Letter to the churches of Galatia
From Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles
In the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the churches were locked in an extremely difficult dispute that had far-reaching implications.
The earliest followers of Jesus were mostly Jews who recognized Him as the Liberator for Israel. Some of them taught that all believers—both Jews and non-Jews—had to observe Jewish law in order to enter into the benefits and community created through God’s actions in Jesus.
These people were called “Judaizers” because they insisted that non-Jews live like Jews. Paul writes Galatians to counter this threat to Christian liberty. The tone of this letter is harsh because Paul believes the very truth of the gospel and his ministry are in jeopardy.
Since circumcision is the act that initiated non-Jews into Jewish faith, it becomes a symbol for the whole controversy. In this brief book, Paul lays the groundwork for what becomes the orthodox understanding of salvation; namely, that Jews and non-Jews alike enter into a positive relationship with God by grace through faith, not through observing the law.
Paul begins the letter by insisting that his call as an emissary came directly from Jesus, not any human institution. Apparently some were criticizing him, not only for what they thought was a deficient gospel, but also for lacking credentials. So Paul responds by recounting his own story of how he persecuted the church until he experienced a revelation of Jesus.
He sees his call largely in prophetic terms and begins his ministry without any kind of human blessing or instruction. When Paul does present his understanding of the good news years later to the Jerusalem leaders, they affirm his message and confirm his call as the apostle to the Gentiles.
But this does not put an end to the controversy. As this letter shows, it is played out again and again in the churches.
Faith in Jesus
Paul argues his case from both the experience of the Galatians and the Hebrew Scriptures. The Galatians have received the Spirit, not because they kept the law, but because they have received the gospel in faith. Likewise he explains that in Scripture faith has always been the way Abraham and his spiritual children have related to God and entered into His promises. Therefore those who put their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior become the true sons and daughters of Abraham.
From the opening address, it is clear that Paul is angry with what is going on among the churches of Galatia. He feels compelled to defend himself from opponents who are attacking his call as Jesus’ emissary. Paul counters the attack by distancing himself from any human institution: he was not called by any church or committee. God the Father and the Lord Jesus commissioned Paul directly to be the emissary to the nations.
One of the great stories in the Bible is the transformation of Saul, the Pharisee, from a persecutor of the church to the greatest missionary that history has ever witnessed. Seldom does Paul relate that story in his letters. He doesn’t need to because he usually does that in person when he is planting a church. But on this occasion, as he defends his call and the gospel, he retells a bit of his personal history to underscore the complete metamorphosis that has taken place in his life.
In his former life, Paul admits — quite painfully, no doubt — that he tried to destroy this movement. Borrowing language from the prophets, Paul narrates how God unveiled to him the truth about Jesus. At just the right moment, even while Paul was an active enemy, God revealed His Son to Paul and called him to be heaven’s emissary to the nations. Paul immediately stopped his campaign against the church, which was just beginning to emerge from its Jewish roots and spread to the Gentile nations.
Since Christianity arises from Judaism, some traveling preachers from Jerusalem think that Jewish believers must remain true to Jewish rules regarding circumcision, Sabbath observance, and kosher food. If they rigorously follow the food rules, then Jewish believers are not supposed to share a meal with “unclean” Gentile outsiders, as Peter has been doing in Antioch.
They advocate that Gentile outsiders need to follow Jewish ways and practices to become full members of the family of God. Paul — and the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) — strongly reject this. The apostle argues that it is only the faithfulness of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit that serve as the foundation of the new covenant and as the entrance into the people of God.
So why all this personal history? Paul thinks it is useful because the people preaching the false gospel in Galatia claim to be operating under the authority of some of the followers of Jesus from Jerusalem, the mother church. Paul doesn’t have their pedigree and, according to them, doesn’t deserve the rank he claims as the emissary to the nations.
They say that not only is Paul deficient, but his message is, too, because it doesn’t bring outsiders to follow the law. So Paul goes toe-to-toe with them, defending not only his call but also his message. The good news he preaches comes directly from the risen Jesus and is confirmed by the Jerusalem leaders.
Paul primarily focuses on the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the foundation of the church and of a right relationship with God, but he also correlates this with the presence of the Spirit. If the Spirit is working among the outsiders, it shows that they aren’t really “outsiders” when it comes to membership in the people of God.
Paul supports this by showing how the presence of the Spirit is none other than the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. However, the Spirit only came through Abraham’s descendant, that is, the new covenant with God is mediated by Jesus and the Spirit, not the law.
Throughout this argument, one critical question remains: why would God give the law if it would not bring His people into a right standing with Him? Couldn’t God have found a better way of doing this? It isn’t as if the law is a bad thing or a mistake that God needs to correct.
It has a good purpose, but a limited one. It never supplants God’s promise to Abraham. Rather, the law keeps sin in check until the time is right for the saving justice that comes through faith in Jesus. The law serves as a tutor or a schoolmaster, revealing our great need for salvation and pointing everyone toward Jesus.
Paul has been preaching about the call of God to freedom, and so he now spells it out: we are done with the demands of the law; now we are free to live in the Spirit and to be truly right with God. As free people, the Spirit gives us the characteristics of Jesus; we, too, can freely love in joy and peace.
We can have patience along with kindness and faithfulness that can only come from the Father. We can reflect the goodness of God while being gentle in operating with self-control. For those who follow Him and live in the Spirit, these characteristics or fruits are a gift from God. As we grow in the faith, we find that we belong to God and can walk daily in the Spirit.