Chapter OneGalatians 1:1-9
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Paul, an apostle-sent not from men nor by man, but
by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him
from the dead-2 and all the brothers with me,
To the churches in Galatia:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the
Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us
from the present evil age, according to the will of our God
and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one
who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different
gospel-7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently
some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying
to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel
from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we
preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have
already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to
you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally
While this letter appears to begin as typical
ancient letters began (Writer . Addressee .
Greetings .), the careful reader observes not
only variations but also the themes that motivate
the letter. In general, Paul's introductions are longer, just as his letters are
longer than the average ancient letter. Furthermore, Paul's greetings emphasize
his own apostolic status (cf. Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1)
and the divine origin of salvation. More importantly, Paul's introductory
greetings are truly introductions: in each of them he begins to express his concerns
for the entire letter. In this letter Paul begins to speak of his unquestionable
apostleship (v. 1: "sent not from men nor by man" is an early
criticism of the status of the Judaizers) and of salvation by grace (1:4); both
of these themes, of course, dominate the letter.
This introduction comprises two sections: (1) the salutation (vv. 1-5) and
(2) the occasion of the letter (vv. 6-9). The salutation includes Paul's particular
status (v. 1), the addressees (v. 1), those who are with Paul (v. 2), and the
greeting of grace and peace (v. 3). Paul greatly expands the greeting by speaking
of the true origin of grace and peace (vv. 4-5). The occasion of the letter
begins with a statement expressing Paul's befuddlement at the fickleness
of the Galatian churches (v. 6). This Paul clarifies in verse 7 when he states
that, in fact, the message to which the Galatians were being attracted was not
the gospel at all. Paul's convictions are so strong about their departure from
the pure gospel that he invokes an eternal curse on those who distort the
gospel of Christ that he received and preached to them (vv. 8-9).
Paul's salutation has some interesting features that we need to examine,
including the significance of the title "apostle" (v. 1) and the meaning of "the
present evil age" (v. 4). To use the title "apostle" as the second word of the
letter is to claim authority and to expect agreement on the part of the
churches of Galatia. While our age may be essentially dialogical in its orientation,
Paul's world was more hierarchical and authoritarian. To understand
this we must sketch what an apostle was in the Jewish and early Christian
world. The Greek term for "apostle" (apostolos) is parallel to the Hebrew wordshaliach. This Hebrew term was used to describe a personal agent, representative,
or ambassador. In fact, a post-first-century definition has become
standard for how we understand what an apostle was, even in the first century.
I quote from the third-century Jewish Mishnah: "One who prays and
errs-it is a bad sign for him. And if he is a communal agent [who prays on
behalf of the whole congregation], it is a bad sign for them that appointed
him. [This is on the principle that] a man's agent is like [the man] himself"
(Mishnah Berakhot 5:5). Notice in this definition that others make inferences
about a given authority on the basis of his agents. (The term "agent" is a translation
of the Hebrew shaliach.) That is to say, one's agents become the very
representations of the person who sent them, much as international ambassadors
are official representatives of the national leader himself. With this in
mind, we can clearly see that Paul saw himself as an official representative of Jesus
Christ. He knew he had been called by Jesus Christ and been appointed an
official apostle of Jesus Christ, and he knew the implication of being called
Paul worked this out in several directions. While he knew there was a special
class of apostles, the Twelve (cf. 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:17, 19), he knew he
was also an apostle in a parallel sense, even if he was "last of all" (1 Cor. 15:8;
cf. Rom 1:1; Gal. 1:1; etc.). While it is clear that Paul at times had to struggle
with others over his status (e.g., at Galatia and Corinth), his own convictions
were firm. Paul knew he had been called by the risen Jesus (1 Cor.
9:1; 15:7-8; Gal. 1:15-16) and that the Lord had revealed to him in that call
the specifics of his ministry: Paul was to go to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16; 2:7).
This call was confirmed in Paul's missionary successes and in his miracles (cf.
Rom. 1:5; 11:13-16; 15:19; 1 Cor 3:5-6; 4:15). In fact, Paul tells the
Corinthians: "you are the seal of my apostleship" (1 Cor. 9:2). We should also
observe that Paul, along with the testimony of the church, saw the role of
the apostles to be a special one in history; he knew that they performed a crucial
function in the period just after the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 4:9; Eph.
2:20; 3:5-6; Col. 1:24-27).
Paul, then, writes as an apostle-as one who has been called personally
by Jesus Christ, who therefore represents Jesus Christ, and who has a crucial
role in the history of the church. He claims at least that much in the second
word of this letter. He expects the Galatians to listen; he knows that disagreement
is no longer dialogue; disagreement is heresy when it comes to the
essentials of the gospel as made known through the apostles and prophets.
Even Paul himself must submit to his own gospel (1:8, 10).
Paul's greeting is the typical early Christian mixing of the Greek and Jewish
greetings ("grace and peace"). However, Paul's greeting is not simply from
one mortal person to another; the grace and peace Paul invokes upon the
Galatians is the grace and peace "from God our Father and the Lord Jesus
Christ." Paul, in adding the origins of his greetings, distances his greetings
from the secular world and makes them sacred and religious. This greeting
is one shared only by Christians.
In describing the origin of the greetings, Paul goes on to comment on
Jesus, saying that Jesus Christ "gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the
present evil age" (v. 4). Forgiveness of sins is important for Galatians but it
plays a mediating role there. For this letter forgiveness implies that work of
Christ is sufficient (2:21). To bring up forgiveness, then, implies that the
Galatians have not yet grappled enough with how potent the work of Christ
was. To put this another way, while the Galatians may have thought they
were forgiven by Christ (2:15-21; 3:10-14), they did not realize that this forgiveness
was also sufficient to rescue them from "the present evil age." It was
the present evil age that concerned Paul because he believed that those who
consistently lived in Christ would not succumb to it.
What is "the present evil age" from which one is rescued through the cross
(cf. 3:13)? How is one rescued from a "time period"? While it may be correct
to say that in comparison, the present for Paul is evil and the future is good
(cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-10), this is not nuanced enough for what Paul is getting at.
Judaism frequently distinguished "this age" from the "age to come," the latter
a description of the establishment of God's justice and peace. But the revolution
that took place in Paul's understanding of history when he
encountered Jesus Christ adds a new dimension to "this age." It is probably
best to regard this expression as describing "life dictated by the law." Because
Christ has eclipsed the age of the law and brought history to a new era (see
notes at 3:19-25), life under the law, whether lived now or in the past, is considered
"an evil age" (cf. 4:3, 9; 5:1; see also 5:16-26). One who trusts in
Christ is rescued from the present evil age: "he gave himself for our sins to
rescue us" (1:4). This expression, then, probably reflects the polemical situation
of Galatians: the present evil age is the age in which the Galatians are
being seduced to live, and life in Christ is a life of freedom (5:1-12).
Paul's introduction moves next to a description of the occasion for the letter
(vv. 6-9). It has often been observed that this is the only surviving letter
of Paul's that does not contain a thanksgiving for the church to whom he is
writing. It is then usually inferred that since Paul does not give thanks, he is
either not thankful to God for them or he is so angry with what has taken
place he cannot express his thanks. These observations, in some form, are
probably accurate. However, we should also observe that many hold this letter
to be the first canonical letter Paul wrote and that, in light of this, it is hard
to argue a departure from his typical practice since that practice had not yet
begun. It is just possible that Paul's practice of expressing thanksgiving in his
letters developed later or that such a practice developed out of his harsh experience
The reason why Paul wrote this letter, and the reason we have it, is
because the Galatians had "changed positions" on a crucial subject: the
means of acceptance with God and the role Christ played in that acceptance.
Paul is amazed that their change took place "so quickly" (v. 6). At 5:4 Paul
states that this change was opting for a system in which grace was not crucial
and in which Christ's work was not sufficient. Paul states here that they
were "deserting the one who called you" (v. 6); that is to say, their move was
not just an intellectual one. Rather, it was a desertion of God as made
known in Christ; it was abandoning of their personal relationship with
God. If we use the categories of 3:19-25 (see notes there), their departure
was a decision to live in B.C. days when the A.D. days had arrived. It was a
decision to recede back in time into the days of Moses and to reject the
epoch-altering revelation in Christ. While Paul suggests this was a move to
a "different gospel," he goes on in verse 7 to clarify this by saying that this
is "really no gospel at all." The move of the Galatians was not one of those
views of legitimate Christian differences; it was total and devastating. Paul
counters here any suggestion of simple Christian differences. When the
gospel of grace in Christ is supplemented with the system of Moses, the
result is not a perfected, fully mature gospel; rather, it is a gross perversion
and a totally different message.
Gross perversions of the gospel are heresies. Paul's final words here are
potent. He invokes a curse on anyone (including himself!) who distorts the
gospel. Paul's sentences in verses 8-9 are largely parallel and synonymous with
one interesting variation. The expression "the one we preached to you" in
verse 8 has its parallel in verse 9 in "than what you accepted." The latter
expression is related to his apostolic calling. Paul uses here the technical language
of passing on sacred traditions ("what you accepted"; Gk. parelabete) in
such a way as to guarantee authenticity and heredity. It is the same language
used by rabbis for handing on their sacred traditions, and it is the same term
Paul uses for the tradition of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:23). The message
Paul preached is the message that ultimately derives from the Lord because
it is has been transmitted to others through his apostles.
Those who distort this message are rejecting the authority of Christ and are
therefore cursed (anathema). This word is used in the Old Testament for something
consecrated to God for his destruction (cf. Deut. 7:26; Josh. 6:17-18).
Paul is not talking here about church discipline; his language is far too strong
for that. He is invoking God's final damnation and wrath on people who distort
the gospel of grace in Christ and substitute, in effect, Moses' law as the preeminent
form of revelation. They are like those who reject the message of the
prophets (1 Kings 11:30-31) or apostles (Matt. 10:14).
Paul's introduction encompasses much: it moves from wishing God's
grace and peace on believers to cursing those who refuse that grace; it moves
from Paul's titled status (apostle) to the severest form of that status (cursing).
It introduces us to the heart of the Galatian problem: a gospel of grace at war
with a gospel that minimizes Christ.
Any bible reader knows that reflection and meditation
upon even the smallest of words and sentences
of God's Word can produce applications
for life. Because of the scope of this commentary
we cannot suggest applications for everything Paul says in these first nine
verses. We have to examine the land and find the more significant contours.
This is usually done by finding the more logically important words, the most
theologically significant ideas, and the more practically relevant issues. Even
then we will omit some important things. For example, the resurrection of
Christ is crucial both for Christian life and for apologetics. Paul mentions the
resurrection in verse 1, but the resurrection does not play a critical role in the
theology of Galatians. Since this is not a word-by-word commentary, we will
not be able to trace out the applications of every expression. In this particular
section (1:1-9), we point out three elements of "bridging the context."
(1) It is clear to any reader of this letter that Paul faced different problems
than we face. He was a Diaspora Jew, probably raised in Jerusalem, and he
encountered traveling missionaries who distorted the apostolic gospel of
Christ by adding Moses to it in such a way so as to make life in Jerusalem (and
elsewhere) more socially comfortable. I have rarely heard of Christians converting
to Judaism in such a way that they thought they were bringing
Christianity to its fullest form. I have heard, sadly, of some who have rejected
Christ and opted for Judaism (or some other faith). Put differently, when we
apply even this introduction, we must be aware of the differences as well as
the similarities. We must be aware of the social context of the Judaizers as a
potential clue for application. Perhaps we will find groups of Christians who
are deeply influenced by leaders who themselves are seeking acceptance with
some social group.