STUDIES IN GALATIANS

Copyright © Rosemary Bardsley 2003

STUDY TWO: THE FALSE TEACHING CONFRONTED

A. IN HIS GREETING [1:3-5]

In his brief greeting Paul maintains features common to his letters:

  1. He wishes them 'grace and peace' - two characteristics of the true Gospel - the grace that mediates the Gospel and the peace that it brings between God and man and between man and man.
  2. He states that this grace and peace is from 'God our Father', affirming their common relationship with God which is achieved by the Gospel - that God is now known as Father.
  3. He affirms, in addition, that this grace and peace is from 'the Lord Jesus Christ' - indicating a solidarity of allegiance shared by Paul and his readers.

In maintaining his usual greeting to people with whom he is about to enter a great controversy, Paul presents them with a two-pronged thrust that is both a reminder and a challenge. If they took time to consider it, his greeting affirms what they had originally been taught, and challenges them to hold fast to that grand assurance.

But, instead of progressing from greeting to thanksgiving as he usually does, Paul adds a weighty four-part descriptive clause reaffirming the completed work of Jesus Christ:

A.1 He 'gave himself for our sins'.

The Aorist tense of 'gave' indicates a once-for-all decisive action. Here is no half-baked, ineffectual, wishy-washy possibility, or even probability, or a job half done. Here is a deliberate and historical action, that has been done and done effectively once-for-all. This action was 'for our sins'. Paul does not use here the preposition huper, which he uses elsewhere and means 'on behalf of' and refers to the substitutionary aspect of Christ's death; he uses instead 'peri' which means 'concerning', or 'with reference to'. This indicates that our sins were the focal point, the centre of attention, the necessitating cause, behind this action of Jesus Christ. Our sins were the reason the death of Christ occurred. [In the context of this letter, Paul's reason for stating this is clear: if Christ did this for our sins anything that we might suppose we can do about our sins is superfluous, redundant and powerless. Any perception we might have that our own righteousness can merit our acquittal fails to realise the overpowering and absolute necessity behind these words 'who gave himself for our sins.' ]

A.2 ' ... to rescue us from the present evil age'.

This is the purpose and result of the previous phrase - that the Lord Jesus Christ 'gave himself for our sins'. He did this in order to rescue us from 'this present evil age'. For this reason we cannot understand 'this present evil age' to simply mean 'our sins'. It is far more comprehensive than that. 'This present evil age' is the age that began in Genesis 3: the age in which man tries to live independently of God and of God's rule. Even in his religious aspirations man in this present evil age seeks to relate to God independently of God's action and God's enabling. All world religions, all nominal Christianity, all pseudo-Christian cults in their seeking for 'god', 'salvation' or 'fulfilment' do so by their own efforts. Even in our religiousness we humans strive to live independently of God - depending on our own performance of religious or ritual law for our acceptance by God and by others.

This is the mentality of 'this present evil age' from which Christ died to rescue us. By giving himself for our sins he makes all religious and ritual requirements redundant and exposes them as utterly useless and impotent. These actions, which this present evil age tells us we must perform in order to gain and maintain salvation, are godless, and therefore evil, actions.

By embracing the false teaching the Galatian Christians were returning to the mentality of 'this present evil age' from which it was Christ's purpose to rescue them. That rescue was what his death was all about. [We see here the same contrast clearly defined by Paul in his letter to the Romans: the contrast between approaching God kata sarka - according to flesh, and approaching God kata pneuma - according to the Spirit; the contrast between the mindset of the flesh and the mindset of the Spirit. We see it also in Colossians, where Paul states that God 'has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves' [Colossians 1:13].

A.3 ' ... according to the will of our God and Father'.

This rescue from a performance- based mindset was no renegade action of the Son. There is no dichotomy of purpose and mission between the Father and the Son. The Son did all that he did, including the purpose for which he did it, in perfect alignment with and obedience to the will of God the Father. The Son must never be seen to be twisting the Father's arm, or conniving a means by which he can force the Father's mercy; he does not plead on bended knee, promoting our cause on the basis of his substitutionary death, attempting to change the Father's heart towards us. The whole deal, the whole incredible and radical plan, originated with the Father.

To turn from this deal, to reject this plan, is to reject the will of God. That is the base level significance of accepting the false teaching. This is God's plan for us, this is God's will for us: that we should be rescued from this present evil age with its performance-based, kata sarka mentality and live with him in a relationship of grace and peace obtained through the substitutionary and sacrificial death of his Son.

A.4 ' ... to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.'

When we understand that our salvation is all of God and that we contribute nothing to either gain or maintain it, then and only then, do we truly glorify God. As long as we believe that we by our own performance merit salvation in part or in whole, we, of necessity, also merit some degree of the praise and the glory. If we desire that God be glorified we will refuse to embrace any teaching that gives some or all of the merit, and therefore, some or all of the glory, to us.

B. EXPOSED AS 'NO GOSPEL AT ALL' [1:6-10]

In these verses Paul addresses a very impassioned criticism to the Galatian Christians; he finds it utterly amazing that they would even consider substituting the empty, hopeless message of the false teachers for the 'grace of Christ'. Such an act, for those who have really grasped hold of the message of grace, is unthinkable.

Paul describes the message of the false teachers as:

  • 1:6 Different from the grace of Christ
  • 1:6 Causing people to desert the one who called them
  • 1:7 No gospel at all - it simply is not good news
  • 1:7 Creating confusion
  • 1:7 A perversion of the gospel of Christ
  • 1:8 Other than the gospel originally preached
  • 1:10 Attracting men's approval and pleasing men
  • 1:10 Not serving Christ.

His immediate response to this message, its preachers and those who believe it, is

  • 1:6 astonishment
  • 1:8 he invokes eternal condemnation on anyone, including himself or a heavenly angel, who would preach such a perverted message.
  • 1:10 he doesn't care if his exposure of the false teaching gains him men's disproval; he would rather serve Christ than please men.
Discussion Topic #4: Discuss the aggressive nature of Paul's denunciation of the message of the false teachers in the light of current anti-discrimination laws and the current mentality of tolerance. Is it right or wrong for Christians today to speak as Paul did? Why?

C. IN HISTORICAL INCIDENTS [2:1-21]

Paul confronts the false teaching by referring to a number of historical incidents:

  • 2:1-3 The Christian leaders in Jerusalem did not require Titus to be circumcised. This is a reference to the Jerusalem council reported in Acts 15.
  • 2:4-5 'Some false brothers' had infiltrated the Christian community and had been trying to replace Christian liberty with legalistic slavery.
  • 2:4-5 Paul and his associates did not give in to them even for a moment because he was committed to preserve 'the truth of the gospel' for believers.
  • 2:6-10 The leaders of Jerusalem affirmed Paul's message and accepted him as a fellow preacher of the Gospel. They added nothing to his message.
  • 2:11-21 However, Peter's actions in Antioch betrayed a failure to understand the message of grace, and indicated a recognition of the 'circumcision group'. For this reason Paul confronted him publicly and pointed out the dichotomy between his professed faith in Christ and his actions towards the Gentiles.

D. EXPOSING PETER'S BLUNDER [2:11-21]

D.1 Gospel behaviour [2:12]

Peter had been happily eating with the Gentiles. To do so was in complete disregard to Jewish law which required a total separation between Jew and Gentile. Jews regarded Gentiles as ritually unclean, and considered, because of their laws, that they would be ritually defiled by sharing a meal together. In Acts 10 and 11 we have the record of how God revealed to Peter that the Gospel over-ruled such distinctions, divisions and perceptions. Eating together indicated fellowship and mutual acceptance. Before 'certain men came from James' Peter did not allow these Jewish distinctions and prohibitions to dictate his relationship with Gentile believers. He simply accepted them as fellow believers and accepted them because of their union with Jesus Christ, his Saviour and theirs. He was not subject to ritual laws.

D.2 Peter's reaction when 'certain men came' [2:12]

When these men from Jerusalem arrived Peter, afraid because of their perceptions and expectations concerning the necessity of ritual law, drew back and separated himself from the Gentiles. What was he doing? He was allowing the perceptions and expectations of men to impact him more strongly than the Gospel, and to dictate his behaviour. In addition to this, his action influenced others present, so much that others, 'even Barnabas' followed him. Law, rather than grace, determined his action.

D.3 Paul's comments about Peter's reaction [2:11-15]

Paul says clearly:

  • I opposed him to his face
  • He was clearly in the wrong
  • His action was hypocritical
  • He did not act in line with the truth of the gospel
  • I spoke to Peter in front of them all.

Because of the public nature of Peter's defection, because of the significance of Peter's role in the church, and because this incident called the very nature of the Gospel of grace into question, Paul made an open and public issue of it. He was fighting here, as he is fighting in this letter, for the integrity of the Gospel. It is not a something-nothing issue. The truth is at stake. The purity of the Gospel is at stake. The grace nature of the Gospel is at stake. If Paul had not made an issue here, just as he does with the issue in the Galatian churches, the newly born church would have gone the way of all religions, the way of legalism, in which we relate to God and to each other on the basis of our own performance, including our religious and/or ritual performance, and the grace nature of the Gospel would have been lost.

This is no personality clash or leadership struggle: this is a fight for the truth. At the bottom line, it is truth that is the most important thing: not love - or Paul would not have confronted Peter so publicly, not unity, or Paul would not have confronted him at all, but just passed it off with a 'live and let live'. It is the truth that sets us free [John 8:32], and here the truth was in danger of being rejected for legalistic bondage.

Discussion Topic #5: Discuss the relative importance of the three issues of truth, love and unity. Which is more important, and why? What are the implications for us today?

E. WHAT PAUL SAID TO PETER:

Paul then relates to the Galatians what he said to Peter on this occasion, and uses that to say the same thing to the Galatians themselves. We will look at this in the next study.