I think that we’re all slaves to something; the province of Galatia was no different. Cultures may have changed, but struggles and mindsets have not. We are hopelessly human…but thankfully God is not limited by that.
Welcome to Galatians.
I actually didn’t really like Galatians to begin with. That is, until I dug in. I am a very empathetic person, which means that even in text I feel the vibes. To me, Galatians had an angry and intense feel to it. There is reason for that, and the more I have read this letter, the more I’ve come to love it and had it hit me straight in the heart.
Martin Luther calls it “my epistle”. Others call it the “Magna Carta of Christian Liberty”. Insight into Paul’s life between conversion and missions and the freedom of justification by faith through grace alone make this letter one of Paul’s greatest and most powerful. This letter is a battle cry against the chains of religion, against the threat to the Galatian’s freedom in Christ.
Here is a snapshot of what is going on:
Paul is writing to the Galatians* because of some “troublers” (aka Judaizers) who were telling the Galatians that Jesus alone was not enough for salvation. Their theology was that you needed Jesus and the law to be truly saved, so yes accept Jesus, but also be circumcised and keep the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays and the law. You have to remember that the Galatians are Gentiles (meaning: not Jews), so they did not grow up with the Jewish culture and customs. Paul came to them when they were worshiping pagan gods, told them about the one true God, and the salvation that was available to them through Jesus. This is the gospel they accepted. They didn’t have any precedent for the law, and so they were truly free to accept the gospel and let it transform their lives without a bunch of rules clouding the truth. The Galatians had taken Paul in when he was ill and were incredibly hospitable to him. They were living out God’s heart even before they had received salvation. How much more now that they had accepted Jesus’ salvation?!
Can you see now why Paul is so intense in this letter? He is passionate because these are his kids, and his kids are being threatened. They’re baby Christians – Paul first went to them in AD 46-48, and this letter was written around AD 50**. They are in their foundational years, and Paul is not about to let lies make the foundation faulty.
part one: Paul & the gospel’s defense
The Judaizers had been attacking Paul’s authority to the Galatians, and so Paul’s defense begins right in the very first verse. Their main attack against him was that Paul had not sat directly under Jesus’ teaching like the other apostles had, so how could he have the authority/knowledge to proclaim the true message of salvation to the Galatians? They then came in with their salvation message – Jesus + the law (circumcision, festivals, laws, etc). Notice in verse 3-4 how Paul gives a mini gospel recap, including that Jesus came to set people free, not to enslave them to more rules.
1:11-2:14 is a treasure, because we get a glimpse into Paul’s life after he was converted to Christianity through a personal encounter with Jesus after his ascension. This is his defense that the gospel he received and now shares with the Galatians didn’t come from people, it came from Jesus himself. He is establishing the authority of both himself and the gospel, because where he’s taking the Galatians next in this letter is to the questions of the gospel.
2:15 sounds quite mean at first glance, outright calling the people he’s speaking to “Gentile sinners”. At first it would seem that Paul is doing the exact thing he just said he rebuked Peter for – separating the Jews & Gentiles. The Jews had long seen the Gentiles as sinners, heathens, filthy, which caused a separation and hatred between the two groups. This really came to its fullness after the Jews came back from exile, having been exiled from their land for acting like the other nations rather than God’s people as they had agreed to in a covenant with God. Instead of being a reflection of God and drawing the other nations to him as was God’s heart, the Jews developed an exclusivity and hatred to the other nations, keeping them away from God.
I don’t want you to miss the “yet” in 2:16 because this is where we see that Paul’s actually not being a jerk, but rather is speaking to the Galatians in a way that they would understand in their culture, and destroying lies along the way. The Gentiles know how the Jews view them, this is not a surprise. However, Paul goes on to say that the law, the very thing the Jews base their pride and faith on, can’t save them. The law is nothing but a stepping stone in the grand scheme of salvation. This is a huge statement, Paul is leveling the playing field, making both Jews and Gentiles equal through Jesus. They are all part of the same family. There is no separation.
Let’s talk about the word “justified” for a moment. All throughout the New Testament it says that we are “justified through Christ,” but what does that actually mean? The Greek word used in Galatians 2:16 is “dikaioō”, meaning “to render as innocent, free, righteous”. To be condemned is to be found guilty before God; to be justified is to have right legal standing before God, being called “not guilty”. As soon as a person accepts Jesus, no matter what they have done in their lives, they are called “not guilty” before God, their offenses are wiped away by the blood of Jesus. Jesus took that punishment.
(note: This does not mean that when someone accepts Jesus that they have no responsibility to right wrongs, to apologize, to pay the consequences of their actions, but that the eternal punishment of death and separation from God has been paid for.)
Paul has a tendency to write very deep, profound, confusing sentences. (I have a serious bible crush on Paul, but this tendency of his drives me INSANE.) If you feel like you have to read some of his sentences over and over to understand what he’s actually saying, you’re normal. 2:19 is one of those verses. “Through the law I died to the law so that I might live to God.” This is one of those that you could easily skim over and not even notice, but I don’t want you to do that. The law was a covenant (aka contract) that was made between God and the nation of Israel when he freed them from slavery in Egypt. The thing about the law is that it was never meant to save people. Its purpose was to expose the people’s sin and to then make a way through sacrifices for the sin to be covered so that people could still come to God. It was never intended to save. It was never even intended to be perfectly kept. If the law could have been perfectly kept by a human being, there would have been no need for Jesus; people could have saved themselves, made themselves righteous before God. Jesus is the only human who ever kept the law perfectly, therefore fulfilling it. That is why we are no longer under the covenant of the law, it has been fulfilled, it has been completed. Paul is saying that through Jesus (“the law”) he has died to the law (Jesus fulfilled the law, completing the covenant and making it null), and can now live in the new covenant, in freedom through grace, being able to come to God at any time, being forever united with him. The law is not needed in order for people to come near to God.
part 2: the question of salvation
If I were the Galatians receiving this letter, having Paul be astonished that we are departing from the gospel he preached so quickly, the question I would have in my mind is this: what IS the truth?! Now, for the Galatians, the gospel of grace that Paul preached and the gospel of Jesus + the law that the Judaizers are preaching has all been put in one mixing pot. Paul needs to now separate the truth from the lies.
Paul says that it was before the Galatians that Jesus was “publicly exhibited as crucified” (3:1). I looked into this a little bit because I was pretty sure that the Galatians weren’t at the crucifixion of Jesus, so what did Paul mean? The word “exhibited” in Greek is “proegraphē”, meaning “to write previously”. A variation of this word, “graphó”, also meaning “to write” was often used by painters. Scholars have come to the conclusion that Paul is saying that the crucifixion was described so vividly to the Galatians that it’s as if they were actually there. Some take it literally, thinking that there had been an actual picture painted for the Galatians.
Paul brings the Galatians back to the beginning. This is, after all, how you get to the root of truth before other things come in to taint it. The questions that Paul is asking the Galatians in 3:2-5 are big and important questions that will expose truth for the Galatians.
3:6-18 is so important for the Galatians to understand. Remember, they did not grow up with the Jewish law, history and culture. Abraham wouldn’t be a household name for them as it would be for the Jews. Since the battle that they are facing is one of works through the Jewish law, they need to understand the origin and purpose of the law. Abraham was righteous because of his belief, FOUR HUNDRED AND THIRTY YEARS BEFORE THE LAW. So – have people ever been justified because of the law? I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.
I know what you’re thinking, “Then what was the point of the law?” Lucky for you, the Galatians would have had the same question. Simple answer: to show people their sin and need for a Savior (3:19-20). The law was a sort of prison, a set of chains that couldn’t free us from our sin, only show it to us…Jesus broke the chains of sin, bringing freedom.
3:26-4:7, the Galatians are a part of the promise to Abraham – that God would make him a great nation, that he would be blessed & be a blessing to all the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). They have been adopted into the family, not as less than Jews, and not for following the law because that isn’t how salvation works – simply by their belief. This is the scandal of grace.
4:8-11 is a big question for the Galatians. In their worship to pagan gods, they would have been constantly doing things to appease the gods. The bigger the sacrifice, the more indebted that god would be to them to bless them. This question would help to separate their pagan mindset from the freedom they now have in Christ.
part 3: the result of salvation through faith
5:1-6 is a big statement. These are fighting words against the lies that the Galatians need Jesus + the law to be saved.
5:11 is one of my favourite verses because it is a bold clap of thunder that has the power to shake up everything. Paul is preaching grace, not law. The Gospel of Jesus is offensive because it goes against the way the world does things. Grace says that there is nothing we need to do to be good enough. Grace knocks out our pride. Grace brings freedom.
I used to think that I had to work really hard to be all of the fruits of the Spirit. I thought that I needed to have these qualities at the front of my mind all the time and be actively pursuing them. That’s not a bad thing – but it goes directly against what Paul’s been telling the Galatians in this letter. He asks them at the beginning of chapter 3 if they received the Spirit because of their works. The answer is no. So why would their works be the thing that ignites the Spirit to produce the fruits of the Spirit in their lives? It is an overflow of living by the Spirit, not of trying really hard to be a good Christian.
Paul, in one paragraph, tells the Galatians to bear one another’s burdens, and that all must carry their own loads (6:2/6:5). What the heck Paul?! “The bible is clear,” people say. *Insert eye roll here* I did some digging into the Greek for these two terms. In 6:2 the word for burdens is “baros”, which means “weight”. In 6:5 the word for load is “phortion”, which means “freight (of a ship)” (simple translation: goods transported by ship). As you can see, these two Greek words aren’t just variations of one another, but in English translations and in our English speaking brains, the words “load” and “burden” mean much the same thing. Paul is telling the Galatians in 6:2 that when life throws its best punches, they are supposed to be there as a support to each other. In 6:5, he is telling them that yes there is grace and they are justified, but they are all responsible to God for their own actions, and they cannot use others’ actions as a measuring stick.
As you were reading through Galatians, I hope you were looking through the lens of the Galatians. If you weren’t, it’s only a 20 minute read to go through again! ;)
When God told me that Galatians would be my next blog, I didn’t want to do it. Galatians has never been my favourite book because of the tone. After studying it this time, I can honestly say that I love this book. The freedom that Paul is fighting for totally matches his tone – I’d be concerned if he wasn’t this urgent! Freedom is no joke.
This book reminds me a lot of my drop in kids. There is a decent chunk of them who have not grown up in Christian families. This means that all of the weird Christian things we just do, all the traditions and expectations, they don’t know them! So if they come to accept Jesus, the rules won’t be something they have to get past. If one of these kids became a Christian and I found out that others were telling them a bunch of new rules they had to follow, I would be so mad. I would have the same passion and protectiveness as Paul, no doubt.
One of my dear friends made me a mantra – grace. I’m not good at giving myself grace, I never have been. After I would verbal vomit to her, she would always ask me, “And what’s our word?” Grace. The one thing that God has been teaching me (or attempting to, anyway) since I moved back to my hometown is that he does not love me based on what I do for him, or how good of a Christian I am, or how much I volunteer or preach or give. He doesn’t love me because I sacrifice myself on the alter of “deny thyself”. He didn’t love me more because of how hard I worked in my SBS. He didn’t love me more when I was in YWAM, vs now, working “normal” jobs and living a “normal” life at home.
I’d like to come alongside of Martin Luther in calling Galatians “my epistle”. A constant reminder that I am not loved, saved, justified by anything that I have done. That is something that I can find rest in, something I’ve so desperately longed for since coming home. Something that has been prophesied to me over and over again. Perhaps grace is the beginning of rest.
I wonder what things God is speaking to your heart through this incredible, powerful book.
The clap of thunder that is Galatians is one that has forever shaken the world. This scandal of grace. The sound of a stone rolling away, revealing an empty tomb – its thunder is still felt, its chain breaking power still bringing people to freedom.
Jesus + nothing = everything. Freedom. Salvation. Justification. Righteousness. True life. He is it.
*Recipients: Paul could have been writing to either the North of Galatia or the South of Galatia. Some scholars argue for the North because the term “Galatia” is most commonly used for the North and it could have been offensive to the southern cities to be called “Galatia”. However, the most common view is for the South. Reasons include that Paul came to them in illness (Galatians 4:13-14) and it would have been easier to get to the south rather than crossing tough mountain terrain to get to the north, Barnabas is mentioned 3 times in the letter and he was only with Paul on his first missionary journey when Paul was in the south of Galatia, Paul had a close relationship with those in the cities in the south, and there is no record of a visit to the northern region of Galatia.
**Date: Some scholars believe that this letter was written before the Jerusalem Council (AD 49) where it was decided that circumcision was not necessary for salvation (Acts 15). This belief comes from Paul not specifically addressing the decision at the Jerusalem Council in Galatians. However, other scholars believe that Paul had already delivered this news to the Galatians and did not feel the need to address the decision, but rather discuss why they’re departing from it so quickly. Other scholars believe that the letter could have been written in the mid-50s to the North of Galatia, but this is not a commonly accepted view because of the tough mountain terrain Paul would have had to cross to get to the North, which is unlikely in his mentioned illness (Galatians 4:13-14)
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary
C-SBS lecture by Doug Nobels, YWAM LA 2015-16
Strong’s Greek Dictionary/Concordance