Paul’s letter to the Galatians was occasioned by a report that the churches in this region were starting to succumb to false teaching, and this false teaching was having a negative effect on their Christian life. Because their sight of Christ had been clouded by faulty teaching, their spiritual passion was starting to dissipate, sin was beginning to flourish, and their fruitfulness was being hindered because they were no longer walking in the Spirit (Gal 3:1-5:26).
What was the problem? Evidence from the book indicates that some Jews who professed faith in Christ were teaching the believers in Galatia that they needed to believe in Christ and obey the Old Covenant laws in order to be right with God. Specifically, these Jewish teachers—what some have called Judaizers—required the male Galatians to receive circumcision while claiming that if they didn’t obey this aspect of God’s law they would be rejecting all of God’s law and be under God’s condemnation. Some Galatians were persuaded to keep certain feast days and other Old Covenant celebrations (Gal 4:10).
Sadly, those who had embraced the good news that Christ’s death provided all of their righteousness were now turning back to the Old Covenant in an attempt to keep the law for their right standing with God. They had been taught that salvation had been delivered by God’s grace to a life of freedom from the Old Covenant apart from any of their works, but they had now become ensnared in the subtle false teaching of the Judaizers.
Not unexpectedly, it seems that these Judaizers were claiming that Paul was the one distorting the gospel, so he had to re-establish his credentials so that the Galatians would go back to believing the message he originally preached to them (Gal 1:8-9) and solidify their confidence that the gospel he preaches is the real, heavenly gospel.
Happily for us, in God’s providence, Paul’s argument for why the Galatians should believe his gospel also provides us with rock-solid footing on why we can be certain that Paul’s gospel is a heavenly gospel. In the first two chapters of his letter to the Galatians, Paul provides multiple pieces of evidence so that we can know with certainty that the gospel he preaches has come directly from Jesus Christ.
Consider how he begins his argument: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me was not man’s gospel” (Gal 1:11). The first thing Paul needs to settle is that the original gospel the Galatians heard from Paul and his associates was a divinely-given gospel. His message was not something the apostle had concocted after ruminating for months over the Old Testament. This message comes from the Lord Jesus Christ himself. If you want to be right with God you must believe the message from God, and the gospel I preached to you, Paul says, is that very message.
But Paul, how do we know that your gospel isn’t from man? He continues: “For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Well, that makes sense in terms of logical order: the message you preach is not man’s gospel because you didn’t receive it from man, you received it from Jesus Christ. But how do we know that you received it from Jesus Christ? Paul offers six pieces of evidence to the Galatians to answer that question.
(1) Paul’s Powerful and Unlikely Conversion (1:13-16)
The first piece of evidence Paul provides the Galatians as to why they could know that his gospel is from God and not man is Paul’s own conversion. “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God and violently tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13). Paul was one of the rising stars in his religion. He loved Judaism. He loved the traditions and the structure of his religion. He loved his religious and family background. He loved pursuing righteousness by the law and becoming more righteous than others around him. He loved the advancements he was making beyond his Pharisaic peers.
Beyond these accomplishments, Paul was the very personification of Judaistic zeal, demonstrated in how he persecuted those who belonged this false, Jewish counterfeit called Christianity. How could it be that he would turn on a dime and renounce his entire approach to God and embrace Jesus and the gospel he once tried to snuff out? How could it be that he would start preaching immediately the same gospel he originally repudiated? The answer? “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” The only plausible explanation for this conversion is that God sovereignly reached down from heaven and changed Paul’s heart, opened his eyes, and revealed to him Jesus Christ in the gospel.
(2) Paul’s Independence from the Jerusalem Apostles (vv. 1:18-2:3)
The second piece of evidence that Paul’s gospel came directly from Christ is Paul’s independence from the Jerusalem apostles—Peter, James, and John. Remember, Paul was not one of the twelve apostles. He was saved on the road to Damascus after Christ had ascended (Acts 9:1-19). Nevertheless, Paul makes the case that he did not depend upon the Jerusalem apostles—these original disciples—for the gospel. The gospel he preached had been given to him by Christ so there was no need to consult with the Jerusalem apostles.
It may have been that the false teachers were attempting to persuade the Galatians that Paul had originally heard the gospel from the apostles but then later tweaked it into his faith-alone gospel. In other words, the claim of the false teachers may have been that the Jerusalem apostles were preaching the gospel of obedience to the Old Covenant law—they were Jews after all—but Paul had distorted this message and taken away that requirement of obedience to the law, claiming that all people are saved by grace apart from works.
Whatever the case, Paul indicates that his immediate recourse after his conversion wasn’t to search out confirmation from any Christian, including the apostles (Gal 1:16-17). Instead, he dealt directly with Jesus and acquired the gospel from the Savior himself. Indeed, rather than confirm his gospel with the Jerusalem apostles, Paul left for Arabia and made his way again to Damascus.
After three years Paul went up to Jerusalem, but didn’t spend much time there or meet with the apostles for a conference. Paul stayed with Peter for fifteen days, during which time he only saw James. It is likely that during those fifteen days Peter and Paul talked about more than the latest sports reports coming out of Greece—of course these men would have conversed about spiritual and theological matters. But such conversations were not engaged in order to shore up Paul’s ignorance.
Paul even seals his testimony with a straightforward claim: “I am not lying” (v. 20). So, we are left with a choice: we can either believe Paul is telling us the truth about the origin of his gospel and his relationship to the apostles, or he is not.
Another important aspect of Paul’s independence from the Jerusalem apostles is that fact that after his visit to Jerusalem to see Peter, he went to Syria and Cilicia. It was also the case that the churches in Judea still hadn’t seen Paul face-to-face. The Christians in these churches were talking among themselves—with joy and amazement, no doubt (v. 24)—about the this violent Pharisee-turned-Christian-evangelist.
This point implies that for Paul, Jerusalem wasn’t terribly important, which is, given Paul’s background and the city’s place in redemptive history, an astonishing observation. Jerusalem was the center of Old Testament prophesy and the place where the church was birthed, and it was the place where Jesus’ disciples began their post-Pentecost gospel ministry. Even so, Paul didn’t see Jerusalem as a sacred location to which he needed to make pilgrimage. Paul confirms this attitude toward Jerusalem when he says that he didn’t make his way back up to Jerusalem for another fourteen years (Gal 2:1). Furthermore, his impulse to travel there wasn’t based on a need to receive confirmation from the Jerusalem apostles. Rather, Paul went up because of a revelation from Jesus Christ, presumably a revelation instructing him to do this very thing (Gal 2:2).
What did Paul do when he went to Jerusalem this time? “I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.” Paul went privately to the influential leaders in the Jerusalem church—Peter, James, and John (Gal 2:9)—in order to explain the gospel he had been preaching to the Gentiles. Why? “for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain” (Gal 2:2).
Some interpreters see this statement as a concession that Paul needed the approval of the Jerusalem apostles for his ministry. In other words, Paul needed to check with these apostles to make sure that he hadn’t been preaching a faulty gospel for the last seventeen years. But the context renders this interpretation highly unlikely. The entire point of Paul’s argument starting Galatians 1:11 is that he was independent of the Jerusalem apostles. He received his gospel from Jesus, just like they did, and he didn’t need their approval to know that the gospel he preached was the true gospel. It’s more likely that Paul was concerned that if the apostles didn’t endorse his ministry—given their influence—much of his effort among the Gentiles would be lost.
(3) Paul’s Unwillingness to Yield to the False Teachers In Jerusalem (2:4-5)
But even when Paul traveled to Jerusalem, he wasn’t compelled to have Titus circumcised. This resistance to circumcision was significant because the Jerusalem apostles did not require what the false teachers claimed was part of the gospel. The false teachers are arguing that you must believe in Jesus and be circumcised, and they were likely claiming that is precisely what the Jerusalem apostles were preaching. Paul’s point is that if the apostles in Jerusalem were really teaching that circumcision is required for salvation, they would have required Titus to get circumcised, which they didn’t. Conclusion: their gospel is the same as Paul’s. There’s only one gospel, and Paul and the Jerusalem apostles were preaching it.
For the sake of the gospel, Paul didn’t yield for one moment to these false teachers. He continued to remain free from dietary laws, observing the Sabbath, and requiring circumcision to Gentiles. He was convinced that a person was justified before God by faith in Christ, not by obedience to any law. He preached that justification is by faith in Christ alone and didn’t concede on this point to anyone. Jesus Christ had revealed himself to Paul, saved him, forgiven all of his sins, and then commissioned him with the gospel to take it to the nations. He would rather die than distort the precious, Christ-revealed gospel. He had already told the Galatians that he was beholden to no man: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I still trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10).
(4) Paul’s Lack of Fascination for the Jerusalem Apostles (2:6)
As we’ve seen, one component of Paul’s argument that his gospel is from God and not from man has been to establish his independence from the apostles. Here, me makes that point explicit: “But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me” (Gal 2:6). Here Paul demonstrates that he wasn’t pining after the approval of the apostles, nor did the apostles add to his gospel or help him formulate it. Indeed, he’s not overly impressed by them!
Now, these statements don’t imply that Paul didn’t respect their authority as apostles (see Eph 2:20). But, it’s also the case that he wasn’t starry-eyed, either. When it comes to teaching the truth, God shows no partiality. The Lord doesn’t shrug and pat the head of an apostle when he starts to go off the grid, and Paul approaches the apostles the same way. Yes, they had authority as apostles, but that didn’t put them beyond correction if their conduct required it. If the apostles started to live in a way that contradicted the gospel, Paul would correct it to their face, not sweep it under the rug because, “Oh, their the influential ones. Better not say anything.” No, Paul was sober-minded toward the Jerusalem apostles. Not disrespectful. Just sober-minded.
(5) Paul’s Ministry Confirmation by the Jerusalem Apostles (2:7-10)
Indeed, far from correcting Paul’s gospel and ministry, the Jerusalem apostles confirmed it. These apostles recognized that the same Spirit who worked through Paul to send him to the Gentiles was the exact same Spirit who sent Peter to the Jews (Gal 2:7-9). The influential apostles—Peter, James, and John, didn’t ask Paul to tweak his gospel or start telling the Gentiles to start practicing the Old Covenant Law. Through the Holy Spirit they recognized that God had entrusted Paul with the gospel and given him the grace to preach it to the Gentiles. The only thing they did ask Paul to do was to remember the poor Christians, something Paul was already eager to do.
(6) Paul’s Confrontation of an Apostle for Hypocrisy (2:11-14)
The sixth and final piece of evidence that Paul’s gospel was directly from Jesus Christ was fact that he was willing to confront an apostle who was acting contrary to the gospel. So convinced of justification by faith in Christ alone that it didn’t matter to Paul if the false teachers were spouting things contrary to the gospel or an apostle was conducting himself in a way that undermined the gospel: Paul would take action.
At some point, when Peter had come to Antioch to check on and fellowship with the church there, he had been eating with the Gentiles. This table fellowship was significant because prior to the New Covenant gospel, Jews and Gentiles couldn’t eat together due to divinely-sanctioned dietary restrictions and regulations. Jews were also to keep their distance from Gentiles because Gentiles were “unclean.” These were the requirements while God was establishing Israel as a nation holy to the Lord, separate from the pagan, idolatrous religions of the nations. So, Jews couldn’t eat unclean foods like the Gentiles and, furthermore, they couldn’t be around unclean Gentiles. So, the simple act of eating with Gentiles demonstrated that power and truth of the gospel. We are all saved the same way: through faith alone in Christ. Therefore, we are all spiritual siblings with no dividing wall between us. The Old Covenant dietary restrictions are removed in Christ. Eat with your fellow Gentile believers because nothing makes you different anymore (cf. Gal 3:29).
Some Judaizers, however, came down from Jerusalem, perhaps claiming to be from James. When Peter saw them, he may feared their chastisement, confrontation, disapproval, or all the above. As a result, he removed himself from eating with the Gentile believers. This move may not seem like a big deal, but by no longer eating with the Gentiles, Peter was signaling that there was again a barrier between Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles needed to follow the Old Covenant dietary restrictions like him, and it was this kind of action was out of step with the gospel. For, as Paul tells Peter, if you are born a Jew and born within the Old Covenant system, but because of the freedom of the gospel, you now live like a Gentile, how is it that you can force Gentiles to live like a Jew under the Old Covenant? That is hypocrisy because you don’t really believe that it’s necessary to live like a Jew to be right with God (see Acts 10:9-23).
Paul’s rehearsal of this episode with Peter is part of the larger goal of proving to the Galatians that his gospel is not from man, but strictly from a revelation of Jesus Christ. By resisting the false teachers and confronting the apostles, Paul demonstrated that he would not waver on the gospel that Christ had entrusted to him. He had been consistent all the way through, from his conversion until now. His gospel remained the same under every circumstance. If a Judaizer started to teach things contrary to the gospel, he would resist them. If an apostle started to act in a way that undermined the gospel, he would confront him. The Galatians could know for certain that the gospel they first received from Paul was the gospel that came directly from Jesus Christ.