EPISTLE TO THE GALATIANS – AN INTRODUCTION
A brief but energetic letter from the apostle Paul to the Christians of Galatia. Galatians is one of Paul’s most commanding epistles; its importance far exceeds its size. It provides valuable information about Paul’s life between his conversion and missionary journeys (1:11-2:14). Beyond its autobiographical value, however, Galatians ranks as one of Paul’s great epistles; in it he forcefully proclaims the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Structure of the Epistle. Galatians falls into three sections, each two chapters long. The first third of the letter is a defense of Paul’s apostleship and gospel (chaps. 1-2). The middle section (chaps. 3-4) is devoted to the question of salvation. In it Paul uses a variety of means-logic (3:15-20), quotations from the Old Testament (3:7-14), metaphor (4:1-6), personal authority (4:12-20), and allegory (4:21-31) – to argue that salvation comes not through obeying the Mosaic law, but by receiving the grace of God through faith. The third section of Galatians concerns the consequences of saving faith (chaps. 5-6). The Christian is free to love (5:1-15); the Holy Spirit produces fruit in his life (5:16-26); and the needs of others lay a rightful claim on his life (6:1-10). Paul concludes by summing up the main points of the letter (6:11-16), along with a closing admonition that he bears the marks of Jesus in his body (6:17), and a blessing (6:18).
Authorship and Date. No epistle in the New Testament has better claim to come from Paul than does Galatians. The epistle bears his name (1:1), tells his story (1:11-2:14), and expounds the truth that occupied his life-justification by faith in Jesus Christ (2:16).
The date of the epistle is less certain. It depends on another question: to whom is the epistle addressed? This question is difficult because the word GALATIA (1:2) is ambiguous. Ethnically, the word refers to a people of Celtic stock living in northern Asia Minor. Politically, however, it refers to the region throughout central Asia Minor, including various districts in the south, that were annexed to Galatia when it was made a province by the Romans in 25 B.C. It is impossible to say for sure which use of the term Paul intended, although the broader political usage seems more probable.
Paul was well acquainted with southern Galatia (Acts 13-14; 16:1-5), and we have no certain evidence that he ever visited northern Galatia (unless Acts 16:6 and 18:23 refer to that area).
Moreover, it seems unlikely that Paul would have addressed the Galatians in such a direct way unless he enjoyed a close relationship with them. These reasons indicate that the people to whom the letter was addressed probably lived in southern Galatia. If this is so, it probably was written before the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). If it had already occurred (about A.D. 49), Paul would undoubtedly have cited the decision of that council since it agreed with the thrust of his argument in the epistle. If this is so, Galatians may be Paul’s earliest (surviving) epistle, written perhaps in A.D. 48.
If, on the other hand, “Galatia” refers to the northern ethnic region, which Paul could not have visited before his second (Acts 16:6) or third (Acts 18:23) missionary journeys, the letter could not have been written before the mid-fifties. But this viewpoint seems less likely to be true.
Historical Setting. After Paul had evangelized the churches of Galatia, he received disturbing news that they were falling away from the gospel he had taught them (1:6). Certain religious activists had visited Galatia after Paul’s departure and had persuaded the Christians there that the gospel presented by Paul was insufficient for salvation (1:7). In addition to faith in Jesus Christ, they insisted that a person must be circumcised according to the law of Moses (5:12) and must keep the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days (4:10), including the Jewish ceremonial law (5:3). These “troublers” (1:7), as Paul calls them, may have included some GNOSTIC ideas (4:3,9) in their teachings. These teachers are sometimes referred to as JUDAIZERS, since they taught that both faith and works-belief in Jesus and obedience to the Law are necessary for salvation.
Theological Contribution. News of the troublers’ “perversion of the gospel” (1:7) was distressing to Paul. Paul quickly rose to the Judaizers’ challenge and produced this letter. From the outset he was ready for battle; he abandoned his customary introduction and plunged immediately into the battle with the Judaizers. The Judaizers had suggested that Paul was an inferior apostle, if one at all, and that his gospel was not authoritative (1:10). Paul countered with an impassioned defense of his conversion (1:11-17) and of his approval by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem (1:18-2:10). Indeed, the gospel that Paul had delivered to the Galatians was not his own, nor was he taught it; but it came “through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). Those who presumed to change it were meddling with the very plan of God (1:7-8).
God’s plan is that Jews and Gentiles are justified before God by faith alone. This plan can be traced to the beginning of Israel’s history, for Abraham, “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Gal 3:6; also Gen 15:6). The law, which did not come until 430 years after Abraham (3:17), was never intended to replace justification by faith. Rather, the law was to teach us of our need for Christ (3:24-25). Christ, therefore, is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.
The result of justification by grace through faith is spiritual freedom. Paul appealed to the Galatians to stand fast in their freedom, and not get “entangled again with a yoke of bondage [that is, the Mosaic law]” (5:1). Christian freedom is not an excuse to gratify one’s lower nature; rather, it is an opportunity to love one another (5:13; 6:7-10). Such freedom does not insulate one from life’s struggles. Indeed, it may intensify the battle between the Spirit and the flesh. Nevertheless, the flesh (the lower nature) has been crucified with Christ (2:20); and, as a consequence, the Spirit will bear its fruit-such as love, joy, and peace-in the life of the believer (5:22-23).
(from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)