Interpreting Galatians

The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write the book of Galatians to explain the differences between law and grace. For much of the first two chapters, Paul points to the differences between himself, the apostle of grace, and the twelve, who were still preaching the law as part of the kingdom gospel. The particular law that caused the tension was circumcision, but Paul makes it clear that the issue involved the entire Old Testament law.

Paul had traveled throughout the region of Galatia, a Roman province in what is now Turkey. He had preached his message of salvation by grace through faith and started several churches. After he moved on, Judaizers visited the Christians in Galatia and informed them that they couldn’t be saved unless they were circumcised and observed the Jewish feasts and ceremonies. The Galatians were beginning to waver in their faith. Paul wrote them this letter. He wasn’t happy with the Judaizers or with those who had so soon forgotten his teaching.

Here’s a quick survey of the first two chapters.

1:1 — Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through men, but through Jesus Christ) — Already he’s setting the tone. He didn’t get his authority from men, not even from the other apostles, but personally and directly from Jesus Christ.

1:6 — a different gospel — The word “gospel” means “good news.” It isn’t specific to one message. There are several gospels mentioned in Scripture. (There’s a post on this coming soon.)

1:7 — which is not another — In other words, this other gospel that the Judaizers were preaching to the Galatians was not good news for them (or for us). For the Galatians, this other gospel was a false gospel because it would put them under the law, which would not be good news.

1:8 — But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. — Another reference to there being more than one gospel. Angels frequently delivered messages from God to Israel. They were, in fact, closely tied to the covenant of the Law made between God and Israel only — it was given to Israel by angels with Moses as mediator (John 1:17; Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19.) But Paul is saying that, for the Gentiles, his message is more important than any other message, even if it is brought by angels because he was the one God chose to bring the message of grace to the Gentiles. In addition, what we have preached to you puts specific emphasis on Paul as the messenger. Paul repeats this warning in verse 9, but this time puts the emphasis on the hearers — what you have received — referring to what they heard from him.

1:11-12 — But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. — Here is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of my last post as to whether the words of Jesus Christ are more important than the words of Paul. This is just one of many places where Paul makes it clear that his words ARE the words of Jesus Christ. Paul is making it clear that his message came by direct revelation from Jesus Christ. He didn’t hear it from others, including the apostles. The “I” in the statement For I neither received it from man is emphatic in the Greek, suggesting a contrast with the Judaizers who probably professed to come from James (Galatians 2:12). If Paul’s message was not different from that of the twelve, there would have been no reason for separate revelation and no reason why he couldn’t have learned it from them. And, there would be no reason for him to be so adamant when he made this statement.

1:15-16 — But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles … — A clear statement that God called Paul to preach a specific message to Gentiles. In Greek, the word “reveal” means to uncover or to unveil something hidden.

1:16-17 — I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. — Ask yourself why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write this. Why would it be important for the Galatians to know that Paul didn’t discuss his revelation with the twelve apostles or anybody else? Wouldn’t you think the wise thing for him to do would be to sit under the teaching of others who had sat under the ministry of Jesus Christ Himself and had been preaching the message for several years IF it was the same message? Paul recognizes the authority of the twelve apostles, but declares his independence from them.

1:18-19 — Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) — Again, why tell us this? Paul says he went to Jerusalem to “see” Peter. That’s a word that is generally used to indicate a visit for the purpose of getting acquainted. (This James wasn’t one of the twelve, but his association with them, by this time, was so great that he is referred to as an apostle in a greater sense. This James had become a leader in the Jerusalem church and wrote the book of James.) The point that Paul was making in these verses about the short duration and limits of his visit to Jerusalem were so important that he followed it up with a strong statement, before God, that he wasn’t lying. This was to counter the claims the Judaizers were making to the Galatians about Paul’s ministry, but also to demonstrate the uniqueness of his gospel.

2:1 — Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me. — After fourteen years of ministry, Paul went to Jerusalem. He went to talk to the apostles, and he brought along Titus, who wasn’t circumcised, to show the distinction of his message. Barnabas was a Jew and had been circumcised as a child.

2:2 — And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles … —  “That gospel which I preach” was different from the gospel they were preaching, otherwise there would be no reason for him to communicate it to them. And he didn’t go to make sure he and the twelve were on the same page. He went to tell them what he was preaching.

2:2 — But privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain. — Paul knew that the twelve were well known for their ministry (and rightly so). If they were to openly oppose his message, his ministry would be less effective. So he traveled, by God’s guidance, to Jerusalem to talk with them privately.

2:3 — Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. — But notice that Titus is set forth as the exception (in Jerusalem). The Holy Spirit had never told the twelve that circumcision and adherence to the law was no longer necessary for Jews saved under the kingdom message. That was still part of their gospel.

2:6 — But from those who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man—for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me. — This, at first look, is a startling thing to write. Paul seems to be demeaning the twelve apostles. That wasn’t the case. He was simply making an unequivocal statement that the twelve weren’t the ultimate authorities, and especially not on this issue. Paul was probably refuting the Judaizers who were using the twelve as their authority for undermining Paul’s ministry. Whatever they were has the sense of “what they once were.” At Pentecost and following, until the rejection of the risen Christ by the Jews and the start of Paul’s ministry, the twelve did have ultimate authority. But Paul’s authority came directly from Christ, and the twelve had no authority over him. Paul ends the verse with a clear statement that the twelve added nothing to his message or his authority.

2:7 — But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter — Rather, the twelve recognized Paul’s authority. And note the clear statement that there are two gospels in play here — that for the uncircumcised (Paul’s gospel for the Gentiles) and that for the circumcised (Peter’s gospel for the Jews) Note: the time was not far off — Acts 28:25-28 — when the gospel for the circumcised would be set aside entirely until after the Rapture of the Body of Christ. During the period (which continues today) between Acts 28 and the Rapture, there would be no distinction between Jew and Gentile.

2:9 — And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. — This is a very important verse. Read it carefully. Then read it again. James, Cephas (Peter), and John agreed that their ministry would only be to the Jews. Why is this significant? Because these three men wrote almost all of those New Testament books that appear at the end of the Bible after those written by Paul. This verse makes it clear (because nowhere in Scripture is this information updated, changed, or cancelled) that the books written by James, Peter, and John are for the Jews. Don’t misunderstand me. All Scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But we have to read it with understanding. This verse, although definitive, doesn’t stand alone. There is plenty of evidence in the General Epistles that support this point. Look at the first verse of James, for example, or 2 Peter 3:15-16.

2:11 — Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. — Even after Paul’s visit to Jerusalem, there continued to be tension. James was zealous for the law (and continued to be so much later in Acts 21:20) and was apparently encouraging the Judaizers to preach the law. Peter, and even Barnabas (v. 13) were persuaded. And this answers the other question at the beginning of my last post. Paul and Peter weren’t having a power struggle to see whose message would be taught. They were teaching different messages to different audiences, as directed by the Holy Spirit. The problem here is that Peter, for a moment, got the audiences and messages mixed up, and Paul had to set him right.

Paul goes on in the rest of this book to point out the differences between his gospel and the gospel of the circumcision. But our point here is that the Holy Spirit thought it important to take two chapters to explain the separation between Paul and the twelve in clear, decisive language. If it’s that important to Him, we believe we should pay attention and remember the lesson as we read and interpret other Scriptures.

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