Fake News – Galatians 1:6-7

Paul begins the body of the Galatian letter like this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ…”

Gal. 1:6a (NIV)

The Greek word here translated “I am astonished,” denotes more wonder than dismay. The NASB translates it, “I’m amazed.” The difference might seem insignificant, but I believe the latter more accurately conveys Paul’s tone.

We might say that he’s using the uncomplimentary, “wow,” such as in this meme:

meme with clipart profile of a woman and words, "'wow' This is not a compliment; she's amazed that one person could be so stupid."

Whatever this church was doing had risen to monumental heights of stupidity in Paul’s mind. What could it have been?

Let’s take a brief look at Paul’s history with the Galatians for insight:

  • Acts 13:1-12 – Paul and Barnabas are commissioned and preach through the island of Cyprus with John Mark as their helper.

  • Act 13:13-43 – The missionaries sail to Asia Minor and then travel inland to the Galatian region where Paul preaches at the synagogue in Psidian Antioch. He receives a hearing and is invited to speak again the next week.

  • Acts 13:44-48 – Almost the whole city turns out the following Saturday to hear Paul and Barnabas. Moved by jealousy, the Jews oppose their message. Paul rebukes the Jews and shifts the focus of his ministry to the crowds of receptive Gentiles.

  • The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

    Acts 13:49-51 NIV

Throughout the history of missions, this kind of city-wide revival has only taken place where God had already been working in a special way to call a people into his kingdom.

It was the Galatians’ time to come into the kingdom. And so Luke comments on the Galatian response:

When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

Acts 13:48 NIV

God himself had begun to call the nations (Gentiles) to be his people. The masses of unwashed pagans straining to hear at the door of synagogue signified that God had been working there already. The overflowing joy those believing Gentiles received in the midst of opposition confirmed that the divine preparation had paid off.

Now, they’d so quickly begun to abandon this God who’d worked for centuries to call them from their ignorance and bondage.


News can change the world.

On Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, US news outlets were flailing for answers. Just the day before they’d predicted with 90% certainty that Hilary Clinton would win the presidential election.

They were wrong.

Trump’s win was blamed on “fake news” disseminated through social media.

Eventually Trump himself would coopt the term to refer to those self-same media outlets.

Whatever your political leaning, I think we can all agree that fake news is dangerous. It wasn’t invented in 2016, though. It’s been with us from time immemorial and it came to Galatia after Paul had left.

Paul writes:

and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all.

Gal. 1:6b-7a NIV

The English word, “gospel,” arose from the older, “god spell,” where “god” was pronounced and meant, “good,” and “spell” meant, “a story.” It was a translation, by way of Latin, of the Greek, “euangelion,” which literally means, “happy announcement,” or “good news.”

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Back in those days, you couldn’t open an app on your phone and scroll a news feed. You couldn’t even turn on network television at 5 PM! News of the outside world came only one way, through a keirux – a preacher. We wouldn’t consider them an unbiased news source since they worked for the king, but none of them could put their own spin on what they had been given to say either. In Paul’s time, a preacher wasn’t a teacher of religious doctrine. He was simply a messenger sent to deliver a straightforward announcement.

Paul had not come to Galatia with a new religion. He hadn’t been commissioned to dictate God’s will to humankind. He didn’t come with a new book or even an addendum to an old one. He came to tell of a king’s victory and his ascension to heaven’s throne. Because he ministered a story rather than a religious system, his message came with one imperative:


Thankfully, the good news which Paul announced to the Galatians is recorded in Acts 13:16-41. Here’s the essence of what he said:

We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”

Acts 13:32-33a, 38-39 NIV

Paul made what he claimed to be factual statements about Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike secular heralds, Paul didn’t have any sort of physical authenticator such as an official seal to corroborate his message. What he did have was an appeal to the Hebrew scriptures and the experience of the kingdom among those who believed. I’ll talk more about both of these authenticators later on in this commentary, but for now suffice it to say that he took as a given that his gospel was true news.

If he was right, then any alternative facts would constitute fake news. A “different gospel” must, by definition be, “no gospel at all.”  And this kind of fake news did more harm than anything getting bounced around on Facebook today. 

Turning to another gospel meant abandoning God.

Consider the ramifications of accepting the alternative gospel:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all.

Galatians 1:6-7a NIV (Emphasis mine)

First century Jews used idioms to make sure they never misused God’s name. They often spoke of him indirectly by using passive verbs or by referring to what he’d done. Paul employs one such Hebraism to highlight the seriousness of the Galatians’ error:

“You…are deserting The One Who Called You.”

In our culture, “irreverent” often equates to “inquisitive” or even “funny.” We certainly never see anyone retract a tweet for being irreverent. So, we might struggle to feel the weight of this rebuke. When comparing our perspective Paul’s, we should remember that God spent 1500 years teaching Israel to revere him. In Romans 1:18, Paul wrote that God’s judgment is coming on humanity for irreverence. To desert “The One” is certainly no laughing matter.

How had they deserted him, though? Surely God doesn’t need our company or our support.

Paul says that they’d deserted the one who’d called them “to live in the grace of Christ.” This wasn’t neglect of a relationship so much as desertion in the middle of battle. Yes, God has worked in Christ to reconcile humanity to himself, but he’s also enlisted those same reconciled people into an invading army. When we defect from the way of the world, we simultaneously side against those same forces that held us captive.

The Galatians had deserted the holy God by giving up on living according to the standard of Christ’s own gracious character. In calling them deserters, Paul seems to have implied that they’d done more than detour away from God’s path – they’d fearfully fled in the exact opposite direction. As we will see, these weren’t evil or even careless people. These were church goers seeking to live according to a high moral and religious code. What had these decent people done to merit such unequivocal apostolic indictment? They had accepted an amended gospel.

The gospel that Paul preached is a divine artifact. If mishandling a gold-plated wooden box resulted in instant death, what greater punishment does a person deserve who tinkers with God’s self-revelation carved into the flesh of his own Son?

God’s disposition toward us depends on the authenticity of our gospel.

The good news (pun not intended) is that we don’t have to wonder whether we’ve believed a counterfeit gospel.

A distorted gospel twists souls and corrupts communities.

Only the authentic gospel compels and empowers us to live by the grace of Christ. Tinkering with the gospel will glitch our experience of it, and by extension, other people’s experience of us.

Look at Galatians 1:7b, “Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

As our gospel gets distorted, so do our lives. Paul points to their confusion as evidence they’ve entertained the un-gospel. The Greek word, translated, “confusion,” here, connotes both personal dissonance, and interpersonal strife. So, this tell-tale sign is also a two-fold sign. This was the same effect Paul witnessed in his home church in Antioch:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

Acts 15:1-2 (NIV)

After the council in Jerusalem affirmed the sufficiency of the gospel, they wrote the church in Antioch about the legalists:

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said.

Acts 15:24 (NIV)

Notice that the fake gospel had both disturbed the church and disquieted the souls of its people. Anywhere we see interpersonal agitation or intrapersonal angst, we can find a perverted gospel.

These criteria might describe a large portion of your Christian experience. Some people might have come to accept them as normal. I assure you they are not. There’s another way – the original way.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that we need to get back to New Testament Christianity. I’ve been there and done that. It doesn’t work. I mean, the New Testament church didn’t aspire to be the New Testament church did they? The attempt to reproduce “New Testament Christianity” is predicated on the assumption that the New Testament should shape our practice. That’s an egregious error that sounds almost unassailable – which is why confusion is the ordinary experience of most Christians.

It has been said that the Bible is our final authority for all matters of faith and life. Paul would have disagreed. For one, the Galatians didn’t have the Bible as we know it. More importantly, Paul considered the gospel to be the final authority for all matters of faith and life. This simple story that can be stated in a sentence is the full revelation of God. Those who accept it can enjoy its promise. Those who adapt it can be sure of spiritual discord along with ultimate destruction.

As we will see, the people who’d perverted the gospel were merely insisting that obedience to Scripture be tacked on as a rider to the announcement about Christ. The addition 300 years later of twenty-seven volumes to the Bible doesn’t change the truth that the gospel is the complete word of God. Any group or individual who sees the gospel as our initiation and the Bible, or even just the New Testament, as our guide is participating in the Galatian heresy.

Family Ties – Galatians 1:3a

In the first two verses of Galatians, Paul renounced the forces which constrain and control humankind – conformity and authority. In their place, he introduced a new order that promotes individual expression and social cohesion – the divine family. As we move into verse three, we’ll see begin to see some of the implications of leaving human society to join God’s family.

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One nation | Two worlds

The New Testament writers seem to have sorted the diverse population of the Roman Empire into two major categories, Jews and Greeks. Consider this instance from Acts 14:1-2:

At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.  But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.

Luke mentions only two kinds of people at the synagogue that day. These “Greeks” weren’t even Greek. They were from a region in modern day Turkey which at that time was called Galatia. It seems that to the first century Jews everyone else in the Roman Empire was a Greek regardless of their race. This may sound backward to our ears like calling everyone from below our southern border “Mexicans,” but I don’t think it was meant that way.

Luke and the other writers of the New Testament weren’t referring to race or nationality. When they referred to them as “Greek” they were thinking of a cultural distinction. Notice that Luke didn’t speak of Jews and Romans. While the Roman Empire was vast and diverse, almost everyone within it including Romans aspired to be culturally Greek. I say “almost everyone” because there was a sizeable group who resisted cultural assimilation – the Jews.

You lost me at hello

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A seismic cultural shift has reshaped the landscape of my hometown over the past thirty years. An area previously comprised of nearly 100% southern whites now features taquerias every quarter mile. As an off-white foodie, I’m not complaining! I remember being shocked to discover that when Spanish-speaking people answer the phone, they don’t say, “hola,” the equivalent of our “hello.” They say, “bueno,” meaning “good.” That’s not just a linguistic difference; it’s a cultural one. Our cultures are rooted in our shared history and show up in our greetings. Did you know that “hello” came from trying not to get shot upon approaching a house in western frontier?

Our cultures also reflect our shared values as can be seen in ancient Greek and Jewish greetings. When Greeks met each other in the first century (and to a lesser degree today) they would say, “chaire,” which means something like, “rejoice.” I like that. I’ve taken to saying, “rejoice,” when I come into a room by which I mean, “Aren’t you glad I’m here,” but I don’t think that’s how the Greeks meant it. “Chaire” is the verb form of “charis,” which we translate, “grace.” In the Greco-Roman world, obtaining grace from the gods ensured a joyful life, which I think is why essentially the same word means, “grace” and “rejoice.” Perhaps, “chaire” as a greeting meant, “may you enjoy the gods’ favor.” It’s a kind wish and a great way to start a conversation off on the right foot.

The Jews on the other hand would greet one another with, “shalom,”1 which is commonly translated, “peace.” Nobody knows for sure how or when this greeting originated. It could have been a declaration of benign intent serving a purpose much like “hello,” but I don’t think that’s the case. “Shalom” does connote the absence of hostility, but that’s a secondary meaning to a much richer concept. The word more literally refers to “wholeness” or “integration.” When my body experiences shalom, I’m healthy. Shalom in relationships looks like mutual respect and shared goals. Societies demonstrate shalom through justice and security. When the resurrected Christ greeted his grieving disciples with “shalom aleykhem,” he must’ve meant more than, “I’m not here to hurt you.” I think he was reinforcing his people’s shared longing for the restoration of the created order.2

If I’m right about all of this, then the greetings of the Greeks and the Jews reveal two very different cultural aspirations. These fundamental differences meant that Jews and Greeks in first century Rome would never cohere into one society. During the time of Jesus and Paul, the two cultures coexisted on either side of a chasm which both had helped to dig.

The gospel invaded this rift to produce a third culture both open and offensive to the other two. We can feel its texture in Paul’s first “hello,” to the Galatians.

Here’s the passage:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father…

Galatians 1:3a (NIV)

The third way

I’m sure you see what Paul did there; he brought together the Greek and Jewish greetings into one. This was how Paul greeted his readers in all of his letters except the two to Timothy where he adds, “mercy.” And Paul wasn’t the only apostle to use it. Peter did in both of his letters. John used it too in 2 John and Revelation. The Christian movement in the first century wasn’t aimed at spinning off a new sect of Judaism or even spawning a new religion altogether. The early proclaimers of the message about Christ had their sights set on the foundation of a new, unified humanity called out from among all the peoples on earth. This compound greeting affirms the truth of the Galatians’ collective identity.

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We might not be impressed with the coming together of people from various cultures into one nation in the land of e pluribus unum, but this was more than multiculturalism. We might allow Mexican people to celebrate Cinco de Mayo on US soil. Heck, we might even join them for the good food. What we won’t do is create a new “Independence Day” on May 4th or July 5th to celebrate the liberation of both nations from Europe. In his unified greeting, Paul insisted on equal status for everyone under God. “Grace and peace to you,” didn’t broker a compromise; it created something completely unique, but also familiar.

The churches in Galatia were new societies made up of people from both cultures to form a third, transcendent culture. Paul reworked the greetings of both the Greeks and the Jews to express the norms of the third culture. He deconstructed the Greek greeting, “rejoice,” to its basis, “grace.” I believe he had theological reasons for this especially in light of his message about grace. I think he also had a cultural reason to make the change. He reformatted the imperative verb form into a noun so that it would better compliment the Jewish greeting, “peace to you.” So, he included the greeting of the Greeks while making it culturally non Greek.

While he retained the format of the Jewish greeting, “peace to you,” he wrote it in Greek, a practice for which there is almost no precedent in contemporary Jewish literature.3 I’m inclined to think that this is because Greek-speaking Jews in Paul’s day continued to greet one another with the Hebrew, “shalom,” even if they proceeded to continue the conversation in Greek. It seems to me that since “shalom” had such a nuanced meaning, those who used it would be reluctant to translate it. Also, modern day English-speaking Orthodox Jews, continue to greet one another with “shalom aleykhem” rather than saying, “peace to you.” This seems to be true of orthodox Jews in every country around the world even if they’ve spoken the local language for generations. By writing “eirene humin,” Paul included Greeks into the history and hopes of Israel thereby erasing the distinction.

Paul’s greeting to the church reinforced the kingdom call for Greeks and Jews to contribute their cultural wealth to one new culture not beholden to either. Depending on your perspective, this is either a glorious hope or a treasonous threat. I always used to think that the persecution which Paul suffered throughout his ministry was due to his theology. Upon closer inspection of the New Testament, I no longer think that was the case.

In Acts 22, Paul makes a defense of his ministry before a mob of Jews in Jerusalem. He tells a fantastical tale of persecuting the church and then meeting Christ on the road. He identifies Jesus as The Righteous One of God. He relates the details of his baptism in Jesus’ name. Then, he tells of how Jesus warned him that the people who live in Jerusalem (his audience) were too stubborn to hear the message about their own messiah. Through all of this the mob listened quietly.

Then, he says:

“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”

Acts 22:21 (NIV)

Their reaction?

The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”

As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. 

Acts 22:22-24a (NIV)

They had tolerated his calling Jesus, “Adonai,” which was the word they used for God. His ascription of messianic language to someone they’d crucified didn’t draw their ire. They even put up with a personal insult supposedly from this crucified messiah. Nothing drew a response from them until he suggested that Gentiles could participate in the covenants of Israel. And what a response it drew! I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been so mad that I’ve reached down, clutched a handful of dust, and threw it into the air. This was a murderous, nearly animalistic rage. It serves to illustrate the human tendency to jealously guard our own cultural identity.

Even before this defining moment in Jerusalem, Paul knew the incendiary implications of his call to unity. In the Galatian letter itself, he spells out the reason he faced such hostility:

Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.

Galatians 5:11(NIV)

Maybe you struggle to understand why Paul’s message pushed godly people to murderous intent. Let’s go back to my illustration about Cinco de Mayo. How would you feel if a charismatic politician began gaining popular support to blend July 4th and May 5th into one holiday perhaps in June? Would you oppose it? On what grounds?

I use this example to illustrate the gospel call for people to dislodge from their cultural allegiances so they can embrace the new, free society. This call is at the very core of the work of Christ. Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,

Ephesians 2:14-15 (NIV)

Israel had long expected that the nations would come and join them in the worship of YHWH4, but they hadn’t considered the implications of that expectation for their cultural identity. As the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul didn’t teach those godless Greeks to say, “shalom,” rather he expected both sides of the divide to adopt a new greeting adapted from what was true in both.

Alternatively, Paul could have created a new greeting without reference to either Greek or Jewish culture and insisted that everyone use it, but that would have just produced another society based on conformity. Cohesion without conformity is part of the culture of the new society. I’m sure that Greek believers continued to greet other Greeks with, “chaire,” and Jewish believers continued to greet other Jews with “shalom.” To some extent these patterns are truly part of our identities as individuals. In the kingdom of God, every individual is equally valued and that includes their cultural leanings. At the same time, no culture is superior so nobody stands above anyone else. By greeting with “grace and peace to you,” Paul diminished any pretense of cultural superiority while at the same time valuing the differences between people.

The citizens of God’s new society are free from the conforming pressures of culture because the culture of God’s kingdom is unity in diversity. Can you imagine such a society? I hope so, because if you can, it means you had a pretty good upbringing.

Related opposites

I have two daughters and two sons.

They’re all pretty different from each other, but my two sons are opposites in almost every way. Caleb is a builder and fixer. Jadon tends to destroy things. Caleb avoids confrontation. Jadon thrives on it. Caleb doesn’t like to get dirty. Jadon doesn’t like to get clean. Caleb is a man of few words. Jadon talks when even when no one is around. They’re about as different from each other as any two people on this planet and yet they share one of the closest bonds that humans can share. They’re brothers.

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As Paul continues in Galatians 1:3 we see that the “grace and peace” were offered on behalf of “God our Father.” I don’t think I could grasp unconditional love if I weren’t a parent. These people came into my house with nothing but needs and demands, yet I love them. Because I love them, I don’t want to confine them to some prefabricated notion of who they’ll be. If I did that, it would mean that I love the ideal of my child more than my child. Their individuality doesn’t make me love them less. It makes me love them more because I marvel in the one-of-a-kind person that God has produced from me and my wife. Don’t you think God our Father loves us at least that much? If we really believe that God is our Father we ought to express it through ever-deepening authenticity.

As a father who loves my kids as they are, I don’t impose prescribed expectations on them. What I do require is that they treat each other well and that they contribute to the good of the family. When Paul calls God, our Father, he’s not only affirming each person’s place before God as they truly are, he’s also implying our duty to each other. My children are stuck with each other for life because they share a common parentage. We are to embrace as spiritual family everyone whom our Father has adopted. We don’t get to set up additional stipulations. We must love them on the sole basis of shared spiritual parentage. In this way, we retain their freedom and our own.

Please hear what I’m saying. If we are going to be the same kind of Christians Paul was, we must be free from conformity and authority. This is so important to know because in my experience one of the best places to find conforming pressure and authoritarian leadership has been at church.


Because these social dynamics are powerful and predictable. If you want to start a church, you just need to master the art of building a cohesive culture among a bunch of people who find you credible. It works, but it’s the opposite of the new society which grows from the gospel.

I remember almost ten years ago meeting some people who were part of a former cult. In the mid nineties, Newsweek had named this movement the largest cult in America. In only fifteen years, this group had exploded in numbers from a single congregation of a few hundred to a worldwide movement with over one hundred thousand members. After moral failure among the top level leadership, the member congregations repented of some of their more authoritarian tendencies. Even though they were supposedly reformed, I could sense the hunger for proselytes still churning in their members.

Besides the excessive friendliness, I noticed something else strange about the couple who took a particular interest in recruiting my family. Their clothes were way out of fashion. When we accepted their invitation to dinner I realized that this wasn’t due to frugality. As I looked at pictures of the couple with their friends displayed around he house, I felt like I was looking back twenty years in time to the nineties. I asked my host when the photos were taken. He answered, “Last year.” Then I realized that the members of this cult had frozen in time. They had formed their picture of the Christian ideal from the people who’d led their movement in its ascendency – during the nineties.

I share this story to illustrate the danger of conformity in a church setting. Now, there’s nothing sinful (maybe) about dressing like the nineties, but it’s probably not helpful either. Imagine walking into a room full of people dressed that way. Would you feel like they’d discovered something transcendent or would you think they’d relinquished a part of themselves to a hive mind? Would you think they’d each found a personal faith or would you pity them as pathetic joiners? It’s possible to think you’re responding to God’s call when you’re really just following the crowd. It’s possible to tell yourself you’re in a spiritual family when you’re really in a cult. Healthy families promote diversity because they’re predicated on unconditional love. The church is supposed to be the ultimate family. If you’re in a group that discourages diversity, it’s not the church.

I’d love to discuss these ideas further, so leave me a comment!


  1. The best evidence for the use of “shalom alykhem” as a greeting by Jewish people in the first century comes from the Gospels of Luke and John where Jesus is quoted as greeting his disciples with it after his resurrection. cf. Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 26
  2. Evidence of this shared hope can be found in Acts 3:19-21: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
  3. The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. p. 699
  4. Isaiah 2:1-5 as an example.
  5. Acts 15:36-41

Free Association – Galatians 1:1-2

Let’s do a little word association. When I say, “Christian,” what word pops into your head? I’d be willing to pay $20 to anyone who can honestly say that they associated “Christian” with “subversive.” If your first word was “conservative,” “fundamentalist,” “rightwing,” or the like, you can send me $20. In America, Christians institutions work to defend “traditional values.” But that’s not the ancient faith. It’s something else – something tame and malignant.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against “values.” It’s the “traditional” that betrays Christ with a kiss.

Everyone knows that Jesus was a subversive, but we assume that his opponents were to blame. Jesus didn’t like hypocrites and he called them out, isn’t that right? Aren’t you glad that you’re not a hypocrite like those Pharisees? I know I am. Surely if you and I were in power at the time of Christ he would have used his carpentry skills to build more tables for our merchants and money changers.

No, I’m not a revolutionary.

I’m an expositor…of something revolutionary.

This is the first installment in my exposition of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Stick it to the man…and all the rest of y’all!

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead

Galatians 1:1 (NIV)

Apostles represent.

Paul introduced himself as a representative first and foremost. He did that a lot in his greetings. This one is different from the others in couple of ways.

He begins by telling them who he didn’t represent. If Christ himself met me on the road to Damascus (or any road for that matter) and made me his emissary I would lead with that. I’d get some business cards made up and maybe a badge of some sort. Paul didn’t discount his position as Christ’s apostle, but in this particular instance, he distanced himself from any human influence before giving his credentials. Why would he need to do this?

As we unpack this letter, his reasons will become clear, but at this point it’s important to observe that a person can claim a divine office while representing a human institution. The most notable example would be the pope. He may be known as the vicar of Christ, but he’s appointed by a conclave through a majority vote. The pope might write a letter and sign it as the apostle of Christ, but he can’t legitimately add, “and not of men.”

Paul didn’t just include such a disclaimer, he led with it.

He not only led with it, he repeated it. Notice the seeming redundancy – “not from men nor by a man.” Why couldn’t he have just said, “not from men,” and left it at that? Wouldn’t “men,” include any particular “man.” Did he repeat for emphasis? If so, I think I would have phrased it, “not from any man or even all men.” No, I think there’s something more here.

Paul didn’t repeat himself; he just got really specific. “Not from men nor a man,” would only be redundant if “men” and “man” referred to essentially the same thing. As we continue through this letter, we’ll see that they refer to two separate, but related forces – conformity and authority.

In saying that he wasn’t sent “from men,” Paul declared his office free from the influence of humans as a group. Whatever Paul was doing rose above, and, when necessary, defied social pressure. Herodotus was right that custom is king, but 500 years later, Paul declared that king dethroned.

And custom wasn’t the only king that Paul disavowed.

At the writing of Galatians, the Roman Empire spanned from Spain in the west to Syria in the east, from Britain in the north to Ethiopia in the south.

The people within those borders lived, worked, and traded under the dictates of one man, Caesar. How could one man control the conduct of millions?


A cynic might have answered, “armies,” but armies operate on authority in even higher concentrations. Think of the drill sergeant hurling verbal abuse at squad of armed fighting men. Authority keeps these men, any of whom could end the sergeant on the spot, in line. Literally.

Whether in the case of a sergeant, a Caesar, or a CEO, authority doesn’t depend on numbers like conformity. When Karen wants compliance, she doesn’t rally the cashier’s coworkers; she demands to speak with the manager. Every human institution operates on authority and authority is wielded by individuals.

In saying that he was not the representative of “a man,” Paul severed any connection between his office and any human authority.

Eleven words into his letter (eight in Greek) Paul knocked out the two props which have supported civilization for millennia. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a conformist, but without conformity we wouldn’t be able to anticipate the actions of others or conduct ourselves successfully in social situations. We might resent authority, but we’re probably glad that interpersonal disputes get solved in courtrooms rather than through armed conflicts in the streets. Now, here’s Paul disavowing cultural conformity and human authority.

Talk about subversive!

A better offer

If I told you that I got a letter in the mail today, you might ask who it was from. What if I told you it wasn’t from anyone? You might be confused. The very idea of receiving something in the mail implies a sender. So did the notion of apostleship. To be an apostle was to be sent. Paul began by excluding any sort of human sender, but that doesn’t mean nobody sent him.

He goes on in Galatians 1:1 to say that he was sent, “by Jesus Christ and God the Father…”

There’s been some dispute over the past 150 years or so about whether the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as God or whether that idea was syncretized from pagan sources and later adopted at the Council of Nicaea. Let me submit this phrase as exhibit “A” in the case for an early understanding of Christ’s divinity. Paul, writing around 55 CE, didn’t see Jesus as just a great man. He said that he wasn’t sent by a man, but by Jesus Christ.

Not only does he distinguish Jesus from human authorities, Paul associates Jesus with God. The two “persons” sent Paul together. He wasn’t sent by God through Jesus, but by Jesus and God. That God would do anything in partnership with someone else has serious theological implications. The Qur’an insists that such a thing could never happen:

Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth; to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin Most(sic) heinous indeed.

Surah 4:48 (Al-Qur’an English Edition. Islamic Studies Press.

According to the Qur’an, Paul has committed the unpardonable sin and he’s not even completed his greeting. This would be true if Jesus were not God, but he is.

Paul’s apostleship stood above the purview of all human authority because it sprung from divine authority. Every child knows that you can only resist authority through another authority. If mom said you can’t go with your friends, ask dad and vice versa. In that case, the other authority may not outrank the first one, so freedom may not be achieved. The legal system defines levels of authority, and so a prisoner may be released by appealing to a higher court. Authority trumps authority. Paul’s apostleship was free from human authority because it was based on the ultimate authority.

This may not sound like liberation at first blush. We’re conditioned to think that God’s standards are more stringent and his retribution more certain than any human authority. That would be true if God’s kingdom operated on the same mechanisms as human authority. As we will see, while there had been a system like that in place, it has been outmoded. We get a clue as to the nature of this better system from the little word, “and.” Remember, Paul wasn’t sent by God, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.

The ground of all being is a Partnership. Dictators, despots and tyrants rule alone, but God has never been alone. We might think of the whole enterprise of creation and redemption as the Eternal Partnership looking to take on new members. While membership implies obligations, it also, as they say, has its privileges. Partners share responsibility and authority. We pray because we’ve been authorized under divine authority. From within this partnership, we experience God’s supreme authority as final permission to break with the social contract and take the better offer.

But what happens when human authority won’t defer to the divine?

Reversed rulings

Painting by Jan van ‘t Hoff on gospelimages.com. Click on photo to view his site.

Jesus exemplified free living under God. He also demonstrated the price of such living in a world still controlled by human power structures. Among all of the glorious messages reverberating from the passion of Christ is this truth: “God won’t stop human authorities from enforcing their rule however they see fit.”

So, how can he expect us to live above their control?

The answer lies in the last phrase of Galatians 1:1, “…who raised him from the dead.”

God doesn’t prevent evil deeds. To do so would only delay and perhaps amplify further evil. Instead, he converts them. If Jesus was who Paul said he was then the crucifixion was the nadir of human evil. First light on the third day would reveal that act to be the righteousness of God. Conquerors forcefully subjugate the will of others. Christ did more than conquer.

Following him means we must do the same.

Consider these familiar words from Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Romans 8:35-37 (NIV)

It has been said that freedom isn’t free. Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect that someone else will pick up the tab, whether that be a soldier on foreign soil or Christ himself on the cross. Paul would have repudiated that thinking. In saying that he’d not been sent by a man, he understood that he was obligated to live in the costly freedom which Christ has purchased. Those of us who’ve been redeemed by the Lamb must also be counted as sheep to be slaughtered.

At this point, you might be tempted to look for freedom on your own terms. It’s not out there. Remember, there are two controllers of human behavior – authority and conformity.

On earth as in heaven

People who dodge authority find themselves conforming to a counter culture. When I was in high school, you could pick out the “partiers” by how they talked and dressed. Their behavior in some ways defied authority, but it was still bound to the group. From my brief foray among their ranks, I remember how they used certain language to encourage group loyalty. For instance, nobody was to use the phrase, “go straight,” regardless of context. If you were giving someone directions and used the phrase to mean, “don’t turn here,” members of the group would emphatically recite the motto, “Don’t go straight; go forward!” It was a tacit way of saying, “If you give up partying, we’ll disown you.” Counter cultures can even become more oppressive than the mainstream.

Ironically, when counter cultures become large and powerful enough, they always develop their own authority structures and codes of conduct such as in the case of gangs and criminal syndicates.

The human condition comes bundled with authority and conformity. There’s nowhere among other people that we can go to escape these two controlling forces. I think this has been the appeal of monasticism. People disappear into the desert to “find themselves” or to silence the demands of society so they can find enlightenment or nirvana or something esoteric. This isn’t a bad thing, so long as its temporary. The great weakness of the monastic path in my opinion is that it doesn’t readily translate into concern for other people or action on their behalf. Surely, we’ve not found the best version of ourselves if the person we find is self-centered. For freedom to be worth pursuing, it mustn’t become an end in itself. We become free to become truly good and we become truly good for the sake of others.

We must become free from our community to become good, but we become good to contribute to our community.

This brings me to the next verse in Paul’s letter.

 and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

Galatians 1:2 (NIV)

This letter wasn’t sent from an individual, but from a family – Paul and his siblings. In the previous section, I said that we’ve been invited into an Eternal Partnership, but that was only part of the picture. If you were as astute, you noticed that Paul has already described God as “the Father.” Jesus Christ and God the Father partnered in the sending of Paul, but that partnership is also a family. To join the Eternal Partnership, we must be adopted into the Eternal Family.

To accept God’s invitation into his family is to join an alternative society. We are the “called out” also known as “the church.” The letter to the Galatians is a letter from Paul and his spiritual siblings (i.e. the church) to others in their spiritual family, the churches of Galatia.

Just as the authority of Jesus Christ and God the Father supersedes that of human rulers, so the culture of the church supersedes human cultures. We’re free from cultural conformity because we’ve joined a new society with its own norms. Because this society is God’s family, those norms spring from each person’s essential nature with infinite room for personal expression.

Maybe the best way to summarize what I’ve said so far is to say that Paul introduced himself as a representative of a regime that commands its subjects to be free and of a culture where the norm is personal authenticity.

That may sound like a lot to get from two verses. The only way to know whether I’m just making all of this up, will be to explore the rest of the letter.

Learning to Learn

I have some friends who’ve recently come to faith. They’re from a subculture very disparate from mine. They’ve drawn me into conversations I’ve never had with other church members. Since they’re new believers and I’m a pastor, I usually see our interactions as an opportunity for me to assist their spiritual growth. I find myself defaulting to asking what about their worldview needs correcting. Today, it dawned on me that they are changing my worldview as much as I am changing theirs. By receiving Christ, they have brought their unique perspective on the gospel to bear on the church’s mission in the world.  Today I had to admit to my friend that he was right about something over which we had disagreed.

His response was, “It’s like this turn signal thing on my van.  If I find the short I can fix it.  You needed a fix to the short.  Its me.”

He’s right. I can get all energized by God’s grace but that energy won’t reach certain people in the world unless I have a bridge like my friend.  I can study the Bible for the rest of my life but the gaps in my perspective will always hinder my understanding.  I need a fix like my friend.

In the New Testament, Cornelius the centurion served as a bridge. He was a gentile who came to faith in Christ without having to convert to Judaism. His conversion not only catalyzed the a new gentile church in Caesarea it also sent theological shock waves through a church which saw itself largely as an extension of Judaism. Cornelius’ conversion converted the mindset of the church leaders of the day. We need to reach people from all backgrounds not only because they need Jesus but also because we need their idiosyncrasies to better understand and communicate our own message. (Acts 10-11; 15)