Introduction to Galatians
Henry Carey, in the patriotic hymn My Country ‘Tis of Thee, wrote, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing: land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride. From every mountainside let freedom ring!” (695 emphasis added). In the United States each citizen has the right to enjoy freedom that was gained as a result of the American Revolution. Many Colonists fought bravely and even sacrificed their lives so that we might have liberty. No citizen in their right mind would voluntarily forfeit their liberty in order to be under the bondage of another sovereign state. The United States will go to war if necessary to protect our liberty.
Like the Colonists, the apostle Paul was also passionate about the liberty that believers have in Christ Jesus. Believers enjoy freedom from the slavery of sin as well as from the strict requirements of the Mosaic law. They are free to serve God and one another. Who would want to return to the bondage of sin and the law? Many churches in Galatia returned to the yolk of the Mosaic Law and religious ceremonies. They rejected freedom brought by Christ. As a result, Paul writes a passionate letter to the Galatians pleading with them to reclaim their freedom bought by Christ.
Most Christians and theologians agree that Paul the apostle penned this epistle. Many church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Origin, Polycarp and Tertulian all attest to Pauline authorship.
Textually there is no question that Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians. The epistle starts with, “Paul, an apostle…” (1:1). Then he proceeds to write an autobiography (1:11-2:14). He also mentions his name in 5:2. Furthermore, the Galatians knew about his eye disease (5:13-15). Finally the Apostle makes numerous references to the book of Acts (9:1-18, 26-27; 15; 21:18-26; 22:4-16; 26:9-18; et. al.).
See the commentary on Romans or an exhaustive biography of Paul.
Date and Place
To narrow down the date the epistle was written as well as the destination of the letter, one must understand to whom exactly Paul was writing in Galatia. Some scholars feel that Paul wrote to believers in northern Asia Minor since Galatia refers geographically to that region. In addition, Paul mentions the Jerusalem Council (2:1-10) and his direct confrontation with Peter (2:11-18). Therefore, the earliest possible date was during Paul’s stay at Antioch, between his first and second missionary journeys—approximately A.D. 48-50 (Howard 19).
However, the term Galatia was the political term used for southern Asia Minor—the Roman province of Galatia (MacDonald 689). As a result, Paul wrote this epistle to the believers in Asia Minor. This theory is more valid since Paul evangelized southern Asia Minor during his first missionary journey and then visited his brothers in Christ there during his second journey. Thus, the date would be around A.D. 48.
Unlike Paul’s systematic treatise of justification by faith in the epistle to the Romans, in this letter he is very passionate and stern about faith in Christ as the only means of salvation. Donald K Campbell elaborates on this point further:
Conspicuous by its absence is Paul’s usual expression of thanksgiving to God for his readers. Instead, he vented his astonishment and anger over the Galatians’ defection. When compared to the opening of 1 Corinthians this is even more striking, for despite the Corinthians’ deep moral defection Paul nonetheless expressed commendation. But here in the face of theological departure he did not express thanks, thus emphasizing the more serious nature of doctrinal apostasy (590).
The Apostle of the Gentiles, being filled with emotion, tells the Galatians that he is “astonished” that they deserted Christ (1:6). He gives his personal testimony (1:1-2:14). He also called them “foolish” for not obeying the truth (3:1) and even pleads with them (4:12). The Apostle even wishes that the Judaizers would emasculate themselves (5:12).
Even though this epistle was written to all believers in Galatia, the questions are extremely personal. He asks them several questions that penetrate the heart such as:
Who has bewitched them? (3:1);
Did they receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (3:2);
Are they so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are they now made perfect by the flesh? (3:3);
Have they suffered so many things in vain? (3:4);
Does God give them His Spirit and work miracles among them because they observe the law, or because they believe what they heard? (3:5)
Since they have an intimate relationship with God, how is it that they are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do they wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (4:9);
Has he now become their enemy by telling them the truth? (4:16);
They who want to be under the law, are they not aware of what the law says? (4:21);
Since they were running the race so well, who cut in on them and kept them from obeying the truth? (5:7).
Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is not just a part of systematic theology, but rather is the central truth of the Christian’s faith that needs to be applied individually. Clearly, Paul cared deeply for each and every individual believer in Galatia.
Among the early Jewish Christians the acceptance of Christ was in no sense considered an alternative or substitute for their holy law (Howard 22). With the gospel being preached to the Gentile nations, one question arose: how does the law relate to Christianity?
As previously mentioned, Paul evangelized and strengthened believers in Asia Minor during his missionary journeys. Even though many people were saved and churches formed, false teachers crept into the church. While the apostle Paul taught that salvation is by grace through faith (2:16; 3:11, 22, 26, etc.), these false teachers countered that faith in Christ plus the diligent observation of the Mosaic Law ensured justification.
In order to accomplish this, these false teachers were able to convert many Galatians by undermining the apostolic authority of Paul. After all, if Paul did not have any real divine authority to teach salvation by faith alone, then the Galatians could reject what Paul taught and insert their justification by faith in Christ plus the observance of the Mosaic Law.
In response, Paul opens the epistle with not only a stern rebuke of the Galatians who have embraced this new teaching, but also reaffirms his apostolic authority (1:11-2:14). Throughout this letter Paul pleaded, “Don’t be taken in by the false teachers. Don’t be mesmerized by their outward charisma, apparent logic and smooth style. If they are saying to you, ‘believe in Jesus Christ plus circumcision, plus keeping the Sabbath, holy days and ceremonial laws,’ they are not of God” (Swindoll 1246). This is the central truth of Christianity: Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone apart from the Mosaic Law.
Many people were concerned about the potential repercussions of the doctrine of faith alone. They felt that justification by faith in Christ would lead to antinomianism—the belief that since a follower of Christ is already justified, they can leave anyway they please apart from any moral teachings. Paul assures these skeptics by his treatise in 5:19-21. He concludes that if a true believer walks in the Spirit and submits to His authority, he will not desire to sin (5:16), but rather fulfill the spirit of the law, which is to “love one another” (5:14).
Freedom Vs. Legalism
The Scriptures declare that the whole world is the prisoner of sin (3:22). Every person is incarcerated spiritually until they place their trust in Christ. A person has no freedom as a slave to sin—they are helpless and held in bondage.
However, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free! (5:1). “True freedom comes when we joyfully accept God’s gift of grace and by faith alone live out our new life in the power of the Holy Spirit, who produces fruit in us (5:22-23)” (Insights 1247). Although most believers today do not struggle with keeping the Jewish law and all of its nuances, this letter refutes the notion of legalism on any level. One cannot add to or take away from what Christ did on Calvary on our behalf (1:4). We were crucified with Christ; and consequently he lives in us (2:20) and we are justified in the sight of God (3:11).
As previously mentioned, many people believed that the doctrine of faith alone would give believers an open license to sin (antinomianism). However, because the Holy Spirit resides in men (3:2-5; 5:5), all followers are not to use this liberty “for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (5:13). The Apostle exhorts each believer to “live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (5:16 NIV).
Spiritual fruit comes as a result of living by the Spirit. These fruits are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (5:22-23). The fruit is manifest in a believer’s life through his good works (Titus 2:14). We are “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). As a result, Paul beseeches all believers to “do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (6:10).
Structure of the Epistle
The Source of the Gospel
This epistle can be neatly divided into three parts. The first part is the source of the gospel. In chapters one and two Paul explains that there is only one gospel and that the source came by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (1:11). It is autobiographical in nature as he clarifies his calling by God and acceptance by the other apostles in the church as an authority. He even exercised his apostolic authority by rebuking Peter (2:11-14).
The Defense of the Gospel
The second part of the epistle is Paul’s defense of the true gospel: justification by faith in Christ alone apart from works. He spends all of chapters three and four discussing faith, the promise and freedom in Christ. The Apostle even uses a number of Old Testament characters as example of faith such as Abraham, Hagar, Isaac and Sarah. He then encourages them to always be zealous for God and stand firm in Christ.
The Impact of the Gospel
Finally, in Chapters five and six Paul explains the practical impact that the gospel should have in each disciple’s life. As believers, we are called to live under the influence of the Holy Spirit and to overcome the temptations of the flesh. As a result of walking in the Spirit, we will have spiritual fruit manifested in our lives. The children of God are also called to come alongside other followers and assist them.
1. Personal: The Gospel of Grace Defended (1:1-2:21)
Introduction and Greeting (1:1-5)
The Reason for Writing (1:6-10)
The Defense of Paul’s Apostleship (1:11-2:10)
Paul Rebukes Peter (2:11-2:21)
2. Doctrinal: The Gospel of Grace Explained (3:1-4:31)
Faith versus the Observance of the Law (3:1-3:14)
The Law and the Promise (3:15-3:25)
Children of God (3:26-4:7)
Paul’s Concern for the Galatians (4:8-4:20)
The Two Covenants Illustrated (4:21-4:31)
3. Practical: The Gospel of Grace Applied (5:1-6:18)
Freedom to Love (5:1-5:15)
Spirit-Controlled Living (5:16-5:26)
Practical Examples of Love (6:1-6:10)
Campbell, Donald K. “Galatians.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Ed John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, 1983. 590
Howard, R.E. Galatians. Vol. 9 of Beacons Bible Commentary. 10 vols. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1964.
Hymns for the Family of God. Nashville: Paragon Associates, Inc., 1976. 695.
MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: New Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc., 1990.
Swindoll, Charles R., ed. The Living Insights Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
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