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Galatians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries


One missionary friend always captures my attention by scrawling a special message to me in red ink across the top of his formally typed prayer letter and drawing red arrows to several paragraphs circled in red. The main points of the letter shout out at me. Once I see them, I know what the letter is all about; the rest expands and explains.

Paul grabs our attention in the introduction of his letter to the Galatians by filling the typical formal greetings with two strong emphases: his God-given authority and his Christ-centered message. Once you grasp these points, you have the gist of the whole letter.God-Given Authority (1:1)

In Paul's day, Greek letters began with a formal salutation: the writer's name, the recipient's name and a greeting. Paul introduces himself as an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. The title apostle designated one who was given authority to represent another. This title was used in the early church in a broad sense to designate missionary leaders (see Acts 14:14). The title was also used in a narrow sense for those who had been given unique authority from Christ to be his representatives and the founders of the church (see Acts 1:21-26). In Galatians 1 Paul claims the title for himself in the narrow sense. He recognizes that there were those who were apostles before him (1:17), but he does not see himself as subordinate to the original apostles. If the original apostles had been the source of his commission or the agents of his commission (as the false teachers in the Galatian church were probably suggesting), then he would have been subordinate to them. But his authority was not derived from a human source or even through a human agency; his authority was directly given to him by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. Note how this antithesis clearly places Jesus Christ on the side of God (not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ). The risen Lord had directly commissioned Paul. So those who challenged Paul's message were in fact challenging the Lord who had commissioned him.

Have you ever found yourself questioning, challenging or even rejecting any of Paul's statements? Paul's claim to apostolic authority should cause us to reconsider when our own opinions or "the general consensus of scholarly opinion" would lead us to disagree with him. It appears that the Galatian readers were in danger of turning from Paul's message and hence discrediting his authority. From Paul's time to our day, many have pointed to apparent contradictions and "hard sayings" in his letters and scolded him for his errant teachings. But if Paul has apostolic authority by virtue of his direct commission from the risen Christ, then we may not judge him on the basis of our opinions, for he is the apostolic representative of Christ. Our acceptance of Paul's authority should be guided by Jesus' own words to his apostles: "He who receives you receives me" (Mt 10:40).

Paul's affirmation of his divine appointment also encourages us to affirm our own divine appointments. We may not play the role of apostles, but we are given work to do by God's appointment. If we view our work as just another job to do for a difficult boss, we will soon become discouraged. But if by faith we can see that God has given us work to do for him, then we can overcome even the most difficult obstacles. All work is sacred if it has been given to us by God. Paul was able to endure through all the hardships he faced because he was convinced that his work was given to him by God.Christ-Centered Message (1:2-5)

After Paul introduces himself (v. 1) and identifies his readers (v. 2) in keeping with the conventions of Greek letters in his day, he greets his readers: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you is a combination of the typical Greek and Hebrew forms of greeting. But it is much more than that. These two words sum up the basis and the consequence, the root and the fruit, of the total work of salvation accomplished by God through Jesus Christ. Grace is God's unconditional, unearned acceptance of us accomplished through the love-gift of Christ. The experience of grace by faith results in peace, a sense of harmony and completeness in our relationship with God and with one another. To look for grace and peace from any person, organization or activity in the world is to forget that God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are the only source of these blessings.

The mention of the name of Christ sparks a declaration about the work of Christ. In three brief phrases Paul outlines the basic structure of his Christ-centered message. First, Christ gave himself for our sins. The sacrificial, self-giving work of Christ on the cross is the final answer to the problem of all our moral failure and guilt. For that reason the victory over sin accomplished by the cross of Christ is the main theme of this letter (2:20-21; 3:1, 13; 4:4; 5:1, 11, 24; 6:12, 14), which rebukes believers for substituting humanistic solutions for the cross of Christ.

Second, the purpose of the cross is expressed dramatically: to rescue us from the present evil age. Paul had an apocalyptic view of history. The revelation (apocalypse--see 1:12, 16; 3:23) of God in Christ had already intersected and forever changed the nature of human history. The cross of Christ inaugurated God's new created order ("new creation"--6:15) in human history. All who believe in the cross are rescued from the present evil age and included in the "new creation." The present age is controlled by destructive, malignant forces, "the basic principles of the world" (4:3, 9). The works of the law do not offer a way of escape. Only the cross of Christ sets the prisoners (3:23) free.

Think of all the movies depicting heroic efforts to rescue prisoners of war. The terrible risk involved, the danger and sacrifice, the suspense and violence, the final emotional homecoming of the emaciated prisoner with his courageous deliverer--these are all elements of the most dramatic story of all, the story of the cross of Christ. And because this story is true, Christians can now enjoy the freedom of the new creation; we are no longer prisoners or slaves under the tyranny of this present, dehumanizing system. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (5:1)!

Third, the plan for the cross is according to the will of our God and Father. The Father planned our rescue. At the right time he sent his Son to accomplish our rescue (4:4-5). And now the Father has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts to let us know that we are no longer slaves, but children of the Father (4:6-7). The accomplishment of the Father's plan in history is the expression of his grace and the basis our peace.

With the wonder of God's amazing grace in full view, it's time to sing a doxology to God (1:5)--to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen!

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IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.