When Paul wrote to believers, he began his letters with the standard form for letters of the that day. Letters in the first century, whether Jewish or Greek, usually began with a salutation that included three parts: name of sender, name of the recipient, and a formula of greeting. (See “Structure of the Letter” in Introduction.)
But Paul's letters were more than ordinary letters. They were inspired statements of the gospel and impassioned defenses of his call and mission as an apostle. Even in the greeting of each letter he stated his deepest convictions and outlined key points in his message. This is especially true in these first verses of Galatians.
The writer identifies himself as “Paul, an apostle.”
In the New Testament, apostle applies primarily to the Twelve whom Jesus called as His first disciples. One of the requirements of being an apostle in this sense is that the person be a witness of Jesus' resurrection.
In this salutation Paul introduces what will be an important theme of Galatians. He is an apostle—literally: “not from men, neither through man.” Rather, his call and commission were directly through Jesus Christ and God the Father who had raised Him from death.
“What Did Paul Look Like?”
The word Paul literally means “small” or “little.” The earliest physical description we have of Paul comes from The Acts of Paul and Thecla, a second-century apocryphal writing that describes the apostle as “a man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body; for now he appeared like a man, and now he had the face of an angel.” [E. Hennecke and W.
Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964), 2:354.]
Although written many years after his death, those words may well reflect an authentic tradition about Paul's likeness.
In the New Testament we find the word church used in two senses. Sometimes it refers to the whole company of all the redeemed of all ages and places, the place, the body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space. More often, however, Paul uses the word church in Galatians to refer to local congregations of baptized believers who regularly met for worship and witness.
“So glorious is his redemption that it should ravage us with wonder.” —John Calvin [Taken from Calvin, CNT 11]
Galatians begins and ends with “grace.” Verses 3-5, which form the closing part of the one-sentence (in Greek) salutation, are no doubt taken from a standard formula of community prayer with its liturgical opening, “Grace and peace,” and its concluding affirmation, “Amen!” In fact, each of Paul's letters in the New Testament begins with a reference to “grace and peace.” But for Paul this is more than a liturgical formula. “Grace and peace” summarize God's way with human beings. Grace is God's undeserved kind intention carried out on behalf of sinful human beings. Peace is the result of grace received.
Paul attributes this double blessing to a single source—the one God who knows Himself and reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Grace is seen (v. 4) in Christ's giving Himself over to death for our sins. Peace results as He delivers us out of this present evil world.
“The evil present age” Paul speaks of is the context in which God's purpose of salvation is now unfolding. Christ has rescued us from this evil present age through justifying us by faith and pouring out His Spirit in our lives. But while Christ has rescued us from this evil age, He has not taken us out of it.
Paul concludes his greeting with an expression of praise and worship—a doxology: “To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Its inclusion is no mere formality. Paul's point here is that to contemplate who God is and what He has done in Christ Jesus is to fall on our knees in worship, thanksgiving, and praise.
Paul usually began his letters with words of appreciation for his readers. Even for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:4-9) whose carelessness had created numerous problems, Paul had words of praise and commendation. Not so for the churches in Galatia.
The transition from his greeting to the body of the letter is so abrupt as to be almost jarring. Paul marveled at what the Galatians were doing. Olaf M. Norlie translates this phrase as, “I am dumfounded.” The verb tense implies that Paul is in a continual state of being dumfounded at what the Galatians had done (Herschel H. Hobbs, Galatians (Dallas: Word, 1978), 23). He wanted them to know how shocked he was at the new turn they had taken, as if astonishment would startle them into awareness. He also let them know in no uncertain terms that the course they had taken was wrong.
In verse 6, Paul told the Galatians that they were “deserting” God. The word desert is a striking word. Literally, it means “to bring to another place.” Historically, the word was used of desertion or revolt in a military or political defection. It often expressed the idea of a change in one's religion, philosophy, or morals. By using this word, Paul was calling the Galatians spiritual turncoats!
They were “deserting the one” who had called them to the grace of Christ, and instead turning to a “different gospel.” Paul contrasted the message of the Judaizers with the gospel. It seemed to be another gospel, but it was so different that it was not a gospel at all. The Greek language has two words for “another.” The one used here means “different.” In turning to legalism, the Galatians had deserted the one who called them, God Himself. The grace of Christ was their rightful allegiance, and they had abandoned this.
What the Galatians failed to realize was the decisive character of who Jesus was and what He had accomplished in His atoning death on the cross. To Christ's completed work, they wanted to add something that, from their own perspective, seemed so right, so reasonable, and so religious. They were not aware that adding anything to grace changes grace to something other than grace and undermines the way God has provided for sinful human beings to be made right with Him.
Anathema! is actually a Greek word that has been carried over into English. It was used to translate a Hebrew word meaning “devoted to God for destruction.” It denotes something that is totally rejected by God—such as idols and valuable goods that Israelites captured in battle with their enemies—and which they were commanded to destroy.
In these verses Paul paints two future scenarios in order to drive home point. He says, let's suppose I, Paul, came to you at some future date and preached a new and different gospel to you. If I did that, let me be eternally condemned. Or suppose an angel from heaven came to you and preached a different gospel. Let him, too, be eternally condemned. The fact that Paul issued this condemnation in the strongest words possible and then repeated it for emphasis makes this one of the harshest statements in the entire New Testament. The word translated “condemned” is the word anathema!
Herschel Hobbs observes that Paul's words sound overly harsh to modern ears. In an age of relativism, Paul's stance here is far from being politically correct. But Hobbs says, “No sane person wants a banker who says that two plus two equals three …. We do not want a pharmacist who just throws together any drugs which may suit his fancy. We want him to follow exactly the doctor's prescription. This is true narrow-mindedness. We commend this quality in matters of lesser importance—finances and health. But many condemn it in matters of religion,” (Hobbs, Galatians, 27).
Paul says that his strong reaction to the direction the Galatians are taking is not motivated by his desire to win their approval. He may have at one time been motivated by human approval—but no longer. One who becomes a servant of Jesus Christ sets his heart on pleasing Christ first—and lets the chips fall where they may.
In the first ten verses of Galatians, Paul moves from formal greeting to an impassioned warning that the Galatian Christians were on the brink of a course of action that would be destructive to them and to other churches.
Having stated the problem, Paul now begins to develop his argument. His first line of argument is personal history, contained in the first two chapters of Galatians.
These two verses introduce the theme that Paul alluded to in the introduction and will more fully develop in the following narrative—that the gospel he preached to the Galatians was not devised by any human source, but came directly from God Himself—a “revelation from Jesus Christ.” To impress the truth of this upon his readers, Paul introduced it with a solemn disclosure formula: “I want you to know.”
The phrase translated “according to man” relates back to and encompasses the twin negatives found in 1:1, “not from men nor by man.” Paul's apostleship and his gospel was neither from nor by any human source.
Paul then elaborated this denial by adding two additional negative qualifications concerning his gospel's nonhuman character: he neither received it through tradition nor was taught it through the ordinary means of instruction. These two additional denials both point to the same reality and are nearly identical in meaning.
Having asserted that the gospel was not of human origin and that it came through a direct revelation to him by Christ, Paul offers five pieces of evidence in support of his claim.
|1. Nothing in Paul's religious background could account for hisacceptance of the gospel.||1:13-17|
|2. Paul was not commissioned by the Jerusalem church.||1:18-20|
|3.Those Paul formerly persecuted glorified God because of the changewrought in him.||1:21-24|
|4. Paul's apostolic work was recognized by church leaders at Jerusalem.||2:1-10|
|5. Paul defended the gospel against Peter's vacillation at Antioch.||2:11-14|
Revelation is an unveiling or a disclosure. It “refers to God's actions of making Himself known to humans. This action is necessary because humans, being limited, are unable to know God by their own ability of discovery. Just as dogs or cats cannot investigate their master, and if they could, would not really understand him, so humans do not have the capability of finding God by their own effort. Because God loves His human creatures and wants to have fellowship with them, He has therefore made Himself known.” [Millard J. Erickson from Foundations for Biblical Interpretation]
Following this extensive historical section, Paul summarizes the central theme of his letter (2:15-21) and then reminds the Galatians of how God had worked among them at his first preaching of the gospel in their midst (3:1-5). Thus the entire historical section of the letter moves from Paul the persecutor to Paul the preacher. It is the record of the gospel's movement from Damascus to Galatia.
Paul's main point in these verses is to show that there was nothing in his religious background and his life before his conversion that could have prepared him for a positive response to the gospel. Quite the contrary. His early career and lifestyle were shaped by a confident attachment to the strictest traditions of Judaism, which in turn had led him to take up arms against believers in Jesus.
Paul's use of the term church stands in marked contrast to his earlier address to the “churches in Galatia.” Clearly, here he has in mind the Church universal, the body of Christ, which is the company of all the redeemed throughout the world.
Paul's background did not explain his conversion. For such a Jewish leader to change would require divine intervention. Paul's changed life was proof of the validity of his experience, “a revelation from Jesus Christ.”
Paul described the sovereign initiative of God in terms of three distinct acts, all of which were according to God's good pleasure:
Paul used the word we translate as “set apart” also in Rom. 1:1, where he describes himself as being “set apart for the gospel of God.” Literally, the word means “to determine beforehand.” Paul had in mind something that was even prior to the occasion of his birth—God's eternal predestination and good pleasure by which He chose us in Christ before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4).
Paul now begins a second line of defense, a tightly woven alibi designed to show that his contacts with the Jerusalem church were such that he could not possibly have been dependent on the Jerusalem church or its leaders for his authority or for that portion of revelation imparted directly to him by Christ.
The Arabia of Paul's day was not identical with the boundaries of contemporary Saudi Arabia. This was a vast territory lying between the Red Sea on the southwest and the Persian Gulf and Euphrates River on the northeast.
Following his conversion, Paul didn't go to Jerusalem. Rather, he went to Arabia.
Some have suggested that Paul went to Arabia to preach the gospel. Luke tells us that he began preaching in Damascas immediately following his conversion. Others believe he went to Arabia for a retreat—for time to study the Scriptures, to meditate on them, and to pray. Such a time was needed for Paul to assimilate his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascas.
These reasons for going to Arabia are not mutually exclusive. Both may be true.
Paul says he went to Jerusalem “to get acquainted with Peter.”
The reference to “three years” is not precise. It doesn't necessarily mean that Paul spent three years in Arabia. It does imply that there were at least three years between his conversion and his journey to Jerusalem. By this time, the gospel imparted to him by the Lord would have been well assimilated.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Paul was a house guest of Peter. We wish we could have been a fly on the wall during their dinner conversations!
A. T. Robertson paints a possible scenario:
It is pleasant to think of them here together for two weeks in Jerusalem. Paul would naturally be the learner and let Peter tell the history of Jesus in particular as it was connected with Jerusalem. There was Bethany; here was the road of the Truumphant Entry; down there was Gethsemane, where Peter went to sleep; here Jesus was arrested; at this place the trial took place and just here Peter had denied him; and on yonder hill they crucified him; and in that tomb they buried him; lo! here was the spot where Jesus had appeared to Peter after his resurrection; in this upper room he had appeared to the disciples twice; up here on Olivet was the place where they had caught the last glimpse of him as he went up on the cloud. [A. T. Robertson, Epochs in the Life of Paul, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974), 81-2].
Paul learned historical details of Jesus' life. Peter learned from Paul what the risen Lord had imparted to Paul concerning the gospel and how it related to God's revelation prior to Christ.
An important point here is that Paul did not seek authorization of his message or validation of his ministry from Peter. He did seek a close fellowship in the things of the Lord as well as a strategic partnership in their common apostolic mission.
The only other apostle Paul met was James, the Lord's brother. Paul includes James among the other apostles, even though he was not one of the Twelve. Apparently, the term apostle extended to other leaders beyond the original circle.
James, the brother of Jesus
Here are seven fairly well established facts about James.
James is one of the most important and fascinating characters in the history of the early church, although there is much about him we do not know. However, the following facts are firmly established.
1. James was not a follower of Jesus during His earthly life.
2. Jesus made a special resurrection appearance to James (1 Cor. 15:7).
3. James became a member of the church at Jerusalem.
4. James quickly rose to a position of leadership within the Jerusalem church.
5. James is known as the “Just,” obviously because of his personal piety and strict observance of Jewish customs.
6. In all likelihood James wrote the general epistle that bears his name.
7. In A.D. 62 James was put to death through the conniving of the Sadducees who administered the temple.
Paul then asserted a solemn warning that what he was saying was the truth. The issue was so important that Paul felt he must set the record straight in the clearest possible terms: “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.” He was not a secondary apostle, dependent on others for his message and, therefore, subject to their correction. His faith and calling came by revelation from Christ Himself.
Paul left Jerusalem, according to Acts 9:26-30, because his preaching aroused the anger of the Greek-speaking Jews there. His life in danger, he went to Tarsus. He referred to the regions of Syria and Cilicia, neighboring territories that were part of the same Roman province. What was the result of Paul's ministry in these places? We cannot say for sure, but it is clear from later references in Acts that Paul's witness bore fruit in the conversion of new believers and the planting of several churches.
In these closing verses, Paul shifted the perspective away from his missionary activities back to the local environment around Jerusalem. Paul registered the reaction of the Jerusalem churches to his early ministry. He did this by referring to three facts: (1) his lack of personal acquaintance with the Judean churches; (2) the impression of his work that was conveyed to them; and (3) their jubilant reaction at the report of the persecutor-turned-proclaimer.
The doxology in verse 24, “And they praised God because of me” echoes the earlier doxology at the conclusion of the introduction (1:5). The first doxology is a hymn of praise for what God has done through the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ. This second doxology celebrates that same victory as seen in the calling and apostolic ministry of Paul.
Paul was well thought of by the Christians in Jerusalem, but he was in no way dependent on them. He was an apostle in his own right.
“And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on his name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the priests?’” Acts 9:21 (NASB)