The early Church had mostly Jewish believers in Christ (Acts 2-7). As the great commission moved further from Jerusalem and Judea, Samaritans and Gentiles also came to faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 8-11; cf. 1:8). When Barnabas and Paul were set aside by the Holy Spirit for the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4), more and more non-Jews came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 15:8). Trailing Paul and Barnabas, however, were the Judaizers (Acts 13:45, 50; 14:2, 19), who taught one cannot be saved unless circumcised according to the custom of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5). If the great commission was to be launched to the ends of the earth, was ‘obedience to the law [of Moses] in addition to faith in Christ necessary for salvation? If the Gentiles did not need to keep the law, just what relation existed between salvation by faith and ethical behaviour?’ (Tenney 1985:264).
Theme and Content
The Judaizers tried to limit believers’ liberty in Christ Jesus (2:4) by teaching a perversion of the true gospel (1:8). Paul therefore writes sternly and with strong emotion. Galatians has been called the Manifesto of Christian Liberty: ‘The epistle explains that liberty: its nature, its laws, and its enemies’ (Bailey & Constable 1999:376). Paul defends this liberty with all he has (cf. 5:1, 13). We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…plus nothing. Believers in Christ, whether Jewish or Gentile believers, must not be circumcised in terms of the Mosaic Covenant. However, Jewish baby boys are still to be circumcised in terms of the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant. The book of James, written in about AD 45-50 to Jewish people, answers this question: faith should prove itself by its works. As for the other question, Galatians 2:16a answers clearly: ‘A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ’.
Audience and Date
Paul wrote Galatians not to an individual or a specific local church, but to the ‘churches of Galatia’ (Galatians 1:2). These churches were established by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey in Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Pisidian Antioch, cities in the southern province of Galatia (Acts 13:13-14:28; cf. Campbell 1983:588). Paul revisited these Galatians churches during his second (Acts 15:36-18:22) and third (Acts 18:23-20:38) missionary journeys. Although faith should produce fruit, what saves is personally trusting and accepting the Messiah’s substitutionary death, burial and resurrection, and that alone (cf. Fruchtenbaum 2005:5). Galatians was written in AD 48-49, just before the Jerusalem council meeting (cf. Acts 15; Tenney 1985:270).
Outline and Brief Overview
Tenney’s (1985:272) outline of Galatians seems good:
The biographical argument: An independent revelation (1:10-2:21)
The theological argument: The failure of legalism (3:1-4:31)
The practical argument: The effect of liberty (5:1-6:10)
Paul launches into the book, laying the ground of liberty (1:1-5) as well as the challenge to this liberty (1:6-9). Paul’s biographical argument is about the source or origin of the gospel. Paul did not receive the gospel and its content from man, through man, from the Judean churches, or from other apostles, but he received it through the revelation of Jesus Christ (cf. 1:12). A review of ‘Paul’s conversion and early ministry supports the divine origin of his gospel and his ministry, which his opponents in Galatia were seeking to undermine’ (Bailey & Constable 1999:381).
Paul’s theological argument vindicates the doctrine of salvation by faith alone (chapter 3), before clarifying it (chapter 4). According to Bailey & Constable 1999:385), ‘Christians live under a new code of behaviour compared with Israelites who lived under the Mosaic Law. …We live under the New Covenant, the law of Christ (6:2). It consists of all that Jesus affirmed directly during His earthly ministry and indirectly through His apostles in the New Testament after He returned to heaven’.
Paul’s practical argument (5:1-6:10) is that even though Christians live without the Law of Moses (5:1-12), this does not mean licentious living (5:13-15). Instead, Christians live under the Law of Christ, are led by the Holy Spirit (5:18, 25) and produce the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23). Christians have responsibilities (6:1-10). After this practical section, the conclusion (6:11-18) spells out the motive of liberty: the cross (6:11-16); the price of liberty: suffering (6:17); and liberty’s benediction (6:18).
Application and closing remarks
There are still ‘Judaizers’ today that trail along and teach another gospel of another kind. Regarding salvation, they always teach some sort of ‘gospel plus’, where the “plus” is invariably predicated on human works. Their results are always disastrous, leading not to salvation, but to further bondage and darkness. But according to Bailey & Constable (1999:381), when “a person trusts Christ, God identifies him with Christ not only in the present and future but also in the past. The believer did what Christ did. Thus each Christian can say, “When Christ died, I died. When Christ arose from the grave, I arose with newness of life. My old self-centred life died when I died with Christ. His Spirit-directed life began in me when I arose with Christ.” Therefore in this sense the Christian’s life is really the life of Christ (2:20).”
The true gospel launched the great commission to the ends of the earth. The same true gospel launched the Reformation when it emphasised to an apostate ‘church’ that salvation is only by grace through faith in Christ alone. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Bailey, M.L. & Constable, T.L., 1999, Nelson’s New Testament Survey, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.
Campbell, D.K., 1983, ‘Galatians’, in J.F. Walvoord & R.B. Zuck (eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp 587-612, David C Cook, Colorado Springs.
Fruchtenbaum, A.G., 2005, ‘The Book of Galatians’, MBS126, pp. 1-40, Ariel Ministries.
Tenney, M.C., 1985, New Testament Survey, revised edition, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids.
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