The Epistle to the Galatians marks the only letter whereby Paul focuses exclusively on only one controversy, and it contains no commendation in any way. Gone are the 'flowery' language which permeates Paul's introductions as seen for example in Rom. 1:1-15 and 1 Cor. 1:1-9, or even Paul's exclamation of praise in Eph. 1 - 2:10, with a particularly long paragraph in Eph. 1:3-11. Instead of such exclamation of praise and preliminary words of greetings we are treated to the following:
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through 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:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Gal. 1:1-5)
as compared to
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:1-7)
The brevity of the introduction is even more pronounced by the way Paul introduces himself. In this epistle, Paul introduced himself as "an apostle — not from man or through man, BUT through Jesus Christ and God the Father", certainly a phrase that forcefully asserts his apostleship as being from God. This assertion of his apostolic credentials is hammered into the audience in Gal. 2:1-10 once again, as Paul specifically mentioned that James and Cephas and John (who incidentally are ALL apostles) gave the right hand of fellowship to him Paul and his companion Barnabas (Gal. 2:9). An interesting thing to note here is that these three apostles were stated as "seemed to be pillars", or stuloi (στυλοι) in Greek. The same Greek word is used in 1 Tim. 3:15, in which the church of the living God is the stulos (στθλος) — pillar and buttress of the faith. This therefore shows us that Paul through this passage was asserting his apostolic authority as being recognized at the highest echelon of Apostolic Church leadership.
Such a strong assertion of Paul's apostleship and its recognition by the other Apostles makes sense only when one recognizes this entire letter as being one of almost total rebuke of the Christians in Galatia, and Paul is therefore using his apostolic authority as a basis to rebuke and judge them. Having no commendation and a short introduction, the following verse immediately is meant to shock the congregation. Verse 6 states the following:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Gal. 1:6)
To get an idea of the severity of this sentence as it was intended, it might help to remember that this whole letter was to be read in all its fullness on a nice Sunday morning in the midst of the assembled congregation. After brief, probably rather curt, greetings in verses 1-5 , these words were spoken to the congregation of believers:
Paul: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Gal. 1:6)
Suddenly the morning doesn't seem too nice after all.
This verse is then followed by verse 7, which identifies some that are within the church as those who are troubling the Galatian believers with a false Gospel, which is no Gospel at all. To these believers, that Judaizer heretic may be your friend, your neighbor sitting there just besides you. Paul, this is going to be a recipe for how to engineer a church split, or don't you know that? After all, we are all supposed to be united, you know? How dare you create division in the Church?
Sarcasm aside (to rib the effeminate spineless ministers in our present age), let us continue looking through the passage. Verses 8 and 9 contains one of the harshest judgments of Scripture on any person. The Gospel is the subject, and the apostolic curse is pronounced. The word anathema (αναθεμα) used here denotes devotion to God as being a sacrifice consumed by fire, and in the context of the Gospel thus proclaims that such a person is beyond any hope of redemption; they are damned to hellfire without hope of salvation . This strongest and harshest judgment find an echo only in the book of Hebrews with its warning against apostasy (cf Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-30) which merits the same punishment, thus showing forth the severity which Paul regarded the twisting of the Gospel. The pronouncement is repeated twice — once in verse 8 and once in verse 9, thus showing forth the strong emphasis being placed on this issue.
As it can be seen so far, Paul's manner of writing in this epistle and his opening salvo shows us the issue Paul was addressing — the distortion of the Gospel, and the seriousness he treats this issue. And therefore this sets the stage for the entire epistle to the Galatians, in that the whole Epistle is all about the Gospel, and the seriousness it should be held. Those who distort the Gospel according to Paul and are teaching others to do the same are damned unless they repent. In order to understand Galatians, we must therefore look at the epistle in this light, and know that the primary focus is on the nature of the Gospel rather than on issues like the Law or the fruit of the Spirit. The theme of the Gospel therefore must function as the interpretive grid through which we exegete the relevant passages in Galatians.
With this, let us continue to see what exactly was the distortion of the Gospel the Galatian Christians were falling into?
[to be continued]