Sometimes a weather person on TV seems to be filling air time. But, were you in North Carolina today, there would be a different tone as Florence moves inland. The language becomes terse, almost telegraphic. He or she is trying to convey the essential information you need—because your life depends on it. In Galatians 1:1-5 the Apostle Paul is terse—because eternal issues hang on what he says.
Listen to Christ’s messenger. This is a “not” letter from the apostle. An apostle is a “sent one.” His authority is not his own but that of his sender. An insult to an ambassador is an insult to the country which sent him. Paul’s apostleship was not from man. the source of his authority was not human, contrary to allegations made by false teachers in Galatia. (Note that Paul does not hesitate to stress the negative when necessary.) Paul’s apostleship was not even by man. Man was not even the means of commissioning Paul. Paul is countering allegations of having a derived apostleship, see 1:11-2:21. Paul defends his apostleship because that is a vector of attack by false teachers against the gospel. “May God send us men who are not deceived, men who will respond to the forces of unbelief and compromise…. The Epistle to the Galatians is a polemic, a fighting Epistle from beginning to end. What a fire it kindled at the time of the Reformation! May it kindle another fire in our day—not a fire that will destroy any fine or noble or Christian thing, but a fire of Christian love in hearts grown cold!” (J. Gresham Machen, Machen’s Notes on Galatians, p. 8).
Paul is the messenger of the risen Lord. The sharp contrast between man and Christ is an indication of the deity of Christ. The Father and the Son are co-active in salvation. Paul emphasizes Christ’s work, precisely what was being attacked in Galatia. Paul writes with other brothers. Paul focuses, not just on the person of Christ, but especially on his work. It is the risen Christ, the Lord whom the Father had raised from the dead, who confronted Paul on the road to Damascus and commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles. And that resurrection is crucial to Christ’s work in rescuing us from the present evil age. Just as much as Jeremiah or Isaiah focused on their office as prophet, Paul defends his appointment by the risen Christ, for he is Christ’s messenger.
The letter is to the churches of Galatia—and to you. Galatia was a Roman province in what is now central Turkey. There is debate whether the “churches in Galatia” refers to ethnic Galatians in the northern part of the province, in which case Paul would have visited them on his third missionary journey, or to churches in cities such as Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, which he planted on his first missionary journey. The question doesn’t change the message of the book though it affects details of understanding historical references and the dating of the book. What this greeting lacks is a section of thanksgiving to God for his work among the recipients, which you find in most of Paul’s letters. The error is so urgent, that Paul immediately gets to the heart of the issue. The false teachers, as you can understand from the letter, are often called Judaizers. Though agreeing with Paul on many points, they insisted that to be God’s people, you not only needed to trust in Christ, but you also needed certain additional things—in their case keeping the ceremonial law. But the principle Paul defends is crucial, making this epistle an important one during the Reformation, and continuing to be crucial for you in understanding the gospel.
Christ gave himself for you. Grace and peace are yours. A typical letter in the Greek speaking world would include the term, “Greetings.” Paul changes it slightly, and writes, “Grace.” A Jewish letter would include the word “peace.” Paul adopts it, not just as a casual greeting, but with the fullest sense of a righteous God being reconciled to his people. Together, the terms are not just a wish, or even a prayer, but Paul, as the Lord’s commissioned messenger, pronounces God’s grace and peace on the churches.
This happens because Christ gave himself to rescue you from the present evil age. His was a voluntary gift, truly grace. While we may think of this gift in connection with the incarnation (appropriately), Paul’s focus here is not on the incarnation, but on Calvary. He has in mind the reason for which the Word became flesh. He gave himself for your sins. The idea of “in behalf of” may seem strange, but you use similar language about a cold! He gave himself as the substitute for your sins, see 1 Corinthians 15:3. The vicarious atonement is the gospel. While there are parallels between Paul’s belief and that of the Judiazers at various points, the difference is salvation by grace through faith. The uniqueness of Christ’s work is at stake. Christ by his death and resurrection delivers you from the present age (which contrasts with the age to come, Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 1:21). The present age, in which you live, is evil. Yet you have been set free. Your salvation is a present reality. With the coming of Christ and his work, the age to come has entered this world. You belong to it, if you are in Christ. “[T]he new creation is that of Christ’s resurrection. For this reason the death of Christ is a turning point in the mode of existence of the old aeon. . . . Not only does Christ’s life in the flesh come to an end, but an all-important and all-embracing Transition takes place, namely, from the existence of the old to that of the new, from the old aeon to the new creation. By dying Christ has snatched his people away from the present aeon (Gal. 1:4).” (Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 66). All of this happens according to God’s will, his perfect, eternal plan.
Give God the glory. Heresy robs God of his glory. The Judiazing teaching did, as does any form of self-salvation. Give the glory to God alone. Praise him for his complete work of salvation. Thank God that, in Christ, he did what you are unable to do.
Paul is urgent. Listen to his message. Understand and appropriate the great gift Christ has given you. Be sure that the glory for your salvation goes only to God the Father and to the Son who gave himself for you.