Paul’s Letter to the Galatians—A Message of Good News
AFTER an opening greeting the apostle Paul wrote the Galatians: “I marvel that you are being so quickly removed from the One who called you . . . over to another sort of good news.” And a little later he exclaimed: “O senseless Galatians, who is it that brought you under evil influence?”—Galatians 1:6; 3:1.
Why was Paul so upset with the Galatians? Who were these people, and how did Paul meet them? What is the message of good news he shared with them? And how is it of practical value to us today?
The People and Their Problem
The Galatians were principally Indo-European people of Celtic origin from Gaul. But they also included persons of other nationalities. The Roman province of Galatia was made up of at least four cities of Bible record: Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Antioch in Pisidia. These were visited by Paul on his first missionary journey, and congregations were established in these places. (Acts 13:14–14:23) Young Timothy was one of the early Galatian Christians.—Acts 16:1, 2.
Following Paul’s first missionary journey through Galatia, the governing body of apostles and older men met in Jerusalem in 49 CE and made the decision that circumcision is not required for Christians. (Acts 15:1-29) After this meeting Paul and Silas delivered this feature of the good news to the congregations of Galatia.—Acts 16:1-6.
Shortly afterward, however, Paul was shocked to hear that certain ones in Galatia were insisting that Christians must get circumcised. These persons were Judaizers who were trying to get Gentile Christians to conform to features of the Mosaic law. They were also undermining Paul’s authority as an apostle.
So it was to deal with this unfortunate situation that Paul wrote the Galatians, thus urging them to come to their senses. He wrote the letter either while he was still on his second missionary journey, probably in Corinth, or soon after he arrived in Syrian Antioch. The letter, therefore, may have been written as early as the autumn of 50 CE or as late as 52 CE.
Paul tells the Galatians that these Judaizers are trying to pervert the good news. And, as Paul says, this good news is about Christ Jesus. Yes, it is the good news about the freedom that Christ brings—freedom from bondage to inherited sin and also freedom from bondage to the Mosaic law. Therefore Paul twice repeats the warning that if anyone, even an angel from heaven, were to declare as good news something beyond what he declared as good news “let him be accursed.”—Galatians 1:7-9.
So, then, what does Paul’s letter accomplish? First, it clearly establishes his authority as an apostle. Second, it ably supports the decision of the governing body on the matter of circumcision. And it contrasts works of the flesh with the fruitage of the spirit, focusing on works that please God.
Paul Defends His Apostleship
At the outset Paul draws attention to his authority, saying: “Paul, an apostle, neither from men nor through a man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father . . . The good news which was declared by me as good news is not something human; for neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, except through revelation by Jesus Christ.”—Galatians 1:1, 11, 12; Acts 22:6-16.
Paul briefly recounts how he formerly had been prominent in Judaism, but after his miraculous conversion by Christ, he had gone to declare the good news in Arabia and Damascus. Then Paul tells of visiting with Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days (in 36 CE). It was not until fourteen years later, in 49 CE, that Paul returned to Jerusalem for the meeting on the matter of circumcision. (Galatians 1:13-24) He calls the Judaizers who were promoting circumcision “false brothers” who were trying to “enslave” faithful Christians. But he said: “We did not yield by way of submission, no, not for an hour, in order that the truth of the good news might continue with you.”—Galatians 2:1-5.
When we think of it, Paul surely set us a fine example of humility. Although he was an apostle selected personally by Jesus Christ, he submitted the good news he was preaching to the governing body, recognizing its authority. Do we show proper respect today for men appointed by the Governing Body and cooperate with them in preaching the good news?
Later Paul asserted his apostolic authority by resisting the apostle Peter face to face. He did so because Peter had ceased to eat with Gentile Christians due to fear of men. Exposing Peter’s error, Paul asked him: “If you, though you are a Jew, live as the nations do, and not as Jews do, how is it that you are compelling people of the nations to live according to Jewish practice?”—Galatians 2:11-14.
Faith Superior to Works of Law
Urging the Galatians to come to their senses, Paul asks: “Did you receive the spirit due to works of law or due to a hearing by faith?” Since the answer is obvious, he asks: “After starting in spirit are you now being completed in flesh?” He reminds them of Abraham who, although not under the law, “put faith in Jehovah, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” The law was added later to make transgressions manifest. It actually condemned to death those trying to keep it. But, as Paul explains, Christ died as an accursed man so that his followers might be released from the law and live by faith. Nevertheless, the law served the useful purpose of a ‘tutor leading them to Christ.’—Galatians 3:1-29.
Since the Galatians have received spiritual sonship and freedom through Christ, Paul asks why they want to return to slavery to the law, observing days and months and seasons and years. The Judaizers, he says, “zealously seek you, not in a fine way, but they want to shut you off from me.” However, Paul expresses his loving concern, saying: “I am again in childbirth pains until Christ is formed in you.”—Galatians 4:1-20.
Paul then uses an illustration to contrast slavery to works of law with true Christian freedom. Abraham’s slave girl Hagar represents the law covenant and “corresponds with the Jerusalem today, for she is in slavery with her children.” Sarah, on the other hand, represents the Abrahamic covenant, and she corresponds with the ‘Jerusalem above which is free, and she is our mother.’ Just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac, so the Jews were opposing true Christians, the children of the free woman.—Galatians 4:21-31.
Stand Fast in Christian Freedom
On the basis of the foregoing illustration, Paul exhorts: “For such freedom Christ set us free. Therefore stand fast, and do not let yourselves be confined again in a yoke of slavery.” If one gets circumcised, Paul emphasizes, it will prove to be of no benefit. The person that does will be obliged to keep the whole law and so miss out on gaining righteousness by faith. So with indignation Paul declares: “I wish the men who are trying to overturn you would even get themselves emasculated.”—Galatians 5:1-12.
Although Christians have gained freedom, there is danger that this freedom could be abused to gratify the desires of their imperfect flesh. So Paul cautions: “You were, of course, called for freedom, brothers; only do not use this freedom as an inducement for the flesh, but through love slave for one another. For the entire Law stands fulfilled in one saying, namely: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’”—Galatians 5:13, 14.
Yet Paul points out that we have a constant struggle between carrying out fleshly desires and walking by spirit. He contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruitage of the spirit. The works of the flesh “are fornication, uncleanness, loose conduct . . . and things like these. . . . On the other hand, the fruitage of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control.” Paul shows that Christians who are walking orderly by spirit need also to avoid becoming “egotistical, stirring up competition with one another, envying one another.”—Galatians 5:15-26.
In the final chapter, Paul outlines beneficial works that a Christian can engage in, such as assisting in restoring an erring one and carrying the burdens of one another. If a man sows according to the flesh, Paul explains, he will reap corruption from his flesh. But if he sows with a view to the spirit he will reap everlasting life from the spirit. So the Galatians are urged: “Work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.” Then, in his conclusion, Paul points to the motives of the Judaizers who want them to get circumcised. It is so that “they may have cause for boasting in your flesh.” Yet Paul says he will boast only in “the torture stake of our Lord Jesus Christ.”—Galatians 6:1-14.
Truly, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is outstanding in facing squarely the issues of his times. How beneficial it will prove to be to us today depends on how well we follow the good counsel it contains.
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