By Ardel Caneday
Perhaps you have never wondered why Paul tells the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel other than the gospel we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Nevertheless, maybe you have wondered what may have prompted Paul to make the statement. I would suggest that it was not simply his brilliance nor fanciful desperation that conjured up the specter of an angelic visitor that would subvert his gospel by proclaiming “a gospel other than the one we proclaimed to you.” Instead, I would propose that Paul is alluding to an Old Testament precedence, account in which an old prophet from Bethel deceived the man of God who came from Judah to prophesy against Jeroboam that a son born to the house of David, Josiah by name, would sacrifice the priests of the high places upon the altar Jeroboam had erected (1 Kings 13:1-10). The portion to which I am persuaded that Paul alludes follows:
Now an old prophet lived in Bethel. And his sons came and told him all that the man of God had done that day in Bethel. They also told to their father the words that he had spoken to the king. And their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” And his sons showed him the way that the man of God who came from Judah had gone. And he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled the donkey for him and he mounted it. And he went after the man of God and found him sitting under an oak. And he said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” And he said, “I am.” Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat bread.” And he said, “I may not return with you, or go in with you, neither will I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place, for it was said to me by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by the way that you came.’ ” And he said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’ ” But he lied to him. So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water.
And as they sat at the table, the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back. And he cried to the man of God who came from Judah, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the command that the Lord your God commanded you, but have come back and have eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, “Eat no bread and drink no water,” your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’ ” And after he had eaten bread and drunk, he saddled the donkey for the prophet whom he had brought back. And as he went away a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body. And behold, men passed by and saw the body thrown in the road and the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived (1 Kings 13:11-25; ESV).
What recently prompted me to see what had passed before my eyes many times previously? It is not as though I had never read this passage before. Recently I ministered at Maranatha Baptist Bible College near Bangalore, India. While there, I heard Pastor Julius Kiagiri of Thika Road Baptist Church (and Christian School), Nairobi, Kenya, preach on 1 Kings 13. As he was preaching, it dawned upon me that almost surely this is the passage to which Paul’s mention of the angel in Galatians 1:8 alludes. Eventually, as he was offering application of the passage to us who were present to hear his message, Pastor Julius Kiagiri mentioned Paul’s allusion. He rightly pressed home the significance of Paul’s urgent warning. Pastor Kiagiri’s affirmation confirmed my own observation. At last, I finally saw what had been before my eyes on numerous occasions. What was in plain sight had been concealed from my eyes but suddenly, in a most unexpected time and place and way, it became revealed. Now Paul’s supposition concerning an angelic message that contradicts the apostolic gospel takes on flesh and blood and is no longer purely imaginary but actually has an Old Testament antecedent.
If the man of God from Judah, who had been instructed by the word of the Lord, “You shall neither eat bread nor drink water nor return by the way that you came,” could be deceived to believe the old prophet who lied when he claimed that an angel had instructed him to bring the man of God to his house to “eat bread and drink water,” then Paul’s warning is not fanciful, unreal, or without precedence, even Old Testament precedence. Indeed, Paul’s warning is urgent and rooted in biblical precedence. The man of God from Judah fell prey first to the claim that an angel had rescinded the word of the Lord not to “eat bread and drink water” in Bethel and then to the lion sent by the Lord to enforce the word spoken to him. The man of God perished as he departed Bethel when a lion, God’s heavenly messenger of rebuke and enforcement, killed him but did not devour his body but stood guard over the corpse until the old prophet retrieved it for burial (cf. 2 Kings 23:15ff).
Thus, Paul’s warning lest the Galatians be deceived by an angel who would announce a different gospel to them is not a maneuver incited by desperation nor is it an appeal against some imaginary, fanciful, and unreal threat of unlikely prospect. Given his allusion to 1 Kings 13, Paul’s concern for the Galatians is that they not be seduced by anyone, including a prophet, who might come to them and claim that “an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord” the fuller gospel message that completes what the apostle Paul left out of his gospel, namely the need to submit to circumcision in order to become the seed of Abraham so that you will really belong to Christ. The man of God from Judah who heeded the old prophet’s lie perished from the earth. According to Paul, anyone who submits to the Judaizers’ false gospel will perish eternally—“Let him be accursed!” (Gal. 1:8, 9).
Ardel Caneday (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Studies at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has served churches in various pastoral roles, including senior pastor. He has authored numerous journal articles, many essays in books, and has co-authored with Thomas Schreiner the book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance(Inter-Varsity, 2001).