This week we are reading Galatians together as a church.
Galatians is written around the same time as the Corinthian letters and the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Paul had planted churches in Galatia on his second missionary journey, around 51 AD (Acts 16) and writes to them after hearing some distressing report of their progress or perhaps witnessing something when he returned there (Acts 18:23). In most of his other letters, Paul has a word of commendation or thanksgiving in his greeting. Galatians begins with a strong admonishment.
The passion of Paul's reprimand makes this letter instantly engaging. It has been long forgotten what this 'other gospel' was that the Galatians heard, presumably silenced by the work of Paul and the Church to do away with the false gospel. Paul reminds the Galatians that the message he gave them was 1. Revealed by Christ, 2. In agreement with the other Apostles and 3. That his Gospel had the same binding authority as the the preaching of the rest of the early Church. The implication being that whatever was being preached by the false teachers could not measure up to these standards of authority. For Paul, true doctrine isn't determined by a majority but by its demonstrable power, that power being witnessed to in the other early churches. This is why the correlation and support of the other Apostles was important, not because Paul was suggesting that truth is found in some majority.
This power which is experienced only through the Gospel is identified as the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul reminds them that they received power by believing in the Gospel, not by obeying laws. It is through faith that one becomes a child of Abraham and therefore anyone can be an heir of God's promise, the Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, and males and females (Gal 3:28). This is the marvelous power of the Spirit which Paul knows is only possible through faith in the Gospel. His forceful words are justified because this is a matter essential to the Kingdom of God: The reconciliation of all people together through God.
Paul's opposition of those who insist that to become a part of the Church one must obey some laws or customs is a reflection of the broad-reaching and inclusive nature of the Gospel invitation. To set laws up instantly excludes people from even hearing the Gospel and the Church ought to guard herself against such unnecessary stumbling blocks. However as we have read previously in the letters to the Corinthians, Paul is not opposed to order and discipline inside the Church and her public gatherings. Order is not the same as law-following: Order in Church serves the proclamation of the Gospel and the wellbeing of all. Human-conjured requirements kill the proclamation of the Gospel in every instance.
Paul recounts the sad state of the Galatian community before the Gospel was proclaimed to them. His concern is that since they have fallen away from the Gospel, they are far from the wonderful work that God had begun amongst them. Paul had experienced this in kindness he had been shown due to his weakness, possibly a disability or sickness which either afflicted him at that time or was a condition with which he lived (Galatians 4:13-15). The reconciliation is differing people groups and the kindness and charity being shown to a man who had some kind of physical affliction are, in Paul's mind, the in-breaking signs of the reign of God. To oppose false teaching therefore has a clear reality which is not about supporting the power of the Apostles or creating an earthly institution, but rather because Paul had been sent to spread the Gospel and witness to the kingdom of God.
In the last third of the letter Paul teaches about all the things which are possible through the power of the Spirit, a power accessed through faith and not by works. It is possible that the bewitching of the Galatians was the teaching that they could achieve freedom from sin through obeying the teaching of some other teacher, not by believing the Gospel.
Though it might seem as though Paul's doctrinal teaching in his letters is splitting hairs and far from Jesus' more concrete moral teachings and examples, his correcting of the Church is not about making them perfect or making them subservient to an elite group of clergy or Apostles. Rather the Church is pointed back to the source of everlasting life, Jesus Christ.
- Have we been deceived like the Galatians? Are we trusting in some law or power other than the Spirit of God received through the Gospel?
- How are we to respond to Paul's admonition?
- Who have we imposed laws and customs upon when we ought not?