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Galatians: Introduction

Updated: May 20






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In this lesson, we embark on a profound journey through Paul's intimate letter to the Galatians. This concise yet powerful letter not only confronts us with the realities of the gospel but also serves as a battleground for Paul's work in Galatia, a place he held dear. As we dive into this letter, we come to appreciate the weight of Paul's wisdom and words, guided by the Holy Spirit, as he propels the gospel forward, illustrating how the good news of Jesus is meant to shape our lives. 


The Threat


Through his preaching of Christ, Paul established the Christian community in Galatia (4:13). They fully embraced the gospel message of Christ as Paul proclaimed and welcomed him as if he were an angel of God or Christ Himself (4:13-14). However, after Paul's departure, both Paul and the gospel he preached came under attack. Some individuals, questioning Paul's apostleship and message, sought to supplement the gospel with Jewish laws, customs, and traditions. This threat was pulling Christians away from the freedom of Christ back into a yoke of bondage. In the church's early life, as well as for us today, this was a grave threat. Galatians is a passionate and explosive plea to rely on the sufficiency of Christ. 


Nijay Gupta, in his commentary on Galatians, speaking of Michael Gorman, writes:


 "Michael Gorman rightly marks Galatians as Paul's most passionate letter, where you can almost feel his outrage leaping off the page.”(1)


Paul wastes little ink as he immediately confronts the threat in Galatia.  

 

 Galatians 1:6–9 (NIV) 

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God's curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God's curse!" 


Background 


Galatia was a Roman province in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). What is going on here? Christianity began as a Messianic movement in Jerusalem. After Peter and the other apostles proclaimed the gospel on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), many Jewish people were baptized and became followers of Jesus. However, the good news of Jesus was for all nations and not limited to a specific group or nationality. The message of Jesus quickly spread out from Jerusalem. By the time Jesus appointed Paul to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people), there were both Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Christ. However, through Paul's efforts, increasing numbers of Gentiles began following Jesus.


For some, this became a problem. Blending cultures took work and required the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. As we read, unity becomes a central theme in Paul's letters. The conflict of cultures sparks significant debates in the early Christian movement. In (Acts 15), we are told how early church leaders and the apostles come together to resolve the conflict. In agreement, they send out the following letter:


 Acts 15:24–29 (NIV) 

"We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul—26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell." 


God's covenant people had historically been set apart through the covenant God made with Israel. They were set apart through the laws of circumcision, diet, and Sabbath observance. Should the Gentiles follow these same practices? Some thought they should. Jewish Christians, whom Paul refers to as the circumcised group (2:9), had come to the Galatian churches to undermine Paul's teaching and question his apostleship. 


Would the ministry and mission to the Gentiles be overturned? Would bondage again overtake freedom? Galatians is his letter of response, challenging the  Galatians to rely on Christ's sufficiency and see the gospel as a unifying movement that creates one new family of God.


Context 


Before we begin our studies, we need to consider the context. As we frame the story of Galatians, we must do our best to get the story right. Galatians is a letter written to followers of Jesus in the region of Galatia. This letter was not written to a local community or an individual; it was shared and circulated among several communities. Many consider the Galatians letter among the first of Paul's New Testament letters. 


There are two stories of the gospel being told. One story seeks to supplement the gospel with Jewish regulations and laws. At the same time, Paul presents the sufficiency of Christ for our freedom. Through this letter, some have presented the gospel of Christ against the Law of Moses. They have used this letter to present Paul against the Law or the Old Testament Scriptures. This can be and often is misleading. Paul is not opposed to the Law or the Old Testament; he is focused on Christ and His sufficiency. Galatians is confronting false teachings being circulated and threatening the faith of many early Christ followers. We need to do our best to keep the story in context. We often misunderstand Paul and this letter when we jump to application before considering the context. 


Reading New


One of the difficulties we experience when approaching Galatians is that we are familiar with many of its passages and verses. For example: 


Galatians 2:20 (NIV) 

"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."


Galatians 3:28 (NIV) 

"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."


Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness,  goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law."


Galatians 6:7 (NIV)

"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows."


These are passages we know. Many of us have read these passages multiple times or have been taught them several times. The difficulty we experience when reading familiar passages is that we tend to read over them with the expectation of what they say. We often read in our assumptions of the text, and we don't hear the author. 


One of our challenges is to read Galatians as if it were new. We should avoid importing what we think Paul means or expect Galatians to say. Instead, we should read Galatians new and listen to Paul as we follow his progression through the letter. 


Reflection


Galatians is not just an ancient letter written to an ancient culture. As others have stated, it may not be written to us, but it is written for us. Galatians allows us to look in the mirror and examine our own lives. The threat in this particular Christian community was false teaching that was leading Christians back into a yoke of bondage. The challenge is to accept the sufficiency of Christ rather than rely on our efforts for salvation.  


Many of us have approached Scripture seeking information. Although the Scriptures contain valuable information and wisdom for our lives, their purpose is transformation. God's Word and the story of God should shape, guide, and transform our lives. His Word is intended to draw us closer to Him and one another. Reading and studying Galatians is an opportunity to look in a mirror. Galatians will allow us the opportunity to look in a mirror and see if we fully trust in Christ and rely on His sufficiency or if we are relying on our efforts for salvation. We will see the significance of God's family and learn to love as we walk in the Spirit.  



Timothy Keller, in his book Galatians For You, writes the following in his introduction:


"Paul will explain to us that the truths of the gospel change life from top to bottom; that they transform our hearts, our thinking and our approach to absolutely everything. The gospel-the message that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope-creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth, for obedience, for love. Galatians is all about the gospel, which all of us need throughout all of our lives."(2)




Are we ready for Galatians? Let's dive in!





notes:

 

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from: ”Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


  1. Gupta, Nijay K. The Story of God Bible Commentary: Galatians. Zondervan Academic, 2023. p. 6.

  2. Keller, Timothy. Galatians For You. The Good Book Company, 2012. p. 5.




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