Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
Paul was astonished and perplexed. Christians in the Roman province of Galatia had heard the Gospel and had obeyed it, and now they were quickly being seduced into submitting to decrees of the Law of Moses. Such was not at all according to what they had been taught; their standing before Christ was at stake. Time was of the essence; he had to write his letter to the Galatians.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the ninth book in modern editions of the New Testament. Paul wrote the letter; the brethren who were with them are listed, yet Paul’s voice is the one primarily heard (Galatians 1:1). Paul personally wrote at least Galatians 6:11-18 and perhaps the entire letter; it remains possible that Galatians 1:1-6:10 was dictated to an amanuensis like Romans and 1 Corinthians. Pauline authorship is not disputed among scholars; other details regarding the letter remain in dispute. Paul writes “to the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:1); some wonder if he is writing to churches in the historic area of the Gallic people who invaded Asia Minor a few centuries earlier, and so to churches in the center of modern-day Turkey. It seems more likely that Paul is writing to churches in the Roman province of Galatia, which includes much of that area but also the area of Antioch of Pisidia, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium where he had preached and established churches in Acts 13:13-14:23. Dating Galatians proves difficult, with three alternatives most often put forward. Some date the letter to before the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15, and so around 47-49 CE; others date the letter soon after the Jerusalem conference, around 50-53 CE; others date the letter around the time Paul is in Ephesus, around 55-57 CE; these decisions are generally based on how one makes sense of Paul’s chronology in Galatians 1:11-2:14, whether “quickly” in Galatians 1:6 is a function of time since conversion or length of time to apostatize, and potential literary associations and similar situations with other letters (Galatians 5:9/1 Corinthians 5:6, 1 Corinthians 16:1, “Judaizers” in Galatia, then Corinth, and possibly menacing Rome). Regardless of the specific destination and timing, Paul wrote to the Galatians regarding their temptation to accept circumcision and observance of the Law of Moses because of false teachers, powerfully demonstrating how justification is by faith and not by the works of the Law.
Paul began the letter with a standard greeting (Galatians 1:1-2); he praises God for deliverance in Jesus (Galatians 1:3-5); yet, tellingly, he did not give any commendation or message of thanksgiving for the churches of Galatia. He immediately set forth his indictment: he marveled at how quickly the Galatian Christians had abandoned the gospel they heard for another gospel which is false, and even if an angel were to give another message than what they had heard, they would be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9)!
Paul continued with a defense for his apostleship (Galatians 1:10-2:21). He did not receive the Gospel from men but by revelation from Jesus Himself: Paul provided a condensed version of his story, his life before his conversion, his time in Arabia, his return to Damascus, a trip to Jerusalem, a return trip to Jerusalem with Barnabas, during which he refused to have Titus be circumcised and he confirmed consistency in the Gospel message between Peter, James, John, and himself (Galatians 1:10-2:10). Paul then recounted his conflict with Peter over association with Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-14); Paul declared that people are not justified by works of the Law but by faith, having died to the Law through the Law, as crucified with Christ, living by faith, not making grace void (Galatians 2:15-21); where Paul’s words to Peter end and his discourse with the Galatians continues is difficult to ascertain.
Paul then set forth his theological and doctrinal arguments regarding Christians and the Law of Moses (Galatians 3:1-5:6). They had received the Spirit by faith,; Abraham believed in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness; those of faith are sons of Abraham; the Law brings a curse, but Jesus redeemed from the curse; justification has only ever come through faith; the Law came after the promise; Jesus as the true seed of Abraham; Law added because of sin until faith came; Christians now no longer under the Law as tutor, but sons of God through faith; those baptized into Christ have put on Christ; all are as one man in Christ and thus Abraham’s offspring (Galatians 3:1-29). Children are under guardians, and so people were under the Law until Christ came; the Galatians had been enslaved to paganism, so why be enslaved again to the rudiments of the world?; he spoke of the challenges he faced while in Galatia, and cast aspersions on the motivations of those who were leading them astray; allegory of Sinai and Zion, Hagar and Sarah, old and new, slave and free; Christ profits nothing if they receive circumcision; they have fallen from grace if they receive circumcision; all that works in Christ is faith working through love; use freedom to serve one another; do not bite and devour one another (Galatians 4:1-5:15).
Paul provided some practical exhortations (Galatians 5:16-6:18). Christians are to walk according to the Spirit; Paul enumerated the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit; restore those who have gone astray, looking to yourselves; we reap what we sow; we should do good for others (Galatians 5:16-6:10).
Paul concluded with a final exhortation: those who deceive you do so in order to glory over you; Paul gloried only in the cross; peace and mercy should be upon the Israel of God; Paul bore in his body the marks of Jesus (Galatians 6:11-18).
While we do not have explicit revelation regarding how Paul’s letter was received, we have reason to believe his arguments proved persuasive; Peter would write 1 Peter, in part, to these same Christians. Christians can derive great benefit from Galatians, both in its own right and along with Romans, in order to understand exactly what Paul argues regarding justification by faith. We do well to heed Paul’s arguments and maintain the appropriate covenant distinctions between the old and the new, to walk by the Spirit and manifest His fruit, and to represent the Israel of God on earth.
Ethan R. Longhenry