An Important Announcement

Week of Sunday June 2 - Pentecost 2
Epistle: Galatians 1:1-12

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. 

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

I write to my former self: 

(There is the Paul who wrote the seven almost universally accepted genuine letters. (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon.) We should not assume, of course, that Paul himself might say of one of these, “Ah, but that was then! Now I think this.
There is the Paul(s) who wrote the three letters which many believe to be written by admirers seeking to interpret him, and perhaps tone him down, for their situation. (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians.) How much do they represent the true Paul to us, and how much did they misunderstand him? Why did they write?
There are three letters which the scholars generally agree which were not written by Paul. These are the two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus. Even a cursory reading can see the contrast between them and the genuine letters. There is no doubt they seek to reinterpret him as much as they admire him. My original article is here.)

There is more to say about Paul.

We are reading a first century Rabbi's thinking, written in Greek, translated into twenty-first century English, and influenced by twenty centuries of tradition. A similar shift of culture and language is present in the gospels, of course, but the gospels are stories. The story form of the Gospels seems to insulate—to somewhat protect—the thrust of the texts from our translations. It is not so easy for the translation of a single word to cloud the meaning. This situation is changed by the form of Paul's writing. A single word seems able to carry far more influence. I was stunned as I began to see the implications of this.

Galatians 2:16 is translated by the NRSV as "And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ..." There is a footnote which says "or the faith of Christ." The implications of this difference are not something I would wish to relegate to a footnote!!! By whose faith am I saved!?

When I read this long ago man Paul, I find places where he makes no sense at all. He cannot be interpreted using my logic. I am beginning to see this is not only a difference of culture. It is also that he is not writing material for me to argue with, or even to persuade me; instead, he is announcing something. He is trying to communicate an experience of God; a new experience.

J. Louis Martyn says,

... the Gospel has the effect of placing at issue the nature of argument itself. ...since the Gospel is God's own utterance, it is not and can never be subject to ratiocinative criteria that have been developed apart from it.

[Paul's understanding is that]... God has invaded the cosmos. Paul does not argue, then, on the basis of a cosmos that remains that remains undisturbed... [He] is not at all formulating an argument... that faith is better than observance of the Law. He is constructing an announcement designed to wake the Galatians up to the real cosmos... (Galatians J. Louis Martyn. Anchor Bible pp22-23)

We are used to debating with and being persuaded by arguments with which we share some common ground. Even in the gospels, we share a common humanity with the people in the stories. But here, in Paul, is a basic assumption that is quite at odds with twenty-first century self understandings. Paul believes "that all human beings are subject to powers beyond their control." (Galatians J. Louis Martyn. Anchor Bible pp23)

It's true that this is not news to many of us, although we may have a different understanding of such 'powers.' Yet even those of us who do realise how much we are shaped by external forces are effectively strangers to the concept that God has invaded our sphere of reality to overthrow those forces. We may assent theologically to such a statement, but we tend to live as though we were free agents. We are, as someone said, "functional atheists."

So I think to hear Paul—not to understand him—but to hear him, I need to suspend judgement. I need to accept his view of the cosmos, immerse myself in it, and see if I begin to experience the reality he is trying to announce to me.


This is how you begin a letter in Paul's time.

Paul, Under Secretary Dept of Chariots,
To our good friends and fellow citizens, the churches of Galatia:

In Galatians there are variations to this normal letter form. Paul states he is an apostle; a messenger sent, but not sent from some particular group of people or from any human agency, but through/by Jesus Christ and God the Father.... We are long used to this "bible talk" and so are tempted to read past it too quickly. Paul is beginning the letter with a very clear statement of his authority. He is sent by God. He is not merely an official writing from a committee. He is making a claim to speak for the highest authority.

Despite this singular authority, the letter is also coming from (literally) the brothers who are with him. Perhaps he is pointing out that he is not alone in his understanding of who he is and what he is announcing.

He is writing to the churches in Galatia. There is more than one congregation concerned. We read the word churches, and are inclined to think of the congregations with which we are familiar, but in this early document of the church, how much is church just a word, and how much do people still hear its root meaning: the ones called out, or called apart? Are we that kind of ekklesia?

Martyn notes that Paul's greeting to Galatia is somewhat sparse and cool compared to his other letters; eg to all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints. (Romans 1:7) He says Galatians has a "lean identification of the recipients, resulting in a tone of formality." pp 86

So from the first breath we are being told this is not a business letter. This is about things of God, although the tone is a little formal.

And then...

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

He wishes them well, but Grace to you and peace is no idle "G'day, mate. Have a good one..." In a world far less secure than the unusual bubble of almost idyllic security in which many we westerners live, to wish peace upon a person is a serious and deep blessing. It suggests a different possibility from the world in which we live.

God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ is not a pious cliché. It is well known that the Emperor Domitian styled himself as Lord and God. Paul is dead by then, (81-96CE) but it is clear that such a greeting by Paul has serious political overtones in an imperial system; especially when followed by 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age. This is hardly a vote of confidence in the current government. It might look like religious clap trap, but people have been gaoled and hung for less; the charge is treason.

It is not just that Jesus gave himself for our sins, to set us free from this evil age. This giving is according to the will of our God and Father. The emperors may not have been calling themselves "our Father" (Valerian did) but the claim of a different authority, and superior authority, from the state is clear. It is not an ambit claim; there is no hint of compromise in the beginning of this letter. The claims are absolute, whether read by the State, or by the Galatians.

The reason for Paul's terse and authority laden greeting is very soon clear.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel...

We don't yet know the details or exactly who comprise the people he calls some who are confusing you, but to turn away, so quickly, from the nonnegotiable claims we have just heard is serious! So serious that Paul says

even if we or an angel [Greek: messenger, angelos] from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

He immediately repeats himself.

As we have said before, so I now repeat...

This is a provisional curse in a culture where cursing was taken very seriously. We curse people lightly in our culture; it's an adjunct to bad tempered swearing. Ef you! may carry deeply visceral dislike. It rarely suggests that we are to be relegated from salvation back into the clutches of an evil age—and apparently with divine approval.

Martyn finds another implication in the text. He translates it as let him stand under God's curse. Paul very carefully does not do any cursing himself, which makes the import of the passage even greater.

Paul is angry.

10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Clearly someone has been suggesting that Paul has been preaching a 'soft and easy' gospel that really has been about making converts, by charming them perhaps, or in some other way appealing to them rather than the truth. Absolutely not! If I was about keeping people onside I would not be speaking like this! Neither would I be a slave of God if I were trying to get human approval.

The word he uses is doulos. We tend to use the phrase servant of Christ for christou doulos... but slave is preferable. It's one of those old words we need to relearn. For one thing, we live in a world in which slavery is all too common still; even in Australia women are held as sex slaves; servants in Australia are too much at liberty to say Ef you! and walk out. Paul is talking about being a slave of Christ. He has no choice in the matter. His obedience is absolute. He cannot be a people pleaser.

Here is the reason why.

11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, (Greek: brothers – adelphoi) that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Rhetorically he is reinforcing the claims of the first five verses of the chapter. But he is also making clear that this Gospel [literally: well-message] is not his idea. It's not some pop philosophy of the time. It is not even the result of years of distilled wisdom and thinking. It comes through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

In the last verse lies one more translation 'bomb.' In the Greek it says from the apokalupseos of Jesus Christ. Yes, it means revelation; a revealing. It means more. Martyn has translated the verse as: it came to me by God's apocalyptic revelation of Jesus Christ.

Apocalypse has all the overtones of a world about to be destroyed and renewed. It puts the words to set us free from the present evil age (1:4) in a monumental and chilling context. There were a variety of apocalyptic theologies at the time. Martyn (beginning p97) will suggest that the difference between these theologies is at the root of Paul's anger at the other teachers who are confusing you. (1:7) For now, for we distant readers who are still not sure what is going on, there is one more indication of the cosmic seriousness of Paul's letter to the Galatians.

How do we preach these verses? What do they say to us?

We speak of the Holy Bible. An old hymn prays words from the communion liturgy of the Mar Thomas Christians of South India

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
that holy things have taken....

Lord, may the tongues which Holy sang
keep free from all deceiving...

We sing these words with hope and desire to love and serve God well. But there is also another meaning for holy, which we too easily forget; perhaps we decry it because of the way the church has abused people. Holy should inspire a certain fear.

At Ernabella my friend David discovered a long forgotten magazine built into the hill above the old Mission House. It contained a large crate of dynamite; enough to demolish the house if it had exploded. The dynamite was 'sweating.' Such aged and sweating dynamite is very unstable and extremely dangerous. David gingerly carried it down the hill to a long truck, sat it as far back from the cab as he could, and drove the truck up to the tip with the slowest, most gentle crawl he could manage. He was sweating too!

When they detonated the crate, the echo seemed to roll around the valley for an age.

Paul might say to the people of Galatia, "Do you realise what an explosive Gospel you are handling—how holy it is? We are talking about ultimate things; the end of an age! This is serious!" And we might pause—read slowly enough—to wonder if we are hearing him. Or are we, from his point of view—functional atheists? What does it mean to be a slave of Christ in an evil age?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



This functionality requires the FormBuilder module