Galatians - Opening
Date: 14 Jan 2018
Text: Galatians 1:1-5
This morning I’m starting a series of sermons based on Paul’s fascinating Letter to the Galatians. This is a book that I’ve tended to ignore over the years that I have been preaching although I can’t think why! I find it to be a really interesting book with some typical Paul straight-to-the-point comments relating to the faith of believers and so I hope you also find it interesting.
Galatia was a huge Roman province that consisted of two regions known appropriately as north and south Galatia. As ever there are numerous scholars who argue over which particular part of the province Paul was writing to although to keep it simple it seems obvious to me that it was written to the southern province since the four churches mentioned in Acts 13 & 14 are all based in southern Galatia!
Paul visited Galatia during his first missionary journey which is described in Acts 13:3-14:26. During that visit he founded four churches: Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Pisidia is also known as Antioch which can be a bit confusing as there is an Antioch in Syria which just happened to be the starting point for Paul’s journey! Consequently you may frequently see references to Pisidian Antioch.
The letter itself was written very soon after Paul returned to Antioch following that first missionary journey, an event which dates it at about 49 AD and means that this letter may well be the first that he wrote.
Paul was joined in this mission by his good friend Barnabas and the two of them preached the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the region. As ever with Paul though, it was far from plain sailing. He faced opposition wherever he went and as we read through Acts 13 & 14 we see him being expelled from Pisidian Antioch as the leading men of the city “stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:50). On learning of this Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium” (Acts 13:51).
On arrival in Iconium they preached the gospel boldly in the synagogue as usual. Whilst some accepted the message there were those who vehemently opposed them and plotted to ill-treat them and stone them. Thankfully Paul and Barnabas heard about this plot and so moved on to the next city, Lystra.
Their first action on arrival was to heal a man who had been lame from birth. On being told to “Stand up on your feet” (Acts 14:10), the man jumped up and began to walk. This led the crowd to think that these two missionaries of Jesus Christ were actually the gods Hermes and Zeus! The priest of Zeus tried to arrange for sacrifices to be made to them and when Paul and Barnabas heard about this they preached the gospel even more boldly than ever. Despite that the crowds still wanted to offer sacrifices to them! Paul and Barnabas were hindered even more when some Jews arrived from Iconium and Pisidia to stir up the crowd against them. Eventually Paul was stoned, dragged from the city and left for dead outside the city. Thankfully other disciples came to his aid and took him back into the city, meaning that on the following day Paul and Barnabas left Lystra and made their way to Derbe.
As ever Paul and Barnabas preached the good news of Jesus and tried to win souls for Christ and on this occasion we learn that they “won a large number of disciples” (Acts 14:21) for Christ. There is no mention of any trouble in Derbe and after a short stay they made their way back to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch.
Throughout his journey through Galatia, Paul followed the same pattern of working. On the Sabbath he would preach in the synagogue to the Jews and the Gentiles who believed in God. Many came to accept what he had to say and placed their faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. There were, however, many very devout Jews who refused to accept what Paul had to say and insisted that any Gentiles who accepted Jesus needed to also accept all Jewish laws and be circumcised. Needless to say Paul was totally opposed to this philosophy and eventually moved on to preach only to the Gentiles in keeping with the prophecy in Isaiah 49:6b where the prophet quoted God’s words when He said, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. In was this action in Pisidian Antioch that caused the leading men of the city to expel Paul and Barnabas from their city.
Wherever Paul and Barnabas went their message was generally warmly received and they won many hearts for Christ. Sadly though, there were many Jews who grew increasingly unhappy with Paul’s work and conspired to do all they could to hinder his efforts. Events followed the same pattern in each of the four cities mentioned in Acts 13 & 14 and it is easy to get the feeling that the opposition grew louder and more vociferous the further Paul and Barnabas travelled into Galatia.
It is against this background that Paul sat down to write this letter as soon as he arrived back in Antioch in Syria. He was anxious to refute the idea that faith in Jesus wasn’t enough; that converts also had to be circumcised and follow all the Jewish customs and laws. This was anathema to Paul who believed, quite rightly in my view, that faith in Jesus Christ was all that was needed for salvation. Jesus’ death on the cross meant that He became the ultimate sacrifice demanded by the law for salvation. Consequently, there was no need for anything else to be done and certainly no need for anything to be added to an individual’s faith. We see Paul confirm that thinking in Romans 1:17 where he wrote, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed - a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ " That was the message that Paul and Barnabas preached in Galatia, and elsewhere, and it is the same message that should be preached today.
That’s the background, now for the letter itself! All of Paul’s letters open in a similar way; Paul identifies himself as the letter writer, he identifies the recipients of the letter and he includes a blessing for all those who will read the letter. This letter is no different although there are a few subtle differences.
As he identified himself in 1:1 Paul went further than he normally did when he added the words, “sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead”. In doing that he seemed anxious to ensure that everyone understood that it was no human organisation that sent him to Galatia but God Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. You see, Paul was anxious to deny that he was preaching his own gospel; a message that was his version which was a perverted version of the truth. It was that belief that led many of the Jews to demand that new believers should follow the Jewish ways of custom and worship. It was vital that Paul nipped this way of thinking in the bud very quickly hence making it clear that he had been sent by “Jesus Christ and God the Father” rather than by men. Paul went on to add by way of a reminder that it was God Who raised Jesus from the dead. When reading Acts 13 & 14 it is possible to deduce that those Jews and Gentiles who did come to faith in Jesus accepted that fact. However, those very devout Jews who demanded that more was needed very obviously didn’t; which I suspect is why Paul emphasised his credentials in these opening words.
The next point to note comes in 1:2 where Paul writes that the letter is “To the churches in Galatia”. Generally speaking his other letters; such as those to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians and the Thessalonians; were written to individual churches. Those letters may well have been circulated to other churches but the initial recipient was always an individual church. On this occasion Paul was writing to the four churches that he founded in Galatia; those in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.
The third point of difference comes in 1:3-5 where Paul wrote his usual blessing to his readers. The regular blessing that he used can be seen in Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3 and Ephesians 1:2 where he wrote, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are slight differences in the blessings to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians although they do follow that general pattern. However, in this letter to the churches in Galatia we see Paul add more information about Jesus. After the standard blessing he added that Jesus, “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God our Father” (1:4). Once again I believe that in writing those words Paul was reaffirming just Who he believed Jesus to be as a way of reminding those Jews who didn’t accept Him as Saviour of the truth of Jesus.
Having identified a few differences in Paul’s opening remarks between this letter and the majority of his other letters, it’s important to note that in the other letters those opening remarks rarely included any major comments relating to the gospel. However, on this occasion there is a further difference in the opening to the letter. In 1:4 we read that Jesus came “...to rescue us from the present evil age”.
Paul was in no doubt that the Galatians were living in an evil age. There was a growing imperial cult where the Emperor was the object of worship; there was the usual pagan worship that Paul found elsewhere and then there were what could be described as ultra devout Jews who followed Jewish law and customs to the absolute letter. Paul regarded all these as part of the “present evil age”. However, Paul made it clear that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us...” (1:4) It’s interesting to note that at least two Bible commentators, Steve Brady and John Stott, describe Christianity as a “rescue religion” since Jesus came to rescue not only the Galatians from an evil age but also us from the evil age in which we live.
That comment about the “present” evil age is timeless since it applied in 49 AD when Paul wrote this letter just as much as it applies to us today. Just look around and see the evil that abounds. There is a growing secularism that is moving society further and further away from Biblical principles; principles that have stood us in good stead for centuries. Fewer and fewer people acknowledge the existence of God let alone Jesus His Son. Promiscuity and violence are on the rise and the Biblical thoughts on marriage and gender are being totally ignored and overridden. We also see a rise in alternative spiritualities and philosophies which many believe can bring enlightenment and lift them to a higher plain, whatever that means. They won’t accept the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ preferring to accept the lies peddled by the leaders of other pseudo religions. Paul wondered about such things in his letter to the Romans where he wrote that such people, “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). It happened in Paul’s time and it is still happening! The encouraging thing is that we at least have a Prime Minister who is a regular church goer even if she seems to struggle to always follow her beliefs. Unfortunately I doubt if it will be too long before we see a left leaning atheist in Downing Street to add to the difficulties!
All of this adds up to mean that we need Jesus more than ever to rescue us from the evil that surrounds us. We need to turn to Him and acknowledge and accept that He died on the cross of Calvary to rescue us from this evil age, to forgive us our sins and to bring us eternal life spent with Him.
Although Paul tells us that Jesus came to rescue us from the present evil age that doesn’t mean that He wants us to leave the world just yet. In John 17:15-16 we can read Jesus’ prayer for His disciples and in that prayer He prayed to His Father, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it”. We are to remain in the world even though we are definitely not of the world. However, as we remain we will always be protected from the evils that surround us. Never forget that we have the Holy Spirit with us and He will always be there for us and with us.
This is quite some letter and so far we have only considered the opening five verses, verses that set the tone for the overall nature of the letter.
As was his usual mode of letter writing, Paul identified himself as the letter writer and the churches in Galatia as the recipients. As a departure from that regular style of opening, he also added a few extra comments in order to reinforce the message that he had taken to the Galatians. He emphasised the point that he had been sent by “Jesus Christ and God the Father” and not by any men. He also emphasised that it was God Who raised Jesus from the dead; it was all from God not from Paul. Later in 1:4 he confirmed his belief that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age”. Jesus came into the world to be with us for very specific reasons not simply to be an itinerant preacher who also healed people and performed a few miracles. His ministry went much deeper than that, something which Paul was very anxious to explain.
One of the things that fascinates me about this opening is that Paul preaches the gospel loud and clear and leaves his readers in no doubt as to what he believes. I hope that as we move through this letter you too will be fascinated and consequently we will all learn more about Jesus and why He came to be with us. We may also learn that we aren’t unique in the difficulties we experience since that Galatians also experienced similar problems all those years ago. If you wish to understand this letter more then I suggest you read and meditate on Acts 13 & 14.