Theme: The First Charge
This week’s lessons teach us what the idea of falling from grace really means, and that the freedom of God’s grace in Christ produces a holy life.
Scripture: Galatians 5:4
As we read Paul’s letter, we are aware that Paul was facing three devastating charges from his opponents: first, that he was no true apostle; second, that the gospel he preached was no true gospel; and third, that the gospel he did preach leads to loose living. Paul answered these charges in the three major sections of the letter: the first in chapters 1 and 2; the second in chapters 3 and 4; and the third in chapters 5 and 6.
Paul was no true apostle. Paul had been called to be an apostle by Jesus Christ, which means that he had received special revelation about the gospel from Jesus and had been given authority to preach it and to establish and govern Christian churches. But now his enemies were saying that he was not a true apostle. After all, he had not lived with Jesus when Jesus was on earth, as the “true” apostles had. He was not one of the Twelve. In truth, they charged, Paul was just an evangelist who, after he had received some small knowledge of Christianity, turned to his own devices and invented a gospel that would be pleasing to Gentiles in order to gain favor with them and advance his career.
Paul answers this charge by retelling the story of his life, especially the parts of it that involved his relationships to the other apostles.
First, he argues in the introduction (Gal. 1:6-10) that if he had been trying to please men, he would not have been preaching the gospel he had been preaching. The ones who were really trying to please their hearers rather than preach the true gospel were the legalizers. In what are some of the strongest words in the New Testament, Paul pronounces an anathema on these men: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” And again, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (vv. 8, 9). It is in reference to those harsh words that Paul then asks the Galatians, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men?” People who are trying to please others do not go around pronouncing anathemas upon them.
Second, Paul admits that he did not get the gospel he had been preaching from the other apostles; but he turns the negative implication of that admission on its head, arguing that the very mark of an apostle is that he has not gotten his message from other men, but from God: “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11, 12). The next paragraph explains that after his conversion in Syria he did not go to Jerusalem where he might be supposed to have learned the gospel from those who were apostles before him, but rather spent three years in Arabia. By the time he got to Jerusalem and met the others, his understanding of the gospel had already been well-formed.
Third, on every occasion when he was in contact with the other apostles, which came later, he and his gospel were affirmed by them. That was true on his first visit to Jerusalem following his conversion, when he spent fifteen days with Peter (Gal. 1:18), and later at the Council of Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10, also described in Acts 15). As far as the Council of Jerusalem is concerned, Paul claims to have defended the gospel almost single-handedly for a time, but to have been supported by the other apostles in the end. Equally important, the legalizers were repudiated: “James, Peter, and John gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me [and] agreed that we should go to the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:9).
Fourth, Paul provides an account of a disagreement he had with Peter when Peter came to Antioch. On that occasion Peter seemed to have wavered on the issue of Gentile liberty, separating himself from the Gentile Christians in order to eat only kosher food with the Jews, out of fear of what the legalistic Jews might think of him. Paul calls this hypocrisy and tells how he rebuked Peter publicly: “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?” (Gal. 2:14). The closing paragraphs of chapter 2 contain a summary of what he said to Peter and the others on that occasion, concluding, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (v.21).
Paul shows how he stood for the truth of the gospel when Peter wavered, but he does not deny that Peter was a true apostle. In fact, it is Paul’s significant achievement in the first portion of the letter that he asserts his own authority as an apostle without diminishing the true and legitimate authority of the others.
What is the first charge that Paul’s opponents bring against him? Where in Galatians is this found?
How does Paul answer this first charge?
Reflection: Did you ever have another Christian make accusations or draw conclusions about you that simply were not true? How did you handle the situation? How might Paul’s approach in Galatians provide wisdom for such an unpleasant experience?