1. Title. This letter was addressed to the churches of Galatia. It is not known whether these were in Northern Galatia, in such cities as Tavium, Pessinus, and Ancyra (the modern Ankara) or in Southern Galatia, at Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and other cities (see The Journeys of Paul). The former view is called the North Galatian theory, and the latter the South Galatian theory. For a discussion of these two theories see Additional Note on Acts 16. The name Galatia is derived from certain Gallic tribes who invaded Asia Minor about 278 b.c. and settled in the northern part of what became, in 25 b.c., the Roman province of Galatia.
The Pauline authorship of this epistle has not been seriously challenged. The internal evidence of the epistle itself is convincing. In its entirety it is consistent with the character of Paul as portrayed in the Acts and in other letters attributed to him. Postapostolic Christian writers were acquainted with the epistle and considered that it came from his hand. It appears in the earliest lists of NT books.
3. Historical Setting. On their first journey, about a.d. 45–47, Paul and Barnabas founded the churches of Antioch (in Pisidia), Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (see Acts 13:14 to 14:23). After their return to Antioch they were sent to Jerusalem with the question as to whether Gentile converts to Christianity should be required to practice the rites and ceremonies of Judaism (see Acts 15). The Jerusalem Council, which was convened about a.d. 49, decided against making this requirement of non-Jews. Soon after the council Paul began his Second Missionary Journey, accompanied by Silas. They first revisited the churches of Southern Galatia which Paul had organized on his first journey, three of the four being specifically mentioned—Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium (see Acts 16:1–5) They next carried the gospel to Phrygia and Galatia (see v. 6). Those who hold the North Galatian theory (see Additional Note on Acts 16) note that it was after this visit to Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium that Paul and Silas went through what Luke speaks of as Galatia. From this it may be inferred that Luke is thinking of the region settled by the Gauls rather than of the Roman province of Galatia, which included other areas to the south (see The Journeys of Paul). Paul returned once more to Galatia early on his Third Missionary Journey, abouta.d. 53 and 54.
Obviously the Epistle to the Galatians must have been written after the events recorded in Gal. 2:1–14. If the council at Jerusalem described in Acts 15 is here alluded to, the letter must have been written after the close of the first journey, for that council was held between the first and second journeys (see Acts 15:36–41).
Furthermore, according to Gal. 4:13, it seems that Paul had already visited the churches of Galatia twice, and if so the letter must have been written after the close of his second journey. If the North Galatian theory is accepted, the letter to the Galatians must have been written after the third journey, for Paul had not visited the
North Galatian churches on his first journey. Accordingly the time of writing could be the winter of a.d. 57/58.
One argument advanced in favor of Corinth as the place of writing is the close resemblance in subject matter between this epistle and that to the Romans, which was written during Paul’s third visit to Corinth. Justification by faith is the theme of both epistles, and both deal at length with the distinction between “the law” and the gospel.
If the South Galatian theory is accepted, a date as early as a.d. 45 is possible. Some think it may have been written even before the Jerusalem Council, immediately upon Paul’s return to Antioch from his first journey. The reason given for this conclusion is that the epistle contains no specific mention of the council or of the decision there agreed upon. To the objection that Paul had already visited the South Galatian churches twice, those who hold the South Galatian theory reply that his return to them on the first journey is to be considered a second visit (see Acts 14:21– 23)
The purpose of the letter is evident from its contents. Apostasy is threatening, if not already begun, and as a result the letter is naturally controversial. The apostasy came as the result of the activities of Judaizing teachers, possibly of the same group that stirred up trouble in the church at Antioch in Syria over the same question (see Acts 15:1). It was the discord caused by these men at Antioch that precipitated the council at Jerusalem. At that council Paul was again opposed by the Judaizers, who contended that Christian converts must observe Jewish legal requirements. They demanded the circumcision of Titus (see Gal. 2:3, 4). In this epistle Paul is not so much concerned with circumcision or any other feature of the ceremonial law, in particular, as he is with the false teaching that man may save himself by observing the requirements of “the law.” This is evident from the fact that Paul, on occasion, had participated in some of the ritual procedures (Acts 18:18; 21:20–27). He also had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3).
These false teachers had apparently met with great success in their efforts, and seem to have deceived a large segment of the membership in the churches of Galatia by their teachings (see Gal. 1:6). It is not clear how far the deceived churches had gone in the actual practice of legalism before they received Paul’s epistle, but it is evident from the general tone of the letter that there was imminent danger of a general apostasy. These teachers were working in direct opposition to the decision of the council. They not only repudiated Paul’s gospel but challenged his authority as an apostle. They made much of the fact that Paul was not one of the Twelve chosen and ordained by Christ.
In order to make clear to the Galatians the error into which they had fallen, Paul restated the great principles of the gospel as he had expounded it to them. But since they charged Paul with preaching a false gospel, and since this involved their further claim that he was not qualified to teach, Paul felt compelled to present evidence that would vindicate his apostleship. This accounts for the autobiographical portion of the letter (chs. 1:11 to 2:14). His purpose in giving so detailed an account of personal experiences related to the problem was to prove the validity of his gospel. He also stressed the fact that his teachings, which he explained to the apostles at the council, were in harmony with those of the leaders who had been associated with Jesus and had received their message from Him.
4. Theme. The theme of the Epistle to the Galatians is righteousness attained by faith in Jesus Christ. This is set in contrast with the Jewish concept of righteousness attained by compliance with the “works” prescribed by the Jewish legal system. This letter exalts what God has done through Christ for man’s salvation and summarily dismisses the idea that man can be justified by his own merits. It extols the free gift of God in contrast with man’s attempts to save himself.
The specific question at issue between Paul and the heretical teachers in Galatia was, Does compliance with the prescribed forms and requirements of Judaism entitle a man to divine favor and acceptance? The categorical answer was No, “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (see on ch. 2:16). Indeed, the Christian who attempts to earn salvation by the “works of the law” thereby forfeits the grace of Christ (chs. 2:21; 5:4).
As “the children of promise” (ch. 4:28) Christians are “heirs” (ch. 3:6, 7, 14, 29). Having become new creatures in Christ (chs. 4:7; 6:15), “led of the Spirit” (ch. 5:18), and with Christ abiding in their hearts by faith, and God’s moral law written therein (Gal. 2:20; Heb. 8:10), they are no longer, like immature children, in need of a “schoolmaster” to guide them (Gal. 3:23–26; 4:1–7). Whereas the Jews boasted of righteousness they supposed they earned by their own efforts to keep God’s laws (Rom. 2:17; 9:4), Christians acknowledge that they have nothing whatever of which to boast except the saving power of “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (see Gal. 6:14).
The term “law” in Galatians stands for the entire revelation, at Sinai, of God’s rules for His children—moral laws, civil statutes, and ceremonial ritual. To these the Jews later added a ponderous array of man-made laws. They mistakenly thought that by their own strength they could give perfect obedience to these laws, and that by such obedience they could earn their own salvation. Galatians is concerned, not so much with any of these laws as such, but with the erroneous idea that a man can earn his own salvation by rigorous adherence to various legal requirements. The issue is one of salvation by faith versus salvation by works.
Paul explains that the gospel promises were confirmed to Abraham in the covenant, and that the revelation of God’s law 430 years later did not alter the provisions of that covenant (ch. 3:6–9, 14–18). “The law” was not designed to replace the covenant or to provide another means of salvation, but to help men understand and appropriate the covenant’s provisions of divine grace. “The law” was not intended to be an end in itself, as the Jews came to think, but a means—a “schoolmaster”—to lead men to salvation in Christ according to the promises of the covenant. The purpose of “the law,” its “end,” or objective, was to lead men to Christ (see on Rom. 10:4), not to open for them another pathway to salvation. For the most part, however, the Jews willingly remained in ignorance of God’s plan for making men righteous by faith in Christ, and went about to establish their own righteousness by “the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16; see Rom. 10:3).
Paul explains further that the covenant with Abraham provided for the salvation of the Gentiles, whereas “the law” did not do so; and that Gentiles are therefore to find salvation through faith in the promise made to Abraham, not through “the law” (Gal. 3:8, 9, 14, 27–29). The error and grave problem introduced into the Galatian churches by the Judaizers consisted of attempts to impose upon Gentile converts ceremonial forms, such as circumcision and the ritual observance of “days, and months, and times, and years” (chs. 4:10; 5:2). That specific problem no longer exists, for Christians today are in no danger of reverting to the ritual requirements of Judaism (cf. chs. 4:9; 5:1). This is not to say, however, that the book of Galatians is only of historical interest and without instructional value for modern Christians. Inclusion of the epistle in the Sacred Canon makes certain that it has lessons of value and importance for our day (cf. Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17).
As already noted (see p. 933), the word “law” in the book of Galatians includes within its purview both the moral and the ceremonial law; in fact, the ceremonial law would have been meaningless without the moral law (see on ch. 2:16). The ceremonial law expired by limitation at the cross (see on Col. 2:14–17), but the moral law—the Decalogue—remains in full force (see on Matt. 5:17, 18). There is danger today of adhering to the “letter” of the Decalogue without entering into its spirit (Matt. 19:16– 22; see on Gal. 5:17–22), as there was in Paul’s day of participating in the sacrificial system without realizing that its symbols pointed to Christ. To whatever extent, therefore, modern Christians fall into the error of attempting to save themselves by their human endeavors to keep the Decalogue, they fall from grace and become “entangled” in “the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1, 4). For all such, Christ died in vain (ch. 2:21). The warning of the book of Galatians applies to them. The Christian keeps the Decalogue, not to gain salvation, but because he is saved. Indeed only a saved man can keep it, for Christ dwells within him.
That warning applies also to those who think to attain to a higher level of righteousness before God by meticulous adherence to man-made regulations regarding standards of Christian living, such as dress and diet. Thus they make the same mistake as the Jews of Christ’s day (see Rom. 14:17; see on Mark 7:1–14). Others pay tithe, attend church, even observe the Sabbath, under the delusion that they thereby earn merit in the sight of God. True, the Christian will faithfully abide by all divine requirements. But he will do so, not in the hope of earning favor in the sight of God, but because, as a son of God by faith in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it is supreme joy and happiness to order his life in harmony with the expressed will of God (see on Matt. 7:21–27; see EGW Supplementary Material on Gal. 3:24). The pre-eminent lesson of the book of Galatians for the church today is the same as it was in the days of Paul—that salvation can be obtained in no other way than by simple faith in the merits of Christ (chs. 2:16; 3:2; 5:1), and that nothing a man may do can in the least degree enhance his standing before God or increase his chances of obtaining forgiveness and redemption. Law, whether moral or ceremonial, has no power to set men free from the state of sin in which they find themselves (see on Rom. 3:20 7:7). This is Paul’s “gospel,” in contrast with the perverted “gospel” of the Judaizers (Gal. 1:6–12; 2:2, 5, 7, 14).
The letter concludes with an appeal not to abuse the new-found liberty of the gospel, but to live a holy life (ch. 6). Christian love should lead the Galatians to guard against a sanctimonious spirit, and to deal kindly with those who fall into error. The church should be known for its good works—the fruitage of the Spirit—but should not attempt to make good works a substitute for faith in the saving merits of Jesus Christ.
I. Salutation and Introduction, 1:1–10.
A. The writer’s apostolic authority, 1:1–5.
B. The occasion for, and purpose of, the letter, 1:6–10.
II. A Defense of Paul’s Apostolic Authority, 1:11 to 2:14.
A. The genuineness of his conversion to Christianity, 1:11–24.
1. The divine origin of his interpretation of the gospel, 1:11, 12.
2. His former zeal for the Jewish faith, 1:13, 14.
3. His conversion and his mission to the heathen, 1:15, 16.
4. His preparatory retirement to Arabia, 1:17.
5. His first contact with the apostles at Jerusalem, 1:18–20.
6. His acceptance by the churches of Judea, 1:21–24.
B. Apostolic approval of his interpretation of the gospel, 2:1–14.
1. Paul explains his gospel to the apostles, 2:1, 2.
2. Titus a test case vindicating Paul’s gospel, 2:3–5.
3. Apostolic approval of Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles, 2:6–10.
4. Paul’s apostolic equality with the Twelve, 2:11–14.
III. Faith Versus Legalism as the Means of Salvation, 2:15 to 3:29.
A. Even Jewish Christians rely on faith in Christ for salvation, not on law, 2:15–21.
1. Jewish Christians realize the inefficacy of legalism, 2:15, 16.
2. The incompatibility of Christianity and Judaism, 2:17–21.
B. Salvation of the Gentiles provided for in the Abrahamic covenant, 3:1–14.
1. The Galatians had become Christians through faith, 3:1–5.
2. Faith is the distinctive characteristic of the Abrahamic covenant, 3:6, 7.
3. Provision for the salvation of the Gentiles through faith, 3:8–14.
C. The status of “the law” in relation to the Abrahamic covenant, 3:15–29.
1. “The law” did not annul the Messianic provisions of the covenant, 3:15–18.
2. The subordinate and provisional function of “the law,” 3:19–25.
3. In Christ all men are heirs to the covenant promises, by faith, 3:26–29.
IV. Christian Freedom From the Tutorship of “the Law,” 4:1–31.
A. From the immaturity of “the law” to the maturity of the gospel, 4:1–7.
1. The subordinate status of an heir during his minority, 4:1–3.
2. Bestowal of the full privileges of inheritance through Christ, 4:4–7.
B. The foolish course of the church in Galatia, 4:8–31.
1. The folly of Judaizing, 4:8–12.
2. Paul’s sincerity and solicitous interest in the Galatian churches, 4:13–20.
3. The allegory of the two sons, 4:21–31.
V. Moral and Spiritual Exhortations, 5:1 to 6:10.
A. The bondage of legalism incompatible with freedom in Christ, 5:1–12.
B. Christian liberty not an excuse for license, 5:13–26.
1. Love is the fulfilling of the law, 5:13–18.
2. The works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit, 5:19–26.
C. Brotherly love fulfills the law of Christ, 6:1–10.
VI. Conclusion, 6:11–18.