An Introduction in Galatians
It has been said that the letter to the Galatians is like a sword flashing in the hand of a great swordsman. The swordsman is the former Saul of Tarsus, now Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ.
Both Paul and the gospel he preached were under attack. If the attack succeeded, Christianity would become another Jewish sect, with souls depending for salvation upon a ritual of circumcision, and keeping the Law. The gospel of free grace would be dismissed. In the providence of God, Paul was chosen as a champion for Christ. He would destroy the arguments of the enemies of the Cross-by the power of the pen.
Before a detailed examination is made of the contents of the letter of Paul to the Galatians, some general observations are in order concerning the form of the epistle. According to the custom of the day, the letter Paul wrote had five distinct sections.
There is a greeting in which the author identifies himself. Galatians 1:1-2
There is a prayer for the health of the recipients. Galatians 1:3
There is the giving of thanks to God. Galatians 1:4-5
There are special contents, which comprise the main body of the letter. Galatians 1:6-6:10
There are special salutations, and personal greetings. Galatians 6:11-18
Almost all of Paul’s letters reflect the same exact sections. The significance of this observation is that Paul was a man of culture and civilization. There is nothing wrong with being an educated or informed Christian. The Church must never be anti-intellectual. Time and again we read in Scripture, “Know ye not?” Meaning, “Do you not know?” God wants His people to be well informed individual about every facet of life, and especially about the Bible. It takes time to be well informed.
Prior to becoming the 20th President of the United States, James Garfield was the principal of Hiram College in Ohio. A father asked him if the course of study could be simplified so that his son might be able to go through by a shorter route. “Certainly,” Garfield replied, “but it all depends on what you want to make of your boy. When God wants to make an oak tree, He takes a hundred years. When He wants to make a squash he requires only two months.”
Many of America’s and England’s oldest universities were established as religious institutions to train individuals in the Bible. In Boston, Massachusetts, in 1636, Harvard was named after a Christian minister, John Harvard (1607-1638). He was the first benefactor of the school. The motto of the school, “Veritas” or “Truth”. All truth is God’s truth. In Connecticut, Yale was started by Congregational ministers in 1701. In New Jersey, in 1747, Princeton’s first year of class was taught by the Presbyterian minister, Jonathan Dickinson (1688-1747), a leader in the Great Awakening. Princeton’s crest still says “Dei sub numine viget,” which is Latin for “Under God she flourishes.”
Then there is Oxford University in England. The school was established in 1096. The motto of the school is “Dominus Illuminatio Mea,” meaning, “The Lord is my light.” In 1209, Cambridge University was established by Christian Leaders. Tragically, today, these institutes of higher learning have abandoned their Christian heritage and turned again to the weak and beggarly elements of worldly thought. They have accepted a naturalistic world view. They have compromised with Scripture. They have forsaken the gospel of grace. They have been “bewitched.” Still, the larger point remains valid. God would have His people be informed. He would have Christian know truth, without seeking great things for themselves.
Charles Spurgeon was a great preacher. As a young man he decided to enroll in a college, and made arrangements to meet with Dr. Joseph Angus for an entrance exam. The meeting did not take place due to the error of a maid, who put young Spurgeon in a waiting room, and forgot to tell Dr. Angus of his presence. After leaving the house, the Lord spoke to Spurgeon saying, “Seekest thou great things for thyself. Seek them not.” Paul was a man who knew the truth of the gospel, and was determined to defend it against every assault.
Paul was also a man of his era, dealing with the emergencies of the hour. It is easy to forget that Paul wrote to ordinary people, in an ordinary way, from a human perspective. The wonder of wonders is that God takes ordinary activities, and makes them extra-ordinary by His grace and mercy.
As Paul began his epistle to the Galatians, he declared of himself that he was an apostle. That was a bold statement for any man to make, because it could be challenged. In Acts 1:21, 22 the basic definition of an apostle is given. “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.”
To be an apostle, a man must have accompanied Christ during His earthly ministry, and have witnessed His resurrection. Paul did not meet the traditional qualification. In addition, he was an arch-enemy of the early disciples. Paul was someone whom the Church feared. How can he claim the highest honor of the church? Paul answers such concerns in the opening verse. He insists that his message was dependent on no man. “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. 12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12).
I want to pause for a moment and comment upon that declaration. It is important, because modern day Liberal theology asserts something far different. H. J. Holtzman, an influential thinker of Liberal theology, says that Paul’s theology was “the objectivizing of an interpersonal experience on the Damascus road, derived from Greek influences.”
What Liberal theology says about the Bible, or the events and teachings in the Bible, would not be important, except for the fact their Liberal ideas creep into mainstream Christianity, and manage to influence young believers.
As a result, good and sincere individuals begin to doubt the reliability of Scripture. They question plain Biblical teaching on important subjects, such as the eternal state of the wicked. They come to believe that Greek thought guided early Christian thought.
So the question arises. “Was Paul’s gospel the product of his own fertile imagination, derived from Greek influences, or some other influence?” Or, “Did Paul’s theology come from God, and was consistent with the teachings of Jesus?”
The apostle states, without equivocation that he received his message from God. He received his apostleship from God, and he received the gospel directly from God through the Lord Jesus.
Paul was not like Apollos, who was taught the truth by Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:26).
Paul was not like Timothy, who was taught by his grandmother, and also his mother.
His conversion was distinct, reflected by his conversion on the Damascus Road, and so was his personal training. What Paul was arguing, is that there is no way to explain his conversion apart from divine intervention.
God had chosen him, and called him while he was in his mother’s womb to preach Christ. “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, 16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:” (Gal. 1:15, 16).
Here is a clear declaration of God’s distinguishing and electing grace. Here we see that salvation is based on revelation, not a human decision. “God revealed His Son to me,” says Paul. There is no other way to explain how he came to salvation, and to have his apostolic calling.
To further prove the point that his message was by divine revelation, in Galatians 1 and 2, Paul is careful to describe his visits to Jerusalem. In the City of Peace, Paul was received by the church leaders, who recognized his conversion and calling by Christ, to take the gospel (Gal. 2:6-10).
But the gospel was under siege. There were Jews who had come into the church by faith, in the person and work of Jesus Christ; but they came into the church believing that the promises of God, and the gifts of God, were for the Jews alone. Racial prejudice remained rampant. A conservative Jew would not hesitate to say some startling things.
“God loves only Israel of all the nations He has made.”
“God will judge Israel with one measure, and the Gentiles with another.”
“The best of snakes crush; the best of the Gentiles kill.”
“God created the Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of Hell.”
This was the spirit that made it illegal, by Law, to help a Gentile mother bring a child into the world in the hour of her labor, for to do so was to populate the earth with the ungodly. When such a Jew saw Paul bringing the gospel of redeeming grace to the Gentile world, there was anger and fury.
There was a way to soften the attitude of the converted Jewish believer to the Gentile, and that was for the Gentile convert to become a Jew. What did this mean? It meant to be circumcised, and agree to abide by the works of the Law. That, for Paul, was unacceptable. It meant that the way of salvation was ultimately attained by the human ability to keep the Law, apart from grace.
For Paul, salvation was entirely a matter of grace. No man can ever earn favor with God. All that a person can do is to receive the love God offered by an act of faith. The mercy of God must be trusted. The Jew might go to God saying, “Behold! Here is my circumcision and here are my good deeds. Give me the salvation I have earned.” Paul would say,
“Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy Cross-I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me Savior, or I die.”
For Paul, the essential issue was not what a man could do for God, but what God had done for him. Certain Jews disagreed. The greatest act which God had done was to give Israel the Law. The Judaizers would argue that God gave to Moses the Law on which life itself depended. And Paul would answer, “Wait a minute. Who is the founder of the nation? And to whom were the greatest promises given? Not Moses, but Abraham. God gave to Abraham promises according to the principle of grace. How did Abraham receive the promises? By works? No. By faith alone. Abraham believed in God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. ‘Therefore, by the works of the Law, no flesh can please God.’” Oh, let the Church say afresh to the lost, “Only believe!”