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A Call to Christian Liberty
By Howard F. Vos
Moody PressCopyright © 1971 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
All rights reserved.
This letter to a young church (to borrow an idea from J. B. Phillips) follows the customary pattern of letters written during the first century. In these communications, the writer names himself and his addressee, sends a greeting, and then launches into the main body of the letter with its statement of the business at hand. Although greetings are in order toward the end of a first-century letter, they are not always included. Paul does not extend them in Galatians, though he does in other letters.
Whether Paul's writings should be classified as letters or epistles is a question of more than academic interest. Though the two are similar in form, the epistle is usually described as a conscious literary effort designed for publication, whereas a letter is private in character (whether written to an individual or group), is destined to meet a specific need, and is not designed for posterity. While most of Paul's writings clearly bear more of the characteristics of a letter than an epistle, their literary elements should not be ignored. Moreover, although the apostle possibly did not consciously write for posterity, the Holy Spirit obviously meant that his writings should have a continuing relevance. In fact, Paul in some instances intended that his message be circulated beyond its original circle of readers (see, e. g., Col 4:16).
From the very first verse of Galatians it is clear that this letter is quite different in tone from Paul's other writings. There is nothing unusual about the name Paul, the apostle's Gentile name, because it is always used of him in connection with his Gentile work. Nor is there anything unusual about the fact that he calls himself an apostle, because he does also in six other salutations (1 Co, 2 Co, Eph, Col, 1 Ti, 2 Ti). But in the Galatian churches, agitators had challenged the author's right to the title of apostle—his right to speak authoritatively. Thus Paul is more self-consciously on the offensive than in any of his other epistles. Immediately he seeks to make clear the divine source of his apostleship.
"Envoy" is perhaps the best translation of apostle (Gk, apostolos), though "delegate," "messenger," or "ambassador" are other valid translations in various contexts (e.g., "messenger" in Phil 2:25; 2 Co 8:23). Even before Jesus applied this descriptive term to the Twelve it apparently had attained a certain official connotation among the Jews. It referred to an envoy accredited by some authority and entrusted with a special message. This usage continued through the first century in Jewish-Christian circles, as is evident from the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve, a church manual composed early in the second century.
If these troublemakers who sought to destroy the ministry of the gospel in Galatia claimed authority as envoys of the mother church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:12), Paul would meet them head on. His commission came not from men. Probably he meant to imply that his apostolic commission was not from the Twelve. Or he may have meant that it did not come from the church of Antioch (Ac 13:1-3), which some may have thought to be inferior to a Jerusalem commission. Moreover, his commission came not through or by means of man. The shift from the plural to the singular apparently occurs to parallel with the reference to Jesus Christ. This shift tends to confirm Paul's belief in Christ as divine, because he declares that his apostolic authority comes not from man but Jesus Christ. The commission came by or through the mediation of Jesus Christ from God the Father. In making such a claim, no doubt Paul had in mind his direct confrontation with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road. The emphasis on the resurrection of Christ in the last clause of verse 1 certainly reflects the tremendous impression made on Paul by the sudden realization while on the Damascus Road that Jesus really had risen from the dead (Ac 9:4-6). Paul's apostleship or position as an envoy was then superior to any commission that the Judaizers may have received, for it came directly from the Father through His risen and glorified Son.
After a parenthetical statement on the source of his apostleship, Paul stops to associate the brethren with him in sending greetings (1:2). Normally Paul singled out individuals who were joining him in such pleasantries (e.g., 1 Co 1:1; Col 1:1). Here he may have avoided the practice because no one known to them was present. Or possibly he wished in this way to insure a greater independence of message and apostleship—these came from God. He was dependent on no man, neither apostles nor fellow workers. Even if Galatian Christians were present at the time it may not have been wise to name them because their home churches (now steeped in legalism) might have repudiated their message and friendship. "The brethren ... with me" does not seem to refer to a church, as some have supposed, because he never associates a church with himself in any of his other epistles. Probably these are simply his special friends and workers with him at the time. Brethren (adelphoi) as a term signifying religious relationship was applied to religious associations at least as early as the second century B.C. But it was given a new depth and beauty by Christians. Christian brethren are individuals who enjoy a common bond because they have become members of the household of faith on the basis of the finished work of Christ.
The addressees of the epistle are the "churches of Galatia." As already noted in the Introduction, these were probably located in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia. Possibly this is the only time Paul addressed a group of churches, although the Ephesian letter may also have been a circular letter to churches of the western part of the province of Asia Minor.
Church (Gk, ekklesia) is a beautiful word. It means "called-out ones" and in the New Testament context refers to individuals called out from a doomed and dying world by the grace of God. Of course these called-out ones are to remain in their society as salt and light to accomplish whatever purposes God has for them there. Paul used the term church to refer to an assembly gathered for worship (1 Co 14:28), a group of believers meeting in one house (Phile 2), believers of a town (Ro 16:1), and the whole body of believers everywhere (Col 1:18, 24).
Following proper epistolary form, the writer has identified himself and his addressees and now proceeds to pen a greeting, or salutation. "Grace be to you and peace" is the apostle's formula, appearing in all his letters to the churches. Some believe Paul coined this formula and others borrowed it from him. The common Greek greeting was chairein, "joy" to you. It is changed here to charts, meaning "grace" to you. "Peace" (Gk, eirene; Heb, shalom) is the Hebrew greeting. One would expect the apostle to the Gentiles to use a Greek greeting, especially when writing to churches of the Greek East. But he links the Greek with the Hebrew greeting, symbolizing the union of Jew and Greek in one body, the middle wall of partition having been broken down in Christ. Gentiles have now been admitted to privileges which had been peculiar to Israel. Grace always precedes peace in these salutations, for the free and unmerited favor of God must be extended before the individual can experience either peace with God or the peace of God. Findlay puts the relationship well:
Grace is the sum of all blessing bestowed by God; peace, ... the sum of all blessing experienced by man. Grace is the Father's good will and bounty in Christ to His undeserving children; peace, the rest and reconcilement, the recovered health and gladness of the child brought home to the Father's house, dwelling in the light of his Father's face. Grace is the fountain of redeeming love; peace is the "river of life proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb," that flows calm and deep through each believing soul, the river whose "streams make glad the city of God."
Grace and peace come from the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The second from is not in the Greek and should not be supplied. Grace and peace come from a single divine source. The Father and Son cooperate in closest union in preparing and carrying out the plan of man's redemption. Nothing speaks more forcefully for the deity of Christ than the way He is linked with the Father here.
While the Father and the Son may have cooperated fully in devising the plan of redemption, it was the Son who "gave himself" unto death as an offering for our sins (1:4). This is a statement of the true ground of acceptance before God. In turning to a system of salvation on the basis of good works, the Galatians had practically ignored the grace of God and the substitutionary death of Christ (cf. 2:21; 5:4). Some New Testament passages refer to Christ's giving Himself for sin and some refer to His sacrifice for sinners. The former focus on the effect of His work in dealing with sin and the latter on the motive for His sacrifice—love for sinners.
Christ gave Himself for our sins in order to "deliver us from this present evil world." Our sins enslaved us and Christ sought to pluck us out, or deliver us, as from bondage. The verb in the Greek suggests that He who delivers us has an interest in the result of His act. Certainly deliverance would come through the work of Christ, not through human effort. "This present evil world [age]" refers to the corrupting influences of the world and its works. The phrase has been well translated "the present age with all its evils." This age is under a god (2 Co 4:4) or rulers (1 Co 2:8) of its own who are in opposition to the eternal God, the King of the ages (1 Ti 1:17; cf. Eph 2:2-7).
Christ's death on the cross was "according to the will of God." Jesus was fully conscious throughout His ministry that what He did was according to a divinely predetermined plan and He was subject to that plan. He predicted His death, burial, and resurrection on occasion. When in a dangerous spot He could know that His "time was not yet come." He is quoted as saying, "I come ... to do thy will, O God" (Heb 10:7). After His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed, "Father, ... take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mk 14:36).
"God and our Father." Salvation was provided by the sovereign God, who has by grace alone become our Father. We stand in filial relation to Him through no effort of our own. Thus the apostle paves the way for the main argument of the epistle. Next he breaks out in a paean of praise to such a wonderful God. "To whom be the glory," the glory which is exclusively His and which properly belongs to Him. This glory He will not share with men nor surrender to men who seek to gain their salvation in whole or in part by their own efforts. Throughout eternity He will solely be the object of praise by redeemed ones who testify that "salvation is of the Lord" (Jon 2:9).CHAPTER 2
THE OCCASION: DEFECTION FROM CHRISTIAN LIBERTY
Zealous for the glory of God, the apostle plunges immediately into a vehement denunciation of Galatian defection from Christian liberty to a legalistic stance. Since the Galatians were thus denying the grace of God and the message Paul preached, he omitted the usual extended thanksgiving for churches he had established and scored them instead for unfaithfulness to the truth.
"I marvel," or wonder (the verb frequently implies wondering at something blameworthy) "that ye are so soon removed from him." Removed is in the Greek present middle tense and should therefore be translated "you are in the process of removing yourselves." In other words, they were responsible for their own defection and the process was not yet complete. As the argument of the epistle progresses, however, the apostle makes it clear that the Galatians were not entirely to blame for their apostasy; false teachers (Judaizers) had come among them with their enticing message. "So soon" is variously interpreted. If translated "so quickly" or "so soon," it may apply to the short time that had elapsed after the arrival of false teachers, or after the departure of Paul or after their salvation before they turned away from the true faith. Perhaps a better translation is "so readily." Possibly the apostle is accusing them of something akin to fickleness: "I marvel that you are so readily shifting your ground." The shift or removal was "from him that called you." The one who calls in grace must be the Father, for so He is commonly represented in the epistles (e.g., Gal 1:15; Eph 1:3-5). The assertion of turning from God may have startled the Galatians. No doubt they thought they were pleasing the Father by keeping the law, as did the Jews and Paul before his conversion. But the Father now calls in Christ's grace, the instrument by which, or the element in which, He calls us to salvation.
"Another [Gk, heteron] gospel" (1:6) means another of a different sort which has nothing in common with the true gospel In verse 7 the Greek word for "another" is allo and means another of the same sort. So the gospel to which the Galatians have turned is not at all of the same sort as Paul preaches.
"Some that trouble you" is a deliberately vague description of Judaizers whom the apostle treats with contempt. Apparently they were not Galatians but outsiders who sought to pervert the gospel. The Greek has more the sense of "to reverse." If they followed these teachers they certainly would be taking a major step backward. It would be a step in reverse to "turn ... again to the weak and beggarly elements" (Gal 4:9) or to think that having begun in the Spirit they could now be made perfect by the flesh (Gal 3:3). Apparently what the Judaizers were teaching was the necessity of circumcision and keeping the law in order to achieve real Christian maturity on the part of those who were trusting in Christ. (See Ac 15:24, where trouble is the same Greek word as in Gal 1:7.)
Verse 8 really sets forth an impossibility that another gospel will be proclaimed. Paul and his companions will not do it; God has not ordained that angels should. In verse 7 Paul denied the existence of another gospel of the same sort as he has preached to the Galatians. Now he says that if anyone at all should preach to them a gospel other than (may be translated "contrary to" or "in addition to") what he has preached, "let him be anathema." "Anathema" is the Septuagint (Gk translation of the O. T.) rendering of Hebrew cherem, a thing devoted to God for preservation or destruction. While in some rabbinic and modern contexts it signifies simply excommunication, Paul uses it here as the strongest possible form of a curse. Just as Paul called down a curse on any who added to the requirements of the gospel, so John hurled a curse at those who added or subtracted from the message of Revelation (see Rev 22:18-19).
On the face of it, verse 9 seems to be largely a repetition of the curse enunciated in verse 8. But there are important differences. In verse 8 the subjunctive is used—"should preach." In verse 9 the Greek suggests that at least one person is actually preaching this false gospel. Another difference is that in verse 9 Paul observes, "As we said before," This is too emphatic to refer to the previous verse and is assumed to refer to the apostle's last visit among them. At that time he felt the need of warning them against possible false teaching which apparently had not yet actually come among them. Moreover, while verse 8 refers to Paul's preaching among them, verse 9 alludes to their reception of his message. So this verse is really quite strong language. It recalls the apostle's warning in person of impending apostasy, alludes to an actual outbreak of heretical teaching among them, reminds them of their genuine reception of the truth at his hands, and pronounces a curse on the false teachers who are subverting them.CHAPTER 3
PAUL'S DEFENSE OF HIS RIGHT TO PREACH CHRISTIAN LIBERTY
His Apostleship Based on Divine Intervention in His Life (1:10-17)
Paul now moves into the next major section of the epistle, in which he defends his right to preach the gospel of grace and Christian liberty. He must clearly vindicate his apostleship before he can vindicate his message. Immediately he is on the defensive: "Am I now persuading men rather than God?" (1:10). Probably he was accused of sacrificing the truth of God or of softening truths unwelcome to men so he might win them over to his way of thinking. This would apply especially to dropping the requirement of keeping the law by Gentile believers in an effort to gain their support—accommodating the gospel to the heathen. Paul admits that there was a time when he sought to please men ("if I yet pleased men") before his conversion. But now "I should not be Christ's slave if I yet pleased men." If he pleased men he would still curry favor with the Jews by persecuting Christians. He would be cutting corners doctrinally to avoid persecution. In reality he was concerned with pleasing God only. He has already made it clear in this epistle that salvation is by grace alone and one can enjoy true Christian liberty—freed from this present evil world—by the power of Christ alone. As was to be very clear from Paul's experience, preaching of that sort would not please men and would not lead to an easy life for him. Rather, the way would be very difficult, involving much physical suffering and even death.
Excerpted from Galatians by Howard F. Vos. Copyright © 1971 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Press.
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