Paul starts out with an assertion of his apostleship. His greeting of grace and peace though typical of his writing, is a direct challenge or reminder to the Galatians that they need God’s grace, not works, and they cannot have peace if they revert back to the law.
He was so shocked the Galatians so quickly returned to the Mosaic law system, and he calls that the perversion of the gospel: the mixing of works with grace. He warned them of anathema, translated as eternal damnation in some translation, if they pursue a gospel that is not based on grace alone.
Grace and Peace
1From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) 2and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia. 3Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
At this point in time, Jerusalem and Judaism were still prominent in the very young Christian church. Hence arose a question of Paul’s authority and apostleship. Much of Paul’s teaching in this letter has to do with steering them from the Old Covenant’s way of relating to God. Once again, Paul greeted them with the “Grace and peace” salutation. But grace didn’t mean much to a Jew. For thousands of years they related to Him through a system of law, and wherever there was law, there could be neither grace, nor peace.
What do grace and peace mean to us? Do we only pay lip service to them, or do we live our Christian lives in a relationship with God that is consistent with these characteristics that are supposed to be ours?
What makes us afraid of God? What system of theology that perpetuates a fear of God that He moved heaven and earth to dispel, including sending His own Son to the cross for us?
To be Rescued vs. Self Effort
who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father,
To be rescued means to be completely unable to do anything to save ourselves. This requires a simple childlike faith. When a Christian, knowingly or unknowingly, engage in some actions to make himself acceptable to God, he’s indulging in his spiritual pride. If he was so helpless he couldn’t save himself, how is he now able to do what he couldn’t do before? Galatians 3:3, a few chapters later, discounts this notion beautifully: “Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?”
Let’s take a look at some other translations:
King James Version: “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?”
New International Version: “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
We notice these keywords: “finish,” “made perfect,” and “attain your goal.”
All these words imply something is unfinished, something not yet perfect, or some goal not yet realized. I hope we see the danger lurking here, the tiny bit of the yeast of the Pharisee lurks in pious sounding words but empty of content, or worse, can lead Christians down the wrong path.
To begin with the Spirit must mean to end with our fleshly effort, to walk by faith, and nothing else, not even the least amount of work (to get on God’s good side). A rescued person continues to need rescueing until the Lord takes him home. To attain the goal, as stated in the verse above, is to walk the rest of the way until we put on the crown of glory. Some … foolish Christians believe there is something they can do as they try to finish what Christ started but not yet finished, as if this goal, this crown of glory, this righteousness, depends on what they do since the day they’re saved.
This is expressly forbidden. Begin with the Spirit, so end with the Spirit. Begin with grace, end with grace.
There is yet another verse that speaks of the same thing: “For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.” (Romans 1:17—NET)” Some will inevitably say: “But your work will have to accompany your faith.” To this I will answer: If there is a work the Lord has prepared for you to do, do it with all your heart, but if what you do, or not do, become the basis for your salvation, or your fellowship with God, you’re walking by the flesh, not faith.
I took a long detour to hopefully setup the stage for the rest of this Pauline discourse to show the various signs, or markers, of legalism that always try to undermine the centrality of the cross, the all-sufficiency of the Lamb that was slain for our salvation.
Work and glory
5to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen.
When work, even in the least amount, is introduced into our Christian life, much like yeast added to dough, we are robbing God of some of His glory. No yeast is allowed, because a tiny bit of it will spoil the whole batch of dough, a tiny bit of work will spoil your faith. This is why the bread we receive at communion is a yeast-free bread, just like the bread used in the Hebrews’ Passover.
When work is introduced, there will be praise of men, awards and recognition, but in one of Jesus’ parables, he stated that a servant only does his job, and should expect no reward. When we relate to God through the law, God’s glory becomes a fearful thing, much like the scene around Sinai when God in His glory was about to hand down the ever-condemning document called “The Ten Commandments.” Having it delivered to mankind and letting them try it out for a time, He declared: all of you must acknowledge you have sinned and fallen short of my glory. Being the all-knowing God, He knew this already, but he had to use the law to make them realize their wretched condition.
If we however choose to relate to God through grace, we will be covered in the blood of the Lamb, with full measure of God’s righteousness given to us freely, we can bask in His glory and see Him with unveiled faces.
Paul seemed to be in a hurry to get to the heart of the matter, he forgot to give the usual thanks for their faith and love, etc. Perhaps he felt such zeal for God’s glory being expressed in verse 5 above. He felt the pure gospel of the “grace” of God he worked so hard to teach these Galatians, was being abandoned for some other false gospel. Watch his astonishment of how quickly they are going astray:
Deserting the call of grace
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel— 7not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing (or confusing) you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ.
How quickly were they abandoning the grace of Christ? According to some sources, they might have been lured away by the Jewish seducers anywhere from one to three years after Paul left them.
The Greek used in “you are so quickly deserting,”</em> or in “ye are so soon removed from him (KJV)”</em> might have meant they shifted their ground, or changed their foundation. The accusation of their following a different gospel is a serious one, as we shall see later that this different gospel has to do with their going back to the law.
The “grace of Christ”</u> is the only instrument by which God calls us to salvation, and beyond, as it commands us to live in it, to live in the grace of Christ.
“Confusion”</em> is evident when those that are under our leadership are confused whether they’re saved or not. Confusion is inevitable when we don’t make the assurance of salvation the main focus of our ministries. And if Christians are not sure of their salvation, what quality is the work they will be doing for God? Will God accept what they do, or what they purport to do, for Him? If they are not sure of their salvation, what then is the relationship between them and the One they think they’re serving? Who is God to them? What motivates them to do what they do? Fear, or the joy of salvation?
I hope these questions help strengthen my argument that the Utmost Service For His Highest (Thomas A. Kempis might learn something from this lesson) would be to help Christians become so grounded in Christ and in what He did for them. The Galatians though acknowledging Christ, they insisted on circumcision and Jewish ordinances. We modern Christians must be careful not to add anything to the gospel of the PURE grace of Christ, or add anything that puts doubt of a perfect salvation in the heart of a child of God.
The true gospel: grace
8But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell!
“We” includes all the apostles, and even an angel from heaven, no one, absolutely no one, is allowed to preach “another” gospel.
The true gospel is this: John 3:16, “For God so loved the world … whosoever believes … will have eternal life.” The period at the end of the verse means there is nothing else required for this salvation.
Paul warned us of “God’s curse,” or “anathema,” which means “eternally condemned,” if we undermine the gospel of pure grace.
Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the law by dying once for all, so the return to the law would require that He must die again, and again, for believers, because they will still be sinning. God gave us a forewarning in Exodus when Moses struck the rock, the foreshadow of our Redeemer, twice. God forbade Moses from entering the Promised Land to show how serious he is about the danger of this false gospel (another reason might be that the forbidding of Moses, the deliverer of the law, to enter the Promised Land is to show it has no role in God’s kingdom, as all of the law deals with our fallen nature, and not the one born from above). There is no place for the law in the heart of one born by the Spirit.
9As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell! 10Am I now trying to gain the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ!
Paul was not concerned about the unbelieving world, or even the enemy of Christ, but about a more dangerous type: those that professed Christ but are now trying to promote another gospel from within.
Paul Called by God
11Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Not of human origin. Not taught. But by revelation. When something is taught, it is implied that it can be communicated from a man to another man; or in other words: it is of human origin. But what Paul received is none of the above. Therefore he cannot teach it to us; what he received, he can only relay back to us, exactly as God intended it.
But we must know what the gospel is, and the entire Bible is not the gospel, only a part, a very miniscule part of it is the gospel. The gospel is Jesus, the Christ, and everything else, from Samson and Delilah to David and Bathsheba, is the backdrop against which God brings about His salvation plan for mankind.
We make the fatal mistake of thinking the gospel is of human origin when we focus on thousands of other events recorded in the Bible, and make them virtually equal, or even superior, to the core of the gospel: “For God so loved the world …” We relegate the gospel to Billy Graham, and we focus on everything else but … saved for Christmas.
How Paul was called by God
13For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. 14I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased …
If God had already set Paul apart from his mother’s womb, Paul couldn’t have had initiated anything toward his calling; there was no obedience involved, nor any struggles, or whatsoever that may give us reasons to use him as an example to follow. He was busy persecuting Christians.
As we shall see later in this book that Paul emphasized the important truth of our salvation being based on the God’s promise hundreds of years before the given of the law, much like Him calling Paul from his mother’s womb, so no merit can be given to any man, so no one can boast about himself concerning his salvation.
This is why it is also fitting here that Paul said God called him by his grace; and if He does so to Paul, so will He do to us: calling us by His grace. And if this is how God saves and calls us, the typical exhortation to other believers: “Therefore, you should …” becomes not only irrelevant, but also unbiblical. The gospel is not of human origin, it cannot be taught, but it must be revealed, and subsequently preached, not taught.
Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles
16to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being.
Before God called Paul by his grace, Paul’s identification was one who upheld the Mosaic laws to obtain a degree of righteousness—but we know from Scriptures that he could not achieve the righteousness required by God this way—, now Jesus is revealed in him, this means he is now identified with God’s Son, that he gets his righteousness from Him.
Why did Paul not find it necessary to consult or seek advice from other people, namely the other apostles? Wouldn’t it make sense to collaborate with the ones who used to walk with Jesus before he was crucified? Weren’t they the most qualified to collaborate with Paul on this important salvation plan? Perhaps the key answer to these questions were already given by Paul when he emphasized that the message he received was revealed to him from God; this is in great contrast with rudimentary human teaching that he will address at length in chapter 4.
The gospel is God’s gift to each and every person who will by faith receive it, un-altered in any shape or form, God’s letter of reconciliation must be sent without any modification. But if we take a look back in time to see how God’s message is “revealed” initially to Paul, and subsequently “taught” by a progression of institutions through the ages to mankind, and see how the glorious message is now covered by many thick layers of human wisdom and rudimentary teachings. The joy of salvation has now been replaced by a burden of law keeping worse than the ten commandments, they are worse because most of them tend to be ambiguous, each according to the whim of the person excercising it.
No one knew this better than Paul. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Paul knew he couldn’t collaborate with other apostles or church leaders, because he knew full well they would add more clauses, more conditions, rivaling modern legal documents. The outcome of such collaboration will effectively prevent earnest seekers from believing God’s pure gospel of grace, because they would be presented with something looking more like law than God’s unconditional love.
The independence of Paul’s apostleship
17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, but right away I departed to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus. 18Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and get information from him, and I stayed with him fifteen days. 19But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20I assure you that, before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you!
There appears to be a reason for Paul to explain certain details of his journeys which seem irrelevant to the core of this epistle. According to Jamieson, Fausset and Brown (commentary), Paul expressed the independence of his apostleship from the other (super) apostles. As he said before that the gospel he received is not of human origin, and he didn’t need to consult any human beings.
So these details he shared concerning his whereabouts those years are to show he didn’t get the gospel from those other apostles, never taught by any of them, but directly from God. How significant is this? As we shall see later that Paul confronted Peter about his hypocrisy, and the issue of forcible circumcision that the “other” apostles failed to deal with in a way God intended. Perhaps he wanted them to decide whether they listen to him, or to others who might be promoting another gospel.
Paul as an unlikely evangelist
21Afterward I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 But I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23They were only hearing, “The one who once persecuted us is now proclaiming the good news of the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24So they glorified God because of me.
God is to have all the glory, and let no man be praised in this heavenly task of saving men’s souls. Not even the smallest amount of merit can be counted toward the greatest of human beings.
Paul, the unlikeliest of God’s ambassador, the persecutor of the church, chief of the Pharisees, who never even thought of glorifying Christ, and yet here he is. Moses, given up of all his dreams of saving his people and now leading a contented life in the desert among the heathens; delivering God’s people from Egypt was the furthest thing from his mind. Jonah, oh how he hated the people of Nineveh.
Yet these are greatest evangelists in the Bible. What are their merits? What exhortations about serving God that they adhere to? Are we concocting lessons to learn from these great (or simply ordinary) people, or to be amazed at God’s grace and mercies? Oh only if we stop praising men, them or us, and focus instead on “How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?”
God called Paul to point the world to His Son, and the world kept their eyes fixed on the highly exalted Paul, hoping one day they will be called like him. God called one Paul, and He never did again. Our job is to fix our eyes on the One at the heart of this Pauline epistle. This epistle is not about Paul, but about the One Paul is begging us to fix our eyes on. Don’t learn from Paul. But learn of Him who died for us.
- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen
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