1 Thessalonians was a good place to start a study of Paul’s authentic letters, and not just because chronologically it is first. Paul is so warm and joyful in writing to the church at Thessaloniki; his happiness over their growth comes so easily through the words he wrote. The infectiousness it makes you want to read more Paul. It is also a good place to start with Paul theologically; he touches on several of his biggest preoccupations, but in a simple way, and lets you get comfortable with the way he talks about things.
Galatians is the polar opposite of 1 Thessalonians. Paul is angry, defensive, jealous, argumentative and accusatory, all in just the first two chapters. He dives right into the meat of his theological worldview, of his take on the gospel. Despite the tone, Galatians is extremely engaging and extraordinarily interesting, especially in how well it explains the early personal politics in the church, between such giants as Paul, Peter, John and James.
I split these two chapters into three main parts:
- The backstory of Paul
- Early church politics
- Paul’s gospel
Overall, Paul is writing to a church in Galatia (central Anatolia, in modern day Turkey) that he planted, a church of Gentiles who have become convinced by unnamed persons that they must adhere to Judaic law if they want to be considered followers of Christ. This is in direct contradiction to what Paul has premised his entire public ministry on, and boy is he angry. Let’s hit each of these emphases one-by-one.
The Backstory of Paul
Galatians begins in a way that no other letter of Paul does. After a short formulaic introduction, Paul launches right into a condemnation of the Galatians in verse 6, exclaiming, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ…” No prayer of thanksgiving, no praise for good deeds done, not even so much as a “we are thinking fondly of you” or anything.
Like I said, Paul is ANGRY.
After twice calling those who teach them anything divergent from what he taught “Accursed,” Paul launches into his own story. In doing so, he gives in to what I think is one of his biggest faults: his tendency to become overly defensive when his authority is challenged.
This defensiveness is understandable on one level. Paul is asserting his leadership in a church where all the other major figures-Peter, James, John-were men who lived and worked with Jesus during his time on earth. Paul did not, instead spending his time as a Pharisee hellbent on wiping out all followers of Christ. So in telling his own story, Paul emphasizes the personal experience of Christ he received at the instigation of God. This framing is so important to Paul in asserting his authority to lead and teach them; it must be understood by those he is writing to that: 1) he did have a personal relationship of sorts with Jesus, equal to that of Peter and company, and 2) this personal experience wasn’t of his own initiation, but instead was the work of God, thus adding the imprimatur of the Divine to Paul’s commission.
The idea of a personal faith, characterized by personal experiences of the Divine and personal relationships with God, is central to the kind of church Paul envisions: one centered on the individual, and that individual’s ability to experience Jesus without a priestly intermediary. This was an absolutely revolutionary idea, and something the institutional church willingly ignored for centuries after Paul, in order to consolidate it’s own power and importance.
Early Church Politics
From his own story, Paul moves into the story of his own relation to other church fathers, and how that has shaped the direction of the early church and it’s theology. Paul says after three years (presumably from his conversion experience), he went to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James for fifteen days. My Interpreters Bible commentary speculates this time was spent learning the details of Jesus’ life, ministry and death, something not yet written down at this early date, and thus something Paul wouldn’t have been intimately knowledgeable about. Paul then says he spent fourteen years in Syria and Cilicia (southern Turkey) before a return to Jerusalem.
This meeting has much more meaning. Paul goes to a meeting with the leaders of the Judaic Christians to relay a “revelation” he claims to have had. Over the ensuing decade-and-a-half from his first Jerusalem trip, Paul has developed the idea of a Universal Church, one with no barriers of Jew or Gentile. He has felt called to carry the gospel beyond the Jewish diaspora to the other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, and he wants the official blessing of Peter and his company to do so. Despite the best efforts of those he terms “spies,” Paul manages to get assent from Peter, James and John to be the apostle to the Gentiles, while they will focus on the Jews. Paul and his associate and close friend Barnabas get “the right hand of fellowship” from these friends of Jesus, with the only condition that they “remember the poor,” presumably through tithes to the Jerusalem church, something Paul claims himself “eager” to do.
But then things go downhill. Paul says he next saw Peter at Antioch, the capital of Syria and the home of many Jews. Paul is angry with Peter for going back on the agreement to bring Gentiles in, because now Peter has been influenced by James’ conservative faction that the fact that Paul is not requiring ritual Jewish purity of Gentile converts makes those Gentiles “unclean” and thus unacceptable for Christian fellowship. Paul views this move by Peter not as the fault of Peter, but instead his own necessary acquiescence to the politics of the Jerusalem church, but he is nevertheless ruthless in his treatment of Peter. The betrayal is personal for Paul, both because of the handshake agreement the two sides had, and because it had even caused Paul’s close friend Barnabas to abandon him for the Judaic crowd. Paul calls Peter out in front of the Antiochan church for his hypocrisy, setting off the on-going theological struggle that has invaded the Galatian church by the time of Paul’s writing.
The last section is just six verses, but man, it packs quite the theological punch. Coming off that explanation of how the church got to this place of disunity, Paul launches into a succinct, powerful explanation of the gospel as he sees it. Paul begins by stating that persons are “justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” What he means here is, we don’t receive justification from God due to our adherence to Jewish law, but through the faith we have in Jesus.
Previously, man needed the law to receive justification; by adherence to the law, we could strive to receive the redeeming action of God by living true to God’s instructions. But Paul sees this as limiting God; laws require only obedience, but God desires more than just obedience; God desires our love. God desires obedience to God’s self not because of obligation, but because we are compelled to obedience through love expressed by our faith in Jesus. Through faith, we have no choice but to act in obedience, not because it is demanded, but because in having faith, we become one with Christ, driven by the same concern and love of others he lived with. We become compelled to work for constant liberation of our brothers and sisters, and this fulfill the purposes of the law, without being beholden to it or driven by it.
In this formulation, agency has been shifted; previously we acted in obedience, and then God bestowed justification; now, God bestows justification because of our faith, and then we are compelled on to action. The Interpreters Bible puts it this way:
“(Paul) never allows us to forget that to be crucified with Christ is to share the motives, the purposes, and the way of life that led Jesus to the Cross; to take up vicariously the burden of the sins of others, forgiving and loving instead of condemning them; to make oneself the slave of every man; to create unity and harmony by reconciling man to God and man to his fellow men; to pray without ceasing “Thy will be done”; to consign one’s life to God, walking by faith where one cannot see; and finally to leave this earth with the prayer “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” “
This is powerful and consequential stuff, stuff that makes up much of Christian theology as we know it, but was very much in doubt at the time of Paul. He answers critics who might view this theory of Christian action as self-serving by explaining that Christ inhabits us upon our justification, and we can act in no way but in a way consistent with the life of Christ. He ending challenge, “if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing,” is a powerful shot across the bow of Peter (Jesus’ Rock) and James (Jesus’ brother.) It’s a hard point to argue, and probably why the theology of Paul was eventually so ascendant over the Jerusalem church. By making the statement, Paul was asserting his view of the purpose of Jesus’ life, a purpose centered not on calling people to obey the law, but centered instead of love of others and concern for the liberation and welfare of one another, above and beyond what the law requires.
These two chapters are heavy. There is a lot going on here, a lot to wrap your mind around, and all of it so important as we move forward with Paul. Understanding the background material Paul presents here, and grasping his powerful explanation of justification by faith, is essential to understanding the rest of the Pauline canon. Take the time to read slowly and deeply, and then get ready to get even deeper in the weeds.
Tomorrow: Galatians 3-4
For a PDF of the 30 Days of Paul reading plan, click here.