St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
Galatia was a huge Roman province extending from coast to coast through the mountains and plains of what is now Turkey. It is not known how much of it Paul evangelised but Acts 13 and 14 record how he founded churches in the southern towns cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. We also know of two follow-up visits which he made later on.
Paul wrote to address some serious problems in the churches. Not long after his first visit, other Jewish-Christian teachers arrived in Galatia. Paul had taught that repentance and faith were all that was needed in order to receive God’s forgiveness. These new teachers insisted that non-Jewish converts must also be circumcised and observe the Jewish law. This went against everything which Paul had preached and which had been accepted by the Church after Peter’s return to Jerusalem from Caesarea where he had converted gentiles without circumcision. (See Page 138 Paragraph 41). These new teachers were undoing all the work Paul had done. This situation leads to Paul’s most strongly worded letter. The letter was written about 49A.D. soon after the meeting in Jerusalem where the matter of circumcision had been resolved.
The letter stands out as the great charter of Christian Freedom.
Greetings – Surprise and Rebuke.
1. The opening words are brief and much less friendly than in any other letters. Instead of a ‘thanksgiving’, which his other letters contain, he issues a warning! He goes so far as to issue a curse on the trouble-makers who are seeking to pervert the Gospel which Paul has taught them. ‘Let them be eternally condemned ‘.Galatians 1:1-10.
Defence of His Apostles. Not of Human Origin.
2. What Paul teaches is what Christ has revealed to him. He had been a great devotee of all Jewish traditions but all that changed with his experience on the Damascus road. Paul’s brief autobiography is to show that his authority comes from God. It also indicates that his ministry is to be to the gentiles. Galatians 1:11-24.
Defence of His Gospel. Approved by the Apostles.
3. Paul describes his meeting in Jerusalem and how he had explained his ‘gospel for the gentiles’. The Jewish Christian leaders endorsed the work he was doing. Paul had to persuade Peter to accept that the circumcised and uncircumcised should eat together. There was a risk of two separate Eucharists being offered; one for the Jews and one for the gentiles because of the Jewish food laws. Galatians 2:1-21.
Justification From Faith & Doctrine. Proved by the Galatians Experience.
4. Following Jesus means escaping from the Jewish laws (including the six hundred and thirteen precepts). Only a fool would go back to the Jewish law. The Jewish Christians who support circumcision talk about ‘making gentiles sons of Abraham.’ But Abraham was accepted by God before the Mosaic law which included circumcision so the gentiles are already sons of Abraham as they share his faith by the promise made to Abraham which was fulfilled in Christ’s coming. Galatians 3:1-29.
Slavery and Freedom.
5. The Galatians had responded eagerly to Paul’s preaching. What had happened to make them change? Paul’s loving, anxious concern, is palpable in the passage ‘………how can you turn back again to those powerless and bankrupt elements whose slaves you now want to be all over again?….I am beginning to be afraid that I may, after all, have wasted my efforts on you.’ ‘My children I am going through the pain of giving birth to you all over again………’ Galatians 4:1-20.
Two Covenants Hagar and Sarah.
6. Paul makes a comparison between Hagar the slave girl and Sarah the free woman. He quotes from the Old Testament ‘Drive away that slave girl and her son; the slave girl’s son is not to share the inheritance with the son of the free woman.’ (Genesis 21:10.) So, brothers, we are the children not of the slave girl but of the free woman. (Sarah’s son was born as the result of a promise……...that promise is inherited by Christians.) Galatians 4:21-31.
7. Paul continues to rail against those who have upset the gentile Christians by suggesting that they must be circumcised. He is so incensed that he goes so far as to suggest that those responsible should take circumcision to its final end and castrate themselves! (Not a very Christian thought! But Paul had worked hard and his work was being damaged.)
How Christians Should Live.
8. Seeking to attain status with God by mere observance of the law, without love for one’s neighbour, breeds a self-righteous, critical spirit. Paul is careful to note those things which are sinful and will not lead to the Kingdom of God: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and orgies. Then he lists those things which are the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Galatians 5:13-26.
On Kindness and Perseverance.
9. The Christian community cares and shares. Those who stumble are set right (gently). Burdens are shared. People harvest exactly what they sow in life: a harvest of death on one hand and eternal life on the other. ‘So we should do good to everyone, and especially to those who belong to our family in the faith.’ Galatians 6:1-10.
Paul’s Personal Postscript.
10. At this point Paul takes the pen from his secretary to write the last lines himself. For him there is only one thing worth glorying in: the power of the Cross of Christ to transform human lives. In the closing words of this letter he re-affirms that being circumcised or uncircumcised does not matter. What matters is that in Christ, man undergoes a transformation that results in an entirely new being. Creation again takes place. Finally like the brand burned into a slave so do Paul’s scars (from stoning, beating and illnesses) which he bore for Christ, show to whom he belongs. (‘The marks’ which Paul refers to are not thought to be the stigmata.)