A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 1:1-5. The Apostle Paul’s authority and gospel.
In the course of the thirty years or so which elapsed between his conversion outside Damascus and his imprisonment in Rome, the apostle Paul travelled widely through the Empire as an ambassador of Jesus Christ. On his three famous missionary journeys he preached the gospel and planted churches in the provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia (Northern Greece) and Achaia (Southern Greece). Moreover, his visits were followed by his letters, by which he helped to supervise the churches he had founded.
One of these letters which many believe to be the earliest that he wrote (about AD 48 or 49), is the Epistle to the Galatians. It is addressed *To the churches of Galatia* (verse 2). There is some dispute among scholars as to what is meant by ‘Galatia’, and for the details here I must refer you to the commentaries. I myself take the view that the reference is to the southern part of the province, and in particular to the four cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, which Paul evangelized during his first missionary journey. You can read about this in Acts 13 and 14.
In each city there was now a church. It is recognized in the New Testament that what is called ‘the church of God’ (Gal.1:13), the universal church, is divided into local ‘churches’. Not, of course, into denominations. but into congregations. The New English Bible translates the phrase in verse 2 ‘to the Christian congregations of Galatia’. Further these churches were grouped together because of geographical and political considerations. Such a group of churches could be described either in the plural (e.g. ‘the churches of Galatia’, ‘the churches…in Judea’, Gal.1:2 and 22) or by a singular collective noun (e.g. Achaia’, 2 Cor. 9:2). This usage seems to supply some biblical warrant for the concept of a regional church, the federation of local churches in a particular area.
Already in the first paragraph of his letter to the Galatians Paul touches on two themes to which he will constantly return, his apostleship and his gospel. In the ancient world all letters began with the writer’s name, followed by the recipient’s name and a greeting or message. But Paul enlarges in the Galatian Epistle more than was customary in those days, and more than he does in his other Epistles, both on his credentials as a writer and on his message. He has good reasons for doing so.
Since his visit to these Galatian cities the churches which he had founded had been troubled by false teachers. These men had mounted a powerful attack on Paul’s authority and gospel. They contradicted his gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone, insisting that for salvation more than faith in Christ was needed. You had to be circumcised as well, they said, and keep all the law of Moses (see Acts 15:1,5). Having undermined Paul’s gospel, they proceeded to undermine his authority also. ‘Who is this fellow Paul anyway?’ they asked scornfully. ‘He certainly wasn’t one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Nor, so far as we know, has he received any authorization from anybody. He is just a self-appointed impostor’.
Paul sees clearly the dangers of this two-pronged attack, and so he plunges, right at the beginning of the Epistle, into a statement of his apostolic authority and of his gospel of grace. He will elaborate these themes later in the Epistle, but notice how he begins: *Paul an apostle (not an impostor)…grace to you*. These two terms ‘apostle’ and ‘grace’ were loaded words in that situation, and if we understand their meaning, we have grasped the two main subjects of the Galatian Epistle.