Epistle to Galatians
GALATIANS, EPISTLE TO
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 (
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” 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” (
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,, 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. 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 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 (
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” (
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 (
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 (
According to an accepted order of events, however, the first missionary journey intervened (
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” (
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” (
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 (
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” (
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,”
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” (
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 (
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” (
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 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 (
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 (
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
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
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
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 (
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 (
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.
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.
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’ (
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” (
M. Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535); G. S. Duncan, The Epistle of Paul To The Galatians, The MoffattCommentary (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 and Ephesians (1958); M. Franzmann, The Grows (1961); Feine-Belma-Kuemmel, Introduction to the New Testament (1965); W. Marxsen, Introduction to the New Testament (1970).