Galatians 1:1-10; 6:11-18 Meaning

N.T. Wright
A free video tutorial from N.T. Wright
Professor
4.7 instructor rating • 32 courses • 99,796 students

Learn more from the full course

Paul and His Letter to the Galatians

The Apostle Paul's earliest epistle in the New Testament is to the Galatians-- powerful, insightful, and foundational.

04:15:02 of on-demand video • Updated October 2019

  • Develop a deeper appreciation for the way Paul presents his message in this his (most likely) earliest epistle.
  • Discern the implications of Paul's message for this present age
  • Understand the heart of Paul's message to the Galatian church
  • Apply the contents and principles of the letter to one's own life
  • Present a coherent summary of this foundational letter
English [Auto] Hello. Today we're going to be looking at the beginning and the ending of Paul's letter to the Galatians. Why the beginning and the ending. Well stands to reason with any document it makes sense to look at how the writer starts and how they end up because this very often tells you what the whole thing is about. So in this session I'm going to be looking at Galatians 1 verses 1 to 10 and then at Galatians 6 verses 11 to 18 and in both of them what we find Paul's saying is that a new world has come to birth but it's a contested place. It's gonna be difficult to live in it. In fact it's going to be a big challenge. And so Paul is inviting his hearers then and in a sense he's inviting us as well to figure out what this new world is and what it means to live inside it. Galatians as many people know is written at white heat. Paul is clearly extremely agitated. He's disturbed. He's angry. And actually this is quite possibly the first Paul AME letter we have which if that's so would make it the first piece of Christian writing of anything anywhere in the New Testament. And everything about Galatians is controversial. The meaning of key terms the meaning of ideas and particularly the question why did Paul write it. What was actually going on. Who are these people who he's talking about who he is warning his hearers about. And it's a key letter in almost every debate about Paul whether you're talking about what Paul thought about Jesus what Paul thought about justification what he thought about the law. All of these things Galatians is a place where these issues come into sharp focus and as a result it tells us not only about this particular controversy that Paul is engaged in. It tells us a lot about the nature and shape of early Christianity. So welcome to one of the most exciting little documents that we have from the first century in any culture and particularly in Christianity itself. So what is the problem which Paul is addressing. The problem is that Paul had begun his missionary work with a trawl through the area that was then known as Southern Galicia and to us today it would be southern Turkey central south Turkey and not that long after he'd been there and had established churches in some of the key towns and cities then some other missionaries had come in with a very different message to the one that Paul himself had taught. And Paul's recent converts from non Jewish backgrounds that is from Gentile or pagan backgrounds had found themselves under pressure from these new missionaries who were telling them that as well as believing in Jesus as well as being baptized and coming into this new family called the Messiah people Jesus people they also should get circumcised so that they could be onside with the Jewish population in the area. Circumcision being in those days as now a badge of membership for the males in the Jewish world. And some people are wanting to compel Paul's recent converts to get circumcised for reasons which will become clear as we go on through the latter. Why is Paul opposed to this. What's the problem with that. The basic answer he is going to give is that if you get circumcised in order to become part of the Jewish family as it were what you are doing is saying that you are joining the family of Abraham as it was in the pre messianic age. You see Paul like most Jews of the time had believed all his life that God had divided world history into two ages the present age and the age to come the present age which was a time of evil and darkness and gloom and puzzlement and the age to come in which God would sort everything out at last. But for Paul what happened with the coming of Jesus was not just a pointer to the new age the coming age. But the actual launching of that new age which was hard to believe then and it's hard to believe now that that's what the death and resurrection of Jesus was actually all about for Paul with the death and resurrection of Jesus. God has said he is the Messiah therefore the new age has already been launched and with it God's whole new world the new creation and you are part of that. So don't go back to the old age and if you get circumcised he says that's what in effect you will be doing. People might have said and perhaps the rival missionaries had said that actually you need to get circumcised to make sure that you will escape from the evil world by being part of God's holy people. And Paul is saying no sorry doesn't work like that if you get circumcised all the doing is cementing yourselves back into the old age. But for Paul the rescue from the wicked world the present evil age is all important because like so many Jews of the time Paul believed that history had gone through a really dark time particularly for the Jewish people and in line with some of the great prophets Paul had believed that what they needed was a new exodus. Paul looked back to the great events that had happened maybe fifteen hundred years before or so when God had rescued his enslaved people from Egypt and so in line with those prophets Paul believed and expounds here that the new exodus has in fact taken place in and through the events concerning Jesus. So when we look at Galatians chapter one verses one to ten what we see at the heart of that passage is a great statement that the new exodus has happened through the death of Jesus as a result of which we have been rescued from the present evil age. As he says in chapter 1 verse 4 Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. According to the will of God our Father and these three elements balance very carefully for Paul. It's not a matter of rescuing us from our sins on the one hand as opposed to delivering us from the present evil age or vice versa it's all held together within the will of God our Father and what is held together is this complex little event of Jesus death and resurrection through which everything has become new. And when we take that from chapter 1 verse 4 and then look right across to the end of the letter in Chapter 6 verses 14 and 15 we see something very similar. There he says God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. In other words what happened when Jesus was crucified wasn't just the death of one human being. It was a cosmic shift in which those who believe in Jesus find themselves caught up and then he goes on. Circumcision is nothing neither is on circumcision. What matters is new creation. That's chapter 6 verse 15. So at the beginning and at the end of the letter Paul is talking about the new world which has come into existence through the death and the resurrection of Jesus. I have been crucified to the world and the world has been crucified to me. And if you know Galatians you'll see that that goes into the very heart of one of the early statements which we'll get to in two or three sessions time in chapter two verses 19 and following when he says I through the lord died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. Nevertheless I am alive. Yet it isn't me. But it's the Messiah who is living in me. In other words with the crucifixion world history and with it the power of the present evil age has been dealt its death blow and suddenly a new history has been born. A new world has been born. New Creation has begun and Paul's point throughout the letter though it may seem very controversial and often is rather angry. But the basic point is a celebration. You get to be part of this new world. So don't throw that away and go back to the old world just in one of its varieties. Celebrate and learn to live with the new creation. So all of this holds the letter together quite tightly and it demands that the collation Christians should reject the other gospel as he is going to say in a few verses time the other gospel which these rival missionaries these teachers are offering them as he says. What is at stake is not just one interpretation here or somebody else's viewpoint there. It's nothing less than the truth of the Gospel itself. And so in chapter one verses six through to nine he warns them that he is astonished that they are so quickly turning away from the God who has called them by Grace and going after what he says is another gospel. How could there be another gospel. That's the point he's making. There is only one announcement only one good news. So he says not that it is another gospel. It's just that there are some people stirring up trouble for you wanting to pervert the gospel of the Messiah. They are wanting to turn it into a variety of what they've already got rather seeing it as the launching of this new world. And so he warns in very stark terms. If we or angel from heaven should come and give you a different message other than the one that you've received already such a person should be coerced. He uses strong biblical language a curse that is put under a ban. It's got to be ruled out. We're just not going there. That's what he is warning about these rival teachers and in the same way. At the end of the letter in chapter 6 verse sixteen he says that God's people have been redefined by God around the Messiah. It isn't that they've stopped being Jewish under now gentile instead it's that God's purpose for Israel. God's purpose for the Jewish people has come to its fruition in Jesus who is Israel's Messiah and because of that everything has changed and everything is now seen in the light of that and the people of God are now known as the messiah as people. What matters he says is new creation and then 616 peace and mercy on everyone who lines up. By that standard yes on God's Israel. Through it all Paul himself has been under attack because of the authenticity of his gospel which the rival missionaries the teachers the troubles have been trying to undermine. They seem to have suggested that when he came to the violation Christians in the first place he didn't actually tell them everything he might have told them. He gave them as it were the easy bit. He gave them the bed which they might enjoy rather than the tough message. So they've been saying about circumcision. Paul probably got his message from the real leaders of the church who are the people in Jerusalem. And Paul obviously went to Jerusalem learnt about the gospel there got it a bit muddled missed out bits and so just gave you certain bits and so the rival teachers are saying we will tell you the other bits. And so Paul has to hit back quite hard at this suggestion and much of the first chapter of the letter is to do with his explaining that actually know his gospel is the real thing. It's the full thing. It's the authentic thing of that it is they not he who are getting things muddled up and so in chapter one verse one we see he starts right from the beginning. Paul an apostle and then he breaks off and says My apostle ship doesn't derive from human sources nor did it come through a human being it came through Jesus the Messiah and God the Father who raised him from the dead before he even gets into the first sentence of his letter. He is determined to make that point right up front and then by using the strong language he does in verses 8 and 9 he says and you can see a touch of irony here in verse 10. Well if I'm saying that they should be a curse. Does that sound as though I'm trying to make it easy for you as though I'm trying to make up to people trying to please people trying to please them or that I'm trying to curry favor with people. And he says if I were still pleasing people I wouldn't be a slave of the Messiah. For Paul what matters is Jesus. Jesus the Messiah Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah and everything else is regrouped around that and likewise right at the end of the letter. Chapter 6 first 17 Paul says Let no one trouble me anymore because in my own body I am carrying the marks of Jesus. One of the key notes here in Galatians as in some of Paul's other letters particularly to Corinthians is the sense that Paul has already suffered a lot. It's quite early in his career as an apostle but he's already been stoned he's already been beaten he's already been ill treated in all sorts of ways and the marks of that on his body. Paul sees as part of the authenticating of his proclamation of the true gospel. He is a slave of the Messiah. It has already cost him and he is holding that out to the Galatians as he does in his other letters as a way of saying this is actually where it all comes together. And Paul is clear that in fact it's his opponents who are trying to avoid persecution. It's the trouble's so-called who are trying to make a good show trying to make things look good. How so. What is it that they're trying to do. There are various theories here. In some people's minds what Paul is aware of is a kind of zealous Jewish movement which is very politically active and we'll see that in the next couple of passages as well. People who are aware that God's purposes for Israel may be coming to their fulfillment moment and that for that all Jews I have to stay pure I have to stay by the law in order that then God will do the great deliverance which is coming so that the Jewish communities would be putting pressure on Jewish Christian communities to say you must stay in line. Don't have any of this nonsense of fraternizing with the enemy with the pagans. So if there are Gentile Christians who are not circumcised then you Jews shouldn't be having fellowship with them even if you believe in the same Jesus. That may be one pressure or it may be a further off pressure in terms of the Roman pressure in southern Galicia because the Romans had come in and have built new colonies and built new towns and they were eager to maintain that sense of of Roman ness and the Jews had a permission to be different and so well maybe the Romans will let you be Christians let you be Jews after a fashion but you'll have to be circumcised in order to do it. For Paul this is some simply out of line and for Paul what counts is the grace of God which has done the new thing and whatever social cultural and political issues there may be and will come back to those what counts for him is that the new world has come to birth in and around Jesus the Messiah.