Monthly Archives: March 2009

Galatians 1:10-24 A Former Fanatic

Galatians 1:10-24 – A Former Fanatic Speaks

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 22, 2009.

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love. It was a rough week in my family. I want to give a shout out to my nephew, Erik Wheeler, who is intensive care in Baptist Hospital. We are all very worried about Erik and would appreciate your prayers for him and his mother and sisters. I spent yesterday up in Valdese, NC at a conference on immigration and the churches sponsored by the Waldensian Church and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. It was quite illuminating. One of the difficult aspects of a global economy is that millions of persons are displaced. In addition to spending time in the hospital and at Valdese, I spent some time with the staff of Old Salem looking at ways of up-dating the interpretative part of the museum. It is good to see how interested Old Salem is in the Moravian story. Speaking of Moravians, there will be a reception at Christ Moravian Church this afternoon for the president of Moravian College and Theological Seminary. Stop by and meet Dr. Thomforde if you have a chance. And don’t forget the Moravian art show in the Fine Arts Center of Salem College next weekend. There will lots of beautiful art that you can buy, and your money will go to a good cause. This week we are continuing our study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Read 1:10-17

A Servant of Christ:                        We saw last week that Paul opens his letter to the Galatians with harsh words accusing them of deserting God by rejecting the good news of salvation in Christ. It appears that Paul’s opponents from Jerusalem were accusing him of preaching cheap grace; that his gospel was designed to please people instead of letting them on the narrow path of righteousness. We will talk more about their argument in a later lesson, but today let’s focus on Paul’s defense of himself. He begins by telling the Galatians that not seeking human approval but to please God. He describes himself as a slave of Christ, and his work with the Galatians was in obedience to the will of Christ.

Paul tells them that he had not become a homeless pilgrim traveling the world, suffering all kinds of hardships, and risking arrest in order to please people or build a name for himself. He was doing all of this in response to a call from Christ. It was not the gospel of Paul that he proclaimed, but the gospel of Jesus. And it was not Paul’s authority that was being questioned in Galatia or was it Paul that was being rejected; it was Christ.

Prophet of Christ:                        Paul tried to assure the Galatians that the good news that they had heard and accepted was not something dreamed up by an amateur philosopher or trouble-maker; it was a divine revelation. Modern historians are skeptical about claims of divine revelation, but Paul was convinced that he was preaching a message that came from a source beyond him. This was more than just a claim for the authority of his message, Paul wants to make it clear that his teaching is a break with the past. This is a new revelation of God’s work in the world. God has done something new, and the traditions of the elders no longer apply in the same way. Jesus Christ had been revealed to Paul as the agent of salvation who is ushering in a new age. Paul was telling the Galatians that they do not have to repeat the past, they can be the vanguards of the messianic age.

In order to back up his claim that he is a servant and spokesperson for Christ, Paul tells the Galatians about his own conversion. This is a part of the letter that has been of great interest to historians because it provides one of the few first-hand accounts of an individual’s conversion to Christianity in ancient times. The information Paul provides here can be compared with the account of his career given in Acts and with statements Paul gives in other letters, such as I Corinthians. We should not be surprised that there discrepancies in the accounts of Paul’s conversion in different books of the New Testament.

Story Corps                        Earlier this week I was invited to participate in the Story Corps project. Story Corps started in New York a few years ago and is now touring the United States. Two people, typically friends, sit in a booth and one helps the other tell his or her story. They get a CD of the recording, and a copy is housed in the library of Congress. So far 23,000 people have been recorded. My wife originally suggested that I do Story Corps, but I really do not like talking about myself. It was only when the pastor of Fries Moravian told me that the Story Corps folks really wanted a Moravian to talk about the church that I agreed.

Rob Lang interviewed me, and at one point he asked me to tell about my calling to the ministry, which I had talked about at church during Lent several years ago. For the life of me, I could not remember what I had said then. I told a true story about myself on Story Corps, but I do not know if it was similar to what I had told the church. Even when we are telling our own story, we rarely tell it the same way twice. We Moravians have a practice of writing our life-stories, which are then read at our funerals. We use the German word Lebenslauf to describe these memoirs. I’ve written mine at least four times, and it is different each time.

Paul’s Lebenslauf:                        Paul’s story changes as well. He shapes the story he tells to the Galatians because of the situation he is addressing at that moment. He leaves out many details that a historian would want to know, just as I do when people want to know why I’m a Christian and a pastor. In Acts we have three versions of Paul’s conversion, told for dramatic effect. The details differ somewhat, but the basic story is that Paul was on the road to Damascus when he saw a bright light and heard the voice of Christ calling from heaven. This story has shaped accounts of Christian conversion for two thousand years, so much so that the phrase Damascus Road is used to describe any sudden change in belief.

I was recently interviewed for the student newsletter at Wake Forest. They like to include personal profiles of classmates and professors. Before I told the student my story I emphasized that it was not a typical conversion account. I did not lose my faith because I began studying biblical criticism in college, like so many kids who grew up in church. I was lost in doubt while I was still in high school. It was actually biblical criticism and the study of theology that brought me to faith. But when the student wrote the interview up, it sounded like a typical evangelical conversion experience. He wrote it the way he thought it had happened. We do the same thing to Paul. We try to make his story fit our models of religious experience instead of listening closely to what he says.

Fanaticism or Faith?            Here in Galatians, Paul doesn’t say anything about a blinding light on the road to Damascus, nor does he talk about personal struggles over faith. Instead he reminds the Galatians that he had once persecuted Christians because he was such a zealous person. Verses 13 and 14 are the only times that the word Judaism is used in the NT, and we should not assume that Paul is using the word the way we do today. The word Judaism today refers to a major world religion with a long and beautiful history, meaningful rituals, and positive social ethic that has had a profound impact on our society. The Judaism we know emerged out of the religion of ancient Judea after the destruction of the Temple. During the same time that Christian bishops were establishing the organizational structure, scriptures, doctrines, and rituals of Christianity, rabbis were creating the Talmud that continues to guide the religious life of most Jews.

This is not what Paul is talking about when he says he was advanced in Judaism. It appears that he is using the word “Judaism” to refer to a particular way of being a Jew in the ancient Roman Empire. He uses the word much like people used the word Stoicism or Platonism; it was a way of living according to a particular set of beliefs. Paul indicates that one could advance in Judaism, presumably by adopting ever stricter interpretations of the Torah.

Before his encounter with Jesus, Paul believed that it was his responsibility to see that other Jews were observing the traditions of the elders as strictly as he was. To be zealous for the law, for Paul, meant that he must force others to be observant, too. It was not enough to observe the commandments privately; he felt the need to attack those who did not observe them. In Biblical times, being zealous meant being like the man who killed a Jewish priest for making a false sacrifice during the Maccabean Revolt (I Maccabees 2). Zealots killed to keep the synagogue and Temple pure. Today we would call such a person a fanatic.

Someone at Fries Memorial Church last week gave me a good definition of a fanatic: it is someone whose zeal increases as they lose sight of the purpose of their religion. Paul tells us that his zeal for the law led him to violently persecute the followers of Jesus because he saw them as a threat to the traditions of his ancestors. Such religious violence and persecution is one of the plagues of our time. We have seen how fanaticism can lead to abuse and murder as people become afraid that others are undermining their religion. Paul’s letter reminds us that this is nothing new. He was such a fanatic before he was called by Christ. He does not give us the details, but the language he uses indicates that he was indeed violent in his opposition to Jesus.

Conversion:                        Why does Paul remind the Galatians of his past? It is possible that his adversaries from Jerusalem were using Paul’s history to undermine his authority. We all have things in our past that could be used against us if they became public. Think of how politicians play the game of “gotcha” during campaigns. My students at Salem Academy several years ago found a poem I had written in my high school newspaper and were thrilled to find out that I had not always been the pious supporter of educational authority that I am today.

It’s possible that Paul’s past was coming back to haunt him, and that he was doing damage control here, but I’m not sure. It is just as possible that Paul had told the Galatians his story years before. He wanted these pagan converts to know who he was before Christ was revealed to him. He doesn’t have to give them the whole story here in the letter to the Galatians; he just reminds them of the crucial details. He was once so wrapped up in his own righteousness that he abused those who believed in Jesus. He tells them and us that religious fanaticism leads to violence, but Christ calls us to sacrificial love. The law can be used to abuse and reject people, but the grace of Christ can bring healing and hope.

A Light to the Nations:            Paul interprets his experience in terms used by some of the prophets of old. He says that God had set him apart in his mother’s womb to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. This sounds very similar to statements made by Jeremiah (1:4-5) and Isaiah (49:1, 6), both whom claimed to have been chosen by God before they were even born. More significantly, as Richard Hays points out (New Interpreters Bible, Galatians, 215), both prophets claim that they called by God to be a light to the nations. There words were not just for the Jews.

Paul believed that Christ had sent him to proclaim the gospels to all the nations, to Jews and Gentiles, and he saw this as a continuation of the work of Jeremiah and Isaiah. Although Paul rejected many of the legal requirements of the Judaism of his day, he believed that his work was a continuation of the Israelite prophets. Paul was proclaiming the same God as the God of the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The new thing in his proclamation was that the Son of God had died and been raised from the dead. Because of Jesus, people of every nation could become the children of God.

Arabia:             One of the interesting details in Paul’s lebenslauf is that he went to Arabia after his conversion. This is one of those bits of Paul’s biography not discussed in Acts. We do not know where in Arabia he went, how long he stayed there, or what he did. There are many characters in Scripture who spent time in the desert before beginning their ministry, such as Moses and Elijah. Jesus is the most famous example. During Lent, we remember his 40 days alone in a deserted place after his baptism. When Jesus emerged from the desert, he began his ministry of teaching and healing. It is possible that Paul had a similar period of solitary. Perhaps he went into Arabia in order to think about what had happened to him on the Damascus Road. When you have an experience that completely reorients your life and sense of purpose, it is wise to take some time to make sense of what has happened. It also seems likely Paul received further revelations and mystical experiences while he was alone in the desert. He claims that Christ instructed him in the meaning of his death and resurrection.

Many scholars think that Paul went to the cities of Nabatea in Arabia, southeast of Damascus. Not only does that fit the geography nicely, it also fits our picture of Paul as an evangelist on the move. Paul may have set off to take the good news to the Arabians, but there is no evidence that he did so. Personally, I think it would have been unlikely that he started preaching as soon as he was converted or that he would begin in Arabia. N.T. Wright speculates that Paul actually went of a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai or Horeb, much like Elijah, but again there is not much to support this idea. The key thing is that Paul went on a pilgrimage after his conversion and then returned to Damascus. It was another three years before he went to Jerusalem to confer with Cephas and James, the brother of Jesus.

Pillars of the Church:            Cephas is the Hebrew form of the name Peter, just as Saul is the Hebrew form of Paul. All of the gospels indicate that Peter was one of the most important disciples during Jesus’ life, and he continued to be important in the church after the resurrection. James, who is also known as James the Just is not mentioned in the gospels, but he appears in the Book of Acts as one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus gives an account of his martyrdom in the days leading up to the Jewish War. An ossuary of a man named James was erroneously identified as that of James the Apostle a few years ago. Paul indicates that he spent two weeks with Peter and James, and presumably he learned something about Jesus from them. However, Paul insists that his understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus came from Christ. The death of Jesus was the end of the law, and those who are baptized into the death of Jesus put to death their old corrupt, pagan lives.

It was after this time with Peter that Paul began his missionary journeys. Paul claims that he spent so little time in Jerusalem that the Christians there did not know his face, but they knew his name. The former persecutor was now a preacher. The Christians in Judea rejoiced because he had changed his way and was proclaiming the faith he had once rejected. We need to remember that we only have Paul’s word on this. There may have been some Christians in Judea that remained suspicious of this former anti-Christian zealot who had persecuted their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Conclusion:                        The reason Paul was telling the Galatians that the apostles in Jerusalem rejoiced at his preaching among the Gentiles was to reassure them that the message he had proclaimed in Galatia was approved by the apostles. He was making the case that he had not changed his message over the years. Christ had died for sins, and the followers of Christ are no longer bound by the old laws. He claimed that it was his adversaries who were preaching a new message. They were they ones who were misinterpreting the work of Christ. They were the ones confusing the issue, not Paul. Next week we’ll look at Paul’s account of controversy in the church.

Grace and Good News: Galatians 1:4-9

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 15, 2009


Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you and that you got to enjoy some of the springtime weather. I was on spring break from the university, but spent most of the week working as usual. I did manage to do our tax returns and mail them in. I lead such an exciting life. The capital campaign continues to go well here at the church. If you would like to see what the renovated sanctuary will look like, stop by the church office. There are a couple of events coming up that you may be interested in. There is a conference on immigration and the church next Saturday up in Valdese. During the last weekend in March there will be an art show featuring many of the artists of Home Moravian Church in the Fine Arts Centers at Salem College. Proceeds from the sale of the art will support social ministries. We are having communion services each Wednesday evening during Lent. At 11:00 a.m. each day there are special Day of Prayer services at different Moravian churches. I’m leading a Bible study on the seven signs in John’s Gospel at Fries Memorial on Wednesday evenings at 6:30. So, there are lots of good things for your Lenten pilgrimage. I suppose you heard the news reported this past week that Americans are losing their faith. For decades America was the most religious industrialized nation, but it appears that the secularization that has plagued Europe is now affecting Americans. There is no single cause for the decline in religious conviction and participation in faith communities, but it appears that disillusionment is one factor. With the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church and the partisan politics of evangelicals, many people no longer trust religious organizations. Traditional Protestant denominations have suffered decline for many years and have long ago lost their power to shape American culture. For years the mainline denominations have had difficulty recruiting and retaining members, and the current financial crisis is hurting those churches hard. Moravians know from their own history that churches can disappear and yet the people can remain faithful. I hope that this radio broadcast will help you draw closer to God and that you will be strengthened as you live as a Christian in a “post-Christian” society.


Grace: We are studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which was written to a new church trying to live faithfully in a “pre-Christian” society. They had rejected the religious beliefs and practices of their day and had embraced Paul’s radical proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ. Paul opens his letter with the word “grace,” which is one of Paul’s favorite words. He uses this word more than a hundred times in his letters, but it is only used about 50 times in the rest of the New Testament. The gospels of Matthew and Mark do not use it at all. Clearly Grace was a word and a concept especially dear to the Apostle Paul, and it lies at the heart of his letter to the Galatians. As such, we should take a few moments to think about it.

The Greek word that we translate as “grace” is “Charis” (which also appears as Chariti). It is closely related to the Latin word caritas, and it gives us our English word Charity, which means love. One of the strange things about the development of language is that for centuries we used our word Charity to translate the Greek word “Agape” rather than the word “charis” which we translate as grace. Now that charity has come to mean giving something to the poor, translators no longer use it for agape or charis. I mention this to remind us that language remains fluid and meanings can be hard to pin down.

Paul did not invent the word charis, but he helped define it as a specifically Christian term. In ancient Greek the word charis basically meant attractive or favorable, and we still use the word grace this way, such as when we say that someone is a graceful dancer or a gracious host. Grace is the opposite of awkward or clumsy. Someone who is gracious puts you at ease and makes you welcome. In ancient days, charis also meant a favor. To show someone grace meant to bestow a favor on them or to do something generous for them. Grace was something that evoked gratitude. You should be grateful to the graceful. You can probably see the connection between the ancient meaning of grace and the modern meaning of charity.

Sometimes the word charis was used to express gratitude for a gift. Someone was “graced” by someone else. The word Charisma means a gift given freely, or something given through grace, and it is another important word in Paul’s writing. When we Paul, we should keep in mind that grace refers to a blessing that is freely given. It is always a positive term that connotes something attractive and welcoming. Grace is a freely granted gift that brings someone into a beneficial relationship with the giver. Some biblical scholars think that the Hebrew word Hesed, which is normally translated as loving-kindness or mercy, could be translated by the Greek word charis. Charis is God’s loving-kindness. In biblical terms, then, grace includes love, generosity, kindness, and mercy. It is a very potent word.

For Paul, grace is almost synonymous with salvation, which is why is it so closely connected to peace in his salutation. Paul preached to Jews and Gentiles alike that salvation comes through the gracious mercy of God granted through the work of Jesus Christ. Since salvation is through God’s grace, it is a gift. It is not something that can be bought or earned; it can only be received with thanksgiving. It is a gift that brings the receiver into relationship with the giver.

The Lord Jesus Christ:            After wishing grace and peace to the Galatians, Paul reminds them of the content of God’s grace: “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” There is a lot of theology packed into one sentence, and some biblical scholars think that Paul may be quoting an early Christian creed or hymn here.

The first thing to note is that Paul calls Jesus both Lord and Christ. The word “lord” (kyrios) could be used as a term of respect when addressing someone in authority, but it was also the word that Jews used to address God. Rather than saying the name of God (YHWH), Jews say adonai or LORD. This practice goes back to before the time of Jesus, and Greek-speaking Jews in Paul’s day used the Greek word kyrios to translate the name of God. In the gospels it is not always clear what people meant when they addressed Jesus as Lord. Were they calling him divine or just treating him with respect? There is less ambiguity in Paul’s writing. Jesus is called the Lord, and he is the only Lord. Scholars disagree over whether Paul viewed Jesus as fully divine, but there is little doubt that he viewed Jesus as uniquely the Son of God to whom one could pray. Jesus was the Lord for Paul.

Paul also calls Jesus “Christ,” identifying him as the Jewish Messiah. One of the big issues addressed in the gospels was whether Jesus really could have been the Messiah since he did not act the way a Messiah was supposed to act. Part of the scandalous message of early Christianity was that a man who had been crucified by Romans was indeed the promised Messiah. This was central to early Christian preaching, and Paul’s letters helped the church make sense of the paradox of a messiah who died on the cross. In Paul’s writings, the word Christ was almost like a second name for Jesus, but the phrase Jesus Christ remained pregnant with meaning and controversy. For Paul, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah even though he had been executed.

Died for Sins:                        Paul rejected the notion that Jesus was simply a victim of Roman imperialist oppression. Jesus’ death on the cross did not negate his identity as Lord and Christ; it confirmed his identity. Paul clarifies the meaning of the phrase Lord Jesus Christ by saying that this was the one who gave himself for “our sins.” This idea that Christ died for our sins was central to the preaching of early Christianity, and many would say that it remains the heart of the gospel. Missionaries have gone throughout the world preaching this message of Paul, and many millions of people have responded to this simple proclamation, but it has often been a source of controversy in the church.

In my theology class we have been discussing various attempts to make sense of this statement in Galatians. We call these attempts to explain how the death of Jesus is a saving event “atonement theories.” We can’t really go into details on the various atonement theories Christians have proposed through the ages, but one of the most common understandings of the atonement focuses on divine justice and punishment. According to the theory of substitutionary atonement, Jesus voluntarily accepted the punishment that we should have received from God because of our sins.

This is often cast in legal terms. Someone must pay for a crime, but an innocent person offers himself as a substitute for the guilty person who should die. This makes for some excellent literature, by the way. Variations on this idea of Jesus as a substitute who suffers the punishments sinners deserve has been the centerpiece of Catholic and evangelical theology for centuries, but there have always been theologians who were uncomfortable with some of the implications of this view. In modern times, many preachers felt that the church focused too much energy on the idea that Jesus died for the sins of the world and lost touch with the teachings of Jesus. Many contemporary preachers and theologians are so opposed to this theory of the idea of a substitionary atonement that they reject Paul’s statement that Jesus died for our sins. They see nothing good in Good Friday and would prefer that we skip from Palm Sunday to Easter. 

Christians have viewed the death of Jesus in different ways through the centuries, and there are several different atonement theories. We can’t solve the theological debates over the meaning of the atonement that continue to rage in the church this morning, but we should acknowledge that nearly every book of the New Testament, including the gospels, asserts that the death of Jesus was an integral part of his mission on earth. None of the New Testament authors viewed Jesus’ death merely as the tragic end of a good life. Every NT writer would agree to some degree with Paul that the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins.

Paul, like other early evangelists, probably understood the death of Jesus in terms of Yom Kippur or the Jewish Day of Atonement when the sins of the nation for the past year were reviewed and forgiven. A lamb was offered as a sacrifice to god for the sake of the community. The sins of the community were mystically transferred to the lamb. The notion of a sacrifice as a way to get rid of sin was so well accepted in the ancient world that Paul does not explain or defend his belief that Jesus died for our sins. Instead he urges the Galatians to remember that their Lord and Messiah is the one who died for them. Their sins have been erased by the sacrifice of Jesus, and they should live in the awareness of salvation. Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus gave himself for them. He was not a victim; he is the Savior.

The Present Evil Age:            Paul adds that Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice in order “to rescue us from this present evil age,” or as one scholar translated it “so that he might snatch us out of the grasp of the present evil age” (Louis Martyn). The notion of an evil age is closely connected to Jewish apocalyptic thought around the time of Paul. Some of the Jews in those days believed that world was under the authority of the forces of evil, which is why God’s faithful were suffering under Roman occupation. The Messiah or perhaps “the Son of Man” would appear on day and bring an end to this period of human history by destroying evil. A new age of righteousness and peace would be the result. There were lots of apocalypses written in the century before and after Jesus, but only one was included in the NT. There is a strong consensus among biblical scholars today that Jewish apocalypticism profoundly shaped early Christianity.

It is evident in the NT that many of the first Christians believed they were living in an apocalyptic moment when the age of evil was ending and the new age was breaking in. They believed that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead marked the beginning of the new age when creation would be transformed. Paul, like many early Christians, believed that Jesus was going to return soon and reign as king of kings and lord of lords. Until he returned, his followers had to continue living in the present evil age, but they were no longer subject to its corruption. Though they were living in a cruel and unjust society, the Galatian Christians believed that they had been rescued from the evil around them and they were living in a foretaste of the eschatological kingdom of God on earth.

Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus was more than just a scapegoat for sin; he had already defeated the power of evil through his death and resurrection. By dying and rising from the dead, Jesus had overcome the power of death, sin, and destruction. He was not a victim; he was triumphant. Jesus had overcome evil and made it possible for others to be saved.

Deserting the One:                        Paul has to put all of this on the table, so to speak, at the beginning of his letter, because this is the ground on which he will base the rest of his argument. Paul is reminding his audience that becoming Christian was not the same thing as joining a club or a civic organization; it was a fundamental reorientation of a person’s life and understanding. The Galatians were Christians because they had been rescued from this evil age by the death and resurrection of Jesus. They had believed this Gospel that Paul had preached, and they had created a community that was to be a living expression of this new reality.

Paul reminds them that they were not saved from the evil of the world through their own efforts or their own merits but by the self-sacrifice of Christ who was their Lord and Savior. This was all the work of God for them, and so the proper response is doxology or praise to God. Paul ends his salutation with the traditional language of worship to which the people say Amen.

While that “amen” is still echoing in the sanctuary, Paul accuses the Galatians of turning away from God’s grace by embracing a different conception of the proper relationship of sinners to God. The word he uses to describe this defection is one that was used to describe people who left one school of philosophy and embraced another. It is similar to the word for changing one’s mind or way of thinking, but it is a negative term. The connotation is that the people are turning away from the truth and choosing error. For Paul, this was not a matter where there could be a diversity of opinion. By endorsing the ideas of the new missionaries, the Galatians were in danger of losing the gospel and their salvation. He accuses them of deserting God who had called them to a new life through grace in Christ.

The Gospel:                        The word we translate as Gospel is evangelion. It basically means the proclamation of good news, especially military victories. There is an inscription from about 9 BC that proclaims that the birthday of Caesar Augustus should mark the beginning of each year for the whole world because his birth was the “beginning of the glad tidings” or evangelia. The writers of the NT disagreed with the Roman Empire over which gospel was truly glad tidings: the birth of Augustus or the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our word “gospel” comes from the old Anglo-Saxon and means “god-spell,” which either good story or god’s story. Christians used the word Evangelion or Gospel to describe stories about Jesus, but we should remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ preceding the writing of the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The apostles were first and foremost evangelists, which was the Christian word for one who proclaims the good news. The Gospel is not confined to a book; it is the proclamation of the glad tidings about salvation in Christ.

Paul tells the Galatians that it is the message that is important, not the messenger. It is the gospel that saves souls and creates a new community of love and self-sacrifice. It is the gospel that frees individuals from anxiety over sin and death. It is the gospel that reconciles us to God and to one another. It is the good news of grace and joy in believing. And this is the gospel that the Galatians are turning away from, according to Paul.

Next week, we’ll explore in more detail Paul’s opposition to the preachers from Jerusalem.

Introduction to Galatians

Galatians: Introduction

 The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 8, 2009


Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it has been a good week for you and that the snow was something to enjoy rather than a burden. The snow gave my students at WFU a reprieve on their mid-term, but the day of reckoning still came. I’ve got a stack of theology papers I need to grade over spring break this week, but that’s what they pay me for. There’s not much to report from the Atwood household. Like many people we woke up without power on Monday, and so we huddled by the gas fire, which was nice. Here at Home Church we had a rummage sale on Saturday raising money for missions. We’re in the midst of a major capital campaign here at the church raising money to renovate facilities. There is a beautiful scale model of the planned new sanctuary in the church office if you’d like to see what things are going to look like. We’ll be worshiping in Fellowship Hall after Easter while work is going on in the sanctuary.


Paul:                        For the next several weeks we will be examining Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which has been one of the most important works in the history of Christianity. Since this is the first one of Paul’s letters I’ve discussed in this class, it might be helpful to begin by introducing Paul and his distinctive style of writing. Like most of the first Christians, Paul was a Jew living in the Roman Empire. Unlike Jesus and the first disciples, Paul did not live in Palestine. He was from Tarsus in Asia Minor, and he was fluent in Greek. Paul was one of the many thousands of Jews living in what was called the Diaspora or Dispersion. Beginning with the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC, Jews began settling outside of Judea. After Alexander the Great defeated Egypt and Persia, he established a Greek empire in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Jewish communities gradually grew up in most of the cities of the empire, and the synagogue was the center of Jewish life in this Diaspora. Most of these Jews spoke Greek, and they used a Greek translation of the Scriptures. They also adapted Jewish law to apply outside of the original Promised Land.


Like many of us today, Paul lived in multiple worlds. He was a Jew, but he was also a citizen of the Roman Empire. No one knows how Paul’s family was granted citizenship, but it was presumably for some service to the empire. Citizenship was often granted for making an important gift for the public or rendering some particular service to an important official. It is possible that Paul came from a prominent family in Tarsus, but we do not know for sure. What we do know is that all his life Paul had a dual identity as a Pharisee and as a Roman citizen. This is crucial for our understanding of Galatians, which addresses the question of whether Gentiles must become Jews in order to be saved. Christians see Paul as an Apostle, but from a Jewish perspective he could be seen as an Apostate who went too far in embracing the Gentile world.


We know that Paul was an artisan who worked with his own hands, but we do not know for sure what his trade was. Older biblical translations call him a “tent-maker,” but it is more likely he was some type of leather worker. The key point is that he was neither a landowner with servants nor a poor peasant farmer. He was a man of the city who had a trade that allowed him to travel freely about the empire. Though he worked for a living, he was also a scholar. Paul provides us with ample evidence in his letters that he was educated not only in Judaism but also basic Greek philosophy. Intellectually he lived in multiple worlds as well, and he brought together philosophy and theology in a creative synthesis that profoundly shaped the development of Christian doctrine.


Galatia:             Paul’s letter is addressed to the churches in Galatia, which was a province of the Roman Empire between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. What used to be called Galatia is now in central Turkey. The city of Ankara in Turkey was originally called Ancyra, which was the capital of ancient Galatia. The name Galatia comes from the Greek form of the word Gaul or Celt, and it referred to three Celtic tribes that migrated to Asia Minor about 280 years before the birth of Jesus. They were closely related to the more famous Celts in Western Europe, and they continued trading with their cousins to the West for centuries. The Galatians were fierce warriors who never adjusted well to city life. The Greeks considered them barbarians, but various Greek kings made alliances with the Galatian tribes from time to time. One of my favorite ancient statues is called the Dying Gaul. There is an ancient copy on display in Rome, but the original was made in Greece, and the Gaul who inspired the sculpture was probably a Galatian warrior.


Eventually, the Galatians were granted possession of the lands they had settled in Asia Minor and were incorporated into the Greek and, later, the Roman Empires. The Roman province of Galatia included lands to the south that were not settled by the Galatians. South Galatia, as historians sometimes call it, included several cities that are mentioned in the Book of Acts as places where Paul preached. The reason I mention this is that biblical scholars do not know for sure whether Paul was writing to the churches in Galatia proper where the Galatians lived or to the churches in the cities in the south where Acts says that he preached. Since Paul addresses his audience as “Galatians,” it is most likely that this letter was intended for Celts in Asia Minor who had become Christian. The fact that Acts does not tell about Paul conducting missions among the “barbarians” in Galatia should not bother us too much. We know that Acts does not give us all of the details of Paul’s missionary activity. It is interesting that Paul’s hometown of Tarsus in Cilicia was just to the south of Galatia.


The uncertainly about the destination of the letter is coupled with uncertainty about the dating of the letter. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but the question hinges on the relationship of Paul’s description in Galatians of a meeting with the other apostles in Jerusalem and the account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Are these the same meeting or two different meetings? They are very similar, but differ on some crucial details that we will discuss when get to that passage. If these are the same event, and Acts is basically correct in its chronology, then the letter the Galatians was written rather late in the career of Paul, perhaps as late as 56 AD. If these were different events, then Galatians may have been written before the Jerusalem Council and would be earlier. In fact, it is possible that the Jerusalem Council was needed because of the issues Paul raises in this letter.


According to the information Paul provides in the letter, it was written at least seventeen years after his conversion on the road to Damascus, which most scholars think was about 33 AD. So the earliest the letter could have been written was 50 AD, but it was probably a few years after that. Some scholars think that Paul was writing from prison in Rome, but there is no hard evidence to support this claim. For the most part, scholars agree that Galatians was written later than the letters to the Thessalonians and before the letter to the Romans. It may have been written around the same time as either of the Corinthian letters. Many of the things discussed in Galatians are discussed in more detail in Romans and Corinthian, but there are some issues that are unique to the situation in Galatia. 


Letters:            Paul wrote more of the New Testament than any single writer, but the only type of literature we have from him is letters. He did not write a gospel or an apocalypse, for instance, nor did anyone produce a collection of his sermons. Paul’s letters follow the standard conventions of ancient letter writing, such as the opening greeting that identifies the writer and the recipient, and gives a blessing or wish for health. The form was like this: Craig, a professor of theology at Wake Forest, to the Adult Bible Class and all who listen by radio, life and health to you. Letters in the ancient world were not like email or even letters today. We think of letters as private correspondence, but up until modern times letters were often published for others to read. They were considered an art form as well as a form of communication. And they were generally read out loud rather than silently. The practice of silent reading was popularized in monasteries and from there it spread to schools in the Middle Ages. Before that people wrote and read the way they spoke, especially people who were trained in rhetoric, as Paul was.


Paul intended that his letter would be read out loud in a service of worship in all of the churches in Galatia, especially those that he had helped establish. He would have expected that copies would be made of the letter and delivered to other churches. Even though he appears to have been angry when he wrote this letter, he did not simply fire this off without thinking about it. It is a carefully written letter that reflects Paul’s training in Greek rhetoric as well as his education as a Pharisee.


In the ancient world, the physical act of writing was different than the act of composing something to be written. Professional scribes put things down in writing, such as contracts and letters. Typically you dictated what you wanted written. It would have been unusual for someone to sit down and “write” a letter the way we do. This meant that composing a letter (or epic poem) was more like speaking than writing. We know from Paul’s other letters that he employed an amanuensis to put his words on paper, much like secretaries used to take dictation. He ends the letter to the Galatians by adding comments in his own hand – in large letters.


It took time to write a letter, and the sender had to keep a copy since it was quite likely that the letter would not reach its destination due to the exigencies of ancient travel. It might take weeks or months for a letter to reach its destination, so writers tended to focus on very important things, not trivialities. Frequently, Paul’s letters were written to resolve conflict in the church, but these were not minor conflicts. They were things that threatened the very identity of the church. When reading old letters, including the letters of Paul, it is important to recognize that even though they were not private in our sense of the world, they were still written to flesh and blood humans living in a particular context.


It is unlikely that Paul ever anticipated that his letters would still be read and discussed in churches nearly 2000 years later. He did not know he was writing Scripture, but his letters were deemed so useful that they were collected and distributed widely among ancient churches. By the end of the first century, Paul was considered an authority for all churches, and people began attaching his name to letters he did not write. Some of these, like the Letter to the Laodocians and III Corinthians, were excluded from the New Testament. Some may have been included. Scholars are pretty sure that Paul of Tarsus did not write Hebrews, I & II Timothy, Titus, and II Thessalonians. There has been a long debate over whether he wrote Colossians and Ephesians, and today most scholars think these were written by followers of Paul. The seven letters of Paul that are undisputed are Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, Philemon, I & II Corinthians, and Romans.


Salutation:                        Since this is a letter, Paul begins with a standard salutation that identifies the sender and the receiver of the letter. This opening address asserts Paul’s authority as an apostle and leader of the Galatian church. We should not assume that Paul was bragging about his status or looking for the Galatians to honor him as their leader. He was trying to impress upon them his right to speak forthrightly about the problems he perceived in their church. Keep in mind that the world was different in Paul’s day. The hierarchy of priest – bishop – archbishop had been established yet, and church leaders had no status outside the church. In claiming the title of an apostle, Paul had become a wandering preacher with no home.


All of the demographics that modern historians, sociologists, and economists consider most important were rejected by Paul. He refused to be defined by his age, gender, ethnicity, or education. His true identity was found in Jesus Christ, and the Church had become his true family. According to Jewish and Roman standards, Paul was a fool and failure. He often reminded his audience of his low status in the world. He was poor, persecuted, and physically suffered from unknown ailments. Though he was once a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, he had lost his place in the synagogue and secular society by becoming a Christian. He was a voluntary exile, a pilgrim in the Diaspora. He had no children to care for him in his old age or to pass on his family name.


It was his status in the church that was important. He was an apostle of Jesus Christ. He did not have to define this office for his audience since they had received him as an apostle years before. The word “apostle” basically means someone who has been sent on a mission. The first apostles were disciples of Jesus that had been sent into the world after his resurrection. Traditionally there were Twelve apostles, but that was a symbolic number identifying the apostles as the patriarchs of the New Israel. Many years after the time of Paul, the church was still naming individuals as apostles. Patrick, for instance, was the apostle to the Irish. Apostles were not only preachers, they were responsible for organizing churches and teaching people how to live as Christians.


Authority:            What made Paul unique as an apostle in the 40s and 50s was that he had not been a disciple of Jesus before the resurrection. Unlike Peter and Thomas, Paul had never known Jesus. He became a follower of Jesus after a mystical experience on the road to Damascus, and he believed that Jesus had spoken directly to him from heaven. Paul’s conversion to Christianity included his commission to preach. He tells the Galatians that his authority as an apostle came directly from the resurrected Christ and not from any human authority.


The sociologist Max Weber calls this type of authority “charismatic authority.” It is authority that is self-authenticating rather than bestowed by an institution. Paul did not complete a course of study leading to a degree in apostleship, nor did he apply for the position of apostle and meet with a search committee. He did not inherit the office from his father, nor was he appointed by another apostle. He certainly was not elected to the office. He had no claim to be an apostle other than the claim itself. The only validation for his authority was the fact that people believed him. In other words, his claim to authority was intertwined with his preaching and its effect on others. He was an apostle because he was a servant of the gospel.


No Thanksgiving:            Paul begins with this issue of authority because unnamed people from Jerusalem had appeared in Galatia claiming to be authoritative teachers, but their teaching contradicted the message that was the foundation of the church in Galatia. Paul responds to this threat with an impassioned letter. He is so upset by the news he has heard from Galatia that he omits a key part of the standard salutation. In all of his other letters, Paul begins with a word of thanksgiving that praises the faith of the recipients, but there is no thanksgiving at the beginning of this letter. He launches directly into admonition. He is almost like an ancient lawyer arguing a legal case against someone. He is trying to convict the Galatians of their foolishness and urging them to change their ways.


Next week we will discuss chapter 1.