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The Epistle to the Galatians

Updated on January 29, 2010

That the Apostle Paul was the author of this Epistle has never been seriously questioned. The Epistle claims Paul as its author, and nothing within the Epistle would give reason to doubt this.

The problem of determining to whom this letter was addressed is complicated by an ambiguity in the term "Galatia." It may refer to the northern region of the province of Galatia, in Asia Minor, or to the whole province. If Paul uses the term in its wider sense, he would be addressing the churches he founded on his first missionary journey and visited on his second journey (Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and others). It seems more likely, however, that Paul referred to the northern region of the province, which he visited on his second and third journeys.

During his third missionary journey, while he was staying at Ephesus in 55 A.D., Paul received disturbing news of the churches he had founded in Galatia and wrote this letter to them.

Purpose and Content

Soon after Paul had established the churches in Galatia, they were in danger of falling away from the Gospel that Paul  adopting errors that would pervert his teaching. Apparently the teachers of these errors also cast doubt on the authenticity of Paul's apostleship. Paul wrote this Epistle in a state of excitement and anger over the fact that the Galatians had so quickly fallen away. The disturbance in the church of Galatia was occasioned by a group of Christians who had been converted from Judaism. They held that anyone, Jew or Gentile, who was converted to Christianity was obliged to accept the entire Mosaic Law, and especially circumcision. That "was inconsistent with Paul's clear teaching that the Christian was saved by faith in Jesus Christ, and by that alone.

In facing his opponents, Paul develops two lines of thought in reply to their charges. Paul's first approach is a vigorous defense of the validity of his apostolic authority. Paul insists that his activity as an apostle is based on a call directly and immediately from God (1:1). The validity of his preaching is grounded not on human reasoning but on a revelation from God (1:12). Furthermore, the Jerusalem apostles, Peter, James, and John, had clearly approved his Gospel (2:1-10). So sure was Paul of the orthodoxy of his position that he had even challenged Peter when Peter succumbed to the claims of the Judaizers (2:11-14). By these means Paul vindicates his own consistency and the independence of his authority even in respect to the highest authority of the Jerusalem church.

The second thrust of Paul's reply is that salvation comes from faith in Jesus Christ and not from the Mosaic Law. Paul chides the Galatians and reminds them that they received the Spirit not by keeping the Law but by faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (3:1-6). Paul pursues his argument by citing the example of Abraham, who received righteousness before God, not by the works of the Law (which did not exist at his time) but because of his faith (3:6-9). As a matter of fact the Law was not instituted until hundreds of years after Abraham, and when established it did not affect the promises already made by God (3:15-18). Nothing that God did after Abraham implies any change in God or his disposition toward men. Paul notes that Law and Promise are not compatible (3:18). If the relation of men to God is based on Law, they can claim something from him as their due; whereas if it is based on Promise, they accept what God gives as undeserved favor.

Paul then shows that the true purpose of the Law in God's design was to point out to man his insufficiency before God and his basic need for Christ (3:19-29). The Law was an interim provision that could not produce righteousness but could only condemn man. The Law was a tutor whose purpose came to an end with the coming of Jesus Christ. It made clear what sin was by denning it. The Law did not give man fellowship with God but made man's real need for faith and grace clear (3:21-22). Man subject to the Law was like a slave, but with faith in Jesus Christ man has become a son of God and is no longer a slave but a free person (4:1-11). In an allegory based upon Genesis 21, Paul interprets Hagar as representing the Covenant at Sinai, and her despised children as the Jews in bondage to the Law. Sarah is presented as representing the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ, and her children are the men of Faith, who live in freedom from the Law (4:21-30).

Finally, in chapters 5 and 6, Paul exhorts his followers to resist those who are perverting his message and to hold firmly to the freedom that Christ has won for them. They must, however, beware that this freedom does not become an excuse for immorality or libertine behavior. If they live according to the Spirit they must be characterized by goodness, fidelity, self-control, and kindness (5:22-25). This emphasis is necessary because Paul wanted it clearly understood that freedom from the Law does not imply moral license. Perhaps there was a group in the churches of Galatia that advocated moral license, but it seems more likely that Paul was chiding them for the moral failure common to all men rather than for theological error.

Canonicity

The Epistles of Paul were collected and published about 90 A.D. as a single work for the convenience of the churches at Ephesus. The writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin, and others affirm that the Epistle to the Galatians was part of this collection as do later traditions.

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