This New Testament letter had a significant impact on the six-teenth century reformer Martin Luther who once stated that ‘The Epistle to the Galatians is my Epistle; I have betrothed myself to it; it is my wife’.1 He saw in this letter a direct parallel with the legalism that Paul confronts in Galatia and that of the Papacy of his day.2
It has been said that Galatians ‘takes up controversially what Romans puts systematically’.3 That may be too facile an explanation, but as we read Galatians it does reflect a much more trenchant approach on the part of the apostle Paul than in Romans. He clearly seems to have the ‘bit between his teeth’ as he engages in a heated debate with those who were seeking to undermine the very fundamentals of the Christian faith. His words, on occasions, are very sharp and reflect the urgency of the matter at hand. As Alan Cole puts it, ‘The Epistle to the Galatians is spiritual dynamite, and it is therefore almost impossible to handle it without explosions’.4
So what is the letter essentially about? Well, shortly after the Galatians had embraced the gospel of the grace of God, they started to waver in their allegiance to Christ alone. They were being troubled by certain individuals who sought to pervert the message that Paul had originally preached to them. It was asserted by these individuals that their salvation was not complete unless they added to it Jewish ritualism, which included, among other things, a strict adherence to the Mosaic law, and the practice of circumcision, cp. Acts 15. 1. They were also impugning Paul’s apostleship, suggesting that it was inferior to that of the apostles at Jerusalem, being later in time. If they could in some way discredit or depreciate Paul’s apostolic credentials, then the message he proclaimed was also in danger of being discredited, and, worse still, rejected. Paul, therefore, devotes part of his letter vindicating his claim to be an apostle, and thus establishing the validity of his God-given message. This is the crux of his apologia. In biblical terms, the credibility of the messenger and his message are indissolubly linked, Matt. 10. 40.
Paul’s argument in the letter can be conveniently divided into three parts:
|Chapters 1 and 2||Chapters 3 and 4||Chapters 5 and 6|
|The argument from history (Personal and apologetic)||The argument from precedent (Old Testament theology)||The moral/ethical argument|
Chapters 1 and 2 – The argument from history - (Personal and apologetic)
The defection of the Galatians was imminent, 1. 6, the Greek verb is in the active present tense, and can be literally rendered ‘being removed’, implying that they were in the process of changing sides. Immediate remedial action was therefore necessary, so Paul dispenses with his usual opening salutation. He makes no room for praise since he views the Galatians as turncoats,5 and points out to them the irony of embracing a message, which some described as good news, but which, in fact, was quite the reverse! It was a message of a completely different kind, and this is possibly why Paul uses two different Greek adjectives in verses 6 and 7 for the word ‘another’.6 Paul states that it was a different kind of gospel to that which he proclaimed. The centrality of Paul’s preaching was the cross of Christ, 6. 14, but his opponents emphasized salvation by works and law keeping. To Paul, it was simply irrational as well as contradictory that believers were prepared to take on board a message that would:
An anathema is pronounced on anyone, either angelic or human, who proclaimed a different gospel to that preached by Paul.
Paul defends his apostleship in the opening verse of chapter 1. He does not claim that he is the only apostle of Jesus Christ – in the Greek text there is no definite article before ?π?στολος in 1. 1 – but that he is to be numbered along with the other apostles. He points out that his commission as an apostle came from the risen Christ, not through any human agent or agency. History bore witness to the fact that after his miraculous conversion to Christianity, he had spent three years consolidating his faith in the Arabian desert, without any contact with the other apostles, vv. 17-18; Acts 9. 22. His three years of probation can be compared with the years that the other apostles spent with Christ during His earthly ministry.
Later, though, Paul did make contact with the other apostles, making a visit to Jerusalem. This first encounter was shortly after his three years in Arabia, but, on this one particular occasion, he met only with Peter, and James the Lord’s brother, 1. 18-19. Prima facie, nothing seems to have come out of his meeting, although a comparison with Acts chapter 9 verses 26-29, suggests that for most of this fifteen-day visit, Paul was preaching the gospel rather than debating doctrine with the other apostles. A second visit was made by Paul to Jerusalem some fourteen years later, i.e., presumably fourteen years after his conversion. On this occasion, 2. 1, Paul was accompanied by Barnabas and Titus. They initially conferred with the leading brethren in private and then publicly on the crucial matter of the substance of Paul’s preaching, v. 2 – the substance of which is clearly set out by Paul in chapter 1 verses 3 to 5. Was it in fact any different from that taught by the other apostles? Was Paul guilty of misleading men and self-deception? Clearly not, for his critics were soon silenced by the warm reception that the other apostles gave him, 2. 9. They were also only too ready to endorse his apostleship and to acknowledge that there was no difference in the content of the gospel that he proclaimed – ‘they had nothing to add to my gospel’, v. 6 J. B. Phillips. One difference was, however, noted, and that was that Paul had been called to preach to the Gentile world, not to the Jewish commonwealth, vv. 7, 9, cp. Rom. 11. 13.
Unfortunately, the rapprochement was quickly broken when the apostle Peter compromised the gospel by withdrawing himself from uncircumcised believers because he was afraid of what would be said by certain Jewish Christians, Gal. 2. 11-13. Paul immediately rebukes Peter for this flagrant compromise of the gospel, which emphasized the equality of all believers in Christ, vv. 11, 14; 4. 27-28. In so doing, Paul reminded the Galatians that men could never be justified by law. Any attempt to resurrect that which was now effete would have disastrous consequences not only for them, but would, in effect, render the work of Christ to be null and void, i.e., it would bring the work of Christ into complete disrepute, 2. 16-18. Leading Christians astray would inevitably lead to the judgement of God, irrespective of the status of the person involved, 5. 10. Paul ends his argument as he had begun, with the death of Christ, 2. 20, the only message which secured righteousness for those who believed, v. 21.
Luther’s comments on Galatians. Luther sometimes referred to the letter as ‘his Katie’ in deference to his wife Katharine (von Bora) who he married on 27 June 1525.
Godet says, with regard to Luther on Galatians (quoted in ‘The Outlined Galatians’ by Robert Lee, Pickering and Inglis Ltd., pg. 2, ‘This was the pebble from the brook with which like another David, he went forth to meet the papal giant and smote him in the forehead’.
Robert Lee The Outlined Bible, Pickering and Inglis Ltd., Analysis No: 48.
Alan Cole, Galatians, An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale, pg. 11.
In the papyri, the Greek word μετατ?θημι was used to describe one Dionysius of Heracleia, who deserted the Stoics for the Epicureans (’the Turncoat’) – The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament by Moulton and Milligan, Eerdmans, pg. 405.
The Greek adjective ?τερος in verse 6 refers to numerically one, but not of the same nature, form, class, kind, whereas the Greek adjective ?λλος in verse 7 refers to numerically one but of the same nature, form, class etc. Considerable importance has been placed by many expositors on this difference because of classical usage, but one should be cautious about building a theory on synonyms. In fact, Paul uses both adjectives interchangeably elsewhere, see 1 Cor. 12. 9-10; 2 Cor. 12. 4. As Gordon Fee indicates, ‘Words were sometimes chosen for the sake of variety (e.g., John’s interchange of ?γαπ?ω (love) and φιλ?ω (love)), because of wordplay, or because of alliteration or other stylistically pleasing reasons’. New Testament Exegesis, WJK, pg. 80.