Notes on Galatians

Southern Baptists across the land will be focusing on Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians during this winter of 2010-11. We’ll be posting a series of cartoons on the epistle which teachers and pastors may download free of charge and use in their sessions. Following are notes on Galatians which may be of assistance to teachers and pastors. They’re not always in order, as we’re adding comments over a period of several days. In no way are they intended to be exhaustive. Or for that matter, exhausting!)

1. Galatians is Romans’ Little Brother.

A couple of seasons ago, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans was the focus of this mid-winter study. A lot of people who had probably shied away from this fearsome book delved in and found Romans to be rich, nourishing, and delightful. They discovered that it deals at length with subjects Galatians considers more concisely.

The point being: “If you like Galatians, you will love Romans!” And vice versa.

2. Subject: Paul, an Apostle? hah!

In this and other epistles, Paul defends his apostleship against the attacks of those who say he arrived too late and was not there “from the beginning.” He does not dispute that he came late to the party. “As one born out of due time,” is how he put it in I Corinthians 15:8.

Paul points out that while he did not get his gospel from the apostles, he did spend the same amount of time with Jesus as they–three years (Gal. 1:17-18).

He is not a man-made apostle and needs not to look to any human agency for accreditation or affirmation (Galatians 1:1). This, we rush to note, is not a put-down of seminaries or Bible schools. Paul had received a great deal of rabbinical training under Gamaliel, the master teacher of his day, and was clearly a strong believer in education. Once he came to know Christ, the Holy Spirit built upon everything he had learned in his new ministry.

In the most extensive defense of his apostleship–the Second Epistle to the Corinthians–Paul does an on-side kick (reverse handoff? choose your favorite sports metaphor!) that completely takes his critics by surprise. He presents his resume’ in a reverse manner, listing not his awards and accomplishments, but his scars and hardships. II Corinthians 11:22-32 is a fascinating document, one that shouts to believers of all generations what to look for in authentic leadership.

The question then becomes not: “What have you accomplished for the Lord?” but more like “What has serving Christ cost you?”

“Paul’s Gospel” is the message he preached across the known world of his day. The reason we need to establish what he preached is because of the strong judgment he pronounces upon anyone preaching anything else (1:8-9)!

Orthodox Christianity–a loaded expression, I suppose–has traditionally held that the gospel Paul preached is the authentic Christian message. That’s why Romans in particular has held such a esteemed place in the history of this faith.

I have pointed out Galatians 1:8-9 to those who came to my door hawking another gospel although they were using identical words to the ones Scripture uses. Anyone preaching any gospel of salvation other than the one found in Galatians and Romans is incurring the wrath of God upon himself. “For neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12). In every case, the young perveyors of alternative religions standing inside my doorway have not had an answer to that passage.

3. Ours is Not a Derived Salvation or a Second-Hand Apostleship.

This is hinted at in the previous point, but needs elaborating.


A derived salvation would work like this: I receive my salvation directly from the Lord and in turn offer it to you. You take it, let it work in you, then you pass along your salvation to others. In effect, we all get farther and farther away from the Original Source, which is Jesus Himself, as the power and message are diluted and watered down at each stage.

That is not how authentic salvation works. Each of us comes to Jesus directly–although, with the assistance of people who bring the Word, share their testimony, encourage us, and pray for us–and we begin a personal relationship with Him.

There is no second-hand salvation. (I’m recalling the townspeople of Samaria who told the “woman at the well” that at first they believed in Jesus because of her testimony. “But now we have met Him for ourselves and know that He is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world!” John 4:42)

Nor is salvation a man-made thing. The Apostle John makes this point when he writes, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

Likewise there is no derived apostleship. The business of “apostolic succession” is bogus. (This teaching states that the original apostles placed their hands on some who placed their hands on some who placed their hands on others, and so forth, down to the present day. As though that conveyed something of God not available in any other way.)

We believe the fellow in a remote village who has never met a preacher or seen a Christian, but who finds the Word of God and reads it and believes, may become just as authentic a preacher of the Word when God calls him and the Holy Spirit anoints him as anyone in history.

4. From Start to Finish, Salvation is About Faith.

Paul’s burden, the one that drove him to write this letter in the first place, is that the Galatian Christians have fallen prey to the heresy that, while we start the Christian journey by faith, we live it by works.

Such reasoning goes like this: It is true that Jesus died for us and paid for our sins. We come to Him in faith. Salvation is by grace through faith. However, there are any number of works we must do in order to please God after we have been saved. So, being perfected in the faith means a life of good works.

The list of “required works” varies from person to person, from culture to culture, from religious group to religious group. In Southern Baptist life, the list might involve attending church three times a week, reading one’s Bible every day, tithing his income, and sharing his faith. In other denominations, the required actions for pleasing God may involve contributing far more than a tithe, devoting many hours of knocking on doors each week to pass out literature, and spending large amounts of time in studying doctrine.

In Paul’s day, that list for some included keeping the Old Testament Law. To some in the churches of the Roman province of Galatia, it meant the male members of the flock should receive circumcision.

This is why so much of Galatians and Romans focuses on the believers’ relationship with the Old Testament Law.

For in it (i.e., the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ (Romans 1:17) From the starting line to the finish line, the race of the believer is lived by faith in Jesus Christ alone.

5. Evidence that It’s All About Faith: Abraham.

Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. (Genesis 15:6; also Galatians 3:6 and Romans 4:3)

Since this testimony about Abraham came hundreds of years before the Law of Moses was given, this ought to settle the issue. There has never been any other way of salvation than by faith. Even the Old Testament teaches justification by faith.

The just shall live by faith. This line from Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted in Romans 1:17 and here in Galatians 3:11.

You will recognize that this truth furnished the spark for the conflagration that became the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was studying Galatians and Romans when the Holy Spirit used this truth to seize his heart and captivate his mind. Later, Luther’s writings on Romans influenced others who became legendary leaders in the Christian movement.

He goes on to point out that the true children of Abraham are those possessing faith in Christ. (see Galatians 3:9)

6. Sorry, Charlie. There is No Other Gospel.

In Galatians 1:6-7, Paul refers to the corruption that was requiring believers to keep the law as the “other” gospel these believers have bought into.

Then, he corrects himself.

Knowing that “gospel” (euangelion in the Greek) literally means “good news,” he says it’s not good news at all. A message of salvation by good works is a sentence of death. It’s a sure recipe for misery, a guarantee of failure, a dispute of the adequacy of the cross, an insult to God, a concoction from the perverse mind of wayward men. If salvation is won by works, Heaven will be empty.

The gospel of grace speaks of God’s provisions for us in Christ, while a message of works speaks of man’s achievements by his own efforts. The gospel says, “Look what Christ did,” while the works-message says, “Look what I am doing!”

A great question to bring to any religion, no matter how attractive it may sound, is: Where is the good news? The next question, then, becomes: On what basis?

To the nocturnal shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields, the angel said, “I bring you good news of a great joy.” Only a salvation by grace through faith is good news; anything less is a death sentence.

7. Angels Prove Nothing.

One wonders how many alternatives to Christianity have duped their followers by the appeal that “an angel appeared and told me so.” We can think of several.

Satan himself is an angel, albeit a fallen one. And so are his demons.

Paul said Satan sometimes appears as an “angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14).

Because someone shows up with a testimony of angels, we are not to jettison our good sense and buy whatever they’re selling. Scripture warns us to “test the spirits” (I John 4:1).

The next time you are tempted to pick up another of those books on the newsstand telling of people’s encounters with angels, remember this. An angel proves nothing.

I find myself baffled by followers of one religion whose founder claimed to have met an angel who presented him with special spectacles through which he translated some golden plates to produce a holy book. Then, the angel went away and took the specs with him. Even though he claimed his translation was the most perfect book ever made, his religious descendants have occupied much of their time ever since in correcting its mistakes and changing its anachronisms. Even though the founder claimed to have shown the plates to a few witnesses, some of them later recanted.

All of this drives home Paul’s point when he stood in the court of King Agrippa to defend his ministry. Giving his testimony of the risen Christ, Paul says, “This thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

Anything “done in a corner” would have been unseen, unexamined, unverifiable, and therefore undependable.

8. Conflict: We’ve Had It From the First.

Without this confession in Galatians 2:11-16, we would never have known of Paul and Peter’s conflict. We can wish we had Peter’s side of the story. Paul’s account is that Peter was associating with the Gentile believers, thus endorsing their membership in the fellowship. Then, when the Jewish brethren arrived, Peter pulled away from the first group and associated only with them. He was being two-faced and hypocritical. Interestingly, Paul told him so to his face.

The underlying issues were that the Jewish brethren were insisting that true Christians have to be circumcised, keep the Sabbath, tithe, observe the Jewish feast days, and so forth. The Gentile believers had been assured by Paul this was not so.

John MacArthur writes, “Paul’s rebuke of Peter serves as one of the most dynamic statements in the New Testament on the absolute and unwavering necessity of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Peter’s apparent repentance acknowledged Paul’s apostolic authority and his own submission to the truth.” (The MacArthur Study Bible)

Modern believers should not panic when they spot their leaders disputing doctrine. It’s been this way from the beginning and “ever shall be,” I expect, so long as we are in these clay bodies and “see through a glass darkly.”

In our Southern Baptist Convention these days, the talk is about Calvinism. Our denomination has always been something of a hybrid, it seems to me, of Calvinism and Arminianism. How this will play out, no one knows. But in a dynamic fellowship where the new wine of the Spirit is always flowing and surging, we should not be surprised when doctrinal controversy bubbles to the surface from time to time.

Only when the wine is old and dead is there no lively discussion or controversy.

One wonders how much courage was required for Paul to confront Peter for his hypocrisy. It’s always easier and more peaceful to gloss over such abuses. The leader who speaks up runs the risk of being castigated for stirring up strife.

Let each of us affirm our primary loyalty to the Lord Jesus and not to denominational uniformity or a false peace based on cowardice.

9. Ever Notice? The Conflicts Dealt With in Scripture Remain!

The Old Testament book of Job deals with the fallacies of the prosperity gospel. Anyone reading all 42 chapters cannot but come away knowing God has His own way of doing things, has plans humans have no way of understanding, and is capable of using even evil for His own purpose. To issue a blanket promise that “living by faith in God guarantees health, wealth, and long life” is to contradict the strictest sense of Scripture and to insult the common sense of everyone listening.

The works gospel which Paul opposed and addressed in his epistles is alive and well today. After all, someone will say, “Doesn’t the Bible teach that we will be judged by our works?” It does, in Revelation 20:12,13. But one has to understand the various judgments, the nature of “works,” and the degrees of punishment for unbelievers–all of which are components of Scripture’s teachings concerning our final comeuppance.

Early believers struggled to decide whether they were entitled to take one another to courts of laws for grievances, to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and to divorce and remarry at will. In one form or other, all are issues still on the table in today’s church.

10. The Law? Freedom? Boring!

Pastors who teach these passages to their people will have to labor overtime to prepare appetizing meals for their congregations. Otherwise, the subject becomes boring to a great portion of the membership in a hurry.

This is red meat. Steak. Not milk, not pablum, not oatmeal, and not baby food.

We’ll say this. If you had labored and struggled for years under the confines of the law, discovering every day that it doesn’t work for you–doesn’t meet your deepest needs, doesn’t fill the void in your soul, doesn’t deal with your spotty past–you would be thrilled to find a gospel that works!

It’s like being let out of jail. (Not that I’ve done that. But I can imagine.)

Suddenly you are free. You are loosed from the shackles. The prison gates have broken open. The burdens are lifted from your back. You can dance and sing and laugh. You are free.

How good is that? Ask any new believer who has just come in out of the cold. Ask the people of West Germany how they felt in ’89 when the Berlin Wall was demolished.

11. Freedom–It’s Such a Difficult Concept.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1).

Freedom is such a difficult concept for humans in general and Christians in particular.

Politically, we wonder why people choose to live under restrictive regimes? We’re told that something like half the population of the world lives under repressive dictators and oppressive systems at any given time. Why do they stand for it?

In Iraq, a secular party has arisen to protest the pressure from religious extremists who want the country to live according to their interpretation of Islam. Billboards across Baghdad are proclaiming, “Liberty first of all.” Citizens are fascinated. No one has dared oppose the religious dictators to this extent before.

Religiously and spiritually, there is something in people that makes them want to live under strict rules. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because of the terrible responsibility that freedom brings. After the fall of Communism in 1989, Russia went through some tough periods of unemployment and economic hardships. People were heard to call out for a return to Stalinism. We in the Free World wondered if they had lost their minds. Did they not remember that Stalin had murdered some 30 million of their countrymen? But when one is hungry and miserable, nothing else matters except finding the next meal.

In the wilderness, miserable from the decision-making Moses was imposing on them, Israel recalled the sparse pleasures of Egypt. “We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (Numbers 11:5) True enough. However, they forgot the slavery and misery.

There is a security in shackles. Read on.

12. Four Questions to Law-Lovers.

In Galatians 4, Paul poses four questions to those who want to walk away from freedom in Christ and return to the slavery of Judaism.

a) “Why do you want to return to your shackles? (4:9)

Our answer is they did it for the security. However, I expect their answer would be: We don’t think of it as shackles or heavy burdens. Clearly, they had forgotten the hardships of that life.

b) “Where is that sense of blessing you had at first?” (4:15)

Paul remembers the Galatians as new believers. They had such joy and were so excited to experience new life in Christ with all its wonders. What had happened?

To the church at Ephesus, the Lord Jesus said, “I have something against you. You have left your first love.” (Revelation 2:4)

We remember the old couple who were chatting in the car. She: “You know, dear, I can recall when we used to sit so close together you couldn’t get a sheet of notebook paper between us.” He: “Well, I haven’t moved.”

c) “Why do you treat me as an enemy for telling you the truth?” (4:16)

Answer: because this is human nature when one brings an uncomfortable truth. It’s how life works. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Prov. 27:6)

d) “You who want to be under the law, why don’t you listen to it?” (4:21-31)

That is, why don’t you pay attention to what that means? Why don’t you be consistent?

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day wanted to put others under heavy burdens, but not themselves. (Matthew 23:4,13) This is the case with every cult leader I’ve ever heard about: they have one set of requirements for their followers, but live lavishly themselves.

One of the fascinating things about the severe political systems of our day–from Communism to radical Islam–is how the leadership forces the citizens to live under its strict rules while they themselves enjoy their freedom.

Some in our country say we would have a new day if Congress was forced to abide by the same rules they impose upon the citizenry.

In a fascinating passage (4:21-31), Paul draws a lesson from the wives and sons of Abraham. The two women–the slave Hagar and the freewoman Sarah–represent Mounts Sinai and Zion (which he calls “Jerusalem above”). The two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, represent sons of slavery and sons of freedom.

Paul concludes, “So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.” (4:31) A masterful conclusion and powerful argument.

13. What Really Counts.

In 5:6, Paul writes, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through you.” And then in 6:15, he says, “For neither is circumcision anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

What’s remarkable to me about these statements is that there is a tendency when one spends a lot of time arguing a theological point to magnify it beyond its proper dimensions. I have no trouble imagining Paul coming down hard on the uncircumcision point and driving all who disagree with him out the door. But he refuses to do that. He retains his focus and keeps his balance.

What really counts, he is saying, is that we are solidly Christian, no matter which side of this issue we come down on.

One could wish the defenders and attackers of Calvinism and Arminianism would be of the same mind.

14. Not Just Anyone Is Qualified to Do Rescue Work.

“When a man is caught in a trespass…restore him.” (6:1)

We are not to condemn the guy who falls into sin and neither are we to ignore him. We are to rescue him. But not just anyone is qualified for this critical work.

–Who can rescue the wayward lamb? “You who are spiritual.” We recall in I Corinthians 1 how Paul divides believers into two groups, the carnal and the spiritual. We may assume the spiritual are the mature, the godly, the strong.

–How is rescue work to be done? “In a spirit of gentleness.” This is sensitive work. It’s easy to do permanent injury here. Go slow, look for the Holy Spirit’s leading, pay attention to what is going on in the life of the wayward friend.

–Why these two restrictions (i.e., the spiritual only is to do this in a spirit of gentleness)? “Keeping your guard up, lest you too be tempted.” If one goes into a tavern to rescue a fallen friend, let us say, he is on slippery ground here and must be careful. If he enters a divided home where the perpetrator (I’m tired of calling him a wayward lamb–lol) is terrorizing a family, this is a danger zone. Law enforcement people know that many police have gone to assist families and in doing so have been killed by the terrorizer.

So, be strong. Be gentle. Be careful.

15. Fulfilling the Law.

A couple of verses stand out. In 5:14, Paul writes, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” And in 6:2, he says, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.”

We will want to be careful here and not make Paul say more than he did. Both the OT law and the law of Christ are about love. Love is their essence, true enough. But we must not reduce the teachings of Christ and all His commands to a single kind of loving act, even if it might appear Paul is encouraging this.

It’s good to note that in 6:2, he instructed believers to “bear one another’s burdens” and in 6:5, he adds, “Each one shall bear his own burdens.” That is not contradictory at all even if some have found it to be so.

I can bear my own burden but reach out and assist you. Meanwhile, you are carrying your own load, but reaching out to help your neighbor. That’s the idea. And when we achieve this balance of personal responsibility and neighborly love, the Lord looks at us and feels a sense of pride. “Now, that’s what I’ve been asking for!” He says.

16. The three crosses of 6:14.

“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

–Jesus was crucified on the cross.

–The world was crucified to me. It is dead to me and offers nothing of interest.

–I have been crucified to the world. We are strangers, and I am dead to its allure.

That’s the plan, at any rate. This verse is a great model for every believer. We may not achieve it in this lifetime, but we keep aiming in that direction.

17. The question of the Jerusalem Council in Galatians chapter two.

It’s easy while reading through Galatians to come to chapter 2 where Paul mentions a conference in Jerusalem to establish some of these questions and decide he’s referring to the what is known as “The First Church Council,” as found in Acts 15.

Apparently, these are not the same events.

Scot McKnight, writing in the NIV Application Commentary on this passage, cites a number of reasons for believing that the Galatians 2:1-10 meeting in Jerusalem came earlier than the Acts 15 larger council. He believes the first meeting is referred to either in Acts 11:30 or 12:25.

Some of the reasons McKnight gives for these being separate events are:

–the first meeting (Gal. 2) is a private consultations held with the church leaders whereas the later one (Acts 15) is public.

–The chronology of Galatians 2:1 fits more with Acts 11:30 and 12:25 than with Acts 15. Why? Because Paul says “fourteen years later” for the first meeting, whereas the Acts 15 session seems to have come 16 or 17 years after his conversion.

–Notice in Galatians 2 he omitted mentioning the council’s decision (see Acts 15:22-29). The best reason is that it had not occurred yet.

–The decision of the leaders (Galatians 2) from the private session was that Paul was doing right and he and his people should continue, although being sure to “remember the poor.” (2:10) Since the issue of the poor in Jerusalem was a major topic at the time of Acts 11 and 12, it makes sense that this was the focus of that session.

My own addition to this discussion is this. By the time the subject had come to a boil (necessitating the Church Council of Acts 15), Paul must have been glad that he had earlier gotten the church leaders in Jerusalem to go on record as supporting his ministry. Without that, and with the pressure from the Judaizers on them, there is no telling what the church leaders would have done. It could have been bad.

18. Summarizing the First Two Chapters, Then: Paul’s Gospel Was Not Dependent on Anyone but the Lord.

–Not on human teaching. 1:13-17

–Not on the Judean churches. 1:18-24

–Not on the Jerusalem pillars. 2:1-10

–And not even on the Apostle Peter. 2:11-21

19. The Best Outline on Galatians.

The least-read part of any commentary is the outline of the book, always to be found near the front. And yet, when it comes to getting a handle on understanding a book of the Bible, few things help more. If an outline really fits–if it’s natural and clear and seems to be what the sacred writer had in mind–you have been handed a great gift.

I no longer have a dozen commentaries on eac book of the Bible. In 2004, on leaving my last pastorate, I gave away several thousand books to young pastors. Then again five years later, on my actual retirement and transition to this itinerant ministry of preaching/writing/cartooning, once again, I gave away hundreds of books and several sets of commentaries. However, consulting the ones I still own, here is an outline on Galatians which I commend to you—

Chapters 1-2 — Paul’s PERSONAL story on the authenticity of his apostleship, ministry, and message.

Chapters 3-4 — His THEOLOGICAL reasonings for the authenticity of his message.

Chapters 5-6 — His PRACTICAL insights on how this message is to be authentically lived in the world.

One scholar calls these three divisions: History, Theology, and Ethics.

Is an outline important? I’m probably the last person to ask because, being right-brained, my sermons are often disorganized and perhaps hard to follow. My desk is always cluttered. The trunk of my car is a scandal. (When I clean out the trunk, I simply move the stuff into the garage. What does my garage look like? You do not want to know!)

And yet, I know from personal experience that if I can get a good handle on how a book of the Bible is organized, further study and teaching of the book are made much easier and far more effective.

That said, we need to add that not all books of the Bible seem to be outlineable. (Is that a word?) Some seem to have been hastily dictated and quickly sent forth into the world without bypassing the editor’s desk. The ideal, however, is for a book or epistle to open up like sections of an orange, and be as neatly divided. I think Galatians does that fairly well.

One thought on “Notes on Galatians

  1. Joe! You are doing it again! These notes on Galatians provide good “feeding” as am “feasting on the riches of His grace” in preparation of teaching this wonderful book. Thank you for being accessible.