< May 29, 2016 >

Commentary on Galatians 1:1-12

 

The apostle Paul is astonished (Galatians 1:6) and perplexed (4:20) at what has happened among the Galatian Christians since he was working and preaching among them.

To say that he is angry is an understatement. Indeed, he is so perturbed that he flings curses at the people who have stirred up the churches in the region (1:8-9). He even goes so far as to suggest that it would not be such a bad thing if his opponents suffered a slip of the knife in an act of self mutilation (5:12).

With a mouth (or pen) like that, it is easy to accept that this apostle to the Gentiles really was, as he says, a violent persecutor of the church before he met the risen Christ (Galatians 1:13).

What is the genesis of his ire? Apparently, missionaries following after him have persuaded these Gentile Christians that it is necessary for them to become Jewish in order to be true followers of Christ. Their logic may have gone something like this: Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, and his first disciples were Jews. They used the Jewish scriptures. Therefore, those who want to become followers of Jesus must first become Jews. For the men, that means circumcision.

To be one of us, these Judaizing opponents argued, you have to be just like us. Paul’s response? “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel!” (Galatians 1:6)

Off to a good start

At first glance, the initial verses of the letter (and of the assigned passage) give little clue to the passion that follows. The greeting looks and sounds fairly typical of Paul. He identifies himself as an apostle (as in Romans and 1-2 Corinthians), together with his compatriots (“all the adelphoi who are with me”).

Then he names the church(es) to which he writes, and greets them with his characteristic blessing: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So far, so good. Indeed, the greeting is so ordinary that it is tempting to rush right past it, only to stumble into the literary gap created by the surprising lack of a thanksgiving -- that section of Paul’s letters where he thanks God for the letter’s recipients and offers prayers on their behalf, establishing a warm connection with his hearers and hinting at the letter’s themes.

The fact that Galatians is missing a thanksgiving is a clue to Paul’s strong feelings and sense of urgency.

A higher power

It is difficult to tell in English translations, but the first five verses comprise one long sentence in the Greek -- and it’s a loaded sentence, at that. As if he’s leading a classroom memorization drill, Paul makes good use of rapid-fire repetition: “through Jesus Christ and God the Father … from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ … according to the will of our God and Father.”1

Without even attending to the rest of the words in the sentence, readers of the letter may intuit that something significant is going on here.

On one hand, the language signifies a power play, given that there’s no higher authority than God and, for Christians, Christ Jesus. Recall that in the very first words of the passage Paul claims authorization directly from God and not from mere mortals, and the pericope will end with a similar claim (Galatians 1:11-12). No candidacy review board for this one! Paul’s description of his call highlights the fact that he is under the authority of God and not humans: “I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me” (1:16-17). At the Jerusalem Council, narrated in chapter 2, Paul points out (2:6) that “those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders … contributed nothing to me.”

Power and authority are not the only things at stake, however. Paul is doing more than simply calling on his favorite super-heroes to stand beside him in a fight against his Judaizing opponents.

All in the family

Paul’s repeated invocation of God the Father is a firm reminder to the Galatians that the good news of Jesus Christ has already made them part of the family of God. Already, they belong.

Before, when they did not yet know God, they were enslaved to the “elemental spirits” (Galatians 4:8); i.e., they were Gentiles. But everything changed when they received the good news of Jesus Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul writes (5:1).

Together with Jewish Christians, the Galatians are brothers and sisters in Christ’s family, with God as their father. Circumcision is not necessary. They are enough, as they are, because Christ is enough. They have been called by God in the grace of Christ.

Then and now

The relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the earliest decades of the church was arguably one of the most significant issues facing nascent Christianity. Despite a very different context today, preachers may nonetheless find points of connection.

On one hand, some churches and individual Christians today may find themselves in the place of the Galatians, being bombarded with messages from inside and outside of the church that demand them to be something other than they are called to be. Paul’s letter is a potent reminder to stand firm in the gospel of Christ and trust in the good news of God’s graciousness.

On the other hand, some may be acting as the Judaizers did in Galatia, demanding that others should earn their place at the table by conforming to long-standing customs or practices that do not represent the heart of the gospel.

Paul’s gospel message to the Galatians -- the gospel that he received in a revelation from God -- was not a proclamation of rules that would buy his churches entry into the family of God, but a proclamation of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and continues to accomplish today. Already the Galatians (and we) are enough. Because Christ Jesus is enough.


Notes:

1 Admittedly, the patriarchal language can be difficult for modern ears. Note, however, that at 4:19 Paul describes himself in maternal terms, “in the pain of childbirth.”