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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Galatians One

Galatians One

1:1-5  Paul works hard, from the first words through 2:10, to establish that his gospel is independent of any and every human source or authority.  His gospel depends on none but the Lord. 

When we face conflict, there is ever the need to second-guess potential stabs that our opponents may make against us.  Paul must present himself in full independence, lest any opponent should try to claim Jerusalem as the pinnacle and highest office of Christian authority, and then attempt to show that Paul is not on the same page with that authority.  That would pin upon Paul the responsibility to own the fault and to make the correction.  Contrary to this (and even before it is said, though Paul probably heard this attack before), Paul insists that his message and his apostleship derive from the highest authority, an authority at the very least equal to that of Jerusalem and her apostles.  Thus, Paul will claim a backing that cannot be surpassed even by those who impressively may claim as credential the experience of walking with Jesus during His Messianic ministry.

Paul thus credentials himself and also provides the briefest summary of the gospel he preaches, regarding  “our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father: to whom be the glory for ever and ever.  Amen” (1:3-5).  This bare skeleton of a sermon-outline will be fleshed out in the remainder of the epistle and it reminds us of the similar opening to Romans and its gospel summary:  “the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name's sake” (Romans 1:1-6).

1:6-9  Typical format for letters and epistles would call for a “thanksgiving” section to follow the brief “to” and “from” of the introduction.  A reader would anticipate it, expecting the writer to express personal appreciation, perhaps including a prayer for his/her blessing.  Such expressions allow the writer and the reader to bond together before sharing the message to follow.  The reader of Galatians would be jolted not only by the omission of this intimate expression, but by the harsh expression that follows.  Paul is quite deliberately communicating that the situation that prompts him to write is an emergency containing a great threat.

Paul warns of a “different gospel” and pronounces a dire curse on anyone behind it.  He denies anyone the possibility of claiming a simple miscommunication by insisting that the gospel which he (and his associates) had “preached” is identical to the one which the Galatians “heard.”  Paul spoke plainly and they heard clearly.  There was not more than a single message between them, as though one could claim that some “different gospel” was one of the possible interpretations of Paul’s message.  The curse applied even if the messenger were an angel (the words “preacher, apostle, and angel” all basically mean “a messenger”).  Curiously, Paul recalls being initially received in Galatia as though he himself were an angel (4:14). 

The curse is the Greek word “anathema” which is the word applied in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to describe items placed “under the ban.”  When Israel’s armies were victorious, God directed the disposition of the spoils and booty taken in battle.  This might include physical wealth (gold and silver), livestock, or human captives.  Sometimes this could be kept for the benefit and enjoyment of the Israelites.  Other times, some (or all) of the take would be placed “under the ban”, under anathema.  In such cases, anything and everything “under the ban” had to be utterly destroyed.  It was forbidden for God’s people to touch or to keep it, and at times those who fell to the temptation by keeping “banned” items were destroyed themselves.  When Paul pronounces a curse, it portends destruction from God.

We are not yet told what the “different gospel” might be, only that its acceptance marks a turning from grace.  This so-called gospel will be pieced together from the various objects against which Paul argues in the rest of the letter.  Suffice it to say that the issue surfaces in the refusal of Jewish Christians to socially eat with their Gentile brothers and sisters.  This should be our starting point, and I hasten to add that nothing in Galatians suggests the traditional “Lutheran” striving of grace against legalistic self-righteousness.  That was Luther’s issue; not Paul’s.  And all of us who have fallen under Luther’s long shadow must resist and replace that theology with the one that Paul presents.  They are not the same.  Even so, the Lutheran angle has become the dominant understanding in Protestant churches generally, and even within churches of Christ.  Once accepted, it is difficult to shake, yet the effort is worth it because the real concerns are more meaningful.

1:10-24  Paul returns to claims for the independence of his gospel.  He has made the assertion in the opening lines, and now he will substantiate his claims with evidence.  What follows is a sketch of Paul’s personal history over about two decades.  He speaks of where he went and of whom he met, but the telling is truly meant to showcase where he did not go and with whom he did not meet.  Specifically, over 17 years Paul made only one visit to Jerusalem, in which he spent just 15 days with Peter (in Galatians, he is referred to by his Hebrew name, Cephas) and also with James.  You might say, in response to those who would try to anchor Paul and his message as offshoots from “Jerusalem University”, that Paul made only one visit that was much shorter than a single semester.  It would be ludicrous to think that Paul received his apostolic education at this time, and so it must derive from some other source.

This James is not the apostle who bore that name (one of the “sons of thunder”), but the physical brother of Jesus, another son of Mary and (probably also) of Joseph.  James and another brother, Jude, have epistles in the NT.  James rose to leadership prominence in the Jerusalem church.  And he was regarded as an “apostle” (= messenger), which is not to say he was regarded as one of the Twelve.  We might wonder how contemporaries might have viewed the comparative authority of James against Paul?  Paul would source his message to a “revelation”, probably his Damascus Road encounter that led to his conversion from Saul the Pharisee to Paul the Apostle.  We can only wonder what James might have claimed to substantiate his own authority.  Did Jesus give him a personal commission?  We simply do not know.  Whatever the case, James was esteemed as a leader by the Jewish Christians who shared fellowship with him in the original Christian church:  Jerusalem.

Paul begins his history with his pre-Christian past, when he was a persecutor of the church.  He never hesitates to identify himself with what had to be his most embarrassing life experience, using it to ground his own humility and to embrace his acceptance by Jesus as a true experience of grace.  Curiously, he traces his apostolic back before this even to pre-birth.  It is almost as if God sent Paul through the rigors of Judaism (and Paul advanced and excelled beyond many of his peers) and through events of persecution, like the martyrdom of Stephen, and God used all of this to shape the man who would be best-qualified as His apostle to the Gentiles.  In retrospection, Paul could virtually say, “I was born to be an apostle!”

Not only did Paul not visit Jerusalem until three years had passed, even before this visit he was preaching the gospel that he had received by revelation.  In this time he went to Damascus (toward which he was traveling when Jesus confronted and converted him) and also to Arabia.  Some identify Arabia with an area north of Israel, but the only other mention of Arabia by Paul is in Gal. 4:25, the site of Mount Sinai.  N. T. Wright suggested in an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature that Paul went to Sinai as Elijah had, under duress from difficult ministry and seeking a revelation from God, but this is largely conjecture.  We know little of Paul’s life during this time.

Then after the brief Jerusalem visit, Paul goes to Syria and Cilicia.  Cilicia is the region in which we find Paul’s hometown, Tarsus.  In Acts, this is where Paul is when Barnabas seeks him out and brings him to the church in Antioch, Syria (there is another place called Antioch in Pisidia).  The church in Antioch is famous not only as the place where Christians were first called “Christians”, but also as the first church to combine Jewish and Gentile Christians in a common fellowship.  Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem authorities to investigate and send a report on this unusual and (to some) potentially threatening situation.  Fortunately, the “son of encouragement” was thrilled by what he saw, and he eagerly sought out “Saul” to join him there.  We can well imagine the way Antioch offered a properly formative experience for one who would come to be known as “the apostle to the Gentiles” and who fought strong opposition to make sure history generated only one church rather than two (one Gentile and the other Christian).

Far from being an accepted alumni of Jerusalem, Paul ends this portion of his history by noting his facial anonymity among the churches of Judea (=Israel).  Literally, he was “unknown by face” (we will note in Ch. 2 that Paul makes repeated remarks around the word “face”).

Paul will continue his personal history in the next chapter, but all of this is brewing up to a conflict that will rope in Paul, with Peter, with James.  Perhaps we should release the na├»ve altruism that expects church to be a conflict-free zone (and, to benefit some, I must add that this is not a call to ratchet up the conflict for conflict’s sake).  Jesus (the Prince of Peace) could not escape conflict; nor could His apostles, nor could the early church, nor—for that matter—has any church in history.  All meaningful relationships conflict, and the result is often benefit even if achieved after considerable pain.  It is curious that the conflict showcased in Galatians authors who together are responsible for writing 16 (Paul has 13; Peter 2, and James just one) of the 27 NT books!  For those occasions on which conflict cannot be responsibly avoided, perhaps we can learn from Galatians how to conflict as spiritual people.

Paul's Letter to the Galatians


Galatians (like Romans) keeps calling me back for a fresh reading.  Many times I’ve read, thinking to have understood Paul correctly.  This is more true for the broad sweep of the message; less so for the troubling bits along the way.  However, I occasionally have had experiences in which some new discovery, some new connection of meaning within the text, tell me that my previous confidence at interpretation was actually misplaced.  For example, long ago I was taken by a very "Lutheran" understanding of faith vs. works.  That understanding has now been replaced. 

And so, I read again.

And with fresh insights, my wounded confidence returns, healed and filled with renewed optimism and fresh vigor.  I love Galatians because, as a message created in the heat of strife and conflict, it stirs up what truly must have been center-most and upper-most in the mind of Paul.  And what a mind!  God chose His penman with exquisite skill, and Paul’s writings are well worthy to be designated as “Scripture.”  When Paul speaks, we hear God and what is center-most and upper-most.

I haven’t blogged here for some time.  Mainly I’ve been busy publishing a book, which will soon come out on, which is titled, Filling The Temple:  Finding a Place For The Holy Spirit.  And I’ve been enriched by reading books, like N. T. Wrights Justification and The Faith of Jesus Christ by Richard B. Hayes.  The latter title carries the subtitle, The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1—4:11, which obviously “hits the spot” in a search for what Paul truly said in Galatians.  And with justification and righteousness occupying such a key domain in both Galatians and Romans, Wright has also been very helpful.

Above all, I appreciate Galatians for the way it is able both to “center” me and to “raise” me, by calling out what in Scripture is center-most and upper-most.  Although conflict is the catalyst that has bubbled these crucial topics and issues to the surface, I am also grateful for the insights Paul brings in Galatians to the proper conduct of Christians in conflict situations.  Here, on the one hand, is the apostle who sets for the beatific “fruits of the Spirit” and urges us to restore trespassers in a spirit (Spirit?) of gentleness and to bear one another’s burdens.  And on the other hand, the same apostle calls down a curse on preachers who oppose his own gospel, calls his readers “foolish” and “bewitched”, and urges those compelling circumcision to castrate themselves!  As with the other enigmas presented by Galatians, I would suggest that we have not understood Paul when we embrace either of the seemingly oxymoronic approaches that he takes to conflict.  We understand Paul only when we can work both into a meaningful philosophy of conflict and adapt conflict-styles that embrace the whole in ways that are appropriate.

Most of all, I appreciate the way Galatians delivers meaningful insight into God’s two greatest gifts:  His Son and His Spirit.  And I love the way Galatians sews up so nicely to make a fabric with not only Paul’s other writings (including those that some actually think that were not written by Paul, like Timothy, Titus, and Ephesians), but also makes a fabric with the whole of Scripture.  What follows is my latest and truest commentary on Galatians.