Paul’s letter to the Christians in Galatia is probably one of the earliest he wrote. We don’t know exactly who it was written to. Galatia is a wide area in the eastern part of modern day Turkey. North to south is 500 miles, and it could have been to north Galatia or south Galatia. Most scholars believe it to be a letter written to the churches which Paul had helped plant in south Galatia: Antioch of Pisidia Lystra, Derbe and Iconium (Acts 13:14-14:23). These towns are not far from Tarsus near the southern coast, the home town that Paul returned to after coming to faith on the road to Damascus.
The issues that Paul addresses in the letter are mentioned in the book of Acts, which tells us of the events in the early church, including Paul’s travels. He focuses in his letter on whether Christians from a non-Jewish background need to keep the law of God and in particular the practice of circumcision. This was a topic of discussion by the church leaders in Acts 15, known as ‘the Council of Jerusalem’. As non-Jews were coming to trust in Jesus, the leaders had to decide whether they thought these new converts should be circumcised or not. They agree with Paul’s conclusions, and probably meet after this letter, which many say was written around 49AD.
Paul is concerned that the Christians in Galatia are leaving the true faith in Christ. He writes to admonish them, explain why they are unwise to do so, and how they should be living as Christians. He explains why they should listen to him, as someone called by God, and how his interpretation of the Old Testament is better than his opponents who are drawing them away. In particular, he wants them to realise that the law, which included the practice of circumcision on male boys, was important for that day. But now that Jesus had come, and the Holy Spirit had been given to His followers, the approach to the law is completely different. Under a new covenant, we trust in Jesus as the one who kept the law fully and are freed to live by the Holy Spirit.
Why read it?
Knowing your place in God’s purposes
The letter helps you understand the place of the law in the Bible. You read the law in the Old Testament as a New Covenant believer, grateful for all it tells you of the character of God, but aware that as a follower of Jesus you are not bound by it. You do not need to live like Jews but to trust Jesus and ask His Spirit to lead you to live in ways that please God. Of course the Spirit will lead you to do the good things that the law required, but we do good from hearts that are being changed by God, not because we fear failing.
Knowing what matters
Paul gets angry in this letter. The tone of the letter may seem quite harsh, but this is because it matters so much to Paul. He is willing to oppose the Apostle Peter accusing him of hypocrisy at one point. If we add things to our faith in Jesus, or encourage others to, we are making a grave mistake.
Today there are still people who will tell you that simply trusting in Jesus is not enough, and they will give you their list of things to do and not do. Paul is clear that trusting Jesus will naturally lead to certain behaviour, but we are accepted by God on the basis of faith, not on whether we do things.
Enjoying God’s power
One of the big issues was the Galatians failure to realise that the power of God is needed to live the Christian life. They were believing that good works of law-keeping and circumcision were needed to please God, failing to realise that God, by His Spirit, is committed to helping us live to please Jesus and used the picture of fruit to show us what God does. Just as fruit will grow in its own time if it is nourished by its attachment to a healthy tree, the fruit of character will grow in us, as we stay close to God and co-operate with His Spirit’s work in us.
|1-2||Authority from God|
|3-4||Freedom from legalism|
|5- 6||Freedom to serve Christ|