Stand Up for the Gospel
Sunday School Lesson for June 1, 2003
Background Passage: Galatians 1:1-24
Focal Teaching Passage: Galatians 1:1-12
Paul’s Introduction (1:1-5)
The Epistle to the Galatians begins in the typical way that ancient letters were normally introduced. The name of the sender was identified first, followed by the naming of the recipients. Here we learn that "Paul," a name meaning small or little, was the author of the letter. Note that Paul identified himself as an "apostle," or literally, one sent out as an authoritative representative of another. This was one of his favorite self-designations (the other being "bond slave"), and occurs in eight of the twelve epistles where Paul is indicated as the author [Timothy George, Galatians, vol. 30. NAC, 78].
Here, Paul used the term "apostle" to link himself to the Twelve in terms of both his divine commission and God-given authority. Note how the source and authority of his apostleship is clearly expressed in the phrase "not sent from men, nor through the agency of men" (v. 1). That is, Paul was not appointed or commissioned by any person or ecclesiastical body but, rather, was called as an apostle "through Jesus Christ and God the Father." Thus, on the positive side, Paul declared that his calling as a representative of Christ and the gospel came directly through Jesus Christ, the One who is none other than God Himself. This certainly brings to mind his dramatic conversion on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-19), and his subsequent consecration as the divinely chosen instrument to bear the name of Jesus to the Gentile world (Acts 9:15).
The phrase "who raised Him from the dead" sets forth the central affirmation of the gospel which Paul preached, and also communicates to the readers that his apostleship was based upon the very same criteria as was the original Twelve—that he had been an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ.
The recipients of the letter are identified in verse 2. It is addressed to those believers who were in the "churches of Galatia." This statement provides evidence that the letter was intended to circulate among the various congregations of believers scattered throughout South Galatia. There may have been at least four such churches that Paul had in mind. These were located in the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. The word translated "churches" basically means an assembly of those who have been called out by God. It can refer both to a local congregation, as here, and also to "the whole company of the redeemed of all ages and places" [George, 83].
In these three verses we have Paul’s epistolary greeting which, in his typically warm and personal way, expressed an initial blessing or prayer request for the church addressed. Here, as was his common practice, he highlighted the twin blessings of the Christian faith, "grace" and "peace." "Grace" may properly be defined as the favor and blessings abundantly given to sinners on behalf of Christ. Timothy George describes grace as "God’s unmerited goodwill freely given and decisively effective in the saving work of Jesus Christ" . "Peace," from the Hebrew term shalom, represents the state of being that exists in the heart of one who has come to know God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It is a profound sense of well-being and security that resides in those who have been brought into a right relationship with God.
Note the tight connection between these two Christian blessings and "God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 3). This indicates that, for Paul, grace and peace were never thought of as impersonal concepts. Each is closely related to the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. It also demonstrates that grace and peace are found uniquely in Christ. Such blessings are available nowhere else in the entire universe.
In verse 4, Paul further described the gracious work of Christ. He alone is the One who, in an act of substitutionary atonement, "gave Himself for our sins." Here, then, is the heart of the Christian gospel—that the death and resurrection of the Son of God would satisfy the justice of God the Father and result in the salvation of all those who trust in Him. This phrase also serves to highlight that it was our "sins" that put the Lord on the cross. The gospel then, is about God saving those sinners who are thoroughly unrighteous and deserving only of divine wrath.
Yet, not only did Christ come to die for our sins, according to Paul, He appeared in order that He might "deliver us out of this present evil age" (v. 4). In other words, Christ’s death transferred us from one domain—that of Satan, sin, death, and depravity—to another—that of freedom and holiness in the fear and love of God (cf. Col. 1:13-14). Having once been enslaved to sin and living under God’s curse, those who are in Christ are now free indeed!
According to verse 4, all of this has occurred "according to the will of God our Father." That is, our salvation is due to the gracious purposes and "will" of God that are being worked out to perfection upon the stage of human history. As R. Allen Cole declares, the subject of the will of God is "one of the most profound concepts in the whole New Testament. This rescues our Christian calling [to salvation] from being merely [a] subjective response, and roots it deep in the plan of God" [Galatians, vol. 9. TNCT, 72]. God’s eternal purpose in salvation, then, was motivated by His infinite love and the pure pleasure of His own will to redeem sinners from death (cf. Eph. 1:1-12). He was under no obligation to do so since justice demanded that all sinners should be condemned to hell. However, to the glory and praise of His infinite mercy, He has chosen to save sinners in Christ! Another way of looking at this is to realize that "God loves us not because Jesus died for us; rather Jesus died for us because of the Father’s eternal and unconquerable love for us" [George, 88]. As subsequent lessons will reveal, this profound and mysterious aspect of salvation related to the doctrine of election actually supplies the very "bedrock of [the] doctrine of justification by faith alone" [George, 88].
Paul’s’ Charge (1:6-10)
Rather than praising the Galatian believers, as might be expected in a letter from Paul, the apostle immediately confronted the major problem facing the churches of South Galatia. Paul was literally "amazed" that, due to the influence of the Judaizers and their false doctrine, the members of the body of Christ had turned from the marvelous truth of the gospel of salvation by "grace." Note that Paul insinuated very strongly that in accepting a "different gospel," one that essentially involves saving oneself by means of law keeping, the Galatian Christians actually disserted God Himself—the very One who "called" them "by the grace of Christ." Allan Cole observes that these people have not "simply abandoned a theological position; they have abandoned a personal, loving God" .
The word "called" introduces a frequent theme in Paul’s writings (Rom. 4:17; 8:30; 9:11, 24; Eph. 1:18; 4:1, 4; 1 Thess. 2:12; 4:7; 2 Tim. 1:9). It refers to the summons to salvation one receives from the Holy Spirit when the gospel message is preached. William Hendriksen defines the call as "the act of the Holy Spirit whereby He savingly applies the gospel-invitation to the heart and life of certain and definite individuals among all those to whom in the course of history the invitation is extended" [Galatians, NTC, 38].
That this desertion came "quickly" may indicate, quite sadly, that their abandonment of the truth occurred soon after their initial evangelization. Yet, this false gospel of the Judaizers was (and is!), however, no gospel at all. Rather, it was, according to Paul, a subtle, yet radical, distortion of the real message of salvation (v. 7). The immediate outcome of the propagation of this deceitful, counterfeit gospel was the disruption of the fellowship of the believers as they worshipped and served the Lord together. Later in our study we will learn more about the specifics of this perverted message that had quickly swept through the Galatian churches.
As his initial scolding of the brethren continued, Paul announced they should in no way hear nor accept any other gospel than "that which we have preached to you"—that is, the apostolic gospel of salvation by the grace of God alone through faith in the finished work of Christ alone. The utter seriousness of this situation is expressed as Paul made it clear that even if he himself or "an angel from heaven" should deliver any other message, the hearers should reject them and declare them to be "accursed" of God. More literally, the apostle commanded that anyone who distorted the fundamental truths of salvation—no matter how impressive or articulate they were—should be delivered over to God for eternal damnation. As George notes, to be cursed or anathematized in this way means "far more than to be excommunicated. It means nothing less than to suffer the eternal retribution and judgment of God" . We should also note that this strong warning, which is basically repeated in verse 9, communicates the fundamental truth that "the status or person of the messenger does not validate his message; rather the nature of the message validates the messenger" [Cole, 78].
Here we gain insight into the likelihood that Paul had come to be accused of altering his message in order to accommodate and please men. Perhaps his opponents had claimed that while he was among the Jews he preached a gospel that included the ritual of circumcision, and when addressing a Gentile audience he announced freedom from such legalistic regulations [Cole, 82]. Yet, here Paul claimed that in no way was it his aim to procure the "favor of men." That he had submitted himself to the Lordship of Christ and had determined to be nothing but His "bondservant" was evidence enough that his intentions were righteous.
Paul’s Defense (1:11-12)
His authority and motives having been brought under fire, Paul defended the source of his gospel preaching. His language here suggests that his adversaries had made the claim that he had simply received his message from the true apostles. Thus, he was dependent upon them and had no right to chastise the Galatian Christians [Cole, 83]. However, Paul boldly announced that his "gospel" was "not according to man." That is, its source was in no human or man made institution.
Here Paul added that his gospel did not come from human tradition or through formal education—he "neither received it from men or was taught it." The gospel of Jesus Christ was not passed down to Paul from other more schooled or intelligent authorities. Neither was it formally inculcated or handed down along with other traditional beliefs. Rather, Paul made the startling claim that he had "received" this gospel by means of a direct "revelation of Jesus Christ." This is likely a reference to his amazing conversion experience on the Damascus road where he met the resurrected Christ. At that moment, he came to realize that Jesus was the Messiah and Savior of the world and, simultaneously, had his own personal encounter with the transforming grace of God.
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: Christians are people with a "new address"—Focus upon the words of verse 4 regarding the way that Christ has delivered us from our old "neighborhood" and way of living. We are by His grace, in essence, a new people with a new name living at a new address! How is this radically new identity practically expressed and confirmed? What are the implications of this comprehensive transformation for us as believers?
Two: The danger of false teaching is never far away—That the Galatians fell into false doctrine so quickly should serve as a somber warning about the dangers of deceptive and counterfeit "gospels." How may we safeguard others and ourselves from such dangers?
Three: Believers need to develop a discerning heart—What practical suggestions can you think of for becoming more confident in the essential truths concerning salvation? Why are many of today’s believers so easily led astray into heresy?
Four: To tamper with the gospel is the most serious of sins—How is the gospel distorted and perverted today? What are some of the marks of a false gospel?