A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 30

The Message to the Galatians

Paul had set before the Galatians from the first that the spiritual life was the true and final and perfect Christianity; and the way by which they entered this spiritual life was explained by “setting forth openly before their eyes Jesus Christ crucified”. This brief phrase recalled to them many memories. We, on our part, cannot fail to ask what were these memories. How was this remarkable expression made intelligible to the pagan audiences to whom Paul had appealed? Let us try to imagine to ourselves the mind of such pagans, when such an absolutely novel form of words was first presented to them; in what way was it made to convey a distinct idea to them? We are so familiar with such phrases from childhood, that we accept them as full of meaning and power, often perhaps taking them on credit rather than really understanding what they mean. But Paul was not merely expressing this idea to pagans who had never heard it, he was expressing it for the first time in the world’s history; he had stepped on to a new plane in the development of thought, beyond what any of the other Apostles had reached previously.

It was certainly not by skilful philosophic exposition of an abstruse doctrine that Paul expounded his idea of life gained through the death of Christ. Nowhere else does he allude so plainly and pointedly to his method as in the sentences that form the transition from the autobiographical retrospect, which occupies most of Galatians 2, to the doctrinal exposition of Galatians 3.

Observe, too, with what art, and yet how naturally, this reminiscence of his method is introduced. The public address to Peter before the whole Antiochian Church, Gal 2:14, passes by imperceptible stages into a recital of his own experience in his conversion and the beginning of his new life.1 The reader begins the recital, Gal 2:15, with the idea that Paul is relating what he said among the Antiochians. He ends it, Gal 2:21, feeling that Paul has drifted away from a mere narrative of the Antiochian crisis into the memory of that crisis in his own life, which was ever present to his mind. The Galatians recognised in the recital the exact form of his message and gospel to them; they saw at the same time that it was the message spoken in Antioch; and they had the assurance given at the outset of the letter that the whole Antiochian Church joined with Paul in writing to them, and endorsed this recital as a statement of the gospel which they also had heard.

Much of the effect of this paragraph, Gal 2:14-21, depends on the place whence the letter was written. The Church in Syrian Antioch is relating to the Churches in Galatia what Paul always had preached to it and had said briefly to Peter. Thus it was impressed on the Galatians that Paul’s Gospel was everywhere exactly the same, always sufficient in itself for all occasions, powerful even in face of Peter, absolutely simple and perfectly complete.

No one can really understand that idea except him in whom it has been made part of his life; and Paul explained it to the Galatians by looking back into his own life and speaking out of his own heart. As usual, we come again to what was stated above,2 “you understand nothing in Paul unless you take it in its relation to his conversion”; “on our conception of that one event depends our whole view of Paul’s life”. It would be out of place here to study fully the historical and biographical aspect of the problems connected with the conversion; but the terms in which Paul refers to it here, Gal 2:19-20, compel us to try to realise the manner in which he had set it before the Galatians, if we want to get any clear conception of the effect that this and the following paragraphs produced on them.

The idea had come to Paul through revelation, i.e., through direct intercourse of man with the Divine nature. In such intercourse there is involved not merely the willingness of the Divine nature to manifest itself (for that condition always exists), but also willingness and fitness of the man to become sensitive to the manifestation — a certain state of the mind and of the body is needed. The required conditions existed in Paul on several occasions; and it is in every case interesting to observe them so far as we can.

It is evident in these words of Gal 2:19, “I through law died to law,” that Paul had been originally a man profoundly convinced of sin, and eager to escape from it by zealous obedience to the Law. With that strong consciousness ever present in his mind, he was travelling to Damascus, bent on annihilating the effect produced by that Impostor, who had outraged the Law, and rightly had suffered death as the due penalty, but had left behind Him some misguided followers, who continued to outrage the Law. As he came along “the way of the sea,” and reached the crest of the very gentle elevation which bounds the plain of Damascus on the south,3 the view of the scene of his coming work produced naturally a strong effect on his highly strung and susceptible temperament. The long journey, day after day, with nothing to do except to count the miles that still divided him from his goal and to think of the work that lay before him, inevitably produced an intense concentration of purpose, which gave the mind supreme sovereignty over the body. This effect was accentuated by the spare diet, inevitable in Eastern travel — diet sufficient to keep the mind alert and the body in health, but not sufficient to enable “this muddy vesture of decay” to “grossly close in” the soul and screen it more effectually from perceiving the spiritual world by which we are always, but generally unconsciously, surrounded — just sufficient to produce an exaltation and stimulation of the faculties, which is as far removed from the unhealthy and morbid excitation induced by extreme over-fatigue, or by unnatural starvation and fasting, as it is from the dulled and contented state that results from a full and generous diet.

Few, if any, persons can have much experience of travel in such circumstances, with the sun watching them day after day in pitiless and unvarying calmness from its rising to its setting, without having their nature deeply affected, and even passing permanently into a new life and temper. But in a nature which was already so sensitive to the Divine world around it as Paul’s, all the conditions were fulfilled which raised him above the ordinary limitations of humanity. It was a supreme crisis in his life, like that in the hall of the proconsul at Paphos, like that when he perceived the “faith of being saved”4 which looked through the eyes of the lame man at Lystra. In the bright light that shone about him, he saw and heard what none of his travelling companions could see or hear. He saw as a living, Divine reality Him whom he had believed to be a dead Impostor. Paul’s whole theory of life had been founded on the belief that Jesus was dead; but when he recognised that Jesus was living, the theory crumbled into dust. If He was not dead, He was not an Impostor. He had suffered the last penalty of the Law. He had submitted to the curse pronounced on “every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal 3:13); but yet He was not accursed, but living and glorified. The Law, by being satisfied, had no longer any effect upon Him: it had ceased to exist for Him when He through its operation died to it.

Vividly and deeply conscious that he was a sinner before the Law, Paul accepted the full penalty of his sin: through the operation of the Law, he died to it: he received the curse upon him, taking to him the crucifixion of Christ. By so doing he ceased to exist for the Law, and the Law no longer existed for him: he entered on a new life. But this new life became his only through his belief in Jesus as the living God: the rest of his life was given him through his faith in the Son of God, whose voluntary death had opened to Paul this new life free from the terrors of the Law and the ever-present fear of death. Had it been possible to attain through the Law this new life, this life free from the curse pronounced by the Law against every one who failed to walk in it (Gal 3:10), Christ’s death would have been useless. Paul had found for himself that the new life could not be attained by striving to obey the Law; he knew that nothing could give it except the perfect and soul-possessing recognition that Christ had died voluntarily to show the way, and yet was still living.

The power which Paul’s Gospel had over the Galatians lay in its origin out of his own experience. He was the living proof that it was true. It had given him his new life. What it did for him it could do for all.

Therein lay the sufficient answer to the mere abstract philosophical objection: how can the death of one man gain pardon for the sins of another? In reply Paul narrated the facts. That shame and curse of the Crucifixion he had embraced as his own; he had grasped it and taken it into his own soul; he had made it the deepest part of his own nature; he had founded his entire consciousness and his entire mind upon it. It remade the universe for him; it recreated his life and soul and thought and energy; the simple fact that he stood and spoke before them was the unanswerable proof that his message was true.

We may ask, what evidence was there that what Paul said was true? What evidence was there that he was not deceiving himself, mistaking the visions of epileptic insanity (as some of my medical friends call them) for reality and truth? Such questions we may now ask, just as now we may, some of us, doubt whether he spoke the whole truth in that autobiographical sketch, Galatians 1-2, to the Galatians, whether he did not pass lightly over some inconvenient facts, such as his solemn public appeal to the Apostolic Council and the message from the Council which he carried to the Galatians. But no one that saw him could ask those questions. No one that heard his voice and looked into his eyes could doubt that he spoke the truth. Therein lay his power over men. They could not but believe him. The Galatians knew that he spoke the truth.

And now at the present day I put the question, is it possible for us, if we reason straight and fairly, to believe that Paul could have acquired that power, could have so possessed his hearers with the absolute conviction that he spoke the truth about his experiences, in any other way except by speaking the truth? To speak to the hearts of others you must speak straight out of your own heart. Paul as an impostor, or even as an unconscious deceiver, is an unintelligible and irrational figment: to be conceivable he must be taken as absolutely true.

But Paul had declared in Syrian Antioch, and it was involved in the truth of his message, that the Law ceased to have any power over him, when he accepted the penalty and the shame, and died to the Law. If, therefore, he should “build up again those things which he had destroyed” (Gal 2:18), if he should begin once more to recognise the Law as existing for him, he would “prove himself a transgressor,” he would sacrifice the justifying effect of his belief in Jesus, he would be bringing himself back into the former condition of vivid, intense consciousness of sin and inability to escape from the penalty, he would “make void the grace of God” (Gal 2:21), he would be experiencing in vain the Divine power (Gal 3:4). If he made the Law a power over him, Christ would profit him nothing (Gal 5:2).

The Law had produced in him that intense and overpowering consciousness of guilt and sin, which was a necessary stage in the way of salvation. But by satisfying it, he annihilated it as a power over himself

Those who would be saved must go through the same process: first the intense consciousness of sin; then the actual experience how belief in Christ enabled them to die with Him to the Law, and enter on the new life, which thus was opened to them. How irrational — and worse than irrational — it was thereafter to restore for themselves the power which the Law exerted over all who were under it, suffering the hopeless consciousness of guilt which it produced. Their experience of the Spirit would be vain and useless to them, it would perhaps be a positive disadvantage to them, if they now began to build up again what they had destroyed (Gal 2:4). “If ye receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing” (Gal 5:2), “Christ died for naught” (Gal 2:21).


[1] See XX.

[2] See p. 272.

[3] I follow the old tradition as to the locality — a tradition which commended itself to the judgment of Sir Charles Wilson, and which seems to me to have every appearance of truth and unbroken continuance. The situation, however, at Kaukab, near ten or twelve miles from Damascus, was found to be very inconvenient for pilgrims; and the Latins therefore moved the site in modern times to a spot close to the city, and on the east side of it, not on the south!

[4] πίστιν τοῦ σωθῆναι, an untranslatable expression. It indicates that state of the will and temperament which made a person capable of being cured or saved, able to respond to the word of Paul.

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