Most human activities are governed by rules. We’ve just returned from a very pleasant holiday in the South of France – we flew from Gatwick airport to Barcelona, and drove from Barcelona to the beautiful seaside town of Collioure. We noticed as we drove from Spain into France that the roads more or less looked the same, but the rules changed.
The speed limit on the Spanish autopista motorways was 120 kph whereas on France’s autoroute motorways it was 110 kph. So many rules, so many opportunities to infringe!
What if there were no rules? Oddly enough some experiments have been attempted where rules have been somewhat set aside. In London’s Exhibition Road all the road Kerbs and street signs have been removed and the road has been designated a ‘shared space’ for traffic and people – the idea is that everyone respects one another rather than setting rules and it seems to work to a degree.
Galatians is all about how we live as Christians – it’s about how we live without the burden of compliance to rules. The new way to live is radical and remarkable and Paul feels very strongly about us fully understanding and implementing this way of living.
1. How did we get here?
Galatians is largely about correcting a wrong way of doing things. The error was largely coming from Jews who wanted everyone to live by their rules. This Jew/Gentile/Church issue is not a new one, we encountered it as we studied Acts and Romans too and it is one that is quite simple in principle but nevertheless one over which many Christians stumble.
Here’s how it seems to have played out:
The bible is a book that is dominated by God’s relationship with Israel. From pretty early on in Genesis we meet Abraham and from that point on, all of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament (including the gospels, much of Acts, some of Paul’s letters and other letters) all deal with Israel. It’s quite remarkable how we forget or ignore this. When you study the gospels it is necessary to recognise that the message of Jesus, John the Baptist and the disciples was to Jews it is a recipe for confusion to assume it all applies directly to you? Lots of the bible is written by Israelites to Israelites. That doesn’t make the bible irrelevant to us, but it is essential to interpret the bible with the authors and recipients in mind: this is interpretation 101! The flow of the ideas in the bible is based on God’s promises to Abraham and his physical descendents. There are a whole series of promises to Abraham (and his descendents) but right at the start of God’s dealings with Abraham a very important statement was made with respect to Gentiles: ‘and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ So whilst much of the bible is written to and about descendents of Abraham the impact for Gentiles is of great significance: benefits to us are dependent on Israel. It is a tragic fact of history that Israel has been on the receiving end of persecution and hate down through the years and one can’t help wondering if this is related to Satan’s opposition to God’s plan to bring about blessing for all peoples on earth through this particular people.
This great promise to Abraham however has been somewhat affected by the actions of Israel themselves. For the Gentiles to fully benefit from the promise, Israel has to be in a right relationship with God – the trouble is that the Bible tells a story of failure upon failure by these ‘stiff necked people.’ By the time Paul writes to the Galatians the Jews had not just rejected the preaching of John the Baptist and the presentation of the long-awaited and prophesied Messiah they had beheaded John and crucified the one born to be king. In spite of this failure God’s promise of change from the inside out (the new covenant spoken of by the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah) had been inaugurated on the day of Pentecost – this marked a new beginning and yet another chance for Israel to repent and bring blessings to Gentiles. But once again the ‘stiff necked people’ rejected God’s love and mercy and murdered Stephen.
What was to be done? It seemed that there was no hope for either Israel or the Gentiles. But God initiated a way that was unforeseen, he cut off Israel and started something completely new; the church. God would now deal directly with Gentiles and the person who would bring this new thing to pass was the apostle Paul. Paul was rather careful to keep his new message distinct from that of the other apostles who it seems were commissioned under the assumption that Israel could still repent. As an aside I can’t help noticing that in spite of the great commission to the disciples to go into all the world, they never really got out of Jerusalem and I suspect that that was because their commission was under the plan that involved Israel repenting and then the benefits coming to Gentiles, since Israel did not repent something new was needed. This of course does not negate God’s original promises to Abraham, how could God fail to keep his promises! But Israel was set aside just as Paul described in his letter to the Romans.
So we have a new thing taking place: Paul preaching directly to Gentiles, with a message to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. What Paul was doing was not a development of what Peter and the disciples were doing but was something somewhat distinct (a feature Paul is keen to emphasise in this letter as we shall see).
Now this massive change in direction did not come about without difficulty. Big changes take us time to get our heads around. My company is embarking on a change that is pretty big, our Japanese company is largely being Americanised, and the change is painful and difficult – we are all struggling with the change and its implications as many people lose their jobs. Just imagine the difficulty of the change Paul was commissioned to put in place! The issues raised were partly dealt with in Romans (take a look back at Romans 9 to 11) but in the churches in Galatia a problem emerged as a group of Jews tried to impose their version of Jewish law onto the new believers. As we will see in this book, Paul speaks with great passion and forcefulness to ensure that the new way of working is not undermined, it’s an important argument was we shall see.
Paul identifies himself at the start: ‘sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.’ It’s not at first obvious to us why Paul qualifies himself in this way, but as we read through the letter we see that Paul is very keen to establish his credentials as one to whom a new and hitherto unknown revelation had been given. This was not a sort of evolution of something started by the disciples but something entirely new and God-given.
The address is to the churches in Galatia, an area in what we now know as Turkey. Paul offers greetings: ‘grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.’ It seems that what Paul is saying is that our sin problem has been fixed by the work of the Lord Jesus – but there is an immediate effect – we are rescued (rather than removed) from the power of the present age. We will see this idea developed by Paul – the issue in Galatia was that this idea of overcoming the power of the present age was being neglected by the believers who were descending into a rules-based way of living their Christian lives: more on this later.
3. One gospel
There is some straight talking in this letter: ‘I am astonished,’ ‘let them (those preaching another gospel) be accursed,’ ‘you foolish Galatians,’ ‘I am perplexed about you,’ ‘As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!’ This indicates to us that the issues Paul is dealing with are issues for which no compromise is possible. We certainly ought to seek peace in the church but some things are just too important and the substance of the gospel falls in the not-to-be-compromised category.
Paul expresses astonishment that the Galatians are so quickly ‘deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.’ The issue was the gospel, but if you look with care you will see that the issue also relates to living in the grace of Christ. I think it could be said (and you should be prepared to form your own judgement on this if you are a genuine seeker after truth!) that Paul was fundamentally concerned with preserving the basis of how we are saved. The error seemed to be manifested itself in the realm of ‘living in the grace of Christ.’ We will see much more of this later, but for now I think we can say that the underlying principle that Paul is defending is that we cannot be saved by our own works. Only by God’s grace can we be saved. God in his grace has provided a means by which every human being can be forgiven and be saved from the death that sin brings about – all we need to do is receive this by believing – no works are required. It’s amazing how Christians who believe this can so easily introduce the need for works (which was precisely the issue in Galatia). A relatively recent form of this problem has taken the form of emphasising that salvation is all about what the salvation produces, if it doesn’t produce good works then you cannot be saved – this seems to be introducing the necessity of good works by the back door! The issue is important, good works are a sign of a healthy and right-functioning Christian faith (as we shall see in Galatians) but they are not and never can be a basis of salvation. This is worth fighting for! Paul did! He says in verse 8 ‘but even if an angel of from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preach to you, let them be under God’s curse!’ That’s pretty strong language, bur Paul’s not finished there…’now I say again: if anyone is preaching you a gospel other that what you accepted. Let them be under God’s curse!’ The gloves are well and truly off! This is simply too important to compromise.
Have you ever said something , thought something or done something as a believer that was in your own judgement just too bad to allow you to have access to heaven? I recall someone once saying that he had done something bad and I could see it was concerning him and whether salvation would be damaged or even lost. If we are saved without the need for good works then it entirely makes sense that the same salvation cannot be lost by bad works. You might in response to that say that this is a terrible thing as it gives licence to sin, but nothing could be further from the truth – and the answer to this will come in later in this book. For now we need to emphasise that works can neither save us nor negate the salvation that God gives us. I say this with some hesitation but if you don’t agree, be careful - as Paul feels pretty free to place you under God’s curse! This is not about pleasing people but about fighting for truth that affects eternal destiny.
4. No-works salvation from Jesus Christ
Paul had originally hated the message that the disciples were promoting. They had been preaching that the Jews had failed to recognise their Messiah and that they had to repent of this and turn back to God – I think that part of their message, although perhaps not an explicit part, was that God would change them from the inside out. This was the new covenant which had been foreseen by the prophets (Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and spoken about by Jesus himself. Paul previously represented the Jewish religious establishment and was one of the leading (or perhaps the leading) persecutor of the disciples. But God had plans for Paul – you will remember his remarkable conversion on the road to Damascus.
Paul’s conversion was to mark a huge change in the way that God was going to deal with mankind. As we noted in the introduction, the repeated rejection by the Jews meant that they were to be set aside – a new agency was required and Paul was to be the catalyst to bring that new agency into being. His message and mission was to be entirely new and distinct from that of the disciples and Paul is very keen to make this crystal clear. What did Paul do immediately after his conversion? He says ‘my immediate response was not to consult any human being.’ Remarkably he did not go to Jerusalem to visit the apostles – but rather went to Arabia, only after 3 years did he visit Jerusalem to get to know Peter. Even then he did not meet the other apostles (with the exception of James).
Why does Paul take time to mention this and why indeed did he separate himself so deliberately from the apostles? It seems that he is signalling that ‘his gospel’ was new and distinct from what had gone before. The apostles’ focus on preaching only to Jews and inviting repentance (from killing the Messiah) and acceptance of Jesus as Messiah was to be replaced with a message to the Gentiles (which did not exclude Jews) – a message which emphasised belief in Jesus for salvation from sin. Paul was extremely keen to distance himself from his old friends who tried to stamp out the preaching of Jesus as Messiah but he also wanted to keep his distance from the apostles, at least at first – this tactic would ease the introduction of God’s new revelation.