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First Thessalonians: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents

  

Authorship

 

The letter begins with “Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you(1:1). Paul occasionally associates others’ names with his own in addressing his letters (2 Thessalonians, Philippians), but the true author is Paul.

 First Thessalonians has been universally accepted as Pauline from the beginning. It is cited by Ignatius between A. D. 109-114. It was included in the earliest canonical lists (lists of inspired New Testament Scriptures), and was quoted and mentioned by name by prominent 2nd and 3rd century Christian writers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. Other than the radical German critics of the 19th century, its authenticity has been assumed by all.

First Thessalonians stands out also among New Testament writings in that it can be precisely dated. There are two extra-biblical historical markers that provide brackets for located it. Paul write from Corinth shortly after arriving there (see Background), giving us the first date. We are told in Acts 18:1-2:

 

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome.

 

This same event was recorded by the Roman historian Suetonius in his lives of the 12 Caesars (about A.D. 121):

 

Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigations of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.

This event has been reliably dated around the year A.D. 49. Most historians accept that the comment on some agitator named “Chrestus” actually refers to Christ, which Suetonius had misunderstood. The “disturbances” were really probably disputes between Jewish Christians and non-Christian Jews in Rome about Jesus that were heated enough to draw the attention of the emperor. At any rate, that gives us A.D. 49 as the first bracket to locate the date of this letter.

The second date marker occurs also in Acts 18:

 

So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” (Acts 18:11-13)

A stone inscription found by archaeologists confirms that Gallio was appointed proconsul of Achaia in the summer of A.D. 51. That gives us the outer marker. Since Paul probably wrote 1 Thessalonians early in his ministry at Corinth, the time of writing was probably the Spring of A.D. 50, though a year plus or minus is possible.

First Thessalonians is therefore at least the second-earliest letter of Paul in the New Testament; the earliest, if Galatians is dated in the 50s as some scholars believe. This letter gives us convincing historical evidence of what Paul taught and Christians believed only two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection (usually dated either A.D. 30 or 33). Contrary to skeptical theories about “the long, gradual development of Christian beliefs,” this short letter shows the presence of every significant New Testament doctrine, demonstrating that the gospel has been preached in its fullness from the very beginning.

 

BackgroundThessalonians Art

 

There is remarkable harmony between 1 Thessalonians and the description of Paul’s ministry and movements in Acts 17-18. The founding of the church in Thessalonica is described in Acts 17:1-4:

 

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

 

Some Bible students have take the statement “on three Sabbath days” to indicate that Paul had stayed in Thessalonica only three to four weeks. This is probably a misunderstanding, however. It is more likely that he then left his attempts in the synagogue and moved out to do work significantly with the Gentiles for many more weeks. More time would probably have been needed to win “a large number of God-fearing Greeks.”

First Thessalonians contains indications that Paul did indeed stay longer than 3-4 weeks. For example, in 2:9 he speaks of his personal example, demonstrating his willingness to work for his own support rather than receiving from them — an example that would have taken longer to demonstrate. Second, in Philippians 4:15-16 Paul reminds the Philippians that they had sent financial support to help him in Thessalonica at least twice, if not more, indicating a longer stay to allow for several 100 mile journeys between the cities. Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was a relatively short, but probably a few months rather than weeks.

Acts 17:5-9 describes the events that precipitated Paul’s departure:

 

But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

 

Knowing that Roman authorities had no interest in intervening in what they saw as internal Jewish divisions (see Acts 18:12-16 for a failed attempt by Jewish leaders to do so), Paul’s opponents aimed their attack where Rome was sensitive. The basic “loyalty oath” of the Roman Empire was contained in the assertion, “Caesar is lord.” Christians were seen as insurrectionists because of their counter-assertion, “Jesus is Lord.” There was a great deal of religious tolerance in the Roman Empire, but there was absolutely no tolerance regarding who was lord. The charge that Christians were proclaiming “another king” was certain to get the authorities’ attention. In this case, they demanded a sort of “peace bond” from Jason, to be forfeited if there were more trouble. This led Paul to leave town.

The circumstances of his departure naturally caused Paul to have anxious concerns about the church he left behind. Acts says he sent Timothy back to check on the condition of the church while he continued to Athens and Corinth.

Acts 18:5 then picks up the story:

 

When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.

 

These same movements are mentioned in 1 Thes. 3:1-7

 

So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith … But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. (3:1-2, 6-7)

 

So, having heard good news about the persevering faith of the Thessalonians, Paul rejoices. But Timothy has also brought news that they need answers to questions and confusion, so Paul addresses them in this letter of encouragement.

 

Contents1-thessalonians-59_2159_1600x1200

 

Though brief, 1 Thessalonians is full of profound teaching from the apostle. As said above, every major New Testament doctrine is mentioned in this letter. Along with doctrinal teaching, there are also strong exhortations for believers to live according to God’s will.

 

Watch for some of the following themes:

 

  • The converting power of the gospel.

 

The apostle Paul was surely one of the most active preachers of all time, but he never accepted credit for the conversion of his listeners. He always preached Christ in complete dependency on the Lord, and always attributed the “success” of his preaching to the converting work of the Holy Spirit. See 1:5

 

  • A clear description of what conversion entails.

 

In the first chapter, Paul describes the publicly obvious conversion of the Thessalonians, and the description is striking:

 

… you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1:9-10)

 

Notice the elements: 1) they turned both “to God” and “from idols”; 2) that turning involved worshipping/serving “the true and living God” in contrast to their former idolatry; 3) their faith centers on God’s “Son,” who both died and rose from the dead; 4) and this same Jesus will return, an event for which they “wait”; 5) and that Christ provides salvation from the final judgment, which will be “wrath” for those who face it apart from him.

Notice how much Christian doctrine is included in this partial sentence. All this in a verse-and-a-half!

 

  • Paul’s example: Embodying as well as preaching the gospel.

 

For the apostle, the gospel was not just information to be shared; it was a life to be embodied, following Christ himself. Paul demonstrated sincere faith that seeks to please God rather than men, selfless service for others, and gentle leadership. See 2:5-12.

 

  • Exhortation to live sexually pure.

 

Sexual license was rampant in Greco-Roman society. Though there was some lip-service to “traditional family values” among conservative Romans, it was by and large just that: lip-service. Mistresses for married men and regular participation with prostitutes were basically assumed. Homosexuality was common, especially among the Greeks, and often included pederasty. Further, many of the religious cults included sexual acts as part of their “worship.” Sexual purity was an unknown concept.

In such a world, the new Christian movement was genuinely counter-cultural, truly revolutionary. The biblical values regarding sex and marriage from both the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus would have been brand new to Gentile converts. But the standards are firm, and are clearly the will of God. See 4:1-8

 

  • Eager expectation for the return of Christ.

 

One of the observations quickly made by students of 1 Thessalonians is the many references to the second coming of the Lord. Keep in mind that the chapter and verse divisions so familiar to us were not in the original text. Nevertheless, the fact that Christ’s return is mentioned in every one of the five chapters as we know them shows that this is a major theme of the letter. The return of Christ has been the fervent hope of believers from the first century to today. See 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23

 

  • What happens to believers who die.

 

Evidently, some members of the Thessalonian church had died since Paul’s departure, and they were unclear how deceased members of the church figured in the events of Christ’s return. Their questions gave Paul the opportunity to write a key passage to clarify for them, and us, what we hope to experience through rapture or resurrection. See 4:13-18

 

  • Focus on Christian community

 

Even though this gathering of believers had existed only for a matter of months, they had already become a community. Paul calls them to exercise their mutual responsibilities to care for each other, encourage one another, admonish one another, and seek for one another’s good. See 5:11-15

 

Conclusion           

For those who wonder what it would have been like to be a member of one of the earliest Christian congregations, 1 Thessalonians provides a glimpse. There was nothing more important than Jesus Christ: Who he is, what he did, and what he will do. In the meantime, as we wait for his return, what does God want from us? What will happen when he does return?

The first hearers of Paul’s letter wanted to know the same things we do today. This letter of Paul provides valuable perspectives from his early ministry.

 

T.L.S.

The Epistle to the Hebrews: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents

 The-book-of-Hebrews

 

Authorship

 

The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with a formal opening like that of a speaker who has already been introduced and therefore does not identify himself. Even after hundreds of years of scholarly inquiry, the authorship of Hebrews remains unknown.

Some have asserted Hebrews shares similarities with the thinking of the apostle Paul, but it is not his usual style or subject matter. Many have suggested that it was written by someone within Paul’s circle, and a comment near the end supports this idea:

 

I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. (13:23)

 

Tertullian, who lived around A.D. 160-220, claimed that in his time it was called “the Epistle of Barnabas to the Hebrews.” This could account for the Pauline similarities, since Barnabas and Paul worked together for several years. Also, according to Acts 4:36, Barnabas was a Levite, which could have well-prepared him to write this epistle. The Levitical system is explained in detail in the letter and compared to Christ’s surpassing fulfillment of it. But the historical case for his authorship is very flimsy.

Clement of Alexandria (about A.D. 150-215) says that Paul did write the letter, and accounts for the differences in style by suggesting that he wrote it in the Hebrew language, which was then translated into Greek by Luke.

Two centuries later, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) claimed that most in his time believed that Paul wrote Hebrews, but also admitted that many denied it.

Probably the best-balanced view was offered by the ancient commentator Origen (about A.D. 185-254), who wrote that while some believed that Paul wrote it, the style of the letter did not support the idea:

The thoughts are the apostle’s, but the diction and phraseology belong to someone who has recorded what the apostle said, and as one who noted down at his leisure what his master dictated.

Origin then concludes with the comment that should guide all of us who follow:

 

But who it was that really wrote the epistle, God only knows.

However, even though we don’t know who wrote the letter, we can make an educated guess about what kind of person wrote Hebrews. Based on internal evidence, the letter was written by a Hellenistic Jew (a Jew living outside the Holy Land whose language and culture were Greek), who was highly educated and trained in the Greek rhetorical style.

While there is no evidence that Paul’s associate Apollos wrote this letter, the description of him given in probably also applies to the unknown writer of Hebrews:

 

a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. (Acts 19:24)

 

Following the “golden age” of philosophy in Athens (about 500 B.C.-300 B.C.), Alexandria in northern Egypt became the greatest intellectual center of the Mediterranean world, famous for its schools and library. For example, at the time of Cleopatra’s death (30 B.C.), it was noted that the library possessed over half a million scrolls (books). There were numerous philosophical and rhetorical schools at Alexandria, and also a very large Jewish community that had a long and strong intellectual tradition. Calling Apollos “a learned man” meant he had a formal education in rhetoric, as well as training in the Old Testament in its Greek translation, the Septuagint. The impact he made on the synagogues and churches bears this out:

 

he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 19:27-28).

 

In fact, Apollos’s eloquence was so admired that he (inadvertently) became Paul’s popular rival in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 1:11-12). That Paul and Apollos had no personal rivalry is proven by Paul’s attitude toward him in 1 Cor. 16:12.

Whoever wrote this letter was a Hellenistic Jewish-Christian who had an education as high as was available in the Greco-Roman world, and a thorough education in the Old Testament and traditions.

As far as this letter’s date, it can be approximately located. Even though an “argument from silence” is normally a weak form of evidence, this is a case where it is extremely powerful because it touches on a critical fact. One of the writer’s most important assertions is that the Old Covenant had ended in Christ, and that the sacrifices commanded under the Law were therefore obsolete. The ultimate historical proof of his argument would be the destruction of the Temple, which happened in A.D. 70. That the author did not exploit the Roman destruction can be taken as strong proof that this letter was written before then. The Romans conducted a fierce persecution of Christians in Rome from A.D. 64 to the death of Nero in 68, which provides a probable window.

In the opinion of the vast majority of scholars, therefore, this letter can be dated in the A.D. 60s, certainly before A.D. 70.

 

Background

 

I.            Style: A Synagogue Sermon Put to Writing

 

Hebrews presents a polished and sophisticated example of a Hellenistic Jewish-Christian sermon. Internally, especially evident to those who can read the original Greek, the letter reads like a spoken sermon put to writing. It is full of rhetorical techniques a polished orator of the time would use, and numerous signs that the writer intended it to be publicly read and heard by listeners.

At the close of the letter, the writer refers to it as “my word of exhortation” (13:22). This same expression is used in Acts 13:15, where a local synagogue official invites Paul to speak:

 

Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.

 

The Greek phrase is virtually identical: in the Greek, “message” = “word” and “exhortation” = “encouragement.” This has led some scholars to the conclusion that “word of exhortation” or “encouragement” was a common expression for a biblical sermon in Hellenistic synagogues of the time.

Hebrews was written to some Jewish-Christian congregations outside the Holy Land. That they were Jewish congregations is easily seen by a casual reading: It is permeated by the Old Testament Scriptures, and Israel’s history and practice of the Law of Moses is referred to in every chapter. Experts in ancient Greek are unanimous in testifying that the Greek of this letter is of the highest quality and fluency. As a comparison, it shows the kind of sophisticated vocabulary and grammar that an English speaker who has received a doctorate degree at Oxford or Harvard would use.

Many students have concluded that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians in Rome. This may be indicated by the letter’s final greeting:

 

Greet all your leaders and all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings. (13:24)

 

“Those from Italy” sound like people sending greetings to those back home, Jewish-Christian congregations in or near Rome. This may also be supported by the fact that the earliest known citing of Hebrews is in the letter known as 1 Clement, an epistle from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth about A.D. 95.

 

II.            Occasion: Believers Fearful and Wavering.

 

Through the writer’s counter-teaching, we can discern that these Jewish-Christian believers were facing ostracism, threats, and a possible onslaught of persecution. These fears had not yet progressed to the point of martyrdom:

 

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (12:4)

 

However, some of them had actually withdrawn from fellowship due to fear, or were considering doing so. Therefore the writer uses strong language in warning them of the seriousness of these decisions, like “falling away” (6:6), “trampling the Son of God under foot” (12:29), or “selling one’s birthright” as Esau did (12:16).

From other things the writer says, it is clear that most of these Jewish-Christians were not new believers. They had been believers for some time, and in fact had successfully dealt in the past with various sufferings for Christ’s sake. This is indicated in several passages. Two examples:

 

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! (5:11-12)

 

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. (10:32-34)

 

What was happening now? If this was indeed the period A.D. 64-68, then the first official governmental persecution was either immanent or had begun under the insane Emperor Nero. The first victims of this persecution were the Gentile Christians because of an important fact: Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire. As long as Christianity was seen as a subset of Judaism, believers enjoyed general tolerance from the authorities (for an example, see Acts 18:12-17). But more and more, as the church became predominantly Gentile, that interpretation became harder to maintain.

Non-Christian Jews began to complain to Roman authorities that the Christian movement was something entirely different, which in the 60s in Rome put them in real jeopardy. The temptation faced by the Jewish-Christians was that of playing down or abandoning their allegiance to Christ in order to return to the safe umbrella of officially-sanctioned Judaism.

The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to discourage such actions and to encourage them to stay true to Christ.

 

Contents

 

The goal of the writer is to encourage these Jewish Christians to remain faithful to Christ in the face of fear. He does so by demonstrating that the Old Covenant system is obsolete, and that all has been brought to completion in Christ.

 

I.            A Commentary on Psalm 110 in Light of Jesus Christ.

 

There is no Old Testament verse quoted and alluded to in the New Testament more than Psalm 110:1:

 

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

 

During the last week of Jesus’ ministry, he engaged in several disputes with the scribes and Pharisees. Psalm 110 was already recognized by Jewish scholars as a prophecy of the Messiah. The first “LORD” in the verse is the sacred name of God, Yahweh. The second “Lord” refers to God’s human representative, the Messiah. Citing this verse, Jesus confronted the Pharisees with something they apparently had missed — that the Messiah was not only a human being, but a divine being. First he asked who the Messiah is, and received the answer, “the son of David.” Jesus then asked,

 

“How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? … If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22:41-45)

 

The answer is that the Messiah would be both David’s descendant according to the flesh, and his divine Lord, because the Messiah will be God incarnate.

Psalm 110:1 is a prophetic view of God giving all authority to the Messiah in view of his competed work. But what completed work? Verse 4 adds this pronouncement:

 

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

 

Here is revealed a mystery that the Old Testament never answers: How can the Messiah be from the lineage of David and also a priest? And what does the “order of Melchizedek” mean, when the only reference to that character was a brief story in Genesis 14. But David, speaking by divine inspiration, is hinting of a truth that will not be understood until the coming of Jesus. Priests under the Law of Moses had to be from the tribe of Levi, while David and the royal line were of the tribe of Judah. Therefore, Jesus could not serve as a priest under the Law. However, if his priesthood is of a different kind, he could. The writer goes on to explore every implication of this verse, including what kind of priest he will be, what kind of sacrifice he will make, and what it means that he is shown “sitting down.”

Like a great oak grows from a single small acorn, the Epistle to the Hebrews grows from these two verses, Ps. 110:1 and 4. The writer of Hebrews builds a complete argument proving the supremacy of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

 

II.            The Supremacy of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

 

The first four verses of the letter are like a formal opening of a speech, and by v. 3 the author has cited Psalm 110:1 and set the stage for his argument:

 

After he [Christ] had provided purification of sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

 

Being seated at the right hand of God proves Christ’s complete superiority. The writer goes on to assert that he is better (or superior) in every way.

 

  • He is better than the angels (chapters 1-2)
  • He is better than Moses (ch. 3)
  • He is better as high priest than Aaron (ch. 5)
  • His priesthood is better than the Levites (ch. 7)
  • His New Covenant is better than the Old (the Law of Moses) (ch. 8)
  • His sacrifice is better than anything available in the Old (chs. 9-10)

 

To crown his argument, the writer again uses the image of Psalm 110:1 to prove the complete and final accomplishment of Jesus’ death on the cross (allusions italicized):

 

And by that [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (10:10-14)

 

Since Christ has died for sins “once and for all,” he is sitting down — his work is finished! That means the Old Covenant system is obsolete:

 

And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin. (10:18)

 

This conclusion creates the foundation for all the “warning passages” in Hebrews: Since Christ’s accomplishment has made the old system obsolete, their choices are to trust in Christ or abandon all hope. There is nowhere else to go.

 

III.            Warning Passages in Hebrews.

 

The facts outlined in the last two sections provide the building blocks for the writer’s main purpose: To exhort these anxious Jewish-Christians to continue in their faith in Christ, rather than drawing back due to fear. Throughout the letter are exhortation sections where he pauses from teaching and calls for faithful action.

The most prominent warning passages are 5:11-6:8; 10:26-39; and chapters 11 through 12. These sections have often been pulled out of context, and, as a result, have frightened many sincere believers into doubting their salvation. That was hardly the writer’s intent! Also, many have used them to teach that it’s possible for a Christian to lose his salvation. That is not what they are saying.

One of the most important metaphors used by the writer can be found in 3:7-4:10. There he compares his listeners to the generation of Israelites who had been led out of Egypt by Moses. The passage refers to the story found in Numbers 13-14, where the people defiantly rejected Moses’s leadership. Refusing to go ahead to the Promised Land, they vowed to return to Egypt. God pronounced his judgment on that generation, saying they would not enter his rest (the Promised Land), but that he would bring their children in when they had all died in the desert.

An important point about that Israelite generation is that God forgave them (see Numbers 14:20). If they represented “loss of salvation,” this would not be true. However, they never saw God’s Promised Land. You could say they were forgiven, but disqualified from their inheritance.

The “Promised Land” symbolically represents “rest” in the Christian life through faith in the completed work and sufficiency of Christ:

 

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his work, just as God did from his. (4:9-10)

 

The thrust of the warning passages, therefore, is to urge believers to press on in faith, and not to lose the rewards promised to those who persevere. The Israelites of the Exodus generation could not return to Egypt even if they had wished. Their choices were only to press on to the Promised Land or die in the desert. The Jewish-Christians who were the original recipients of this letter also had only two choices: To hold true to Christ and receive all the benefits of assurance, comfort, and help he gives; or to draw back, with nowhere else to go. The old system, being obsolete, offers no third option.

 

Conclusion

 

This brief paper cannot do justice to this amazingly profound and spiritually nutritious book. Scholar E. Schuyler English has written:

 

The Epistle to the Hebrews, one of the most important books of the New Testament in that it contains some of the chief doctrines of the Christian faith, is, as well, a book of infinite logic and great beauty. To read it is to breathe the atmosphere of heaven itself. To study it is to partake of strong spiritual meat. To abide in its teachings is to be led from immaturity to maturity in the knowledge of Christian truth and of Christ Himself. It is to “go on unto perfection.”

 

Hebrews is a lifetime study, and will prove, reading after reading, to challenge, teach, and encourage.

T.L.S.

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents of Galatians

  

Authorship

 

Paul’s authorship of Galatians has never seriously been questioned. It is quoted or alluded to in 1 Peter. References occur in many of the earliest Christian texts, including the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement, and the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians; also in the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, along with the earliest lists of New Testament books. The evidence of authenticity is overwhelming.

 

The Impact of Galatians

 

According to any standard, Paul’s letter to the Galatians has changed world history. It powerfully shaped the Christian faith from the beginning, as Paul combatted opponents who would have defined the church as a mere subset of Judaism. It has been a fortress of the faith against those who wished Christianity to meld into the rest of the world’s religions.

During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Galatians again was a sharp sword in the hands of the Reformers. Martin Luther wrote two commentaries on the letter, which influenced people from his day till ours. He was so wedded in heart to the power of the letter that he jokingly named it after his wife, calling it “my Katy von Bora.”

During the revival of evangelical faith in the 19th and 20th centuries, once again it was Galatians that was heavily relied upon to fight against liberalism and legalism in the church, and it will continue to be so until the Lord returns. No wonder Galatians has often been called “the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty.”

 

Recipients and Date

 

One of the strangest things about Galatians is that no one knows for sure who Paul was writing to. How can that be, in light of the fact that it opens with “Paul … to the churches of Galatia”?

The problem is created because “Galatia” has two possible meanings. Three centuries before Paul, Celts (also called Gauls) from the west had migrated to what is now north-central Turkey. The area became known as Galatia after the ethnic Gauls who settled there. But later, the Roman government created a province called Galatia, which included ethnic Galatia in the north, but also an area in the south. The question is whether Paul is using the ethnic or provincial meaning of the word.

On Paul’s first missionary journey (the account begins in Acts 13), he passed through southern Galatia, and founded churches in the cities of Pysidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. He revisited these churches on his second missionary journey as well. Paul did not pass through the northern Galatian region until his third missionary journey, and few details are shared about it.

Therefore the controversy among scholars is whether Paul is writing to churches in southern or northern Galatia, and the date of the writing would be determined thereby. In brief, if Paul is writing to southern Galatia, it would have been written in the A.D. 40s, making it his earliest letter. If he is writing to ethnic Galatia in the north, then it was written in the mid-50s.

Scholars are divided over the issue, but students need worry little about it. It is relevant for identifying some historical questions, such as which visits to Jerusalem Paul refers to in Galatians 1-2, but it does not affect any of the doctrinal teaching of the letter. The powerful message of Galatians continues to do its work, even though we are uncertain of the historical details.

 

Background

 

Something clearly is very wrong in Galatia. Unlike most of his letters, Paul does not begin with offering praise and thanks for his recipients’ faith. In this case he comes straight out the chute battling:

 

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. (1:6)

 

There could hardly be a more serious charge than desertion of God and of Christian faith, but that is what Paul implies. He doesn’t stop there. Paul pronounces a curse on whoever is influencing them away from the gospel:

 

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned. (1:8)

 

Paul doesn’t exhaust his vehemence in the opening. He continues to speak as strongly against his opponents until the end of the letter. Right away, we can see not only that the apostle is very upset, but what the core issue is: It’s no less than the content of the gospel itself.

Sometime after Paul founded these churches, other teachers had visited and contradicted his teachings. From Paul’s comments and counterarguments, we can learn some of their position. They taught that Gentiles could not simply trust in Christ for salvation. They must accept the yoke of the Law, including circumcision, dietary regulations, and calendar observances. In essence, they must become Jews in order to become Christians. These teachers therefore have been traditionally labeled “Judaizers.” The truth of the gospel was at stake.

There is a common tactic in debate that the Judaizers also employed, called an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem means “to the man.” In practice it refers to undermining an opponent’s argument through attacking the credibility of the person. Along with the gospel message itself being attacked in Galatians, these teachers also attacked Paul’s credentials as a genuine apostle.

In Galatians, therefore, Paul is forced to argue on two fronts: He must defend his credentials as an apostle, and defend the true gospel that gives eternal life and liberty.

 

Contents

 

Paul spends the first two chapters answering accusations about himself, then turns to the gospel message, which he emphasizes in chapters 3-6.

 

Paul’s Defense of His Apostleship

 

In their attack on Paul himself, the Judaizers had apparently made three charges, each one of which Paul addresses:

 

  • That Paul was not a genuine apostle. Paul’s apostleship was questioned because he had not been an original follower of Jesus during his earthly ministry. The Judaizers probably claimed that Paul only knew what he had been taught by others, and then misunderstood or twisted the message. In answer, he shares some of his conversion testimony, along with this bold assertion:

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (1:11)

 

  • That Paul shaped his message simply to more easily win followers. To any of us today who know Paul’s letters and history, the charge that he was a “people-pleaser” seems comically off base. But that’s what these false teachers were saying. After pronouncing God’s curse on those opposing him, Paul answers:

 

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (1:10)

 

  • That Paul was estranged from the other apostles. The Judaizers claimed that Paul’s message was not only different from the apostles in Jerusalem, but also probably shared some gossip that Paul and Peter had had a falling-out. To answer the first claim, Paul tells about his original reception from the lead apostles:

 

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem … and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. . . . This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. (2:1-5)

 

At this meeting there was total unity among the apostles:

 

On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews … James, Peter, and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. (2:7-9)

 

Thus Paul clarifies that while there was an agreed-upon division of labor (Paul primarily to the Gentiles, Peter primarily to the Jews), there was no division of message. All the apostles taught the same gospel.

As to the other charge (the “rumor”), Paul tells the true account of what happened in Antioch in 2:11-21. Paul had indeed publically rebuked Peter, but it was because Peter had been wrong in a very critical matter: Whether or not the Gentiles were fully acceptable as fellow members of the church. Peter had been (temporarily) wrong; Paul had been right. The same issue was now being reproduced in the churches of Galatia, and Paul once again confronts this matter of critical importance.

 

Paul’s Defense of the Gospel

 

The message Paul taught was the main issue. He argues for the truth of his gospel from a number of angles:

 

  • Paul reminds the Galatians of their own experience — particularly, their reception of the Holy Spirit. In 3:1-4 Paul calls the Galatians “foolish” because they had forgotten their own experience. They had already received the Spirit of God when they believed the gospel. How could they now revert to attempting to earn God’s acceptance through human effort?

 

  • Paul argues from God’s historical plan. Through the remainder of chapter 3 and first part of chapter 4, the apostle reviews the big picture of God’s salvation plan, beginning with Abraham. First, in 3:6-8 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 as proving that only by faith is one made right with God:

 

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.

 

It is not by Law that anyone, in the Old or New Testament periods, is justified. Only by faith in any age has anyone been accepted by God. Therefore the argument of the Judaizers is flawed from the start.

Second, God intended all along to provide salvation for the whole world, and it was announced at Abraham’s call. Then why was the Law of Moses given to Israel, if salvation by faith was the plan from the start? Paul answers that it was a temporary educational and disciplinary vehicle for Israel until the Messiah would come and accomplish redemption from sin. Now that he has done so, the Law’s purpose is over. In 4:1-7, Paul compares the Law to a guardian over a small child that imposes discipline until he matures. But when the boy becomes a man, the guardian’s role is over. Therefore, for Israel or the Gentiles to return to living by Law would be a like a grown man returning and submitting to the management of a nanny.

 

  • Paul argues by allegory. In 4:21-31 Paul uses the historical Old Testament record as an allegory of spiritual truth. He reminds the Galatians that Abraham had two sons: Ishmael, born of the slave woman Hagar through natural generation; and Isaac, the son born of miraculous generation by Sarah. Paul compares the child of Hagar to those who try to attain salvation through human effort, an exercise in futility that can only lead to slavery; while the son of Sarah represents those who are born of the Spirit of God, a new birth that comes as a result of believing the gospel and leads to freedom.

 

On the basis of these arguments, Paul vigorously exhorts the Galatians to stand firm in their liberty in Christ, a freedom that can only be based on grace.

 

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (5:1)

 

To return to Law is to fall from the freedom of grace to slavery through trying to live by Law — the meaning of the warning against “falling from grace” in 5:4.

 

The Holy Spirit: Why Legalism Is Unnecessary

One of the most important lines of argument presented by legalists through history is the charge of antinomianism (literally, “against law”) — the charge that if the Law is not imposed on Christians, they will live lawless, godless lives.

Paul’s response is to assert that this is a complete misunderstanding. In removing the Law as his people’s taskmaster, God has not left us without guidance. In fact, God has given us far more than anything law could give: He has given us his very own Spirit, the Spirit of God indwelling us. In saving us, the Lord did not leave us as we were. He has called us to entirely new plane of living:

 

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (2:19-20)

 

The usual order that “religion” or legalism teaches can be summarized, “Clean up your flesh and you will be spiritual.” According to Paul, the truth is the other way around:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature [or “flesh”]. (5:16)

 

Those who walk according to the Spirit will be directed and empowered to concentrate on the spirit of what the Law was always aiming at, which is love. Therefore, Christians are urged to not only defend their liberty in Christ, but to use it properly according to the power of the Holy Spirit:

 

You, my brothers were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14)

 

Conclusion

 

The study of Galatians is one of the must liberating, empowering, enlightening, and nutritious pursuits a believer can choose. There is a reason this book, again and again, has been at the forefront of revivals and reformations through Christian history.

One of the great teachers of a century ago was C. I. Scofield. In a series of lectures on Galatians at a Bible conference in 1903, he said:

 

The course of this demonstration is like the resistless march of an armed host. Nothing can stand before it. The flimsy quibblings of ancient and modern legalists are scattered like the chaff of the summer threshing floor. But this march is, like that of a well-ordered army, by definite stages. It is an invasion in which every vantage point is fortified and made a solid base for the next advance.

 

While the experiences that stimulated this letter were no doubt painful and stressful for Paul, we can give thanks forever that they resulted in Galatians. Study it for yourself and discover what so many believers have found before — Liberty in Christ.

 

T.L.S.