“Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead),” (Galatians 1:1, NASB95) These words begin a Battle Royale for the soul of Christianity. A battle encountered by every generation of Christ-Followers as they struggle to determine their framework of faith.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a firm rebuttal of three accusations that had come to his attention from that region. Those accusations can be summarized as: 1) Paul was not a true apostle. 2) Therefore, Paul’s Gospel was not the true gospel. 3) Paul’s Gospel led to unrighteous living. But before we dive into Paul’s arguments, we need a little history.
The earliest Christians were Jewish and continued to keep the Torah, the Jewish Law. When the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, spread out from Jerusalem it was encountered and accepted by non-Jewish folks or Gentiles. This journey is laid out in the Book of Acts as Peter breaks the barrier and preaches in a Gentile household and later as Paul intentionally takes the Gospel into non-Jewish regions including that of Galatia.
Since Paul did not specify the cities involved in his letter there is some debate as to which Galatia the letters traveled too. There was, in what is now Turkey, a southern province of the Roman Empire called Galatia and an ethnically identified area of northern Turkey which was also know as Galatia. For our purposes it doesn’t matter which region received Paul’s letter. What is important is that Paul is writing to a collection of churches that had been established by himself and Barnabas on the Gospel of Jesus Christ without the requirements of Jewish Torah Law.
This may seem esoteric, ancient history that bears little on today’s issues. But from the earliest days, the Church and individual believers have struggled with the tension between keeping the Law (whether it was based on the Jewish Law or other edicts of fellowship) and the freedom of God’s grace. If a believer does XYZ are they saved? What behaviors, actions, and words are required to demonstrate faithful living? Paul answers those questions in Galatians.
Paul begins, “Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.” (Galatians 1:1–5, NASB95)
This is a normal greeting for that time, stating who is writing and to whom the letter is addressed. But if we compare Paul’s other letters, we’ll see a huge difference. In Romans, both letters to Corinth, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and the letters to Thessalonica there are notes of joyous warmth in Paul’s greeting. Consider this greeting to the Church of Philippi, “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:1–5, NASB95) By contrast, Paul’s opening to the Galatians is terse and seems eager to get on with it.
But Galatians is not a “Dear John Letter” canceling their relationship. On the contrary, while Paul is obviously angry and concerned, his motive is love. Consider the closing line from this letter, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen.” (Galatians 6:18, NASB95) While Paul may be coming off as harsh in the letter, his intent is to provide a course correction and pull them closer.
Like much of the New Testament, we don’t know the end of the story. How did the Galatians react to Paul’s letter? What changes did it bring? We simply don’t know. But we do know that throughout church history this letter has provided several “course corrections.” For example, it was Martin Luther’s most beloved portion of the Bible during those times of reformation.
There’s something about faith, or perhaps our fallen nature, that pulls folks and systems towards Law. A strong desire to confirm faith based on outward indicators. For the Galatians, those outward indicators were based on Jewish Law. For us, it could be anything that is deemed to be “unrighteous.” As we explore Paul’s letter, I implore you to look beyond Paul’s examples and consider how law-keeping may be supplanting faith in your own walk with Jesus.