NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson LVII)
1:22-24 Now, my face was unknown to the churches in Judæa; all they knew was what other people were telling them: “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to wipe out!” In spite of that, they still praised God for what He was doing through me.
Luke tells us that the churches throughout all the provinces of Judæa and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace for awhile. The assembly of believers was made strong and was given comfort by the Holy Spirit. It honored the Lord. More and more people were being added to the assembly of believers.1 It may be, that due to their being outside the walls of Jerusalem and quite far from Antioch and Damascus, they never saw Paul in person. But upon hearing that the most ferocious persecutor of the assembly of believers was now tamed by the Anointed One and was preaching the Gospel with the same fervor and dedication, they rejoiced in the news. It may have been brought by Philip who preached throughout this area.2
We are not sure how word got around in those days other than it being transported from town to town by word of mouth as people traveled and visited one another. It already reached the ears of Ananias up in Damascus even before Paul went there to carry out his sinister plan of persecution.3 In fact, before Paul ever went to Corinth other missionaries came there and no doubt told the Jews what was going on back in Jerusalem.4 That’s why when Paul returned to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles what happened on his missionary trips, they rejoiced in what they heard. According to Luke, by this time there were thousands of converted Jews and Gentiles now in the assembly of believers, and all because of what God was doing through Paul and his associates.5
In order to distance himself from any charges that he was merely a puppet of the Apostles in Jerusalem, Paul makes it clear that the Messianic congregations in Judæa never heard him preach or teach; in fact, they didn’t even know what he looked like. However, they heard what he was preaching and sent word that they were behind him 100 percent. I’m certain you’ve heard the familiar saying, “I’m not what I want to be; and I’m not what I’m going to be, but thank God I’m not what I use to be.” Can you imagine the believers in Syria and Cilicia when the announcement was made that this maverick from Tarsus, known to his Jewish friends by his Hebrew name, “Sha’ul,” (which means: “above others”) and to his Gentile friends by his Latin name, “Paulus,” (which means: “humble”) was coming back to preach this new Message of the Anointed One? No doubt some wondered why he changed his name. You only chose an alias when you earn a bad reputation, or you’re trying to evade the law. In reality, he didn’t change his name; it is simply that since he was called to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles he wanted to be known by his Latin name.
But Paul is gracious and tells the Galatians what the folks in Syria and Cilicia heard about his early life – now that is not something that any guest speaker may want the audience to know. I can hear Paul telling the Christians in Galatia, “Let me introduce myself. I use to hate people like you! As a matter of fact, I hated you so much I tried my best to kill as many of you as possible! But now I’m one of you! I would be willing to die for you! At this very moment, I preach the same Gospel I once tried my best to destroy and wipe off the face of the earth!” Yep! That ought to fill up the seats! What was Paul trying to convey at this point to the Galatians? As the venerated Augustine of Hippo surmised, Paul was trying to communicate that he absolutely did not please people for his own sake but in order that God might be glorified in him. Isn’t this what Jesus recommended when He said: “Let your works shine before others so that they may see the good things you have done and glorify your Father who is in heaven.6”
Augustine focuses on the fact that although the churches in Judæa heard of him, Paul says here in verse twenty-two that none of them ever met him in person. There were thousands in Jerusalem in the presence of the Apostles. Paul openly declared to the Ephesians that the Anointed One stopped the fighting between Jews and Gentiles by His death on the cross. Then, He made of the two groups, one new body for Himself. Now all of us can go to the Father through the Anointed One by way of the one Holy Spirit. So, from now on you are not strangers and people who are not citizens of heaven. You are citizens together with those who belong to God. You belong to God’s family. This family is built on the teachings of the Apostles and the early prophets.
Paul went on to say that Jesus the Anointed One Himself is the cornerstone, which is the most important part of the building. The Anointed One keeps this building together and it is growing into a holy building for the Lord. You are also being put together as part of this building because God lives in you by His Spirit And by being part of the building process as the Apostle to the Gentiles with Peter being the Apostle to the Jews, it was in their best interest to grow together. And tell the Galatians here that everything comes under the Anointed One because His power identifies Him as the head over all things in the assembly of believers.7 Furthermore, they are all part of this building because His Spirit lives in them to guide and comfort them as long as they are in this world. Could it be that by the Anointed One being the One who called Paul and now lives in him, that he could be looked on as part of the Cornerstone for the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome.8
Chrysostom asks, “What soul could be more modest than this?” Here, Paul was openly admitting to things that brought shame and disgrace to him as a persecutor of the assembly of believers. But he narrates it with such compassion that he chooses not to follow it up with all the great things he has done for God.9 And early church writer Ambrosiaster points out that just as Paul was once a fierce defender of the Jewish faith, he now became an even fiercer champion of the very faith he once persecuted. Therefore, these Jewish believers should rejoice with him who previously oppressed them and give thanks that their persecutor now became the defender of their faith in God through Jesus the Anointed One. This should help them come to the realization that they were being led astray by the Judaizers to the point where, even though they claimed to be Christians through the grace Paul preached, they were actually professing the very legalism Paul rejected.
Ambrosiaster goes on to note, that they were circumcising the flesh, although the law of the Anointed One taught something quite different from Judaism. This circumcision of the flesh was to become circumcision of the heart. The Jews were tied to the elements and worshiped new moons and the Sabbath, but Christians truly worshiped God alone in spirit, because they worshiped with their hearts, not their hands. The Jews did this because of their tendency to sin, but Christians enjoyed the freedom which comes from the forgiveness of sins. There is, therefore, a huge difference between Judaism and Christianity.10
Martin Luther, a German Roman Catholic priest and theology professor, and John Calvin a French Roman Catholic trained as a lawyer, both went from their belief in God according to the teachings prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church at that time, to a reformed faith considered diametrically opposed to what they use to believe. They both expressed their appreciation for what Paul went through. Luther put it this way: “God did not call Paul out of darkness into His marvelous light because of his being a Pharisee, or on account of his prayers, fasting, ceremonial cleansing, ritualism’s and creeds, or because of his persecutions, oppressions, and zealousness, No! He called Paul by His grace.” Something Luther knew all too well. And John Calvin points out that God did not call Paul because of his accomplishments and his years of preparation dedicated to Judaism. No! He called Paul by as part of His predetermined purpose and will for Paul’s life.
John Bunyan has a couple of things to share about what the churches in Judæa were saying about this fanatic persistent persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, now being called a fiery Pentecostal preacher. This was further proof for Bunyan that when some well-known sinners get converted, they are usually the best help in church getting some of those who are still sitting on the fence to realize why God saved them and why He intervened in their lives when He did. What amazed Paul was that many of his former victims were now praising God for what He did in Paul’s life. But Paul wanted everyone to know that none of that praise and glory should for his being in God, and God being in him. 11
Adam Clarke, who wrote during the time of the Wesleyan revivals in the 1700s, offers a very good summation on what Paul is saying in this chapter. First, it was of great importance to Paul that he defend and vindicate his divine mission received from the Anointed One Himself. Second, the apostle was particularly anxious that the Gospel he brought to Galatian not be corrupted so that the assembly of believers might end up being perverted because whoever or whatever corrupts the Gospel, subverts the assembly of believers. Thirdly, anyone who introduced the old Jewish rites, rituals, and ceremonies that promoted faith by works should be considered dangerous. Those listening to the minister must be receiving the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Clarke goes on to lament the situation in his own day. He questions why there are so many churches like those in Galatia in England? Is it not because, on the one hand, the simplicity of Christian worship was made complicated by adding improper rites and ceremonies, and on the other, corrupted the purity of Church doctrine by adding ideas invented by people? How does the Apostle react to such acts of subversion? “Let them be accursed.”12 How confrontational is this! That’s why every minister who officiates as a pastor should take note of this. Their own soul is at stake, and if any of their flock perish through such ignorance or neglect, God will require the blood of the watchman as payment13.14
All I can say is, if Clarke could see the church he represented back then, I’m afraid his heart would not be able to stand the shock in seeing how far it has drifted from its original message and mission. The churches in England did not grow cold and indifferent because the Bible changed, nor because the truth of the Gospel changed, but because the whole truth of the Gospel was not being preached. If you want people to admire the reality of their salvation, preach about where they are going. If you want people to appreciate their salvation, preach about where they are not going.
1 Acts of the Apostles 9:31
2 Ibid. 8:40
3 Ibid. 9:13
4 1 Corinthians 15:11
5 Acts of the Apostles 21:19-20
6 Matthew 5:16
7 Ephesians 2:15-22
8 Augustine’s Reply to Faustus the Manichæan, Bk. 23, pp. 545-546
9 Chrysostom: On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.)., op. cit., loc. cit., p. 16
10 Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 John Bunyan: Vol. 2, Doctrine, p. 35
12 Galatians 1:8-9
13 Ezekiel 33:6
14 Adam Clarke: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.