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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

- Galatians

by Daniel Whedon



THE first syllable of the word Ga latians is identical with Gaul, an old name of France; and, indeed, with Gal lic, Gae lic, Welch, (old Guallic and Wallic,) as well as with Cel tic. It is the name of that great, brilliant, and brave, but fickle race, which, once occupying Central Europe, was driven westward by the great Germanic tide pouring in from Asia; and which, gradually receding from the face of its invaders towards the Atlantic, now remains upon the western margin of Europe, as the French, Welch, Scotch, and Irish peoples. The epistle to the Galatians was therefore an epistle to the Celts.

The Galatian tribe of this epistle, impelled by the revolutions of war in the early ages, was settled in Asia Minor, like a lonely bowlder, amid surrounding tribes of Phrygian aborigines. As late as the time of Jerome, (fourth century A.D.,) an Asiatic Galatian and a European Celt could have understood each other’s language. These Galatians were a victorious people in their Asiatic region until the year 125 B.C., when they were subjected by the Roman power, yet allowed to retain their previous form of government; and 25 years B.C. they were completely reduced to the condition of a Roman province.

The old Phrygian pagans here were worshippers of Cybele, and their priests practised rites severer than circumcision. There was also a large population of Jews, who engaged in trade and acquired wealth and influence. The Jews were in favour with the Roman Government, and not only made many proselytes, but infused a mitigating influence into surrounding paganism. Over all this mixture of populations the Romans, few yet predominant, held sway, and the Greek language was the prevalent medium of intercourse.

But incidental accounts remain of St. Paul’s first preaching and founding Churches in Galatia. His first visit, in his second missionary tour, is slightly mentioned in Acts 16:6; and his second, in his third tour, is mentioned as slightly in Acts 18:23. Yet the Galatian Churches must have been founded at the first, and “confirmed” at the second, of these two visits. It was soon after the Apostolic Council at Jerusalem that Paul, accompanied by Silas, in a visitation circuit among his old Churches in Syria and Cilicia, diverged into Galatia. Here he was detained by that “weakness of the flesh,” his “thorn,” longer than he purposed. But he was received by the enthusiastic Celts as the angel of God. He pictured the crucified Saviour so vividly that he seemed “visibly set forth among” them. He doubtless at this time visited Ancyra, (the modern Angora,) the central capital of Galatia; Pessinus, seat of the worship of Cybele; and Gordium, where, in an earlier age, Alexander “cut,” because he could not untie, “the Gordian knot.” The Churches here founded occupied, as the epistle shows, a deep place in the apostle’s heart.

About three years after (third missionary tour) occurred the second visit, above mentioned. “He went through the district in order, confirming the Churches.” At that visit, some symptoms of wavering from the Pauline gospel of freedom seem to have presented themselves. Galatians 1:9; Galatians 5:21. It was some three or four years after this second visit, when Paul received, at Corinth, news of tendencies to apostasy which drew forth this present epistle. Note Acts 20:3. It was an apostasy from universal Christianity to a Judaized Christianity, under the dogma, except ye be circumcised and keep the law of Moses ye cannot be saved. Ye cannot be Christians without being also Jews.

Of the state of opinions and parties on this question we have given a concise view in our note to Acts 15:6. See notes also on Acts 6:1. The story of the Judaizing troublers who came to Gentile Antioch, as from James of Jerusalem, proclaiming salvation by circumcision, was repeated in Gentile Galatia. These Celts came under the power of this Jewish influence. Leading Christian Judaists came from Jerusalem, armed with metropolitan authority, to tell these Galatian Churches that their founder-apostle was a spurious apostle, and their Christianity a defective Christianity, which would not save them. The severe rite of circumcision was condition to salvation; and adherence to Jerusalem and a gorgeous ritual were necessary to a complete Church. Paul’s naked doctrine of justification before God solely by faith in Christ was a doctrine of apostasy. Under these powerful influences the impressible Galatian Churches were yielding and ready to fall. Unable to go himself, from distant Corinth Paul sent this letter to their rescue.

Of the immediate effect of the epistle we have no definite account. We only know that in later ages a very fervent and often fanatical Christianity prevailed. Judaistic Christianity, which, in Paul’s day, aspired to control the Church, everywhere waned, and, in the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70, received a fatal blow. Very faint traces remained of its existence in the third century.

The epistle to the Galatians has ever been a stronghold of evangelical Protestantism against Romanism and ritualism. The same principle of salvation by faith, asserted by St. Paul against Judaic ritual, is equally good against every kind of oppressive formalism. It asserts the life and power as over and against the form. It centres true religion in the heart, and makes all externals to be either the outflow therefrom, or the proper aids to such an outcome. Hence it was the favourite epistle of Luther. “The Epistle to the Galatians,” says he, “is my epistle; I have betrothed myself to it; it is my wife.” He wrote three successive commentaries upon it. Meyer says, in his preface, (early German edition,) that Luther, as Bible- commentator, stands far below Luther the Bible- translator. It was during a reading of Luther on Romans that Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed,” and he first attained full consciousness of saving faith, which he then considered his “conversion.” But Luther on Galatians was for but a brief period a favourite with Wesley. Its ultraism in stating the doctrine of justification by faith led too palpably to Antinomianism. Two years after his “conversion” (1741) he says: “I read over Martin Luther’s comment on the Epistle to the Galatians. I was utterly ashamed. How have I esteemed this book… how blasphemously does he speak of good works, and of the law of God! Here (I apprehend) is the real spring of the grand error of the Moravians. They follow Luther for better or for worse.” He then “began to expound the Epistle of St. James, the great antidote against this poison.” Both epistles bring out the great principle, that if we are justified by faith, our faith must be justified by works; but that in truth we are literally justified by Christ, through a faith in him that works by love and purifies the heart.

The Christian defender has no trouble in maintaining the genuineness of Galatians. The most adverse scholarly criticism, as that of Baur and Renan, admits that four epistles, namely, Romans, First and Second Corinthians, and Galatians, are the productions of St. Paul. The epistle is divisible into three parts:



St. Paul’s Apostleship Historically Sustained Galatians 1:6 to Galatians 2:21

1. The points stated: Paul’s apostleship and Christian justification Galatians 1:6-10

2. Paul’s gospel derived from no other apostle Galatians 1:11-24

3. His apostleship conceded by the after apostles The Council of Jerusalem Galatians 2:1-10

4. Paul’s apostolic rebuke of the apostle Peter Galatians 2:11-21


Biblical Establishment of Faith Justification through Christ Galatians 3:1 to Galatians 4:31

1. Introductory expostulation against their apostasy from faith to works Galatians 3:1-4

2. The Abrahamic faith-covenant which is identical with the Christian faith-covenant superior to law, working the curse Galatians 3:5-14

3. This identity of the Abrahamic and Christian faith-covenant, not broken by the Mosaic interval of law Galatians 3:15-18

4. Real purpose of the law to advance us to Christ and blessedness Galatians 3:19-29

5. This advancement compared to the development of childhood into manhood Galatians 4:1-8

6. Consequent folly of their relapse into old legalismGalatians 4:9-20; Galatians 4:9-20

7. Superiority of faith over legalism illustrated by history of Sarah and Hagar Galatians 4:21 to Galatians 5:1


Exhortation to Steadfastness in Gospel Freedom and to Faithfulness in Christian Duty Galatians 5:2 to Galatians 6:18

1. Admonitory warnings to maintain their freedom from legalismGalatians 5:2-12; Galatians 5:2-12

2. But this freedom must not pass into license Galatians 5:13-26

3. Mutual and common church communion Galatians 6:1-10

a. Mutual meek reproofGalatians 6:1-5; Galatians 6:1-5

b. Mutual co-operation of teacher and churchGalatians 6:6-10; Galatians 6:6-10

c. Autograph and benediction Galatians 6:11-18

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