You’re sitting in church listening to the pastor. His sermon is typical of most you have heard through the years: sometimes he scales the rhetorical heights and leads you to emotional highs, and once in a while he bogs down in minutiae and loses you in details. In between, he “shells the corn,” as we used to say on the farm to indicate someone doing a job well but not spectacularly.
Paul’s Epistle to the Galatian churches has its emotional highs and also bogs down in places with theological details. Anyone attempting to teach the six chapters to his congregation will want to work hard and prepare well if he wishes to keep the people with him during the slower, heavier sections.
The most fun thing for a pastor to do–this is just my opinion–is to decide not to give his people a verse-by-verse study but to preach Galatians’ high points. He will “fill in the cracks” between the sermons with enough contextual material to get across the essence of the book. The advantage is he can take the epistle in bite-size portions. The disadvantage–well, the major one–is that he will be teaching the epistle piecemeal and not everyone will be present for all the sermons.
That said, here are my candidates for the ten best verses or passages in Galatians. If I were pastoring, these would be the basis for my series of ten sermons from this epistle. A word of explanation: The commentary here is not intended to be a sermon, but merely insights and other material you may find helpful.
1. Chapter One: Verses 8-9. The Gospel and Only the Gospel.
Word study: In verse 6, Paul is amazed these people are being pulled into a “different” gospel, then he adds, “not that there is another gospel.” “Different” and “another” are heteros and allos in the Greek. (The first means a different kind altogether and the second means of the same kind. When Jesus said He was sending “another Comforter” in John 14:16, He used allos to mean a Comforter of the very same type as He.)
Concerning Paul’s statement in verse 8–fully repeated in verse 9–Ralph Earle writes: Either Paul was a bigoted egotist (to say such a thing), a fanatical fool, or else he had a valid and overwhelming consciousness of a divine inspiration that certified the infallible source of his message. Nineteen centuries of Christian history have proved that the latter was the case. The authority of Paul’s gospel is authenticated by the transformation it has wrought in millions of men and women who have heard and obeyed it. (Dr. Earle’s book, “Word Meanings in the New Testament,” is the source for these and the follow word studies.)
“When (Guiseppe) Verdi produced his first opera in Florence, the compose stood by himself in the shadows and kept his eye on the face of one man in the audience–the great Rossini. It mattered not to Verdi whether the people in the hall were cheering him or jeering him; all he wanted was a smile of approval from the master musician. So it was with Paul. He knew what it was to suffer for the Gospel, but the approval or disapproval of men did not move him…. Paul wanted the approval of Christ.” (Warren Wiersbe, “Be Free,” his commentary on Galatians)
2. Chapter Two: Verse 20. My New Life in Christ.
British missionary and commentator Alan Cole (Tyndale Commentaries) writes: “Calmer water has been reached now. Paul will try to explain more clearly this spiritual experience of his that has involved a revulsion from the law (to which he had after all devoted the best years of his life). The Jew could think of a Rabbi wedded to the Torah in much the same way as a medieval churchman might regard a biship as wedded to the Church. What unfaithfulness is this to leave Torah and seek a new bride? Elsewhere, Paul will use this ‘marriage’ metaphor with effect (see Romans 7:3). Here, although Galatians is in many respects the ‘rough draft’ of Romans, he does not actually use the analogy. But the psychological problem is still the same. How can he explain this change, this revulsion?”
“In many ways, this is one of the central passages of Galatians. It is, indeed, a text frequently used by preachers, but it is important to realize that it is not so much an exhortation to personal sanctification as a powerful argument for the total sufficiency and efficacy of the work of Christ…. But what does he mean when he says I am crucified with Christ, or better, ‘I have been crucified with Christ?’…. He means that as the death of Christ marked a total change in the relationshipof Christ to all things, so it did for Paul. The cross was, for Christ, a complete break with this life. … It is Christ living in him now…. Christ is the sole meaning of life for him now; every moment is passed in conscious dependence on Him, to whom he looks for everything.”
3. Chapter Three: Verse 13. Redeemed from the Curse.
Word study: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” (Deuteronomy 21:23) “Tree” is xylon, found 20 times in the New Testament. Usually, it’s translated “tree” as in Revelation 22:19, the tree of life. However, the first 5 times it’s used in the NT, it refers to “staves” or “clubs,” connected with the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane. The basic meaning of xylon is “wood.” (In Acts 16:24, the word translated “stocks” is this word. And in I Corinthians 3:12, it’s the word used in “wood, hay, and stubble.”) The normal Greek word for tree was dendron.
Why does this matter? Because Jesus died on a cross, not what we normally think of as a “tree.” However, three times in Scripture, xylon is used for the cross of Jesus: Acts 5:30; 10:39; and 13:29.
Crucifixion, you may recall, was not a Jewish form of execution but Roman. Stoning was the Jewish form. So, why is the reference to “hanging on a tree” found in Deuteronomy? Because the Jews would sometimes take the body of a person who had been stoned and hang it from a tree until sundown as a lesson to all who passed that way.
4. Chapter Three: Verse 28. We’re All One in Christ.
Warren Wiersbe wrote: “‘All one in Christ Jesus’–what a tremendous claim! The law created differences and distinctions, not only between individuals and nations, but also between various kinds of foods and animals. Jesus Christ came, not to divide, but to unite. This must have been glorious news for the Galatian Christians, for in their society slaves were considered to be only pieces of property; women were kept confined and disrespected; and Gentiles were constantly sneered at by the Jews.”
“The Pharisee would pray each morning: ‘I thank Thee, God, that I am a Jew, not a Gentile; a man, not a woman; and a freeman, not a slave.’ Yet all these distinctions are removed ‘in Christ.'”
“This does not mean that our race, political status, or sex is changed at conversion; but it does mean that these things are of no value or handicap when it comes to our spiritual relationship to God through Christ. The law perpetuated these distinctions, but God in His grace has declared all men to be on the same level that He might have mercy upon all men (Romans 22:25-32).”
5. Chapter Four: Verses 4-5. We’ve Been Adopted.
Word study: Redeem is the Greek word exagorazo. Since agora is the word for a Greek marketplace and ex means “out of,” the idea is clear. To redeem means “to buy out of the marketplace.” We might say, “To buy back” or “To take off the market.” Earle says the word was often used for ransoming slaves.
Adoption is the word huiothesia. As with so many other Greek terms, this is a compound word, formed by huios (son) and thesis (to place or put). Result: In Jesus Christ we have been bought back from sin’s slavery and adopted into the household of God as His sons.
Many have written about the Roman custom of adoption. Instead of our practice of bringing newborns into our families, the Romans would frequently adopt adults in order to give the paterfamilias an heir. (There! I’ve always wanted to work paterfamilias into a sentence!) So, Paul says we are no longer slaves but sons!
Some women in the audience may trip on the concept of becoming “a son.” But since they were the only ones able to inherit under Jewish law–I think I’m right on that–the Lord is saying all who are in Christ are full heirs. It has nothing to do with sexuality or male/female identity.
Dr. Wiersbe writes, “It is unfortunate that many translations of the New Testament do not make a distinction between children of God and sons of God. We are the children of God by faith in Christ, born into God’s family. But every child of God is automatically placed into the family as a son, and as a son he has all the legal rights and privileges of a son.”
We become children of God by regeneration, but sons of God by adoption.
Wiersbe contrasts the situation of the slave and the son:
–The son has the father’s nature but the slave does not.
–The son has a father but the slave has a master.
–The son obeys out of love but the slave obeys out of fear.
–The son is rich while the slave is poor.
–The son has a future while the slave does not.
6. Chapter Five: Verse 14. The Law in One Sentence.
Loving one’s neighbor as himself “solves every problem in human relations” (Wiersbe). The person who loves others will not steal from them, lie about them, envy them, or hurt them intentionally. “Love in the heart is God’s substitute for laws and threats.”
Wiersbe says liberty + love + service to others. However, liberty – love = license (slavery to sin).
There is an ancient story of a husband who gave his wife a long list of chores he expected her to do every day. One day he died. Sometime later, when the wife had remarried, she found that old list and made a discovery. The things which the first husband had demanded from her she was now doing for the second husband out of love. Love is far better than law.
7. Chapter Five: Verses 22-23. The Fruit of the Spirit.
We will appreciate the nine qualities that make up the fruit of the Spirit more if we first contrast them with the “works of the flesh” that precede them. Wiersbe divides those into three categories of sins: sensual, superstitious, and social.
I like to point out that Paul did not call these “fruits” but “fruit.” They are not apples and pears and oranges, but all the product of one tree: the Holy Spirit. So, we may look for all nine qualities to spring forth in our lives as we grow in the Lord, and not just one or two.
Dr. Wiersbe writes: “The contrast between works and fruit is important. A machine in a factory works, and turns out a product, but it could never manufacture fruit. Fruit must grow out of life, and in the case of the believer, it is the fruit of the Spirit.”
The qualities that make up the fruit of the Spirit describe the character of Christ. Our object is to become like Him, and this is the method God uses.
Once again, Wiersbe has a division of these qualities: the first three are Godward, the second three manward, and the final three selfward.
8. Chapter Six: Verses 7-8. The Law of Sowing and Reaping.
I grew up on the farm. The laws of sowing and reaping are ingrained into farmboys from the beginning. As I recall, they go like this:
–You reap what you sow. (Question: What do I want to reap? Then, that’s what I should sow.)
–You reap more than you sow. (Question: How much do I want to sow? The size of the harvest will depend on the amount of seed I sow.)
–You reap after you sow. (Question: Am I willing to do the work between sowing and reaping, and am I willing to wait for the harvest?)
The most amazing thing many of us will ever encounter is people who sow wild oats, then expect a righteous harvest. They spend their lives in pleasure pursuits, denying themselves nothing that would feel good/look good/taste good, and flouting every law of God. Then when illness comes or financial ruin or even death knocks, they look heavenward and wonder God is, as though He has reneged on a promise to them.
I was Stew’s pastor, I suppose. His family came to church and he was a nominal member, although I rarely saw him in the congregation. As a college student, he seemed to devote his every waking hour to self-indulgence and having fun. One night while drunk, he wrapped his car around a tree beside the highway, breaking half the bones in his body and killing the young woman with him. In the hospital, he said to me, “Brother Joe, why did God do this?” I said, “My friend, God had nothing to do with this. You did this all by yourself.”
Dr. Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, used to say that the churches of New Orleans wanted to harvest in a field that they have not sown down with the Gospel. In the five-plus years since Katrina, when untold thousands of God’s people came to the city to help rebuild and to preach the good news of Jesus, Dr. Kelley now says no city in America has been so sown with the gospel as ours. Now, we pray for the harvest of righteousness.
9. Chapter Six: Verse 9. The Danger of Quitting Too Early.
There is a promise here: In due season we shall reap. But the condition means everything: If we faint not (or do not quit). Therefore, there is an encouragement: Let us not be weary in well doing. “In due season” refers to the timing of God.
Here in New Orleans, in the years following Hurricane Katrina, we spoke of people having Katrina fatigue. They were tired of having to deal with a broken city, deserted neighborhoods, government regulations, rebuilding efforts, and a thousand related problems. Non-profit organizations speak of people having compassion fatigue, after which no emotional appeal can make them volunteer to help or open their wallets.
One of the chief causes of fatigue in the Lord’s work is a faulty relationship with Christ. When I’m not prayed up and scriptured up, I find myself working in the flesh. And because the work of the Lord is so demanding, I will use up what small resources I have in a hurry and run out of strength. Only by staying connected to the One whose resources are unlimited can I “run and not be weary, walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
No one knows how many Christian workers have grown discouraged and left the field at the very moment the Holy Spirit was prepared to send a great harvest. Perhaps this will be one of the unveilings we are privileged to see after the Lord’s return.
10. Chapter Six: Verse 17. What My Scars Say About Me.
Word study: Scars is the Greek word stigma, which comes from a word meaning “to prick” or “tattoo” or “to mark with a sharp instrument.” One scholar wrote, “Branded marks were carried by domestic animals, slaves, criminals, and sometimes soldiers.” Since Paul considered himself a slave of Jesus, we might interpret this verse as Him saying, “I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus.”
Clearly, Paul refers to his scars. Go back to II Corinthians 11:22-27 for Paul’s litany of hardships he had endured in the work of the ministry. Many of these would have left him physically scarred for life, especially the beatings, whippings, and stonings.
Dr. Wiersbe writes, “There was a time when Paul was proud of his mark of circumcision, but after he became a believer, he became a ‘marked man’ in a different way. He now gloried in the scars he had received and in the suffering he had endured in the service of Jesus Christ.”
In a small group setting–this is not something that can be done in a worship service–invite people to share with the rest of the members how the scars on their body tell the story of the lives they have lived. I have a “frown” scar between my eyebrows made when the funeral home’s lead car slammed into a pickup truck that had run the redlight. My head broke the dashboard.
I have a “V” scar on my left index finger from the time as a preschooler when I reached up to the stove and took hold of a hot skillet. The scar to the right of my eye is from the same period when a brother was chasing me and I fell onto the broken rim of a galvanized wash tub and was severely cut.
The huge scar down the left side of my hip–fortunately covered perfectly by swim trunks–is the result of major surgery as a 9-year-old.
Our scars form a permanent record of the life we have lived. Paul’s scars told of his devotion to the Lord Jesus. What do ours say of us?