Paul’s letter to the Galatians was one of the earliest written epistles; and there is much speculation as to which Galatians it was written. It was a circular letter, almost certainly written to the churches of southern Galatia that he established on his first missionary journey with Barnabas. The context of the letter can be understood best if one keeps in mind that many of the circumcision party – Judaizers – had come after Paul teaching, as was their custom, that in order to be saved, the Gentiles had to be circumcised, and had to keep the law of Moses. In effect, they were being taught that they first had to be converted to Judaism.
It is clear from Paul’s writing in the first chapter that these Judaizers had also suggested, if not outright declaring, that Paul was not really an apostle – certainly not on the level of the original twelve. He opens the letter with a greeting that immediately declares his apostleship – something he only does in his letters to churches that were unfamiliar with him or where his authority was questioned (Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians), as opposed to the letters to Philippians and Thessalonians. He goes to some length in chapter one to be candid about his background as a persecutor of the church, and to declare that he was called by the Lord himself to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (verses 11-16).
Paul often opens his letters with a commendation, but instead he opens with a rebuke here, as he declares his astonishment at hearing that many of them had accepted this false teaching. He strongly proclaims that if anyone (even he himself, or an angel from heaven) would proclaim to them a different gospel than was preached to them previously, they were to be accursed. This false teaching threatened the very foundation of Christianity and had to be quashed immediately and thoroughly.
One final note on this chapter is worthy of comment. Verses 17-20 contain statements affirming (strongly underscored in verse 20) that Paul had not been among apostles other than Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, in the first years after the Lord had called him. This point was important because efforts to disparage his apostleship had also suggested that he had merely been approved by them, or had been given his knowledge of the gospel by them. The reference to James, the Lord’s brother, as an apostle should be understood in light of 1) his relationship to Jesus and/or 2) the fact that James became the official leader of the church in Jerusalem. As Coffman pointed out, this James was not a plenary apostle, as were the twelve and Paul.
some images © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
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