Background to the Letter
This week’s New Testament readings are from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The letter was probably written around AD 49, just after Paul and Barnabas completed the First Missionary Journey and before the Council of Jerusalem, which was either that same year or in AD 50. This timing is important. The church at Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas were ministering, was a diverse church, containing not only Jews and Gentiles but also different races and ethnicities. Such diversity made it only natural that the Christians there would be inclined to lay hold of the Old Covenant promises that God would bring the Gentiles into the covenant community. The First Missionary Journey was a test of those promises. If no Gentiles had come to faith in Christ Jesus, it would have thrown the Christian Church into a crisis of confidence. But Gentiles did come to faith during the Journey, along with many Jews, which validated the promises of God.
When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and gave a readout of their Journey, Peter probably came up from Jerusalem to hear what happened. At first he mixed with Gentiles in the church, eating and socializing with them, but later distancing himself from them because Jewish Christians from Jerusalem questioned the appropriateness of Peter’s behavior. The heritage of Judaism meant that even for Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, there was a lingering sense that believing Gentiles had to adopt Jews ceremonial practices, including circumcision, if they were to be deemed righteous. Failure to do that meant that the Gentiles could not be fully part of the covenant community. Paul confronted Peter over this issue at Antioch, recognizing that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. Although Peter was convicted of his hypocrisy, the “Judaizer” Christians sent emissaries to the churches in Galatia which Paul and Barnabas planted, carrying the message that the teaching of Paul and Barnabas needed to be “corrected” and the the Galatians therefore had to obey the ceremonial laws. Paul probably got word of what was going on through associates, and that is what prompted this letter.
This is an angry letter. While this is a serious theological issue, it is not merely that for Paul. Paul has seen in the lives of these new believers the grace that flows from accepted Christ alone as the basis for the Christian’s justification before God. By adopting the Judaizers’s recommendations, however, people were starting to backbite each other, become self-congratulatory, and look down on others. For Paul, to live by the works brought into question what difference Christ really made. This is a life and death issue. This controversy would not ultimately be resolved until the Council of Jerusalem, when Peter articulated a position in support of Paul and against the Judaizers. The letter to the Galatians, then, should be seen as Paul’s opening case in the controversy.
An Outline of Galatians
I. Introduction, Salutation, and Imprecation (Gal. 1:1-10)
II. Paul’s Defense of His Independent Authority (1:11-2:10)
III. Paul’s Previous Confrontation with the Judaizers (2:11-21)
IV. Life in the Spirit by Faith or Law? (3:1-4:31)
VI. Results of the Freedom We Have in Union with Christ (5:13-26)
VII. Closing Remarks (6:11-18)