Historical and Theological Setting

Galatians – Living by Grace

Historical and Theological Setting

a. What happened during that period?

  • Historical Setting – Galatians was written to address fundamental issues caused by Jewish believers who proclaimed a mixture of Judaism and Christianity. Paul had proclaimed the free grace of God for all men through the death of Christ. The legalizers contended that Christianity could only work within the sphere of the Mosaic Law. Faith in Christ, involving the free gifts of the Holy Spirit, was not sufficient. Obedience to the Mosaic Law (Gal 2:16, 21; 3:2; 5:4; etc.), which requires observance of festival days and the Sabbath (4:10), was stressed. Martin Luther, the Reformer, claimed Galatians as “my epistle”. So wedded was Luther to Galatians, both in interest and temperament, that, together, they shaped the course of the Reformation. Hence, Galatians has often been called the “Magna Carta of Christian Liberty” and the “Christian’s Declaration of Independence”.
  • Tension with the Jewish Community – As the gospel started to spread with the journeys of the apostles, more and more Gentiles became believers and questions began to arise regarding a Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses and to Judaism as a whole. It was also apparent that resentment and jealousy arose amongst Jewish believers, many of whom still clung on to full observance of the ceremonial law, especially the rite of circumcision. Resentment and jealousy could possibly stem from the fact that Gentiles could receive salvation without having to go through the various restrictions and observances that the Jews continue to adhere to. It was also probably a reaction of envy against their sheer success, in terms of new converts, and response towards Paul, Barnabbas, etc. The Jewish believers still had previously held views about non-Jews, cleanliness, rituals, the legacy of the Pharisaic beliefs and practices.

Some believe that the attempt at Judaizing Christianity was also aimed at creating a half way compromise with the non believing Jews, to avoid their persecution.

If we were to set ourselves in the environment then, and imagine, it does not seem unreasonable for Jewish believers, who until conversion followed the directions of the Old Testament, to still regard many of the ceremonial practices as directed by God. Notwithstanding Jesus’ teachings, it would not be easy to just shake off all these practices overnight. There was as yet no New Testament. To many, disregarding God’s instructions, such as those given in the Old Testament, would seem to be a huge step away from what they were used to. How does Christianity gel with the Old Testament? Are the Old Testament beliefs and directions still valid? Or no longer so?

In that time, it was clear that there was discomfort on this matter not only in Galatia. Paul recounted how he rebuked Cephas or Peter for his conduct at Antioch where Peter for awhile withdrew himself from eating with Gentiles, “fearing the party of the circumcision” (Gal 2:12). Even “Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy” (Gal 2:13). In Acts 15, we see that this was indeed a serious issue that had to be addressed by the Council there.

If an average Jewish Christian might struggle with these dilemmas, it was widely held that the ones who were the main advocates of adherence to Mosaic Law and practices were the Pharisees who had converted.

b. What did the Judaizers advocate? – Doctrinal Challenge

Many Jews resided in Ancyra (Josephus, Act. 16:62); among these probably, as elsewhere, Paul began his ministry, and from them perhaps emanated the Judaizers who almost induced the Gentile Christians (Gal 4:8-9), who constituted the majority of the Galatians church, to undergo circumcision (Gal 1:6; 3:1,3; 5:2-3; 6:12-13). Accustomed, when pagan, to the some mystic worship prevalent in the region, they more readily were led to believe that the full privileges of Christianity could only be attained by submitting to elaborate ceremonial symbolism (Gal 4:9-11; 5:7-12). They even gave ear to the insinuation that Paul himself observed the law among the Jews though he persuaded the Gentiles to renounce it, and that he wished to keep his converts in a lower state of privileges, excluded from the high Christian standing enjoyed by the circumcised (Gal 4:16; 5:11; compare Gal 2:17), and that in “becoming all things to all men” he was but a men-pleaser, seeking to form a party for himself; moreover that he was not, as he represented, an apostle divinely commissioned by Christ, but a mere messenger of the twelve and the Jerusalem church, and that his teaching now did not accord with that of Peter and James, the acknowledged “pillars” of the church, and ought therefore to be rejected.

They argued that a person must be circumcised according to the Law of Moses (5:12) and must keep the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days (4:10), including the Jewish ceremonial law (5:3).

Circumcision is now proposed by the Judaizers as a supplement to faith in Christ, as the qualification for sonship to Abraham and communion with the apostolic church (Gal 3:7,29). After the Council at Jerusalem , they no longer say outright, “Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul’s Galatian converts, they admit, “have begun in the Spirit”; they bid them “be perfected” and attain the full Christian status by conforming to Moses – “Christ will profit” them much more, if they add to their faith circumcision (Gal 3:3; 5:2; compare Rom 3:1). This insidious proposal might seem to be in keeping with the findings of the Council; Peter’s action at Antioch lent color to it. In Galatians 2:11-12, ” … when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him … For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles, he began to withdraw … fearing the party of the circumcision”. Such a grading of the Circumcision and Uncircumcision within the church offered a tempting solution of the legalist controversy; for it appeared to reconcile the universal destination of the gospel with the inalienable per-rogatives of the sons of Abraham.

c. What were Paul’s theological arguments?

Paul countered with an impassioned defense of his conversion (1:11-17) and of his approval by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem (1:18-2:10). Indeed, the gospel that Paul had delivered to the Galatians was not his own, nor was he taught it; but it came “through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). Those who presumed to change it were meddling with the very plan of God (1:7-8).

God’s plan is that Jews and Gentiles are justified before God by faith alone. This plan can be traced to the beginning of Israel’s history, for Abraham, “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Gal 3:6; also Gen 15:6). The law, which did not come until 430 years after Abraham (3:17), was never intended to replace justification by faith. Rather, the law was to teach us of our need for Christ (3:24-25). Christ, therefore, is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham.

The result of justification by grace through faith is spiritual freedom. Paul appealed to the Galatians to stand fast in their freedom, and not get “entangled again with a yoke of bondage [that is, the Mosaic law]” (5:1). Christian freedom is not an excuse to gratify one’s lower nature; rather, it is an opportunity to love one another (5:13; 6:7-10). Such freedom does not insulate one from life’s struggles. Indeed, it may intensify the battle between the Spirit and the flesh. Nevertheless, the flesh (the lower nature) has been crucified with Christ (2:20); and, as a consequence, the Spirit will bear its fruit – such as love, joy, and peace – in the life of the believer (5:22-23).

These connected principles are at stake in the contention; they make up the doctrine of the epistle.