Tag Archives: Polycarp

Second Thessalonians: The ABCs

Authorship, Background, and Contents 

Authorship

Second Thessalonians claims to be written by the apostle Paul, but it is sometimes grouped among the “disputed” letters; that is, its genuineness as a letter of the apostle is doubted, on the basis of internal evidence.

“External evidence” refers to the historical data, such as quotations by other early writers, ancient manuscripts, and explicit references. The odd thing about the charge of inauthenticity is that the external evidence for this letter is actually stronger than that for 1 Thessalonians, which is seldom doubted, if ever. Second Thessalonians is referred to in the very early work, the Didache, and by the writers Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr in the second century.

“Internal evidence” refers to the text of the letter itself, and considers such things as grammar, expressions, and thought patterns. Some liberal scholars have maintained that Paul’s doctrine of the end times (eschatology) is different than that found in 1 Thessalonians and his other letters.

Questioning the authenticity of biblical books for reasons like this is common among liberal scholars, but the problems with basing a case upon internal evidences are many. One is their subjective nature. In other words, these opinions are based on no more than the “gut feeling” of the scholars. Along with that, differences in grammar or expression can be accounted for by other reasons, such as the use of a different amanuensis (secretary). We should in humility also admit that there might have been circumstances that affected it of which we know nothing.

Most Bible students have found no inconsistency in the doctrine of 2 Thessalonians, and they believe that, along with the weight of historical witnesses, should carry the argument over subjective speculations.

Conservative scholars and Bible students have therefore dismissed the charges of those who rely on their “gut feeling” that the letter is not genuine. They have found that the strong historical evidences and the marks of Paul’s genuine teaching and doctrine are sufficient reasons to trust that this letter is from the apostle and the Word of God.

 

Backgroundtheossolian map

Within weeks or, at most, a few months of writing 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul wrote this second letter to that young congregation. Like the first, it was written from Corinth during Paul’s eighteen month ministry there. Since this letter followed the first so quickly, most of the Background discussion in “1 Thessalonians: the ABCs” applies here (see that webpage).

Some further information about the church had reached Paul, which stimulated him to write this letter. There seem to have been three major issues:

1.      The opposition faced by the believers in Thessalonica, which he alluded to in the first letter, had apparently become worse. Paul wanted to strengthen them to endure suffering for Christ’s sake.

2.      A counterfeit letter claiming to be from Paul, or some “prophetic” messages regarding the Lord’s Day, had unsettled them. Paul wanted to clarify his teaching and establish their expectations accurately.

3.      In light of those misunderstandings of what we commonly call the “end times,” some of the believers in Thessalonica were dropping out of normal everyday labor to “wait for the Lord.” Paul wanted to set them straight.

The estimated time of writing is the second half of A.D. 50, making it one of Paul’s earliest letters.

 

Contents

Paul’s letter deals with each of the issues mentioned in Background. They correspond with the three chapters into which the letter is divided.

  • The persecution faced by the Thessalonians and God’s promised answer.

In the first chapter, Paul acknowledges the persecution being received by the church, and commends them for their persevering faith. One reason they can take heart is the knowledge that God is observing their trials, and in his justice will one day deal with their persecutors:

 

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. (1:6-7)

 

In the meantime, Paul prays for their encouragement:

 

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. (1:11)

 

While none of us wants to experience opposition for our faith, it is always possible in this world. Paul’s perspective and prayers can guide us in how to respond when either we or other believers we know are persecuted.

 

  • Responding to confusion caused by a counterfeit message.

 

Paul begins the teaching portion of the letter by referring to a counterfeit message:

 

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. (2:1-2)

 

In the formative years of the church before the New Testament was written, the Lord sometimes delivered direct revelation through living prophets. It’s possible that a member of the church or a visitor had delivered a false prophecy that created confusion and fear among the people. It’s also possible that a counterfeit letter with Paul’s name attached had made its way there with the same kind of message.

Either the reality or the possibility of such a false letter moved Paul to add this at the end of 2 Thessalonians:

 

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. (3:17)

 

In other words, the original letter sent to Thessalonica included this sentence in Paul’s own handwriting with his autograph. It enabled them to check the authenticity of future communications.

 

  • Correcting their doctrinal understanding of end times prophecy.

 

The false message had apparently claimed that the Lord’s final wrap-up of history prior to inaugurating his kingdom had begun. Members of the church were afraid and confused, wondering if they had missed out somehow. In 2:1-11 Paul clarifies the specific order of events before “the Lord’s Day” to calm them and impart confidence.

In summary, the order of events is:

  1. The “rebellion” or “apostasy” comes first — a decisive and widespread falling away from professed “faith” which opens the way for:
  2. The appearance of “the man of lawlessness,” a world-wide leader who will arise. In other passages, he is known as “antichrist.”
  3. This “lawless one” will oppose the true God, and eventually reveal his true nature to the world by taking his place in God’s temple and demand to be honored as God. This event is predicted in the Old Testament book of Daniel, and was specifically referred to by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24:15.

 

  • Encouragement for the Christians in Thessalonica.

 

The believers apparently feared that they had somehow been left for judgment, so Paul writes to reassure and encourage them. They were destined for salvation, not the wrath of God:

 

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachingswe passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2:13-15)

 

  • Clarifying priorities: Live and work faithfully and responsibly.

 

Throughout Christian history (even as this article is being written!) there have been misguided leaders who have set dates for the Lord’s return and urged believers to stop living ordinary lives, and instead to sell their possessions, wait on rooftops, etc. Paul decisively opposes such actions:

 

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teachingyou received from us. (3:6)

 

Paul points to his own example in contrast. He was not idle, but worked with his own hands in order to provide the right pattern for them to follow. In this context Paul delivers the strong message,

 

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (3:10)

 

Paul urges the church to confront this irresponsibility where it occurs. But lest overzealous believers overdo it and deal with others too harshly, Paul explains,

 

Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (3:15)

 

This is a pattern caring Christians should continue to follow today. Throughout the New Testament we are told to accept our mutual responsibility for one another. We should teach, encourage, counsel, admonish, and warn each other. But none of these things should be done in a harsh or vindictive manner. We are to speak and act in love, mercy, and grace, just as the Lord has done toward us.

  

Conclusion           

In 2 Thessalonians can be seen the close relationship between the believer’s future hope and present responsibilities. Hope in the Bible is never uncertain. It is not, as you hear in everyday speech, “I hope so” representing wishful thinking. The word “hope” in the Bible refers to our firm assurance and eager expectation of God’s sure promises.

And yet, Christians’ focus on future events surrounding the return of Christ does not produce the quality that’s been described “so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good.” It’s just the opposite. Our sure hope in Christ and in God’s coming kingdom lead us to live appropriately today. We should go about our business, working at our occupations, being good neighbors, and doing good in Jesus’ name while we wait for his return from heaven. The Scriptures give us enough understanding of future events that we can be alert and ready should we be the generation that lives to see them.

Second Thessalonians is a great help for keeping this balanced focus.

 

T.L.S.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: The ABCs

be kindAuthorship, Background, and Contents of Ephesians 

  

Authorship

 

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians has long been considered the epitome of his teaching, a virtual summary of Christian doctrine. Well-loved Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee called it “the Mount Whitney of the High Sierras of all Scripture.” The epistle has nourished, taught, and encouraged believers from its original writing.

Its universal appreciation makes it even more puzzling to evangelical believers to discover that the authenticity of Ephesians has been under severe attack since the rise of liberal skepticism in the 19th century. Many liberals have called it a forgery, a summary by some other writer of the teachings of Paul.

Not only is this critical attack surprising to a modern believer, but it is launched against powerful and completely consistent historical evidence of its genuineness. As W. G. Kümmel writes, “without question, Ephesians was extraordinarily well attested in the early Church.” Ephesians is found in every early canonical list (“canonical” = divinely inspired New Testament writings). There are allusions or quotes from Ephesians in the earliest Christian writings, including the book known as 1 Clement, dated about A.D. 95. There are references in the writings of Ignatius and Polycarp in the early second century, and in many others.

 

Scholar A. Skevington Wood comments on the overwhelming evidence:

 

It is on such an impressive basis that the case for authenticity rests. When unanimous external attestation is supported by sufficiently convincing internal evidence, we are surely justified in insisting that the burden of proof lies with those who wish to repudiate the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.

 

So what are the charges that critics make? There are three main lines of attack:

  1. That Ephesians shows a different style and vocabulary than Paul’s other works.

This charge is disputed by conservative scholars. Not only is it based on “subjective gut feel,” it is simply not true. Other students find that similarities with Paul’s style are clearly present.

Along with this, writers of many persuasions have shown the flimsy nature of this kind of analysis. Since when does a writer have only one distinct style? Subject matter and context make a huge difference. The same screen writer who has created a psychological thriller could use a completely different style and vocabulary if writing a romantic comedy. Who would write a technical article in the same style as a friendly letter? Or a love letter? Surely, an intellect as great as the apostle Paul’s is capable of more than one literary style.

  1. That Ephesians appears to be dependent on other Pauline works, especially Colossians.

First of all, an author has every right to reuse some of his own material whenever he likes, especially for similar situations and times. The charge that Ephesians “has too much material in common with Paul’s other writings” is really rather strange. It seems that critics are saying, “Ephesians is to be considered non-Pauline because it sounds too much like Paul.” A normal person would be excused for thinking these critics are rather hard to please!

To the second part, yes, there are clearly parallels with Colossians (this will be discussed in Background). Scholar Curtis Vaughn points out that three-fifths of Colossians can be found in Ephesians, and says,

We can best account for the similarities of the epistles on the supposition that Ephesians is an expansion by Paul of ideas presented in compact form in Colossians.

If both letters were written at the same time to similar audiences, this is to be expected.

A landmark study by E. Randolph Richards called Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (InterVarsity Press, 2004) makes important scholarly advances in our knowledge of how letters were composed in the New Testament era. Richards demonstrates how writers of the time used secretaries, kept notebooks of material to be used in multiple letters, and made drafts before final copies of important letters were dispatched. If Paul reused material from Colossians in Ephesians, or vice versa, he would have simply been doing what many other literary figures of his time did. It is the exact opposite of proving inauthenticity.

If the charges of skeptics are explored, another inconsistent and puzzling pattern emerges. One critic says that Ephesians is not genuine because it depends on Colossians. Another skeptic says that Colossians is not genuine because it depends on Ephesians. Once again, the accusations of critics seem to wander in a self-contradictory circle. It’s easiest to explain the similarities by common authorship. Paul wrote them both.

  1. That Ephesians shows an “ecclesiastical development” too advanced for the traditional time of writing (“ecclesiastical” = relating to church structure and organization).

This opinion is based on “evolutionary theories” of how early Christianity developed, which are speculative, unproveable, and highly debatable. To assume that the first century church grew in such-and-such a manner (which cannot be observed or examined, and for which there is no historical evidence), and then to say “Ephesians is not genuine” based on those theories turns a “historian” into a writer of fiction. Faithful Christians need not grant the time of day to those who “just know” that their opinions are true in the face of all actual evidence.

 

In conclusion, A. Skeffington Wood describes the case for the Paul’s authorship of Ephesians:

 

Its strength lies in the incontestability of the external attestation corroborated by impressive internal testimony. Only an overwhelming conclusive counterargument could disturb the traditional interpretation. Those who reject Pauline authorship appeal to internal data. Even if objections of this kind were to be sustained, the consistent historical authentication of Ephesians would remain as an insurmountable barrier.

 

Most of the controversy about Ephesians deals with its authorship, which we will now take for granted as being Paul. It is classed with the “prison epistles” (Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) because of Paul’s comment in 6:20. The date of the letter is likely A.D. 62 from Rome (see “Colossians: the ABCs” for more discussion of Paul’s circumstances, and other suggestions of the place and date of writing).

 

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues to serve as an excellent concise summary of his teaching on Christ, the believer, and the Christian life. Anyone who digests this teaching will find his heart nourished, his mind illumined, and his life enriched.

 

Background

 

There is a genuine mystery about Ephesians, but it is not about who wrote it. Paul did. The actual mystery is about to whom he was writing.

To a new student this sounds strange. After all, it’s entitled “to the Ephesians,” isn’t it? The answer is: No one knows for sure.

In the earliest and highest quality ancient Greek manuscripts, the words “to the Ephesians” are missing. There is actually a blank space. This is not only evidenced by those manuscripts. Early Christian writers commented on it as well. Yes, as time went on, all later copies included the address, but this seems to be a matter of growing convention rather than accuracy.

Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, which comprised approximately the western fourth of modern Turkey. It was a large and important city on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. Historians now know that there were over 230 independent communities in this province. Paul had an extensive ministry there around the years A.D. 54-57, and the church dramatically grew both in Ephesus and throughout Asia, as Paul’s disciples went forth and evangelized. For example, we know of one individual by name, Epaphras, who founded the church in Colossae (see Colossians 1:7), in the Lycus River valley about 100 miles east of the capital.

It is easy to imagine this scenario being duplicated in dozens, if not hundreds, of other communities in this province: Small churches springing up as faithful believers shared the good news. The apostle would have been thrilled with the news, but it also created a problem for him: With all his traveling, and now being imprisoned, how could Paul personally provide these multiplying churches with a sound doctrinal foundation? Ephesians was likely the result.

The most likely reason for the blank space in the earliest manuscripts is that Ephesians was actually a circular letter, or an “encyclical,” meaning a letter written to be circulated throughout a whole region, in this case to all the churches in the province of Asia. Ephesus being the capital city, is easy to imagine how the “to the Ephesians” became attached. If Paul were to write a letter to all the churches in north Texas, it would be natural for it to become known as “Paul’s letter to the Dallasites.” It’s likely it would take on this name, in spite of the fact that it was also sent to congregations in Grapevine, Lewisville, Denton, Coppell, and Plano.

In Colossians, Paul tells them,

 

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Col. 4:16)

 

If you have never heard of “Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans,” it is for good reason. There is no letter known today by that name. Though this cannot be decisively proven, it seems likely that Paul is referring to the circular letter we know as Ephesians (interestingly, one second century list does name a letter “to the Laodiceans” while appearing actually to refer to Ephesians).

 

Quoting from “Colossians: the ABCs”:

 

While Colossians is specific, argumentative and full of warnings, Ephesians seems general and uncontroversial. While they cover many of the same truths, Ephesians seems to be generally teaching a survey of Christian beliefs, while Colossians discusses many of the same truths as if they were under attack, which they were. If Ephesians is a lamp to illumine a room, Colossians is a laser beam to eradicate a cancer.

 

This is why Paul wrote two letters at the same time. Colossians was created to address a church’s specific problems. Ephesians was composed to teach many churches general truths every believer needs to know. That explains why Ephesians shows a lack of specific circumstances or problems addressed, and why it seems in a way “impersonal.” It’s certainly not impersonal in the sense that Paul is sharing from his heart about the riches that Christ has accomplished for every saint, and about the kind of living by which believers can glorify him.

 

Contents

 

Though only six chapters in length, Ephesians is jam-packed with theological meat and practical instruction. It does not take very long to read it through, but the ideas are profound enough to occupy one for a lifetime.

The letter is perfectly balanced. The first three chapters are doctrinal teaching on what it means to be a Christian. The last three chapters discuss what it means to live as a Christian. Ephesians can actually be outlined and grasped in just two key verses. First:

 

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (1:3)

 

Chapters 1 — 3 can be understood as a commentary on this one verse: What it means that God has given us “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Second:

 

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (4:1)

 

Chapters 4 — 6 go on to explain what it means to live in such a way that Jesus Christ is glorified.

Here are some of the main themes explored in the letter:

  • What it means to be “in Christ” — The phrase “in Christ” and its equivalents (e.g., “in him,” “in whom”) are found in Ephesians about 30 times. To be “in Christ” means the result of our total identification with him in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Because we believers are “in Christ,” we have “every spiritual blessing”: adoption as sons (1:5); redemption and forgiveness (1:7); the sealing of the Holy Spirit (1:13-14); new spiritual life (2:4-5); we are seated with him in the heavenlies (2:6); salvation (2:8-9); and much more.
  • God’s new temple, the church, consisting of Jew and Gentile — In an extended discussion from 2:11-3:13, Paul expounds on the “mystery” which God now announced through the apostles, which is the church. No longer will people find their identities in ethnic or religious backgrounds, because all believers are one in Christ. The Lord has broken down the wall of separation, the Law of Moses, which kept Jews and Gentiles apart. All are now equal brothers and sisters in a completely new entity, the body of Christ, which is God’s new dwelling place.
  • Prayers for understanding — Twice in the first three chapters, Paul pauses his teaching to pray for his hearers (1:15-19 and 3:14-21). He appears to sense that the profound spiritual truths he’s relating cannot be understood by human intellect alone — that we need the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to receive them in a genuinely life-transforming way. Pray these prayers for yourself. Ask God to open your mind and heart to receive and understand how great is the love he has given you in Christ.
  • How the church is meant to function — In 4:11-16, Paul builds on the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, and shows how it is meant to function on earth. The purpose of gifted leaders, he says, is not to do all the work of ministry, but to equip God’s people to serve. As our human bodies need many different parts to fulfill different functions, so the body of Christ needs all believers to contribute their unique gifts for the good of all and for the effectiveness of the whole church.
  • Practical teaching on right and wrong behavior — In 4:25-32 we are given several quick exhortations on right and wrong behavior. Paul’s practicality as a teacher is shown in how he approaches it. For example, it’s not enough just to “stop stealing,” Paul says. Such a person “must work, doing something with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (4:28). Notice that Paul says in effect, “Don’t do this,” but doesn’t stop there. He adds, “Do this,” then “Here’s why.” That’s how someone learns how to stop a bad habit, but just as importantly, build a new one based on a new framework of motivation. Each exhortation in the section follows this pattern.
  • Focus on the heart of Christian living, walking by the Spirit — The heart of the matter is the heart. Paul is never satisfied with outward conformity, and he calls believers to live by Christ’s resources, beginning with the decision to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). The verb tense implies a continuous dependence, by which a believer yields to Christ’s lordship and to the Holy Spirit as one’s power for living. The result then flows into all the spheres of life.
  • Instruction for various relationships on earth — Regardless of how “spiritual” one is, there are common realities of structures and relationships in which we work out our union with Christ: marriage (5:22-33 is surely the most famous passage on marriage in the Bible), parent-child, and work (for most people then, slaves and masters; today, applying to employees-employers). Those in the “head” position are called to serve lovingly, wisely, and justly; those in the “subordinate” role are called to respect their authority and serve as if they are serving Christ himself.
  • Encouragement for spiritual warfare — In a well-known passage (6:10-20), Paul encourages believers to be prepared for spiritual conflict and to take hold of all the resources Christ gives, illustrated by the armor of a Roman soldier. Besides the defensive armor of helmet and breastplate, the believer has the offensive weapon of the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). But don’t stop there. There is the “artillery” of spiritual warfare, which is prayer. Therefore Paul says, “be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (6:18), as well as for himself.

 

Conclusion

 

F. W. Faber once wrote,

 

Deep theology is the best fuel of devotion; it readily catches fire, and once kindled it burns long.

 

While there are many places in the Word of God to find “deep theology,” Ephesians may be the most concise and concentrated collection of spiritual truth about Christ in the Bible. Not only will the reader learn a tremendous amount in a short investment of time, he or she will find a bold and life-changing presentation of how great is God’s love for us in Christ.

Oswald Chambers said,

Take an absolute plunge into the love of God, and when you are there you will be amazed at your foolishness for not getting there before.

 

There are few places in the Bible where you can take a plunge into the love of God more refreshing than Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.

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.