(from the NIV Student Bible)
No Second-Class Christians
A protest against treason
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemed! (Galatians 1:8)
Paul is angry. You can almost see his face: flushed red, with lines of tension working in his jaw. Typically, he greets his readers briefly and then launches into warm praise of them. But in this letter shock and dismay replace the usual warmth. A crisis threatens the Galatians, and Paul opens with a withering blast against the people responsible.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Yet, when you read a few chapters, you may wonder why the apostle is so upset. Galatia seems innocent of the kinkiness of Corinth; Paul describes no incest or idolatry here. Instead, he brings up common, everyday Jewish affairs such as the observance of festival days and the practice of ancient traditions, especially circumcision. Where is the big crisis?
Paul could foresee the outcome of the Galatians’ thinking: by unduly stressing their Jewish heritage, the Galatians would soon devalue what Christ had done. They would start trusting in their own human effort (their keeping of “the law”) to gain acceptance by God (Galatians 3:1-5).
If the Galatians continued their policies, the bedrock of the gospel would crumble. Faith in Christ would become just one of many steps in salvation, not the only one. The gospel itself would be perverted (Galatians 1:6-9).
A DANGEROUS CLASS STRUCTURE
Paul saw other ominous dangers ahead for the fledgling Christian church. As a Jewish Roman citizen who spoke Greek, he knew well the innate human tendency to look down on people. Roman citizens snubbed non-Romans; Greeks looked down their noses at Romans; and Jews, with their exalted history and highly developed religion, felt superior to other cultures.
The Galatians’ insistence on strict Jewish rules would bring side effects. Subtle distinctions between Christians would inevitably creep in: faith in Christ is fine, but a circumcised person who keeps the Jewish law . . . that’s far better. Already, such thoughts had infected two esteemed apostles, Peter and Barnabas. Circumcised Christians were snubbing uncircumcised ones as second-class citizens.
The letter to the Galatians, then, is protesting against treason. It lashes out against subtle dangers that can ultimately pervert the gospel and divide the church. Paul insists that Jesus Christ came to tear down walls between people, not to build them up. In him there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female (Galatians 3:28). Faith in him, not anyone’s set of laws (Galatians 2:16), opens the door to acceptance by God.