As most of you who are local to the Tri-State area probably know, I do occasional guide service work at the Antietam National Battlefield. This is usually 2-3 hours with a group, with the first 30 minutes of conversation at the visitor’s center as a background set-up. Then we spend the remaining time travelling around the battlefield and following events of that day in 1862 as they developed in consecutive order. Most people come with some basic knowledge of varied elements of the battle, but when their previous knowledge is organized and experienced chronologically, it is interesting to see how it all truly comes alive for them.
I am hoping that many of you will have this similar sort of experience this summer through our study on the life of the Apostle Paul. As we work through these 60 total devotional thoughts, I trust that all sorts of miscellaneous pieces of knowledge you have about Paul and the early church will fall into order in such a way that it truly makes it all come alive for you.
Today might be the first day where you realize this as we talk about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Throughout this devotional series I am going to drop into the narrative a summary of each of Paul’s writings at the time and sequence of his life story. Today is the first of these, as Galatians is the first of his writings. And seeing the topics in the book of Galatians as it relates to Paul’s recently completed first missionary journey gives us a new insight into Paul’s mindset when we read through this book of six chapters.
I should include here a word about New Testament studies and academics. Understand that not every scholar agrees exactly about when each and every writing of Paul was composed. And as we approach Galatians, I will tell you that there has been a centuries-old conflict about who were the recipients of Paul’s letter – the older northern Galatian province, or the southern Galatian region that includes essentially all of the communities of Paul’s first journey. The majority of scholars prefer the southern view, and I agree – for a whole host of reasons that probably involve deeper weeds than we want to get into today.
So here is Paul, back “home” in Antioch of Syria from which he was sent, reflecting on the incredible experiences that resulted in hundreds and hundreds of converts – Jewish and Gentile. These new Christians had been formed into fledgling church congregations, the leadership of which were appointed by Paul and Barnabas on their re-visits in each city as they re-traced their steps back home. Understand that there is really no manual or history of churches … no seminary program in pastoral studies for these new Christians to know how to do this. Many of the elements of New Testament worship involved taking familiar patterns from the synagogue and infusing them with new Christian meanings, adding especially the observance of the Lord’s Table as a weekly event. (This last sentence is essentially a summary of the topic of my master’s thesis at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1982, entitled “Synagogue Influences on New Testament Worship”.)
We have a weekend ahead, giving you an opportunity before the next devotional on Monday morning to read through the book of Galatians. Here is a basic three-part outline:
Chapters 1+2 – Paul defends his apostleship and authority. As we have recently studied and written much about the opposition the Apostle faced on the first journey, it is no surprise that after he returned home there would be many in every place who came in to discredit Paul, and thereby to discredit his teaching. Again, read these two chapters with your mind freshly recalling the first missionary journey.
Paul concludes this discussion with what I like as a favorite verse in all of Scripture, 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Chapters 3+4 – Paul defends the nature of the gospel as a message of grace through faith, standing above and beyond the legalists’ message of works and adherence to the Law.
Galatians 3:26-28 – So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Chapters 5+6 – Paul presents the glorious new way of living in the Spirit and under the control of the fruits of the Spirit, rather than under the Law in an effort to accomplish good works in the flesh.
Galatians 5:13-14 – You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What a great letter Galatians is! This coming October will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The book of Galatians has been called “the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation” due to its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith alone.
One of my former professors summarized Galatians this way: “Galatians was written to remedy a desperate situation, to call early Christians back from the Mosaic Law to grace, from legalism to faith. It is an emphatic statement of salvation by faith apart from works and is as relevant today as when it was originally penned.”
We continue to need the message of faith alone. It has always been true and will always be true that, apart from an understanding of this truth, the natural proclivity of man is to believe that he must DO something to get his salvation, when in fact what is needed has already been DONE – trust in that alone.