Paul’s Letter To The Galatians
A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
Today we begin a study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians which I’ve subtitled “The Case Against Combining Law And Grace.” Scholars are divided as to the date of this letter. Some place it in the late 40s and others in the early 50s. Either way it one of Paul’s earliest letters, perhaps even his first, and predated the Council of Jerusalem where the issue of Gentile converts to Christianity was the main agenda item (Acts 15).
The primary purpose of this letter was to contend against a group called the Judaizers. This group was early Jewish Christians who taught that Gentile converts to Christianity also had to observe certain Old Testament rites, specifically circumcision. Some even argued the only way for a Gentile to become a Christian was to first convert to Judaism, be circumcised, and go under the Law.
The Judaizers said Paul was not an authentic apostle but a false teacher who, in order to make the gospel more acceptable to Gentiles, had ignored the legal requirements of Judaism in his presentations. They felt it was their responsibility to follow Paul around and explain the “real gospel” to the Gentile churches he had planted.
One of the things that prompted me to undertake this study now is the growing number of comments I’ve received from certain elements in Christianity voicing those same opinions today, and for the same reason. Some Christians are once again claiming that we are obligated to observe Old Testament rites and regulations and that Paul was not an authentic apostle.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul presented a powerful defense of the essential New Testament truth that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone. We do not sanctify ourselves by religious works or Jewish legalism, but are sanctified by faith in the grace and power of God, made manifest in the work of Jesus Christ, and energized in our life by the Holy Spirit.
This will be an in-depth study of the Letter to the Galatians and we’ll need several installments to get through it, so let’s get started.
Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers and sisters with me,
To the churches in Galatia:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (Galatians 1:1-5).
Acts 13-14 records the churches of Galatia as Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. They were all geographically located in the south-central part of what was then the Roman province of Galatia, known today as Turkey.
The Greek word translated apostle means a delegate or messenger, one sent forth with orders. Paul always took pains to say he was not appointed an apostle by men but by the Lord Himself.
According to Acts 13:2 the Holy Spirit commissioned Paul and Barnabas to begin their first missionary journey and led them to Cyprus and then into the cities of Galatia where they formed the churches mentioned above.
Paul’s letter was his response to the Galatian churches concerning the Judaizers who visited these churches after he left.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:6-9)
Pay attention to what Paul said here. He pronounced a curse on anyone who tries to promote a gospel other than the one he has presented. Some translations render this as Paul saying, “Let him be eternally condemned.” The Greek word is anathema and means cursed, doomed to destruction.
We would expect him to come out strongly against the pagan religions that were prevalent at the time, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Paul said any so-called gospel message that contradicts the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone as presented in his letters is by definition a different gospel and puts those who teach it under a curse that dooms them to destruction. That means they aren’t saved, nor can they be. Where did he get the authority to say something like that?
Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:10-12).
Paul said what has become known as the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith came straight to him from the Lord Himself. That’s where he got his authority.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:13-14).
Paul was a Pharisee, taught by Gamaliel who was one of the most highly regarded teachers of the time. Paul was a rising star in Judaism who was gaining a reputation as a relentless pursuer of the followers of Jesus, showing no mercy to those he apprehended.
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus (Galatians 1:15-17).
One of the great fears of the day in Jerusalem was that belief in Jesus would spread to Damascus, a major commercial hub in the region. It was feared that if this new faith took root there it would quickly spread in all directions and there would be no stopping it. Paul agreed to go to Damascus to make sure that didn’t happen. He was on the way when He had a personal encounter with the risen Lord that changed everything. Instead of rounding up the believers in Damascus when he got there, he began teaching that Jesus is the Son of God, which so angered the Jews that they conspired to kill him.
With the help of friends, Paul escaped from Damascus and traveled into Arabia. Some say he went to Mt. Sinai and stayed in the same cave Elijah had used during his time on the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8-9). If so, the place where Moses received the Law would have been the same place where Paul received his revelation from the Lord concerning the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. After that Paul returned to Damascus where he continued teaching.
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie (Galatians 1:18-20).
Paul is going to great lengths here to differentiate himself from the Judaizers. They were simply repeating the traditions they had been taught by men. But Paul was sent by God with a gospel he received directly from the Lord Jesus.
Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me (Galatians 1:21-24).
Paul visited Syrian Antioch and Tarsus in Cilicia, the city of his birth. While he was in Tarsus, Barnabas came to visit him from Antioch and took him back there. Together they spent a year teaching and ministering to the believers in Antioch. It was there that believers were first called Christians. And it was from there that Paul and Barnabas would later begin their missionary journey into Galatia under the call of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2).
Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you (Galatians 2:1-5).
Apparently, the Lord told Paul to meet with the Church leaders in Jerusalem to confirm that the Judaizers were not speaking on behalf of the Church in Jerusalem. This is an interesting point. Paul was given a direct revelation from the Lord about the gospel he was to preach (Galatians 1:12). Even so, he was sent to the Church leadership for confirmation. Remember that the next time someone tells you he or she has a word from the Lord for you. Always seek confirmation. Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15, 2 Cor. 13:1).
As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along (Galatians 2:6-11).
Paul’s revelation having been confirmed, he returned to Antioch and continued his work there.
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray (Galatians 2:11-13).
There were six cities named Antioch in Biblical times. Of those, two are named in the Bible, Pisidian Antioch, the location of one of the churches in Galatia, and this one, sometimes called Syrian Antioch. It was the third most prominent city in the Roman Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria.
By the phrase “certain men from James” Paul meant Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. Some commentators identify these men as Judaizers but I don’t think so because Paul said they came from James. As we saw above, James and the other leaders had already confirmed Paul’s teaching. More likely they were Jewish Christians who were there on an official visit from Jerusalem. But either way, their presence caused Peter, Barnabas, and other Jewish believers, who had been fraternizing with the Gentile believers, to withdraw from them and resume their tradition of separation. Paul saw this as hypocrisy and called them on it.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:14-16).
Three times in two verses Paul stated in no uncertain terms that whether Jew or Gentile, we are not justified (rendered righteous) by the works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ. We know that Paul was not trying to marginalize the Law because in places like Romans 7:12 he said the Law is holy, righteous and good. But he was arguing against the improper use of the Law as the basis by which we are made acceptable to God. We are not justified by observing the Law but by faith in the completed work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-24).
“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:17-21).
I’m convinced that learning how the Levitical Feasts were observed in Biblical times, and how Jewish wedding customs provide insight into the relationship between the Lord and His Church, can be very helpful to our spiritual growth. I myself have benefited greatly from doing so. But for anyone who believes that keeping the Law is a necessary component of their salvation, I pray this study will convince them otherwise. Because if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing.
So far Paul has made some pretty strong statements against combining Law and Grace, but as we’ll see next time, he’s just getting started. See you then.