Talking About the Gospel

Explore the Bible Series

June 7, 2009


Background Passage: Galatians 1:1-2:10

Lesson Passage: Galatians 1:6-9, 11-12, 15-16; 2:1-6




Our study this quarter will focus on two of the earliest Christian writings, the Epistle to the Galatians and the Epistle of James.  Some scholars have concluded that these two letters reflect two opposing views of the gospel; indeed, these writings do have somewhat different emphases concerning the nature of Christian conduct.  In my judgment, the epistles do not contradict each other; rather, they deal with different crises in the early church; thus they emphasize different (but complementary) visions of godly living.


Authorship: Scholars almost universally agree that the Apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians.  More liberal scholars identify seven “authentic” books but question the Pauline authorship of several other letters traditionally attributed to the apostle.  It is not in the scope of this lesson to discuss this issue, but it deserves our attention that even liberal scholars (I think here of E.P. Sanders, Bart Ehrman, and Raymond Brown) affirm Paul’s authorship of Galatians.


Recipients: Considerable disagreement occurs over the issue of the audience of this letter.  Some scholars believe that Paul wrote the Epistle to churches in the northern part of ancient Galatia (modern Northern Turkey, just south of the Black Sea).  This traditional view claims that Paul wrote, therefore, to the Indo-Aryan settlers in this region.  The Roman Empire subjugated this area in 25 B.C., and Paul evangelized in Northern Galatia during the Second and Third Missionary Journeys (See Acts 16:6 and 18:23). Curtis Vaughan pointed out that most British and American scholars no longer hold to this view, but the Gentile predominance of this region (Galatians was clearly dealing with a Gentile problem) leads me to consider this position carefully.


Many conservative scholars (William Ramsey and F.F. Bruce, for instance) have believed Galatians was written to churches in Southern Galatia, a region Paul and Barnabas evangelized during the First Missionary Journey.  Dr. Vaughan held to a compromise view that claims this circular letter was intended for a very broad audience throughout ethnic and political Galatia North and South).  For the purposes of our study, this issue of recipients does not carry a great deal of weight. Whatever the case, Paul had a deep person interest in these churches and their apprehension of the gospel, a gospel the apostle felt was under serious attack.


Date: Again, scholars generally agree on a very early date for this epistle.  Dating the epistle largely depends on the position one takes on the question of the recipients.  Those who hold to the South Galatian theory think Paul wrote this letter about the time of the Jerusalem Council (49 A.D.)’ while others assign a slightly later date (c. 52 A.D.).


Occasion: Apparently, Jewish Christians had challenged Paul’s views of justification by faith.  These opponents insisted that Gentile believers embrace the Abrahamic Covenant by submitting to circumcision and the demands of the Mosaic Law.  In fact, these teachers had gone so far as to question Paul’s character and credentials as an apostle; thus, Paul met their challenge with an emotional, strident letter. 


Galatians is not a pleasant, congenial letter.  Clearly, these challenges to Paul’s character and doctrine had irritated the apostle, and his anger permeates every aspect of the epistle. He criticizes one of the pillars of the early church when he recounted a disagreement with the Apostle Peter (See 2:11-14), and he called on his opponents to mutilate themselves (See 5:12)!  Near the very outset of the letter, Paul cursed those who opposed his understanding of the gospel (See 1:8).  Even the epistle’s grammar and syntax reflect Paul’s consternation. In places, the sentence structure is broken and fragmented, like the speech of an irritated person.  I do not suggest that Paul lost control of his emotions, but I do conclude that Paul took the criticism of his opponents as a personal and doctrinal affront.


It is possible that Paul experienced some backlash to his strident conclusions.  Perhaps Peter made reference to this dispute when he observed that some of Paul’s thoughts were difficult to understand (See II Peter 3:14-18).


This epistle demonstrates something of the emotional life of the Apostle Paul. The gospel of peace had not rendered him a spineless wimp, yielding to any kind of personal attack.  While Paul’s emotions did not have a “quick trigger”, he did have a full range of human passions.  Even anger, properly controlled, has a place in Christian character.  Believers do not cede normal emotional lives; rather, they bring those emotions under the lordship of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 



Lesson Outline:


I.                   Introduction of the Epistle (1:1-5)

A.    Authorship (vv. 1-2a): Unlike other letters, Paul apparently wrote Galatians unassisted.  He did mention our brothers who were with him, but we have no way of knowing the identity of these friends, perhaps Silas and Timothy (during the Second Missionary Journey, shortly after the Jerusalem Council). 

B.     Recipients (v. 2b): See introduction above.

C.     Salutation (vv. 3-5): Note that Paul did not include any personal commendation or thanksgiving concerning the Galatians.  This is a significant omission, and it reflects Paul’s state of mind as he penned these words.  He emphasized his apostleship (a major feature of the epistle) and the central claim of his gospel, the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.


II.                 The Occasion of the Letter (1:6-10)

A.    The defection of the Galatians (vv. 6-7): The apostle expressed genuine amazement that these believers had so quickly and easily abandoned the gospel he had preached.  He used a present tense verb to describe their disaffection, thus reflecting his hope that their defection was not final.  They had, Paul surmised, embraced another “gospel”, very different from the message the apostle preached. 

B.     The work of the Judaizers (vv. 8-10)

1.      “who trouble you”: Paul used a political term that denotes inciting revolt.  It describes mental agitation that led to rebellion.

2.      “”want to distort the gospel of Christ”: This phrase reflects Paul’s conviction that these teachers had twisted the gospel to such a degree that it no longer resembled the message he had preached in Galatia. This distortion was so serious that Paul did not hesitate to pronounce a curse on these false teachers.  Paul also included a concern about the personal aspect of the message of the Judaizers (See v. 10).  He theorized that this strident letter demonstrated that he had never sought a person, popular following.


III.             Paul’s Testimony Concerning his Apostleship (1:11-24): A vital connection existed between Paul’s apostleship and the authenticity of his message.  He defended himself, but readers of this epistle must bear in mind that Paul was not prickly about his reputation except as it related to the gospel.

A.    Four assertions about the origins of Paul’s apostleship (vv. 11-12).

1.      “the gospel preached by me is not man’s gospel”: Pau; asserted that the gospel is  not a human invention.; rather, it originated from a superhuman source.

2.      “I did not receive it from any man”: Vaughan wrote, “…his knowledge of the gospel did not come through ordinary channels of human tradition,”

3.      “nor was I taught it”: This phrase, of course, is quite similar to the previous statement, but Paul wanted to make certain his readers understood that he did not learn the gospel by any human means.

4.      “I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”: Paul probably meant one of two things by this remark.  (1) He could refer to his experience on the Damascus Road where Paul claimed that Jesus appeared in a glorious vision.  (2) Some scholars believe this phrase refers to a supernatural experience that occurred during Paul’s sojourn in Arabia (See v. 17).

B.     Paul’s life prior to his conversion (vv. 13-14): This abbreviated testimony reaffirmed the Galatian memory of things, no doubt, Paul had told them when preached in the region. 

C.     A brief account of Paul’s conversion (vv. 15-16)

1.      “he who set me apart before I was born”: This phrase probably includes God’s choice of Paul both for salvation and apostleship. 

2.      “who called me by his grace”: The apostle understood that he did not merit either his salvation or apostleship.  “Call”, this context, means more than “invitation”.  It describes the powerful, inward call of God that wonderfully draws sinners to Christ. 

3.      “was pleased to reveal his son to me”: In this case, the Book of Acts teaches that God revealed the Son, quite literally, to Saul, on the road to Damascus.

4.      “that I might preach him among the Gentiles”: Again, Paul made clear the vital connection between the validity of his gospel and the reality of his conversion and apostleship.

D.     A summary of Paul’s early experiences as a Christian (vv. 18-24): Paul claimed that he spent three years in Arabia; then, he met with Peter and James the brother of Jesus.  After a fifteen-day sojourn in Jerusalem, the apostle travelled to Damascus and Cilicia where he preached the gospel.  The point of these observes centers on Paul’s general independence from the church in Judea.  These verses summarize a lengthy period, perhaps fourteen years of Pauline labor in Syria and his home province of Cilicia. 

IV.             Paul’s Interaction with the Jerusalem Church (2:1-10)