Here is a recording of the session. Notes of the content are below.
We are beginning a new study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and today we will focus on what we can look forward to learning from this study.
Here is the first sentence in Cole’s commentary of Galatians. “The epistle to the Galatians is spiritual dynamite, and it is almost impossible to handle it without spiritual explosions”. This reminds me of the time I was in High School and loved dabbling with chemicals. I was too dumb to think about safety measures and had several explosive accidents due to my handling of the chemicals. God says that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16). The word there is “dunamis”, from which we get the English word “dynamite”. Galatians brings the true gospel to sharp focus, so no wonder Cole would make such a comment!
Martin Luther’s great spiritual awakening came as he studied this letter. It cannot be read in a detached manner without personal involvement. It challenges our present-day superficial faith and provokes our opposition. It was a controversial letter. As we wrestle with the implications of this letter in this study, it will also challenge some of our assumptions and bring us face to face with what the true gospel is and give us the tools to discern many of the counterfeit gospels that are prevalent around us today.
My desire during this study, is not to get into such great detail that we “miss the woods for the trees”. Galatians is different to James, in that there is a line of thought and a sustained argument in this letter. My goal during this study is that we understand the thrust of Paul’s argument, and not so much each and every nuance.
If we are to ask, how we should summarize this entire letter, it would be this. It is a succinct statement and defense of Paul’s understanding of the gospel.
Occasion and Purpose
The answer to this question is very simple as we read this letter. This letter was written as a response to people who were troubling Gentile Christians in Galatia by insisting that to be a “good Christian” one had to already be or become a “good Jew”. Circumcision and keeping some of the ceremonial Jewish laws were also necessary for salvation. In other words, salvation was not by faith alone and in Christ alone. It was faith in Christ plus obedience to the law. Paul fought passionately against this, insisting that it was in fact a serious denial of the very heart of the gospel itself. The stakes were very high. By adding to the gospel, it was no longer just a variant of the gospel, but it had corrupted it to such an extent that it had become heresy.
As we study this book, and see the issues involved that caused Paul so much concern, we will learn how to think in a similar way, to discern the truth preached by different preachers and churches today. This was the main reason I chose Galatians for us to study at this time.
Someone has described this letter as a “sword flashing in a great swordsman’s hand”. Both Paul and the gospel were under attack. If that attack succeeded, Christianity might have become just another Jewish sect. So, Paul resists this attack vigorously.
It will be good for us, as we study this letter, to take this to heart, and to evaluate what it is that we believe at its very core. Is it the true gospel as will be explained here? Have we added to it? These are critical questions that we need to wrestle with as we work through this letter.
Date of Composition
Scholars have tried to synchronize Galatians with Acts, and the date of this letter depends on which visits to Jerusalem as described in Acts are referenced here. That would determine whether this letter was written before or after the Council in Jerusalem in AD 49. I will not get into a detailed discussion right now, because we will see it in more detail when we study the second chapter.
But there is another reason based on the contents of the letter itself, that helps us deduce its approximate date, namely, that the letter does not reference the Jerusalem Council or the decisions made there. That was the watershed meeting of the early church leaders described in Acts 15, which dealt with what was to be expected of new Gentile believers. Some commentators call the absence of Paul mentioning the Jerusalem Council, a “deafening silence”. It would have been enormously helpful to Paul’s argument if he could have mentioned the decision of the Council, that Gentiles should not be circumcised. This, after all, was a major point of contention between Paul and the false teachers influencing the Galatians. So, it seems likely that Galatians was written before the Jerusalem Council, which would place it around AD 48-49!
This would imply that this is the earliest letter that Paul wrote. At this time in the church’s history, the early church had not yet fully wrestled with the theological implications of Christianity in the context of Gentile inclusion into the church, and the church’s Judaism roots. Paul’s letter to the Galatians represents Paul’s systematic reasoning about what those implications were. We see the conclusions and assertions in Galatians were officially ratified in the Jerusalem Council meeting described in Acts 15.
The letter is addressed: “To the churches of Galatia”. He calls them Galatians in Gal 3:1, and he refers to them as the “churches in Galatia” in 1 Cor 16:1. There is some debate about what region is envisaged (there is the “northern hypothesis” and the “southern hypothesis”). Considering it was relatively easy for the Judaizers to get to the churches in this letter, and because the southern part of Galatia which was more accessible, it is likely that the “southern hypothesis” is more correct. This is also consistent with our deductions regarding the approximate year this letter was written
In particular, this would mean the churches referenced are in four major cities, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. These were places Paul evangelized during his first missionary journey and is described in Acts 13 and Acts 14. In each city was now a church. These were not different denominations, but different local congregations. Clearly there was a large Gentile contingent, but there were also some Jews there.
Paul begins his letter with a claim: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Gal 1:1).
Why would Paul start this way? Does this not make him a braggart? No! It was because the truth of the gospel was at stake. So, he defended his apostolic authority in order to defend the gospel.
Paul was under attack. People were questioning whether he was a genuine apostle, so this is how he starts his letter. He is an apostle. Paul says that his calling was not a human calling but “through Jesus Christ and God the Father”.
“Apostle” means “one who is sent”. In Mark 3:14 says “he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach”. Apostles were specially called men.
The bible identifies them as the original 11 (other than Judas) who were disciples of Jesus. Matthias was added to complete the 12 as narrated in the Acts 1. Here the criteria for an apostle included being a witness of Jesus’s resurrection. Paul understands that by Jesus revealing Himself in the Damascus road, he had been commissioned to be an apostle.
He says in 1 Cor 15:8-10 – “Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am …”.
The secret to Paul’s zeal was that he knew that he had been directly appointed by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is what enabled him to endure so much suffering in his life.
Now here is the stupendous implication of this truth. When we read Galatians, we are hearing Christ. An apostle speaks with the authority of the One who sent him. Galatians is the very word of the King of Kings. Isn’t it sad that we cry out to God for revelation and make almost no serious effort to understand the deep things of Scripture – the very Word of Christ.
We can now ask the question, “when was Paul called to be an apostle”. The answer is surprising. We find it in Galatians 1:15. In his own words, he says that God “set me apart before I was born” and called me by His grace and was pleased to reveal His Son to me in order that I may preach Him”.
I want you to digest this for a minute. God had set Paul apart before he was even born. Paul was born well before Jesus began his public ministry. This means the inclusion of Gentiles into the fold of Christianity, was not an after-thought in the mind of God, because the rejection by the Jews, but part of God’s eternal plan. Isn’t that a small mind-bender?
Here is another one! God allowed Paul to take an awful detour and persecute the church for years. He allowed Paul to participate in the murder of the first Christian, Stephen. What a detour that was! And then God called Him after all this! This shows how mysterious God’s ways are. He does not think the way we think. This gives us hope as we pray for loved ones and for those who are rebellious against God. God’s grace is more powerful than their resistance!
I would like to make a final comment in passing – maybe the first controversial application from our study! The Bible says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20). Thus, it is clear that there are no apostles today. The foundation has already been laid! There is a movement called the “New Apostolic Reformation”, which advocates for the lost offices of prophet and apostle. However, that is not biblical.
Galatians is a dangerous book. It exposes what is a popular substitute for spiritual living that we have in our churches today – legalism or if I may call it “moralism”. Many Christians think they are spiritual because of what they do or what they do not do, or because of the leader they follow, or the denomination they belong to. Galatians will expose how wrong this is.
Wiersbe says that as he studied this book he was humbled as well as challenged. Humbled because he realized God is not too impressed with our ministries no longer how impressed they may appear from a human standpoint. He was also challenged because it confronts us to start living deeper. We need to let the Holy Spirit have His way.
We need to allow the Holy Spirit to take over our lives. This will give is freedom, not legalism. Cooperation with other Christians, not competition. Glory to God, and not praise to man. Then Revival”!
So, this is a dangerous book. It was dangerous for Paul to write it. It was dangerous for the Galatians to read it, and it may be a dangerous book for us to study. Perhaps we may lose some friends, as we wrestle with the truths we are confronted with in this letter. But it would be worth it. Paul’s battle cry is “It was for freedom that Christ has set you free” (Gal 5:1). This is the heart of the message of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Freedom in Christ! Freedom in service. Freedom in love. Freedom in forgiveness. Freedom from any kind of bondage. Jesus came to set us free.