Lesson 3 : "The Epistle to the Galatians; Defending the Gospel of Grace
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The second piece of writing which emerged from the general controversy over keeping the Torah (Mosaic Law) was Paul's epistle to the Galatians, As James was written from the standpoint of a strict Torah observant Jew who worked to avoid all semblance of looseness and license in the use of ethical freedom, "the perfect law of liberty" (Jas. 1:25), so Galatians was written by a champion of freedom who saw that neither Gentiles nor Jews could be delivered from their sins by self-effort in keeping a set of ethical principles. Galatians accordingly has been called "The Magna Charta of spiritual emancipation", because it declared that "Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus) redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us ... that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Gal. 3:13,14).
Galatia is the name that was given originally to the territory in north central Asia. Minor, where the invading Gauls settled in the third century before Christ and maintained an independent kingdom for many years. Gradually the Gallic population was absorbed into the other peoples living there, and after a number of political changes, the territory became the property of Rome in 25 B.C. The Romans incorporated this northern section into a larger division of land which they made a province and called by the name of Galatia. Galatia, then, under Roman rule, could mean Galatia proper, which the Gauls had founded, or it could be applied to the whole province which included the southern cities of Antioch, Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra.
Biblical scholars assume that Paul's visit to Galatia proper began on the second journey when he left the southern territory of Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium, and traveled through "the region of Phrygia and Galatia." mentioned in Acts 16:6. According to this view, Paul traversed the territory of old Galatia, including the cities of Pessinus, Ancyra, and Tavium, and finally reached Troas after a long journey. A second similar trip on the third journey is stated in Acts 18:23.
Their theory supposes that "the churches of Galatia" were those of Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra which Paul established on his first missionary journey. They were subsequently revisited on the later journeys (Acts 16:1-6, 18:23). The second tour of these southern churches did not preclude completely a northern swing in his last itinerary, for the language of Acts 16:2, 4, and 6 shows that Paul covered the territory around Derbe and Lystra, and then that he went along the Phrygio-Galatic border to Mysia and Bithynia, at which point he turned westward to Troas.
If then, this theory be adopted, it means that Paul and Barnabas on their first tour preached in the cities of southern Galatia, and on their return trip organized the converts into church groups (Acts 14:21-23), closing their mission about A.D. 48. After their return to Antioch, Peter paid a visit to the city, and openly fellowshipped with the Gentile converts. He had not been there long before some men came down from Jerusalem who professed to follow the strict observance of the law that James practiced, and who argued that unless the converts were circumcised, they could not be saved (15:1). Peter, overawed by their attitude, withdrew from eating with the Gentiles. In the meantime the same controversy had broken out in Galatia, agitated perhaps by local Messianic Jewish influences which were quite strong (14:2). Paul therefore on the eve of the council wrote this letter to the Galatians churches, in order to settle for them by correspondence the question which he expected to debate in the coming assembly in Jerusalem. This conclusion is confirmed somewhat by a comparison of Peter's speech in Acts 15:7-11 with the structure of Galatians as a whole. His emphasis on his personal calling and experience, on theological argumentation, and on the practical development of grace parallels the general outline of Galatians and also reflects Paul's conversation with him as reported in Galatians 2. If Galatians can be fitted into this situation, it was written from Antioch, just prior to the council in A.D. 48 or 49.
The following diagram will give a fairly satisfactory perspective of the chronology involved.
CHART OF EARLY PAULINE CHRONOLOGY
Galatians was not written as an essay in contemporary history. It was a protest against corruption of the gospel of Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ). The essential truth of justification by faith rather than by the works of the law had been obscured by the Torah observant Messianic Jewish insistence that believers in Messiah must keep the law if they expected to be perfect before God. When Paul learned that this teaching had begun to penetrate the Galatian churches and that it had alienated them from their heritage of Liberty, he wrote the impassioned remonstrance that is contained in this epistle. The tone of the book is warlike. It fairly crackles with indignation though it is not the anger of personal pique but of spiritual principle. "Though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema" (1:8), cried Paul as he reproved the Galatians for their acceptance of the legalistic error.
The structure of Galatians is symmetrical and logical. Its outline is as follows:
GALATIANS: THE DEFENSE OF SPIRITUAL LIBERTY
The book is the earliest of Paul's extant writings. It summarizes the heart of "the gospel which [he preached] among both Jews and Gentiles" (Gal. 2:2). In it he showed that man's chief problem is obtaining a right standing with God. Since humanity is incapable of establishing this himself because "a man is not justified by the works of the law" (2:16), it must be provided for him by another. Messiah Yeshua has given this standing, for He "gave himself for your sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil world" (1:4). His provision is available to those who put their full trust in Him, for "the promise by faith in Messiah [is] given to them that believe" (3:22). This standing is not simply a legal fiction, applied only externally or ceremonially, but it becomes part of the inner life through union with Yeshua. "I have been crucified with Messiah; and it is no longer I that live, but Messiah liveth in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me" (2:20). Salvation is thus not only the application of a new life, but is also its impartation.
The books of James and Galatians thus illustrates the two aspects of Jewish and Gentile believers which from the very beginning have seemed to be conflicting, though in reality they are supplementary. In James there is a stern insistence upon the ethic of Messiah, a demand that faith prove its existence by its fruits. Nevertheless James, no less than Paul, emphasizes the need of the transformation of the individual by the grace of God, for he says, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures" (Jas. 1:18). Galatians stresses the dynamic of the gospel which produces the ethic. "Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us ... that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Gal. 3:13, 14). Nor was Paul less concerned than James about the ethical life, for he says: "Use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another" (5:13). Like the two sides of a coin, these two aspects of spiritual truth must always accompany each other.
Today’s Messianic Jews struggle in a similar way, whether to hold to mandatory Torah observance or not. Paul’s writing clearly demonstrates that Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah Yeshua are not bound to the Law, but rather grace. With this freedom, Messianic Jews may celebrate Torah observance conscious of their New Covenant freedoms and with respect for other Jewish and Gentile believers that are not so observant.
(This study has been adapted from "New Testament Survey", by Merrill C. Tenney, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois)
Please note: In recent years the leadership within the Messianic Jewish Alliance (MJAA) has been making significant strides in addressing the problem of anti-Pauline doctrine within its ranks.