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by Arno Clemens Gaebelein
THE EPISTLE TO THE GALATIANS
This epistle was addressed to the churches in Galatia. The authorship of this document has never been doubted and it has been well stated that “whoever is prepared to deny the genuineness of this epistle, would pronounce on himself the sentence of incapacity to distinguish true from false.” Like the Corinthian epistle this Galatian epistle has in every way the characteristic marks of the Apostle Paul.
Galatia was a prominent province of Asia Minor. The leading cities were Ancyra, Pessinus and Tavium. The inhabitants of Galatia were not Orientals, but Gauls or Celts. They had pillaged Delphi in the third century before Christ and had settled in the central parts of Asia Minor, which was then named Gallograecia or Galatia. Classical writers give a description of their character. “The infirmity of the Gauls is that they are fickle in their resolves and fond of change, and not to be trusted.” The leading characteristic seems to have been fickleness, which is also prominent in the opening chapter of this epistle. The apostle was greatly surprised by it. “I marvel that ye are so quickly changing from him who called you in the power of the grace of Christ unto another Gospel.” When the apostle had visited them for the first time, they had received him with open arms and had shown him much kindness. But when afterwards false teachers appeared amongst them, who preached another Gospel, they listened willingly to them and became cold and indifferent towards the Apostle Paul and the Gospel he had brought to them. They had received the Gospel and experienced its blessed power, but they were so unstable that they were about ready to give up the Gospel of Grace and to turn back to the weak and beggarly elements, to the law and its ordinances.
Paul had been in Galatia (Acts 16:6). He had preached the Gospel in this province and God had blessed the preaching, so that many were saved and a number of churches were founded. From Galatians 4:13-14 in this epistle, we learn something additional. “Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the Gospel unto you, at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected, but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.” It seems he was then troubled with the thorn in the flesh. They had received him as a messenger of God and sympathized with his affliction that if it had been possible, they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to Paul (4: 15). From this statement some have concluded that Paul’s affliction was the well-known oriental eye-disease, ophthalmia. Later he visited Galatia again and strengthened the disciples (Acts 18:23).
The Work of Judaizing Teachers
The men who had gone to the Galatian churches and disturbed them were Judaizing teachers. Their evil teaching consisted in a denial of the Gospel of Grace, so blessedly unfolded in the epistle to the Romans. They taught that a simple faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not sufficient for salvation, that in order to be saved the keeping of the law is necessary and that a Christian must observe the precepts of the law of Moses. Circumcision was especially emphasized by them. They had been to Antioch and taught “except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). They had also constrained the Galatians to submit to circumcision (Galatians 5:2; Galatians 6:12). In order to establish themselves, they tried to undermine the apostleship of Paul and they attacked his authority. Peter evidently was in their eyes the great apostle of authority and as Paul was independent of Peter in his ministry and apostleship, as he had not been sent by Peter, they belittled him. It seems as if the fable of an apostolic succession was invented by these perverters of the Gospel of Grace.
The Object of the Epistle
The object of this epistle is the defense of the Gospel which Paul had received by the revelation of Jesus Christ. In order to do this successfully the apostle had first of all to defend his own apostolic authority. After he had done so he fully exposed the evil teachings by which the Galatians were being deceived and showed them the perniciousness of the doctrine to which they had listened. The work of Christ on the cross was at stake, “for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” The exposure is made by a number of contrasts between law and grace in which the apostle shows what the law could not do and what grace has done. The object of the epistle therefore is to defend the gospel, as he writes in the second chapter “that the truth of the gospel might continue with you;” to point out the seriousness of the false teaching which was, through Satan’s power, bewitching them, and in warning them to lead them back upon the foundation of grace from which they had fallen.
The Practical Value and Importance
From critical sides it has repeatedly been stated that the Epistle to the Galatians contains a controversy of the church in the first century which has no longer interest for us, as there is no danger of Christians becoming Jews. Who would think in the twentieth century of submitting to circumcision in order to be saved? Or who would keep the ordinances of the law and Jewish holidays to obtain righteousness? And so this epistle is looked upon by some as having little value for our times. But the opposite is true. The perverted gospel which is so severely condemned in this epistle, upon which the anathema is pronounced, is the very gospel which is almost universally preached and accepted in our days. Christendom is thoroughly leavened with the leaven of legalism. And even a little leaven of it leaveneth the whole lump (Galatians 5:9). To begin with, ritualism, so prominent in Christendom, is Galatianism. In fact ritualism had its beginning in the Judaizing teachers, who mixed law and grace and taught that ordinances are necessary for salvation. Their fatal error was the principle that works are needed to justify a sinner before God and that blessings can only come through ordinances. And this is the error in ritualistic Christendom. These Judaizing teachers looked to man and human authority; they acknowledged Peter as the apostle of authority. Ritualism teaches human authority and believes in a succession which has its source in Peter. Ritualism in denying the gospel of grace and teaching the necessity of law--keeping ordinances, keeping of holidays, has become corrupt in doctrine and practice. The all-sufficiency of the work of Christ is no longer believed and Christ Himself is dishonored. Romanism is the great and powerful Galatian system. It is branded in Revelation as the great whore, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth. Protestantism also is leavened by this evil leaven of legalism. Works and ordinances are in many denominations looked upon as being necessary to obtain righteousness and blessings from God. There is hardly any denomination which is free from the Galatian error. It is often present in a very subtle form. Most prominent today is that evil doctrine which maintains that salvation is by character. They speak of Christ and believe in Christ helping man, but that salvation is by grace, and that an eternal and perfect salvation is the free gift of God bestowed upon the believing sinner, on account of the finished work on the cross, is denied. This also is a perverted gospel, which is exposed in this epistle. We shall point out more fully in the exposition of the text the different errors and phases of legalism. The epistle, in view of the present day drift away from the gospel of grace, is of great importance. This great defense of the gospel should be much studied and obeyed by all who stand for and love the faith delivered unto the Saints.
The time when the epistle was written and where it was written cannot be positively determined. It is probable that Paul wrote the epistle while he was at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-41) from autumn 54 till Pentecost 57. The subscription “written from Rome” is incorrect.
The Division of Galatians
The Epistle consists of three parts. In the first part (chapters 1 and 2) the apostle defends his apostolic authority and that he was absolutely independent of those who were apostles before him. He shows how he became an apostle and traces his own experience. Then he speaks of his visit to Jerusalem and what took place there at that time. The gospel he preached had been acknowledged by James, Peter and John, a fact which these Judaizing teachers had kept from the Galatians. A third fact is brought by Paul to their attention. Peter had been made prominent by these false teachers; they made it appear as if all the authority was invested in Peter. Perhaps they spoke of him as almost perfect. But Paul shows that Peter had no authority whatever over him. Paul had rebuked him when he had done wrong and committed a most serious mistake.
The second part (chapters 3 and 4) contains the defense of the truth of the gospel itself. The Holy Spirit leads deep into the blessed truths of Christianity, and by a number of vital contrasts between law and grace shows what the law cannot do and what grace has done. Not ordinances, the works of the law make a sinner righteous before God, but it is faith which justifies. Why the law was given and how the limit of the law is reached when faith has come, as well as the blessed fact that those who are of faith are sons and heirs of God, indwelt by the Spirit of sonship, is all unfolded in this section. Here we learn that the law cannot give righteousness and that the justified believer is no longer under the law. “We are no longer under the schoolmaster.” The third part (chapters 5 and 6) shows how a believer who is justified by faith, no longer under the law, but under grace, should walk. It is the walk in the Spirit and the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit. The division of this epistle is therefore as follows:
I. THE TESTIMONY OF PAUL CONCERNING HIS APOSTOLIC AUTHORITY. Chapters 1-2
II. CONTRASTS BETWEEN LAW AND GRACE. Chapters 3-4
III. THE WALK OF THE JUSTIFIED BELIEVER, AS NOT UNDER THE LAW BUT UNDER GRACE. Chapters 5-6
Eve of Ascension