Date: c. A.D. 48
The letter to the Galatians is probably the first letter the apostle Paul wrote. He had made a missionary trip to the churches in that region (Galatia), which was described by Luke in Acts 13-14. The major cities Paul preached at were Antioch, Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe, important centers of population and trade. Paul felt it important to preach the gospel to such strategic crossroads. That way travelers could be reached who would carry the gospel back to their own countries. Paul was not received well by those cities, however. The Jews listened at first because Paul was also a Jew, but their willingness to listen changed when Paul began speaking about Jesus as the Messiah. The Gentiles became hostile when Paul rejected their paganism. At Lystra Paul was savagely attacked and left for dead. In spite of that, a number of people believed and the church was established in the region of Galatia.
A serious problem arose, prompting the writing of this letter. Some strong-minded Jewish Christians had arrived in Galatia to undermine Paul’s authority. They were of the opinion that a person could not be saved if he were not circumcised according to Jewish custom. They said that Paul was arrogant, a liar, had not told the Galatians the whole truth, was weak and sickly, and a coward. The Galatians were beginning to waver in their allegiance to Paul and in their acceptance of his gospel preaching. Because of those circumstances, Paul wrote the letter now titled “Galatians.”
Theological Themes in the Epistle of Galatians
The central message of the letter to the Galatians is that a person is saved by faith alone; being saved means being free. Being saved by faith alone is the heart of the gospel. Paul made his case by showing that Abraham was saved by faith (a good example because the Jews considered Abraham the father of their nation). This is the way God has established the salvation of humankind. Jesus died so that we would not have to earn our own salvation–which we could not do even if we wanted to. To deny that we can be saved by faith is to deny God himself.
When a person believes, that person becomes free–free from the penalty of sin, from useless rules, from the law, from evil powers, from himself or herself. It is a message that opens the door to meaningful life and joy. The Holy Spirit enters, bringing “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance” (5:22-23). A person can then live for others, loving them and bearing their burdens. Freedom to be what God wants and to serve others is the heart of the Christian life.
Paul defended his point that we are saved by faith and made free by an elaborate set of arguments. He showed that his apostleship entitled him to speak with authority, that the risen Jesus had revealed the truth to him, that the other apostles in Jerusalem agreed, that the Old Testament taught what he was teaching, that the Holy Spirit affirmed the truth of his message by working miracles, and that this gospel worked in life. Anyone who did not agree should be careful so as not to be fighting against God. Whatever persons sow, that will they reap. A life of faith brings life. A life of self-seeking and evil brings death. The choice is always before us, and Paul urges that we choose life.
Outline for the Epistle of Galatians
- Introduction Galatians 1:1-9
- Paul’s defense of his apostleship Galatians 1:10-2:10
- Paul’s defense of his gospel Galatians 2:11-21
- Salvation and its benefits Galatians 3:1-4:31
- The freedom that Christ brings Galatians 5:1-6:18