“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 – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 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! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! 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.” Galatians 1:6-10
Paul was dumbfounded. Why would anyone choose a different gospel from the Gospel of grace that was freely given through Jesus Christ? And yet, they were being swayed by a different message. Haven’t we all been in similar situations? Either the one flabbergasted or the one swayed? By and large, we are responsible for our own actions but others can throw us into confusion. And that is exactly what was taking place among the Galatians. Paul said they must choose the Gospel proclaimed to them or the message that the others proposed. The Galatians couldn’t ride the fence, couldn’t remain indecisive, or have it both ways. They had to make a choice.
Who are these agitators, Judaizers, or opposers? We must be careful not to make assumptions that every instance in scripture of those who oppose the Gospel message are the same group of people. Christianity was in its initial growth and was widely regarded as a sect among Judaism. They were being confronted on many sides by those who held different beliefs. If we take a glance forward in scripture to Galatians 2:4 and Galatians 2:12, these two verses refer to opposers. We could read them as the same group but we could also regard them as different groups from those throwing the Galatians into confusion. Galatians 2:4 refers to a group of false believers. Galatians 2:12 refers to those who have come from James. And in today’s passage, we read of a third described group. This group is comprised of those who were perverting the Gospel and throwing the believers in Galatia into confusion. Who are these men? Different groups or the same group spoken of in different ways by Paul? We must take care not to read into scripture what is or is not there.
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…” Galatians 3:1
“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” Galatians 5:7
“I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.” Galatians 5:10
From these cross-referenced passages, we learn that Paul did not know who was causing all of the problems in this church. Paul may have an idea but we are not privy to that information. The likelihood of us as readers knowing the real identity when Paul does not is slim. Therefore, we need to focus on the little we do know. J.D.G. Dunn points out that “Paul always refers to the troublemakers in the third person, while addressing his converts in the second person.” Also, the letter is addressed to his converts questioning why they are being thrown into confusion. So, the opposers are not members of the Galatian church. These men in another citation found in Galatians suggests that the Galatians needed to hold to circumcision and Jewish feast days. Therefore, “it is highly likely that the agitators were both Jews and also Christians.” Paul’s remarks are addressed to his converts and not those in opposition throughout this letter. Perhaps the Galatians understood the implications of their choices but also equally possibly is the suggestion that the Galatians were naive and young in their faith and didn’t quite understand the implications of their choices. “Paul’s address to the Galatians then is attempting to make some midcourse corrections in the thinking of the converts by making clear the implications of what being circumcised and keeping the Law would mean and imply, especially what it would mean about the cross, about the Holy Spirit, about faith, about justification, about the Christian community and the like.”
Their message was a different gospel from the one Paul had preached to the Galatians previously. According to our passage for today, he saw it as no gospel at all. Paul preached a message of grace which did not require works of the law (the Mosaic Law). Their ‘gospel’ advocated that the Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised (Galatians 5:2) and also that they needed to observe special days, months, seasons, and years on the Jewish calendar( Galatians 4:10). Paul preached a message of freedom from the burdens of the law. We can never earn the favor of God. God’s favor is given freely. The point is not what we have done for God but what He has done for us. We are not able to save ourselves by adhering to rules and regulations. We are freed by love. By placing themselves back under the rules and regulations of the law, the Galatians were in danger of losing the freedom that comes from the Gospel of grace and falling into apostasy.
Some scholars believe Paul’s apostolic status is the issue in the letter to the Galatians. But I side with those who see the issue at stake is the Gospel message. These scholars see Paul’s status only called into question indirectly. “It was the adequacy of his message to guide the Galatians in how they should live which was in doubt, ….” Paul, in this letter, tries to speak to them at their crossroads moment and show them how to move forward. “This rhetorical piece is not about ‘getting in’ or even about ‘staying in’ but about how Christinas should ‘go on’, and especially how they should not ‘go off’ the right track and so commit what Paul views as apostasy.” Paul will use this letter to try and convince them to remain on the right road. Interestingly, the struggle and obstacle to the faith comes from within the church not from outside the church. The use of a present tense verb in Galatians 1:6 also indicates that the Galatians had not completely left the faith yet but were in the process of transitioning away from the true Gospel. “Paul speaks here of leaving someone behind (the one who called you) in exchange for something (a different Gospel). The agitators were not offering a different God or Christ or Spirit … they were offering a different message.”
These people of Galatia are Paul’s spiritual children. He cares for them and feels strongly that they not be led astray from the true message that he gave them. I think we can infer his passion and his great concern for them from Galatians 1:8,9. He repetitively speaks of those teaching falsehood to them to be eternally condemned. The Greek transliterated word is anathema. The idea is something bound under a curse and set aside for destruction. By repetition, Paul reinforces the seriousness of the situation to the Galatians. He wants to get their attention and snap them back to reality away from the message they are entertaining.
Paul brings this idea to summation in the form of two rhetorical questions. He wants to persuade them but he will not tickle their ears with the things they wish to hear. He will not people please for anyone’s sake for he is a servant of Christ. Paul will please only Christ. I’ll conclude with this question to ponder posed by Dr. Ben Witherington in his commentary;
“What would it mean for the church once again to take seriously its commitment to a definite Gospel message centered on the definitive saving work of Christ?”