Galatians is a response to “false brethren” (Galatians 2:4) who attempted to make circumcision binding for gentiles. Which laws did Paul confront in this book?
The book of Galatians is one of the epistles (letters) that the apostle Paul wrote to congregations of the Church of God. The Christians who received this letter lived in the region of Galatia, which corresponds to part of modern-day Turkey, with the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south.
Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary explains the history of the area as follows: “The northern part of the region was settled in the third century B.C. by Celtic tribes that had been driven out of Gaul (France). From these tribes, the region derived its name, Galatia. … The term Galatia … may refer to the older ethnic region in north-central Asia Minor (north Galatia), or to the later and larger Roman province (including south Galatia).”
Southern Galatia was peppered with synagogues, as it was more densely populated than northern Galatia. Paul spent much of his first journey in southern Galatia (from around A.D. 46-48). A few Galatian cities and provinces are mentioned in Acts 13:13-14:
“Now when Paul and his party set sail … they came to Perga in Pamphylia. … But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down.”
Paul was the apostle to the gentiles, as noted in Galatians 2:7-9: “The gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me.”
But it seems a group of individuals in the synagogues would play a major part in his work with gentiles. Notice how Paul addressed his audience in the synagogue in Acts 13: “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen” (verse 16, emphasis added throughout). On the surface, this sounds like a simple reference to God-fearing Israelites. However, the phrase “you who fear God” can also identify gentile worshippers in the synagogue, also known as “God-fearers.”
Several sources help give insight into this group:
- “But where would they find their Gentile hearers? In the first instance, among those Gentiles who, Sabbath by Sabbath, went out to the Jewish synagogue. ... They did not accept circumcision and the obligation to keep the whole Jewish law. ... Some of them kept the Sabbath as a day of rest and observed the Jewish food laws. They were known as ‘God-fearers’” (F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, pp. 93-94).
- “There was another class often referred to in the Acts as ‘fearers of God’ (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26). … Paul addressed himself especially to them in his missionary journeys, and from them he formed the beginning of many of his Churches” (Catholic Encyclopedia, “Proselyte”).
- God-fearers paved the way for other, perhaps less indoctrinated, gentiles to hear the gospel. This is noted in Acts 13:42-44: “The Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. … On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God.”
Dominant themes in Galatians
- Apostasy. This involved abandoning God’s teachings and lifestyle. In Galatia the primary threat of apostasy was spearheaded by “false brethren” (Galatians 2:4) who taught that circumcision was binding upon gentile Christians. Chapters 1 and 4 include warnings about returning to former ways.
- Works of the law. Paul coined this phrase to indicate more than simply keeping the law, but trying to keep the law without, or independent of, faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. Related phrases are “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) and “under the law” (4:4-5). Since we have all sinned (Romans 3:23), those who function apart from faith in Christ are under the death penalty of the law, despite the keeping of laws or acts of love.
- Circumcision. Circumcision became a token for those who sought justification without having faith in the atoning death of Christ (though no one can be justified any other way). Paul did not place circumcision and all of God’s commandments under the same umbrella. This is noted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:19: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.”
- Justification by faith. To “justify” means to “declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). This declaration from God is based upon faith in the sacrifice of Christ. No one is entitled to this status according to effort. Nevertheless, as Paul also taught, “the doers of the law will be declared righteous” (Romans 2:13, Lexham English Bible). God doesn’t bless anti-law attitudes. Paul’s definition of faith is consistent with that of James: “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). Therefore doers of the law, according to faith in Christ, will be pronounced righteous by God (who knows if our hearts are right).
Essentially this means we cannot be justified by the law—any law. However, only the law keepers will be justified by the mercy of God.
The quality of our conduct and conversation reflects the unseen Spirit inside of us (Galatians 5:22). Is our spiritual irrigation system producing ripe, succulent fruit in our lives?
- Fruit of the Holy Spirit. Typically, the “fruit” is the part of the produce that’s seen above ground. However, the quality of the fruit is based upon unseen roots. Likewise, the quality of our conduct and conversation reflects the unseen Spirit inside of us (Galatians 5:22). Is our spiritual irrigation system producing ripe, succulent fruit in our lives? Paul gave an important warning elsewhere: “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
Outline of Galatians
- Galatians 1:1-5: Greeting. Paul uses a similar greeting in 13 epistles. He mentions his office, “apostle,” and says, “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Galatians 1:6-10: Quick apostasy. Paul marvels at their turning away “so soon.” The one true gospel was distorted by those who taught that circumcision was required of gentiles.
- Galatians 1:11-17: Paul’s calling. He completely rejected “his former conduct in Judaism.”
- Galatians 1:18-24: Jerusalem visit. Acts 9 records Paul’s first visit with Peter and the apprehension of many Christians. They came to see that “he who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23).
- Galatians 2:1-10: Another Jerusalem visit. At this time, James, Peter and John recognized God’s work through Paul and Barnabas to the gentiles (Galatians 2:9).
- Galatians 2:11-21: Peter’s hypocrisy. Peter and Barnabas showed favoritism toward “those who were of the circumcision.” Surprisingly, this was after Peter’s vision when he recognized, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). But old habits die hard—the apostles were human. Paul confronted Peter, who willingly repented.
- Galatians 3:1-9: Justification by faith. See theme 4 above.
- Galatians 3:10-14: Curse of the law. The curse wasn’t the law itself—it was the death penalty for breaking the law: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (verse 13).
- Galatians 3:15-18: The promise. Justification comes through the promised “Seed,” Christ. This promise to Abraham preceded the law by 430 years.
- Galatians 3:19-25: Purpose of “the law.” “It was added because of transgressions” (verse 19). What law was later added due to transgressions of another law? The sacrifices and ritualistic ceremonial laws were a “reminder of sins” (Hebrews 10:3) and were added as symbols of justification through Christ’s sacrifice.
- Galatians 3:26-29: Sons and heirs. Christians are “heirs according to the promise,” which was made to Abraham before he was circumcised and before his son was born. This underscores salvation by faith as opposed to lineage or law.
- Galatians 4:1-7: Biological children vs. slaves. Under Roman law, sons were still “adopted as sons” and given “grown-up” togas at the time determined by their fathers (Life Application New Testament Commentary). Before that they had no more inheritance than slaves did (who also could be “adopted” as a son). Likewise, we have no inheritance until we’re made sons through Christ, according to the Father’s timing and determination.
- Galatians 4:8-20: “Elements” (stoicheion). This Greek word can denote something “elementary,” that is, needed for a “child” (verse 1) or “elementary principles” for adults (Hebrews 6:1). Also it can mean celestial bodies (sun, moon, etc.), which gentiles served, “when you did not know God,” that is, before they were Sabbath-keepers. Consequently, the “days and months” that they previously observed were pagan. These “elements” are “weak and beggarly” in that nothing is gleaned from worshipping them. (See the celestial usage also in 2 Peter 3:10-12.)
- Galatians 4:21-31: Two covenants: promise vs. law. Mount Sinai “gave birth to bondage” in that no law, whether moral or ritualistic, granted real justification from sin. This can only be done through the promised Seed.
- Galatians 5:1-6: Debtor to the whole law. Those circumcised were expected to keep the whole law, including ritual ceremonies that were only a type of justification.
- Galatians 5:7-15: Love fulfills the law. Love doesn’t abolish the law—it completes it, e.g. love toward God (Commandments 1-4) and love toward man (Commandments 5-10).
- Galatians 5:16-26: Fruit of the Holy Spirit. See theme 5 above.
- Galatians 6:1-5: Bear one another’s burden. This is how we “fulfill” the law of Christ. Of course, to “fulfill” doesn’t mean to abolish the law of Christ. Likewise, love doesn’t abolish the 10 Commandments.
- Galatians 6:6-10: Doing good to others. We should help all men, without taking away from our primary focus on the Church—“especially … the household of faith” (verse 10).
- Galatians 6:11-18: Boast about Christ, not ourselves. Detractors tried to compel the Galatians to be circumcised and boast in one’s flesh (verse 12). Paul boasted in the sacrifice of Christ. He closes with a heartfelt blessing: “Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.”
Vital role of Galatia
Paul invested much time and energy in Galatia during the early part of his ministry. He visited Galatia twice before the Jerusalem conference of A.D. 49 and once shortly thereafter. This demonstrates how important this area was to him.
- As noted earlier, his first journey included visits to south Galatia: Perga in Pamphylia, Antioch in Pisidia, Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, etc. (Acts 13-14).
- Then after being stoned and believed to be dead, notice the cities that Paul returned to: “The next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. … They returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch” (Acts 14:20-21).
- This stoning could have resulted in his “physical infirmity … my trial … in my flesh,” as well as his eye injury or ailment, the need to write in “large letters” and the “marks” in his body (Galatians 4:13-15; 6:11, 17). Paul was stoned “once” (2 Corinthians 11:25), which was just before his return visit to south Galatia (before the Jerusalem conference).
- After the momentous Jerusalem conference, during his second journey, we again find Paul in “Derbe and Lystra … and Iconium,” where he “delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:1-5).
- Also Paul visited Galatia during his second and third journeys (Acts 16:6; 18:23), though many scholars believe these passages refer to the northern part of Galatia.
Which laws did Paul confront in Galatians? Circumcision and its derivatives are used 16 times in Galatians. This is more than twice as many times per chapter as any other book in the Bible. Paul made it clear that it was not required for gentiles. The Sabbath, on the other hand, was a key tool Paul used to reach the Galatians (Acts 13:14, 26-27, 42-44).
By the time this book was written more than 15 years after the resurrection of Christ, Jewish and gentile Sabbath-keepers had already cemented the commandment-keeping identity of God’s Church. Therefore, it wasn’t necessary for Paul to introduce, or repeat, the Sabbath command to them. The abolishing of any of the 10 Commandments would have received at least as much attention as the change in circumcision received. Read more about this in the article “Did Paul Change the Sabbath Command?”
Let’s return to Paul’s miraculous healing after being stoned. Paul could have recoiled from preaching the gospel for the sake of safety, health, stress and peace. Instead, he continued in God’s way of life, having faith in God as his provider, while courageously revisiting south Galatia and preaching, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
This is still an inspiring lesson for us today.
Read more about the apostle Paul’s teachings about law and grace in the article “What Is the Teaching of Galatians on Law and Grace?”
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