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“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel …” – Galatians 1:6
You Did What?
Have you ever received – or written – a letter of reprimand or an email message designed to call someone to account? Such messages typically skip the pleasantries and get right down to business, laying out the recipient’s perceived shortcomings or failures in ways that may or may not be overly tactful. Correspondence like this can be painful, but sometimes it is necessary.
That’s precisely what we find in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We don’t know exactly which churches Paul had in mind, or in which part of the province of Galatia they were located, but we do know what their problem was: they had forsaken the gospel of grace and fallen for an aberrant doctrine that depended on works.
A loaded address(vv. 1-5)
Letters of the ancient world typically began with identity of the sender, as in the “inside address” or stationery heading of a modern business letter, followed by the naming of the intended recipients. A variety of pleasantries or greetings would begin the missive before the author moved on to the actual occasion of the letter.
In all of his letters except one, Paul’s greeting included a prayer of thanksgiving for his readers. That one exception is the letter to the Galatians, where Paul found little to be thankful for and much to concern him.
In short, when Paul wrote this letter, he was mad as fire. He had worked among the Galatians, seen them come to faith in Christ, and taught them good doctrine – only to learn that they had since fallen under the sway of rival preachers who believed one could not be fully Christian without also becoming Jewish.
This idea was an ongoing issue as pioneer Christians worked out how to do and be the church. The earliest Christians were Jews, as was Jesus. Some early church leaders were so entrenched in their ethnic faith that they expected Gentile converts to convert to Judaism as well as Christianity. In time, the conflict led to a special meeting where Paul and Barnabas debated church leaders in Jerusalem, insisting that salvation was by faith alone: Gentiles were under no obligation to keep the Jewish law. (See “The Hardest Question” online for more.)
When Paul heard that unnamed “Judaizers” had hijacked his Galatian flock and persuaded them to adopt the Jewish law, he took the affront personally. The Galatians’ willingness to follow contradictory teachers showed that they no longer respected his authority in doctrinal matters. Thus, even before naming or greeting his addressees, Paul began by defending himself: “Paul, an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead …” (v. 1).
Paul called himself an apostle because he believed his vision of the resurrected Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9) put him on the same footing as those who had followed Jesus during his time on earth. Likewise, he considered his calling to preach as deriving from God the Father through Jesus Christ, rather than any human officials.
Before he said the first word of address, Paul wanted to emphasize – with the implicit endorsement of “all the members of God’s family who are with me” (v. 2a) – that his authority came directly from God. As such, it should not only be respected, but given precedence over the teaching of persons who taught a divergent doctrine.
Paul usually began his letters with a reference to towns or individuals, and typically addressed his audience as “the saints in … .” He saw no saints there, however, addressing his message only “To the churches of Galatia” (v. 2b). This suggests that the false doctrine had become prevalent throughout the area.
While Paul offered no prayer of thanksgiving for the Galatians, he did wish them grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Instead of leaving it at that, however, he added a commentary relative to the gospel his readers seem to have questioned. Thus he qualified “the Lord Jesus Christ” as the one “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever” (vv. 3-5).
Paul believed the Galatians had abandoned the gospel of freedom through Christ, so he prefaced all other comments with the bedrock belief that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to set us free” – meaning that no further works or rituals should be necessary.
An astonished apostle(vv. 6-9)
Nor did Paul see the need for further pleasantries, as he launched immediately into a strongly worded reprimand and appeal for change: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel,” he said (v. 6).
A pastor that brash might not last long today, but Paul did not hesitate to criticize those who had turned away from the message of God (“The one who called you”) and the good news of grace offered through Christ.
God’s offer of salvation is the heart of the true gospel, so Paul immediately explained his reference to a “different gospel” by insisting that there is no other real gospel. There may be false pretenders, such as a legalistic gospel propounded by Paul’s opponents, the Gnostic gospel that was soon to appear, or the modern distortion we know as the prosperity gospel – but they are not the true gospel. Those who teach twisted doctrine, Paul said, “are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (v. 7).
Paul would get more specific about their particular perversion later: some were teaching that Christ’s grace was not enough and that believers must also follow the Jewish law (5:4). For the moment, Paul’s focus was on the danger of teaching any false doctrine, and he did so in the strongest language imaginable.
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (v. 9). If that were not enough, Paul repeated the forceful sentiment in v. 10: if anyone teaches another gospel, “let that one be accursed!”
Can you sense the apostle’s anger and feel the heat rising from his pen? The word translated as “accursed” is the Greek anathema. Classically, the term could describe an offering that is devoted or consecrated to the gods and thus set aside from normal use. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it was used to describe plunder put under the herem ban during a “Holy War” in which God was thought to be fighting for Israel and all enemy property was to be destroyed as an offering to God rather than taken as booty by the Israelites.
Paul took up this idea of some-thing destined for destruction when he called for anyone who perverted the gospel to be accursed, anathema, condemned to destruction under God’s judgment.
One could argue that Paul was overreaching by daring to presume what God’s judgment would be, but his flagrant language demonstrated how furious he was to learn that members of the Judaizing party had come behind him and stolen his sheep, leading them to desert the gospel of grace for a system of works.
A divine revelation(vv. 10-12)
Having vented his vexation, Paul returned to the task of establishing his authority as a teacher who could be trusted. He insisted that he did not seek human approval, but God’s alone: this may imply that the false evangelists had claimed official endorsement by the church leaders in Jerusalem, including recognized apostles such as James, John, and Peter. Paul cared little for their opinion, as he indicated later in 2:1-10: his concern was to please God, not any human authority (v. 10).
On the other hand, Paul’s denial that he had sought human approval may have been in response to a charge from the late-coming legalists that Paul had abbreviated the gospel in favor of a more popular message, emphasizing free grace at the expense of keeping the law in hopes of winning people over.
Paul insisted he would not compromise the integrity of the gospel in return for popularity. His bold claim to having it right was based on a visionary encounter with Christ: he had not learned about Jesus or God’s plan of salvation from conversations or seminars led by church leaders, apostles, or any other person. The gospel he proclaimed was “not of human origin,” Paul said: “I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (vv. 11-12).
The law-free gospel of salvation by grace came directly from Jesus, Paul said. Whether he had in mind his initial vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) or later visionary experiences such as those described in Acts 9:10-12 and 16:9 and 1 Cor. 12:1-10, Paul had no doubt that he had encountered Christ personally, and that his understanding of the gospel came directly from God through Christ. As such, he had no patience with humans who would add to or subtract from God’s offer of saving grace.
Should we? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for May 29, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Galatians 1:1-12
At the beginning of Galatians, Paul asks the church, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people?” Paul doesn’t ease into the letter by asking this question, and I think it is still a relevant question to ask, as parents today. From whom are we seeking approval: our youth? our friends? our boss? There is nothing wrong with wanting to be liked by different groups of people, but it is problematic to let them decide how we will act or what we will do. It is especially troubling when we let others decide what will happen when we know it will be detrimental to them or to others. Our approval as parents is not found in what our youth think about us, our approval is found as our youth discover themselves in Christ and as they discover and use the gifts that Christ has given to them. As we provide our youth opportunities to discover and live into these areas, our approval will be won.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“A Better Way to Reprimand” from A League of Their Own via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Galatians 1:1-12