The Letter to the Galatians

Oh man, it has been an incredible few weeks. A man named Paul (or at least that is what he calls himself now) came into town sharing the most wonderful news. God Himself came down to earth as a man named Jesus. He died on a cross but then rose from the dead three days later. This man said the reason Jesus died was to pay the penalty for our sin and by raising from the dead he offers a free gift of eternal life. I mean, when he said that, I got excited. No more sacrificing animals to appease the gods. No more following a list of rules and regulations. This man who called himself an apostle of Jesus said that we are now free from the law and can pursue God in a relationship through Jesus. Each day he was here I woke up early so I could go hear more about this man named Jesus. That is until yesterday when he left to go tell others around Galatia about the good news about Jesus.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ we have inexhaustible grace for an exhausted world.

-Tullianin Tchividjian

Imagine what it must have been like to be one of the first people the Apostle Paul evangelized. Imagine the excitement Paul would have created while he was in town. And then Paul leaves to go evangelize the next town. But, almost as soon as Paul is gone, another group of evangelists come into town. They are excited that Paul has preached about Jesus and the people have believed the message. However, they quickly point out that Paul forgot to tell them one thing: this God who sent Jesus to save the world also gave the world a set of laws. These laws were first given to the Jews and the Jews have been following them for thousands of years. And while faith in Jesus does save you, you are also required to fulfill all these laws too, especially circumcision. You are excited about your new faith in Jesus and confused as to how Paul forgot to mention this law. But, you want to please Jesus and so you start following the teachings of this new group of evangelists.

This is the situation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul has evangelized the communities in Galatia, but a group of false teachers have come behind him undermining the gospel of grace through Jesus Christ. They begin teaching that Jesus is not enough. They begin teaching the law must also be followed. And the Galatians bite. They start following this new teaching. Word gets back to the Apostle Paul and he is furious. He sits down and starts to write a letter of correction to these Galatian believers.

“Paul, an apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the brothers who are with me, to the churches of Galatia…”

To be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.

-Martin Luther

The Letter to the Galatians is often referred to as the spiritual Magna Carta. Throughout the letter Paul argues for freedom in Christ brought about by salvation through faith and not through the law. Throughout February and March I’ll be studying this book with my students. As I begin this process, I want to provide a brief overview of the book as a whole. The following is my attempt to outline the key issues of the letter as well as provide a summary of its contents.

Authorship

The question of who wrote the epistle may be the easiest question to answer. Galatians claims to have been written by the Apostle Paul and that claim has never been seriously disputed. In fact, Galatians is one of the few books in all of Scripture that the authorship is not seriously debated.

That Galatians is a geniune, authentic Epistle is indisputable.

-Werner Georg Kümmel

Recipients

At first glance the question of who the letter was written to is also an easy one: the Galatians. However, upon closer examination that question is not as easy as one might think. In many ways you could compare Galatia to the United States in the early 19th century. While the U.S. was one national entity, it was composed of two very distinct regions: the north and the south. Galatia too was divided into two different regions with two distinct cultures: northern Galatia and southern Galatia. Northern Galatia was primarily populated by ethnic Gauls. Southern Galatia constituted the Roman province of Galatia and was populated by various ethnic groups. Just like the U.S. before the Civil War, a letter to a northern city would be read considerably different than a letter to a southern city because the cultures were vastly different. The history of interpretation is likewise divided into two time periods. Up until the 20th century, the predominate view was the letter was written to northern Galatia. However, beginning in the early twentieth century, thanks to the archaeological discoveries of W.M. Ramsay, the consensus now favors a southern location for the letter to the Galatians. While a northern location is possible, I believe Paul writes to the southern region of Galatia, primarily because we have plenty of evidence of Paul traveling through southern Galatia (Acts 13-14) and only one possible reference to him traveling in the northern region (Acts 16:6).

The fact that the book of Acts mentions the four churches established by Paul in south Galatia and mentions none in the rest of the province makes its probable that the epistle was addressed primarily to those southern churches.

-John MacArthur

The members of these southern Galatia churches were most certainly Gentiles familiar with the Jewish faith and customs. That they are just now being tempted to follow the Jewish customs demonstrates that Paul’s audience was primarily Gentile. The fact that Paul does not need to explain Jewish history and uses Jewish traditions in his arguments point to some prior knowledge and experience with Judaism.

Date

The date of Galatians hinges on two factors. The first factor is the destination of the letter. If the letter is written to southern Galatia then an earlier date for the letter is likely. If, on the other hand, the letter is written to northern Galatia, then the letter must have been written much later.

The second factor concerns the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Was Galatians written before or after the council? If the letter is written before the council then an early date and a southern destination for the letter must be accepted. However, if the letter was written after the Jerusalem Council then a much later date would have to be adopted. If the Jerusalem Council had already taken place then Paul would have certainly mentioned it in a letter which deals with the exact same subject, unless a significant period of time had elapsed.

The most natural interpretation of the biographical statements in Galatians i and ii is that they were written before the ‘Council’ at Jerusalem.

-F.C. Burkitt

The most likely scenario is Paul never mentions the Jerusalem Council because the council has not occurred by the time Paul writes Galatians. Since the Jerusalem Council mostly likely occurred around A.D. 48, the letter to the Galatians would have been written in A.D. 46 or 47.

Occasion

After Paul left Galatia a group of false teachers descended upon the churches in Galatia insisting that circumcision was a requirement for salvation through Christ. These false teachers were most likely a group known as Judaizers, who taught that Christians must fulfill the Old Testament Jewish laws. Paul hears the Galatians are being tempted to flee from the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone and embrace a doctrine of faith and works. Paul, aware of the danger, writes harshly and bluntly to stem the tide of the Judaizers’ teachings.

The Galatian agitators [are] Jewish Christians who adopted a rigorist attitude towards Gentile Christians and sought to impose upon them circumcision and observance of the law as conditions necessary for salvation or – what amounts to the same thing – for a full Christian status.

-Ronald Fung

Content

Lastly, we must consider the content of The Letter to the Galatians. For a more in-depth summary I would encourage you to watch The Bible Project’s overview of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. For our purpose here, I will supply a brief chapter-by-chapter summary of the letter to the Galatians.

Chapter 1. Paul gets right to the point in his letter, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel… (Galatians 1:6).” After introducing his reason for writing, Paul argues that his authority and his gospel are both from God and not from man; therefore, they should abandon this false gospel and turn once again to the law-free gospel Paul preached to them.

Chapter 2. Paul continues his autobiographical argument by explaining his endorsement of his law-free gospel and ministry from the apostles in Jerusalem. Since then, Paul has been faithful to the agreement made in Jerusalem, even if the other apostles have not. Paul relates his rebuke of Peter who succumbed to the pressure of the Judaizers to disassociate with those who do not follow the Jewish laws and customs.

Chapter 3. Paul picks up and expands on the refrain from Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Throughout his third chapter, Paul continues to hammer that salvation is by faith alone and not by ANY works we may do.

The Galatians are severely censured for giving heed to false doctrines, and are called to pronounce even an apostle anathema, if he preached another gospel.

-Charles Hodge

Chapter 4. In chapter 4, Paul argues the law leads to slavery whereas grace leads to freedom and salvation.

Chapter 5.  “For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1).” Here in chapter 5, Paul’s argument for a law-free gospel reaches its pinnacle. The law is of no advantage unless one serves and obeys the whole law. Thus seeking salvation by the law enslaves one to the law, but Christ has called us to freedom. That freedom does not mean that we are not bound to live moral lives, rather we are to walk by the Spirit rather than by the law.

Chapter 6. Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians with some basic instructions to continue building the community of faith in Galatia. Each member is to care for the other members and guard against any members falling prey to the false gospel of works.

 

Read

If you would like to study through The Letter to the Galatians with me and my students this spring, click HERE for the reading schedule.

 

Resources

An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo

How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

Galatians: The Wondrous Grace of God (Bible Study Guide) by John MacArthur

The Epistle to the Galatians (NICNT) by Ronald Y. K. Fung

Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians by Ben Witherington III

Galatians (WBC) by Richard Longenecker

New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition (IVP)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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