In the letter to the Galatians, we find the Apostle Paul amazed at the fact that many are so rapidly deserting Christ for another gospel (1:6), of which Paul emphasises there is not really another. There are some people who are seeking to disturb the Galatians and distort the truth they have received.
Who were these people seeking to distort the truth of the gospel? The Judaizers were ‘so called’ Christians who taught that in order to be part of God’s family and justified on the last day, followers must observe the Mosaic law, specifically circumcision (2:3), dietary laws (2:12) and calendar observance (4:10) which marked Jews out as the people of God.
Paul opposed vigorously the idea that gentiles must be circumcised and therefore wrote the epistle explaining the truth.
The question we may pose then is, ‘what is the different gospel Paul describes in Galatians 1:6?’
According to man
The false gospel Paul speaks of is from man and is contrary to the gospel the Galatians had initially received (1:9). He gives a long account of how the gospel he received was not according to man, rather it came ‘through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1:12).
To please man:
The reason the Judaizers wanted to distort the gospel was because they sought the favour of men as opposed to God. The desire to seek favour of someone often reflects an inner longing to be accepted. Chapter 6 verse 12 shows us that these men desired to put on a good show, compelling gentiles to be circumcised so that they would not be persecuted for the cross of Christ (6:12).
Even the Apostle Peter stood condemned because he separated himself from the gentiles. The reason for this behaviour was fear; he feared the party of the circumcision and therefore sought to please man rather than God (2:12).
The sobering words of Paul inform us that if we want to seek the favour of men, we are not servants of the Messiah (1:10).
The false gospel presented in this epistle reveals how the true gospel is distorted. The word ‘distort’ used in Chapter 1 verse 7 means literally ‘to turn around’. The message the Galatians had received initially was now being turned around by the Judaizers. They were being led back to the message they had heard before the gospel had been preached to them, namely, that in order to be part of God’s family (or be a proselyte) you have to be circumcised, not only that, it is compulsory to observe dietary and calendar laws. Chapter 4 verse 9 and 10 describe how some had ‘turned back again to the weak and worthless, elemental things’, things they desired to be enslaved to once again.
Sons of God through faith or law:
Jewish circumcision was a sign that you were part of the covenant of God and therefore Abraham’s descendants. For Jews, eating with uncircumcised gentiles was also prohibited and therefore observing dietary laws reflected your covenant status. The gospel was so distorted by the party of the circumcision that even Peter was led astray, therefore withdrawing from the gentile Christians at meal times. The true gospel allowed Jew and gentile to eat together as one people; the distorted gospel led Jewish believers to withdraw from the gentiles believing themselves to be the true people of God.
The good news had been turned around so much so that surprisingly Peter compelled gentiles to live like Jews. Proselytising them as Jews had previously been customary under the old covenant in order to be in right standing before God.
The Galatians had begun in the spirit by receiving the true gospel, however, turning to a false gospel, they were now perfecting their covenant status by circumcision, being as Paul describes, ‘perfected by the flesh’ (3:3).
Paul addresses this hypocrisy by explaining that man is not put in right standing with God by ‘works of the law’ but through faith in the Messiah. In other words, circumcision and torah observance has no power to make you a son of Abraham (part of God’s family) because ‘cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law to perform them.’ (3:10). No Jew or gentile has ever held fast to the law completely other than the Messiah himself. Therefore the observance of torah is not an indicator that man is an heir of promise, for ‘the righteous man shall live by faith’ (3:11). Before the revealing of faith in the Messiah, Jews were kept under guard by the law until the fathers set date (3:23, 4:2). The law therefore became a guide to Christ, for the promise could only be given to those who believe in him (3:24). Consequently in chapter 3 verse 26 (which in my understanding is the central verse of Galatians) we become partakers in God’s family through faith in the Messiah who puts us in right standing with God. In Christ then, there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised. Those who belong to Christ through faith are all one, being Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise, not through ‘works of the law’ (3:28, 29).
Galatians 4 tells of Abraham having two sons, one by the bondwoman and the other by the freewoman, the first is a slave, and the latter is free. The bondwoman was born according to the flesh. Why? She bore her child by natural means apart from promise of God. The freewoman however, bore her child through God’s promise to Abraham. Therefore the child of the bondwoman became a slave and the child of the freewoman became free. Paul explains that those who are of the bondwoman shall not be heirs with the freewoman and therefore those in the Messiah are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.
Subjection to slavery
As a result, those who joined in with the hypocrisy of circumcision, Paul declares to be subject to a yoke of slavery and consequentially severed from the Messiah, no longer part of God’s family, fallen from grace (Galatians 5:3,4). He testifies that those who want to be circumcised must thus keep the whole law to be put in right standing before God (5:3). Before the Messiah, the defining sign that a Jew was a member of the covenant was circumcision, and if a member of the covenant, all other rules had to be obeyed. Those who had not been tricked by the false gospel and relying upon circumcision, Paul says are by faith hoping for future vindication. Tom Wright states,
‘Paul speaks of the time when God will declare publicly and completely that all those in Christ really are his people. This is ‘the hope of righteousness’, the longing for the time when God’s vindication and justification of all his faithful people will be made manifest, the time of the new creation ( 6.15).’
If the Messiah’s people hope for vindication though faith, verse 6 must be true, ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.’ His people are not defined by observance of torah, rather faith working through love.
Flesh vs Spirit
If God’s people are identified by ‘faith working through love’, how then is this defining marker outworked?
Paul encourages the Galatians firstly with their call to freedom, and secondly to walk by the spirit (5:13,16). This new creation in the Messiah is to use their freedom to serve one another through love. Their statement of faith is ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (5:14). Paul describes the contrasts of those of the bondwoman, who are not heirs of promise to the sons of the freewoman, those who are sons of promise. The sons of the flesh outwork their sonship in immorality, impurity, sensuality and so on (5:19-21). The sons of the spirit practice the spirit’s fruit, love, joy, peace and so on (5:22-23). Those who belong to the Messiah, the true sons of God, share in his crucifixion, being crucified to the fleshes desires and passions, no longer part of the bondwoman.
The false gospel in Galatians is that to be part of God’s family, heirs of promise and be justified on Jesus’ return you must be circumcised and observe works of the torah.
So what is the true gospel in Galatians?
The true gospel is that you are God’s family, heirs of promise through faith in Jesus the Messiah.
What does this mean for 21st Century Christians?
1/ According to man – we must be careful to ensure we receive the gospel through a revelation of Jesus Christ and not through man. Though we may hear the good news through man as a mouthpiece we have to be careful to discern it through the lens of the Messiah. One practical way of doing this is to follow Paul’s example. He didn’t rely on men’s understanding of truth, rather he went away. It is not clear what Paul did during his time away, and it would not be beneficial to isolate one’s self. However, it is beneficial to search the scriptures and consult with Jesus himself on truth. Relying on man can be naive and lead to distortion of truth.
2/ Distorts – For many reasons, one of which may be fear, we turn around to embrace false gospels and neglect the true gospel God wishes to reveal to us in the Messiah. In 21st century western society are not be being compelled to circumcision to be accepted by God, nevertheless I would suggest there are alternative gospels being declared and embraced. Here are a few:
- Prosperity gospel: Believe in Jesus and he will give you all you ever wanted, the big house, the flashy car and a thriving Christian ministry.
- Moralistic gospel: In order to be in right standing with God and earn his favour you better have ensured you did not harm anyone, gave to charity and lived a good Christian life.
- Antinomian gospel: You’re saved by grace and faith alone and don’t have to live according to God’s ways, forget the law. Don’t worry, you can do what you want, you’re already in.
These are some of the many different gospels we are challenged with today.
3/ Enslaves – One of the many consequences of allegiance to false gospels is that those who submit to them become enslaved and therefore severed from Christ. God’s grace only stretches to those who obey the true gospel and its boundaries. For this reason those who are bewitched by alternative gospels cannot be part of God’s family. If we are to live in freedom then we must ensure we submit ourselves to truth. Here are some suggested ways of doing this.
- Boast only in the cross of Jesus the Messiah and Lord (6:14)
- Through love serve one another (5:13)
- Seek the favour of God and not men (1:10)