Teaching series from Galatians

A Preview of the Letter

Galatians 1:1-5

Teaching t20276


This morning we begin a study of Galatians.  This is a letter written by Paul, one of the key leaders of the early Christian movement, to a group of churches that Paul started in south central Turkey (MAP).  It is probably the earliest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, written in 48 or 49 AD. 

Before we read the beginning of this letter, let me explain its setting.  Shortly after Paul started these churches, he had to leave.  In his absence, a group of Jewish pseudo-Christian teachers (“Judaizers”) visited the Galatian churches and attacked Paul’s message and his authority.  From this letter (and Acts), we can reconstruct the essence of their attack:

They said that simply receiving Jesus as their Messiah-Savior wasn’t enough for them to be accepted by God—they also had to obey the Old Testament law and become Jews, which included undergoing circumcision and observing Jewish dietary laws.

They also said that Paul lacked authority to speak about receiving God’s acceptance through Jesus.  They apparently said that Paul was only a junior leader—that the only authoritative leaders of the church in Jerusalem.  They further charged that Paul was a despicable man-pleaser—that he had knowingly diluted the disciples’ teaching (above) out of fear that the Galatians would reject him if he told them the whole truth.

With this brief background, let’s read Paul’s greeting (read 1:1-5).  Although this greeting follows the typical form of first-century letters, it also introduces Paul’s response to the Judaizers’ two attacks.  It thus functions as a preview of the letter, distilling these two crucially important themes that the rest of the letter will develop in much greater detail.

Paul’s authority: an apostle of Jesus

In 1:1, Paul responds to their attack on his authority by claiming that he is an “apostle” of Jesus.  He also specifically denies that he is under any human church authority.  

“Apostle” (apostello) literally means “sent one”—one who has been officially authorized to speak on behalf of the one who sent him.  “Apostle” is a technical term that emphasizes the authority of the apostle.  Referring to the Hebrew equivalent for “apostle” (shalika), the rabbis said: “The one sent is as the one who sent him.”

The best contemporary parallel to this concept is an ambassador.  An American ambassador is the official representative of the President of the United States.  When the U. S. ambassador to Indonesia, for example, meets with Indonesian rulers, he does not spout his own opinion about American-Indonesian relations.  He communicates the President’s policy—he speaks on the President’s behalf.  And the Indonesian rulers’ response to the ambassador’s words is considered to be their response to the President himself.

Jesus bestowed the title “apostles” on his disciples.  They would be his official spokespersons, the ones uniquely authorized to speak on his behalf after his departure.  He emphasized their apostolic authority in Matt.10:40 (read and explain).  He also promised that his Spirit would uniquely inspire them to recall his words and deeds, and to understand the meaning of his (yet-future) death and resurrection (Jn.14:26; 16:13).

This is an extraordinarily important issue.  It is no exaggeration that the very essence of Christianity turns on the issue of apostolic authority

How do we know which ancient writings about Jesus belong in the New Testament?  The answer is: only the writings of the apostles.  Early church councils did not create the New Testament—they merely confirmed the authority of the apostles’ writings.  Other ancient Christian writings may be helpful for learning about the early church (e.g., early church fathers), but they themselves make it clear that the apostles’ writings are authoritative.  Other early writings falsely claim to be written by apostles (e.g., Gospel of Thomas)—but they are spurious because they were written after the apostles died.  Ironically, their claim to be apostolic demonstrates what everyone understood—that the apostles’ writings alone were authoritative.
How do we know what contemporary “Christian” teachers/leaders are trustworthy?  The answer is: those who conform to the teachings of the apostles (i.e., the New Testament).  No matter how many seminary degrees they may have, no matter what title they (or their denomination) gives them, they are to be followed only if they agree with and submit to apostolic teaching.  Otherwise, they are to be rejected as false teachers.

Now Paul is claiming in 1:1 that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ just like Jesus’ original disciples.  He claims that he was commissioned directly by Jesus for this role, just like they were.  He claims that he speaks authoritatively for Jesus and is under no other human church authority, just like them.  He claims that his message is the very message of Jesus, just like theirs—the standard by which all other messages (including that of the Judaizers) about Jesus must be evaluated.

You may be thinking: “How can Paul be an apostle when he was not one of Jesus’ original disciples?”  This is exactly the suspicion that the Judaizers used to undermine Paul’s authority.  Paul will answer this question in the first major section of Galatians (1:11-2:14).  We will explore this important passage in two weeks.

Paul’s message: God’s grace & peace through Jesus

In 1:3,4, Paul responds to the Judaizers’ attack on his message by concisely stating the essence of this message.  This message is the most wonderful message ever communicated to human ears.  This is why Paul calls it the “gospel”—the good news.

What is this good news?  That “grace and peace” are offered to us from God through Jesus. 

“Peace” means “the well-being that results from a restored relationship.”  We all know how bad it feels to be alienated from a key person (spouse; parent; friend)—and we all know how sweet it feels to be restored to closeness (ME w/ BEV).  God offers each of us a restored relationship with him—and this peace with him is the most deep-seated and stabilizing sense of well-being that you will ever experience.   This is what all of us want, what every one of us is searching for—even if we don’t consciously realize it, even we seek for it in the wrong places (read Jn.14:27).

What good news it is that God offers us peace!  And even better news is that he offers us peace on the basis of his “grace.”  “Grace” is the Greek word charis, from which our word “charity” comes.  God’s grace is God’s free help offered to people who don’t deserve it (EXAMPLE). 

How does God make his grace and peace available to us?  1:4 answers this question—through his Son Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross (read 1:4).  Jesus’ death was not an accident or terrible tragedy.  It was planned by God as the means through which he offers us grace and peace.  Notice that Jesus’ death does this in two ways.

“He gave himself for our sins.”  It is our sins that alienate us from God and make us deserving of his condemnation.  And no amount of good works or religious observances can ever pay this penalty.  So Jesus came to pay for our sins by dying in our place, bearing God’s judgment for us.  And because Jesus has given himself for our sins, we can be completely and permanently accepted by God.  We can know that our standing before God is secure because it doesn’t depend at all on what we do for God, but entirely on what Jesus did for us.  The result is peace with God (Rom. 5:1).

This great theme is called “justification by faith”—being given right standing with God through simple trust in Jesus.  Paul devotes the majority of this letter to developing this theme (2:15-4:31).  He answers objections to this gift.  He argues that it is the only way to be accepted by God.  He proves that the Old Testament agrees with this, that God always accepted people on this basis.  He shows that God never intended us to try to earn his acceptance by keeping his Law—but that he gave his Law to show us our need for this gift.  And he shows that all other ways to earn God’s acceptance end in defeat and bondage.

Through Jesus’ death, God forgives and accepts you.  But the good news doesn’t end there.  Jesus’ death also “rescues you from this present evil age.”  This doesn’t refer to eternal life in God’s kingdom when Jesus returns.  Those who belong to Jesus will indeed experience this—but that is not what Paul is talking about here.  He means that those who belong to Jesus can be rescued in this life from the power of evil to live a whole new way of life.  Yes, this present evil age continues until Jesus returns.  But Jesus has begun God’s kingdom through his death—and you can live in this present evil age with the power of God’s kingdom (Col.1:13).  You can start a whole new life with Jesus—a life in which his power transforms your heart so that you want to love him and love others with his love.  This new life results in peace and hope and joy (Rom.15:14).

This is the theme that Paul develops in 5:1-6:10.  He explains that God’s Spirit supplies the power to live this new life.  He explains how to live by the Spirit’s power, and he describes in more detail what this new life looks like. 


C. S. Lewis said: “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”1  This is exactly what Paul says.  The rest of this letter will explain and elaborate this wonderful message.  And I hope you will commit yourself to this entire series so you can learn about God’s grace and peace in a much deeper way.  But you don’t need to wait until you understand it thoroughly in order to benefit from it.  You can be accepted by God and begin to experience his peace right now.  All you need to do is humbly receive Jesus’ gift...

NEXT WEEK: No Give On the Gospel (1:6-10)

1 C. S. Lewis, from The Business of Heaven (New York: Harvest Books, 1984, reading for October 23.