Book Overview - Galatians
by Donald C. Fleming
During his first missionary journey into Asia Minor, Paul evangelized the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia, and established churches in the towns of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (Acts 13:13-52; Acts 14:1-23). These are the churches he addresses in his letter to the Galatians. (See maps located in the commentary on Acts.)
The early chapters of Acts record that the Christian church was born in Jerusalem, and in the beginning consisted almost entirely of Jews. As the disciples moved out to other areas, large numbers of Gentiles believed and so became part of the expanding church. With Jews and Gentiles in the same church, difficulties soon arose.
Many of the Christian Jews in Jerusalem were still very Jewish in their outlook, and looked upon Christianity as a sort of improved Judaism. As Jews they had been pleased to see a few Gentiles become converts to Judaism from time to time, but they were not pleased at what they now saw happening in the church. They did not think it right that people of any nationality could enter the community of God's people without any thought for Jewish laws relating to food, cleansing and circumcision.
On one occasion Jewish traditionalists in the Jerusalem church rebuked Peter for eating with Gentiles, but when Peter explained how God had shown him that he blesses Jews and Gentiles alike, they said no more (Acts 11:1-18). However, many were not fully convinced, and when Paul returned to Syrian Antioch after his first missionary journey, trouble broke out again.
Trouble in Syrian Antioch
While Paul was in Antioch, a group of Jews came from Jerusalem and taught the Gentile Christians that they were required to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (Acts 14:26-28; Acts 15:1; Acts 15:5). These men claimed to have authority from James (the brother of Jesus and the most prominent leader in the Jerusalem church), but James later denied this (Galatians 2:12; Acts 15:24). They argued so cleverly that even mature Christians such as Peter and Barnabas stopped eating with the Gentiles in case they broke Jewish food laws (Galatians 2:12-13).
Paul, who had been as zealous a Jew as any before his conversion, saw that the teaching of the Judaisers was contrary to the Christian gospel. His forthright public rebuke caused Peter and Barnabas to see their error and resume their fellowship with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11; Galatians 2:14; cf. Acts 15:6-12).
Trouble in Galatia
Soon after Paul corrected the trouble at Antioch, he heard that the Judaisers had spread their teaching to the recently established churches in Galatia. He was angry at the Judaisers for upsetting the young Christians, and shocked that the Christians had believed them (Galatians 1:6; Galatians 3:1). In response he sent off the sharply worded letter known to us as Galatians.
In this letter Paul asserts that Christians are saved by faith and live by faith. They are not saved by the law of Moses, nor are they governed by it; yet at the same time they are not lawless. They are under the direction of the indwelling Spirit of God (Galatians 3:3; Galatians 5:1; Galatians 5:13; Galatians 5:16; Galatians 5:18).
The problem caused by the Judaisers had now spread to the most distant parts of the church. It therefore needed to be dealt with quickly and decisively. Because the teaching had come from Jerusalem, that was the place to discuss the matter. Therefore, after he sent off his letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul went to Jerusalem with Barnabas and others from Antioch to settle the matter once and for all (Acts 15:2-35).
1:1-2:21 Paul's gospel is the only gospel
3:1-4:31 Law-keeping has no place in the gospel
5:1-6:18 The fruits of Christian liberty
the Second Week after Epiphany