we be reconciled), God devised a process by which he can make us holy once again so that he might receive us into full fellowship. This process is known as substitutionary atonement — “substitutionary” meaning that God will accept a substitute to absorb the punishment for our sins and “atonement” meaning that we can be restored to full fellowship with God.
In the Old Testament, atonement took the form of animal sacrifices. God required Israelites to sacrifice animals in a sacred ritual to atone (make amends) for their sins (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 1:4; 4:20-21, etc.). The idea was that people deserved to die for their sins, but God permitted them to sacrifice animals in their place. The death of the animals satisfied God’s need for justice, which in turn made it possible for him to forgive the people’s sins.
This idea of substitutionary atonement is also prevalent in the New Testament, and is the rationale behind the death of Jesus:
• “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
• Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 36).
• “Being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him” (Romans 5:9).
• Christ is our “paschal lamb” — our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7).
• “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” — a matter regarded by the Apostle Paul as supremely important (1 Corinthians 15:3).
• Christ “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
• “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
• Christ loved us “and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).
Substitutionary atonement not only satisfies God’s needs for both justice and mercy, but it also dramatizes the dreadful nature of our sin and its consequences. It helps us to understand that our sins are not just minor mistakes for which a passing apology is all that is needed. It helps us to understand that “the wages of sin is death” and that we are in desperate need of “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
I understand that some Christians don’t accept the idea of substitutionary atonement. I can’t imagine how they can justify that position, because (as noted in the verses quoted above) the idea of substitutionary atonement permeates both Old and New Testaments.
“to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (v. 5). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul spoke of Jesus “becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross…. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11).
GALATIANS 1:6-9: DESERTING AND PERVERTING
6 I marvel that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ to a different “good news”; 7 and there isn’t another “good news.” Only there are some who trouble you, and want to pervert the Good News of Christ. 8 But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any “good news” other than that which we preached to you, let him be cursed. 9 As we have said before, so I now say again: if any man preaches to you any “good news” other than that which you received, let him be cursed.
“I marvel (Greek: thaumazo) that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace(charis) of Christ to a different ‘good news'” (euangelion) (v. 6). Now Paul gets to the point of this letter. He marvels (thaumazo—is amazed or astonished) at their quick turn away from that to which they have been called. Paul is clearly distressed by the fickle behavior of these Galatian Christians.
However, the fact that they are relatively new Christians means that they are less seasoned than Christians who have frequently defeated temptation. They are less prone to understanding doctrinal nuances, and are more prone to succumbing to questionable propositions.
Called by whom? Called, not by Paul, but by God. Paul was simply the messenger who brought them the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Called to what? Called “in the grace (charis) of Christ. The classic definition of grace (charis) is “the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.” That free gift of salvation is the gospel (good news) to which Christians subscribe.
But these Galatian Christians have deserted their call to God’s free gift of salvation. They have been seduced by a “different ‘good news.'” Paul doesn’t tell us here the nature of that different gospel, but as we read through the book we will learn that it emphasizes the keeping of Jewish law (salvation by works) rather than the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ (salvation by grace).
As noted above, the New Testament makes it clear that the grace of God is the answer to the problem of sin. Adopting Jewish practices takes the focus off grace and muddies the waters.
“and there isn’t another ‘good news'” (v. 7a). Here Paul gets more specific. There is no alternative good news. There is only the good news of salvation through Christ on the one hand—and the bad news of salvation by works on the other hand. No in-between!
“Only there are some who trouble you, and want to pervert (Greek: metastrepho) the Good News of Christ” (v. 7b). These perverters are the Judaizers mentioned in “The Context” above. While they are Christians of a sort who are trying to persuade Christians to adopt certain practices of Jewish law, their efforts “pervert (Greek: metastrepho) the Good News of Christ”—distorting it to the extent that it becomes unrecognizable.
Metastrepho means to turn from one direction to another—to change—or to pervert. In this context, pervert is a good translation.
“But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any “good news” other than that which we preached to you, let him be cursed” (Greek: anathema—to receive divine condemnation) (v. 8). Paul includes himself and his colleagues among those who are to be cursed (to receive divine condemnation) if they pervert the good news that Paul has preached in Galatia.
Paul includes angels among those who are subject to being cursed if they pervert the Gospel message. While angels are God’s messengers, an angel who distorts the Godly message that he has been sent to deliver will be subject to God’s judgment (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6). The reason is simple. A distortion of the Godly message is likely to lead people in the wrong direction, and might lead to their condemnation. In such a case, God will hold his messenger accountable.
“As we have said before, so I now say again: if any man preaches to you any “good news” other than that which you received, let him be cursed” (v. 9). See the comments on verse 8. Paul restates the principle for emphasis.
GALATIANS 1:10: PLEASING MEN OR SERVING CHRIST
10 For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? For if I were still pleasing men, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ.
“For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men?” (v. 10a). Paul asks a rhetorical question: “In writing this letter, am I trying to win the favor of men or of God?” He couches the question in such a way that he expects the answer, “Of God!”
Then he asks another rhetorical question: “Or am I striving to please men?” The expected answer is “No! Of course not!”
“For if I were still pleasing men, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ” (v. 10b). Paul hammers home his point. If he were trying to please people, he would be their servant rather than Christ’s. That, however, is not the case. He has devoted his life to Christ, and seeks to please no one other than Christ. This letter to the Galatian Christians confirms that. He expresses himself in a forthright manner to chide them for their error and to persuade them to amend their ways. That kind of approach is the opposite of the servile behavior that tries to accommodate the truth to the hearer.
GALATIANS 1:11-12: THE GOOD NEWS CAME THROUGH CHRIST
11 But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man. 12 For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.
“But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man” (v. 11). Paul wants to make it clear that the Gospel preached by him was not “according to man”—wasn’t the product of human thought.
“For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it” (v. 12a). There were, of course, people involved in Paul’s conversion and maturing in the faith. After Jesus appeared to Saul (Paul’s pre-Christian name) on the road to Damascus, Jesus called Ananias to lay hands on Saul so that Saul could regain his sight and might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:12-19). When Jews tried to kill Saul, Christians lowered him in a basket through a hole in the wall so that he might escape (Acts 9:23-25). In Jerusalem, where the disciples knew Saul’s reputation and were afraid of him, Barnabas served as Saul’s advocate so that Saul could proclaim the Gospel there (Acts 9:26-30).
“but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 12b). However, the content of Saul’s preaching came “through revelation of Jesus Christ.” This revelation began on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, but surely continued thereafter.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965)
Cousar, Charles, Interpretation: Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fung, Ronald Y.K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
George, Timothy, New American Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994)
Hays, Richard B., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 41 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1987)
Soards, Marion L., and Pursiful, Darrell J., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Galatians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, Inc., 2015)
Williams, Sam K., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Vol. 9 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
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