One of the early Church Fathers said that, when reading Paul’s letters, he could hear thunder! Galatians is a thunderous epistle, filled with passion and warning. Martin Luther declared it his favorite book of the Bible. The German Reformer said that the message of Galatians would overthrow the devil, destroy his kingdom, and release slaves from the darkness of iniquity to God’s light and liberty.
Slavery comes in many forms: financial debt, destructive habits, toxic relationships, dead-end jobs, and sin. All slaves share a common dream--to be free, and Jesus came to set the captives free! (Luke 4:14-21). Paul knew many slaves, and he knew what it meant to be free. Paul met his Liberator, the risen Christ, on the road to Damascus.
Unlike other letters, Galatians was written to a Roman province, not a city, and to mostly Gentile followers of Christ, who were being pressured to convert to Judaism in order to be truly Christian. Galatians is a reassuring message of Good News, that Jesus has done everything necessary for our salvation. Jesus supplies what the Father demands, making us right with God.
Verses 1-3—Paul is not writing as a stranger, but as the one who founded these churches. He was their spiritual father and an official representative of Christ. He begins by reminding the Galatians of his apostolic credentials, lest they question his position and message. His apostleship and authority came from the One who sent him. This distinguished him from the false teachers. In defending his calling, Paul indicates that the One who appointed him, was more than a mere man. Jesus is God-the-Son: He transcends all human categories; He is the origin of grace and peace.
Verses 4-5—Jesus has “rescued us from the present evil age,” from this fallen, broken world, desperately in need of redemption. Jesus died for our sins to deliver us from wrath. We who trust Him are freed from the secular worldviews of an increasingly godless culture. No one is born free; by turning to Jesus, we are liberated, released from the power and penalty of sin.
This deliverance doesn’t remove us from the world; it enables us to overcome the world. We live in an antagonistic, noisy world that entices us to embrace ideas that will harm our souls…“Watch this video, read this book, buy this product, listen to this music, check out this website.” When we come to Christ we leave a world of false ideas and enter a world of truth and light.
Verse 6—Paul’s greeting shifts abruptly to harsh rebuke. He is shocked that the churches of Galatia had so readily embraced falsehood and transferred their loyalty. Paul can hardly believe the report; they “deserted” the truth. The word “desert” means to be “carried away.” The author of Hebrews warns, “Don’t be carried away by various strange teachings” (13:9). In Ephesians, Paul warns us to “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (4:14).
The Galatians, mostly Gentiles, thought they had to first become Jews in order to become Christians. This would be like telling new believers that they had to become Lutheran, Methodist, or Baptist in order for their conversion to be complete. These Gentile believers were misled; they had bought into the wrong teaching that they weren’t good enough for God. In Acts 14, people were claiming, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” The Galatians were relying on religious rites, rules and regulations for salvation. They were attempting to pay for an unearned and priceless gift. Converting to Judaism was unnecessary because God was doing something new--a new creation with no barriers. Jesus is the Messiah of all people--both Jews and Gentiles.
We are justified by faith plus nothing else, and are freed from sin to live for Christ, a “law-free” gospel. The Galatians had switched from salvation by faith to a salvation by self-effort, deserting and distorting the central message of God’s grace. Paul was in stern opposition to performance-based Christianity. This was no minor doctrinal difference. Some things we can agree to disagree on, but not the sufficiency of Christ and the way of salvation. Paul could be flexible over some matters, but not on the essential principles of the Christian faith.
Verse 7—So how did this happen? False teachers had infiltrated the church. They perverted the Gospel message, throwing the church into confusion. They were “perverting” the truth--tampering, twisting it--by adding to the plan of salvation. They had defected to a different gospel. This amounted to redefining the Christian faith. The result was not an improved Gospel but a counterfeit Gospel, a distorted non-gospel, and Paul doesn’t mince words; he issues a curse upon any who would corrupt the grace of God. Paul isn’t asking the church to be loyal to him, but to the unchanging message of Christ. “A lie about God is a lie about life” (Eugene Peterson). Paul was determined to defend the truth. False teachers were minimizing Christ’s work of redemption, so Paul will magnify it. The Gospel is a sacred trust.
Verses 8-9—Angels helped deliver the law to Israel, yet the true standard for Christianity is not the messenger but the message. Hypothetically, even if angels preached a contrary Gospel, they would be under divine curse (historically, one did, to Joseph Smith). The strong word Paul uses is anathema, which means to be “destroyed, cursed.” The very essence of the Gospel message was at stake.
So what is the Gospel message? It is the “Good News” of forgiveness of sin thanks to the life, substitutionary death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which removes our guilt, shame, and fear. Jesus “lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died--in our place--so that when we believe, our sins are pardoned and we are counted righteous” (Tim Keller). The God who appears wrathful (and justly so) also holds out forgiveness. He offers what we don’t deserve, as a free gift of grace. This is good news for people who are ready to live. To accept any other “gospel” is to deny the value of Christ’s sacrifice.
Verse 10—Paul defends his calling and commission, yet at the same time he is clear that his motivation is not to please people but to have God’s approval. His main goal is to defend the gospel from distortions. Curses don’t win friends, but Paul is clear whose approval meant most to him. Paul did not have a need to be liked, to be “popular.” Being on God’s side was what mattered most to him. Who do we serve? Our allegiance to Christ should come first.
We may want to write out verse ten as a reminder of Who we’re really working for. God is pleased with us, even if no one else is. Let’s not seek to commend ourselves in other people’s eyes. This is also a verse to embrace when we’re pressured to compromise our convictions. Let’s live for God, come what may.
We’re living in “the land of the free”, yet our coveted freedom is often an excuse to live lawlessly. We know many people who are not free; they live trapped by fear, imprisoned by discontent, enslaved by addiction and lust…and Jesus wants to deliver them, to loosen their chains. He saves people from "graceless legalism and obedienceless grace" (Scottie Smith). We are free to live for Christ!