On January 2, 2011, I had the privilege of preaching at Northside Baptist Church in Elizabethtown. My message was “Glory to God for the Gospel of Grace” from Galatians 1:1-5. You can listen to it here.
The opening of Paul’s first letter, Galatians, has a high view of Jesus. I see five christological points to make:
(1) Jesus is more than a mere man. Paul contrasts his apostleship as being “not from men nor through man” but “through Jesus Christ…” (Gal 1:1). Paul certainly believed in the humanity of Jesus (see Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7-8; Col 2:9), but he believed that authority from Jesus was different from the authority of people who were men only. Jesus is both divine and human.
(2) Jesus is risen from the dead. The Father is the one “who raised him from the dead” (Gal 1:1). This vindication is something no other dead person has received. Jesus received a glorified body when the Father raised him, while all other dead people await their resurrected bodies (see 1 Cor 15:23).
(3) Jesus is a source of grace and peace. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:3). Jews believed that grace and shalom came from God, and here Paul–a Jew!–says that they come from the Father and the Son, a dual source. Paul did not abandon monotheism when he became a Christian. Rather, his understanding of God’s being now included the exalted person of Jesus. For Paul, saying grace and peace came from God was the same as saying that they came from the Father and the Son.
(4) Jesus and the Father are united in purpose. Since the Son is exalted with the Father, it makes sense that they are not persons with different plans. Rather, there is harmony and unity between the Father and Son. Paul’s authority came from Jesus and the Father (Gal 1:1), grace and peace came from the Father and Jesus (Gal 1:3), and Jesus died for our sins in obedience to the Father’s will (Gal 1:4).
(5) Jesus is Lord. Paul calls Jesus “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:3). Paul doesn’t use that title in 1:1, but its use in 1:3 further bolsters his exalted view of Jesus. Jesus is the ruler, the sovereign, the king. He is Lord of all.
The exalted status of Jesus was no late invention of the early church. It is clear that the introduction to Paul’s first letter demonstrates a high christology. As a representative of the early church’s teaching, Paul believed Jesus was the risen Lord who was united in glory and power with the Father.
I have been persuaded for some time that Galatians was Paul’s earliest letter, written approximately AD 49-50. This is significant because, according to some conservative scholars, Galatians 1:1-5 contains the earliest written interpretation of the death of Jesus in the New Testament.
The four Gospels were written after Galatians, as were the other letters (with the exception of James), Acts, and Revelation. So although Acts reports some early church history after the ascension of Jesus and before Paul was every converted, the book was still written after Galatians.
Put another way, Galatians 1:1-5 was the earliest New Testament record of what leaders–Paul in particular–were teaching about the cross (the letter of James does not provide any explicit teaching about Jesus’ death).
“Paul, an apostle–not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead….Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:1, 3-4).
Four observations can be made. According to the earliest New Testament record of the interpretation of the cross,
(1) Jesus’ death was voluntary (“gave himself”)
(2) Jesus’ death was substitutionary (“for our sins”)
(3) Jesus’ death was planned (“according to the will of our God”)
(4) Jesus’ death was vindicated (“who raised him from the dead”)
The earliest New Testament testimony about the cross is worth our reflection. In summary, the early church taught, proclaimed, and wrote about a risen Lord who had freely borne our sins on the cross in fulfillment of his Father’s plan.
Paul wrote thirteen letters of the New Testament, and they follow a typical pattern of letter-writing: introduction, body, and conclusion.
The introduction in first-century letter-writing was fourfold:
You can find interpretive insights in Paul’s letters by reflecting on how Paul elaborates on or deviates from this fourfold pattern.
For example, consider six observations from Galatians 1:1-5:
First, Paul claims that his apostleship is “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (1:1). This elaboration is important for the purpose of Galatians, because the recipients are deviating from the gospel which he proclaimed with the authority of Christ. Before rebuking them for turning to another “gospel,” he reminds them of his authority.
Second, Paul identifies some fellow senders as “and all the brothers who are with me” (1:2a). In other letters, sometimes he adds a co-sender, like Timothy or Silas or Sosthenes. But here there is an all-inclusive statement (“all the brothers”), intended to bolster support for the concerns raised in his letter. He wants the Galatians to know, “This isn’t just an exhortation from me or a couple other people. All the brothers with me share my burdens expressed in this letter.”
Third, Paul wrote succinctly “To the churches of Galatia” (1:2b), adding no colorful phrase. In his other letters he uses words like “faithful” or “saints” or “beloved,” but not here in Galatians. This is likely due to the dire situation of the Galatian churches.
Fourth, Paul expands on the dual source (“God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”) of the grace and peace (1:3). This expansion is focused on Jesus as the one “who gave himself for our sins…” (1:4). The cross makes its first of several appearances in the letter and will prove to be an important theme.
Fifth, Paul ends his introduction with a doxology (1:5), something which doesn’t occur at the beginning of his other letters. The Father deserves “glory forever and ever” for the redemption accomplished in his Son. The presence of the doxology also signals a shift in the letter.
Sixth, there is no thanksgiving before the body of the letter (which begins in 1:6). The absence of a thanksgiving is probably also due to the emergency situation of the Galatian churches. Paul feels outraged by their deviation from the gospel message, so he deviates from his typical letter pattern in order to quickly address his readers.
These observations demonstrate the uniqueness of the introduction of the letter to the Galatians. Again, observing how Paul elaborates on or deviates from typical letter patterns can yield significant interpretive insights as we read his letters.