It helps to know that all the scholarly angst about the Corinthian correspondence pales in comparison to the issues involving Paul's letter to the Galatians. This is, in part, because Luke barely mentions a church there. Galatia, as it turns out, can be divided into southern and northern territories. The northern location would include the central region of Asia Minor and refers to the Indo-Aryan Celts or Gauls, who settled there early in the third century BCE. The southern province would be the southern coastal region comprised mostly of Romans, for Rome added the southern regions to Galatia in 25 CE. Given the way the letter is written, scholars had always assumed Paul was writing to those in the Northern region and that the letter was comprised very late in his career. Recently, however, scholars have been making the argument for a southern constituency and an earlier date for the letter.
Luke mentions two trips through "Phrygia and Galatia." One occurred in 16:6 when he was still with Barnabas; the other was in 18:23, when he traveled "throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples." Now scholars doubt whether he ever made it to the northern part of Galatia, or more importantly, whether or not there had even been a Jewish contingency there. Paul had a propensity for visiting large Roman cities and, if he did establish churches in the far north, scholars wonder why Luke didn't mention it.
If he did write this to the Galatians in the southern Roman province, Paul could have written it at any time after the Jerusalem council in 48-49, but before his captivity in Jerusalem (roughly 58). Given the content of the letter, it is more likely to have been written towards the end of that time. Most scholars assume a date in the mid 50s CE.
The occasion for the letter goes back to the issues raised (and purportedly settled) at the Jerusalem council. You will recall that the main issue there was: "How Jewish did the Gentiles have to be?" Acts gives the impression that the final decree from James, put in letter-form and sent to all the churches, completely settled the matter. Clearly, that was not the case. Now, after all this time, Paul received word that some conservative Jewish teachers, claiming to be from James, had made some headway towards convincing the Galatians that Paul was wrong. You can imagine the argument: if Jesus was the Messiah whom the Jews had been expecting, then it only stood to reason that people would have to embrace the tenets of Judaism in order to follow Christ. Paul was filled with righteous indignation and wasted no time, nor did he mince any words, in making sure the Galatians stayed on the right track. It was not a personal issue for Paul. He saw that if the views of the conservatives prevailed, Christianity would simply become a sect of Judaism. It would lose its distinctive character and, worse, the grace and cross of Jesus would lose all meaning. Jesus was not the Messiah that the Jews had been expecting. Jesus was the crucified Messiah, which changed everything for those who believed in him. They were in a new creation, dead to the law and to the flesh. Christ fulfills God's promise of righteousness for believers in a way no one ever expected. The cross was not logical precisely because it was so unexpected. Nonetheless, it was the truth, based on revelation.
Now if someone were to read this letter in the voice of Paul, he would be yelling and shouting in anger. These are fighting words. He basically addresses three main issues. One, obviously, is that his authority has been called into question. He spends the first two chapters telling us the story of his life. Not surprisingly, it does not mesh seamlessly with the information given in the book of Acts. Nevertheless, he makes it very plain that he is an apostle. He had been called by Christ and had only preached what had been revealed to him. His opponents had accused him of preaching a form of Christianity different from the apostolic model. But he claimed that his authority was not from humans, which is precisely why he is an apostle. His revelation was directly from God, plus the other apostles had sanctioned him while he was in Jerusalem when they authorized him to preach to the Gentiles. Given that charge and the success of his mission, it would be late in the day to change messengers.
The second accusation was that he was obviously preaching the wrong message, to which he responds, "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" The issue here is one of righteousness by faith or by works of the law. Gal 2:16 is perhaps his most famous line, "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ." People cannot keep the law perfectly, but the good news is that they don't have to because God reckons a man righteous based on his faith. He argues from scripture all the way back to Abraham that God accounts a person righteous on the basis of faith rather than works, quoting Gen 15:6. This righteousness did not come from anything Abraham had done or from circumcision, since neither the law nor circumcision had been in existence at that time.
In chapter 4, readers discover the depth of his relationship with the Galatians. Apparently, upon his arrival, Paul had fallen ill. While he was ill, they cared for him tenderly. Needless to say, he felt a special kinship with them that was now being threatened. He is not above using the intensity of that relationship to make his point.
There are three main sections in the letter to the Galatians: 1:1-2:21 – Introduction and Paul's Defense; 3:1-4:31 – Paul's Defense of the Gospel; 5:1-6:18 – Call to be Godlike and Conclusion.
I -- 1:1-2:21 – Introduction and Paul's Defense
- Ancient letters usually included author's name, addressee, and good wishes
- Paul introduces himself as an apostle
- Right from the beginning, Paul lays claim to his authority
- He was commissioned to preach
- Grace and Peace: standard Christian greeting
- Purpose of the letter
- Instead of expressing thanksgiving for them, Paul expresses astonishment
- He charges them with deserting the very one who called them (Paul)
- He had preached to them the gospel of salvation by faith
- Now they are on the verge of perverting that message
- He pronounces a judgment on anyone who would preach a gospel other than Paul's
- Paul's defense of himself – not a people-pleaser
- Accusation probably was that Paul tried to lower the standards of the gospel by making it palatable for anyone
- He states, he is not trying to please men; he is a servant of Christ
- Gospel's authority is rooted in revelation
- The gospel is not something that "men" made up
- It was revelation from Jesus Christ
- The gospel cannot be changed or added to, even if an angel tried to do so
- Paul appeals that Galatians should trust him; his message is true
- Historical review of Paul's early years
- Paul reiterates the impact of his dramatic call experience
- He was renowned for persecuting the early church
- He was "zealous for the traditions of the elders"
- Yet God set him apart and called him by grace
- He was commissioned to preach among the Gentiles
- He states he immediately went into Arabia (then back to Damascus)
- (Scholars do not agree whether he went into Arabia for solitude or whether he immediately began preaching there.)
- Paul's early years as a Christian
- After three years he went up to Jerusalem, stayed for 15 days
- (Dating is again an issue: three years total or three years after returning to Damascus?)
- Paul only met with Peter and James (brother of Jesus)
- His point is that he didn't learn the gospel from the apostles
- However, Peter and James surely filled in many details from Jesus' life
- Paul reaffirms the accuracy of his account
- At that time, people did not know him personally, only that he had persecuted the early church
- For his conversion, people praised God
- Paul's version of Council of Jerusalem (48-49CE)
- His account differs from Acts, which states this was the result of an incident at Antioch. Paul states he went up in response to a revelation
- Paul spoke privately to the apparent leaders of the Jerusalem church
- At issue, of course, is whether Gentiles need to be circumcised Barnabas and Titus accompanied Paul
- Titus, a Greek, was not compelled to be circumcised
- Yet some Jewish Christians had infiltrated their ranks
- They wanted to take away Christian freedom and to make them all slaves
- Paul remained steadfast in his opposition to them
- Paul in relation to the "pillar" apostles
- Paul rather sarcastically refers to James, Peter, John as pillar apostles
- They "seemed to be leaders"
- They "seemed to be important"
- They were "reputed to be pillars"
- Yet he was recognized to be on par with them
- Their ministry was to the Jews; Paul's was to the Gentiles
- All had been commissioned by God
- The only requirement of the church in Jerusalem was that Paul remember the poor – help with the collection
- Paul's version of the Antioch incident involving Peter
- Peter was happy to eat with Gentiles
- Then men came "from James" and Peter drew back and separated himself
- Paul confronted him to his face; other Jews joined Peter's "hypocrisy"
- Even Barnabas was swayed by Peter's response
- Paul defended the truth of the gospel
- Justification by faith alone
- Jews already know that man is not justified by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Christ
- No one can be justified by observing the law
- If Paul were to adopt that position now, then everything he's been saying would indicate he is a lawbreaker
- He is not a lawbreaker, but a servant to God
- Paul has died to the way of the law; Paul has been crucified with Christ
- Justification by faith does not lead to lawlessness
II -- 3:1-4:31 – Paul's Defense of the Gospel
- Paul appeals to the Galatians' experience
- Paul shouts: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?"
- The gospel was clearly preached to them
- (No doubt by Paul himself)
- They had such a clear sense of the Spirit in the beginning
- Now they are about to throw that all away for the works of the law
- Paul uses Abraham to rebut the opponents
- Paul quotes Gen 15:6 – Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (This was before circumcision or the law)
- They are all children of Abraham
- God told Abraham all the nations would be blessed in him
- All who have faith are blessed along with Abraham
- Why people should not follow the law
- Those who follow the law are under a curse (See Deut 27:26)
- Yet by faith men stand in a right relationship to God (See Hab 2:4)
- This seeming contradiction can only be resolved by faith not by law
- Change in relationship between law and faith came with Christ's death
- Christ became accursed (hung on a tree, See Deut 21:23)
- In so doing, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law
- That enabled blessings of Abraham to come to Gentiles
- It also enabled all to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
- Paul uses an example from everyday world – a human covenant
- No one can add to or delete from a covenant
- Since the promise was made to Abraham and his seed (singular), this referred to Christ
- Moses' receiving of the law did not obviate the promise God made to Abraham
- Limited value of law in God's larger purposes
- What then was the purpose of the law?
- Its purpose was to reveal sin; it was only meant to be temporary
- Its limited value reveals the faithfulness of God to the promise
- Given by a mediator, the law was intended as a "go-between"
- Now, however, God has sent Jesus
- That does not mean the law is opposed to God's promises
- Indeed, the law finds its source in God
- Its role was to lead us to Christ so that we might be justified by faith
- Since faith has now come, the law's supervisory role is no longer needed
- By being in Christ, Gentiles inherit God's promises to Abraham
- All of the Galatians are heirs (sons) of God
- They have been baptized and have clothed themselves with Christ
- Therefore, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ." (No ethnic, social, gender differences)
- Since all belong to Christ, they are all Abraham's "seed" (plural here)
- Being an heir, of course, depends on status
- Children are not free, but under guardianship and trustees
- Pre-Christ, we were all like slaves subject to basic principles of world
- We also were not free, but under guardianship and trustees (law)
- When the time came, age of majority was reached
- Believers are no longer subject to any period of enslavement
- God sent Jesus (born of a woman under the law) to redeem us
- Jesus essentially bought us out of slavery so now all have rights of sons
- As sons, we can authentically call God, Abba, Father
- Paul appeals directly to Galatians
- Paul contrasts Galatians' lives both before and after
- He recalls how before they were in bondage to pagan gods; he cannot believe they'd even consider returning to that
- Paul wonders whether he's wasted his efforts on them
- Paul appeals to them as "brothers"
- Paul recalls how he met them through his "illness"
- (Only the Galatians know what he's referring to here)
- They treated him with utmost kindness
- They welcomed him as though he were an angel sent from God
- They had been willing to do anything for him
- Where is their sense of joy now?
- The opponents are up to no good; they do not have their well-being at heart
- They simply want to alienate Galatians from Paul
- He uses image of childbirth, thinking that he has to give birth to them again
- He wishes he were with them; his tone would be completely different
- Obviously, Paul thinks his physical presence would make a difference
- Uses analogy of two sons born of slave and free (Hagar and Sarah)
- (Argument is meant to encourage them to remain in the freedom God has given)
- The son of the free woman was born as a result of a promise
- Two women represent two covenants (He is speaking figuratively)
- Hagar represents Sinai; she bears children that are slaves (Ishmael)
- On the other hand, "Jerusalem above" is represented by Sarah (Isaac)
- Ishmael persecuted Isaac
- God told Abraham to "get rid of the slave woman and her son"
- (A rather figurative application of the OT text)
- Therefore, Christians are not children of the slave woman, but of the free
III -- 5:1-6:18 – Call to be Godlike and Conclusion.
- Christ set us free; do not be burdened by a yoke of slavery
- If they are circumcised, Christ will be of no value to them
- (Sign of circumcision = Jewishness)
- If they choose circumcision, they are bound to the whole law
- It basically indicates Christ wasn't sufficient for salvation
- They already have (in Christ) everything that they need
- Circumcision in and of itself has no meaning
- The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love
- Paul, not the opponents, is on their side
- He uses several images – running a good race, obeying the truth
- (Why would they want to change in mid stream?)
- Image of yeast leavening the whole lump refers to insidiousness of evil
- Yet, Paul is confident they will see the light, listen only to him
- Those who are deliberately confusing them will pay the penalty
- He wishes they would emasculate themselves – be rendered completely impotent!
- Freedom in Spirit does not mean license to sin
- They should not use their freedom to sin, but to provide service to others
- Self-indulgence = slavery; opportunity to love = freedom
- "Love your neighbor as yourself"
- If they keep "biting and devouring" each other, they will destroy themselves
- Human nature and the Spirit can never live in harmony
- They, however, are led by the Spirit and are not under the law
- Works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit
- Lists of vice and virtue were common in religious writings
- Those who exhibit traits found in the first list are not being led by Spirit
- Those who habitually practice them will not inherit God's kingdom
- Fruit of the Spirit = love, joy, peace…gentleness and self-control
- None of these can be regulated by the law
- These qualities should never be restrained
- Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit
- None of this, however, should lead to conceit, envying of each other
- Living together in the Spirit
- If someone is sinning, a brother should restore him gently
- He also warns that a self-righteous posture of a helper can do more damage than the sin done by the sinner
- Christians should carry each other's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ
- Each needs to test his own actions
- One needs to look outward and inward towards own development
- Pride is a terrible thing
- "A man reaps what he sows"…. "God will not be mocked"
- One cannot be wearied by doing good
- Therefore, let us all do good, especially to the family of believers
- The absence of a blessing of grace might indicate Paul's focus on business
- He ignored the niceties of letter-writing in this instance
- This is serious business!
- He wrote a few lines in his own handwriting
- Paul ends with another warning against his opponents
- Opponents are trying to subvert the cross of Christ
- Furthermore, even they cannot obey the full law
- They just want the Galatians to be in the same boat
- Paul says the only thing anyone can boast about is the cross of Christ
- Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything
- They are in a new world; they are new creation
- Then he blesses them with peace and mercy – if they follow this rule
- He expects good results from this letter
- He won't be troubled by this again
- Final word is a blessing, then Amen
- It virtually invites them to accept his message without reservation
On this note, he ends his correspondence to the Galatians. As always, we do not know what affect it had upon the congregation. The letter does stand, however, as a testament to Paul's concern about those who wanted to impose extraneous religious practices on God's revelation through Jesus. While the main issue relates to circumcision (and might seem totally irrelevant to modern times), there are many other points that are deeply relevant to Christian faith. Paul's emphasis that it is only by the grace of God through Christ that we are saved would become the cornerstone for much of the Protestant Reformation. For Paul, this was the mantra of Christian life and foundational to his ministry.
Krentz, Edgar. "Galatians." Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House. 1985.
Gaebelein, Frank. "Galatians." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.
Guthrie, Donald. "Galatians." The New Century Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1973.
Jervis, L. Ann. "Galatians." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1999.
McKnight, Scot. "Galatians." The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1995.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 1995.