Notes for teaching on Galatians 1:1-10, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 1.
The apostle Paul begins his argument against a false gospel that is gaining steam in a place called Galatia.
The passage is applicable today because it invites us to define the gospel and identify the false gospels in the present day.
NT Wright, one of the great New Testament scholars of our day, offers a helpful rubric for thinking about Galatians by drawing on the imagery of builders and foundations. The idea is that Paul has laid a theological and ethical foundation for the churches in Galatia and that other teachers have now come along and are not building according to his original plan. In short, by failing to follow the design of the original foundation, they are ruining the house. Paul, the original builder, is none too happy with this turn of events, and his argument in Galatians is ultimately for a return to the original design.
This imagery actually comes from Paul himself, who sometimes speaks of the church as a building and himself as a builder. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is one of the passages that follows this line of thought. It states:
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
While the onus of 1 Corinthians is on the responsibility and accountability of the builders, Paul’s focus in Galatians in on the danger to the congregation itself. Some teachers may have slightly different but still acceptable ideas about how the house should look, but some are so far off that they will ruin the house and therefore ruin the congregation that comprises it. In Galatians, Paul is urging the congregation to reject the new design in favor of the original.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
1 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—2 and all the brothers and sisters with me,
ETB, 15, helpfully explains that the term apostle “referred to ‘one who is sent’ … The envoy [referring to the sent one] usually carried the full authority of the sender.” Though it is not unusual for Paul to name himself as an apostle at the beginning of his letters, the way he does so in Galatians is significant. NT Wright explains:
“Paul’s opponents in Galatia—the rival builders, if you like—had persuaded the Galatians that Paul was only an apostle at second hand. The word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’, and came to be a technical term in early Christianity for the original ones whom Jesus sent out after his resurrection. The opponents have suggested that Paul got his apostleship, and the message that he announced, from other early Christians, not from Jesus himself.
Notice that Paul does not argue that he should be given the title of apostle. Instead, he argues about where he derives his apostleship. The origin of his calling and authority is divine and not human in nature. If this is true, then the Galatian Christians should think twice before accepting a contrary gospel!
Scott McKnight adds to this picture that “Paul’s world was more hierarchical and authoritarian” than our own. This insight underscores Paul’s purpose in describing himself as he does. As he approaches the Galatians, he is not coming as a dialogue partner. Rather, he comes as one who has significant authority in the church and who must therefore be respected as such.
An important note about apostleship today is that the apostolic testimony is contained in the New Testament. Another way of putting this is to say that the New Testament records the teaching of the original apostles. This is why we are bound to the scriptures. They serve as the continued witness of the apostles today.
To the churches in Galatia:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
This is a customary greeting for Paul. In fact, all Paul’s New Testament letters contain some form of this “grace and peace” formula. McKnight notes Paul’s formulation of this greeting is particularly Christian because it flows “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” While secular folks could also wish each other grace and peace (McKnight notes that these were typical Greek and Jewish greetings), “This greeting is one shared only by Christians.” While grace and peace call to mind what the believer has already experienced in Christ (grace from God and peace with God and others), I think it is important to note that this is a blessing. Paul is not simply pointing back to something already experienced. Rather, he is speaking a blessing of the continued experience of God’s free favor (grace) and peace in the lives of believers.
Though the grace and peace formula is normal for Paul, the description of Jesus in verse 4 is tailored specifically to the recipients of this letter. The foundation that Paul laid for the Galatian congregations was Jesus Christ, “who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.” As the letter continues, we will find Paul arguing that this foundation of Christ is enough and does not need other additions.
Note here that the cross (where Christ gave himself for our sins) was an instrument of rescue as much as it was of forgiveness. In the cross, we have been rescued from “the present evil age” that will face God’s judgment. Christians are those whom God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col 1:13-14) and who therefore live according to the age to come.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
Here Paul rushes to his reason for writing. ETB, 14, helpfully notes that Paul does not engage in his usual practice of offering a thanksgiving for the congregation addressed. As ETB notes, “The omission signaled the concern [Paul] had for the situation in these churches.” McKnight notes that for some, this omission shows that Paul “is either not thankful to God for them or he is so angry with what has taken place he cannot express his thanks.” It may also be that Paul skips the thanksgiving for rhetorical purposes. In this case, his message would be so urgent that he chooses to cut straight to the chase.
The crux of the matter is that the Galatians are “turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.” We can perhaps pick up Paul’s frustration in the way he frames this turning away. He is astonished that the people “are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ.” It is as if Paul is saying, “I just left you, and you’re already moving in the wrong direction!”
After naming the problem of turning from the gospel, Paul shows how serious he is about the topic. Not only is this alternative gospel “no gospel at all,” those who proclaim it are deserving of a curse. This is true even of angels and Paul himself! In the span of just a few sentences, Paul has thrown down the gauntlet. He will not tolerate this false gospel, and he calls down a curse on those who preach it. Paul is dead serious about this.
10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
It may be better to take this sentence as part of the following section (both McKnight and Wright take this approach). Placing it here, offers fodder for thought, though. Service to Jesus requires us to be concerned with Jesus’ approval rather than that of human beings.
Notes for Teaching
The temptation in teaching this passage is to rush to an explanation of the false gospel that Paul is arguing against. This passage only shows that Paul is arguing against a false gospel, though. As of yet, we have no details of what that false gospel is. This ambiguity can be helpful in our teaching. Though succeeding lessons will no doubt focus in on the particular false gospel in Galatia, the lack of clarity on the issue here allows us to think about false gospels that we see in our culture.
Points that I think are of special interest for teaching this passage include:
- The significance of Paul naming himself an apostle.
- Paul’s vehemence against his opponents.
- The dangers of false gospels.
- The importance of getting the gospel right.
An important discussion beyond false gospels will be the content of the true gospel. Though we use the word gospel frequently, we can sometimes struggle to define it. Let participants flesh out their understandings of the gospel. This will probably be an enlightening discussion.
For my part, I would describe the gospel as the story of Jesus, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead, both according to God the Father’s plan, and who now reigns victorious until all enemies shall be put under his feet. This story of Jesus is a story of cosmic significance, for it is God’s movement in Christ to reclaim and remake his good creation. We receive this gospel by grace through faith alone. It is pure gift form the good and gracious God.
Moving to false gospels of our day, I might mention the health and wealth gospel that convinces many Christians that faith leads to the good life (it does, but not necessarily in terms of health and wealth!) and the secular idea of works – that if I’m a good enough person I’ll get in to heaven. We might also name versions of the gospel that fail to treat Jesus as Lord, meaning that they focus on forgiveness but fail in the area of discipleship.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do you know about the apostle Paul?
- What do you know about Galatians?
Explain: Explain that Galatians is a letter written by Paul to congregations in a place called Galatia.
Paul, an apostle…
Read: Gal 1:1-2
- What is an apostle?
- Why could Paul call himself an apostle?
- What is the significance of Paul calling himself an apostle here?
- Why do you think Paul emphasizes that his apostle ship has divine rather than human origin?
- What is our relationship to apostles in the church today?
Grace and peace
Read: Gal 1:3-5
- What are grace and peace? Why does Paul use these words as a blessing?
- Is a blessing like this appropriate for Christians today? Why?
- What does this passage tell us about the work of Jesus?
- Have you ever heard the cross described as a rescue operation?
- What is the “present evil age”?
No gospel at all
Read: Gal 1:6-9
- From this passage, how would you describe the problem in Galatia?
- How would you describe Paul’s tone in this passage?
- Is it appropriate for an apostle to talk like this? Why does Paul use such strong language?
- To Paul, how important is it that his congregations get the gospel right? What is at stake?
Getting the Gospel Right Today
Explain: Explain that we will get into the specifics of the false gospel at Galatia in coming weeks. For now, though, we simply know that there is such a thing as a false gospel that is detrimental to the faith.
- Do you think we see false gospels today?
- What are they?
- How can we identify them?
- To guard against false gospels, we need to understand the true gospel? How would we summarize the true gospel?
Scot McKNight’s Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary series
NT Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians
Explore the Bible curriculum