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Galatians 1:1-9

February 14, 1999

It is not so simple a thing to know exactly how to proceed when one begins to expound a book of the Bible. Obviously it is possible to draw out lengthy lessons out of single words. We could devote our time this evening to “apostle”, important as that office was to the foundation of the church’s new life following Pentecost. We could press on next Lord’s Day evening to study the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Lord Christ’s work of redemption and, especially, in the resurrection. We could spend another Lord’s Day considering the intimations of the Trinity in Paul’s phrase, “Jesus Christ and God the Father.” You see the point. We could spend many years fruitfully examining Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, proceeding at a snail’s pace. Or, we could take the letter more after the fashion of its character as a real piece of correspondence, studying the letter paragraph by paragraph, seeking to know what Paul intended to say to his readers and what he wanted them to understand. For example, he identifies himself as an apostle in the letter’s address, but he doesn’t define and discuss the term.

I favor the latter approach for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is that this is the way to treat the Bible on its own terms and to listen to it in the same way, or, at least, in principle in the same way, as those Christians would have listened to it who received it at first and had it read to them in their services. If Galatians is a letter Paul wrote to Christians in a certain time, place, and circumstance, then it is the communication of a particular message, in a form typical of human communication. If we were reading such a letter, we wouldn’t stop to consider all that might be said about every word, we would read it to understand what was being said to us. We would read sentences and paragraphs, stopping to consider individual words only when there was a question about their meaning. [This is the problem, by the way, with what is sometimes called — I think very incorrectly — “expository preaching” but the form of “expository preaching” that is, in fact, a running commentary. You get this with some radio preachers. They will tell you what each major word means, word after word; they will proceed through a text line by line, but, in this way, they lose the meaning of the text, what all of those words and phrases and figures of speech taken together were intended to say, what the clear message was that the biblical writer was intending to convey. That is what we are after.

Indeed, as I have told you before, I don’t think the great task of preaching is explanation. Explanation is necessary obviously, though in many places the Bible largely explains itself. But the preacher’s great task is to communicate the force of the truth in the passage he is expounding, to bring it home, to make it live in the heart, to make, as God enables him, the congregation to feel the weight of that truth, so that it might produce in them what the biblical author wanted the truth to produce in those who were the first to hear or read that portion of the Bible.

So, I will make some brief comments on individual details and sometimes technical points as we read the text, but my interest will be to understand and to communicate to you the force of what Paul intended to say in his letter, paragraph by paragraph.

Text Comment

v.1       As a way of enlarging on that point let me say that, while it is a large subject with some technical complications, there is general agreement that Paul used the accepted structure for a letter in that time and that part of the world. Twenty-one of the twenty-seven writings that form the NT take the form of letters; thirteen of these by Paul. A typical letter in the world of that day began with a salutation that included the name of the sender first, the name of the addressee, and a greeting. Typical would be: “Demetrius to Publius, greetings.” (You can even find this same form — an indication of how widespread the custom in the ancient world — in Artaxerxes letter to Ezra in Ezra 7:12: “Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, scribe of the law of the God of heaven, greetings.”) This is what you have typically in Paul’s letters and it is what we find here in an expanded form in Galatians 1:1-3. But there is embellishment, as there sometimes was in ordinary letters. The Christian writers, and Paul among them, adapted the typical conventions to Christian use. A good wish for the recipient is often found as part of the greeting, but here it is the Christian prayer for God’s grace and peace to be granted the reader(s). There is usually in Paul a thanksgiving as part of that opening greeting, which may also be found in some ordinary letters from the period. But it is lacking here in Galatians, no doubt because of the general tone and mood and purpose of the letter, which is signaled with the abrupt and strongly worded opening salvo in v. 6. Galatians also ends more abruptly than Paul’s other letters. [The above comment is drawn in part from Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 20-23.]

            Paul identifies himself as “an apostle” as he typically does at the beginning of his letters. His office is going to be a point of issue later, but here in v. 1, his identifying himself as an apostle is his conventional greeting, but the addition of “sent not from men…but by…Christ and God…” lays special stress on his authority as an apostle. He’s starting by reminding them that he speaks for God!

v.2       all the brothers with me = “co-workers” probably, more than simply the saints in Antioch in general. He doesn’t stop to name them. There is a rush to this beginning!

            Think of his readers as the new Christians — perhaps Christians only of months, certainly not of more than a year or two — in the churches in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, where Paul had preached the gospel, performed miracles, gathered converts into congregations, and been persecuted, even stoned, at the instigation of the Jews in those same towns. You can read about this in Acts 14, the account of the founding of these same churches now addressed in the letter.

            Here we have “churches”; in v. 13 we will have “church”. There is one church but it is composed of various churches. 6:11 implies that there was but one letter written and sent, to be taken by a messenger first to one church, then to the next, and so on, to be read in each place to each congregation.

v.5       “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” It is good to be reminded of the basic message of the gospel, in a world, even a Christian world, that is now placing all the emphasis on other things than our sin and need for redemption and the next world! If you want to know what Christ is all about and what he gives to those who trust in him, here it is in a nutshell: the forgiveness of sins and deliverance from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13) with all that means for the present and for eternity! But, anyone who knows the subject of the epistle, realizes that with this identification of Jesus Christ Paul is indicating that the centrality of the work of Christ will be the great subject of his letter and its argument.

            “according to the will of our God and Father” makes another point soon to be elaborated. This redemption, this deliverance, is God’s doing, not ours; something for which he will receive the glory, not us!

            Bengel, the great German pietist commentator of the 18th century, whose commentary on the NT in its original Latin is a marvel of compression, says of these opening statements of Paul in the address of the letter, “Semina sparguntur tractationis” — “the seeds of his treatise are being sown.”

            Think of these opening statements in vv. 1-4 as the “overture,” an opening passage that introduces and hints at the grand themes, but does not give them their full development.

v.6       This is no time for pleasantries — such as we find as part of the greeting which begins other letters of Paul to churches. The crisis that now exists is too serious for that; it must be faced head-on. This is Paul getting right to the point. In how many cases do we hesitate nowadays to do the same, for fear that people will take offense. Interesting.

            “by the grace of Christ” The word “Christ” is uncertain. There are strong reasons to think it may not have been in Paul’s original, which then would have read, “who called you by grace…” Obviously Paul here still sowing the seeds of his argument. Justification is by grace not by works, he is going to say.

v.7       Only those seeking to pervert the true gospel would call this new message a “gospel.” It is no gospel at all. Remember, Paul would speak with a peculiar passion and understanding, for the doctrine that was being spread among the Galatians was a return, in part, to the doctrine Paul himself had held until the Damascus road! I say this now; and we will say it again and again — it doesn’t make any difference if you add Christ and the cross to the mix, if, at the last, your own performance is in any way the ground or the basis or the reason for your peace with God. In that respect it mattered not whether you were a Jew or a Judaizer. This is the burden of the Protestant charge against Roman Catholicism. You can say grace all you want — the Jews of that time believed in grace too — but the place they gave to works destroyed the sola gratia of salvation, and if justification is not by grace alone, it is not by grace at all, not in the biblical sense.

v.8       “eternally condemned” = anathema, the regular LXX rendering for “herem” (“ban”) in the OT. In a holy war, the practice of “herem” involved the total destruction of anyone and everything that fell under this ban. That is, it was surrendered up to the wrath of God.

v.9       Even if someone had every conceivable divine credential — and these teachers who were troubling the churches had none — damnation would still be his fate if he perverted the gospel of Christ. No half measures here. The readers are getting the point right away that Paul is upset! And that he thinks they have committed a horrible error in giving place to this teaching.

We will break the paragraph after verse 9, unlike the NIV, and pick up there next time. Now this is the introduction of the letter we read this evening. There is nothing here that is not going to be elaborated in detail in the argument. But there are some basic perspectives that bear our noticing, that is, viewpoints that will account for the tone and tenor of what follows. There are at least two fundamental, basic perspectives that are introduced here, among all the “seeds” of Paul’s coming argument that he has planted already in his introduction of the letter. And together they go far to explain the character of the letter we have before us.

The first, is the insecurity, the constant jeopardy, the precariousness of a church’s spiritual health and prosperity.

Think of what Paul had in mind with his “so quickly” in v. 6. They had heard Paul and Barnabas preach but months before. Had seen him work miracles with their own eyes! The word of grace and Christ’s redemption had come to them with power and changed their lives. How could they let that slip through their fingers so easily? How could they be so easily misled? How could they so willingly have embraced a message that struck directly at the vitals of the gospel they had believed and which had changed their lives? But it had happened, and it would not be the last time. And in that there hangs a great lesson.

In Luther’s Lectures on Galatians, published in 1535 — that is, his more complete and mature treatment of the Letter (than his Lectures in 1519) –, the great Reformer says this:

            “By the grace of God we here in Wittenberg have acquired the form of a Christian church. In our midst the Word is taught purely, the sacraments are used properly, there are exhortations and prayers for all social classes; in short, everything is moving along well. But some fanatic could stop this blessed progress of the Gospel in a hurry, and in one moment he could overturn everything that we have built up with the hard work of many years. This is what happened to Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ (Acts 9:15). With great toil and trouble he had gained the churches of Galatia; but in a short time after his departure the false apostles overthrew them, as this and all his other epistles testify. So weak and miserable is this present life, and so beset are we by the snares of Satan, that one fanatic can often destroy and completely undo in a short time what it took faithful ministers the hard labor of many years day and night to build up. We are learning this by bitter experience today, and yet there is nothing we can do about it.” [LW, vol. 26, 45]

And how many illustrations of this same thing could we come up with out of our own experience, just this congregation this evening. Churches healthy and growing and sound and happy torn apart in what seemed a moment by false doctrine or controversy or factiousness or pure worldliness. We have seen it in the PCA. We’ve seen it in our own Presbytery. I have told you already that this past Autumn we closed the church that was clearly the healthiest and happiest church in the Presbytery, the church with the greatest promise, when I arrived here in 1978. We have seen it in Tacoma. So many churches that used to be so much more healthy and fruitful than now they are. Churches that used to be so much more faithful to the Word of God than now they are.

And what of us? Where will we be ten years from now? Twenty? Thirty? Do you know that it is something of a general law in philanthropy that the rich do not give large sums of money even to established churches precisely because churches are so unreliable, there is so little guarantee that the church will be worth anything a few years later. The pastor may leave, or have a change of views, a new group of folk may come into the congregation, an issue may surface that will tear the church apart. It happens often enough. No church can say it won’t happen to her. So the rich don’t give large gifts to churches. The exception, as always, is gifts for buildings, but at least buildings tend to last, even if the church that occupies them does not!

And what is the lesson of that fact? Only this: that Christian churches, like Christians themselves, must constantly remain on guard against the Devil’s attacks — in whatever form those attacks may come. They must be determined to remain faithful in doctrine and in life, come wind, come weather. I can guarantee you one thing: this church will not prosper through the next twenty years or thirty unless we are all determined that not only shall we remain faithful to the principles upon which this congregation is built now, but that we remain determined to become much more faithful than now we are.

The Lord Jesus, at the greatest crisis of his life, told his disciples: “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” And the same lesson is paramount for churches. What might the Galatians have done? Well, they should have sent the false teachers packing. But, in any case, they could have sent a report to Paul to ask for clarification. But, instead, like so many Christians after them, they just jumped on board.

One very interesting omission in Galatians is any mention of the church’s leadership. Elders had been appointed. But they were all, of necessity, very young Christians. There were no experienced men to entrust with the oversight and protection of these infant churches. Paul never tells the Galatian Christians to obey their elders or to follow the counsel of their elders because the elders had succumbed like everyone else. I imagine that when, years later, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5 that no young and inexperienced Christians should be given the responsibility of the eldership, he winced inside and thought of the disaster in Galatia. Here is the most important step — humanly speaking — a congregation can take to preserve its spiritual prosperity. Entrust the oversight and the rule of the congregation to devout, mature, learned, godly, experienced Christian men, the kind of men who can smell a rat when one appears!

Paul is not concerned here about hypothetical problems; he is concerned about the eternal salvation of his converts in these churches. It is this that gives Galatians its fiery tone and its impressive seriousness.

The second basic perspective in this opening paragraph is the inviolability of the gospel and the great danger of any mistakes in regard to it.

It was false doctrine that brought these churches down. That is not always the case; sometimes it is more issues of life and conduct, as in Corinth that tear a church apart and down (though even there doctrinal deviations were contributing to the mess). But some doctrinal errors are much worse than others. There is a most important lesson to be found in the terrible emphasis Paul places on this particular doctrinal declension.

Get the gospel wrong, he says, and you go to hell, no matter how religious you may be. Paul deals with all manner of doctrinal errors and misunderstandings in his letters to churches — the relationship of justification to sanctification; Christian liberty; the ministry of the Holy Spirit, etc. But he doesn’t overtly threaten them with damnation for their errors as he does here. He says that anathema rests on those who do not love the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 16:22), and he says it here of those who pervert the gospel, which, apparently amounts to the same thing. As Luther puts it, “Here Paul is breathing fire. His zeal is so fervent that he almost begins to curse the angels themselves.” [p. 55]

In other words, in matters doctrinal, in matters of Christian belief, there are first things and secondary things, things concerning which there can be no compromise and matters of importance but lesser importance, issues of life and death and issues something less grave.

Galatians is about the former sort of doctrinal issue: the no compromise, life and death kind of issue.

And, remember, as we proceed to discuss the nature of this issue, Paul himself was a man of very wide and charitable spirit. He was very willing to bend when he could to make it easier for a man or woman to receive his message. He would say in 1 Corinthians 9 that he was willing to become all things to all men to win some. That is a spirit that, frankly, few people have. But Paul did. And it was this man, so willing to sacrifice his own convictions at many points so as not to put obstacles in the way of true faith, who now refuses to bend one inch. That makes so much more impressive this opening salvo from Paul’s pen. I will bend over backward for you, my brethren, but not here. Never here. Because this is the gospel. This is the message itself. If I bend here, if I allow this to be corrupted, if I give someone a false understanding of Christ and salvation, no amount of good will can make up for what has been lost. I may gain a friend, but I will ensure that he remains forever in his sins and never escapes this present evil age.

So, as we begin our consideration of Paul’s great letter, let us pledge ourselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ, as Paul will explain it to us, to live for it and die for it, to preserve and defend it against all enemies, and to keep it at the center of our life together in this church. I mean that gospel which is the proclamation, the truth about Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.