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There Is a True Gospel - Introduction to Galatians

Are there people teaching a false gospel around us today? Um, yes.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Galatians 1

Christians must take the gospel absolutely seriously; we must not be fooled by “good sounding” alternatives. And we must be faithful to pass the true gospel to the world around us. What are we doing to safeguard our faith (and our family’s)? What not-truth/half-truth do we need to confront in our life this week?

I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. Galatians 1:6

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Fruit of the Spirit Is . . . Patience

How many times have you heard “patience is a virtue”? What do you associate patience with? My guess is that many will say it has to do with waiting. And that’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not how the Bible speaks of patience. When we say “waiting”, we’re really talking about personal inconvenience. But when the Bible talks about patience, it’s talking about endurance. Patience is about actively enduring opposition; there’s nothing passive about patience (“waiting” is passive). Patience is linked with perseverance. If you want the ultimate example, know that God is patient with us.


So when you pray for patience, you’re not just talking about waiting. You’re talking about being given a situation which requires you to endure. And that’s our tie-in with our first lesson in Galatians. The Galatians had been taught the truth about salvation, but they were already listening to new teachers with false ideas. Rather than test it out, they just went along with it. The Galatians had no patience for the truth, and Paul’s patience with them was sorely tried. (Don’t worry—the fruit of the Spirit is coming in Galatians chapter 5!)


Famous Not-Truths

We’ve said before that the best lies are the one’s that have a bit of truth in them. My personal favorite, as a kid, was going to the doctor and hearing the doctor say, “This will only hurt a little bit”. Yeah, right! Or how many times have you heard someone say “Have a nice day” and know they don’t mean it? Here are some funny not-quite-truths:

  • A 2x4 doesn’t actually measure 2” by 4” (it’s just 1.5” by 3.5”).

  • Peanuts aren’t really nuts! They’re legumes.

  • A koala bear isn’t a bear (it’s marsupial).

  • A palm tree isn’t a tree! (It’s a kind of grass)

  • “Swollen glands” aren’t glands at all but refer to lymph nodes.

  • Best of all: pink isn’t really a color. (Red and violet are on opposite sides of the spectrum, so they’re can’t be “mixed”; rather, pink is just a perception.)

History books are filled with almost-truths because every historian has to omit some information to write a coherent story. When they do it to promote an agenda (like the “official” histories of Russia or China, for example), it becomes a problem. Politicians are prone to almost-truths (and it’s not always their fault). George Bush said, “No new taxes.” Barack Obama said, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it.” (I found a site that’s pretty entertaining—www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter. That’s just for your enjoyment—I doubt you want to bring that up in conversation!)

But I want to challenge you to think of truths that were taken to false conclusions (like the one Paul was dealing with in Galatia: “God gave the Old Testament law [true] therefore we must still keep it as originally written [false]”).


These require you to be thoughtful:

  • Jews. “Jews were complicit in Jesus’ death [true] therefore we are justified in killing Jews [false].”

  • Germans. “Non-Germans have different appearance and ethic from Germans [true] therefore Germans are superior and should rule the earth [false].”

  • Africans. “Africa does not have the same education system or technology or religion as Europe [true] therefore we should enslave them [false].”

Those conclusions are so clearly flawed as to be laughable, and yet millions of people fell for them. And I'm not just talking about Nazi Germany. Those failures in logic applied to the Crusades, to the slave trade, and to other European empire-building projects. How did so many people fall for them over so many generations? Human beings are not good at being thoughtful and consistent. We fall for not-truths all the time. How did the serpent tempt Eve? By telling her a half-truth, and it wasn’t until it was too late that the lie became evident.


The three not-truths I mentioned led to the death of countless millions and resulted in the racial and cultural tensions that destabilize our country and world. We have half-truths in Christianity today. “Jesus loves all people” is true. “Jesus wants all people to stay the way they are” is not. “God wants all people to go to heaven” is true. “God brings all people to heaven” is not.


This is why Paul reacted so strongly to the not-truths the Galatian Christians were falling for. If they left the singular truth of the gospel, they would lose everything and threaten the future of Christianity (our only hope) for their children and neighbors. We need to be very careful about half-truths and not-truths and almost-truths. They’re too important to be flippant about.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the book of Galatians

This quarter, we’re covering Galatians and James. That might seem like a strange combination, but there is good evidence that these are the two earliest books of the New Testament. In other words, these address the most critical issues facing the “earliest church”, namely what is salvation? We will discover that they come from two different perspectives (Paul’s missionary mindset and James’s Jewish world), but they are very complimentary. If you want some homework, compare Galatians and Romans. In many ways, Romans is a fuller development of the outline Paul created in Galatians. It’s much more detailed, more thorough, and not as emotional (more reasoned?), but that should only make sense (assuming Galatians was written first).


Date, Purpose, and Recipients

You might have to go back to Acts for this (I believe this is all related to Acts 13-15, the first missionary journey and the fallout from it; those who disagree point to Acts 16:6 or 18:23 saying that Paul went to Galatia later, which really could mean anything):


Paul’s first missionary journey (47-48 AD) took him through southern Galatia. Galatia was a large province in Asia Minor, named for the Celts or Gauls who migrated to and conquered the northern part of the area before 300 BC. Rome took over in 189 BC, and they combined the Gaul land with the more populous Roman province to the south. But Rome had such respect for the Gauls that they gave this entire newly-formed province the name Galatia. The northern part of Galatia, with its rough terrain and poor access to trade routes, remained sparsely populated. The major cities (which Paul visited) were in the south. Many scholars today believe Paul wrote Galatians to those churches. That would date this letter before the Jerusalem Council (for reasons we’ll talk about when we get to chapter 2), making it Paul’s first letter. However, there are still many who believe that Paul wrote this letter to the descendants of the original Gauls living in northern Galatia. If so, that would make Galatians one of Paul’s last letters, being written after his final journeys into that area. Does it change the meaning of the letter? Not really, but it would change how we interpret some of Paul’s points. I take the view that this is an early letter to the southern churches.


What Is Galatians About?

The first major heresy the church fought was cultural in nature. As missionaries spread into Gentile territory, they had to ask the question whether or not new Gentile Christians also had to become Jews. Remember—all of the earliest Christians were Jews, so they might have taken for granted that all people had to follow Old Testament laws. Jews weren’t allowed to eat with people who didn’t keep the law (think about kosher rules and like). As Paul went deep into Gentile territory to plant churches, he didn't bring up Jewish cultural identity; he just preached the truths of the gospel: salvation is freely available in Jesus and cannot be obtained by keeping laws. But after Paul left, some teachers of Jerusalem (possibly from James, see Gal 2:12 compared with Acts 15) showed up, telling the Galatians that Paul was wrong. Christians must also keep the law of Moses in order to be saved.


When Paul heard about this, he immediately understood that salvation itself was at risk. If any new churches started believed that salvation was by faith and keeping the law, the cross of Christ would be made null. That’s where this letter comes from. But in particular, Paul identified three arguments made against him:

  1. These Judaizers said Paul wasn’t really an apostle. He hadn’t actually followed Jesus during Jesus’ ministry. Therefore, he didn’t have the same authority as the apostles. That’s why Paul goes into so much detail about his life and acceptance in Jerusalem, as well as his track record of faithfulness.

  2. These Judaizers said that Paul’s gospel was false (!) because he set aside the law of Moses, but Jesus Himself kept the law, so Paul was wrong. Paul replied by insisting (primarily from Abraham) that salvation was always about righteousness. But, righteousness was never about keeping laws (because no one can do that)—righteousness was always about faith.

  3. These Judaizers concluded that Paul’s false gospel would result in loose living and bad morals. (And they expected as much from Gentiles—which is just a form of racism.) But if true salvation was not about external observations but internal transformation (as Paul’s gospel said), then a true Christian can only grow toward Christ in the Spirit. Hence the fruit of the Spirit and those character qualities that embodied the law while giving true freedom in Christ.

In other words, this is a tremendous letter that cuts to the very heart of what a Christian is.


When we read James, we will see the perspective of this matter from a Jerusalem perspective (in the heart of old Jewish-dom). In fact, they say the same thing, but we will see what James thought needed to be emphasized. (More on that when we get to James.)



The Bible Project team gives the book a super-practical summary: Paul challenges the Galatian Christians to stop allowing controversial Torah observances to divide their church's congregation. Worded like that, we can easily apply that to our churches today: don’t let personal ideas, preferences, or traditions divide our church. (I think the purpose is more about the gospel than division, but they’re both important.)


Here is their excellent outline:

(Chapters 1-2): The gospel of the crucified Messiah . . .

(Chapters 3-4): . . . creates a new, multi-ethnic family . . .

(Chapters 5-6): . . . that is transformed by the Spirit.

And here’s how they summarize the heart of Paul’s argument against the “requirement” of the law: When people trust in Jesus, what’s true of Him becomes true of them. In other words, they don’t need someone to tell them what the law is because they have Jesus’ Spirit in them, showing them the way to live. And ultimately, through the Spirit, Jesus makes us into people who will love God and others and fulfill the law of the Messiah. It’s a very well-done summary that I think makes great sense of the book.

 

Part 1: Appointed by God (Galatians 1:1-2)

Paul, an apostle—not from men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me: To the churches of Galatia.

The three arguments I summarized above set up the entire letter.


Depending on what connects with you, use a political debate, a court case, or a dispute with an acquaintance to illustrate what Paul is doing. When you’re trying to prove someone wrong, you first go after their credibility. How do you defend your own credibility? Well, (use examples if you need to) however you do it will sound a whole lot like what Paul does in this letter. It’s not bragging, whining, or being desperate; it’s just trying to establish the facts.


You might remember from other times we have studied Paul’s letters than Paul puts a mini-summary of the entire letter into almost every one of his greetings. Galatians 1:1 is a case in point. Absolutely brilliant.

 

Aside: What Is an Apostle?

This is just a reminder . . . It wasn’t long in Christian history for the 12 guys who were specifically called out by Jesus to follow Him to be called by a special term—first “The Twelve” and the “The Apostles”. “Apostle” was originally a naval term for a ship, and it could also mean “one who is sent”. Christianity picked up on that use (it was fairly rare) and applied it to the Twelve, the key early leaders. Paul, because he was personally commissioned by Jesus to the same mission (Acts 9), used the term Apostle in that technical sense of himself. Of course, in a broader sense in the New Testament, many Christians are lower case "a" apostles, having been sent on the same mission. That is the only way we can use the word in modern discourse. (Some church leaders today try to give themselves the title of "Apostle", and that's not how it works.)

 

Part 2: Through His Grace (Galatians 1:3-5)

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul also regularly offered prayers of blessing for his readers (not a bad habit). We would read this today and say “Yeah, nice prayer.” But Paul had some deep purposes here to establish the true gospel message. First, grace. Grace is “God’s unmerited favor” (a cute memory device is “God’s riches at Christ’s expense”). By definition, grace cannot be earned. Remember that. Second, peace. Peace means “wholeness” and “harmony with God”. Paul’s enemies have accused him of taking people away from God’s law, but here Paul immediately prays to bring the readers closer to God. The next phrase, “gave himself for our sins” is really just a summary of the true gospel. “For” has a sense of agency—Jesus died “for the purpose of our sins”. In other words, “for the purpose of dealing with our sins” or resolving them (Paul will explain that in great detail later on). Then “to rescue us”. That, combined with the fact that they are “our sins”, clarifies that we are at fault and that there’s nothing we can do about it—unlike the message of the Judaizers, that we all just need to obey better. No, if we need rescuing, we can’t rescue ourselves! And then, “from this present evil age” comes straight out of the Jewish worldview. They saw the world around them as under the power of evil (which is why they disliked all Gentiles), and only the future messianic age would be a place of righteousness and obedience. Well, Paul tells them that the true gospel of Jesus Christ results in that very thing, except in a real way. We don’t force ourselves out of the evil world by working harder and trying to do good things (i.e. trying to build a “wall of goodness” to protect ourselves from the outside evil). Rather, we get rescued by the One who can remove the power of evil in our lives so that we don’t have to wall ourselves off from the world around us who desperately needs to hear the good news! Doesn’t that make you want to praise God?


A little more impressed by that prayer? A good discussion topic is what truths leave us in awe of God.

 

Part 3: Distorted by Some (Galatians 1:6-10)

I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! For am I now trying to persuade people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Yes, Paul is very upset. But if we’re going to get upset about anything, shouldn’t it be this? This is why Christian leaders in our world are so vocal about their opposition to things like the prosperity gospel, the poverty gospel, the “come as you are (and stay as you are)” gospel, and the “be the best you can be” gospel (see below for more about these Counterfeit Gospels). I encourage you to read these verses out loud multiple times—they are the clearest explanation why we cannot let our culture shape the gospel: it is not ours to define! It came from God!


Here’s what some churches are doing in our country: “let’s tell the people what they want to hear because it keeps us out of trouble and it makes everybody feel good.” So...huh? At least “there will be peace in our lifetime?” What good does that do? What happens when those people stand before God? Is God going to give a pass and change the rules for salvation because people preached a false gospel? Of course not.


What bothers Paul the most is how quickly the Galatians accepted this new, false gospel. Did they think about it at all? Did they weigh the consequences at all? No. These new teachers were loud, pushy, made some good points, and attacked Paul’s credibility. Isn’t that happening in our culture today? Truth is being crowdsourced. Here’s a famous Stephen Colbert quote: “Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.” To illustrate, pick a fun topic (fake news, alternative facts) that’s not controversial, like “The US government has the ark of the covenant in storage” or “Area 51 has alien spacecraft” and then have two volunteers debate it. Then have everyone else describe what did nor did not convince them about the debate. We live in a world where people can be convinced to believe a fiction!


“Minor” additions make a big difference. Compare “I love my job” with “I love my job when I get paid”. That first statement is still true, right? but it has a very different meaning. Likewise, adding “law” to salvation changes everything. This week, when we are thinking about our commitment to the gospel, I also want us to look for other truths that we have let slip or get distorted into half-truths.

 

Closing Thoughts: Common False Gospels in Our World Today

Trevin Wax (The Gospel Coalition) wrote these six counterfeit gospels that he sees among churches and Christians today. (I modified this list from thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/which-counterfeit-gospels-are-most-prevalent-today/)

  • Therapeutic Gospel: Sin robs us of our sense of fulness; the church helps us find happiness.

  • Formalist Gospel: Sin is failing to keep the right rules; the church gives me regulations and traditions I can check off.

  • Moralist Gospel: Our problem is committing sins; we simply need to try harder to be better people.

  • Judgmentless Gospel: God will forgive everyone; evangelism is therefore not urgent.

  • Social-Club Gospel: Salvation is about finding our home in a church; the church gives us the relationships that help us find fulfillment.

  • Activist Gospel: The power of the gospel is displayed when a society is transformed, so churches need to unite around causes.

  • Churchless Gospel: Because salvation is individual, the church is unnecessary.

  • Mystic Gospel: Salvation is revealed by our emotional experiences with God; the church is there to help me feel close to God.

  • Quietist Gospel: Salvation is about the spirit; our focus must be on individual life change and not on social or political matters.

I like that list. It captures a lot of sentiments we see on tv and in some church statements. What I like most about the list is there is just enough truth in each one of those statements that an immature Christian could be duped into believing any of them. That’s why it is so important that every church preach and teach the full, true gospel, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular it might be. The eternal destination of our friends and neighbors depends on them being able to respond to the whole truth.

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