Galatians was written to the churches in Galatia that Paul had established during his first missionary journey. Galatia is a region which was located northwest of Israel in the area of Asia Minor.
Author: The author identifies himself as "Paul, an apostle" (Galatians 1:1). There is no dispute over Paul as the author of this epistle.
Date of writing: Paul most likely wrote this letter at the completion of his first missionary journey, around AD 49. Galatians was Paul's first letter and probably the first book of the New Testament written.
Purpose: The main purpose of this letter was to respond to the confusion sown among the churches of Galatia by Judaizers who were insisting that in order for Gentiles to be saved they had to believe in Jesus Christ and submit to the Mosaic law. Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia to confirm to them that justification was through faith in Jesus Christ alone. It is clear from the letter that one of the primary demands of the Judaizers was that Gentiles must be circumcised. Paul's response was both an encouragement and condemnation: an encouragement to those who stood by faith in Jesus Christ alone, and a condemnation to those who would falsely teach, or give in to false teachings, about justification through the Mosaic law.
Structure: Galatians is an epistle, or letter, written by Paul to be shared among the churches of the region.
"But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8).
"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose" (Galatians 2:20–21).
"Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?" (Galatians 3:2).
"And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.' So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith" (Galatians 3:8–9).
"Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith'" (Galatians 3:11).
"This is what I mean: The law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise" (Galatians 3:17–18).
"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God" (Galatians 4:4–7).
"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do" (Galatians 5:16–17).
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:22–24).
"Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap" (Galatians 6:7).
Themes: Galatians contains several historical facts regarding Paul just after his conversion. This includes information on his background in Judaism (Galatians 1:13–14), a three-year stay in Arabia where many scholars believe he was taught by Christ Himself just as the twelve disciples had been prior to His crucifixion (Galatians 1:17–18), a fifteen-day visit with Peter after his stay in Arabia (Galatians 1:18), a meeting with James, the half-brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19), a trip to Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Council (Galatians 2:1–10; Acts 15), and finally, Paul's confrontation with Peter over Peter's hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11–14). All of this historical information helps us to better understand Paul's own travels as well as form links in the Acts narrative and the establishment of the early church.
The primary purpose of Galatians was to counter the false teachings of Judaizers—men who taught that Gentiles must become Jewish proselytes, submitting to all aspects of the Mosaic law before they could become Christians (Galatians 1:7; 4:17, 21; 5:2–12; 6:12–13). This was not only dangerous teaching, but was contrary to the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Paul spends most of his efforts in this letter defending the doctrine of justification by faith. He does so theologically in chapters 3 and 4 and practically in chapters 5 and 6. In that sense, Galatians is very similar to Paul's letter to the Romans.
Brief Summary: Galatians opens with Paul's greeting to the churches of Galatia, which includes a quick summary of the gospel (Galatians 1:1–5). Paul immediately strikes at the heart of the letter's purpose saying, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:6–7). Paul makes clear in no uncertain terms that there is no other gospel than that which was already presented to them (Galatians 1:8–24).
After defending his apostleship, including his acceptance by "those who seemed to be influential" (Galatians 2:6), and after describing his confrontation with Peter, a point which serves to strengthen his argument, Paul instructs the Galatians on that which they have already been taught. Namely, that justification is by faith alone and not by works of the law. He outlines his argument that he has died to the law, having been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19–20). Paul asks if faith or works of the law brought the Spirit of God to them (Galatians 3:1–6). He shows how justification by faith, and Gentile inclusion, is even seen in the Abrahamic covenant (Galatians 3:7–9).
Paul then outlines what it means that "the righteous shall live by faith," a quote from Habakkuk 2:4. Here, Paul gives us the theological perspective of righteousness through faith saying, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Galatians 3:13). He goes on to explain that the law did not nullify the promise that God made to Abraham, namely that all of the nations would be blessed through his offspring (Genesis 12:3; 22:18) who is Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16–18). Instead, it was because of the transgressions of the people that the law was brought forth; it was to show the inability of us to be righteous and therefore, the necessity of Christ in order for us to be reconciled to God and heirs of the same promise He made to Abraham (Galatians 3:19–4:7).
Some suggest that Paul gives no commendation to the Galatians which is contrary to all of his other letters. However, he praises them for their treatment of him while he was ill in their presence and implores them to return to this spirit of service and love (Galatians 4:8–20). He also consistently refers to them as "Brothers." Paul clearly loves and cares for these believers.
Getting back to the point of his letter, Paul speaks of Sarah and Hagar as allegories to the slavery of the law and the freedom of the promise in Jesus Christ (Galatians 4:21–31). The comparison here is that Ishmael, Abraham's son through Hagar, was born because Abraham and his wife Sarah tried to accomplish God's promise of an heir for Him (Genesis 16). Because Ishmael was born "according to the flesh" (Galatians 4:23) and Isaac was born "through promise" (Galatians 4:23), the former represents slavery and the covenant of the law. But, says Paul, "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5:1). Through Christ we are heirs of the promise and therefore free as Isaac was born from the free woman, that is Sarah.
The Hagar-Sarah comparison is a typical Pauline theological point that can be confusing when first reading it. Nonetheless, the point is ultimately understood in context when Paul writes, "I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you…every man who accepts circumcision…is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law" (Galatians 5:2–4). In other words, those who enslave themselves to the law are not only not justified by it, but they declare that they are not justified in Christ either. Paul is not talking about losing salvation; he is saying that if you place your faith in the law to justify you before God, you are missing the gospel. The law does not justify. We are only saved by God's grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:1–10; Galatians 3:6).
Having established thoroughly that we are set free only in Christ, Paul then exhorts the Galatians to "walk by the Spirit" (Galatians 5:16). Replying to the implied argument that if we are free of the law we will indulge in sin, Paul points out that those who walk by the Spirit will not indulge the desires of the flesh. He contrasts the "works of the flesh"—things like sexual immorality, idolatry, jealousy, rivalries, and divisions—with the "fruit of the Spirit"—exemplified as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22–23). The message is clear, if your life is defined by the works of the flesh, you are not in Christ and you will not enter into His kingdom (Galatians 5:21); this includes those who think they will be justified by adhering to the law of Moses.
Paul finishes the letter with instructions to "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Expanding on the law of love, Paul wants the Galatians to look out for each other, especially when they see those who are struggling to walk in a manner worthy of their calling (Colossians 1:10). With a final warning, "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation" (Galatians 6:15), Paul closes the letter quickly.
Application: It may seem that Galatians does not have much application for us today; we don't have many people suggesting that in order to be a Christian you must submit to Jewish law. However, Paul's discussion of justification by faith alone is one of the bedrocks of the Christian faith, and a lesson we cannot take lightly. Additionally, if we desire to live our lives as a new creation, Paul provides one of the most succinct descriptions of a life lived according to faith in Galatians 5:22–23 saying, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." One way we can examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5) is to compare the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19–21) to the fruit of the Spirit; which of these lists is a more accurate description of your life?
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