The apostle Paul opens his epistle to the Galatian Christians with stern criticism. Written in the early AD 50s, this book describes a situation occurring in the church not even twenty years after Christ's death! In less than two decades, Jesus' message had been perverted to something that, to Paul, no longer announced "good tidings."
The specifics of this Galatian perversion are not important in this context, but the principle that we can derive from it is: Any alteration, any shift of focus, from Jesus' original announcement changes the message from one of good to bad news. A change in the gospel changes its goal, which means believers will arrive some place other than the Kingdom of God! How vital it is that we follow the true gospel of God!
The church of God has the same source of Christ's gospel as the rest of the "Christian" world, the Holy Bible. Why, then, is the gospel we preach so different from the Protestant and Catholic gospels? There could be many answers to this question, but every one boils down to one point, mentioned by Jesus in Mark 1:15: We "believe in the gospel" He preached. We believe time is short. We believe that Christ will establish the Kingdom of God soon. We believe that we should repent and do so as a way of life. We believe Christ's message by living it in faith.
Other churches may say they also believe and live in faith. Do they? Jesus says in Matthew 7:16, "You will know them by their fruits." This is the easiest way to spot those who follow a false gospel:
» Do they try to live by every word of God?
» Do they tremble before God's Word?
» Do they keep God's commandments (all of them)?
» Do they repent of and strive to overcome their failings?
» Do they show a steady growth in character?
» Do they focus on the Kingdom of God?
» Do they prioritize their lives with God first?
» Do they focus their teaching on the message He proclaimed?
» Do they exhibit genuine love for the brethren?
Depending on our understanding and viewpoint, it is likely that no one person or group will pass or fail all of these questions. "For we all stumble in many things" (James 3:2). However, if we are to judge righteously in the matter of whom we choose to fellowship with, we ourselves need to have a thorough grasp of the true gospel.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The True Gospel (Part 1)
The major thrust of the Galatian epistle is to put them "back on the track" because someone had been teaching "a different gospel," a perversion of the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:6-7). The Galatians had derailed on their understanding of how sinners are justified. To be justified means to have one's sins forgiven and to be brought into a right relationship with God. False teachers in Galatia taught that one was justified by doing physical works of some kind. In dealing with this matter, Paul felt an urgency to emphasize that we are justified by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:15-16)
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Does Paul Condemn Observing God's Holy Days?
Paul was astonished that people in the church were drifting back to their pagan ways so quickly. This record is proof of what can happen if we do not use what we profess to believe in, developing the relationship God has made available. If we do not have faith in what brought us out of the world, then we will eventually return to our former state. It is that simple. If we lack faith in what brought us out, we will regress to what we were before.
John W. Ritenbaugh
A Pre-Passover Look
Only a little more than a generation had passed since the founding of the church, yet false gospels, perversions of the truth, were making serious trouble for those early Christians. Paul was warning members of the church in Galatia not to listen to those who are trying to persuade them away from the true doctrines of God, which they had learned when the apostles had preached the true gospel to them.
After warning them in verses 8-9, Paul goes on to defend himself against the unwritten question, "How do we know that you preached us the truth?" He asks in return, "From what you've seen of me, do I try to seek the favor of men or God? Do I seem to be a men-pleaser?" Clearly, he always put the truth of God before pleasing people, and he had had to pay the price for it in persecution and peril (see II Corinthians 11:23-33). He considered these sacrifices proof that he was a true servant of God.
Then, in Galatians 1:11-12, he lets them know where the true message he had taught them came from. He was taught, he said, not by any man (verse 16), but by Jesus Christ Himself. Once God had called him on the road to Damascus, and after he was baptized, he went down to Arabia (verse 17), staying there for three years (verse 18). There, Christ taught him the truth as an apostle "born out of due time" (I Corinthians 15:8). Our Savior had a special job for Paul and wanted to give Him the same kind of instruction that He had given the Twelve.
No one knows if Christ came down and appeared to him, teaching him directly, or whether He opened Paul's mind and revealed the truth out of Scripture. However it was done, when he went up to Jerusalem three years later and talked with Peter, James, and John, he found that they agreed completely on the gospel of God (Galatians 2:9). These men understood that Paul was a fellow apostle with them and that his mission would focus primarily on the Gentiles.
By his personal history, Paul shows that he had received the same, true revelation from God that the original disciples had been given. Thus, the gospel that he taught was the same gospel that Peter, John, and the other apostles were also preaching. They all preached from the same Source: Jesus Christ. Our beliefs should rest on that same foundation, which is now printed in our Bibles. Notice Ephesians 2:19-22:
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
In terms of revelation from God, this passage informs us that a true understanding is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. In the past, God revealed certain things to the prophets in Old Testament times and to the apostles in New Testament times, and they wrote those things down for our learning (see Hebrews 1:1; Romans 15:4; I Corinthians 10:11). Jesus Christ is called "the chief cornerstone" because He is the true Foundation and Source of all revelation. He is the One who joins all the revelation together and makes it work. We, then, having this sure foundation, not only learn the truth, but also grow by it into the image of Christ.
The apostle continues in Ephesians 3:
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:1-5)
Paul uses the subject of God's grace toward the Gentiles as a way to get across, not only that he preached the true gospel, but also how truth comes into the church of God. It is very simple: God revealed something to him, and he, then, wrote it down in a few words, so that we could read and comprehend his understanding of the mystery of God's way. That is how it works: God inspired a prophet or an apostle, and he wrote it down. Over time, it became Scripture, and now we read it, using the Holy Spirit that God has given us, to understand the truth.
At the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22:18-19, John warns the reader not to add to or take away from the words written in the Book, something the false teachers in Galatia were obviously doing. Essentially, he is telling us that revelation from God to man is closed; the canon of Scripture is complete. What we need to know for salvation is in the finished work of the Bible. Anyone who claims to have a new revelation, that he has some "new truth" beyond Scripture, is a false teacher, one of those who "pervert the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:7).
So the Bible is the collected writings of the apostles and prophets to whom God gave His precious revelation for all of us to learn and use. God's converted children do not need any advanced degrees, courses in higher thinking and logic, or any kind of worldly help to understand God's truth. All they need is the Word of God and a humble mind that can reason normally, and God, by the gifts of His Spirit (which includes a faithful ministry; Ephesians 4:11), provides the understanding.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
When the apostle Paul penned this epistle in the early AD 50s, only two decades had passed since the death and resurrection of Christ and the founding of the church. It took only twenty years before some had perverted the gospel into something so different that it was no longer good news (verse 7)!
Paul continues in verses 11-12: "But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ." The glad tidings Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles proclaimed throughout the world is revealed—that is, it comes from God and can be learned only through supernatural disclosure (Romans 16:25-26; I Corinthians 2:10; Colossians 1:26).
The true gospel message, then, is not readily available to all. In fact, a person cannot even pick up the Bible and find it there! One cannot stumble over or happen upon it. God must open one's mind to receive it (I Corinthians 2:7-16), "because the carnal mind is enmity against God" (Romans 8:7). Jesus says that He designed even His parables—seemingly simple stories with obvious lessons—to hide meaning rather than reveal it (Matthew 13:10-17)!
In the first century, the apostles battled two pernicious false gospels: legalism and Gnosticism. Legalism grew primarily out of Judaism, holding that salvation came through works of the law rather than by grace. Paul preached against this deception repeatedly (e.g., Galatians 5:1-6; Ephesians 2:8-10, etc.), affirming that salvation is by grace, though good works form a necessary part of Christian growth and are indeed what God is working with us to accomplish.
Gnosticism consists of a whole group of heresies, all with the central ideas that knowledge (gnosis) is the means to salvation and that spirit is good and flesh is evil. In practice, it soon devolved into the extremes of asceticism and hedonism, as well as peculiar ideas about the nature of God and Christ (e.g., Colossians 2:8, 18, 20-23; II Peter 2:4-22; I John 1:5-10; 2:18-23, etc.). Eventually, Gnostic ideas came to dominate "Christianity," and its modern descendants are proclaimed far and wide every Sunday.
The most pervasive false gospel today is also quite deceptive: the gospel about Christ. Churches that preach this gospel teach about the Messenger rather than the Message He brought. Certainly, we are to study Christ's life, for He is our example of Christian living (I Peter 2:21; I John 2:6, etc.). However, when He preached the gospel, He did not trumpet His own virtues but revealed the way to the Kingdom of God.
In commissioning His disciples, He says: "And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:7-8). Nowhere does He tell them to "preach Jesus"; His concern is always in proclaiming God's Kingdom. Before His ascension, He tells them "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in [My] name to all nations" (Luke 24:47). He was so fixated on preaching the gospel of the Kingdom—and ensuring that His disciples understood it before He sent them out to preach it—that it filled His conversation during His post-resurrection appearances to them (Acts 1:3).
What gospel we learn is vitally important. We need to be sure that it is the true gospel Christ brought, the revelation of the imminent Kingdom of God. Paul's warning about false gospels should give us the proper perspective: "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed!" (Galatians 1:8).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The True Gospel (Part 6)
Paul penned the book of Galatians because church members in Galatia were turning away from the true gospel and had embraced a false one (Galatians 1:6-7). Early on, Paul had to establish his credentials - that the gospel he preached did not have its source in any man, as Gnostic ideas do, but had come directly from Jesus Christ (verses 11-12). The Galatians were returning to the "weak and beggarly elements" (Galatians 4:9), referring to the demonism they had been involved in prior to their conversion (verse 8). The Gentile Galatians were observing certain days, months, seasons, and years that had nothing to do with God's holy days (verse 10), but were part of a system that elevated rites and ceremonies above the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even while paying lip service to Christianity.
Paul addresses a philosophy that venerated the Torah - and went so far as to teach that one could be justified by works of the law - but also involved astrology and receiving revelations from angels (Galatians 1:8). Because of the belief that the spirit of a person was trying to get back to heaven, worship of angels and astrology was a common tenet of Gnosticism, since angels and the patterns of stars and planets were believed to hold keys to this spiritual journey. Contrary to popular assumption, Paul does not condemn God's law in Galatians but a corrupt system that was severely affecting the church. That Gnostic system happened to include an emphasis on the Old Covenant at the expense of Jesus Christ's life, death, and teachings.
Gnostic Christians borrowed the idea of redemption through Christ, but rather than believing that He redeemed them from sin, they believed that He would redeem them from matter - that is, from the flesh, which they considered to be inherently evil. At the core of Gnosticism is the belief that knowledge, typically secret knowledge - knowledge from angels, from the stars and planets, from the ancients - was the path to holiness and salvation. They believed that the path of redemption was through knowledge, and that the worst evil was ignorance.
Thus, they did not endeavor to overcome sin but ignorance. If they could just become wise enough, they reasoned, sin would not be a problem because they would be more spiritual than physical. Obviously, they overlooked man's incurably sick heart (Jeremiah 17:9), and the struggle that a person must undertake to overcome it. The Gnostics believed that the solution was found in greater understanding, rather than in a Savior and High Priest who justifies and guides us through a process of sanctification. In essence, Gnostics would rather learn than submit.
What is more, the knowledge that the Gnostics sought always originated in something other than God and His Word. We know that knowledge itself is not the problem. In the Bible, knowledge is generally presented as a good thing. God goes so far as to say that Israel is "destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). However, the knowledge He means is the knowledge of Himself and of His way of life, not knowledge as an end in itself.
In the New Testament, Paul tells the congregation at Rome that Israel has "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2). Israelites like to think they are serving God, but the way they go about it is contrary to the instructions that God gave them. Jesus Himself says that eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3), by which He means the experience of an intimate relationship with the Father and the Son, something the Gnostics would never accept. They believed that a spiritual and thus pure God would have nothing to do with what they considered to be entirely evil matter and flesh. They did not care that God called His physical creation "good" - even "very good" - for they still saw it as corrupt, a prison from which to be liberated.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism
Paul wrote II Thessalonians in the early AD 50s and the mystery of iniquity, the mystery of lawlessness, was already working. Galatians, in which Paul gave a similar warning (Galatians 1:6-7), was also written in the early AD 50s. In a short period of time - about 19 or 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ - the mystery of iniquity was already at work, and it was beginning to have a negative impact on the church of God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
A Place of Safety? (Part 4)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Galatians 1:6:
1 Corinthians 9:19-22
2 Thessalonians 2:7