The Epistle to the Galatians
1. Author, Recipient and Time of origin of the Epistle
At the beginning of this letter, Paul is named as the author. He mentions his name twice in Galatians (Gal 1:1; 5:2).
The biographical details in Galatians 1:11-2:10 fit exactly and exclusively to the apostle Paul. In the writings of Polycarp (approximately 70 – 155 AD) and Justin the Martyr (app. 100 – 165 AD) we find allusions to the epistle to the Galatians. Irenaeus (app. 140 – 202 AD), Clement of Alexandria (app. 150 – 215 AD) and Tertullian (app. 160 – 220 AD) even quote the epistle by name.
The Galatians were celts like the Gauls (the native inhabitants of what is now France), who in the 3rd century B.C. conquered Macedonia and central Asia Minor (today's Turkey). They had settled in an area, the centres of which were the cities of Ancyra (today Ankara), Pessinus and Tavium.
In 25 B.C., the Romans united the territory of the Galatians with the more southerly parts of Pisidia, Phrygia and parts of Lycaonia to form the Roman province of Galatia.
The resulting ambiguity of the names "Galatians" and "Galatia" makes it difficult for us today to determine to whom the letter of the Apostle Paul was addressed: Was it the larger Roman province of Galatia, which reached further south or was it the more northerly located original settlement area of the Galatians? However, since this question is not without influence on the determination of the time of writing of the letter, let us briefly consider it. One possibility is that the epistle to the Galatians is addressed to assemblies in original Galatia, that is, in the north of the Roman province. Paul would then probably have been there on his second journey (app. 51 - 54 AD) where people had come to believe in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:6). A second visit would then have taken place on his third journey (Acts 18:23). The time of writing of the Epistle could then have been at the earliest during the time of Paul's third journey, and according to the researchers who support this "North Galatia thesis", during his three-year stay in Ephesus.
According to another view, Galatia is the larger Roman province. In this case the places Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Antioch in Pisidia would be included which Paul had already visited during his first missionary journey (appr. 46 - 49 AD) in the company of Barnabas (Acts 13 - 14).
Also, on his second journey Paul would have first come to this area (Acts 15:40 - 16:5). The epistle would then have been written much earlier, i.e., either around 51 AD from Antioch, before the start of his second journey, or during this journey, from Corinth, where Paul stayed for 18 months (around 52 AD).
2. Occasion and Subject of the Epistle
The Epistle to the Galatians is the only epistle of the Apostle Paul that is explicitly addressed to several assemblies. All these assemblies, which consisted mainly of former heathens (Gal 4:8; 5:2-3; 6:12), had come under the influence of judaizing teachers wanting to bring a different gospel than the one Paul had preached to them (Gal 1:6-9; 5:10, 12). These false teachers did not want to take away from them their faith in Christ, but they told them that they could not be saved by this faith alone. By God's promise, they said, the inheritance was given to the seed, that is, to the descendants of Abraham. If the nations wanted to obtain this inheritance, they would have to join the people of Israel (descending from Abraham) i.e., they would have to be circumcised and follow the law of Sinai.
The Galatians will have initially countered these teachers of the law. Paul had not told them that they had to keep the law. Therefore, these teachers could only have succeeded, if they were also able to undermine Paul's apostolic authority. For this purpose, they claimed that the apostles called by the Lord Jesus during His lifetime were the "pillars” (Gal. 2:9) of Christendom and their authority was above all. These apostles however held to the law and, they argued, did not agree with Paul's “law-free” gospel. If Paul did not demand the Galatians to observe the law, he did so in order to make the way easier for them – so they claimed. In reality, he cheated them of their salvation and proved to be their enemy (Gal 4:16).
Through these activities the Judaizers had succeeded in impressing and confusing the Galatians. Their trust in Paul was shaken; they had already begun to keep the law and were seriously considering to be circumcised (Gal 4:10; 5:2-12). Some, however, seem to have resisted, but in such a way that a fierce dispute arose in the assemblies because of this (Gal. 5:15).
This was the situation of the Galatians when Paul learned of the development of their condition. He was so affected by this news so much that he feared that all his work for the Lord in this region had been in vain (Gal 4:11). The epistle he wrote under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the Galatians is the most solemn, sharp, and combative epistle that ever came from his pen. It does not contain a single word of praise or thanksgiving like the other epistles but begins immediately after the greetings: "I wonder ...» and ends before the final greeting with the words: "From now on let no one trouble me..." (Gal 1:6; 6:17). Nevertheless, he is full of love for his children in the faith (Gal 4:19), whom he addresses again and again as "brethren" (Gal 1:11; 3:15; 4:12, 28, 31; 5:11, 13; 6:1.18).
The subject of the Epistle to the Galatians is the relationship of the Christian to the law of Sinai. Between the introduction and conclusion, we find three main parts:
1. the historical part (Gal 1:6 - 2:21), in which the apostle explains to the Galatians the origin of the gospel he preached, his calling and his relationship to the brethren in Jerusalem and to Peter,
2. the doctrinal part (Gal 3:1 - 4:31), which explains the difference between righteousness by faith and righteousness by the law and the meaning of the law.
3. the admonishing part (Gal 5:1 - 6:16), which deals with practical life and the effects of the new life.
For Martin Luther, the Epistle to the Galatians, with its exposition very close to the Epistle to the Romans, with its presentation of justification by faith without works, became a very important landmark in his life and ministry.
Even today, the Epistle to the Galatians has lost none of its relevance as in many parts of Christendom formalism, ritualism and good works replace or at least complement Christ's redemptive work on the cross, the walk in the Spirit and the works of faith.
I. Galatians 1 - 2: Historical Part
Chapter 1 Gospel and Calling of Paul:
verses 1 - 5 Greeting and Introduction
verses 6 - 10 No other Gospel
verses 11 - 12 No Gospel of Men
verses 13 - 24 Paul’s Career
Chapter 2 Relationship of Paul to the other Apostles:
verses 1 - 10 Paul and the brethren in Jerusalem
verses 11 - 21 Paul and Cephas (Peter) in Antioch (v. 21: "For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”)
II. Galatians 3 - 4: Teaching Part
Chapter 3 Faith and Law:
verses 1 - 5 the Galatians without Understanding
verses 6 - 9 Abraham as an Example of faith
verses 10 - 14 the Law brings curse (v. 13: "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.”)
verses 15 - 18 the Covenant with Abraham higher than the Law
verses 19 - 22 the true Meaning of the Law (v. 19: "What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions.")
verses 23 - 26 the Law as schoolmaster
verses 27 - 29 Those who believe in Christ are the true descendants and heirs of Abraham.
Chapter 4 Sonship instead of Bondage:
verses 1 – 5a Children under the law (vv. 4.5: "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. “)
verses 5b - 7 Sons of God through Christ (v. 6: "And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying out, Abba, Father.”)
verses 8 - 11 Once Idolaters, now under Law?
verses 12 - 15 Paul's weakness and the Joy of the Galatians
verses 16 – 20 the great Sorrow of Paul
verses 21 - 31 Remembrance of Ishmael (law) and Isaac (grace),
III. Galatians 5 - 6: Admonishing part
Chapter 5 Liberty of the Christ and Walk in the Spirit:
verses 1 - 6 "Fallen from Grace"?
verses 7 - 11 Evil Influences
verses 12 - 15 Freedom and Love
verses 16 - 18 Walk in the Spirit (verse 18: "But if you are led by the Spirit,
you are not under the law.")
verses 19 - 21 the Works of the Flesh
verses 22 - 23 the Fruit of the Spirit
verses 24 - 26 and again, Walk in the Spirit
Chapter 6 Practical consequences:
verses 1 – 5 Correction in the Case of Trespass (v. 2: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.")
verses 6 - 10 Doing Good
verses 11 - 16 Review (v. 14: "But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.")
verses 17 - 18 Conclusion