September 9, 2018 Teaching Notes

Notes for teaching on Galatians 1:10-2:21, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 2.

Summary

Paul proves his independence from and agreement with the other apostles by recounting his own story. He offers the beginnings of an argument for the supremacy of Christ over the Law.

The passage is applicable today because it invites us to consider how Christ has impacted our own stories.

Notes on the Text

(Quotations taken from the NIV)

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.

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

Scot McKnight notes that v 10 begins a new section of the letter that runs through 2:21. This is an “autobiographical” account in which Paul details the origin of his message. He is at pains to prove (1) that his gospel came through a revelation from Christ himself and (2) that, while independent from the Jerusalem apostles, his gospel was affirmed by them. These first two verses of the section focus on number 1. Paul says here that his aim is to please God (and not people) and that he received his gospel through revelation from Christ. The idea of revelation is important because it underscores the divine origin of the message Paul received. As McKnight explains, “The term revelation describes something made known by God to humans, in this case to Paul, that would otherwise not be known or accessible.”[1]

The concept of people pleasing in v 10 also gives an important window into the background of the text. Both McKnight and Wright argue that this was an accusation leveled at Paul by his opponents. Wright argues, “Presumably [Paul’s opponents] imagined Paul’s failure to have Gentile converts circumcised was just a trick to please people, giving them the gospel on the cheap.”[2] We’ll look more into the part on circumcision momentarily. Here, note that Paul has been accused of softening his gospel and is therefore arguing vehemently that the gospel he preached is indeed the true gospel given to him by revelation from Jesus.

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me.

As noted above, Paul is recounting the story of his life. As he does, he tells the story through a specific lens. As a husband, father, and pastor, I can recount my story from any of those vantage points. Paul is here recounting his story from the vantage point of his apostleship. He begins by reminding his audience of his life before Christ. Before Jesus, Paul was so dedicated to the “traditions of [his] fathers” that he sought to stamp out the Christian movement, which he viewed as a threat to those traditions. More than this, Paul was a rising star in Judaism. We might say that Paul was dedicated and gifted when it came to his faith. This in mind, Paul is in a good position to comment on the Law (more on this later) because his life before Christ was utterly dedicated to it.

There came a point, though, when God turned Paul’s world on its head. Wright summarizes Paul’s experience well: “This God, to Saul’s horror and amazement, had now revealed his son, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the pagan nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as he loved Israel.”[3] I think that the irony of his predicament was not lost on Paul!

His conversion and call to the Gentiles recounted, Paul moves to establish his independence. When Paul was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9), he did not go to Jerusalem to consult or learn from the apostles. Only after three years did Paul finally make his way to Jerusalem, and even then he only interacted with Cephas (Peter) and James for a couple of weeks. McKnight sees this section as a strong argument for Paul’s non-reliance on the original apostles (who were stationed out of Jerusalem). He states, “Paul counters [those who said he received his gospel from the apostles during his first visit to Jerusalem]: it was three years after my conversion, it was brief, and it was virtually nonapostolic! Hardly sufficient grounds, he argues, to be considered a Jerusalem apostle!”[4]

If vv 18-20 focus on Paul’s independence from the apostles, vv 21-24 focus on Paul’s independence from the Judean churches. He didn’t spend time with these congregations after meeting with Peter. Indeed, they wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup. The extent of these church’s knowledge of Paul was his testimony, and they praised God because of him.

2 Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

After his meeting with Peter, Paul did not return to Jerusalem for fourteen years. During this time, he engaged in ministry to Gentiles that eventually came under scrutiny. Some “false believers,” apparently, did not appreciate Paul’s openness to his Gentile converts. In response to revelation and to put doubt in his own mind to rest (he was concerned that he had been “running [his] race in vain”), Paul traveled to Jerusalem to let the leaders of the Jerusalem church adjudicate the matter. In this, we see the Jerusalem church’s place in early Christianity. As the first church and home base of many of the apostles, the Jerusalem church exercised a special authority. If you needed an authoritative word on belief or practice, Jerusalem was the place to go.

Paul’s mention of Titus in this passage finally gives us the first clue to the argument in Galatia. The Galatians, of course, knew the background (they were living it!), but we have been waiting for insight into what was at stake. The key statement is, “Yet, not even Titus … was  compelled to be circumcised…” This testimony teamed with mention of “the circumcision group” in v 12 tells us that the practice of circumcision was at the center of the debate. Paul, apparently, was not requiring his Gentile converts to be circumcised, while another faction argued that all Christ followers should go through the right of circumcision.

While this debate may seem strange to us today, it was actually a natural outgrowth of God’s work among the Gentiles. From the time of Abraham, the people of God were Jews, and the sign of their relationship with God was male circumcision. In Paul’s day, the gospel was finding traction among non-circumcised Gentiles (non-Jews). Continuity with the wider story of scripture would suggest that these new additions to God’s people would need to go through the same right of circumcision that the people of God had practiced since the beginning. In short, they would need to become practicing Jews (circumcision would be the first step toward living by the Jewish law). Paul, however, was preaching that membership in God’s people was based solely on faith in Jesus and that circumcision was not necessary. Gentiles were being accepted by God as Gentiles! At stake were the very identity markers of God’s people.

This debate was so controversial that it eventually came to a head in the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15. In the end, Peter’s testimony swayed the discussion to Paul’s viewpoint. Even Peter’s testimony in the matter was not a foregone conclusion, though! For Peter to be able to argue for accepting Gentiles into the church, God first had to give him a vision and send him to witness God’s work among Gentiles (see Acts 10). God himself had to pave the way for this theological innovation!

In this part of Paul’s life-story, we hear the rumblings that were eventually addressed by the Jerusalem Council. Even Paul was unsure of himself as he traveled to Jerusalem to meet the apostles (this was probably a different trip than the one described in Acts 15). He brought Titus as a real-life example of God’s work among the Gentiles, and Titus’ treatment by the Jerusalem church was telling. As McKnight explains:

While we may be unsure why Titus accompanied Paul and Barnabas, his distinctive trait (and the reason he is mentioned at all) is that he was a Gentile. It is possible that Paul brought Titus, likely one of his early converts (cf. Titus 1:4) and a continual friend (2 Cor. 2:13), as a “test case,” in which case Titus would have had unmistakable and unimpeachable Christian character while at the same time being a Gentile. This would force the Jewish believers of Jerusalem to admit that God was as much at work among, and through, Gentiles as Jews. Furthermore, that he was clearly chosen of God would force the situation of his not being circumcised to arise. Paul’s argument could not be clearer: if God had chosen and was using this uncircumcised Gentile, then certainly circumcision was not required to join the people of God. Two verses later we learn that even though Titus was Greek, he was not “compelled” to be circumcised. The import of Titus then is obvious: on Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem the leaders had every opportunity to press the issue of circumcision if such were required for membership in the people of God. But they did not.[5]

In all of this, we see (1) that Paul’s gospel of Gentile inclusion was independent from the other apostles and (2) that the other apostles eventually affirmed Paul’s gospel. As much is implied in their treatment of Titus. Their affirmation is then recounted in no uncertain terms in the following section.

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

Here, Paul hammers home the other apostles’ support of his gospel. They (1) recognized that Paul had been called by God to take the gospel to the Gentiles, (2) extended “the right hand of fellowship,” and (3) gave their blessing to Paul’s work among the circumcised. The apostles, then, called pillars of the early church in v 9, approved of Paul’s gospel even though it had not derived from them. Paul is both independent from and in lockstep with the Jerusalem apostles.

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all…

Having established his independence from and agreement with the other apostles, Paul now recounts a very public confrontation. Peter embraced the gospel of Gentile inclusion and demonstrated this by eating with Gentile Christians. As Wright explains, more is at stake here than sharing supper. He states, “Eating with people is one of the most powerful symbols of association. Just as circumcision is a symbol which speaks of family identity, so is table-fellowship.”[6] By eating with his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ, Peter was affirming their membership in God’s family despite their lack of induction into the Jewish family by circumcision.

At some point, though, “certain men came from James,” showed up and began to press the issue. Traditionally, Jews did not eat with “unclean” Gentiles. Because the Gentiles at Antioch had not become practicing Jews, they would still fit in this “unclean” category despite their faith in Christ. At stake was the grounds for being accepted before God and therefore being accepted by God’s people. Under pressure from this group, Peter began to act according to old norms and, because he was a chief leader in the church, other Jewish Christians – even Barnabas – began to do the same. Eventually, they refused to eat with their Gentile brethren, which in effect was a denial of family association. In response, Paul called Peter out in a very public manner.

“You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Paul’s first argument against Peter is that Peter is living inconsistently. As Wright explains, “Paul’s confrontation is direct and to the point. ‘Peter, you’ve been living like a Gentile, making no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. How can you now insist, as your behaviour is insisting, on Gentiles becoming Jews in order to become part of the inner circle of God’s people?’”[7] Whereas before Peter was fine with “living like a Gentile” by eating with Gentile believers, he has now withdrawn, and this withdrawal has theological ramifications.

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” [8]

In these verses, Paul begins to argue theologically. His argument here is dense, but everything drives to a main point. As Wright explains, “The point of it all, here in Galatians, is quite simple. Paul was demonstrating to Peter that even Jewish Christians have lost their old identity, defined by the law, and have come into a new identity, defined only by the Messiah.”[9] With this main point in mind, the different parts of Paul’s argument work like this:

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

Jewish Christians have trusted in Christ as the basis of their right standing before God. In doing so, they have implicitly admitted that the Law (Torah) was insufficient in and of itself for this right standing. Elsewhere in Paul’s thought, it becomes clear that the Law is insufficient because of the human inability to keep it.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!

Some might argue that taking this view of the Law leads to lawlessness. Faith in Christ, however, does not promote sin.

18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.

Life under the Law leads past the Law because the Law culminates in Christ. Because this is true, to turn back the clock and choose the Law over Christ would actually be to break the Law. After all, doing that fails to understand the Law’s true function.

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Faith in Christ has brought about a fundamental shift in the life of believers, Jewish believers included. In Christ, they have been crucified to their old ways of life (for Jewish believers this means the Law), and his risen life is now the core of their existence. Life for the Christian, then, is lived by faith in Christ and not old ways of being.

21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” [10]

The work of Christ on our behalf flowed from the sheer grace of God. Embracing the Law over Christ sets aside this grace. Moreover, emphasis on the Law as one’s basis for right standing before God negates the work of Christ.

With this argument, Paul confronts Peter with the truth of the gospel. In doing so, he shows that the gospel is greater even than Peter, the most celebrated apostle. Paul said as much about himself in vv 1-10. The flow of Paul’s overall argument, then, flows like this:

  1. 1:10-24: Paul argues for the independence of his gospel from the Jerusalem apostles and Judean churches.
  2. 2:1-10: Paul argues that his independent gospel was “verified” and affirmed by the Jerusalem apostles.
  3. 2:11-24: Paul once again shows his independence by recounting his confrontation of Peter. In doing so, he shows the supremacy of the gospel over any human – even the great apostle Peter – and begins to argue theologically for his point of view.

Notes for Teaching

Much of the passage at hand may seem removed from the life of Christians today. This is so because Paul won his argument so thoroughly that we now assume it. We don’t need to be convinced of Paul’s apostleship or the divine origin of his gospel. Moreover, we are a primarily Gentile audience that has benefited from Paul’s thought. A place of great connection, though, can be found in Paul’s testimony of how Christ upended his life.

While our experience will not match Paul’s perfectly, we will hear many familiar echoes. Just as Paul’s faith in Christ meant that he died to his old way of understanding the world, so also does our faith mean the same for us. Just as Paul trusted in Jesus alone for his right standing before God, so also do we. Just as gospel truth had real life application in Paul’s day (table fellowship), so also does it lead to practical application today. Questions for conversation around this passage might include:

  • What is the way of life that we have died to in Christ?
  • Are there ways that we fail to trust in Jesus alone for our standing before God?
  • Are there ways that we fail to properly apply the gospel today?
  • What does Paul’s argument mean for the church today?

Regarding the last question, the Church has often failed to truly understand and apply Paul’s argument for table fellowship. He argues vehemently that Jesus levels the playing field of culture. Yet the history of the Church has often trended toward cultural imperialism. Think here of missionaries who required converts to adopt a Western lifestyle and manner of worship. Think also of the great failure of white Christians in America to properly value their black brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s argument for Gentile inclusion resonates today because it encourages us to share supper with all who name Christ as Lord without placing restrictions on their seat at the table. Faith in Christ alone is the identity marker of the people of God. As such, we can welcome and celebrate Christians who are very different from us.

A Possible Teaching Plan

Opening Discussion

Discuss:

  • What do we remember from last week?
  • Why did Paul write the letter to the Galatians?

Explain: Fill in blanks as needed.

Independence

Explain: Explain that Paul is going to share parts of his life story to argue against his opponents in Galatia.

Read: Gal 1:10-24

Discuss:

  • What do we learn about Paul in these verses?
  • What point does Paul seem to be making as he tells these parts of his story?
  • What is Paul’s point in talking about trying to please God rather than people?
  • Why is it important for Paul to prove his independence from the Jerusalem apostles?
  • Answer: It puts him on equal footing with them.

Agreement

Read: Gal 2:1-5

Discuss:

  • What is Paul’s point in telling this part of his story?
  • Why did Paul go to Jerusalem? Why was it important for him to present his gospel to the other apostles?
  • Why does he tell us so much about Titus?
  • What do we learn about the argument in Galatia? What was Paul arguing for? What were his opponents arguing for?
  • What is the significance of circumcision for Gentiles?

Read: Gal 2:6-10

Discuss:

  • How did the Jerusalem apostles receive Paul?
  • What does this tell the Galatians about his gospel?
  • Why does Paul downplay the authority of the apostles in Jerusalem (see v 6)?
  • What do we learn about Paul’s particular calling in these verses?
  • Answer: He is called specifically to share the Gospel with Gentiles.

Accountability

Read: Gal 2:11-14

Discuss:

  • What is happening in this passage? Why does it matter who Peter eats with?
  • Why was Paul so opposed to Peter’s actions?
  • What do you think it would have been like to be in the room when Paul confronted Peter?
  • Is it appropriate for Christians to treat one another in this way?

Christ Instead of Law

Read: Gal 2:15-21

Explain: Explain that Paul here makes a theological argument to support his gospel of Gentile inclusion.

  • How would you sum up Paul’s argument here?
  • What is all this talk about the Law?
  • What is Paul’s view of the Law?
  • What does it mean for a person to be crucified with Christ? What does it mean for Christ to live in them?
  • How does this idea play out in the lives of Christians today?
  • Are there ever ways that we belittle God’s grace?
  • What can Paul’s argument here teach us about our relationship with Christians of other cultures today?

Resources Consulted

Scot McKNight’s Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary series
NT Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians
Explore the Bible curriculum

________________________________________________

[1] McKnight, S. (1995). Galatians (p. 64). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (p. 7). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[3] Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (p. 9). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[4] McKnight, S. (1995). Galatians (p. 73). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[5] McKnight, S. (1995). Galatians (p. 83). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[6] Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (p. 21). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[7] Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (p. 23). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[8] The New International Version. (2011). (Ga 1:10–2:21). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[9] Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (p. 27). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[10] The New International Version. (2011). (Ga 1:10–2:21). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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