The first thing you must do when understanding the writings of the Bible is to identify the context. Before we dive into the content of Galatians, let’s establish the context of the book. Misunderstandings come from reading the verses without the context of the narrative, especially if we are simply searching for verses to make an argument or defend a position. The books of the Bible were not intended to be read or used in this fashion.
Exegesis is so very important. This term simply means extracting the thoughts or meanings of the text. However, it is especially easy to give into Eisegesis, which means bringing thoughts to the text. Hardly anyone would readily admit they do this, but it happens all the time. When you are born and raised a certain way, it’s hard to read the texts and not bring those traditional views into it. You must retrain your mind to read the texts without bias. If you have always used one translation, be sure to switch that up. Sure, some translations are better than others, but there is no such thing as a perfect translation. Every translation suffers from the interpretations of the translators. It is a good idea then, to read many translations when trying to ascertain the meaning of a passage.
The Context of Galatians
So first let’s talk about the situation which prompted Paul to write his letter to the Galatians. The churches of Galatia were established by Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s First Missionary journey Acts 13 and 14. Here’s a short synopsis of the Galatian portion of that trip:
Antioch (Pisidia) – Paul and Barnabas started with the Jews who initially took well to their teachings, but when the local Gentiles took an interest, the Jews got argumentative and contradicted Paul’s teachings. Paul proclaimed he would go to the Gentiles then, and the Jews began to persecute them and ran them out of town.
Iconium – They again started at the synagogue and had initial success, which turned sour as devout Jews stirred up the people against Paul. When they were threatened by stoning, they fled to Lystra.
Lystra – Everything goes south. Paul heals a cripple which causes the Greeks to proclaim he and Barnabas to be Zeus and Apollo. As they were trying to stop the people from sacrificing to them, Jews from Antioch and Iconium show up and convince the people to stone Paul, who is left for dead. He miraculously survives and the next day and goes to Derbe.
Derbe – Success in their ministry abounds in Derbe. They then go back to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch strengthing the followers they converted there and naming congregational leaders.
After this, they head back to Jerusalem. There seems to be a little unaccounted-for time between Acts 14 and 15 because problems arise in these new congregations between those two chapters. Most modern scholars place the writing of this letter to the Galatians between Acts 14 and 15, which would date it at about 48 or 49 AD. This would also make it Paul’s first recorded letter. A church council is held in Acts 15 to address several of the same issues raised in the Galatian letter. Peter takes a strong part in this council against the Judaizers. But in Galatians 2, Paul stated he had to reprimand Peter for at least passively siding with them. Logic dictates the council must’ve occurred after that encounter.
Given how tumultuous that first missionary journey had been, it is no wonder problems arose there quickly between the Jewish converts and the Gentile converts. Essentially, the Jewish converts felt that since Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, only Jews had access to him. Therefore, Gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could access the grace of Christ. This proselytization included circumcision. This is why circumcision is the main topic at hand. Paul, therefore, writes this letter to convey, the power of salvation lies in Jesus’ sacrifice alone and not any ritual or designated law. Any additional requirement other than faith in Jesus is an affront to the gift he gave at the cross.
Here is a breakdown of the narrative of the letter by chapter:
Paul wastes no time with pleasantries, but instead gets straight to the point that by adding requirements other than the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
– 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 ESV to the salvation message, they have added to the gospel message and therefore have perverted it. He also spends some time building his own credentials to qualify himself as a spokesman for Jesus himself and not just another teacher of men.
Paul continues his qualifications by giving his testimony. He then talks about how Peter and Barnabas got caught up in the politics surrounding this issue. He talks about how he called Peter out over it. Then he gets into the meat of the letter: justification by faith.
Paul hits his stride in the argument of justification by faith. He compares the issue of Law vs Faith to the issue of the physical vs the spiritual. He talks about how after justification, the just then live by faith. Then Paul uses Abraham to build a model of law (obligation) vs promise (grace). He talks about how law is a teacher to bring us into the realm of faith.
Then, Paul talks of becoming heirs or sons instead of mere servants (slaves) because those following laws are just slaves. Grown sons are obedient out of love. He then goes back to the Abraham story to build a model around the two sons of Abraham and their mothers. Ismael was the result of human works while Isaac was the result of God’s work, and thus the seed of the promise of salvation.
Freedom is found from the law through faith, which leads to love. Love is the fulfilling of the law. Love is also part of the Spirit’s fruit. He then expounds on how we change and walk after the Spirit which produces good fruit instead of the flesh which produces sin and ultimately hell.
Finally, Paul pleads for them to love instead of dictating legalities. Bear each other’s burdens in love. This type of practice keeps us busy doing Christ-like things instead of fighting.
This is, in essence, the narrative of the letter. As mentioned in the last blog, Galatians is not just about Mosaic Law and circumcision. There is a very valuable and applicable principle being taught in this letter which concerns our understanding of salvation and how it happens. We could replace the issue of circumcision in this letter with just about any other commandment or law we dictate must be performed properly in order to receive the gospel of Jesus and salvation. Some of our own pet issues have in essence become idols to us because we give them more weight than the actual blood of Jesus.
That sounds harsh, like a hyperbole, but it isn’t. We treat issues like baptism, confession, fellowship, communion, contribution, and countless worship practices or the lack thereof as gateways to the blood of Jesus. (Yes grace is there, but you only get it by following these rules to the T, in essence taking the mercy and grace out of grace). This type of reliance on practices makes the practices essentially more important than the blood of Jesus because they must occur and occur properly before the blood of Christ is even applied. Anything we would lift to that status then becomes an idol to us.
|⇧1||Acts 13 and 14|
|⇧2||Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.|
– 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 ESV