INTRODUCTION TO AUGUST LESSONS
Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian freedom. In it, Paul defines the gospel in terms of liberation. If it feels like a straitjacket, it probably is not the gospel. One man said, “Since I became a Christian, I do anything I want to—the only difference is that Jesus changed all my want-tos.” This liberating gospel contains the righteousness found only in Christ, which is sufficient for living by the Spirit.
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Lesson Text: Galatians 1:6-12; 2:1-10
Supplemental Text: Galatians 1:13-24; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 15:1-5
Aim: Choose the one gospel of Christ and resist adding requirements to yourself and your neighbors.
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By Mark Scott
Sometimes what is missing matters. Disneyland without Mickey Mouse, Superman without a cape, or the Rocky Mountains without snow would seem most odd. In fact, the absence of those things would stand out and make a statement. Likewise, an Epistle from Paul without a typical prayer and thanksgiving at the beginning makes a statement. That is the book of Galatians.
Putting it mildly, Paul is chapped (cf. Galatians 5:12). In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul squared off against moral defection. But with the churches of Galatia, Paul squared off against doctrinal defection. The gospel that came from heaven cannot be improved. Adding to it or subtracting from it totally dilutes it.
The Gospel that Came from Heaven
Even in the opening salutation, Paul gave more than a subtle remark about the gospel that he preached. It was “not from men nor through man” (Galatians 1:1, English Standard Version). It came, just as Jesus did, from heaven. In what was the normal spot for the thanksgiving and prayer, Paul attacked this wrongheaded gospel. He expressed his dismay by using the strong word astonished (marveled or shocked). Since Galatians is one of the earliest New Testament books, it must not have taken long for this corruption of the gospel to set in following the first missionary journey (Acts 13–14). The people were deserting (literally “placing aside,” as in a military desertion) the original gospel.
This different (not even comparable) gospel was really no gospel at all. False teachers were confusing people and perverting (distorting or changing the form of) the gospel. Paul raised the stakes when he said that even if angels or people preached (evangelized) any other message, they should be under God’s curse (anathematized or sent to hell—so important that Paul said it twice). Paul cared nothing for human approval. He was not a people pleaser. He played to an audience of One. His overriding passion was to be Christ’s servant (slave). Paul’s gospel was not generated from human origin, nor was it received from anyone, nor was it taught in some rabbinic school. Paul received the gospel by revelation (God unveiling it).
The Gospel that Cannot Be Improved
Paul spent the latter half of Galatians 1 defending his apostleship. In Galatians 2:1 he returned to defending his message. In this section we learn more about the nature of this heresy. It is the gospel by addition. It is Jesus plus. But Paul would point out that a gospel of legalism is no gospel at all. To trace the nature of his true gospel, Paul revisited his numerous trips to Jerusalem. Scholars debate which trip to Jerusalem Paul had in mind here (Acts 9, 11, 15, 18, or 21). Perhaps even the fourteen years is not to be understood literally (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2). What we know is that Paul went up by God’s design and that he did not travel alone (in fact he hardly ever did). He took Barnabas and Titus along with him. Titus became a test case for Paul’s real gospel. During this trip, Paul met with the leaders—these are mentioned later in the text as James, Cephas and John.
Paul presented (set before) his gospel alongside an athletic metaphor (lest he had run in vain). The false teachers tried to compel (to violently force) Titus to be circumcised. For them, circumcision was necessary for salvation (cf. Acts 15:1). Paul would have none of it. He knew these false teachers had infiltrated (snuck in) the freedom the believers had in Christ. He would not give in (submit) so that the true gospel would not be compromised.
Adding clout to Paul’s defense of the gospel was his solidarity with the other main leaders of the church concerning the nature of the true gospel. James, Cephas, and John were held in high esteem—and rightly so. But their influence meant little to Paul since God does not show favoritism (regard the face of people). Even the last words of Peter recorded in Acts affirmed that he agreed with Paul’s gospel (Acts 15:7-11). Any difference between the workers could be chalked up to varying gifts of the Holy Spirit and opportunities for ministry. Some would preach to the Jews (circumcised), and some would preach to Gentiles (uncircumcised). The result was a warm embrace (the right hand of fellowship). The one additional caveat was to remember the poor (the truly needy). Paul was more than glad to do that as the collection for the saints was constantly on his radar.
Dr. Mark Scott serves as minister with Park Plaza Christian Church in Joplin, Mo. He retired in May after more than 30 years as professor of New Testament with Ozark Christian College in Joplin.