Throughout the Letter to the Galatians, Paul was defending his apostolic ministry and his Gospel against false teachers. The identity of these and their message is described more fully in the introduction. They were Jewish believers who insisted that Gentile believers needed to become Jews by becoming a proselyte, and for the men that involved circumcision. They accused Paul of having changed his message to please people. Paul often refers to them rather vaguely, including, “some who are confusing you” (1:7), false believers (2:4), the circumcision faction (or party) (2:12), those who unsettle you (6:12). I refer to them as the Judaisers.
In the first part of his letter Paul focuses on his own ministry and message, arguing from his personal testimony. His ministry was from God (1:1-5), his message was from God (1:6-12), and salvation came from God, and not through the law (1:13-17).
Apostle sent through Jesus (1:1-5)
Expanding on his standard introduction to a letter, he states his authority as an apostle and that his
ministry came from directly from God, and not from any human being (v1). An apostle is someone who
is sent, a messenger. In the NT, the word is normally used to describe the original twelve disciples, apart from Judas, plus James, Barnabas, and Paul.
He states that his message and ministry came from God independently from the church in Jerusalem.
This is a very important part of his argument in this letter (1:18 - 2:10). Paul is making it clear that his ministry and message was independent from Jerusalem, but when he submitted it to them, they agreed
to it, and added nothing to it. Paul’s gospel did not come through any human source, but through divine
It is likely that his apostolic authority was being challenged by the false teachers. The Judaisers claimed to have come from James (2:12, Acts 15:24), and to have the authority of the mother church in
Jerusalem, and to be preaching the same gospel as Jerusalem. They accused Paul of watering down the
gospel to make it more appealing to Gentiles. Instead, Paul is claiming higher authority. His commission
to be an apostle, and his gospel were from God himself.
He refers to God’s power when he describes God the Father as, "who raised him (Jesus) from the dead" (v1) This is the only one of Paul’s letters that makes a reference to God's power in the introduction. Later Paul claimed that his authority came from the risen Christ, who revealed himself to Paul on the Damascus Road (1:12).
The brethren with him (v2) are not named. Paul is not alone, but he has witnesses to his writing, possibly Barnabas. It is possible that Paul refrains from naming them because in the context of the letter, he did not want to claim any human support for his ministry, because his ministry came from God himself.
The letter is addressed to the churches of Galatia. These are most likely to be the churches in the cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Paul and Barnabas planted these churches on the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14), and Paul re-visited them on his second and third journeys with Silas. Note that there is no description of the saints, as in the other letters. Normally Paul's letters are addressed to the faithful saints in Christ Jesus, but not here, probably because they were not proving to be very faithful.
Paul's standard blessing is extended and turned into a doxology (v3). Grace is certainly the key word of the Book of Galatians. In returning to the law the Galatians had fallen from grace (5:4). Instead of relying on the grace of God for their salvation, they were depending on the outward action of circumcision. As in other letters, peace is harmony with God, others and self, as the Hebrew shalom. The grace and peace come from both God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is placed at an equal position as the Father, affirming the the deity of Jesus.
Uniquely to the letter to the Galatians, Paul extends his standard blessing into a doxology (v4-5). The introductions to Paul’s letters often introduce the most important themes of the letter, which he expands on later.
He describes Jesus as the one who, "gave himself for our sins" (v4). This is the priestly role of Jesus, who was both the priest and the sacrifice. Again, this description is relevant, as a reminder that it is Jesus who deals with the problem of sin, which cannot be helped by law-keeping.
Jesus also gave himself, "to set us free from the present evil age". Jews divided history into this age and the age to come (Eph 1:21). The age to come would be inaugurated through the coming of the Messiah, when he would deliver his people from ‘the present evil age’. Through Jesus, the age to come has already broken into this present evil age. The kingdom of God is here but not yet here. The blessings of the kingdom are already present through Jesus, even though we are still living in a fallen world, or the
present evil age. As believers, we look forward to the full coming of the kingdom.
The essence of the Gospel is that Jesus has set us free. So the message to his readers is not to return again to slavery, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Because Jesus has set us free, it is unnecessary to add anything to the redemption already available in Christ. Obedience to the law and circumcision is not needed. The death of Jesus was, "according to the will of God" (1:4). The Gospel was God's initiative, and Jesus was continually obedient to him.
In his introduction, three times Paul refers to God as Father (v1,3,4), stressing the importance of
relationship rather than ritual or law. Paul ends his blessing by giving glory to the Father (v5), praising him for the glorious deliverance through Jesus.
In most of Paul’s letters, the blessing is followed by a thanksgiving and prayer, but it is most unusual that this is omitted in Galatians. Because they are turning away from the one true gospel, there is nothing to thank God for, but only something to be astonished at (1:6).
Turning to a different gospel. (v6-9)
He begins the main part of the letter, with the words, "I am astonished ..." (v6). Through this letter, Paul expresses a wide range of often very strong emotions. He is greatly distressed about what is happening in the churches of Galatia.
Paul accuses the Galatians of “so quickly deserting the one who called you” (v6). Evidently not much time as passed since Paul first preached the Gospel in the cities of Galatia (Acts 13-14). They are
“turning to a different gospel” (v6) and by doing this, they are deserting God. Adding the requirement of keeping the law is a different gospel from the true Gospel that Paul preached to them. The Judaisers probably claimed that Paul was preaching a limited gospel, rather than their ‘full’ gospel, including circumcision.
They were called, "in the grace of Christ" (v6). Paul preached the gospel of grace in Galatia, the gospel of the free gift of salvation of Christ, appropriated by faith, and confirmed with signs and wonders. “So they remained for a long time (in Iconium), speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to his word of grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them” (Acts 14:3).
He describes the false teachers as, “some who are confusing you" (v7), showing their effect on the believers in the church. They would hear the message of the Judaisers, and would not know who to
Paul accuses them of perverting the Gospel. He then gives a double curse on anyone who preaches a
different gospel (v8, v9), a repetition for strong emphasis. Twice he says, “let that one be accursed” (anathema). These are very strong words, essentially saying to let them be handed over to the wrath of God, because they were perverting the gospel by adding to it, and changing it to a way which leads to death (5:4).
He mentions an "angel from heaven" (v8). There was a strong Jewish tradition taught that the law was received from an angel (Gal 3:19, Acts 7:53). The Judaisers claimed that their message came from
angels, giving their teaching extra authority.
What was going on in the churches of Galatia?
It appears that some of the members of the church had accepted the teaching of the Judaisers, and had
received circumcision, believing that they needed to follow the law of Moses before they could follow
Christ. By turning back to the law, Paul says that they had turned away from the grace of God, and had
abandoned God. By turning away from the gospel of grace, they had deserted God. Other members of
the churches were probably still undecided, but probably confused by the arguments.
Gospel received through revelation (1:10-12)
It appears that Paul had been accused by the Judaisers of being a man-pleaser, preaching an easy gospel without circumcision to please the Gentiles (v10). In response, he states that it is impossible to be a servant of Christ if his motivation is to please people. Using the word ‘still’, he gives a hint about his former life as a zealous Jew, persecuting the church to please men.
Even though they had turned away from the gospel, Paul still addressed his readers as brothers (v11). The main point of this part of his argument is that he received his gospel directly by revelation from Jesus Christ, and not through human mediation. This revelation was his experience on the road to Damascus
(Acts 9:1-9), when Paul had a personal encounter with the risen Lord, when he was overwhelmed with
a light from heaven.
Paul's life is a testimony that God saves people apart from the law of Moses. Before his conversion, he was zealous for Judaism. Paul's message of the grace of God and justification by faith has not changed. He is still preaching the same message that he believed after his Damascus Road experience.
In his argument over the next two paragraphs, Paul proves that he is independent theologically form
Jerusalem. He has not been taught the gospel by the apostles, but his gospel agrees with Jerusalem, and
the leaders accepted it and added nothing to it. Because of this, the chronology of his travels is most
important in his argument. We have to remember that the Judaisers claimed to have come from James
(2:12, Acts 15:24).
Through the revelation he received of the risen Jesus, Paul understood his gospel to be that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, the Son of God. He personally experienced justification by grace and faith, apart from the works of the law, which is the basic principle of the gospel. He also received his call to be the apostle to the Gentiles. All three of these were later submitted and agreed by the Jerusalem apostles.
Paul's testimony (1:13-17)
In several of his letters, Paul looks back to his former life as a persecutor of church, when he was a
zealous and advanced Jew. He saw that his life was a demonstration of his message of the grace of God
and justification by faith. He was totally opposed to the purposes of God, but God intervened, saved him,
and called him to ministry as an apostle.
During the stoning of Stephen, Saul was watching and looking after the clothes of the stoners, and he
approved of them killing him (Acts 7:58 - 8:1). Following this, Saul ravaged the church, dragging off
men and women, committing them to prison (Acts 8:3). He was breathing threats and murder against the
disciples of the Lord, asked for letters from high priest (Acts 9:1). In his testimony before the crowds in Jerusalem, he described that he was zealous for God, persecuting the Christians (Acts 22:3). He
described that he imprisoned and beat the believers (Acts 22:19). Before Agrippa he said this, “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with the authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged against them, I pursued them even to foreign cities” (like Damascus) (Acts 26:9-11).
In his letters, Paul refers to his previous life as a persecutor, saying about himself, “As for zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Phil 3:6). He described himself as the least of the apostles because persecuted the church (1 Cor 15:8), and formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence (1 Tim 1:13). The "tradition of my ancestors" (v14) would be the rabbinic tradition of Pharisees, the law plus the oral tradition.
Then comes a great contrast (v15). God had set him apart by grace before he was born, and revealed his
Son to him, with the purpose that he might proclaim him among the Gentiles (v15). On the Damascus
road, God revealed that the crucified and risen Jesus was God's Messiah. This was an impossible thought
for a zealous Jew, as Messiah's do not die, and especially do not die on a cross, because to die on a cross was to come under God's curse (3:13). The purpose of the revelation was that Paul may preach the gospel to the Gentiles. For Paul, the gospel and his apostleship are inseparable. Paul's response was obedience to the vision (v16).
At this time he did not visit Jerusalem or confer with the other apostles, but went to Arabia, after which he returned to Damascus (v17). It is not known why he went to Arabia. This visit is not mentioned in the Book of Acts. It is often speculated that he spent a period of reflection there after his conversion, or perhaps he was preaching the Gospel.
Later he had to flee from Damascus to escape from the Nabataean king Aretas by being let down the wall
in a basket (2 Cor 11:32, Acts 9:25). Perhaps this was because of his preaching in Arabia. This was the
Nabataean kingdom, which came close to the walls of Damascus.
First visit to Jerusalem - Peter & James only (1:18-24) (Acts 9:26-30)
His first visit is described in the Book of Acts, “When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But
Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the
Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts
In Galatians, Pauls says this visit was “After three years" (v18), probably meaning three years after his conversion. For three years he was independent from Jerusalem, but when he did visit for fifteen days, he only saw two of the apostles, Peter and James. James was the Lord's brother, who only became a believer after the resurrection.
He makes a solemn oath about his visit to Jerusalem (v20), which would indicate that this is very serious and important to his argument. It is likely that there was a different account his visits to Jerusalem being circulated around the churches, which he is denying.
After leaving Jerusalem he went to Syria and Cilicia (v21). According to Acts, there was a plot against his life by the Hellenistic Jews, and he had to flee to Tarsus, his home town (9:29-30).
At this time, Paul not known personally in churches of Judea, but they accepted his conversion as
genuine (v22-23). Again he is showing his independence from Jerusalem. They glorified God because
of him (v24). The feared persecutor had been saved and was preaching the gospel. They agreed with his
gospel and ministry. This also implies that the Judaisers are out of step with the churches in Judea, so
it was them, rather than Paul who were not in the main stream of the gospel.
Second visit to Jerusalem (2:1-10)
The details of the chronology imply that Paul was declaring that this was his second visit to Jerusalem, and that he had not any other visits in the meantime. This was private meeting with all the leadership in Jerusalem, when Paul told them his gospel, which they accepted. This is in the context of the accusation from the Judaisers that the leaders in Jerusalem are preaching a different gospel from Paul.
This visit was “after fourteen years” (2:1), probably meaning fourteen years after his conversion. The chronology of Paul’s visits to Jerusalem has been discussed in the introduction. There is a debate over whether this is the so-called famine visit (Acts 11), or the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
It is more likely to be the famine visit, as this is a private meeting, rather than a general meeting of all the church. "At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:27-30).
He says that he went up “in response to a revelation” (v2). This is probably the prophecy of Agabus (Acts 11:28). He mentioned this to show again his independence from Jerusalem. Paul had a private meeting with the apostles, when he laid his gospel before them, so they could recognise his gospel and his apostolic ministry, and his Gentile converts as genuine Christians.
Paul took Titus to the meeting in Jerusalem as an example of a Gentile Christian, who was not compelled to be circumcised by the Jerusalem leadership (v3), even though there was strong opposition and pressure from the Judaisers to have him circumcised, which Paul resisted. Titus is not mentioned in Acts, but was one of Paul's converts (Titus 1:4), and sent to Corinth as Paul's representative and trouble-shooter (2 Cor), and later given responsibility for the churches in Crete (Titus). It has been suggested that Titus was Luke's brother.
Paul did not submit to the false believers (v5), in contrast to Peter (v12). Paul was able to preserve the truth of the gospel.
The Jerusalem leadership recognised Paul's gospel and ministry to Gentiles, and added nothing to his Gospel (v6), unlike the Judaisers who were adding to the gospel. The leadership recognised that Paul's ministry to the Gentiles was given by God, and agreed to a general division of labour (v17). Paul was to have a ministry to the Gentiles, the uncircumcised, and Peter was to minister to the Jews, the circumcised. However this division was not exclusive, as Paul did also preach to Jews, and Peter did preach to Gentiles.
This decision shows that Paul's apostleship was recognised as equal to the other apostles by the
Jerusalem leadership, which was a very important aspect of Paul's argument against the Judaisers. Both
Peter and Paul are called by God (v8).
Paul given the right hand of fellowship (v9), meaning that he received complete recognition of his
ministry by the Jerusalem leadership, which is where the Judaisers claimed to come from (v12).
The only request was to remember the poor (v10). This would especially be those in the Jerusalem
church, which was poor. This was partly because of the severe famine predicted by Agabus, also because
of persecution. Paul arranged a collection from the Gentile churches to support the Jewish church in
Jerusalem (1 Cor 16, 2 Cor 8-9, Rom 15).
Paul opposes Cephas publicly (2:11-14)
The third support of his argument, showing the development of the relationship between Paul and Peter.
On his first visit to Jerusalem, Paul was Peter’s guest (1:18-20). On his second visit, he was recognised
as Peter’s fellow-apostle (2:1-10). Then back in Antioch, Paul was Peter’s critic (2:11-14).
Paul had been commissioned by Peter, who Paul described as one of the ‘pillars’ of the Jerusalem
church, but now Paul opposed Peter, when he saw that Peter had deviated from the truth of the gospel.
Peter had been eating with the Gentiles, probably particularly meaning the Lord's Supper eaten in the
context of a fellowship meal. However, when men claiming to have come from James arrived, he withdrew from fellowship with Gentiles. He was fearful of the Judaisers (v12), who claimed to have come from James (v12), but they James had not sent them (Acts 15:24). Their claim was a deliberate lie to deceive people.
Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy (v14), because he was not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel. Paul's argument is that Peter had changed, not that Paul had changed his gospel, as he was being accused of by the Judaisers. The words of the rebuke, is that though Peter is a Jew, he lives like a Gentile (v14). Previously he had received a revelation from God that the Gentiles are to be considered clean (Acts 10). Since then Peter had not been keeping the Jewish food laws, had been having fellowship with Gentile believers, and not been trusting in the law for his salvation. Peter had been living like a Gentile, but now Paul is accusing him of making the Gentiles live like Jews by keeping the law. The rebuke was given in public, because as a leader, Peter’s actions had affected everybody, including Barnabas (13).
Mh4>Justification by faith, not by works of the law (2:15-21)
This is probably the continuation of Paul's speech to Peter, but certainly it continues Paul's argument to the Galatians. It shows the deeper theological issues underlying the matter of Jews eating meals together with Gentiles. The way of justification is through faith, not obeying Jewish food laws and circumcision. No longer is there Jew and Gentile, but all are one in Christ (3:28).
The key word in this paragraph is ‘justified’ or ‘justification’, which occurs five times. The word comes from Greek legal system. In a court an accused person is declared not guilty publicly, and proclaimed to be righteous and an upstanding member of the community. In the Gospel, the word has the same meaning. In Christ, the believer is declared not guilty (even though we are guilty) and righteous before God, in a right relationship with God.
Justification is only possible through grace. The law can only curse people. It is no help to us to achieve salvation. It acts like a mirror to show our sinfulness and that the sentence for that sin is death. It also shows us our need of a saviour. The good news of the Gospel is that it is a gift of God's grace, which cannot be earned through any actions or rituals. This is the fundamental difference between the gospel and all other religions. The Gospel proclaims the need to accept what God has already done in Christ and receive it by faith. All other religions are based on mankind trying to put themselves right with God, either through sacrifices to appease a demanding deity, or through doing good deeds to earn salvation.
"Gentile sinners" (v15) is a rather abusive description of Gentiles by Jews, because they did not keep the law, or even have the law. In Jewish thinking, it was impossible for them to be righteous before God.
Paul stresses that as Jews they know that justification is by faith, not works of the law (v16). In one verse he repeats that they are not justified by works of the law (three times), but justified by faith in Christ (twice). That justification is attained by faith in Christ alone, and not by legal works, supported by Paul's personal testimony, and by agreement by the other apostles, and is for Jew and Gentile alike.
He then answers the inevitable accusation towards the gospel of grace, that grace leads to sin (v17-21). This is the same question that is asked in Romans, “Shall we sin so grace may abound” (Rom 6:1). As in Romans, he answers an imaginary opponent (v17). It is probable that Paul was accused of preaching licence by the Judaisers, an easy gospel of faith, which does not require obedience to the law, so behaviour does not matter. They could even be saying that according to Paul's gospel Jesus actually encourages sin. Paul's response is, “Certainly not!”. This is a very emphatic denial showing his revulsion to that idea.
The “things that I once tore down” (v18) refers to going back to the law. To do this, as Peter did, is a sin because trusting in the law makes Christ’s death worthless (v21). Instead of going back to the law to avoid sin, we have to identify ourselves with Christ. In Christ we have died to the law (v19) because we have been crucified with Christ. The old person was crucified with Christ on the cross, and we are now a new creation, indwelt with the Holy Spirit.
Living the life of grace should therefore lead to godly lifestyle, which Paul expands on in chapters 5-6. Because we are now identified with Christ, and in union with Christ, we have the power of the Spirit to avoid sin. Living holy lives is our response to God's grace, and certainly not a way to earn God's grace.
The letter of Galatians deals with three basic issues. The first is how do we attain righteousness before God, how is guilt dealt with - by law or by grace? The second is how does a person grow in the Lord, by the Gospel plus law, or the Gospel plus grace. And the third is how does a person stay away from sin - by law or by grace.