Setting the Stage: Paul’s Authority in Galatians 1

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Setting the Stage: Paul’s Authority in Galatians 1

The lesson this week looks at Galatians 1, and is concerned primarily with the issue of Paul’s authority in relation to the gospel. The question arises, was Paul’s claim to authority based on his experience of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus? Or is there something deeper going on in Galatians 1, which could help to explain the reason that Paul focuses his introductory remarks on himself and his qualification to instruct the Galatians. In Galatians 1, Paul introduces himself and his topic using a stern, passionate and powerful voice. It is significant that there is no praise, no thanksgiving offered here for the believers, and no request for prayer in this chapter or in the entire epistle. This letter is castigation of the Galatians and of those who have led them astray through the perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is simply stunned and after a minimalist formal greeting customary to the style and manner for his time, he jumps straight into his topic. He marvels that the Galatians are turning away so soon from the truth of Jesus Christ and the gospel message (Gal 1:6). On what basis, does Paul make this claim?



Paul’s Authority Based on Experience?

Paul introduces himself to his audience in a direct, decisive manner.[1] He calls himself an apostle of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:1a). From the outset, Paul declares that he is a messenger of God the Father, and of Jesus Christ. This is his core identity and it defines his purpose in life. This is significant. Why? Because he is about to contrast himself with some men, that in chapter 2, he calls “Judaizers,” who also came with a message to the Galatians. But their message is a perversion of the truth. These men were not sent from God. We will cover more about that topic later. He especially points to his apostleship and his calling as neither originating from men nor through men but directly through Jesus Christ and God the Father (Gal 1:1b). While Paul is not one of the twelve apostles, he is still an apostle, a disciple of Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 28:18: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” That is pretty extensive. Authority belongs to Christ alone. It was given to Him. Can anyone else exercise such authority? God’s authority is exclusive. However, God is willing to share His authority with those who are under His authority. That is the basis of the Great Commission. All authority in heaven and on earth is given to Christ and His disciples are thereby commissioned and authorized to carry forward His will on earth (Matt. 28: 19-20).


It is easy to say, God’s calling cannot be manufactured by men and yet, many have claimed to have been sent by God, when, actually they were not. Some people who claim to be sent by God may merely be exhibiting, sadly, a mental illness or even a delusion. Other Christ followers frequently test those who claim to be called.


Another way of looking at this is that being a follower of Jesus does not come through men or merely, through humans. Though many people may be involved in a great effort to assist in the process of a believer’s coming to Christ, it is ultimately a response to Christ under the power of the Holy Spirit. The same goes for ministry. All of it originates in Jesus Christ, the author of salvation (Heb. 5:9). This is why Paul explains to his readers 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” (Gal. 1:11). What can we learn from this? What God reveals through experience will be in harmony with knowledge of Him, through revelation. This may include direct revelation (a vision, epiphany, or dream), or indirect revelation (Scripture, nature, and experience).


Paul’s experience in his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6) was such a direct revelation. It formed the basis upon which he shared the grace of the good news of Jesus Christ. This was a powerful experience for Paul and is the reason for his great passion for God. His experience with the Lord Jesus Christ radically altered the course of his life and as a consequence, the lives of millions have been altered as a result of Paul’s response to Christ’s calling. As we saw last week, this experience changed him completely from being a persecutor to being a radical follower of Jesus Christ.


What can we take from Paul’s opening in the letter to the Galatians with the emphasis on his authority and apostleship as founded in Christ? Was it merely a formality, a pleasantry associated with his day? Or did he state his status in Christ, his authority to speak for Christ to those who were in need of a clear sounding voice to direct them in the way again. Experience is good, but if it leads us away from truth and knowledge onto another path, we had better beware. We may have lost our ability to see the way clearly. When we experience God personally we must at the same time come into a deeper knowledge of Him and His truth. This is what happened to Paul. Having correct knowledge about God (or a correction in knowledge about Him and the truth about His son Jesus) and experiencing Him personally go hand-in-hand. One deepens the other. While we may not have Paul’s dramatic experience of Christ as a blinding light, causing temporary blindness from which we are freed through the laying on of hands, we may be powerfully transformed through surrender to Christ in response to His call to come, follow Him.


Like a person who gains their sight after being blind for many years, becoming a Christ follower may be disorienting at first, as we struggle and come to terms with the deeper motives of our lives, our selfishness, the struggle of the will, the darkness of our heart, and the pull of evil suggestions—through our mind, the media, friends, or the enemy. Like babies who must learn depth perception in the new world around them, Christians go through a process of testing and experiencing the world in new ways. When we follow Christ we gain discernment about what is safe and what is unsafe or dangerous behavior. We develop a keen awareness of what is right and what is wrong. Trusting in the word of God is essential for this. The key point to be learned here is don’t turn away. Don’t ignore the Truth that you decided to give your life for because truth is ultimately a person and is found in Christ. Paul experienced the Truth and so must we. As individuals this may be experienced differently for each of us. Active, vibrant, learning Christians should each have a story to tell, as does Paul, about how God is at work in their life. Would you ever write a letter addressing your recipient with the words: [Your Name], a follower of Jesus Christ and God the Father?



The One Gospel of Jesus Christ

Another issue introduced in Galatians 1 is Paul’s statement that there is only one gospel. That is, the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the crux of the entire letter and it is hinted at in Galatians 1. What is this gospel? And why is it so important to Paul that it not be perverted as it was among the churches in Galatia?[2] While we will not go into detail about the gospel this week, it is important to note that Paul draws attention to this matter at the outset of his letter because the Galatians were being led astray by another gospel. There really is no other gospel, according to Paul, there is only one. But, it has been and may continue to be perverted.


The issue I want to raise here is how are we to recognize whether a gospel message someone bears is really the truth? How do we know that what they are saying is really from God? Paul sets up a standard for the believers. He writes to them pleading, “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” (Gal. 1:8). Paul repeats this idea again: “As we have said before, so I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9). Weighty words, repeated for emphasis. He wants to drive the point home. Don’t believe what people preach or tell you if it differs from what I (Paul) have taught you, even if I (Paul) came again with a different message.


The take home from this is if a message you receive from someone (who even claims to be teaching you the truth) differs from the word of God, it is simply not true. Even the appearance of a supernatural being teaching you would not make a false message truth. Even in Paul’s day other apostles, such as Peter regarded his words highly, as wisdom received from God. Peter writes, “…the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand…” (2 Pet. 3:15b-16a). The truth is always according to Scripture, even mysteries difficult to understand. Let’s face it; we are not going to understand all of life with its endless questions and difficulties here and now. But we can all be clear about God’s message of salvation, which is what Paul’s confrontational letter to the Galatians is all about.



Application and Conclusion

When it comes to spiritual matters, who may exercise authority over others? Anyone can claim to have received his or her authority from God. But that does not make them a teacher sent by Christ. How can we discern who is telling the truth? While some popular TV evangelists may come across as a little pretentious and presumptuous, is there a place for claiming to have the one, true Gospel message? According to Paul, Christians can discern, (i.e. tell the difference) between a false message and a true message by comparing it to what they have been taught before. That is, according to the Bible and the Holy Spirit. That is the basis for the truth of the Christian message. Scripture is the standard by which experience is measured. This does not mean that Scripture binds God, but He does promise that He will keep His promises contained in His word. Scripture is a tool that God uses to reveal to us who He is, His character, and His interactions with humanity, against the larger story of salvation. Authority in spiritual matters, in regard to truth, knowledge and experience are based on God, and His inspired word, because ultimately He is the guarantor of His promises to humankind. Only God can reveal Himself and only He can share spiritual authority with those called according to His grace.


This leads to my final concluding point: does it matter if we have a powerful experience of God or not? If Paul’s claim to apostleship is based on the revelation and experience of Christ, does this make him a super apostle? Does he leave us in the dust in the twenty-first century if we don’t have such similar and dramatic experiences of God? Paul faced his own “super apostles” in his own day that suggested he was inferior to them! They claimed superiority to his ministry based on their experience (2 Cor. 11:5). Paul goes on to say that he is not inferior to them. Even though he is not a polished speaker, he is not lacking in knowledge (verse 6). Having an experience or not having an experience that we think rivals that of other Christians or spiritual gurus is not what Christianity is about! The Christians’ aim is not who can boast of the best or highest degree of experience with God. That is unhealthy, dangerous and ungodly competition.


Other forms of competition are not so healthy either such as boasting about how much we know about the Bible or even God. Constantly spouting forth in Sabbath school or Bible study about our extensive Bible knowledge, “showing off” so to speak, may reveal pride as much as a competitive spirit, or perverse argumentation that enjoys winning every argument. We must always be ready to speak our knowledge of the truth and share our experiences, giving testimony thoughtfully as led by the Holy Spirit when called upon. But it is important to recognize that experiences with the Lord are individual and personal. They may look different for each person.


We also all possess amounts of Bible knowledge due in part to whether we grew up in a Christian home or attended a Christian school. Experience is not a substitute for knowledge, or vice versa. Paul was not boasting about being an apostle, but he states his authority in Christ because of what God did in him and for him in leading him away from Pharisaism to knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What matters is that Christ’s calling and our response must be based on truth, and include correct knowledge about Him as He has revealed Himself through His word. By being connected to Christ by faith, through prayer and regular Bible study, every Christian may have a daily experience with God. In this manner, we may strengthen our relationship with Him, grow in our knowledge of God and be ready to exercise godly, spiritual authority according to Christ and His truth.



[1] Paul’s customary introduction wishes grace (charis) and peace (shalom) but is missing the customary thanksgiving that is found in Paul’s other letters. Rather, he mentions Christ who gave Himself for our sins so that He might deliver us from the present evil age according to God ‘s will (Gal 1:4).

[2] The letter to the Galatians is not addressed to one single church body or group. “Galatia” refers to a broader geographical region, either northern or southern Galatia, according to various commentaries. As such, the letter may have been addressed to several groups of believers, or churches within a region.


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About the author

Katrina Blue

Katrina Blue is assistant professor of Religion at Pacific Union College. Her Ph.D. from Andrews University is in Theological Studies. She wrote her dissertation on the topic of "Union with Christ in the Writings of Ellen G. White" (2015). She is passionate about spirituality and making God's truth relevant to the world.