NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson XXXIX)
Venerated Medieval Catholic theologian, Robert of Melun, makes a comparison between Paul and the Catholic Church in his day. He starts by pointing out that some Catholics were asking whether the Apostle Paul sinned by persecuting the assembly of believers? They wanted to know since he showed such zeal for the Law and believed he must do this for God’s sake. Many Catholics still hold this position, says Robert. For when conscience dictates that people must do something for God’s sake, they would sin if they did not do it since they would then be acting against their own conscience. Yet if they were to do it, they would offend God. Moreover, “everything that is not of faith is a sin.”1
Consequently, notes Robert, for such people, Paul believed that he must persecute these assemblies of believers in the Name of God. If he refused to do so, he would be showing contempt for God and would thereby be sinning. Then again, to persecute the assembly of believers is in itself a sin. So, it would seem that he sins if he does this, and yet sins in his conscience if he does not. Either way, then, he would end up sinning. Some people concede, therefore, that the Apostle would have sinned no matter what he did. This was the thinking of some during the Middle Ages.
Others, however, say that his desire was good because he wished to demonstrate his obedience to God, obedience that he exhibited by destroying what he thought was contempt for God by these Christians. Yet the deed itself was still evil and wrong because he carried it out based upon an incorrect understanding. Nevertheless, the zeal and fervor of love that was in the Apostle’s heart were good, and it is on that basis that the erroneous deed is excused.2 Sometimes misplaced zeal and enthusiasm can do more harm than good.
Not only were Medieval Catholics judged by such criteria, but Protestants and Pentecostals followed suit. In many cases, Catholics were not only censured by what they did in contradiction to Roman Catholic teachings, but they were also criticized for what they did not do as taught and outlined by Catholic doctrine. For instance, if they did not pray to the saints each day for a certain length of time; pray the Rosary or go to the confession booth on a regular basis; or, in some cases, if they were not baptized in water as the Church specified it should be done, they were looked down on as being insincere. However, those who followed such dictates with holistic fervor were seen as the holiest in their dedication to God and Catholicism. My, what a heavy burden to carry!
Those who’ve studied the Greek writings available in Paul’s day have noted that the way most men dealt with traditional teachings, even teachings of their own country, was to receive them all exactly as they were delivered, without applying any critical test of authenticity whatsoever.3 Jewish scholars, like Paul, did the same thing. We can even say, that in some fundamental Protestant and Pentecostal denominations many ministers followed the same pattern of preaching what they heard from the previous generation without finding out, through research and study, if what they were preaching was Biblically correct.
Martin Luther gives a personal testimony about his conversion. He came to the knowledge of the truth by the same kindness of God. From his own lips, Luther confessed that he crucified the Anointed One daily in cloistered life as a monk, and blasphemed God by practicing his wrong faith. Outwardly he kept himself celibate, poor, and obedient. He was constantly fasting, tarrying, praying, saying the masses, and the like. Yet under the cloak of his outward respectability, he continually mistrusted, doubted, feared, hated, and blasphemed God. His self-righteousness was like a muddy puddle of water. But now, he realizes that Satan loves such saints. They are his darlings, for they quickly destroy their body and soul by depriving themselves of the blessings of God’s generous gifts. He also stood in awe of the pope’s authority. To dissent from him, he considered a crime worthy of eternal death.
Luther heard about Bohemian Reformer John Huss (1369-1415),4 and considered him as nothing but a cursed heretic. He counted it a sin even to even think about him. He would have gladly gathered the wood to burn him. And, he would feel that he was doing God a real service.5 Then one day, Luther was rummaging through the shelves of a library and happened upon a volume of sermons by Huss. “I was overwhelmed with astonishment,” Luther later wrote. “I could not understand for what cause they burned such great a man at the stake, a man who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.” Everyone’s testimony is different, but the principle is the same. Doing what you think was right without knowing how wrong it is. Like a rancher’s son who was taught from his youth up that red meat was the most beneficial for protein and muscle build, only to find out later how much it contributed to cholesterol and blocked arteries.
Reformer John Calvin also noticed how strongly Paul was attached to the old customs and how he strove to get ahead of his peers in compliance. Calvin points out that those Paul called his equals were those of his own age; for a comparison with older persons would have been unsuitable. When he speaks of the traditions of the fathers, he means, not those oral traditions by which the Law of God was corrupted, but the Law of God itself. This was the kind of education Paul received from his childhood, which was supplied through the hands of his ancestors and parents. Having been strongly attached to the customs of his forefathers, it would have been no easy matter to tear himself from them, were it not for the fact that the Lord drew him away by a miracle.6
Puritan theologian William Perkins (1558-1602) tells a personal story to go along with what Paul is telling the Galatians about his conversion. Perkins recalled, that a minister was invited to speak to a Protestant congregation in western England. There was much persecution then against the Puritans, this is why they fled to America. Three young men entered the church with the intention of interrupting the minister and even brought stones in their pockets for that purpose. Not too long after the minister began, one of the youths cursed and whispered, “Let’s have a go (attack) at him now.” But one of the others cautioned that they should wait a little longer just in case he said something that they could really harass him for. After a short time, another boy in the group said, “We’ve heard enough, let’s throw some stones now.” But again, the older boy stopped him. “He’s not as bad as I expected. Let’s hear a little more.” In Perkins’ own words he says: “The preacher concluded without having been interrupted.” Now mark my words, one of these three young men was later executed for forgery; the second sits under a death sentence for murder; the third, through the infinite mercy of God, is the one speaking to you now.7 No doubt Paul felt the same way.
Jakob Arminius (1560-1609) shares what he thinks about those who must learn by overcoming some weakness or obstruction put in their path out of ignorance. It’s like taking away a stony heart and having a soft heart put in its place.8 This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit by exciting in the hearts of believers sacred respect and reverence for God.9 From what these Scriptures say, those acts will easily be made manifest if all ideas are suspended that might allow sins of every kind.
Think about this: God permitted Saul, whom “in His anger, He gave to the Israelites as their king,”10 even though God knew Saul would through hatred persecute David, even though he knew David’s integrity was faithful and true.11 Nevertheless, David enjoyed the friendship and fellowship of Saul’s son Jonathan who resisted his father’s attempts against David. And God even permitted David, after having enjoyed many victories and having already been crowned King of Judah and Israel, to remain as king despite his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. Even though David went back on his commitment to God, God did not go back on His commitment to Judah and Israel.
By the same token, God permitted Peter, who loved Jesus the Anointed One, although he was somewhat boastful, to be endued with Power from on High even after he denied Him in a moment of doubt and fear. As a result, Peter was able to declare his allegiance to the Anointed One with even greater energy through the Holy Spirit. In fact, he confessed the Anointed One courageously even to his moment of death.12 In the same manner, God permitted Saul of Tarsus, a fanatic zealot for the Law to persecute the Anointed One through ignorance, until “He revealed His Son in him,” by which a persecutor was transformed into a preacher.13
John Bunyan (1628-1688) also touches on the fact that by saving Paul, God was showing mercy to a great and unworthy sinner. The news that Paul converted would have been good news for the vilest of sinners. It would have come as welcomed good news for those with despairing souls. For Bunyan, this is the Doctrine that Jesus came to have mercy and save sinners no matter how unworthy they might be to receive grace. One reason for this is because the biggest sinners need to be saved the most. And when any of them receive the Anointed One’s offer of mercy and forgiveness, that lifts up His name even higher. Not only that, but once the word spreads, others will be even more encouraged to come to Him for salvation.
Also in Bunyan’s thinking, this display of love and mercy to sinners will weaken the kingdom of Satan and cause it to lose favor in the world. And once these delivered sinners become part of the Body of the Anointed One, their testimony will help struggling believers to fight any temptation to return to the bondage of sin. That’s because the vilest of sinners becoming one of God’s chosen saints will love Him even more than maybe someone who was found with little to forgive.
1 Romans 14:23
2 Robert of Melun: The Letter to the Galatians (Medieval Bible Commentary series), op. cit., loc. cit.
3 See: Introduction to History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
4 John (Jan) Huss was a highly educated professor of theology in 1398 at the University in Prague. Huss began to denounce various Catholic Church abuses in his sermons. His disputes with authority did not concern basic theological issues, but rather matters of church discipline and practice. The custom arose at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, of distributing the consecrated bread to all Christians in good standing who desired to receive it but restricting the chalice to the celebrant alone. Huss denounced this restriction as contrary to Holy Scripture and to the ancient tradition of the Church. He also held that Church officials ought to exercise spiritual powers only, and not be earthly governors. In 1412 his archbishop excommunicated him, not for heresy, but for insubordination.
5 Martin Luther: Bible Cabinet, On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 18
6 John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 The Biblical Illustrator: op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 48 – Pastoral Commentary on Galatians (Kindle Locations 2194-2196)
8 Ezekiel 11:19
9 Mark 14:38; Jeremiah 32:40
10 Hosea 13:11; 1 Samuel 9:1
11 1 Samuel 24:17-19
12 Matthew 26:70; Acts of the Apostles 5:41; John 21:10
13 Jakob Arminius: op. cit., Vol. 1, Disputation 9, para. 12, pp. 444-445