Background and Purpose of the Epistle:
Paul's preamble – and almost the entire epistle – is full of indignation (says St. Theophylact.) When students need correction, a good teacher does not always speak mildly. The Lord Himself acted in such a manner...Paul writes with severity both to the Corinthians and especially to these Galatians,* and for good reason: some of the Jews who had believed in Christ continued to cling to their ancestral Law, and made it a point of dogma. They were insisting that the Galatians be circumcised and observe the Sabbath and the New Moon festivals. Their rationale was that Peter's disciples did not forbid such practices. This was true, but Peter's disciples were not teaching these practices as doctrines. They were making allowance for the weakness of those Jews who had heard the Gospel and believed. But Paul was preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, who did not need such economy. When he deemed it necessary, Paul also used condescension: he circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3) and himself went through Jewish rites of purification according to the Law (Acts 21: 17-26). But the false teachers – not explaining why Peter's disciples acted as they did – accused Paul of preaching inconsistently; sometimes he circumcised and sometimes he did not. They insisted that Paul NOT be obeyed, since he had not seen Christ and had never been His disciple, but was merely a disciple of the apostles. It was Peter's disciples, they claimed, who must be followed because they were eyewitnesses of the Lord's ministry. (Fr Basil notes that this error would raise its head again in the West in the centuries that followed). This is the reason for Paul's indignation in his letter to the Galatians; they have undermined his reputation by claiming that only the Twelve are Christ's disciples, and that Paul is merely a disciple of the Twelve.
* Who are the Galatians? Galatia was a Roman province in Anatolia (central Asia Minor, modern Turkey) which had been settled by immigrant Celts in the 270s BC and retained Celtic culture and language even in Paul's day. The individual churches are not named.
Date and Authorship
The universal witness of the early Church, the church fathers, and even modern scholars, is that this Epistle was written by the Apostle Paul. The date is probably somewhere around 55 AD.
1 Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:
Paul begins by declaring, right off the bat, that he is nobody's disciple. His call to apostleship came from Christ Himself Who called him on the road to Damascus. This letter is from him, and is to circulated amongst all the churches of Galatia. Why? Because this is where these false teachers have been spreading their doctrine, and it has caused many of the Galatian Christians to mistrust Paul's authority.
3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
While this may seem like a common Christian greeting or opening for a letter, the point that Paul is making with this greeting is that Grace and Peace do not come from the Law. He wants them to remember that these only come directly from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The Law will not deliver (save) anyone from the fallenness of this age, but only Christ can accomplish this because of His voluntary death on the Cross.
Only One Gospel
6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel,
Paul is astonished at the Galatians, whom he held in high regard, that they appeared to be turning away from the will of God the Father who had also called them by the grace of Christ, to a false teaching...and so quickly too!
7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
There are no alternatives to the Gospel. These Judaizing teachers in your midst are trying to add stuff to the Gospel that is not contained in the original, authentic gospel which the Galatians first received.
8 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. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
The Greek word translated “accursed” is actually “anathema” ἀνάθεμα, which means to set-apart or exile. It means if I, or an angel from heaven, or anyone at all (meaning the Judaizers) preach some different teaching than what you heard from me, let them be exiled (ex-communicated) from the church as perverters of the gospel and a danger to people's salvation.
10 For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.
Paul is about to begin his defense. But he is not testifying before them. He is making his defense before God. It is God Who will judge him, not his own spiritual children. He makes the point that he is God's slave, and is not about to be a pleaser of men in order to somehow rehabilitate his status, authority, or reputation before his accusers.
Paul's Call to Apostleship
11 But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Paul reminds the Galatians of how he came to Christ. He had no intention of becoming a Christian, but it was Christ Himself that appeared to him in a miraculous way. (Look up Acts 9: 1-19). The Gospel which I preach is not one that came from men, was not something “invented” in order please men (meaning Jews who were reticent to abandon the Law). Was Paul not taught by anyone? Did he submit his teaching to the authority of the Church? We shall see as we go on.
13 For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.
See Acts 7:55 – 8:3
14 And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
Paul was a staunch Pharisee, and had been a student of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder. But Paul was more “zealous” even than Gamaliel his teacher. The Church considers Gamaliel a saint, honouring his memory on August the 2nd. His relics are enshrined in the Catholic Cathedral in Pisa, Italy, home of the famous “leaning tower.” This may be the only instance of an individual who was a leading Jew, who lived years after the resurrection of Christ, who defended Christians against persecution by Jews, (unlike Saul/Paul) and who remains revered by both Jews and Christians to this day. The Jewish Mishnah says of Gamaliel: “"Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time" (Sotah 15:18.)
15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, 16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
Paul is making the point here that he wasn't “made” an apostle by any human being, but that like others before him, he had been called to this even from the womb. Compare:
“And now says the LORD, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, To bring Jacob back to Him, in order that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the LORD, And My God is My strength)” (Isaiah 49:5)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
John the Baptist
“For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15)
Paul goes on to make the point that it was the grace of God that appointed him an apostle. He was not “made” an apostle by the other apostles. And his apostleship was to be different from that of the others, his apostleship was to be conducted primarily among Gentiles. He wasn't taught how to do this by anyone, but immediately went to “Arabia.” What does Paul mean by “Arabia?” Some of the fathers see this as referring to the eastern desert wilderness where he went to pray, fast, and be taught of God. Others suggest that he went all the way to Mount Sinai, the Mountain of God, in order to pray, fast, and be taught the New Law from Him Who had once delivered the ancient Law to Moses on that site. The Pre-incarnate Logos spoke to Moses here and gave him the Old Law. Jesus, the Incarnate Logos, speaks to Paul here, instructing him in the New Commandments, and appointing him as a new Moses to the Gentiles.
Contacts at Jerusalem
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.)
After three years in Arabia, and returning to Damascus, Paul then heads south. He goes to “visit” not 'see' Peter. (The NKJV is wrong here). Then he “abides” with Peter (not “remains” as the NKJV says) for 15 days. The word “visit” means to show honour and respect. The word “abide” denotes a closeness, a communion of love. Paul does not present himself as someone superior to the elder apostles, nor even as their equal (although he IS!) But in humility he comes to Peter, the chief apostle, and to James, the Brother of the Lord and First Hierarch of the Jerusalem Church. In effect, he submits his revelation and his teaching to them, and they are pleased to release him to go forth and preach. Where? Gentile territory.
21 Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ.
This means that Paul went to preach in the territories that would include modern Lebanon, Syria, and southern-most Turkey. He makes a point that he did NOT go to the Jews. He was utterly unknown to them except by reputation:
23 But they were hearing only, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God in me.
While the Jewish-Christian churches of Judea had never seen his face, they were thrilled by what they were hearing about him. And Paul, in humility, doesn't take any praise for himself, but gives all the glory to God.