(First Message - Introduction to Galatians)
MESSAGE FOR FEBRUARY 17, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 1:1-5
Today we begin a new series of messages on the book of Galatians. To help us better understand the message of this letter from the apostle Paul, we need to briefly look at the original context into which Paul wrote this letter. Paul wrote this letter to be circulated among the churches he had planted in the southern part of a region of what is now Turkey but which the Roman rulers of his day called Galatia. Paul’s first missionary journey, where he planted these churches is recorded in Acts chapters 13-14. These included churches in cities like Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Derbe and Iconium. Galatians is the earliest of the 13 letters Paul wrote that is included in the New Testament. I agree with those who believe the letter was written about 48 AD before the Jerusalem Council met as recorded in Acts 15.
Galatians is arguably Paul’s most severe letter of the 13 included in the New Testament. As we will see, it is largely a letter of rebuke and the language Paul uses in his rebuke of these Galatians rates as his some of his strongest. In Galatians, Paul addresses a severe crisis within these churches. His concern for them is not fundamentally ethical or behavioral, but doctrinal. The Galatians were in danger of losing the truth of the gospel through false teachers who had emerged in the churches soon after Paul had planted them. Because of the nature of this crisis, Paul in Galatians is fighting for the very spiritual survival of these believers and churches in Galatia.
In these Galatian churches a number of Jewish teachers claiming to be followers of Christ had infiltrated the churches and were teaching that the Gentiles, who represented the large majority within the church, in order to be truly saved, needed to do more than simply place their faith in Christ. They taught that in addition to trusting in Christ for salvation, they must also be circumcised and observe Jewish law. Simply put, they were teaching that in order for God to save the Gentiles, they first had to become Jews. These teachers have been called “Judaizers” because they essentially required conversion to Judaism as a prerequisite to salvation. They held that the message of the gospel of justification by faith was not sufficient to bring salvation. Salvation required believing the gospel PLUS doing certain works and that is heresy.
When the message of the gospel is distorted this way, there can be no authentic church because the gospel of grace not only gives birth to the church, it sustains and strengthens her. Twisting and changing the message of the gospel as the false teachers in Galatia had done is spiritually lethal and wicked for many reasons, but here are three. First, it renders the redemptive work of Christ worthless by wrongly adding an unbiblical requirement to faith in Christ—the cross PLUS our good works. God has established his redemptive plan in such a way that if the cross doesn’t stand alone as the sole ground of our salvation, it doesn’t stand at all. Second, when the gospel is perverted this way, God is robbed of the glory he deserves in saving sinners because this heresy places the decisive work of salvation on the shoulders of sinners because it is ultimately dependent upon what we do in addition to the believing the gospel. Finally, this false teaching is the quickest way to weaken and in very short order, completely kill a church because it drains off the life blood of the body of Christ which is the grace of God.
It is reasonable to ask what value the book of Galatians has to the church beyond these specific situations where false teachers are intentionally trying to distort the gospel of grace. The truth is, this book is of tremendous value to individuals and churches because it repeatedly reminds us of something we are very good at forgetting--the glorious nature of the gospel of grace. Philip Ryken is doubtless correct when he says that most Christians are “recovering Pharisees.” The Pharisees were a religious sect within Judaism that believed that God saves a person by virtue of their performance of good works found in the law. As recovering Pharisees, we too often wrongly live as if though we are saved initially by God’s grace, God’s continuing love and favor toward us is only given in exchange of our performance of good works. We often live as if God’s love for us is conditioned on how faithful we are to live a Christ-like life. There is a gross inconsistency here because on the one hand, we believe that we can do nothing of ourselves to be saved—it is all of grace. But we often continue in the Christian life as if God will love us and will be pleased with us only as we faithfully live like Jesus. What was bought for us by the grace of God is often kept by good works. That’s the lie the recovering Pharisee lives out and that life results in much self-righteousness and precious little spiritual power and joy.
In the weeks and months to come as we move through Galatians, we will by God’s grace expose this crippling lie many times and I trust that the Holy Spirit will shine His light on those areas in our life—perhaps now unknown to us—where we are living as if God’s love and acceptance of us is rooted in our performance before God instead of what he has done for us in Christ. Now, let’s read the introduction to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul writes, “1:1Paul, an apostle— not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
We are sometimes tempted to skip over or read very quickly through the introductions of these New Testament letters. If we do that, we are cheating ourselves out of blessing and missing out on a very helpful guide to understanding what are the author’s main concerns for his audience. That is always true to some extent but especially in the case of this Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If you have studied the other introductions to Paul’s letters, you are struck by the uniqueness of this one to the Galatians. We’ll note some of those as we move through these five verses, but for right now, simply notice the length of this introduction. The average introduction Paul writes to the other churches is 12 verses. That is average. The introduction to the Romans is the longest with 15 verses while the letter we call First Corinthians is nine verses and the rest are somewhere in between. This one to the Galatians is five verses.
The reason for that comparative brevity is not because this was Paul’s first letter to a church he planted and he was starting small. No, these New Testament letters largely reflect the conventional form of letters written within the Greco-Roman world. The typical letter within this culture had a five part introduction. This included first the name of the sender. Then the people being addressed followed by a brief greeting. Then came a wish for good health which Paul converts into a blessing of some sort. The introduction of the letter typically ends with a word of encouragement to the recipients of the letter which Paul typically changes into a thanksgiving to God for some evidence of God’s grace in the church. The other letters to churches Paul writes mostly follow that form and that explains why they average 12 verses in length.
The introduction to Galatians, like Paul’s other letters gives us a window into both the tone and content of the letter as a whole. Paul knows that because the Galatians were increasingly turning away from the saving truth of the gospel his letter would be very pointed and severe. His introduction mirrors that tone. In these first five verses the dark clouds of reproof are already gathering and the sound of distant, rolling thunder can be heard in preparation for the first lightning bolt of rebuke Paul will unleash in verse six where he begins with, “I am astonished…” The most dramatic difference between this introduction and all of Paul’s other introductions is there is no thanksgiving. Given the literary conventions of the day, that is a glaring omission. Even the Corinthians, with all their arrogance and immorality and division and defilement of the church warrant a thanksgiving from Paul. Not so the Galatians. When the truth of the gospel is hanging by a thread, anything else that may be seen as good in the church is irrelevant. When the foundation is crumbling, you don’t reflect on the beauty of the chandeliers and wall hangings. You move immediately to address the problem that threatens the entire structure and all who live in it.
Paul introduces several truths that he will later expand upon in these five verses but they can largely be grouped under two main headings. First, Paul introduces: The authenticity of his apostleship. As we will see, in order for the false teachers to come in and gain any credibility for their false gospel of works, they first had to discredit Paul who had planted the churches and had doubtless led many of these Galatian believers to Christ. From Paul’s later defense of his apostleship, it seems clear that the false teacher’s undermining of his authority went something like this, “Paul is doubtless a gifted and brilliant teacher, but he wasn’t one of the original twelve—he’s really a Johnny come lately. He didn’t walk with Jesus for three years like the others. Don’t imagine that he has the same authority or even the same message as the other apostles. Those other, genuine apostles agree with what we have been teaching you. Paul brought you part of the way to Christ, but we will add what was lacking in his gospel.”
If Paul was a genuine apostle, on par with the other 11 apostles, that meant that he had been divinely commissioned by Christ to authoritatively represent him and his teaching to the church. If Paul was a genuine apostle, then his teaching of the gospel was de-facto simply not open to question and any distortion of the gospel by the false teachers would get zero traction with the Galatians. Paul knew that the plight of these Galatian churches hung at least in part on whether or not he could by God’s grace successfully reassert the authenticity of his apostleship. That’s why in a few verses Paul moves into a lengthy defense of his apostleship. Only when his apostolic authority was re-established would they be willing to submit to his correction of their newly acquired false gospel.
He introduces this truth in verse one where he says, “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” The form here is striking especially when you compare this declaration of his apostleship with the other introductions. As he does in other letters, he begins with “Paul, an apostle,” but then in the emphatic position is the word that follows, “NOT.” He is defines the source of his apostleship in negative terms because he is responding to the challenges that have been raised against it. His apostleship is “…not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Paul apostleship wasn’t his idea nor did it come through the commissioning of some other man or human council. His office came directly from Jesus Christ who personally appeared to him on the Damascus Road.
Paul’s commission to this authoritative office was from Jesus and that meant by implication that anyone who challenges this divinely commissioned preacher of the gospel is challenging Christ himself and God the Father who performed the decisive work of his gospel by raising Christ from the dead. This truth of establishing apostolic authority in our lives is still crucial for us to know even though there are no apostles today in the same sense that Paul was an apostle. The importance of living in a posture of submission to the absolute authority of the apostolic writings and the rest of the Bible remains crucial to the spiritual health of churches and individuals. If we do not believe that the Bible is the authentic word of God with the absolute authority implicit in that, then we can be certain of nothing of eternal significance! If the word of God is not the rudder of truth, then we have nothing to keep our ship on course and are destined to be blown about by the latest wind of philosophy or pop psychology. If the Bible does not have the very authority of God in our lives and in our church that means that we ourselves become the arbiter or judge of what is right and wrong, what is acceptable or unacceptable and that means that functionally we become God. We must establish very early in our walk with Christ the authority of the Bible to direct us, to train us, to give us reproof and correction that we might be equipped for every good work.
A second introductory truth is in verses three through five. We read again, “3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” In these verses Paul introduces a major theme of the book and that is: The sufficiency of the gospel. Paul takes out his theological scalpel and makes his first incision to begin cutting out from these churches the malignancy of the false gospel of works. Nearly all of Paul’s letters include the dual blessing “grace and peace” but when you know the remaining contents of this letter, it’s clear what he means in the context by these terms. Grace is simply the heart of the gospel. It’s the fuel and lubricant of the gospel engine. He tells the Ephesians, “8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Grace is the unmerited favor of God—it is by definition impossible to earn grace—it is a free gift. It is something God does, not us.
Grace is the source of our salvation, not our works. If God’s grace is the source or cause of the gospel, then peace with God is the effect. What does grace do for us through the gospel? One of the chief effects is peace with God as Paul explains in Romans 5:1. He says, “5:1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Justification by faith is a free gift of God and from that free gift springs peace with God through Christ. This peace with God is not simply the cessation of hostilities between God and the sinner—though it includes that. God is no longer enraged with me over my sin because through Christ’s work on the cross, all his rage and wrath that I rightly deserved was transferred onto Christ who received all the punishment my sins deserved. This peace includes that legal aspect of my relationship with God, but it goes well beyond that. It also speaks of the sense of acceptance we have with God because of Christ—the overarching sense that God is pleased with me because of Christ and his work on my behalf.
Think of it this way. The Father said to his Son Jesus in Luke 3:22, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” If the Father is well pleased with the Son and you have been united with Christ through his atoning death by faith, then that means that by definition God is well pleased with you! He is well pleased with Christ: I am in Christ: Therefore, he is well pleased with me. Not only is the hostility between God and me at an end, the alienation I have sensed between myself and God is also ended. God is pleased with me in Christ—there is no alienation there. This absence of alienation from the Father is implicit in our sonship with Him and the character of the sonship we have with God is dictated by the kind of sonship he has with Jesus Christ because we are in Christ. All of that relational peace with God is caused by God’s grace in my life and is activated by faith
That is the gospel. Let me ask you. Do you believe that? I mean, is that your day-to day experience? For too many believers who have been genuinely converted the answer is sadly, “no.” The peace of God that shows itself in this sense of acceptance and the assurance of God’s pleasure over you is simply not present in the lives of many believers. Why is that? You don’t need to be a theologian to get the answer. If peace is the affect or outworking of a grace-filled life, then an absence of peace is in many cases caused by a deficiency of faith by which we accept God’s grace. We simply don’t by faith root our relationship with God in God’s grace, but instead in what we are cranking out in our performance for God. That will never bring peace because if you are basing your acceptance before God in what you do, then you are what Paul will call living “under the law” and the law was never intended to bring peace, only condemnation. If you are a recovering Pharisee, living with this peace with God is a daily challenge for you. The book of Galatians is just for YOU! One way to determine if you are living out a gospel of works is this simple test here in Galatians chapter one. That is—if you are grace based, you will much more consistently live with the peace of God ruling in your heart.
If you tend to live more with a looming sense of God’s disappointment, of his disapproval or even his disgust or condemnation, that is not peace with God and that points to an absence of a grace orientation in your life. Don’t get me wrong, if you are living in unrepentant sin, that too will impact your sense of peace because our sin erects a barrier to God’s peace. But as soon as you confess it and by faith believe that you are forgiven in Christ, that is the first step in repentance of it and you can be on your way to once again increasingly coming to know God’s peace.
Notice in verse four the sufficiency of the gospel of grace. Jesus Christ is he “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,” Let’s look at the key phrases there and see how each points away from a gospel of works and toward a gospel of grace. First, “gave himself for us.” That is the language of substitution. When we were guilty and liable for the penalty for our sin, Christ gave or substituted himself in our place. When we were totally helpless and awaiting our spiritual execution, God rescued us—that is pure grace. Paul continues that thought when he explains what Christ accomplished in this giving himself for us. He says he did it “to deliver us from the present evil age.”
The word “deliver” is a powerful one and it means “to rescue.” He rescued us not simply from the penalty of sin, but also from its power. That is what Paul means when he says we have been rescued from “this present evil age.” That speaks of this world and our fallen flesh and all the evil powers and principalities that oppose God and righteousness. We have through the gospel of grace been rescued from the enslaving power of that. This is not simply forgiveness or pardon from our sin. This is rescue from its enslaving grip on us. This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans chapter eight. He says, “3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Christ’s death on the cross purchased not only our freedom from God’s punishment for sin, but also the worldly power of sin in this evil age so that by faith and in the power of the Spirit we can increasingly live out God’s righteousness as captured in the law. This is not perfect obedience to the law—but increasingly living out the law of God that through the New Covenant in Christ has been written on our hearts.
In light of the context of Galatians, it begs the question--can our own good works rescue us from the power of the sin? The Bible paints a picture of our life before Christ that could be compared with being trapped in a gigantic whirlpool of the sewage of sin. We were circling the drain of that sewage whirlpool—just a little dot in a swirling ocean of sin and its power. Was there anything we could do to extract ourselves from that? NO! It was absolutely overwhelming but in our great helplessness, Christ came and pulled us out of that muck and cleansed us. Paul will later say that if our own works could do nothing to rescue us initially from the overwhelming power of sin, what on earth makes us think our own works can cause God to love you more or accept you or be pleased with you now? This message of free grace feels so radical to us because we live in a world where our acceptance with others is almost always conditioned on our performance.
Notice he ends verse four telling us that all of Christ’s redeeming work was “according to the will of our God and Father.” The redeeming work of Christ was all done in accordance with the Father’s will. Crawford Lorritts reminded me last week that many believers have a very distorted view of the Trinity as it relates to their relationship with God. Perhaps you are one of those people who inwardly believe the notion that Jesus loves you and so he came up with this plan to die for you in order to keep his ill-tempered, fire-breathing Father from wacking you. Perhaps you believe that when you sin, the Father is enraged with you and the only reason he doesn’t squash you like a bug is because the Son and his work on Calvary restrains him from what he really wants to do. Oh beloved, how unbiblical that is! The Father sent the Son to the cross—he crushed his own Son—it was done on HIS initiative in complete agreement with the Son. The cross is exhibit A of the Father’s love for us.
Finally, speaking of God the Father Paul says, “to whom be glory forever and ever.” In context, this too forecasts a theme that we will see later in Galatians. That is—if our salvation and acceptance with God is rooted in our good works, then we get the glory. But we know from Ephesians 2 we read earlier that God has orchestrated salvation through the gospel so that “no man can boast.” God alone is our boast in the gospel because it is all rooted in his amazing grace.
This is the gospel. I trust you are ready to dive in because this is the message that saves—this is the message that sanctifies. This is the message that strengthens and liberates and encourages and heals. This is the central message of the Bible. If we have this right, then everything else that is of importance in the Bible will fall into place. If we are confused here, we will go off in countless other areas as well. May God bring revival to us as a church and as individuals as we together rediscover the glorious message and power of the gospel.
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