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Galatians #1 . Chapter 1:1-2
This week we are beginning a new series on the book of Galatians. It is a relatively short book – six chapters. As with all of the bible, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the writer to write this, and for it to be preserved and chosen as part of the New Testament. Even so, it is helpful to understand some things about how it first was written and why.
Like much of the New Testament, Galatians is actually a letter written to several Christian churches. It was written by the Apostle Paul. Paul and his colleague Barnabas (and a few others) took a mission trip from their home church in Antioch (in modern day Syria) in the 40’s AD. They went to Cyprus, and then to what is now South Central Turkey. Acts 13-14 describes this journey. They returned home to Syria.
Shortly after this, word came to Paul (we don’t know exactly how) of a controversy that was arising among many of the churches they had just visited. In response, Paul wrote this letter. It was probably the first letter that he wrote to any church, and it is certainly the first letter of his that we have preserved. He may have written it sometime in the year 49.
When I was seminary, the exciting controversy about this book was this: did “Galatians” refer to “North Galatia,” or “South Galatia?” Properly, the province of Galatia was north-central Turkey, but we don’t really know if Paul ever went there. There was a point in history when south-Central Turkey also was called Galatia, but that was before Paul’s time a little bit. So did Paul go somewhere we never heard about? Or are scholars wrong about when Galatia included the southern area? This was considered a major and probably unsolvable conundrum. Theologians don’t get out much.
I’m telling you now, Paul was writing to churches in south-central Turkey, in the cities recorded in Acts 13 and 14: Towns like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. There, I’ve solved it. Part of the reason I favor this view, is because the things that happened in these cities when Paul was there seem to be reflected in the letter.
Pisidian Antioch was the first city in the region where Paul and Barnabas really made an effort to talk to people about Jesus. They went to a local synagogue and shared the good news. It was well received at first, but after just a week some of the Jewish community began to oppose him:
So the message of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jews incited the prominent women, who worshiped God, and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their district. (Acts 13:49-50, HCSB)
And yet again,
The same thing happened in Iconium; they entered the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brothers. (Acts 14:1-2, HCSB)
The same sorts of things happened in the nearby towns of Lystra and Derbe. So when these churches were just starting, there was a great deal of controversy with some Jewish people. We have to remember that in the beginning, the first believers thought of Christianity as merely the completion of the Jewish religion. In fact, I still kind of think that way. In any case, the Jews who did not like the teaching of the Christians took it personally, because it seemed to them, not a separate religion, but a pollution of pure Judaism and a threat to it. To make matters even more complicated, many of the first Christians in these towns were Jewish themselves, although some were not.
Apparently after Paul and Barnabas left the area, the Jews did not leave things alone, and many of the Jewish Christians in the churches began to listen to their non-Christian Jewish brothers. Within the churches, Jewish Christians began to teach that the “good news” was not salvation through Jesus Christ alone, but salvation through Jesus AND through following Jewish law. In other words, only the Jewish Christians were truly saved, and if the Gentiles wanted to be saved through Jesus, they had to become Jews first, and faithfully observe Jewish religious laws.
Paul wrote Galatians when he learned of all this. Now, as we jump in here, I have a few thoughts. Every once in a while, I run across a group of Christians who teach that you need to follow Jewish law in order to be truly saved. Really – I do meet these people. I can scarcely believe it, since this book of Galatians so clearly refutes that. But they’re out there. So, if you ever run into them, this study of Galatians will help.
Let’s be honest though – most of us don’t have regular contact with folks like that. It isn’t exactly a front-burner issue in most Christian churches these days. So what’s the good for us today?
I think we find the answer when we look a little deeper at the issue of following the law or living by grace. Strange as it seems, the truth is, it is easier to live by a set of rules than by grace. It’s all laid out for you. You just consult the rule book, and if you do the right thing – even if your heart wants nothing to do with God – God has to deliver on his promises. You are in control of things – it is up to you. You live right, and God will give you a good life.
But grace is messy. We can’t control it. And it is all about the heart – we can’t get grace with hearts that are not interested in God. We can’t get grace when our hearts are too proud to admit we really have no claim on God, and nothing we do could ever change that. Grace is hard to evaluate. No checklist will tell you if you have it or not. Grace can’t be controlled. We can’t make God respond to us by behaving rightly. We just have to trust him.
Galatians is all about Law and Grace. And truthfully, most Christians still struggle with how those two things relate. Our natural tendency is to try fix things ourselves – and that is law. We want to believe that if we do certain things – like pray and live right – then God will be obligated to do certain things in response – like answer our prayers or keep us from hardship. But that is law, not grace. This letter is very relevant indeed to people who struggle with these things.
So, with all that in mind, let’s begin.
Paul, an apostle — not from men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead — and all the brothers who are with me: To the churches of Galatia.
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. To whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Gal 1:1-5, HCSB)
This is Paul’s first letter, and it is possible that those around him encouraged him to be more tactful in the future. But the truth is, he is hopping mad, and he doesn’t waste time on saying nice things to no purpose. He begins immediately by reminding the Galatians that he writes with a spiritual authority that comes from God.
There are two reasons for this, I think. Clearly, the Galatian churches were being influenced by people who considered themselves leaders. Paul is reminding them that his leadership comes from a call he received from Jesus Christ himself on the Damascus road. It’s as if he’s beginning by saying: “who are these people to say that I’m wrong? I’m a messenger from Jesus Christ and God Father Himself.”
Secondly, since Paul’s opposition is mostly Jewish, he is creating a big contrast from the way Jewish rabbis teach, and his own approach. Jewish rabbis in that day typically taught by quoting other authorities, sometimes going back several ‘generations.’ They might say something like this:
“We have just read from the Torah how Moses led the people across the Red Sea. Rabbi Hillel quotes rabbi Judah ben Tabbai as saying that it was the obedience of Moses in stretching out his staff that we must notice here.”
By the way, I made that example up. The point is, the style of Jewish teaching was to quote authorities, who often quoted other authorities. In contrast, Paul says, “I’m speaking for Jesus. He himself sent me. I don’t need to quote authorities.” Paul himself had been a Jewish rabbi before he became a Christian. He could have established his Jewish credentials to impress the Galatians. Instead, he believed his only worthwhile credential was the fact that Jesus saved him and called him.
This is key to the entire message of Galatians. Paul’s only credential is Jesus Christ, and he considers it far greater than any possible contenders. Ultimately, he is going to tell the Galatians that Jesus is their only credential as well. From the very first sentence he is asserting the fact that everything is Jesus, and whatever is not in Jesus is useless.
So maybe the place to begin application is to ask this: What are your credentials? Are you a generation or two removed, or do you know Jesus for yourself? Is the basis for your faith what someone else said, or is it your own trust in Jesus? Are you willing to say, “Jesus is my all I have; Jesus is my only claim?”
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.