Galatians – A Short Intro

Main Themes

At the start of his commentary looking at Galatians, Edgar Andrews says ‘the epistle to the Galatians can be summarized by one simple question: what is the gospel?’ especially in contrast to false gospels which are no gospels at all (1:7). [1] Certainly the gospel is front and centre in Paul’s thoughts, but the letter can be further summarised by these three helpful questions:

1: Why should the Galatians trust Paul’s Gospel rather than the rival teachers’ ‘other gospel’?

2: What is the role of circumcision and the Mosaic law in God’s salvation plan?

3: Why shouldn’t we rely on the Mosaic law to help us progress and mature in the faith, and if so, what should we rely on?[2]

Overview

Paul is writing into a serious situation, so serious he seeks to defend his gospel and his role as an apostle (1:1-2:10). The situation is so charged with false doctrine that Paul is ‘astonished’ (1:6) and will call these Galatians ‘foolish’ and ‘bewitched’ (3:1) who ‘have fallen away from grace’ (5:4). 

Certainly the stakes are high for Paul who is combatting certain Jewish teachers who call themselves Christians and yet are advocating for full or partial obedience to the Mosaic law on top of faith in Jesus. And Paul says this is not the gospel. He says quite clearly in chapter 3:11-14 that the law cannot save – only faith in Jesus can. It is justification by faith, not justification plus the law, that saves (2:15-16).

In addition, Paul is wanting to address the role of the Mosaic law in the Christian life and shows how relying on the law for growth in Christ is not the way to maturity (Galatians 3-4) . We were saved through the Spirit and live and grow by relying on the Spirit (3:2-3), who produces fruit in our lives despite the conflict we fight against our sinful nature (5:13-25).

Ultimately Paul argues that his gospel is the only gospel because it was received directly from Christ (1:12) and has the power to save whereas the law only has the power to enslave (3:10; 4:31), if we rely on it for our justification and sanctification. We have freedom in Christ and should stand firm in the gospel of Christ that saves us (5:1). Yes let us seek to love our neighbour (5:14) and carry one another’s burdens (6:2), indeed it is faith expressing itself through love that counts, not the law (5:6). Yet Paul wants to make sure that we are not boasting in our own efforts but only ‘in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (6:14). Circumcision and keeping the various special days that the law required have had their day now that the new creation has come (cf. 3:15-4:7; 6:15).

Date and Identity of Galatians

The date and identity of the Galatian churches are debated and depends on whether you view Galatians 2:1-10 as equivalent to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem council. If you believe it is then Galatians was written in the early to mid 50s to the northern Galatian tribes who were Celts. This would mean Paul reaches them in Acts 16:6 and 18:23, although this is disputed. If you believe that Acts 15 is not equivalent to Galatians 2:1-10 but is referring to an earlier time, then the visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 1:18 corresponds to Acts 9:26-28 and Galatians 2:1-10 is equivalent to Acts 11:27-30 and Acts 12:25. This means the Galatians that Paul was writing to were situated in south Galatia (modern day Turkey) and Paul knew them relatively well because he visited them in the various cities such as Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in his first and second missionary journeys (13:13-14:24; 16:1-5). [3]

If Galatians was written before Acts 15 (and I believe it was), then it is likely Paul’s first letter of the New Testament, written around AD48. [4] If this is the case then Paul was writing to relatively young Christians in the faith – both Jew and Gentile – urging them to stand firm in the true gospel of Christ despite various cultural and religious pressures they faced. Something we need to do too as we seek to explore the gospel in Galatians together.

[1] Edgar H. Andrews, Free in Christ: The Message of Galatians (Welwyn Commentary Series), p. 11.

[2] These questions are adapted from David A DeSilva, The Letter to the Galatians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), p. 26. How the Christian life fits with the Mosaic law is obvious when we see the word ‘law’ (Gk nomos) used 32 times in Galatians. One time is used to describe the Pentateuch (4:21), and another time Paul uses the phrase ‘the law of Christ’ (6:2) – all the other times he is referring to the Mosaic law – See Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), p. 35.

[3] This means Paul was writing to people like Timothy (Acts 16:1) – perhaps people he knew – friends and family.

[4] We can get this date because of certain verifiable dates mentioned in Acts. For a really helpful and balanced overview of the strengths and weaknesses of whether we believe the Galatians are northern ethnic Celts or the southern Galatians of Acts 13-14, then I can point you to Tom Schreiner, Galatians (Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), pp. 23-29.

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