NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCH
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson IV)
Now early church scholar Cassiodorus (485-580 AD) tells us that when Paul calls himself an Apostle by a divine calling through the Anointed One, Jesus, it was his way of challenging those who depended solely on human authority for styling themselves as Apostles. The churches in Galatia at that time were being thrown into turmoil by false preachers. But Paul wants them to know through his greeting, along with all the brethren who are with him, that he is a friend, not a foe. That’s why in his greeting he also blesses them. This was to make them feel comfortable in receiving the instructions from the Word of the Lord in order to help them become more established in their faith.1
A well-known Roman author and naturalist named Pliny the Elder, who lived between 23–79 AD, gives us a description of this area during the same period when Paul traveled throughout this territory. He tells us that inhabitants from France came down to this area and intermarried with the Greeks who lived there, and at first, it was called Gallogræcia, but later became known simply as Galatia. He tells us that the capital city was named Gordium,2 and some of the chief towns were Ancyra (today known as Ankara), Tavium (an important trading post and at the crossroads and stopping place on busy caravan routes), and Pessinus (along the banks of the Sakarya River from which the mythological King Midas supposedly came). The churches as we know them from the Bible were in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. It was possible that some unnamed churches were founded in other surrounding cities.3
These city names sound foreign to us today, but back then they were considered important and good places for churches to be started. Also, such travelers as Pliny the Elder, spelled the names of these cities in Latin, which, when translated into Greek, are spelled differently, and then we have the English transliteration to deal with. I learned how confusing this can be when searching for my paternal home in East Prussia. When my grandfather lived there it was called Klein Dankheim in German. But I wasn’t able to find it on any map until I discovered that after WWI this area was divided between Poland and Germany. Now the name of my grandfather’s birthplace is called Przeździęk Mały in Polish.
Early church theologian Jerome (347-420 AD), does not see Paul speaking here out of pride, rather, to remove any uncertainty or doubt concerning his appointment and commission as the Apostle to the Gentiles. He did this to confound any of those who were alleging that since he was not one of the original twelve apostles or ordained by the elders, he was a false prophet. This might also be taken as aimed indirectly at Peter and the others because the Gospel was committed to him not by the Apostles but by the same Jesus the Anointed One who chose those same Apostles.4
One of the earliest preachers of the Gospel who commented on Paul’s letter to the Galatians was John Chrysostom (349-407 AD), Bishop of Constantinople. He noted that Paul’s rhetoric was full of an intense and reverent spirit, and not only the rhetoric but also, so to speak, the whole Epistle. One should always address one’s disciples with mildness, even when they need discipline. Speaking sharply would only pertain to troublemakers and impostors. Our Lord also, though He generally spoke gently to His disciples, here and there uses strong language,5 and who was heard to pronounce a blessing one day and a rebuke the next. For instance, having said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona,”6 and having promised to lay the foundation of the Church upon his confession, shortly afterward He says, “Get yourself behind Me, Satan: you are a stumbling block to Me.”7 On another occasion, Jesus asked very sharply of Peter, “Are you still not understanding Me?”8
Chrysostom tells us that the fact this Epistle breathes an incensed spirit should be obvious to everyone even on the first reading, but he must explain the cause of Paul’s anger against these believers in Galatia. It could not be something slight and unimportant or he would not have used such sharp words. For to be exasperated by unimportant matters is the weakness of the small-minded, moody, and irritable individual; just as it is a part of the more slow-minded and dull people who quickly lose heart in weighty matters. The Apostle Paul was not like that. So what got him so irritated and upset? It was serious and significant; one which was disorienting them all from the Anointed One. It needed to be confronted face to face.9
Chrysostom also believes there may be some to learn when it comes to Paul’s statement that he was called by God and not by men to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Many commentators think Paul was referring to his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. However, Chrysostom points to the occasion in Antioch where Paul was helping to teach, that in one worship service, the Holy Spirit, spoke through one of the prophets and told the church, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”10
So in Chrysostom’s mind, this was the apostleship that Paul was referring to. In other words, his calling came from God through his meeting the Anointed One on the road to Damascus, but his Apostleship came from God through the Holy Spirit that the church should ordain and support Paul and Barnabas as apostles to the Gentiles. To think of it, would Paul not have been establishing churches in Galatia were it not for that ordination in Antioch?11
In another of the earliest commentaries on Paul’s letter, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), who was one of Chrysostom’s contemporaries, shares his impression. For him, the reason that the Apostle writes to the Galatians was to help them understand what it was that God’s grace accomplished for them since they are no longer under the Law. For although the grace of the Gospel was preached to them, there were some from the Jewish believers who still did not grasp the real benefit of grace. Despite being called Christians, they still felt comfortable under the burden of full obedience to the Law that the Lord God imposed not only on those serving righteousness but also on those serving sin. That is, He gave a righteous law to unrighteous people to point out their sins, not take them away. It removes sins only by the grace of faith, which works through love.
Augustine continues by observing that if a person is sent out to preach on the authority of another human being, they cannot be fully trusted to explain the whole mystery of salvation. However, if a person is sent out on the authority God charged another human being to give them, then they will be more trustworthy. This happened with Paul and Barnabas at the church in Antioch in Syria. But Paul wanted the Galatians to know that God Himself sent him, therefore, he can be trusted to be honest and truthful.12
Another early church scholar, Cassiodorus (485-580 AD), points out that Paul does not call himself an Apostle commissioned by a council of men, but one who was appointed by Jesus the Anointed One Himself. Paul did not do this to refute any criticism or claims against his authority, but to show the difference between his calling and that of those who came behind him into Galatia with their Judaizing message combining works with grace. And by mentioning that there were others with him who felt the same way, he dispelled any assumption that he was only speaking for himself.13
So in the opening verse, Paul sets the theme for the whole epistle: If the original Apostles commissioned him or an agent of the Anointed One was used to give him his commission (as the false teachers in Galatia were alleging), then he would be subordinate to them, and, therefore, under their control. As such, the Judaizers would have then been able to convince the Galatians that Paul was only a yes-man preaching what the original twelve disciples told him to say. As such, he was given no individual authority from Jesus Himself, as he claimed.
In his greeting, the Apostle Paul teaches us a lesson on being real: never pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t put on airs as though you should be treated special because of your pedigree or something special you have to offer. Even when you’re among unbelievers don’t become stuck-up in your holiness, salvation or sanctification. In this salutation, Paul embodies several interesting points: Historically, only those disciples who actually saw the risen Savior, qualified to be called Apostles. Yet Paul identifies himself as an Apostle, but with a qualifier. First, He didn’t claim to have the backing of the original twelve disciples, nor was He writing this letter “on their behalf.” Furthermore, he did not keep it a secret that he knew them, so in case the Galatians refused to accept him for who he was, he could proudly invoke the names of Peter, James, or John to show they accepted him as a fellow Apostle and brother in union with the Anointed One.
The original Greek noun apostolos identifies someone who is sent out as a messenger to teach, in contrast to a mathētēs (“disciple” KJV) who is a student that continually learns from an instructor. In the Orient, masters taught their disciples in the hopes that they might develop into being even better masters than themselves. But in Christianity, a disciple is one who never stops learning because it is impossible to become better than their teacher – Jesus the Anointed One. But Paul was also drawing on his Jewish roots in declaring that he was not sent by any church individual or any council, because according to the teachings of the Rabbis, the Sanhedrin sent out members prior to the festivals into all the surrounding areas to coordinate and approve the proper gathering of the correct grains to be offered, and to do so with great pomp and circumstance.14
1 Cassiodorus: On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), ibid., p. 1
2 Gordium was the capital of ancient Phrygia, modern Yassihüyük. It is situated on the place where the ancient Royal road between Lydia and Assyria/Babylonia crosses the river Sangarius, which flows from central Anatolia to the Black Sea. Remains of the road are still visible. In the ninth century BC, the city became the capital of the Phrygians, a Thracian tribe that invaded and settled in Asia. They created a large kingdom that occupied the greater part of Turkey west of the river Halys. It is also not too far from the tomb of the famous King Midas. The kings of Phrygia built large tombs near Gordium. These wooden chambers were covered by artificial hills that are usually called tumuli. There are about eighty of them; forty have been investigated by archaeologists, and turn out to cover the period from the eighth to the first century BC.
3 Pliny’s Natural History in Thirty-Seven Books, A Translation on the Basis of that by D. Philemon Holland, Ed. 1601, Vol. II, Bk. 5, Ch. 32, pp. 95-97
4 Jerome: On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), ibid, p. 2.
5 See Matthew 7:6; 15:7; 23:16-17, 27, 33; 25:20; Luke 11:39; 13:32
6 Matthew 16:17
7 Ibid. 16:23
8 Ibid. 15:16
11 The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 11, by Philip Schaff, ed., Book For the Ages, op. cit., Homily 27, p. 307
12 Augustine: Commentary on Galatians, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
13 Cassiodorus: Summary on Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), Ibid. p. 1
14 The Mishnah, Translated from the Hebrew by Herbert Danby, Oxford University Press, New York, 1933, Fifth Division: Kodashim, Tractate Menahoth, Ch. 10:3, pp. 505-506