1 October 2012

Galatians 1:1-17

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel" (v. 6)


The apostle Paul was responsible for writing a large chunk of the New Testament in the form of letters to different churches or individuals. His letter to the Galatians is believed to be his earliest, and it addresses some of the issues which the early Church was facing as it spread through the Greek and Roman world, and emerged as more than simply a sect within Judaism. Paul writes in a carefully-crafted argument to address a particular issue and encourage the churches along the way.

One of the great things about emails today is that you can trace the history of a conversation. Simply by scrolling down you can remind yourself what was said in both sides of the correspondence. Unfortunately, with Paul's letters we have lost the letters or messages to which he was responding, so we read only one side of the conversation. So we have to deduce what the issue was for the churches he was addressing. When we do this, we find that Galatians is a vastly important, densely-packed, practical-theological outworking of early Christian faith. And, nestled in along the way, there are some classic gems that we may have heard (and sung) many times before!

Shortly after Christ's resurrection, Paul met Jesus and was converted from a zealous Pharisee, persecuting Christians, to a zealous evangelist commissioned to spread Christ's gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 9:1-22). Around 47AD, he set out on his first major missionary journey, after several years of preparation. On this journey he travelled from Antioch to Cyprus, and then to the south east corner of what is now Turkey, visiting cities such as Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in the Roman province of Galatia (Acts 13-14). There he preached the news of Christ's resurrection and a message of forgiveness and liberation from sins through him (Acts 13:38-39). No longer need God be known only by God's chosen people: the chosenonehad opened God's love up toall, inaugurating a worldwide kingdom. Paul and his companion Barnabas saw a large number of both Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) come to believe in their message, but there was also considerable opposition and persecution. As they left the Galatian province, Jewish-Christian missionaries came from Judea and began teaching the converts that they should also follow in the rituals and law of the Jewish Torah (Law), including for the men to be circumcised as a mark of belonging to Israel's God. This was a major testing point for the Church in its infancy: preaching God's salvation for all, but living with the tension of a Jewish heritage that was so deeply ingrained. Could it really be that faith in Christ alone was sufficient for salvation, above the stipulations of the Law? This contention is the subject of Acts 15:1-2, and Galatians is part of that debate. All of which resulted in … what else, but a Church Council Meeting!

The letter starts off with an urgent and somewhat irritated tone. Amidst words of grace and peace to Paul's dear children in the faith, he also stamps his authority as an apostle sent by Jesus himself - without any middle-man - and moves quickly into the shocking nub of his letter: they are turning to a different gospel! Such an assertion could be seen as 'a little bit over-the-top' - after all, weren't they just adding a few necessary rules and practices to their new-found religion? But Paul's answer, throughout this letter, is NO! If you think such things are needed for acceptance by God, then you've completely missed the point.

To Ponder

  • What 'additional things' in our churches today threaten to overshadow our gospel message today?
  • Paul's teaching has always carried a great deal of weight and influence throughout the history of the Church, and yet he was not one of the original disciples. How important is it to us today that Paul was indeed sent by Jesus? And to what extent is he still regarded by some with suspicion?
  • We might say Paul puts his message in a nutshell in verses 3 and 4. How would you sum up the gospel in a tweet or text (144 characters or less)?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Murphy

Andrew Murphy is married to Emily and they have two beautiful children, Phoebe (aged 3 and half) and Benjamin (who's just turned 1). Andy is the superintendent minister of the Market Harborough Circuit (a small circuit in the south of Leicestershire, and into Northamptonshire), having moved there in the summer of 2016.