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Introduction to Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians

Table of Contents

General Info

Like all of the other Pauline epistles, the title of the book comes from the name of the recipients, in this case the churches in Galatia.  The central question being considered throughout the book is “How is a person brought into a right position before God”.  Paul’s message was that a person receives salvation through “faith alone” by the grace of God.  Those opposing Paul were preaching a different (false) gospel to the Galatians, adding certain legal requirements in order for someone to become a Christian.  Thus, the dispute running throughout the book of Galatians concerns the heart of the Gospel message itself.

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Brief Survey

Paul begins the letter by identifying himself as an apostle.  It is notable that this is the only one of Paul’s letters in which he offers no commendations to his recipients.  Instead, he expresses his astonishment that they so quickly abandoned the true Gospel.  He then spends the remainder of chapters 1 and 2 defending his apostleship, noting that he received his revelation directly from Christ, and that the other apostles accepted his message and position.

In chapters 3 and 4, Paul defends the Gospel itself, declaring that no one can be justified by observing the law, but only by faith in Christ.  He also explains that the law was given because of human transgressions until Christ came so that we might be led to Him and justified by faith.  Christ redeems all believers from the curse of the law so that we can also become an heir with Him.  Paul draws an analogy between the slave woman Hagar representing slavery to the law under the old covenant and the free woman Sarah (wife of Abraham) representing freedom in Christ under the new covenant.

In chapter 5, Paul turns to application of the Gospel by instructing that Christian freedom is not a license to sin, as some false teachers were claiming.  He urges the Galatians to live by the Spirit rather than indulging our sinful nature, then gives a contrast of sinful acts vs the fruit of the Spirit.  In chapter 6, he adds practical instructions and warnings, then closes with a benediction that extends the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to the recipients of his letter.

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Key Verses

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all.  Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!  As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (1:6-9)

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (2:519-21)

Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith."  The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them."  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."  He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit...  You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (3:11-14, 26-28)

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father."  So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (4:4-7)

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (5:19-24)

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (6:7-8)

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Author, Date and Recipients

The book itself testifies in two separate locations (1:1, 5:2) that “Paul” is the name of the author.  It was universally accepted through the eighteenth century that this “Paul” is the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, a city not far from Galatia, and who also wrote many other books of the NT.  Today, all but the usual critics still consider the Apostle Paul to be the author.  The historical, theological, and autobiographical information in the letter is consistent with what is known from Acts and his other letters.  In addition, like in his other letters, he writes a postscript in his own hand (6:11).

The question of the letter’s date is closely interwoven with the identity of the recipients.  There are two basic possibilities.  The first scenario, known as the “south Galatian theory”, is that Paul wrote the letter to churches that he planted in the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe in South Galatia (Ac 14) during his first missionary journey.  In this case, Paul likely wrote the letter shortly after the journey and just prior to the Jerusalem Council (Ac 15).  This would place the writing about 49 AD and likely make it Paul’s earliest existing epistle (shortly before 1st and 2nd Thessalonians).

The second scenario, known as the “north Galatian theory”, states that Paul wrote the letter to ethnic Galatians in the north after passing through the area on his second (Ac 16:6) or third (Ac 18:23) missionary journey.  This would place the writing about 53–57 AD.

The main argument for the later date is primarily a theological one.  The later date places the writing closer to the writing of the letter to the Romans, which shares a common theme of “Justification by Faith Alone”.  However, 1 Thessalonians, written during the earlier period, also declares that faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis of our hope (1Th 4:14).

The primary argument for the earlier date has both a historical and theological component.  The Jerusalem Council (Ac 15) convened approximately 49 AD, between Paul’s first and second missionary journey.  At the council, some Pharisees and Judaizers were teaching that non-Jews must be circumcised and obey all the Mosaic laws in order to be saved.  The council, led by James, the brother of Jesus, determined that this teaching was false.  Thus, proponents of the earlier date argue that Paul surely would have mentioned the council’s decision had the Galatian letter not already have been written.  This is of course, an argument from silence, but it appears inconceivable that Paul would have omitted the council’s finding since it was the exact argument that Paul was making to the Galatians.

Some interpreters have proposed that Galatians 2:1-10 refers to the Jerusalem Council, but the council was a public event while Galatians 2 appears to describe a private meeting between Paul, Barnabas and a few apostles (most likely the famine relief meeting mentioned in Acts 11:27-30).  In addition, the mention of Barnabas would imply that the letter’s recipients would be familiar with him.  Since Barnabas was replaced by Silas as Paul’s mission partner after the first journey (Ac 15:36-40), he would be familiar to those in South Galatia, but not to those in the north.  Finally, even though Paul “passed through” northern Galatia during his second (Ac 16:6) and third (Ac 18:23) missionary journeys, there is no record that he established any churches in the region.

Based on the available evidence, we believe the “south Galatia theory” is the most likely scenario; that Paul wrote the letter about 49 AD, shortly of his first missionary journey, to the recently established churches in southern Galatia.

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Historical Background

The Galatian people were originally Gauls who came from an area that is now France, and parts of West Germany and Belgium.  These Celtic people invaded and sacked the city of Rome in 390 BC before settling in what is now northern Italy.  The were finally defeated by the Romans in 189 BC.  Since Rome allowed them to maintain their independence, the remained loyal to the Empire until they were rewarded by becoming a Roman client kingdom in 64 BC, and later incorporated into the Empire as a province in 25 BC.  The province was named “Galatía”, the Greek word for “Gaul” (Latin Gallia).

In order to properly understand the immediate historical background of the Epistle to the Galatians, there are two basic prerequisites.  First and foremost, we must have some knowledge of Paul’s motivation for writing the letter since this is essential to understanding the epistle itself.  Not long after Paul initial visit to multiple churches in Galatia, false teachers came in and attempted to convince the Galatians to turn aside from the true Gospel, as taught by Paul, to a false gospel based on the OT law and its rituals.  As a result, the Galatians began to waver in their faith (1:6-7).

In their attempt to contaminate the beliefs of the Galatians, the false teachers also attempted to tarnish the credentials and reputation of Paul.  This prompted Paul to defend his apostolic authority (1:11 - 2:10) against these false accusations.  Thus, the historical context is Paul’s condemnation of the false teachers (1:8-9), the defense of his authority, and his appeal to the Galatians to turn back to the true Gospel.

The second prerequisite involves determining the recipients of the letter.  This information basically allows us to determine the likely date that the letter was written, and when the battle for the minds of the Galatians occurred.  In the previous section, “Author, Date, and Recipients”, we determined that the most likely date was 48-49AD.

Most of the historical and timeline information that we know of the Apostle Paul’s ministry comes from the book of Acts; however his individual letters fill in some missing pieces.  From his letter to the Galatians, we learn of his earliest days after his conversion encounter with the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road in Acts 09.  Before beginning his ministry, he went into the Arabian Desert for a time before meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem (1:11-24).

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30 or 33 (1) Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, Pentecost
~ 34-35 Saul’s (Paul) Conversion (Acts 9)
~ 37-38 Paul’s Visit with Peter and James in Jerusalem (Gal 1)
~ 46-48 Paul’s first missionary journey
~ 48-49 (2) Paul writes the Letter to the Galatians
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem
~ 49-52 Paul’s second missionary journey
~ 53-57 Paul’s third missionary journey
~59-60 Paul’s voyage to Rome
~ 60-62 Paul imprisoned in Rome
~62-65 Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)
~ 64-67 Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

(2)  A few scholars have suggested that Galatians was written in ~53-55 during the first half of Paul’s third missionary journey, but the earlier date remains the most popular.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The overarching theme, purpose, and theology running throughout the book concerns the heart of the true Gospel.  That is, salvation is a gift of God, given by His grace alone, and received by faith alone.  It is undeserved by us, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it.  We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, are adopted into His kingdom as co-heirs, with all the rights and privileges thereof.  This is directly opposed to the false teaching that we can somehow earn our won salvation by keeping the law and performing certain rituals.  This false teaching remains popular today in almost all non-Christian religions, and even within some “Christian” denominations to varying degrees.

Salivation by faith alone does not mean however, that we can just disregard God’s instructions and live however we choose.  This belief (known as antinomianism from the Greek meaning “against law”) is widely denounced in many of Paul’s letters.  In the last two chapters of Galatians (chs 5-6), Paul commands all believers to live their lives in the power and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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 Interpretation Hints and Challenges

We’ve already covered the historical challenges such as date of writing, recipients, and harmonizing the accounts of Paul’s visits to Jerusalem as recorded in Acts and Galatians above.

In this section, we’ll touch upon three issues that often come up when reading Galatians, but are not confined only to this book.  In each case, entire articles could be dedicated to examining the various issues and doctrines, but for now, we’ll offer some brief comments.

Galatians 3:27 reads “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”.  Some have taken this to mean that “water” baptism is required for salvation.  The context and phrases “baptized into Christ” and “clothed yourselves with Christ” makes it clear however, that Paul is speaking symbolically to mean an actual spiritual union rather than merely a representative outward ritual.  Thus he is referring to spiritual baptism (or baptism of the Spirit) rather than ceremonial baptism.

We don’t have to travel very far to find the next difficulty.  In the very next verse (3:28), Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.  In our modern time, this verse is often used to claim that there are no, or should be no distinctions made based on social status, gender, or people groups.  Once again, the rebuttal to this error is found within the verse itself, with the phrase “you are all one in Christ Jesus”.  Thus Paul is not denying that there are differences amongst persons or roles, but is emphasizing that all are spiritually equal in Christ before God.

Moving to the third issue, Galatians 5:4, with the phrases “have been alienated from Christ” and “have fallen away from grace”, is one of a few verses in the Bible that, at first glance, might give the reader the impression that a person can lose his or her salvation (the most common being Heb 6:4-6).  In this case, the context makes clear that Paul is stating that those who are attempting to be justified by their own “good” works have rejected the central truth of the Gospel that one is justified by faith alone have in effect, rejected Christ.  Furthermore, Scripture also makes clear that the faith of these were never authentic, but they were never saved to begin with (1Jn 2:19, see also Lk 8:12-14).

Finally, near the first of chapter 6, we mention two verses that appear to contradict one another.  Verse 2 contains the phrase “Carry each other’s burdens”, while verse 5 states that “each one should carry their own load”. While this may appear to be a contradiction in reading the English translation, it becomes clear by looking at the original language. In verse 2, the Greek word for “burdens” is barē, used to denote something that is heavy, or something of great weight. In verse 5 however, the Greek word used for “load” is phortion, which typically denotes cargo, obligation, or duty. It was used when Jesus declared that “my yoke is easy, my burden (phortion) is light (Mt 11:30). Thus Paul appears to be saying, “Share each other’s heavy burdens, but carry your own lighter loads (or do your own duty)”.

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1:1 – 1:5 Greetings to the Churches of Galatia
1:6 – 1:10 Paul’s Rebuke of those Distorting the Gospel
1:11 - 2:10 Paul’s Biographical Defense of his Apostolic Authority
2:11 - 2:14 Paul’s Conflict with Peter
2:15 - 4:31 The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone
5:1 - 5:15 Set Free from the Law
5:16 - 5:26 Walking in the Spirit
6:1 - 6:10 Helping Each Other; Reap What You Sow
6:11 - 6:18 Final Warnings against Legalism; Benediction

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