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Epistle to Galatians




The Epistle to the Galatians is one of Paul’s greatest and most important letters. It contains in substance what the apostle taught and which he had received by divine revelation (Gal 1:12). Many have characterized the letter as a “short Romans.” Indeed, Romans may well be an expansion of Galatians. A comparison of the two epistles reveals that they are similar in theme and contents—both teach boldly the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith and the ethical imperatives which are the fruits of the Gospel of love.

Great men in the Church have esteemed Galatians highly. It has been the source of strength and guidance for many. For the reformers of the Reformation Era it was Galatians, more than any other single book, which became the manifesto of freedom and revival of Biblical truth. The epistle was a favorite of Luther. In it he found strength for his own faith and life and an arsenal of weapons for his reforming work. He said of the letter: “The Epistle to the Galatians is my own little epistle. I have betrothed myself to it; it is my Katie von Bora” (name of Luther’s wife). Luther lectured on Galatians extensively and his Commentary on Galatians, one of his early books of the Reformation, did much to expound the dominant theme of the reform movement, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, to the common people. Dr. William Ramsay, the famous Eng. scholar, described Galatians in this manner: “It is a unique and marvelous letter, which embraces in its six short chapters such a variety of vehement and intense emotion as could probably not be paralleled in any other work.” Farrar had this estimate of the letter: “The words scrawled on those few sheets of paper were destined to wake echoes which have lived, and shall live forever and ever—they were the Magna Charta of spiritual emancipation.” Another scholar has said the Galatian letter is “the pebble from the brook with which the Reformers smote the papal giant of the Middle Ages” and that it was the cornerstone and battle cry of the Protestant Reformation. Dr. Merrill Tenney writes, “Few books have had a more profound influence on the history of mankind than has this small tract, for such it should be called. Christianity might have been just one more Jewish sect, and the thought of the Western world might have been entirely pagan had it never been written. Galatians embodies the germinal teaching on Christian freedom which separated Christianity from Judaism, and which launched it upon a career of missionary conquest. It was the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, because its teaching of salvation by grace alone became the dominant theme of the preaching of the Reformers” (Galatians: The Charter of Christian Liberty, p. 15).

It is true that the letter, because of its extremely high doctrinal content, its apologetic nature, and its lack of poetic beauty, has not always been well known or highly favored in some eras of the Church’s history, but since the Reformation it has come into its own and has been recognized particularly for what it meant to the Early Church. Its bold succinct definition of the beloved Gospel in terms of people in the third chapter was like an ancient “shot heard around the world” and its note of freedom has struck the inner cords of millions of oppressed hearts. No words on human worth and equality and the universality of Christianity have ever matched these: “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:25-28). The church of the Protestant Reformation has always prized its doctrinal contents, esp. its mighty statement and defense of justification by faith alone and its glorious defense of spiritual liberty against any form of legalism. It has always been an impregnable citadel against any attack on the heart of the Gospel, salvation by grace through faith: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’; but the law does not rest on faith, for ‘He who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (3:10-13). In short, in Galatians we meet for the first time the great Pauline teaching of justification by faith which has helped people to understand the love of God and the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The author.

The Church has always believed that the Apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians. Except for one or two extremely radical scholars, no one has ever attacked the genuineness of Galatians, that is, that the letter came from the Apostle Paul. Biblical scholars both ancient and modern attest to the Pauline authorship. Most radical critics have agreed not only to Pauline characteristics but also Pauline authorship. Noted scholars today in their writings on Galatians no longer discuss the matter. The obvious reason for this situation is that from every possible consideration—ancient attestation, the literary style, the doctrinal content, the historical background, literary analysis—the letter leaves no room for doubt. Everyone admits that, if there ever lived a man like Paul who is known from other books he wrote, then Galatians must have come from him.

Dr. Findlay once said: “No breath of suspicion as to the authorship, integrity, or apostolic authorship of the Epistle to the Galatians has reached us from ancient times.” The great scholar Lightfoot wrote: “Its every sentence so completely reflects the life and character of the Apostle of the Gentiles that its genuineness has not been seriously questioned.” In recent decades the letter has stood as a solid wall against any criticism that would deny any of the letters of Paul. The external testimony of the ancient church leaders to the Pauline authorship of Galatians is unambiguous. One of the earliest Church Fathers, Clement of Rome, refers to the letter in his writings. Polycarp and Barnabas knew of Galatians, as did Hermas and Ignatius. Even Marcion, who excluded entire blocks of the NT writings from his early canon, placed the letter on his choice list and refers to it by title. Justin Martyr uses the third chapter of the letter to interpret the OT in the light of Paul’s doctrine. Both the faithful man and the heretic assume it was written by Paul. Early Gnostic interpreters used the epistle. Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria quote the letter and refer to Paul as the author.

The historical background.

Paul’s personal experience in his conversion is directly related to the question of the epistle: faith or works? Obviously this is why he writes with such fervor and conviction in absolute categories. Assuming that he was converted about a.d. 32 and wrote Galatians in a.d. 48 or 49, he had more than fifteen years of spiritual preparation for his missionary treks and epistolary efforts. He speaks of his conversion in Heb. before the crowd at the Temple in Jerusalem (Acts 22:1-21. cf. Acts 9:1-19) and before King Agrippa in Caesarea (Acts 26:1-32) and defends his doctrine of salvation by faith. In both addresses, before both friend and foe, his purpose is to offer his conversion as the greatest proof of his discipleship and the truth of his doctrine that a man is saved by faith and not by works. In his first letter to Timothy he described his conversion in glowing terms of grace as the epitome of the validity of the Gospel which he expounded and defended so magnificently in Galatians: “Though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners” (1 Tim 1:13-16).

His most effective use of his conversion experience in behalf of the Gospel of grace is in Galatians itself: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the tradition of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia” (Gal 1:11-17).

For Paul it all began on the Damascus Road and there was no road back. He penned Galatians to plead with all Christians to take only the Damascus Road—any other road leads to “another gospel.” These events preceding the writing of Galatians help explain the letter itself and make it clear that only such a man could have written it. He is alone with his Lord in Arabia, perhaps for several years, meditating, thinking, dialoging, preparing (Gal 1:13-17). The urge to tell others moved him to return to Damascus, prob. around a.d. 34, 35. It is enemy territory now—former friends make the fiercest enemies. A plot to take his life in Damascus caused him to seek shelter in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28; Gal 1:18). It was a short visit of two weeks and his enemies tried to kill him once more, but his brethren whisked him away to Caesarea where he boarded a ship and made his way to his home town of Tarsus (Acts 9:29-31; Gal 1:21-24). All of this strife for the new convert against his former “friends” makes up the marrow of the Galatian letter and gives it the light and heat of newfound freedom in Christ. The years spent in Tarsus and Cilicia, on the fringe of the Galatian area into which he pushed on his first missionary journey, comprised more spiritual and mystical preparation for the road ahead.

Always the brethren know of Paul’s where-abouts and of his fervor for Christ. It is prob. true that he preached and defended this Gospel in Cilicia between the years a.d. 36-43 because later the Apostolic Council sent communications to the Gentile brethren in Antioch and Cilicia (Acts 15:24). And in Acts 15:41 Luke writes that Paul was going to strengthen the churches of Syria and Cilicia. His first journey took him much farther W, so he must have witnessed in this area during his so-called “silent years.” All the while the pressure between the (gospel of) “freedom men” and the “legal men” was building up until it reached the heated pitch of the Galatian polemic.

According to an accepted order of events, however, the first missionary journey intervened (Acts 13:1-14:28). The church in Antioch was growing tremendously. The Jerusalem brethren asked Barnabas to journey to Antioch and to assist and lead the work. More workers were needed and Barnabas went to Tarsus to get Paul and brought him to Antioch. Paul worked in Antioch with Barnabas (Acts 11:26) and other leaders in Antioch (Acts 13:1). There was scarcity of food and famine in Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas were asked to take a collection of food and grain to the brethren in that city. After a few weeks in the Holy City they made their way back to Antioch to resume the work there. The gospel of freedom should not be contained—it is for all men. John Mark went with them (Gal 2:1-21; Acts 12:24, 25). Then we are told that the Holy Spirit Himself instructed the young church: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” With fasting and prayer the church “laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2, 3).

The first mission odyssey began—a portent of many more to come. John Mark joined the mission group. They left from Seleucia and sailed to Cyprus. Astounding events in Salamis and Paphos! The power of the gospel of freedom was felt by Rom. officials and magicians. Luke describes one of the great gospel events of ancient times: “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:1-13). They left the island and headed for the mainland of Asia Minor. Perga in Pamphylia, Antioch of Pisidia—the strategy was to visit the cities and towns of the area, the heavily populated areas. Christ has freed all men and all men must hear the good news (Acts 13:38, 39). They preached the Kerygma: Jesus is the Messiah, fulfiller of the Old Testament. Many believed in the risen Lord. John Mark left the expedition at Pamphylia and returned home—perhaps the work was too difficult and free for the young Jerusalemite. Preaching in the synagogues of Antioch gave rise to opposition because of Jewish law. The extent of the inner division was beginning to be felt outwardly. “When the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted what was spoken by Paul, and reviled him....the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district” (13:45-52). We are reminded that in Galatians Paul did not neglect to chastise severely to correct the error.

Iconium up in the hill country was next—again the Jews stirred up opposition. Paul would long remember the work of these “Judaizers,” or “lovers of law,” as we call them today. Then came Lystra. Here the apostle was stoned; Derbe was next, the quiet receptive city—but everywhere it was much the same as it was in Iconium: “But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles” (Acts 14:2-4). Sometimes both Gentiles and Jews were ready to stone them. Always “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren” (Acts 14:2-20). Already one can hear the clarion call of Galatians: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (3:1-4). But the legalistic enemies with their problems of circumcision were still working openly in the Galatian congregations (Gal 5:6-12). They must be counteracted; it takes only a little leaven to spoil the whole group (Gal 5:9). “You were called to freedom, brethren....in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:13, 6). This was the real issue and carried over into the Apostolic Council (Acts 15). Against this foil the Epistle of Galatians was written and finds its meaning.

The Judaizers.

Almost without exception, Biblical interpreters who have written a commentary on Galatians believe that the letter was written primarily to counteract the activities of the Judaizers in Galatia. The mischievous work of these “legal men” is described in general in the previous section on the historical background; a more specific, though brief, treatment of these “Old Testament Christians” might be useful in aiding the reader to understand more fully the contents and the theological issue of Galatians. Who was a Judaizer and why was he called thus? The term is derived from a coined Lat. word Iudaizo meaning “to be or live like a Jew.” It is a religious designation rather than a national description. Bible students have called these opponents of the early Christian missionaries Judaizers because of their fundamental belief that Gentiles should live like Jews; that is, follow the Mosaic Law and Jewish customs and traditions, when and after they became Christians. It is not that Judaizers were wicked people or that they did not have good intentions; for them the issue was a matter of principle and from God Himself. But the implications of their insistence upon Jewish ceremonial law for the young Christian Church, both theologically and socially, were volatile and divisive indeed.

The situation was brought about by the teaching of Jesus Himself on the law, the doctrine of grace and of God’s love for all men, on the one hand; and, on the other, by the mixture of Jews and Gentiles in the early Christian churches. It was one thing to preach grace to Jews only (and it may be assumed that Jewish Christians may have misunderstood the requirements of the kingdom even as they worshiped Christ); it was quite another task to preach the Gospel of Christ and freedom to Jews, Greeks, Syrians and Mr. Everyman in the same congregation, esp. if it were still in the Jewish synagogue. After all, the Jewish person had been circumcised, he knew the glory of Israel, he knew the pride of Judaism with its one God and high morality; but the poor Gentile, what did he have? The Jew could easily summarize it for him: false gods, fornication, immorality, drunkenness, etc. Surely, it was not enough just to give up these practices and simply believe—that was really cheap grace—but if one really wanted to be a Christian, like Jesus Himself, he should really be a Jew first and then both a Jew and a Christian. No doubt many early Gentile Christians attempted to imitate their Jewish fellow believers, or at least tried not to offend them, but when it came to circumcision, for adults particularly, with its accompanying irritation, annoyance and inconvenience, esp. when the apostles said there was “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision in the kingdom,” the reluctance for a Gentile to accede became strong indeed. Thus the issue finally boiled down to circumcision and few other things (Acts 15) and not even the Apostolic Council settled the matter. This is why it is rather fruitless to debate on these grounds whether or not Galatians was written before or after the Council—the issue was so emotional and tense that several councils and apostolic epistles could hardly bring peace entirely.

The tension was tightened by the fact that the first churches in Pal. were Jewish (Christ came for the Jews, too; the kingdom was for all men). Paul himself said “Jew first and also...the Greek” (Rom 1:16); and by the method of Paul and his co-workers of going to the Jewish synagogues outside of Pal. as their first contact for preaching the Gospel in an area or city. In these synagogues were also men who were “devout converts to Judaism” (Acts 13:43) and people described as “men who fear God,” Gentiles who were “proselytes of the gate” and not fully converted to Judaism or involved in the synagogue, but who liked its high moral character and monotheism. These “fringe people” were made to order for the new church. Yet Paul tried to be “all things to all men” and in preaching to the Jews (even though there were Gentiles in the audience) showed again and again that the prophets and John the Baptist and Jesus Himself taught that all the OT was preparatory to the Messiah and the new kingdom (Acts 13:26-41). At the same time Paul made it plain that the Gospel was no addendum to Judaism, no mere supplement to the law, but the end and fulfillment of the law and the antithesis to it. The new kingdom would go beyond the boundaries of Israel, not just nationally but also theologically and socially—even though Jesus the Messiah came from David’s line, now “every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39).

The doors of the new church were thrown open to everyone—to Jews, Jewish proselytes, Gentiles, publicans, sinners—and everyone had direct access to God through Christ by faith. Paul was saying out loud what for so long had been in the scrolls and parchments of the OT, in Pentecost, in Jesus’ ministry, in the calling of publicans as apostles, and he was practicing it in a new social situation. As a result large numbers of people of all kinds, Gentiles and slaves, came into the church without circumcision, not through the synagogue, not by doing all the laws and customs of the OT, but directly. These people came in “Just as I am, without one plea”; they took the apostles at their word. But this was too much for Jews who had grown up in Judaism and their true thoughts and attitudes began to come to the surface. No one wanted to deny a Gentile the privileges of membership, but surely there was more to it than just believing. Perhaps it was not so much that they as Jews had to bear the burden of the law all those years “till Christ came” (although Luke writes that “when the Jews saw the multitudes [in Antioch of Pisidia], they were filled with jealousy,” Acts 13:45), but the great glory and validity of the OT. Was not the OT from Moses by God’s will? Were all God’s covenants, rites, symbols, His relationship to the Commonwealth of Israel, and everything else to be discarded just because Christ came? Were the ancient people of God, the children of Abraham, simply to disappear from history?

It is not surprising, then, that strong-minded Jewish people became vigorous Judaizers. They came from within the new church. One gets the feeling from following their activities in Acts that they were not from the congregations or synagogues in the mission churches, but men from other churches who followed Paul about undoing his work. While they were primarily of Jewish origin, it is not impossible that there may have been some misguided Gentile proselytes among them who had gone through the demands of Judaism and were circumcised when they joined the Christian Church and wanted all other Gentiles to do the same. Luke calls them simply “unbelieving Jews” (Acts 14:2). It was easy for them to operate in the church which was in the stage of transition from a Jewish nationalistic group to a Gentile—Jewish membership, whether the Jews or the Gentiles were in a majority in a given congregation. The Judaizers reasoned as follows: They did not come to destroy Paul’s work or the Gospel, but to fulfill and complete it (Gal 3:3). The Messiah’s coming only culminated and sanctified the OT. Israel was still the most important and would always be Israel. Only Gentiles could join Israel, Israelites could never join Gentiles. The Sabbath and circumcision and all the other ordinances were by no means obliterated. They were covenants between God and His people forever. Christ never freed men from the law; He confirmed it. Faith alone, without circumcision, without the law, would leave Christianity incomplete. In fact, Paul and his co-workers were false apostles; they were not telling the full truth. The other apostles had never said this; it was only Paul who was the libertine. Would not his teaching result in moral tragedy, in every dangerous and immoral act? Would faith not lead to license instead of liberty? Their attack upon Paul, therefore, may be considered threefold: (1) On the apostolic authority of Paul, (2) Paul’s gospel is an incomplete gospel, (3) Paul’s gospel with its attitudes toward law, will lead to immorality (cf. Rom. 3:1-5; 6:1).

In Galatians Paul answers this threefold attack. He knew that they were striking at the very heart of the Gospel. They were describing what might be called an “Old Testament Christian,” a true Israelite who believed in the coming Messiah and kept all the law besides. It is possible that a Judaizer might do all the things demanded by the law, including circumcision, and, as long as he did not think he was thereby esp. pleasing God by these acts (the error of the church of the Middle Ages) it would do no harm; but what about demanding all this of a Gentile before he can be considered a good Christian? This was the burning issue. It was fought by Judaizers supposedly on theological or Scriptural grounds. Faith was not enough to make certain of God’s grace and salvation. Besides accepting Jesus Christ as the Messiah, a new convert also should join the Jewish nation and observe its laws and customs which came from Moses, generally epitomized in the refusal to eat with Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14; 4:10). The Christian must be saved by faith and works, faith and Judaism, grace and law on an equal basis. In the Jerusalem church the Judaizing tendency had not become an issue because the Christians there were all of Jewish origin and had been circumcised before coming to faith. Perhaps they even continued in their old ways. In Antioch and in Asia Minor the situation was different. In the mission fields the Gentiles often outnumbered the Jews. In their teaching and preaching Barnabas and Paul had not insisted upon circumcision since faith made a person a member of the kingdom (Gal 3:26). To do anything else would have destroyed God’s universal grace and supplanted faith with works. It would have meant that Jewish people who became Christians had somewhat of a head start over all Gentiles and the Gentiles had a built-in handicap before God. The entire letter to the Galatians is actual ly built around this argument. Paul says the Christian does not have the choice of a “both-and,” but it is an “either-or”—the choice lies only between grace or law, faith or works, either Moses or Christ (5:2-6). For Paul the mixing of a tiny requirement of man’s obedience to any law shakes the foundation of salvation by grace alone. Grace excludes all works, not just highly publicized public deeds, but the most insignificant private deed if motivated for salvation by works. Any and all works in the doctrine of salvation were of the devil and destroyed man’s only hope and comfort for certainty in salvation. The heart of Christianity for Paul is God’s free grace in Christ Jesus and anything else is a sword thrust into the heart of Christianity. This is why Paul’s thermometer rose so high against these false teachers, not only because their doctrine was a perversion of the Gospel, but because it sounded so reasonable and natural to Jewish Christians who in turn wished to impose these impossible demands upon Gentile Christians. The Judaizing trap is an ancient snare—many Christians in the past have fallen into it and no doubt many more will. It is difficult to find the proper place and distinction between law and Gospel. Faith alone does not mean “no works”—these are of the Spirit (Gal 5)—but it does mean that the Gospel saves and not laws, customs or ceremonies. Paul ends Galatians with a comment on this key point. Both Jew and Gentile have joined Christ and the one new church, on an equal basis. “Neither circumcision counts for anything,” he says, “nor uncircumcision...but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God” (6:15, 16). The term Israel had to be re-defined for both parties. Messiah had come.

Destination and readers.

The epistle opens with the words: “Paul an apostle...and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia” (1:1, 2). This letter is the only Pauline epistle which is specifically directed toward a group of churches, unless it be Ephesians as a circular letter. Who were the “Galatians”? Where were these churches located? Answers to these questions have caused a great deal of discussion in the past half cent. and have influenced scholars much in determining the date and the readers of the letter.

The nomenclature “Galatia” was used for centuries to designate the territory in the N and central part of Asia Minor to which a large number of Gauls migrated (or invaded) from Europe about 275 b.c. (compare the Lat. Gallia, Gaul). By 230 b.c. the territory assumed rather fixed boundaries and these Gauls, or Galatians, lived in this small kingdom, had their own government, and developed their own customs. In 25 b.c. the territory was taken over by the Roman Empire and made a Rom. province. King Amyntas (36-25 b.c.) was the last ruler of this old Galatian territory, but before his death he added some parts of Phrygia, Pisidia, Lycaonia and even Isauria to his small kingdom. The Romans added several other adjacent territories to Old Galatia, combined the entire area with the territory to the S, and named the entire country “Galatia.” It is possible, then, that in Paul’s day during Rom. times there were two “Galatias,” the first being the Old Galatia in the northern part of Asia Minor and the second being the reorganized territory of the N and the S and both together called Galatia. Bible students have called the territory of Old Galatia the “Territory Hypothesis,” Geographical Galatia, Galatia Proper, Ethnographical Galatia and Northern Galatia. The combined larger territory which Rome organized has been termed Political Galatia, Provincial Galatia, “Province Hypothesis,” and Southern Galatia. Although Bible students speak of N Galatia and S Galatia, one should not be mislead by the terms as if there was a Galatia in the N and another Galatia in the S. It should be remembered that the province of Galatia included both the old Galatia and the new territory to the S. The situation might be illustrated by drawing a horizontal line through the middle of the State of Illinois and then for a moment hypothetically assuming that the northern pa rt of the state was settled as a territory in early pioneer days and was called Illinois; later the lower part of the present State of Illinois was included in the state and the entire state was called Illinois. Similarly the entire combined province of Galatia was simply called Galatia by the Romans.

The important question for the letter to the Galatians is: In what way did Paul and Luke use the term? Was Paul referring to the old territory of Galatia proper or was he using the term in the Rom. provincial sense? Or to put the question in a more specific manner, was the apostle referring to unnamed churches in the old territory of Galatia in the N, or was he referring to the churches of such towns as Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium which he founded on his first missionary journey? The answer to this question is significant as it relates to the people to whom the letter was addressed, the date, and the historical setting. If the epistle was not written until Paul visited the northern Galatian territory on his second or third journey and long after the Apostolic Council, the epistle would have a much later date and be written to unknown readers. If, on the other hand, the term “Galatia” refers to the cities he visited on the first missionary journey, it is possible to date the epistle early, even considering it one of the first letters the apostle wrote.

The first view has been called the “Northern Galatian Theory” by Biblical scholars. It was early defended by an able scholar by the name of J. B. Lightfoot in a commentary on Galatians (1890), and assumed that Paul’s visit to Galatia took place during the second and third journeys when he traveled through the region of Phrygia and Galatia (Acts 16:6). This view holds that Paul traveled through such towns as Pessinus, and Ancyra, and Tavium and finally reached Troas after a long journey. Acts 18:23 indicates that he made a similar tour on his third missionary journey.

Today, however, most scholars believe that Paul wrote his letter to the churches in the southern part of the province of Galatia. This proposal has been named the “Southern Galatian Theory” or the “Province Hypothesis.” A famous Eng. scholar, Sir William Ramsay, championed the view, believing that “the churches of Galatia” were those founded on the first missionary journey and that they were later re-visited on other journeys (Acts 16:1-6; 18:23). If this view is correct, it answers in a natural manner certain questions regarding the destination of the letter. Several considerations undergird the hypothesis: (1) It has been shown that Paul in his writings generally uses provincial names of Rom. districts or provinces, never the territorial identification (Achaia, Macedonia, Illyricum, Dalmatia, Judea). In the Rom. sense Judea meant all of Pal. (2) It would also seem strange that Paul would make no appeal to the significant decision of the Apostolic Council, authority which he could easily have used in his defense of the Gospel against the Judaizers, if he wrote the letter after the council. The fact that the council is not mentioned prob. means it had not taken place. (3) It has been suggested that the Northern Galatian Theory does not explain why the Judaizers did not invade the important churches in S Galatia. (4) The internal evidence from the letter itself seems to indicate that Paul is speaking to the churches in the southern part of the Rom. province of Galatia. Paul’s activities up to the time of writing, as we have seen, can be more easily explained if the letter was written early. One can also explain Paul’s altercation with Peter (Gal 2:11) with greater ease if this took place before the first church council. (5) Barnabas is mentioned in the letter as a person well-known to the readers but he was with Paul only on the first missionary journey as far as is know n. (6) In 1 Corinthians 16:1, where Paul speaks of Galatia, he evidently has in mind the southern section because Derbe is included (Acts 20:1-4). (7) Paul’s sickness (Gal 4:13) can be explained easier if he were speaking of southern Galatia since he would hardly, as a sick man, have gone into the northern part of the province, a bleak desolate country. (8) The issue of faith versus works with the Judaizers was prominent in southern Galatia, as we see from Acts 16:1. There is no evidence that the Judaizers went to northern Galatia.

For these reasons most scholars follow the more natural Southern Galatian Theory to answer the questions: To whom did Paul write this letter? Where were the churches of Galatia located? The Judaizers had been following Paul throughout his first missionary journey and after he returned to Antioch he was informed of the trouble they were causing. He immediately sat down and wrote these churches the firm and passionate letter which we know as Galatians. The Northern Galatian Theory must base its evidence upon two rather obscure passages (in Acts 16:6 and 18:23). It also has further difficulties in the understanding of the terms Phrygia and Galatia. Again, there is no real evidence that Paul founded churches in northern Galatia—he was interested in hurrying on to Europe rather than preaching in this area.

Some scholars hold that Paul was opposing two sets of opponents in the letter; not only a Jewish or Judaizing tendency but also a Gnostic element. They say certain anti-gnostic statements quite clearly show this, as in 4:8-11; “How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.” His words in 4:19-21 seem to bear this out because he lashes out with all his might against every desire and act of fleshly libertinism. The Spirit of God, says Paul, not the “beggardly elemental spirits” are in control of man and his destiny through the power of love and faith (cf. Marxsen, pp. 50-54). It may well be true that both elements may have been represented in the churches of Galatia, perhaps at times even a combination of the two. Scholars have conclusively shown that a Jewish-Gnostic tendency existed early in the Church.

Date and place of writing.

The date and place of writing follow closely upon the identification of the recipients of Galatians. Those who advocate the Northern Galatian Hypothesis have assigned the letter to Ephesus during the third missionary journey about the time Romans was written. Others who uphold this theory believe that it may have been written during the second missionary journey about a.d. 52. Scholars who support the Southern Galatian Theory generally place the writing of the letter just before the Apostolic Council. Those who believe the letter was written prior to the Council place it in Antioch of Syria, while those who believe it was written during the second or third missionary journeys choose Corinth or Ephesus as the place of writing. All things considered, it seems best to place the writing of Galatians at about a.d. 48 just prior to the Apostolic Council. According to this view Paul wrote the letter on the eve of the council in order to take care of the emergency in Galatia. It is possible that Paul did not know such a council would be held, nor would he know its outcome. Peter’s speech in Acts 15:7-11 may also take into consideration the views stated in Galatians. It is granted that not all of the evidence demands the writing of the letter before the Apostolic Council and some of the problems in chronology are difficult. One must agree that the argument that Galatians speaks of the Apostolic Council is not overwhelming. If Paul were detailing his visits to Jerusalem, he certainly would not exclude specific mention of the Apostolic Council.

Theme and purpose.

The theme of Galatians is Christian freedom in terms of salvation by grace and freedom from the law as the way to salvation. In this it partakes of the objective of the great letter to the Romans. Another way of asking the major question of the letter is: What is the place of the law in Christian theology? Is Christian salvation a question of faith and works, or faith without works? No one denied that the law was given by God and that it was divine. But did the new Pauline emphasis on grace and faith wipe out the law completely? Paul’s answer is negative and his statement of the relationship between law and Gospel in the letter becomes a dominant leitmotif. The law has its place in God’s plan but it is not the old Pharisaical or legalistic approach. The law tells a man what sin is. If there is no law one cannot transgress law; and if there is no transgression against law there is no sin.

Furthermore, for Paul the law drives a man to despair and causes him to throw himself upon the grace of God in one great act of faith. The honest legalist knows from experience that he can never completely obey the law for God and that the law only condemns. Only grace and faith give true life and liberty to the total man. In this letter then, the apostle’s great theme is Christian liberty which praises the grace of God.

The Judaizers attempted to answer this question of the law and the Gospel by opting for a legalistic system. Their argument was subtle and rational. If a Jew became a Christian, naturally he must bring Judaism with him into the Christian faith. Was not the Jew there first? Was not the law from God? It was so simple. A Jew must always remain a Jew. On the other hand, if a Gentile wished to become a disciple of Christ, he had to become a Jew to qualify. Were not all of God’s promises, even of the Messiah, promised to Jews alone? Christianity, like Judaism, was for Jews only. This was a new kind of slavery, worse than the old. It also faced man with demands he could not meet and drove all love for God and man from his heart. What hopes the poor Gentiles had were dashed to pieces. Everything in the letter is gathered about the theme of freedom in the grace of God, whether it be Paul’s own biography, his altercation with Peter, the works of a Christian (Gal 2:19-21), the case of Abraham, the desires of the flesh and the compulsion of the Spirit, the doctrine of love, or forgiveness (6:15). Vehemently the apostle writes against the folly of salvation by works: “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse...Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (3:10-13). In some way, each issue of the epistle has something to do with this theme.

The purpose of the letter is knotted to the theme. Paul wished to combat legalism and the Judaizers. Legalism always has, and always will, take the heart out of Christianity and transplant a heart made of stone. Only the Spirit gives life. The heart of Christianity is God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. Let the law do the honorable work of showing a man his sin, but do not let it save man from sin. Paul’s purpose was to keep the new kingdom from being another Jewish sect—he preached a universal Gospel of grace intended for all men (Gal 3:26). The Judaizers were not only teaching coercion to the Mosaic law, but also a work righteousness (Gal 5). Paul wished to keep the new Christian converts true to the Gospel of freedom which Christ had taught and confirmed on the cross. His letter to the Galatians, as it did in Galatia, has blocked the path of many a man who since then would change Christianity into a new paganism or another type of Judaism. It stands as a challenge to all men who would take away the grace of God, the truth of the Gospel, and joy and freedom that goes with it!

Contents and outline.

The contents of the letter to the Galatians must compel the Christian’s personal attention. This is not just a theological or polemical essay which, like a Gr. debater, may take either side without impunity. The subject matter of this treatise of the Gospel involves every man and his eternal salvation or judgment. The news of Judaizers’ success caused great turmoil and even tempestuous anger in the apostle’s heart. He divided his wrath between the Judaizers for preaching such heresy and the Galatians for believing it. It is not only that the Galatians would lose their liberty; they would lose their God and His eternal salvation in Jesus Christ. Justification by faith rather than by works must stand at all costs.

The letter begins with the normal greetings to the readers. There is no indication of the thrust of the Word to come. The first two chapters form a defense of Paul’s apostolic authority. The best way to illustrate his point is to relate his own activities and show that the Gospel came by revelation from God and not from Paul or even the other apostles, for if one apostle can be attacked, all may be attacked. So certain is he of the Gospel’s freedom that he even opposed the respected and renowned Apostle Peter about his vacillation between Jews and Gentiles. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are freighted with Paul’s defense of the Gospel—teaching the positive truth to oppose error. He sets forth his doctrine of justification by faith to refute the Judaizers and as a vehicle of the Spirit to bring the Galatians back from their apostasy. The Galatians themselves knew they did not receive salvation by keeping the law—few of them had ever followed any law. The same is true, Paul says, of the great heroes of the OT, particularly Abraham, the father of the Jews. The purpose of the law was never to save, but to convince man that his salvation is from God. In chapter 5 the apostle defends the other end of the valley—he fights off the antinomian who would say, “Yes, Paul, let us teach faith and not law and works—what do you have then? Have you not opened the very floodgates of sin and human desire? If there is no law and every man is free, will not immorality, hate, murder and every other human passion run wild so that the last situation is worse than the first?” Paul carefully illustrates that on the contrary, the Gospel, like a beautiful tree, brings forth fruits of the Spirit of every kind. Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works. This is true liberty—doing the will of the Spirit of God from the compulsion of the Gospel. There are, Paul says, many fruits of the flesh, but the Christian is under grace and empowered by the Spirit of God Himself, to do good, a much greater power than any human attitude or desire. At the end of the letter the apostle takes the pen from the scribe and attests the truth of the document by inscribing his own name in his own hand.

A Defense of Christian Liberty Outline

Theme: Freedom of the Christian man—the doctrine of justification by faith alone vs. salvation by faith AND works. (Not F vs. W, but: F vs. F & W.)


Characteristics and special features.

The entire letter is “special” and a “feature event” in Christianity. For a clear understanding of Christianity there is no better introduction than Galatians. It is highly doctrinal but yet extremely personal. The gullibility of the Galatians for such patent error is a personal affront to the apostle who had been God’s instrument in bringing the Gospel to them. Almost a third of the Gospel is a statement of personal biography. Paul himself was an object lesson of the Gospel and often uses this method (cf. 1 Tim 1:1-12). Not even the casual reader can overlook the fervor of personal faith: “I have been crucified with Christ...I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19, 20).

The epistle is a sharp defense of the Christian faith. “The tone of the book is warlike. It fairly crackles with indignation though it is not the anger of personal pique but of spiritual principle. ‘Though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema’ (Gal 1:8), cried Paul as he reproved the Galatians for their acceptance of the legalistic error” (Tenney). Paul was answering those who challenged him on two counts: The truth of the Gospel, and Paul’s right to preach it.

The letter is also highly emotional. Words run like a torrential mountain stream. He begins sentences which he does not have time to finish; he quotes his words to another apostle but then flies aloft in a soliloquy as he dwells on what Christ had done for his own person. He talks to his readers as if he were on a great stage and his readers personally before him. One time he can be angry and heated, at other times pleading and conciliating. He speaks of the glory of Christ and His doctrine, but also of the beauty of the fruits of the Spirit. He asks question after question which he proceeds to answer himself. The letter shows the sensitivity of one who has experienced the depths of God’s grace. He speaks of love fulfilling the whole law and walking in the Spirit as in a peaceful verdant valley. Yet he can trumpet forth with such dicta as this: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:7, 8). The letter to the Galatians shows beautiful eloquence and deep pathos. It manifests wrath against false teachers, tenderness with respect to the erring, and urgent pleading to the faithful. The heart of the Gospel is found in its substance and in the life of freedom it advocates. The letter is most valuable for the full understanding of the Word of God. Scarcely another epistle emphasizes the “alone” of “by grace alone,” “through faith alone,” as does this letter. No presentation of the Gospel can equal this letter in the force with which it presents the powerful claim of the pure grace of God.


M. Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535); G. S. Duncan, The Epistle of Paul To The Galatians, The Moffatt New Testament Commentary (1934); S. A. Cartledge, A Conservative Introduction to the New Testament (1941); H. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (1951); M. C. Tenney, The New Testament: A Survey (1953); R. Stammand; O. Blackwelder, “The Epistle to the Galatians,” IB, Vol 10 (1953); M. C. Tenney, Galatians: The Charter of Christian Liberty (1954); J. A. Allan, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians (1954); W. Barclay, The Letter to the Galatians and Ephesians (1958); M. Franzmann, The Word of the Lord Grows (1961); Feine-Belma-Kuemmel, Introduction to the New Testament (1965); W. Marxsen, Introduction to the New Testament (1970).