Galatians 1 2013-08-17; published 2021-12-05
It seemed that Paul’s work among the Galatians had only just begun and they were already turning aside from the path that he had called them to. Just a year or two earlier, Paul and Barnabas had brought to several cities of Galatia the message of God’s forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Jesus. This is the good news, and many people had responded eagerly to this life-giving message, had put their faith in Jesus and become his followers, and had formed into new churches. But now, some of these new believers were turning aside. What could have happened?
It turns out, what happened is that several Jewish-Christian teachers had now arrived from Jerusalem, claiming to have been sent by the apostles there. These men were teaching that the non-Jewish believers of Galatia needed also to observe the law of Moses in order to be accepted by God. Paul had said nothing about law-keeping, they said, but he was actually not a first-class apostle, his message was incomplete, and now we have come to set the record straight and bring you into line with what the rest of the church believes and practices. These arguments were compelling, and many of the Galatian believers were being convinced that they needed to comply, first by practicing circumcision (the initiation rite of membership in the Jewish people) and then by observing the rest of the requirements of the law.
When Paul, who had returned to Antioch, learned what was happening, he was deeply distressed over the spiritual well-being of his new friends in Galatia. If they were putting their faith in Jewish religion to make them acceptable to God, then they were no longer truly trusting in Jesus to save them. By trying to make themselves acceptable to God, they were actually endangering the acceptance by God that they had already experienced through faith. Paul makes it clear just how high the stakes were: Not only were the Jewish-Christian teachers not adding to the good news about Jesus, but they were in fact distorting and destroying the good news by what they were teaching, to the extent that they themselves and those who believed their message were in danger of hell — eternal damnation — as a result.
Paul, prompted by love and concern, jumped into action and wrote this letter (the first of his many letters to churches) in hopes of turning the Galatians’ hearts and minds back to faith in Jesus alone. In order to succeed in doing this, Paul needed to address the questions that the traveling teachers had raised about his message and authority as an apostle. The rest of Galatians 1 and the first part of Galatians 2 are devoted to Paul making the point that both his authority as an apostle and his message are not his own invention, but come directly from Christ Jesus and have been established in the churches. This lays the foundation for Paul in later chapters correcting the Galatians’ understanding of the good news, helping them to see the truth of what he has taught them: Acceptance by God comes not by observing the law of Moses, but by faith in Jesus Christ.