1 From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead; 2 and from all the brothers and sisters with me.
To the churches in Galatia.
3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 He gave himself for our sins, so he could deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. 5 To God be the glory forever and always! Amen.
6 I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. 7 It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of Christ. 8 However, even if we ourselves or a heavenly angel should ever preach anything different from what we preached to you, they should be under a curse. 9 I’m repeating what we’ve said before: if anyone preaches something different from what you received, they should be under a curse!
10 Am I trying to win over human beings or God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be Christ’s slave.11 Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preached isn’t human in origin. 12 I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ. (CEB)
I think every parent has had that moment when, upon seeing their child act in a way contrary to what they have been taught, they just kind of explode. Ah, who am I kidding. Most parents have had that moment multiple times. For me, every time I step bare-footed on a LEGO, I come close to losing my cool. Especially when said LEGO is on an upstairs floor, and all LEGOs are required by law to remain in the basement.
When children do things contrary to what they have been taught, parents can get upset over those situations. We end up saying things like, You know better! You know LEGOs do not belong upstairs!
Or better yet, when manners are at stake, we parents can lose our calm and proper demeanor. When a child once again sits with her knees above the level of her face, and moves her fork full of food in a mountainous arc from plate to mouth, traversing toes, shins, knees, lap, and stomach before finally arriving at the destination of her mouth, the parental frustration and distress such displays cause often lead to hair-pulling and outright explosions. Sit up! Use your manners! We taught you better than that! You know how to sit at a table and eat! You weren’t raised in a barn! For Pete’s sake! How many times do we have to go over this? We taught you how to eat!
Of course, we parents aren’t correcting our children just to be mean, whatever the children might think. We want our children to act in ways that are right, good, proper, and decent. Especially because how they act inevitably reflects back on us.
That’s what Paul wants for the churches in Galatia. They’re acting under the influence of others and have started behaving in ways that are not right. He’s exasperated that those to whom he originally preached the gospel have listened to the advice of some other people who came along and told them something else.
Now, our text doesn’t tell us what the something else is, but later on in Galatians we find out it was some Jewish Christians who followed behind Paul and told the Gentile Christians things like this: Really, you Gentiles have to become Jews before God will accept you. What Paul taught was only part of the gospel. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah promised by God. But you Gentiles have to be circumcised, take on Jewish traditions, and be Jews. Then, and only then, can you really be Christians. Because Christianity isn’t its own thing. Christianity is nothing more than a particular way of being Jewish. Therefore, you need to be like us.
You see, these Judaizers painted Paul as a sort of second-class apostle. They undermined his authority. Paul wasn’t a companion of Jesus. Therefore, Paul didn’t receive his apostolic authority from Jesus, so of course he didn’t really know what he was talking about. The Judaizers wanted to correct what they saw as Paul’s major mistake. To them, he had misrepresented what it meant to be a partisan of Christ.
And, to an extent, I can understand how the Judaizers felt. Paul’s missionary work had been wildly successful. More so than anyone could have imagined. And Gentiles soon dominated the early Christian Church. But the Jewish Christians could not imagine how any authentic Christian community could properly and appropriately function without Jewish practices in place. Christianity, to them, was a Jewish thing. Period.
Paul absolutely goes nuts over this. Not really because his apostleship has been called into question (well, partly. It was Paul, afterall), but because he believes the message of the gospel, the Good News about what God has done for the human race in Jesus Christ, is itself being undermined. Paul’s understanding of the gospel was based on grace, not genealogy or adherence to a specific set of religious practices. The point was not human observance of the Jewish Law, but God’s loving action toward all of humanity in and through Jesus Christ, his Son.
Now, a little clarification is in order because of the way Paul’s words here have been misused and misunderstood by Christians throughout the years. Paul is not saying that Jewish practices are wrong. Paul is not saying that Jewish adherence to the Law is a bad thing that they must give up in order to follow Christ. Paul would likely disagree with that as vehemently as he disagreed with the idea that Gentiles needed to be converted into practicing Jews. Paul never argued that the Jewish Law was wrong, or that practicing the works of the Law was a way Jews believed they could earn salvation. If we’re honest with our own history, we have to admit that was a false and malicious statement applied to Jewish practice by later Christians. Paul did not make that argument. In fact, Paul praised the Law.
If you were a Jew, you could follow every dot and tittle of Jewish practice and it would be perfectly compatible with belief in Jesus Christ. What Paul didn’t agree with was the idea that any specific set of human practices was essential to life as a Christian. Now, in saying that, I want to be clear that Paul is not advocating that Christian life is a free-for-all. There are certain practices that ARE essential to life as a Christian, such as honoring God in worship, loving our neighbors, and giving generously. For Paul, living out a life of love was absolutely non-negotiable.
We must love God, and show it in our lives.
We must love our neighbors, and show it in our lives.
We must have faith, and show it in our lives.
But adhering to the Jewish Law was not the one and only way living a life of love could be accomplished.
But that’s what the Judaizers were telling the Gentiles among the Galatian churches. In their case, the issue happened to be whether or not Gentiles had to become Jews. In Corinth, a similar problem revolved around whether or not people were real Christians if they couldn’t prophesy and speak in tongues. Some Christian communities today believe that if you cannot speak in tongues—as they define speaking in tongues—then you are not really a Christian. Paul would say, they’re full of it. He forcefully argues against any kind of pious practice, religious observance, or spiritual gift that makes anything other than the graciousness of God’s love the definitive characteristic of the gospel. Ultimately, the gospel is not about what we do, but what God has done. And that’s the essential difference!
As soon as we, or the Judaizers, or certain Corinthian teachers, or anyone else make the gospel about something other than God’s gracious love for the entire human race, we have cut God out of the equation. Paul argues that the only response to God’s loving and gracious action toward us that is required is love itself. How our love for God and others is practiced can—and will—vary from person to person and culture to culture. But we cannot put human practices in a glass box, hold it up, and say, “This is the gospel, and nothing else.” But that’s what the Judaizers were doing, and some of the Galatian Christians were swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.
Jesus Christ is a doorway through which anyone may come to God at any time. Paul was upset because those teachers who wanted to make Gentiles become Jews were trying to establish a doorway to God other than Christ alone. Christ is the one who sets us free from the present evil age. It is not the Law or anything else we have done or will do that frees us. It is God’s gracious work on our behalf. That is the good news.
Paul makes it quite clear that he is not seeking human approval, but God’s. If he were trying to make people happy, he wouldn’t be a servant of Jesus Christ. Paul may not have been a companion of Jesus before he died, rose, and ascended, but the gospel he received was from a direct revelation Jesus Christ. We can read that story in Acts, how Paul was traveling to Damascus to arrest Christians when he was blinded by light and heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him. Later, Ananias came and healed Paul of his blindness, and Paul began to preach the gospel message of salvation.
Paul says from the first words of his letter to the Galatians that he is an apostle who was sent neither by human commission or human authorities. He has come as an apostle precisely because Jesus Christ and God the Father sent him. His words remind me of the Prophet Amos, when Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, told Amos to get lost. He said, “You who see things, go, run away to the land of Judah, eat your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house.” (Amos 9:12-13, CEB). And Amos answers, “I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; but I am a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from shepherding the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” (Amos 9:14-15, CEB). Amos prophesied in Israel, not because he chose to do it himself, but because God sent him to preach a message they needed to hear.
Amos and Amaziah represent two religious people, both sincere in their approach, who disagreed. It’s not always easy to figure out who’s correct, but sincerity is not the measure of correctness. As one of my seminary professors once said, “I’m not questioning your sincerity. I’m questioning your intelligence.” (Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon).
It can, at times of such disagreement, be sticky. Paul uses some harsh words in this text that our Bible translators tone down so as not to offend our tender religious sensibilities. But I’ll ramp it back up. Paul speaks a curse against the Judaizers and anyone else who might try to control access to God. “If anyone proclaims something contrary to what you received, let that person go to Hell.” (Galatians 1:9, My translation). Like Amos disagreed with Amaziah, Paul disagrees with the Judaizers. He doesn’t question their sincerity, rather he questions their intelligence.
Paul needed the Galatian Christians to hear and understand that it is God who always acts first. God acted on our behalf in order to set us free from the present evil age. That is God’s will: that we be free from the present evil age. The gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ is that through the Son we have access to God in a way that no one has ever had before. The power of Christ sets us free from the things that keep us from loving God and neighbor in all the fullness of what that might mean. Loving as we have been loved: that is how we find approval from God. We are called to love as God first loved us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!