One of the first attacks against Christianity came directly against the gospel itself from people within the church. The attack came from Jewish Christians who began to insist that Gentiles (non-Jews) who wanted to become Christians had to become Jews first, before becoming Christians. This meant that for a Gentile to become a Christian, he first had to be circumcised and then he would be baptized.
Gentile Christians in the region of Galatia were being influenced by this pressure, and so Paul the Apostle writes this epistle in response to the problems caused by this teaching.
In the study of this epistle we will:
- Examine the implications and dangers of this teaching for the Galatians as well as every generation faced with similar ideas.
- Review Paul's teaching on the doctrine of "justification by faith" which is the heart of the gospel.
- Study the true meaning of freedom and how it is expressed in Christian lives.
- Learn about Paul's early life as a Christian.
Background of the Epistle – Galatians
Galatia was a Roman province in Asia Minor. The letter to the Galatians was addressed to the cities in the southern part of Galatia where Paul had established several congregations on his first missionary journey. There are four that we know of, all established between 44 and 47 AD in what is known as modern day Turkey.
As Luke tells the story in Acts 13:42-51 the Jews were happy to hear the good news of Christ. These Jews who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire were pleased to receive Paul and hear of the coming of the Messiah.
They became offended and jealous however, when they realized that the Gentiles (non-Jews of any nationality) were included in the promise of God and were accepting Christ in great numbers. This protest by the Jews took the form of a group that insisted that if the Gentiles were to become Christians, they had to first obey Jewish laws and customs to earn that right. This probably involved circumcision and obedience to food laws and various Jewish religious customs.
Upon his return to Jerusalem from that region, in order to report on his ministry, Paul was faced with a backlash in the form of a group within the church referred to as the Circumcision Party. They were known as this because of their insistence that all Gentiles be circumcised before they became Christians, or else be denied the opportunity.
In Acts 15 we read about Paul and the other Apostles, as well as the elders of the church in Jerusalem, discussing and trying to resolve this matter. At this meeting Paul recounts the blessings and power God gave him in preaching to the Gentiles, and that his ministry among them was legitimately ordained by God. Peter also stood with Paul and confirmed that Paul had indeed been sent specifically by God's command. James proposed that they write a letter to the church (the Gentiles) confirming Paul's ministry among them and reassuring them that they need not be troubled by any requirement to be circumcised. This letter was delivered to the church at Antioch, not in Galatia.
The letter to the Galatians was written soon after this meeting (50-51 AD) and is one of, if not the earliest, the New Testament books to be written and circulated.
The objective that Paul is trying to accomplish with this letter is to explain to the Galatians that:
- The blessings that accompany salvation were earned by Christ's perfect faith and obedience.
- We obtain these blessings because we are associated, or united, or identified to Christ by faith, which is expressed in baptism and obedience to His Word, not just intellectual affirmation.
- We cannot earn blessings by works of the Law, ceremony or benevolence apart from Christ.
- Those who try will fail and be condemned.
- Greeting – 1:1-5
- Rebuke – 1:6-9
- Personal History
- Conversation and Early Years – 1:10-17
- First Meeting with Peter – 1:18-24
- Second Meeting with Peter – 2:1-10
- Third Meeting with Peter – 2:11-14
- Discourse on Justification by Faith
- Righteousness comes by Faith – 2:15-21
- Spirit and Power comes by Faith – 3:1-5
- Inheritance of Abraham come by faith – 3:6-29
- Sonship comes by Faith – 4:1-7
- Freedom comes by Faith – 4:8-31
- o Exhortation to Stand Firm in Freedom
- Reject Circumcision – 5:1-12
- Love One Another – 5:13-15
- Walk by the Spirit – 5:16-24
- Encourage One Another – 5:25-6:5
- Help One Another – 6:6-10
- o Exhortation to Stand Firm in Freedom
- Final Warning Against False Teachers and Salutation
- Warning Against Circumcision Party – 6:11-16
- Salutations – 6:17-18
Greeting - 1:1-15
1Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead),
Paul reaffirms his position as Apostle because the Judaizers (Circumcision Party), in questioning the gospel to the Gentiles, were also questioning his Apostleship. He did this in letters where his authority was questioned or where he was unknown (Romans, I and II Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians), but refrained in churches where he was accepted (Philippians and I and II Thessalonians).
He reminds them first of all that his Apostleship was received from Christ and God in the same way as the other Apostles received their Apostleship. He also states that he was not appointed by the church council (Acts 15), nor was he appointed by Peter to become an Apostle.
Apostleship gave one the right to speak with authority in Christ's name and Paul claims this authority based on his legitimate and genuine Apostleship received from Christ (unlike the Judaizers who could not make this claim). Paul does not deny the Apostleship of others, but does not recognize any authority over him by any other group or Apostle, except the gospel of Christ.
His reference to the resurrection is the mark of the true Apostle, the personal witness of this event. He mentions it not as doctrine, but as one who confirms this doctrine as a chosen eyewitness.
2and all the brethren who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
We do not know who the "brothers with him" are, only that they share in the greeting. Paul reserves the title "churches in God or Christ" in addressing the Galatians since they are on the road to apostasy. He merely refers to them as churches located in Galatia, those he formed earlier in Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Antioch.
3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father
Paul offers a usual blessing that they receive favors from God and the peace that comes with it. This favor and peace is connected to Jesus Christ of whom Paul says two things:
- He is Lord. Here, Paul uses a term to signify Deity and equality with God. The term "kurios" originally had secondary meanings, but the Jews and later the Apostles and disciples came to use it when referring to Jesus and His divinity.
- Paul reviews the work of salvation accomplished by Christ and its ultimate results:
- Christ offers Himself as a sacrifice for sins. This is the core of the gospel: the atonement for sin, the payment of debt and the earning of forgiveness by Jesus on our behalf. Paul will build his argument on this basis later in the epistle.
- This sacrifice is what makes possible our salvation. It delivers us from an evil world system of sin, condemnation and death. Before Christ came, the world was in darkness and ignorant of God's will.
- This was all done according to the will and purpose of God. All of human history worked towards this (I Timothy 2:4).
5to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.
Man was created in order to give glory to God; this is the basic meaning to his life. In giving God glory and honor man finds peace, joy, a sense of purpose and eternal life.
Paul recognizes this fact and reaffirms it in his greeting and also in his assessment of the things done by God for man, through Jesus Christ. God deserves glory for what He has done, and receives the glory He is due through the countless number of saints who glorify Him because of, and through, Jesus.
The word "Amen" comes from a Hebrew word which meant surely, to be firm, steady or trustworthy. It is pronounced "Aw-mane" in Hebrew, and was translated into Greek, Latin and English (just as "baptism" was transliterated from the Greek word "baptizo"). The literal translation into English means "verily" or "truly." It was used as a responsive formula with which the Jewish listener acknowledged the validity of an oath or curse, and willingness to accept its consequences (Numbers 5:22; Deuteronomy 27:15).
Jesus used the term to confirm that what He was about to say was sure, trustworthy and without doubt.
Verily, verily I say to you, the hour is coming…
- John 5:25
The New Testament uses the word as an agreement with an offering of praise or a blessing. It was also used in synagogue worship in this way, and as Jews were converted the saying of Amen at the end of praise, blessings, prayers and teaching passed into the Christian worship.
Paul uses it in this way at the end of his greeting, confirming that it is a sure and trustworthy thing that:
- Jesus died for sins — Amen
- Was resurrected — Amen
- This was according to God's will — Amen
- God deserves glory for all of this — Amen
The Jews in the Old Testament used it to confirm oaths and receive prophecy. Jesus used it to underscore His words and prophecy. The Apostles used it in their writings in words of blessings, praise and teachings. The early church used it to signal their approval of what was being preached and emphasize their faith in what was being taught. To say Amen in church is a biblical, respectful and encouraging way to demonstrate agreement and enthusiasm for what is being prayed about, taught, preached and sung in church. We should do more of it.