GALATIANS - A Verse-by-Verse Commentary

by Thomas W. Finley

Chapter One - The Gospel of Grace

Introduction - 1:1-5

Paul lays out his credentials as God’s apostle (which means “messenger” or “sent one”). He is not sent from men, nor even by God using “the agency of man.” He is sent out with God’s message through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead. From the start Paul begins a defense of his ministry by telling the truth, not bragging. He must tell who he really is and why his message is authentic, because others are seeking to discredit him and his message. Paul is showing that his ministry is from God because those who are troubling the Galatian churches are preaching a different message than Paul’s! In verse two, Paul is including those with him in his apostolic company as supporters of this letter to the churches of the province of Galatia.

Paul’s greeting of “grace and peace” to the recipients is usual to the opening greetings of his epistles to churches. The apostle expresses his hope that his readers will experience grace and peace from God for their Christian life. Although Paul’s familiar greeting seems almost like a formality, we should not take it this way. The apostle knows that only God’s grace can keep believers living in the reality of the Christian life, and only peace from God can support us in the midst of troubles and turmoil. Importantly, we should note that “grace” is a keynote of this letter. Although the believers were called “in the grace of Christ” (1:6), the Judaizing troublemakers were turning these believers away from grace to law. This turn would cause them to “fall from grace” (5:4).

Verse four is very interesting and somewhat unique in the New Testament in that it explicitly states that Christ’s sacrifice for our sins was for this specific purpose: “so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” This age will end when Jesus returns and sets up His kingdom of 1,000 years (Matt. 13:36-40; 19:27-29 and Mk. 10:28-30). The New Testament often contrasts this present age with the age to come. This age is evil firstly because it is under the devil’s rule (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Jn. 5:19). The world is also filled with evil temptations and the wickedness of man (Eph. 2:2; 1 Jn. 2:15-17).

However, I think Paul’s thought here is that this “deliverance from this present evil age” especially signifies a release from the bondage of legalism, an adherence to religious rules for living a holy life. This understanding is in accord with the context of the epistle as a whole where liberty in Christ is stressed, especially pointing to freedom from the bondage of legalism (Gal. 2:4; 4:3, 9, 24-26; 5:1). This view is also supported by the statements of Paul in Gal. 6:13-15. There Paul says he has been crucified to the world – a religious world signified by the rite of circumcision.

The turn of the Galatians to law constituted a turning away from the very purpose of Christ’s work – to bring believers into intimate fellowship with Christ (the experience of grace), and conform them into His image (Rom. 8:29). God’s purpose is to bring men into maturity in Christ and build up the body of Christ (Gal 4:19; Eph. 4:12-14). This evil age is working against God’s purpose. Aside from the problem of the lusts of this world (1 Jn. 2:15-17), we see that there are “elementary principles of this world,” which include religious rules and rites (Gal. 4:9-11; 6:12-15; Col. 2:20-23). While these may seem good to the religious mind, a focus on such religious “law” frustrates believers from enjoying true spiritual fellowship with Christ in the realm of grace (Gal. 5:2-4).

It should be noted that verse four reads “so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” The word “might” is used here in the translation to indicate that the verb for “rescue” is in the subjunctive mood in the original Greek language of the New Testament. The subjunctive mood indicates that the action (being rescued) is not certain, but may happen. Unfortunately, today there are many true Christians who are still captured by this evil age – by its temptations to sin, its pleasures or its worries, or by its religious bondage of law-keeping. They have not yet been liberated to enjoy Christ in His power and grace. The truths in Galatians can help them realize this potential rescue.

Finally, let us think about the real significance of this thought here: “who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age.” Almost all Christians think this way: “He gave Himself for our sins so that we might go to heaven.” Although it is true that Christ’s death on the cross does bring us into an eternal relationship with God, here we see that Paul is stressing another purpose of God in Christ’s dying for our sins. That purpose is our sanctification, a living in this world set free from all bondage and evil influence of the present age in order to live a life expressing Christ. This purpose is extremely significant to God, and Paul is spiritually burdened for this purpose to be realized in the Galatian believers: “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).

Paul’s aim for his readers is Christian maturity, a well-developed expression of Christ in their living. He sees God’s goal in Christ as something much more than just “being saved,” or having a “ticket for heaven.” Therefore, we will see that throughout the letter Paul’s main burden is not about initial “justification” with God. He is not writing with an intention to be sure that the readers are saved, or to tell them how to be saved. His aim is the sanctification of his readers, the progressive growth in holiness in their daily lives, resulting in a clear conformation of Christ’s life in their lives. In conjunction with this, we will see that Paul is writing to turn the Galatians back to grace and abandon the way of law for sanctification. In understanding an epistle such as this one, we should keep in mind the overall purpose for which it seems to be written. This purpose will often help the reader and the teacher more accurately understand passages within the letter.

The gospel of grace distorted - 1:6-10

Bible commentators have noticed that this epistle includes no opening praise to God or prayer for the saints. This is unusual for Paul. One reason for this could be that he is strongly burdened about a problem, and he charges into this problem in verse six with a serious rebuke to the Galatian churches.

Verse six makes some powerful points. We must remember that Paul is probably writing this letter at some point less than two years after he visited these cities in Galatia and brought them to Christ (Acts 13:14-14:23). Thus Paul is amazed, that not long after receiving the good news, these believers were “deserting Christ” by turning to religious law-keeping. They have been called “by [actually “in”] the grace of Christ” but now they were abandoning His grace for a “different gospel.” Paul’s use of the Greek word heteros for the word “different” here, instead of using allos, is significant. Using allos would have a meant a difference of the same kind, but heteros denotes a difference of kind or nature. The “different gospel” here is radically different from the genuine gospel of grace.

The gospel here is basically called “the grace of Christ.” The “gospel of Christ,” or the “good news” about Christ in verse seven, is really the good news of grace, the grace of Christ. We should understand that “the gospel” (the “good news”) revealed in the New Testament is not restricted to only that information that helps us get “saved” (initial salvation; Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8-9) or born again.[1] Dr. Robert Wilkin, writing in The Grace New Testament Commentary, makes these comments on the “gospel” here in this verse: “The word gospel means good news. As he makes clear in 2:14-21, Paul’s gospel was both the good news about justification and sanctification.”[2] Also, Dr. David Anderson, President of Grace School of Theology, in his comments on the effects of Galatian legalism today, states the following: “What we can know is that Paul is concerned about a group of his converts who very quickly slipped into Galatianism, which he calls a different gospel than the one he preached to them (1:6). The good news (gospel) that Paul preached actually included both justification and sanctification (Rom. 1:16-18).” [3][4]

As we work through the verses in this epistle, we should clearly see that Paul’s usage of the words “gospel” and “grace” point to more than just initial justification. As a reminder, the term “justification” is commonly used by Bible teachers to apply to the beginning point of our Christian life, the moment we believe and are born again (Rom. 4:5; 5:1). At that moment in time we are “justified,” or “declared righteous” by God because of our faith in Christ and His redemptive work on the cross. The term “sanctification,” as used in the quotes just above, describes the ongoing work of God in our Christian lives whereby we become increasingly holy in our daily life. So, Paul’s gospel applies both to the beginning of our Christian life, when we are justified once for all, and to our daily walk with Christ over our lifetimes (the process of sanctification).

So, what does it mean – “the grace of Christ?” The grace of Christ is the giving of Himself to us through the Holy Spirit and the working of the Spirit within us. Without spending too much time on “grace,” let us say a few things. Many believers have heard that grace means “unmerited favor.” It is true that grace is favorable to us, and we do nothing to deserve it. But, grace is really much more meaningful than that. It is God giving us His spiritual riches in the person of Christ! Consider this verse on the grace of Christ in 2 Cor. 8, a chapter about giving to others out of our riches. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2. Cor. 8:9). Also consider this verse: “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16). Receiving from Christ’s own fullness is a matter of grace! We begin the Christian life by receiving Him and we continue by receiving a supply of His riches day by day (Jn. 1:12; Gal. 2:20; 3:5).

One Biblical scholar, Professor Norman P. Williams of the University of Oxford, England, wrote a book called “The Grace of God” where he concluded that “there is no ‘higher gift than grace’; grace is ‘God’s presence and his very Self, and Essence all divine.’”[5] Renowned Bible expositor F. F. Bruce stated that Williams’ “inquiry into the nature of divine grace led him to the conclusion that it could be adequately understood only in personal terms – that it should be equated frankly with the person of the Holy Spirit. . . . Certainly this question removes a number of difficulties in our attempts to grasp what grace is: divine grace, we may say, is the Spirit of God in action towards man or in man.”[6] The fact that grace is very involved dynamically in the ongoing sanctification of the believer is evident from many passages. Some examples are: 1 Cor. 15:10; 2 Cor. 1:12; 12:9; Titus 2:11-12; Heb. 4:15-16.

So those who were troubling the believers in Galatia were distorting the gospel of Christ. They were changing the message from knowing Christ for holiness through grace, to religious law-keeping for holiness. The term “Judaizer” is used to describe one who promoted the Jewish law and traditions as the means for righteousness and holiness. These Judaizers were telling these Gentile converts that to be holy and right with God they must pay attention to and keep certain rules and rites of the Old Testament and certain Jewish traditions.

It is clear that circumcision was one rite these Judaizers were particularly pushing (Gal. 5:2-3). However, in line with Paul’s consistent theme throughout this letter, he denies the importance of this rite at all, pointing instead to the reality of the new life in Christ (Gal. 5:6; 6:15). These Judiazers were at work in Galatia, deceiving these Gentile believers, confusing them into thinking that now they needed the law in order to please God - see 3:1; 4:17-21; 5:4-13; 6:12-13. Through much argument throughout his letter, Paul underscores his basic message: the believer in Christ is not “under law” (the “law principle”), but is now under grace (the “grace principle”). We will explore these principles in more depth later in this commentary.

In verses eight and nine Paul says that any person preaching a gospel contrary to the gospel he preached to the Galatians is to be accursed! The expression means that person is to be under the curse of God, but a thoughtful study of the New Testament indicates that this curse is not equal to eternal condemnation, but rather some temporal judgment from God. Paul uses this same Greek word for curse (anathema) in Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22. Since Paul is a born again believer, the possibility of him coming under a curse could not point to eternal damnation (see Jn. 5:24)[7]. In Gal. 1:8 he places himself and those with him potentially under this curse if they should now preach a gospel contrary to what Paul had preached initially. What this does tell us is the seriousness of tampering with God’s message of grace – grace for initial salvation and grace for sanctification of the life.

Paul states plainly that he is not one seeking to please men. Perhaps he had been accused of this by the Judaizers, who may have said that Paul teaches an easy way – without law - for the Gentiles, accommodating them for their favor. But Paul states he is no longer trying to please men (as he may have been in Judaism). His sole aim is to please Christ as a bond-servant. He is faithful to the truth, no matter who is pleased or how large his audience. What an example for us in a day when it seems that the size of the preacher’s audience has become a top motivation in Christendom.

Paul defends his ministry – 1:11-24

There must be a reason why Paul now covers some details about his personal history. In verse 20 he even states that before God he is not lying. It seems clear that Paul is defending his ministry to the Galatians against untruths told about him, his right to be accepted as a true minister of God and His message. His sole aim is that the “truth of the gospel” be preserved. No doubt the Judaizers, in promoting their teaching, worked to discredit both Paul’s message and his authenticity as a messenger from God. In verses 11-12 Paul strongly claims that the gospel he preaches is not derived from any human source. It was not “according to man,” meaning it is not according to man’s thoughts.

All of man’s religions and religious principles emphasize what man must do to be accepted by God. This response of sinful and guilty men began in the garden of Eden right after the fall. The first thing Adam and Eve did was to make garments of fig leaves to cover their nakedness. This action is a graphic picture of man doing something - his works - in order to be right before God. Guilty man spontaneously thinks he must perform some work or ritual in order to please God. So, “grace” – the gift of God to man for initial salvation, and the giving of Christ’s life to us for our sanctification (ongoing holiness) - is altogether something not according to man’s religious thoughts.

Additionally, the gospel Paul preached was not passed on to him by men, nor was he taught it, which would have been normative in Judaism, or in other religions. Even Paul himself had learned the traditions of Judaism from the famous teacher Gamliel. Instead, Paul tells us that his gospel came “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Jesus Himself revealed the truth of the gospel to Paul. The initial revelation took place on the road to Damascus when Jesus arrested Paul with a divine appearance of Himself as the risen Son of God. Yet, more understanding no doubt came to Paul later as the Holy Spirit shined upon the many truths of the Old Testament which Paul knew so well.

In verses 13-14 Paul describes his life before Christ as a zealous Jew, excelling in learning and observing the traditions of Judaism. Further, in the name of that religion he persecuted the church of God with ferocity, wanting to completely stamp the Jesus people out. Yet, he completely changed his course! He rejected the way of the meticulous law-keeping Pharisees and embraced Christ, the very One whom the Pharisees had crucified as a blasphemer! How could such a driven religious person make such a radical and sudden change? Why would he leave the Judaism of his fathers, which he loved and served with such dedication? His dramatic change was compelling evidence that some great force redirected his course entirely. Now he lays it out to the readers of his letter. God Himself was the agent behind Paul’s change.

Firstly, Paul tells us that God had set him apart for His service even from his mother’s womb. This type of sovereign selection beforehand is certainly in line with God’s dealings with the great prophets Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) and Isaiah (49:1, 5). In Acts, God says this to Ananias, which confirmed Paul’s being set apart in God’s plan: “Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

Secondly, God called Paul through a personal appearance, with penetrating words of life-giving grace: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? . . . I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:4-5). Notice Jesus did not tell him that God was going to judge him for his persecution, but Jesus told him to get up and go forward to learn what he must do. The Lord knew Paul would be responsive to His appearance and would acknowledge Him whom was the Lord after all. Thirdly, God revealed His Son in Paul. Not only was there an outward appearance of Jesus in glorious divine light, but there was inward revelation – a revelation of Christ. Now Paul knew deep within his spirit that Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God.

All true revelation is not outward seeing with the senses, but inward, in the deepest part of man – in his spirit where he can sense and know God and the things of God intuitively and directly (Prov. 20:27; Rom. 8:15-16; 1 Cor. 2:10-15; Eph. 1:17). The Christ, the Son of the living God, was spiritually revealed to Paul just as He was to Peter in Matt. 16:13-17. This revelation no doubt deepened as Paul progressed in pursuing Christ. It should be noted in 1:16 that all of this work of God in putting Paul into ministry resulted in this: “so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles.” Paul’s preaching focused on presenting the living person of Christ to the Gentiles. We could also say that Paul’s presentation of the gospel of Christ was not only in word, but also by the example of his life, as he lived Christ’s life by faith (Gal. 2:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 1:20-21; 1 Thess. 1:5-6).

Paul goes on to validate his ministry by showing further that his gospel and commission were not from the apostles who were before Him. He did not immediately go to “flesh and blood” to learn and be approved or ordained. He learned from God, who no doubt gave him great light upon the Old Testament. We do not really know what transpired in his time in Arabia, but he was likely seeking God much and learning from Him, as well as preaching Him there.

It wasn’t until three years after his conversion that Paul decided to visit Jerusalem and get to know Peter. Some Bible teachers say this visit is the one recorded in Acts 9:26-30, and I agree. During that visit he also met James, the Lord’s brother. He then states he is not lying because he wants the Galatians to know that his gospel and his ministry did not derive from Peter and the apostles - they derived from God. Paul may have been accused by the Judaizers operating in Galatia of either abandoning some supposed earlier teaching he received from the apostles, or of not being subject to their authority.

After Paul left Jerusalem, he continued to carry on his own God-given ministry for several years in Syria and Cilicia, apart from coordination with the apostles in Jerusalem. During all of this period Paul was unknown by face to the churches of Judea. The point of Paul telling all of this history is to demonstrate that he had no reason to be under Jerusalem’s “authority” because he had his own authority from the Lord Jesus Himself as God’s minister to the Gentiles (see Acts 26:15-18). Additionally, his gospel did not derive from those in Jerusalem; Paul had already been preaching his gospel before his visit to Jerusalem, a gospel which he had received from Christ.

John R. W. Stott spells out Paul’s defense in this section marvelously: “What Paul has been saying in verses 13 to 24 may be summarized thus: The fanaticism of his pre-conversion career, the divine initiative in his conversion, and his almost total isolation from the Jerusalem church leaders afterwards together combined to demonstrate that his message was not from man but from God. Further, this historical, circumstantial evidence could not be gainsaid.”[8]

The last two verses of chapter one speak about Paul’s effect upon the Christian community. The saints were glorifying God because of what God was doing in Paul. What an amazing turn around Paul had! The believers could only marvel at the work of the Spirit of God in Paul. To this day, Paul’s story is resounding – not only in the church, but even in the world of unbelievers. Most people who are educated and have had any exposure to Christian things know of Paul’s dramatic conversion and subsequent labor for the Lord. Surely God has been glorified mightily through Paul! We too can have an effect on the world around us and on the church. All we need do is seek to make Gal. 2:20 our reality also. This experience is available to us.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] Many believers think that 1 Cor. 15:1-4 defines the entire content of “the gospel” as consisting of the truths that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and that He rose again. However, in 1 Cor. 15:3 Paul says that he “delivered to you first of all” these particular truths. The Greek phrase rendered here “first of all” is en protos. It means “among the first,” or “the things of first importance.” Therefore, though these truths are very important, they do not contain the total content of Paul’s gospel. In context, the terms of the gospel noted in 1 Cor. 15:1-4 by Paul are selected to support the truth of the resurrection, the topic of Paul’s argument against a significant error that had been raised in Corinth (1 Cor. 15:12).

[2] Robert N. Wilkin, Ed., The Grace New Testament Commentary (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), Vol. 2, p. 824.

[3] David R. Anderson, Ph.D., Bewitched: The Rise of Neo-Galatianism (The Woodlands, TX: Grace Theology Press, 2015), pp. 162-163.

[4] The idea that the “gospel” in Rom. 1:16 concerns only initial salvation (forgiveness of sins, justification by God for the sinner, and being born again through faith) is a very common one. However, there is much evidence in the book of Romans (the larger context of the verse) that “the power of God for salvation” (a word basically meaning “deliverance”) applies not only to the unbeliever, but also to the believer. The unbeliever is obviously delivered from the guilt of his sins through faith (Rom. 3:22-26). But, the believer is also delivered through the power of God from the dominion of sin, a matter of sanctification (Rom. 6:1-14). This salvation also includes deliverance from God’s potential temporal wrath against a believer’s sin (Rom. 5:9; a demonstration of God’s temporal wrath is possible for the sinning believer – 1 Cor. 11:27-31, for example). Deliverance (salvation) is accomplished for the believer by the power of God’s life within: “much more, having been reconciled we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10). The immediate context of Rom. 1:16 indicates that Paul wants to preach “the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:15). But, note that these in Rome, his readers, were already believers! So the gospel Paul desires to preach to them must include good news for the believer, not solely for the unbeliever. Further, verse 17 speaks of the ongoing walk of faith, and the verse stresses that the one who is righteous (by his initial faith) shall indeed live by faith. What is stressed here again is the matter of the new life within the believer for ongoing deliverance – sanctification. In summary, “the gospel” noted in Rom. 1:16, at least includes the power of God for deliverance – justification for the unbeliever (Rom. 3-4) and sanctification for the believer (Rom. 5-8). Even glorification is included in Romans as part of “the gospel” that Paul proclaimed. Much more detail to these views is provided in a commentary on Romans titled, “Romans Unlocked – The Power to Deliver.” This commentary was published in 2005 and written by René Lopez, Th. M. His views are not unique, as others have made similar observations, but his book lays out a compelling understanding of the message of Romans and “the gospel” in Rom. 1:16. His commentary received numerous favorable reviews from well-regarded seminary and ministry leaders in the evangelical community.

[5] N. P. Williams, The Grace of God (London, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), p. 110.

[6] F. F. Bruce, The Grace of God and the Law of Christ, essay in God and the Good, Clinton J. Orlebeke and Lewis B.Smedes, Eds., (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), as reproduced in the periodical Searching Together, Winter 2002, Volume 30:4, p. 6. F. F. Bruce (1910-1990) was one of the most well-known evangelical scholars of the 20th century.

[7] The author realizes that many have been taught that salvation which has become theirs can also be “lost.” However, the testimony of Scripture is that this is not so. For Scriptural proofs of the believer’s eternal security, please see Appendix D. That appendix contains a booklet written by John Smith titled Eternal Security.

[8] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove,IL: Intervarsity Press, USA, 1968), p. 36.