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:
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.
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.”
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.