Galatians is possibly the earliest letter we have from Paul. (This is certainly debated, but it makes the most sense to me.) Unlike most of his other letters, this was written to “the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2) rather than to an individual congregation. Paul visited 1 these churches during his first missionary tour (Acts 13-14), before returning to Antioch and subsequently defending God’s work among the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). The purpose of that council was to decide what Gentiles were required to do in order to fully participate the Church, i.e., circumcision. After great debate, the apostles and elders finally determined that only belief was necessary, as with the Jews, yet they encouraged the Gentiles to refrain from a few practices that would unnecessarily offend Jews among them (Acts 15:19-21).
Paul’s letter to the Galatian believers is a treatise on justification by grace through faith alone, second only to Romans in its importance to our understanding of the doctrine of salvation. The entire letter is an explanation and defense of that doctrine, because the Galatians were turning away from it due to a contingent of Jewish legalists who demanded that they be circumcised. If this letter were written later in Paul’s ministry, as some infer from 4:13 2, after the Jerusalem Council, it seems he would certainly have referred to that decision in order to shut down the claims of his detractors. Instead, Paul’s entire argument was based on the doctrine of justification which came to him directly from Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures.
Chapter one does not follow the pattern of Paul’s other letters, or those of the day, in that he did not offer a word/prayer of thanksgiving after his greeting. Instead, he jumped immediately into the purpose of his letter – “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). “So quickly” seems to indicate that it had not been long since they had accepted the gospel that they were turning away from it, though the Greek word can also mean “so easily.” Paul noted that they had deserted, not just the gospel, but the Savior himself, and began to follow “a different gospel,” another message they had been given by those who would “distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7). This brought Paul’s fiercest condemnation – eternal hell for those who preach a heretical salvation (Galatians 1:8-9).
It seems that Paul’s detractors painted a picture of him as a “hit-and-run” charlatan. As his various letters show, they claimed he did not really care about his listeners, changed his message to gain favor with his audience, and was in it primarily for what he could get out of it. It seems they also continued to attack his authority as a genuine apostle (Galatians 1:1). His response was measured but firm.
First, he stated that one cannot work to please both people and God (Galatians 1:10). Second, he insisted that his message was not fluid. In fact, it did not even come from a fluid source, from whom he could have received the wrong message. Instead, Paul’s message came from Jesus himself (Galatians 1:2, 11-12). Third, his own story of dramatic life change proved that he both broke close ties with his former colleagues and intentionally stayed away from the apostles in Jerusalem in order to not be swayed by anyone’s doctrine except the Savior’s (Galatians 1:13-24). When he finally did begin to meet with the other apostles, it was with only a few of them and only for a short time. Fourth, he declared that God had chosen him for this very specific ministry, that his previous life was utterly opposed to that calling, and that it required direct intervention by God to set him on the correct path. Thus, anything his opponents claimed could only make him more insistent on his message, not less.
- While it is possible that he founded them during this tour, it is also possible that he founded some of them during his tenure in “Syria and Cilicia” (Galatians 1:21) before Barnabas called him to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). ↩
- They see Paul’s statement, “I preached the gospel to you the first time” (NASB), to mean that he had been there at least twice before writing this letter. Even so, he easily could have been there more than once in the fourteen years of ministry (Galatians 2:1) preceding this letter. ↩