An Introduction to the Galatian Epistle
© C. O. Bishop 2014 (THCF 8/31/14)
The letter to the Galatians is dated around 60 AD, and was possibly written from Rome (according to the Greek end-note text which may or may not actually be part of the Scripture). There seems to be a good deal of disagreement amongst scholars about where Paul was when he wrote this epistle. Some say Corinth, some Ephesus, and some Antioch. In a way, I really don’t think it matters where he was: the recipients knew it was from Paul, and they undoubtedly knew where he was at the time. One thing special about this epistle is that he personally wrote it, as opposed to having another person act as his scribe, which was his usual practice. (We will see the evidence for that in the last chapter.)
Another thing unusual about this epistle is that it was to several churches as a group; it was not addressed to a single church and then to be passed around. The recipients were the believers across the region of Galatia, a portion of what we now call Asia Minor. They were distinguished not only by where they lived but from whence their ancestors had come. (Schofield points out that they were relatively recent immigrants from Gaul.) Also, it was a political domain; a region determined by the Roman Empire, to which all the Mediterranean area belonged. So: unlike some of the epistles which were to one church in a particular city, this was to all the churches in the region, or province, of Galatia.
Paul had heard that these believers had been targeted by false teachers who were rapidly convincing them that unless they kept the Mosaic Law, they could not be saved. This doctrine actually had begun almost immediately; as soon as the true doctrine of Grace had been preached, the legalizers were right behind it, trying to negate the work of Grace. We saw that in the Book of Acts, but people are still doing this today. Perhaps such people think they are doing something for God, but the results are terrible. The tendency of the human heart is to desire to believe that “I can save myself!” or at least, that “I can do something to earn God’s favor”. And the result is that we invariably replace Grace with works. Why? Because Grace is specifically “un-earned favor”—unmerited favor: if it is earned, it is no longer Grace: the two concepts are mutually exclusive.
Consider, too, that false teachers, whether they know it or not, are partnering with the Enemy, in trying to prevent the salvation of souls. Some may genuinely think they are helping the cause of God, but Paul makes it clear that they are definitely not helping, but rather thwarting God’s plan.
One of our deacons was present when his (then) employer (a now-deceased member of this church) graciously attempted to share the Grace of God through Christ with a client (just what Galatians teaches). The client was quite wealthy, and a member of a religious sect that favors legalism over grace. When offered God’s Grace, the client answered “I don’t need that!” He pointed to a beautiful church building in the distance: “Do you see that church? I built it! My name is on it! I don’t need a savior: my position with God is secured by my works!” He was completely serious in what he was saying. It is especially sad to hear such a thing, as that man has since died, and met his maker: Did he meet his savior, or his judge? I suppose that it is possible that he had changed his mind before he died, but my guess would be that he had not. From human perspective, he may have seemed a good man: but from God’s perspective he was a lost and guilty sinner, trying to bribe the Judge. (How does that work out in our courts?)
So the temptation of legalism is not really that it adds to Grace, but that it supplants it. There are always some who hedge a little, and maintain, “Well, we are saved by Grace, but we are kept (and sanctified) by works!” This doctrine still sets aside God’s Grace, in that the Holy Spirit, indwelling the believer, is the only one who makes us holy before God (that’s sanctification), and the one who keeps us, actually sealing us in Christ until He, himself, comes to retrieve us.
The simple fact remains that if at any point my salvation or my sanctification is dependent upon my works, then ultimately both are entirely dependent upon my works, as the works are unquestionably the “weak link” in that chain.
These are the two errors Paul was writing to correct, but he had other things to teach the churches, as well. He revealed things, here, about his personal testimony that we do not find elsewhere. He let us know how he himself received the Gospel. He gave the believers instructions as to how to walk with God.
Galatians Chapter 1, verses 1-5
1 Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;)
Paul clearly states his credentials in the opening verse, and then goes on to substantiate them later on. To begin with, he says that he is an apostle. The word “apostle” means “sent one”…a person sent as an ambassador, a representative, and a messenger. So he is sent by someone and is representing someone…not even necessarily the same one. An ambassador is usually appointed, not elected, so that ambassador may be representing a nation, none of whose citizens ever personally approved his appointment, or possibly even have heard of him. (Who is the United States ambassador to Peru right now? Or to France? The fact is, they are representing your government, but you don’t know who they are, let alone having elected them, chosen them or sent them.)
But Paul said that he is not an apostle of men…not representing any humans, as an ambassador. He also says that he is not sent by man. No human sent him. He says that he was sent by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him (Jesus) from the dead. He is an ambassador of Christ. He has stated his credentials—he is divinely chosen, divinely appointed, and divinely sent. He will tell us more later on.
2 And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia:
Paul continues his formal greeting in the same general format he always uses (“Paul [and whoever else] to [whomever is receiving the letter]”). This was a pretty standard salutation in letter-writing at that time, though it may seem odd to us. We have other examples of letters in the Bible, written at about the same time and in similar location, and they all follow a similar style.
Paul has already listed himself as the speaker, and now he lumps the rest of the people with him into one group greeting the recipients: “all the brethren which are with me”. We don’t know the names of the brethren who were with Paul at that time. Paul was not being personal here; he was being polite. But who is the letter to? This epistle is slightly unusual as it is clearly directed to all the churches in a general area, rather than a single church. We will also notice that in the closing, in chapter six; rather than passing along greetings to individuals as he frequently did, it is entirely impersonal, beyond the fact that he addresses them all as his “brethren”, thus recognizing that they are born-again individuals.
It may or may not be important to remember that the churches were each autonomous…self-supporting and self governing: he did not address himself to the “Abbot of Galatia”, or the “Archbishop of Galatia”, but to the Churches, plural. There was no central authority over a group of churches. Jesus is the head of the Church, period! And the Church universal is made up of all the believers from all the local assemblies in history.
Furthermore, we discover in other passages that when he gave the assignment to Timothy and Titus to “build up” the churches and “set things in order”, he said to “ordain elders (plural) in every church (singular)”. So all the churches to which Paul was writing had multiple leaders, and he did not address this letter to any of them. He addressed it to the churches: the assembled believers. The elders and deacons were simply part of those churches. There was no special hierarchy whereby the leaders got special attention from apostles. To put it bluntly; if you are a born-again believer, today, then this letter is to YOU. Take it personally!
Grace and Peace
3 Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ,
Even though, in every case, the people he was writing to were already believers, Paul always listed these blessings in this same order… in every case it is Grace, then Peace. That is the order in which we receive those two. In Salvation, we receive God’s Grace (which was extended to us in the person of Christ) through faith, and, as a result, we are permanently at peace with God. (Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:8, 9) This is a positional truth: Once you have placed your faith in him for salvation, the Grace of God is permanently and unconditionally applied to your life, and you have Peace with God, forever. Believe it!
As believers, we place our trust in Christ daily for wisdom, guidance and sustenance…or we don’t. He sustains us daily by His Grace, and we have the peace of God…or we don’t: the choice, daily, moment by moment, is our own. (Philippians 4:6-9) Those two are intertwined, but the order is always “Grace then Faith, resulting in Peace”. In the believer’s daily life, they are always conditional upon continuing faith and obedience. The Peace of God is Conditional.
We will soon focus on the second aspect of Grace, but it may be good to remember at this point that, while the Law came through Moses (John 1:17), Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. And Peace always follows Grace. So how would the recipients of the Law have found Peace? They could only find Peace through Grace, even in the time of Moses. Noah, roughly 1500 years before Moses, found Grace in the eyes of God. That is where his peace came from. The Law had not been given…but Grace had preceded the Law. And it has been the only path to God ever since the Fall of Man.
Adam lived long before either Noah or Moses was born: long before the giving of the Mosaic Law. The only Law he had known was the one command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (“In the day that thou eat it, thou shalt surely die.”) He broke that one command, and plunged himself and all his progeny into ruin. Spiritually, he died on the spot. God says in Revelation 13:8 that the preparation had already been made for the salvation of the Human Race: Jesus is the Lamb slain from the Foundation of the Earth…not from the Fall of Man. So how was Adam saved?
Genesis 3:7-20 God responded to the Sin of the human race with the Curse—it affected the snake, proper (no more legs, no more nice food; permanent enmity between snakes and people…as a rule) it affected Satan the “Old Serpent” in a way a little harder to see, but you will notice that the Promise of the “Seed of Woman”, coming to crush the Serpent’s head, is not directed to the offspring of the snake, but to the Serpent, proper. (“He will crush YOUR head!”) It affected the woman, causing pain in childbirth AND an ongoing struggle between the woman and the man…the “desire” mentioned here is not an affectionate or a passionate desire, but a desire to control…and it has had a permanent affect on history. The Curse affected the Ground, for Adam’s sake; it would no longer easily bear fruit for the human race. And, finally, it affected Adam along with the whole creation; death had come, and all things were now destined to die.
Adam could have just collapsed in the glare of God’s wrath, and died without hope…but he saw hope in the wording of the Curse, and he believed God. He named his wife “Eve” (mother of all the living) because he believed in the Coming Savior—the Seed of Woman! That is faith! In fact, it was specifically saving faith. God recognized it and covered their sins with a blood sacrifice. He killed animals in place of the humans, and clothed them with the skins of the dead sacrifice.
Abel understood the family history correctly, and he brought a blood sacrifice. So have all the believers in history. Those of the Old Testament were all looking forward to a coming Savior, ultimately looking forward to the Cross, though probably (mostly) they did not really understand what was to come. We believers in the New Testament era are looking back to the Cross, and our blood sacrifice, like theirs, is the Person of Christ. My opinion is that we probably don’t completely understand what happened at the Cross, either—but we believe God, and trust in the shed Blood of the Savior. He extended His Grace through the Cross—and that is the only way He has ever done it. We humans have always been saved by Grace, through Faith, plus nothing.
So what about Jesus’ death at the Cross?
What really did happen there? What was accomplished? What was the intent?
4 Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:
We know that He died for our sins, and we frequently act as though it was just to save us from the eternal consequences of our sins…but here he says that he died for us that he might deliver us from this present evil world (or age)…and that this, in fact, is the will of God, our Heavenly Father. If that is so, then in order to fulfill God’s will in our lives we should see the grip of this World loosening its hold upon us; and our lives more and more reflecting the Person of Christ.
If all Jesus has managed to do in your life is to save you from Hell, then God’s Will is not being carried out in your life. I’m not being critical…this is what God says about the crucifixion.
Have you been born again? If so, are you also being delivered from the grip of the World on your life, your thoughts, and your morals? There are three aspects of salvation:
- The first aspect, we already mentioned…we have been saved (past tense) from the eternal penalty of sin. God will never again seek to administer judgment for our sins, as His justice was fully poured out at the Cross.
- The second aspect doesn’t get talked about as much, but it is just as real, and here, remember, he clearly states that it is the will of God, who has already saved us and made us his children: He wants us to be saved (present tense) from the power of sin in our lives—to be delivered from the present effect of Satan, the World, and our old sin natures. That is why we need constant direction from the Holy Spirit, constant feeding on God’s Word, and constant shepherding by Christ himself.
- The third is the one we are all looking forward to: He will eventually (future tense) save us from the presence of sin, so that we are no longer tormented, and will finally live in the full reality of the holiness that he has placed upon us.
I can see all three tenses of salvation listed in John 5:24 “Whoever hears my words and believes in Him who sent me has (present tense) eternal life, and shall not (future tense) come into condemnation, but has crossed over (past tense…perfect tense, specifically) from death into life.” (Perfect tense implies a completed action at a past point in time, having permanent results for the future.)
If I have believed in Jesus’ shed blood as full payment for my sin, then I have eternally been saved from the penalty of sin. I have crossed over from death into life. The result for my future is that I will never be condemned by God. Please notice carefully that there are no “qualifiers” listed here: nothing that says “unless, or except”, or anything of the kind. I have eternal life, and God expects me to be living as one resurrected from the dead. He says this “is the will of God and our Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen”
5 To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
You know, given the facts he has just alluded to, and which we have discussed a little more directly, it seems impossible that anyone would not want to give Glory to God for the things he has done. He has poured out his Grace, unearned, and undeserved, upon us. Though we continually rebel against His Grace and His righteousness, He continues to Keep us, and cleanse us, and use us for His Glory. We can either honor Him with our lives, day by day, or fail to do so.
Keep that in mind when you sing hymns of Praise…He is worthy of every bit we can offer, and far, far more. (Amen!)
Father, change our lives into the likeness of Christ and cause us to live for your Glory. Amen!