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January 16, 2022 | Doug Sauder
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The epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am, as it were, in wedlock.—Martin Luther
As we get ready to start our study of Galatians, we thought it would be a good idea to provide you with some context for Paul’s letter. Why did he write it? Who is he writing to? What are some of the key themes in the letter? These are all questions we’ll address here to help you get a full picture of this epistle. So, let’s dive right in!
The letter we now call Galatians was written by the apostle Paul most likely somewhere between 49 and 50 A.D. Based on this date, it is likely that this was Paul’s second letter, with 1 Thessalonians being the first. Considering the timeline, the apostle probably wrote this letter from his home church in Antioch in Syria, sometime before the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:1–31).
Paul’s letter to the Galatians was likely written to the churches he had established during his first missionary journey with Barnabas (Acts 13:1–14:28). These churches were probably located in the southern region of the Roman province of Galatia.
It is clear that these churches and the people in them were near and dear to Paul’s heart. From the text here, as well as evidence from the Book of Acts, we know that Paul visited these churches more than once before writing this letter (4:13). While we don’t know whether or not Paul visited the Northern Galatian region more than once, we do know he visited the Southern Galatian province at least four times— twice on his first missionary journey, once on his second, and once on his third.
These were the same people we read about in Acts 13 and 14. What happened here is that Paul and Barnabas showed up in the area, and as they were preaching, someone got healed. The people were so impressed with the healing, they believed Paul was Hermes and Barnabas was Zeus. So, they began to bring sacrifices because they wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas, but Paul preached the gospel and declared the name of Jesus before them. Eventually, angry Jewish opposition turned the people against them and they took Paul outside the city and stoned him almost to death. But he didn’t die; he survived by the hand of God and went back into the city to continue sharing the message of Jesus.
The ministry went well. People got saved and a number of churches started to spring up in Galatia in cities like Lystra, Derbe, Lycaonia, Antioch. These churches were growing and strong and vibrant, and people came to know Jesus.
Sometime after his departure, as Paul and his team were doing ministry in either Ephesus or Corinth, someone brought word from Galatia. And it wasn’t good news . . .
In Galatians 1, we learn that after Paul and his team left, a group of people known as the Judaizers had come in and deceived the Galatian believers into turning “away from the grace of Christ” and turning “to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.”
So, what was this false gospel? It was something called legalism.
Essentially, these men Paul refers to in Philippians 3 as “dogs,” “evildoers,” and “mutilators of the flesh” came from Jerusalem and taught that although we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, full acceptance by God can only come by adhering to the law. The idea is that you “get in” by grace, but “stay in” by works.
One commentary I read stated that “The Galatian heresy didn’t deny Jesus or grace. Rather . . . the Judaizers simply added works to Christ as necessary for salvation. It is not that faith in Christ was wrong but that it just wasn’t sufficient. What Christ began by grace had to be finished and perfected by one’s obedience to the commandments.”
These men were coming in to places where the gospel was being preached, where people were being saved, and chains were being broken . . . and they were putting people back in chains by making them believe they needed to complete for themselves the work Christ had already completed on our behalf at the cross.
And so, the apostle Paul wrote the Galatians to bring believers back to the true gospel of Jesus, to reject all non-gospels and break free of the chains that were never meant to be worn. He wrote this letter to remind them of the pure, perfect, and beautiful gospel of Jesus Christ . . . that the grace we receive by faith is enough to save us and bring us into right relationship with our Father now and forever, that there are no works of the flesh that can save us, only the blood of Jesus!
If you read through all of Paul’s letters, you may notice that Paul is more critical of his audience here than in any of his other letters. Paul’s close relationship with these churches help explain the extremely strong tone he took with them from the very beginning of the letter. It’s similar to the way a parent will sit their child down and have a stern talk with them when their behavior or decision-making requires parental correction.
Pastor and theologian John Phillips once said, “In the Book of Galatians, we get to see what Paul’s soul looks like when it’s set on fire.” How so? Because Galatians exhibits Paul at his most agitated and passionate. And when it comes down to it, here Paul is truly risking the good favor and friendship he had developed with these believers in order to make sure they were on the path of truth and not lost and stranded in deception.
In fact, did you know that of the 13 letters Paul wrote in the New Testament, Galatians is the only one Paul wrote entirely by his own hand? That’s right! Galatians stands out as the outlier. It’s literally the only one like it. He would normally speak and one of his ministry team members would write down everything he would say. But not with this letter, not with these people, and not with this issue.
Salvation by Faith Alone: Justification by faith is the central theme of Galatians (Galatians 2:15–21). Paul makes it clear that the law has no power to save (Galatians 3:21); it only points us to the One who saves (Galatians 3:24). The promise of God, made to Abraham, the promise of salvation and freedom and redemption, only comes through Christ, the Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:15–22).
Legalism vs. Freedom: Believers do not need to live under the law to lead ethical lives (Galatians 5:1–6:10). The Holy Spirit, who indwells us when we surrender our lives to Christ, empowers us to conquer sinful desires and live Spirit-led lives (Galatians 5:16–17, 22–25). The law can neither produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) nor prevent people from falling into sin. Its function is to identify sin and pronounce God’s righteous judgment (Galatians 3:19–24), and it is through the believer’s union to Christ alone that he or she is truly set free (Galatians 5:1). But this liberation is not a license to sin; it is a freedom to walk in the will of the Lord, to accomplish the good works He has prepared for us, and to experience the fullness of all that God has for us.
Life Empowered by the Spirit: Believers should not rely on their own power to live the Christian life (Galatians 2:20). When it comes to the Christian life, we should never try to walk in our own power. Instead, we need to be filled with the Spirit of the Lord through an intimate relationship with Jesus. When we do that, He will fill us with His love, His grace, His compassion, His mercy, His generosity, His justice, His peace, and His power to the point of overflow, to the point where it spills out of us into the way we live and the things we do. When we live according to the power of the Holy Spirit, our lives will produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). His work in us will overflow into every aspect, every facet, and every little crevice and corner of our lives and flow out into the lives of everyone we encounter!
Danny Saavedra is a licensed minister who has served on staff at Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.