When Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians, he did so to combat a destructive heresy. From his comments in this letter, it appears that a group of people came through Galatia teaching the Christians there that they had to be circumcised and follow Jewish law in order to receive salvation. Paul refutes this, along with the false teachers’ claim that he wasn’t really an apostle.
I like writing “Crash Course In …” posts because it’s important to look at context when interpreting passages of scripture. Ecclesiastes, for example, doesn’t make much sense unless you follow Solomon’s whole trail of thought from beginning to end. Similarly, Galatians is easy to misinterpret if you don’t look at the whole of Paul’s purpose for the argument he makes in this letter (and put it alongside some of his other writings as well).
Another Gospel? Really?
Paul opens this letter by introducing himself as an apostle who was made so by “Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1, all scripture references from WEB). He also reminds his readers of the message he preached to them before — that our Lord Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (1:4). With those facts established, Paul immediately jumps into his purpose for writing this letter.
I marvel that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ to a different “good news”; and there isn’t another “good news.” Only there are some who trouble you, and want to pervert the Good News of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any “good news” other than that which we preached to you, let him be cursed. (Gal. 1:6-8).
It is astonishing to Paul that the Galatians could be so easily swayed by someone teaching a different gospel than the one he’d brought them. He adamantly opposes anyone who would do that, not because he’s the only reliable teacher, but because “the Good News which was preached by me … came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). The source of his message was the Messiah Himself.
Before God’s call on his life, Paul “advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many” of his peers. He describes himself as “exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers,” so much so that he persecuted and ravaged the church of God as a heretical sect (1:13-14). As soon as Jesus revealed himself as the Messiah, though, Paul didn’t check-in with other human beings to see if they approved. He just started preaching the Good News Jesus gave him (1:15-24).
A Change In Covenant
Part of the message Jesus entrusted to Paul put Paul at odds with certain other Jewish Believers. Paul understood that under the New Covenant, the physical sign of the Old Covenant (male circumcision) didn’t mean anything because God looks on the heart (Romans 2). As someone who’d advanced far in the Jewish religion, he knew exactly what all their traditions were worth — nothing in and of themselves. The other Apostles agreed, but the “false brothers” who wanted everyone to keep living as Jews were still a negative influence. Even Peter and Barnabus fell prey to peer-pressure from Jewish believers who thought they were too good to associate with non-Jews (Gal. 2:1-14). Paul confronted this attitude then, and he confronts it now as he writes this letter.
Paul points out “that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). He then talks about dying to the law, that he might live to God. He doesn’t expand on this idea in the epistle to the Galatians, but in Romans 6-7 he explains it more fully. Several weeks ago, I heard a message from Jacob Prasch where he said, “Galatians is reactionary theology against legalists in the church. Romans is proactive theology explaining the role of the law today.” That comment got me looking at both these epistles side-by-side, and I realized Romans is actually really helpful for interpreting Galatians. When we die to sin and become servants of God, we also die to the Old Covenant law so we can be married to Christ in the New Covenant and bring forth fruit for God.
I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me. That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me. I don’t make void the grace of God. For if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nothing! (Gal. 2:20-21)
If the Law could bring people to perfection, there’d have been no need for a Messiah. The Jews knew this, or should have, for they’d been told to expect a new covenant that would work from the inside-out instead of the outside-in (Jer. 31:31-34). And yet some were still teaching that Gentile believers had to add Jewish traditions and physical signs of the Old Covenant to their spiritual walk today.
God’s Chosen People
Paul describes the Galatians who fell into the heresy spread by the group he calls the Circumcision as “foolish” and “bewitched.” It’s crazy to think that “having begun in the Spirit” you would now be “completed in the flesh” (Gal. 3:1-3). He then proceeds to set the record straight on who is and is not God’s chosen people. It is those who believe in Yahweh, the one true God, and walk faithfully in His ways. In fact, Christ inherited all the covenant promises and now those who belong to Him all share in the inheritance whether they were physical descendants of Abraham or not (3:6-9, 13-18).
While discussing the question of God’s chosen people, Paul also addresses the purpose of the Law. It was not given to save us, but to clarify God’s righteous standard. This is a standard that none of us could live up to by our own power.
But the Scriptures imprisoned all things under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. … If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:22, 29)
The law condemned sin and told us how much we need Christ (Gal. 3:10-29; Rom. 3:9-31). Now that Christ has come, we aren’t seen as people outside God’s family who are being tutored in how to act like Him. Instead, we are adopted as His children and filled with His Spirit (Gal. 4:1-7; Rom. 8:12-16). Paul then spends the rest of what we call Chapter 4 talking about how Christians today are children of the promise and that this means our focus should be on living in the spirit, not justifying ourselves by trying to keep the law (Gal. 4:8-31). This idea is expanded upon in Romans 9-11.
I got a bit carried away (in terms of word-count) when writing this study, so we’re going to split it into two posts. I’ll share Part Two on Monday.
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