Who Speaks for God? (Galatians Bible Study)

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1 Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—
(Galatians 1:1)

Key Observation: Only the apostolic gospel that faithfully preserves God’s invitation, issued on God’s terms, has the power to lead us to life.

Galatians is one of Paul’s most passionately written letters. Some of his converts in the cities of Galatia are being won over by other Jewish Christian teachers who have come along after Paul’s departure. These teachers have very different ideas about where to draw the boundaries around the people of God. They also differ significantly concerning the role the law of Moses ought to play in Christian life. They are taking advantage of Paul’s absence to pull the Galatian Christians in a very different direction from the course on which Paul had set them. Paul’s own authority has come under fire in the process. The new teachers may not have anything against Paul personally. However, they will no doubt have found it necessary to call Paul’s motives, credibility, and correctness into question if they are going to win over his converts. The stakes are very high for Paul. From what he hears about the situation, he believes that following the rival teachers’ recommendations for moving forward will essentially mean renouncing Jesus and his death on their behalf. He will dramatically warn his converts: “You are cut off from Christ! . . . You fell from grace!” (Gal. 5:4, author’s translation).

Paul comes out fighting from the very first sentence. A typical letter in the first-century Roman world would have begun: “Paul to the churches in Galatia, greetings.” Every expansion of and departure from the standard form would have been heard as significant. Paul’s first expansion asserts that the origin of his commission and the agent through whom his commission came are divine. He does not come to Galatia as the representative of any human group, including the circle of the original apostles in Jerusalem. He comes to represent God and to communicate God’s astounding offer of gracious favor. This offer includes reconciliation with God through God’s Son, reception of God’s transforming Spirit, and rescue thereby from “the present evil age” (1:4). The rival teachers may have come claiming to represent the Jerusalem apostles. If Paul’s message does not align with theirs, however, this doesn’t mean that Paul has departed from his commission and his Commissioner. Paul will support this bold claim at some length in 1:10–2:14.

Paul no doubt has strong feelings about rival teachers leading his converts down a different path. He is not immune to turf issues (see 2 Corinthians 10:13–16). He sees enough of the big picture, however, not to be merely concerned with defending turf (see Philippians 1:15–18). Paul believes that the rival teachers in Galatia have missed the essential point. They fail to perceive the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for defining the people of God and for discovering the path to justification before God. Paul will fight to keep his converts grounded in the gospel that God has given him for them. He does not want them to set aside God’s grace and power (2:21). The rival teachers’ gospel will give them neither a reliable vision for, nor the spiritual power to attain, the transformation God sought to work in God’s “new creation” (Gal. 6:15).

Questions for Reflection

  1. What are some areas in which you, your congregation, or your denomination struggle to discern God’s good news from human distortions of the good news?
  2. What do you do to help make sure that you’re following a divinely authorized message as gospel and as a reliable pointer to holiness, and not merely a human invention?

What is the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament? How does Christ fit in to the larger story of salvation reaching as far back as Abraham? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life?

These are just some of the principal questions that Paul addressed as he wrote his letter to his converts in the Roman province of Galatia, and they remain as relevant today as they were then. Discover the whole of Paul’s proclamation of the “good news” afresh – the good news that not only delivers us from the consequences of sin, but from its power. Get the Bible study on the Letter to the Galatians by David A. deSilva from our store here.

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David A. deSilva (PhD) serves as Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary. He is the author of two dozen books, including An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation, which has nurtured thousands of Christian workers in English, Arabic, Chinese, and Korean contexts. He is an ordained elder in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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