When one reads through Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches one cannot help but see that Paul is defending the gospel message. There are apparently those who are challenging the gospel message that Paul proclaimed, declaring what Paul taught to be incomplete or insufficient. So Paul must write to these churches and defend the gospel they received from him so that they will continue to walk faithfully to the Lord. For us, this letter will have a great impact for our lives and for building our faith as we will learn what the gospel is and what the gospel is not. We will learn from Paul what the gospel means to our lives and how it should change us. This letter will build up to the point that we will hear this wonderful declaration concerning what the gospel has done for us:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1 NIV)
Paul, An Apostle (1:1)
The book of Galatians has one of the most interesting and unusual salutations when compared to Paul’s other letters. Paul launches immediately into his defense of the gospel, even in the salutation. Notice Paul begins the letter, “Paul, an apostle…” Now, in other letters Paul will say, “an apostle of Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1). Paul’s most common introduction is, “an apostle by the command of God” (1 Timothy 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1). In this letter to the Galatian churches, Paul begins with “Paul, an apostle” but does not continue with his usual opening. Rather, his defense begins immediately.
“…not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” (Galatians 1:1 ESV)
Paul immediately makes the point there is nothing human about his calling or the message he received. His calling and his message was directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father. Paul possesses divine authority, not human authority. This is not his personal message. Paul is called by God and has given them the message from God and Jesus. Notice that Paul already begins to give part of the gospel message: “Who raised him from the dead.”
The Churches of Galatia (1:2)
Another unique aspect of this letter is that this letter is not written to one person or to one church, like his other letters. This letter is written to a few churches. The churches of Galatia would include Antioch of Pisidia, Iconia, Lystra, and maybe Derbe (see on a map). These were churches that Paul and Barnabas established on their first missionary journey. Therefore, Paul’s need to defend the gospel message is not a problem in merely one church, but in a whole region where he preached the gospel.
Verse 3 begins with a standard greeting in the first century, “Grace and peace to you.” Thus, Paul extends the greeting of grace and peace from God to them. Now we observe another deviation by Paul. In all of his other letters, all that he says is grace and peace to you from God and Jesus. But to the Galatians he extends the greeting with a fuller description of Jesus. Notice verse 4. “Who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Again, Paul inserts a portion of the gospel message before he even begins to write the body of this letter. This is a wonderful summary of the gospel message. Jesus gave himself, which reminds us that this was a voluntary sacrifice. He gave himself for our sins which describes the purpose of his voluntary sacrifice. The effect of the giving of himself was that we are delivered from the present evil. The origin of this salvation is the will of God. Immediately Paul tells us that our good works are insufficient. The gospel message is not a message of being good enough to get to God. The gospel message is not a message of performing certain external activities to belong to Christ and his kingdom (as we will see that circumcision will be a certain issue in this letter). It is not our will or our righteousness but the will of God. Therefore, God gets the glory (1:5). There is nothing in this about what we have done. The declaration is all about what God has done for us. The only description about us that we see in this description of the gospel message is that we need to be delivered from the present evil age. We cannot deliver ourselves and we live right now in an evil age. Paul declares a powerful message and we have not read the body of the letter yet. But Paul must proclaim and defend the great gospel message given to him by God himself.
Deserting God (1:6-7)
The next part of the letter should be an offer of thanksgiving. In every letter that Paul wrote to a church, he offered some sort of declaration of thanksgiving or blessing to God concerning those he was writing to. But not in this letter. Paul breaks the standard letter form of the first century, which would have immediately grabbed the attention of these churches. Rather than saying, “I thank my God for you,” the apostle begins, “I am astonished” over what you have done.
Notice that Paul says that these Christians have “deserted him who called you in the grace of Christ.” They have deserted God and Paul is astonished that they have done this so quickly. What have these Christians done so that Paul would say that they left God? They had turned to another gospel, but Paul wants to quickly declare that there is not another gospel. There is only one gospel and when you leave the truth of the gospel then you have left the Lord himself. Verse 7 tells us what had happened. There were some who troubled them and wanted to distort the gospel of Christ. But they had been called in the grace of Christ. You are called to live in his grace, but they were deserting that calling for another message that is not the gospel.
You probably know that the word “gospel” means “good news.” But in the first century the gospel had a much richer meaning. When a Roman emperor sent a proclamation around the empire declaring victory and an achievement, this announcement was called “gospel.” The proclamation of Jesus as the victorious king who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age by the will of God cannot be changed or altered in any way. It is no longer the gospel if the message is changed at all. In fact, Paul says that you have deserted the Lord if you change any part of this message.
Let Him Be Accursed (1:8-9)
Paul is so adamant about this that he says that if anyone preaches a message that is contrary to what the apostles preached, they are accursed by God. Please notice how emphatic Paul is because he includes himself in this curse. “But even if we…” Paul does not care if it is an apostle that comes to town. If he or any of his fellow apostles offer something different than what has been preached as the gospel, they are cursed by God. Further, Paul does not care if an angel appears should preach to them. Anything that deviates from the message proclaimed by the apostles is cursed and those who people who teach it are also cursed.
It does not matter if an angel comes down with gold plates, gives them to a person named Joseph, who translates them for the world. If the message on the plates differs from the gospel message, that person is cursed by God. It does not matter if Ellen G. White claims to receive revelations from God, if those messages are different than what is in the scriptures, she is cursed by God. If the Watchtower Society comes along and makes claims and predictions that are not the gospel message declared by the apostles, they are accursed. It does not matter if it is a famous preacher or an angel, let them be accursed if there is anything different than what the apostles revealed. Paul is so certain of this truth that he says it again in verse 9. Please notice that Paul is uncompromising. Any change is a desertion from God.
Please consider the high, supreme view of God’s word that is being proclaimed. It does not matter who speaks or comes from heaven. The scriptures’ authority stands above all people. The scriptures stand above the Pope, Buddha, Mohammed, and Oprah. Any message that comes from me, another preacher, or anyone else must be rejected if it does not conform to the gospel message given by the apostles. We must listen to nothing else but the word of God. Teachers must be evaluated by the scriptures and by nothing else. If the message of the gospel is not proclaimed, then the gospel of Christ is being distorted. There is no other good news. These churches are dealing with troublemakers who are distorting the gospel of Christ. We are not told how they are distorting the message yet, but we will see this as we continue to study this letter.
May we be encouraged to cling to the scriptures so that we know the one true gospel! There is always a real and present danger of apostasy. We see that it is real because it is not just one rare church that was struggling with the gospel. Four or more churches that had been directly taught and established by Paul were now turning away from the gospel message they were taught. We cannot create a new gospel of spirituality that emphasizes something other than Jesus who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age. We will have to defend the gospel message, not only from the world that attacks it, but from within. As we see with the Galatian churches, it is people among them who are distorting the gospel message.
But let us also make this point. We do not get to change the message either. The church, the people of God, do not get to decide what the gospel message is and what the doctrines of Christ are. We do not get to say that divorce is right, that sexual immorality is okay, or make any other changes to what the scriptures plainly read to us as written down by the holy apostles and prophets as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. We do not get to change one word of the scripture to conform it to what we think is good or right. I want us to hear what Paul says. Any distortion of the gospel message is a desertion from God and bringing a curse on ourselves.
Let us hold firmly to the wonderful truth: Jesus gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.