The letter to the Galatians was written by Paul around 48 AD. It is the first letter he wrote, soon after returning from the areas noted in Acts 13 and 14. The central theme is salvation by faith alone, nothing added nor removed. He writes also in defense of his authority to combat the legalists.
Paul begins by giving some of his credentials as a hand-picked Ambassador of Jesus. He also includes greetings from others with him and praises God for the sacrifice Jesus made to rescue us all from “this evil age”.
No sooner is the greeting given than he confronts the Galatians over their amazingly quick abandonment of the true Gospel of grace for a different “Gospel”, one which would again enslave them to a religion of salvation by good deeds. He strongly condemns any who preach such a distorted Gospel and rob believers of their freedom.
Paul is apparently responding to charges that he was only after people’s approval, but he reminds them of the fact that he got the Gospel directly by revelation from Jesus Himself, not from anyone else, not even the other Ambassadors before him. And of course he would not be persecuted if he were only acting on human impulse.
He relates how formerly he had been Christianity’s bitterest enemy, hounding and persecuting the believers, even having some put to death, thinking he was just being a good Jew (actually, an outstanding Jew, as he had surpassed his peers among the Pharisees). He was stopped cold by Jesus, after which he went away alone for three years. Only then did he meet with the others in Jerusalem, where he was acknowledged by the church leaders as having received a commission from God. He presents this as his sworn testimony and not just idle talk. This approval by the leaders refutes the claim some make today that Paul was subverting the faith; some even go so far as to say Paul was the Antichrist warned of by John, since he fought against putting Christians under the Law. Yet not one of the acknowledged disciples trained directly by Jesus ever named Paul as a fake or deceiver.
A mere fourteen years later, the church was already being infiltrated by “false believers” who were trying to enslave the true believers with laws and rules. He went to Jerusalem very cautiously, to test the openness of the current leaders to what Jesus had commissioned him to do. Their reputations, even as hand-picked disciples of Jesus, were of no concern to Paul. No one was to be judged on the basis of credentials but only on the Gospel alone. He cites James, Peter, and John as the top leaders, who then accepted Paul as having the same authority as they had to speak for Jesus.
By this time Paul’s authority had been recognized by all the believers, as shown in the confrontation with Peter over this issue. Peter had allowed the pressure of the false teachers to cause him to slide back into Jewish legalism, and Paul had to publicly rebuke him. This is significant on two levels: Paul had the authority to rebuke an Ambassador that had been with Jesus during his time as a human, and the rebuke was public, something that is not tolerated in churches today.
The Law could never justify anyone but only condemn them. It told them what sin was and that they were not perfect in the sight of God. So salvation can only come by faith, and that faith must be in Jesus. The fact that we still struggle with sin, however, in no way condones sin or associates it with salvation. The Jewish Christians had died to the law; their relationship with it was broken. Therefore they, and all of us, died to the ways of sin and to offending God. Our lives are wrapped up in his, so that we must turn from the old kingdom to the new. Besides, if law could save people, then there would have been no purpose for Jesus to come and die for us.
Of course, Paul is not saying we lose our identity or personality and become “absorbed” into Jesus, as some religions teach, but that we are to walk in step with Jesus and his will.
Paul cannot fathom why people would prefer to try and earn that which is available for free. He asks them rhetorically how they were saved in the first place, and how they received the Holy Spirit. Law had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
The Gospel is all about faith, not works. Abraham was not credited with righteousness by anything he did, but only by his faith in God’s promise to him. And it is this same faith by which all nations would be blessed in Abraham.
In contrast, as he continues his grilling of the Galatians over their desire to work for that which is freely offered, Paul goes on to explain that if anyone wants to keep the law they have to keep all of it. But many Christians say, “You don’t have to make animal sacrifices, but you must keep the Sabbath (and whatever else I personally feel everyone should do)”. This attempt to mix the old and the new is exactly what Jesus said was impossible, with the illustration of the wineskins (see Luke 5:33–39). He redeemed the Jews from the Law, and Gentiles were never under it at all.
Illustrations are a good way to explain principles, and here Paul uses their knowledge of ordinary laws, especially a Last Will and Testament. God had made a unilateral promise to Abraham, specifically to a particular Descendant of his, the Anointed. It could not be affected by any other contracts. So the law that came 430 years later was not at all related to that promise, and it therefore did not nullify or replace it; inheritance can only come by a Will or promise.
So if the law does not save, what good is it? Paul explains that it served as a guide, to bring people to the point where they could inherit the estate. It was a contract between two parties, not a will made by one; there is no need of any mediator for a Will. Therefore a sharp line is drawn between law and promise.
It is in this particular context about the divide between law and promise that Paul writes the statement, “There is no Judean or Greek, no slave or free, not even male and female, for you are all one, united with Anointed Jesus.” To be united with Jesus is to be united in his death to the law; the testator has died and the guidance of the old law is no longer in effect. That would be the only way out of the old contract. Otherwise they’d still be under it, even though they have the Promise, because the Promise could never affect the contract. So that is why Jesus had to die, and why only those who are united with him have also died to the old law. And only those with faith in him and his resurrected life are thereby part of the Descendant and thus heirs of the Promise.
Yet some people want echoes of the law to persist: hierarchy, clergy, altars, sacrifices, and rituals. They want to impose the Jewish tithe, to call the church building or organization “the storehouse”, to put us into bondage. That is the whole reason Paul is writing to the Galatians: to put all such nonsense away. We are now one in Jesus (3:28) and there is no more hierarchy, no more privilege, no more of the old ways.
For Paul who was a Pharisee, his choice of words in 3:28 is most forceful. There was a rabbinical prayer, “Thank God that I was not born a gentile, a slave, or a woman!”1 He dismisses each and every one of those boasts in order, as well as showing that the law does not apply to those who are united with Jesus. Sadly, while Christianity quickly accepted the equality of Jew and Gentile, and reluctantly conceded that there should also be no slavery, it still clings to a hierarchy between male and female, along with one between an imaginary clergy and laity. Our unity is in Jesus, not in society or biology.
Verse 28 is not about how people are to be saved. Through verse 25 Paul has been discussing salvation as freedom from the old law, and in verse 26 he begins to explain the condition of people who are already “children of God”. This is repeated in 4:6 as well. The whole passage is for the purpose of building a case against those who had already accepted the Gospel turning back to the law, not instructing people how to be saved.
So by faith we are all heirs of the promise made to Abraham, a promise outside of law and thus unaffected by it. We are not minors under a guide. Jesus died “at the time set by his Father” to make believing Jews all dead to the law and inheritors of the estate. Slaves do not call their owner “father” but only “master”, so the fact that we can call God our Father is another indication of our having inherited eternal life, and of Jews having been freed from the law. And such a condition is irreversible; Jesus cannot repeatedly die in order to repeatedly free us, which also would require that the old contract is repeatedly reinstated. Salvation is all about adoption and inheritance, not legal performance regarding a contract that is no longer in effect for the Jews.
This is the crux of the whole letter: the Galatians’ turning away from the Gospel and back toward fake gods and old laws. Paul has built up to this point from the basics of salvation and examples of how laws and contracts and unilateral promises work.
Paul asks the Galatians how they can want to turn from this freedom he’s been talking about back to “those weak and poor fundamental principles” associated with false gods. Some take that unusual phrase to refer to the ancient Babylonian practice of astrology with its supernatural “elements” and principles. These things had enslaved them before, yet now they wanted to return to this slavery! They were beginning to once again observe the calendar, perhaps even the zodiac (equally possible, the requirements of the old Law).
Ironically, churches today do many of the same things and adopt the same beliefs, which have been repackaged in Christian or harmless-sounding terms: Twelve Step programs, breath prayer, “the silence”, chanting, territorial spirits, prosperity by shamanistic practices such as sacred objects, etc. They combine these with Jewish law: tithing, observing the Sabbath, and many others, as if sacrifice is the only thing Jesus did. Paul’s words here to the Galatians are very much needed for today’s believers as well.
Paul now expresses the great emotional pain he is in because of the Galatians’ turning back to the worthless old practices. He had come to them originally in poor health, evidently a condition that was repulsive, yet they had welcomed him as they would Jesus Himself. How could they now do such a thing as to believe Paul was insincere or seeking popularity or faking authority to speak for God? They had turned against him even though he had told them the truth.
As noted in the text, there are two ways to take Paul’s words here regarding eyes: either he had an eye problem or he was making a play on words regarding the “evil eye” of false religion.
Now that he has built up his case and confronted the Galatians over their abandonment of the Gospel and betrayal of him personally, Paul will begin to go back over the evidence and turn their accusations around.
Paul now discusses the motivation of the false teachers: to gather a following without the persecution that goes with faithfulness to the Gospel of freedom. He knows that the Galatians did not just wake up one morning and decide to turn from the truth; they were swayed by people with sinister and/or selfish motives. It is they who were the fakes, the liars, the enemies. They were driving a wedge between the people and Paul so they could take over and be esteemed as leaders. Paul could be very crude at times, and here he uses the words “cut off” to describe what the legalizers are trying to do to him. He is making a veiled reference to circumcision, the favorite rule of the Judaizers, and he will continue to reference this analogy as he goes along.
But he also describes his consternation with the Galatians in terms of labor and childbirth. By saying he is “writhing in the pains of childbirth with you until the Anointed is formed in you” he is of course not talking about salvation. Salvation is a single event in time, at the moment of faith, when we die to the old ways and are assured the inheritance of eternal life by virtue of our being united with Jesus. So he uses labor and childbirth as a description of the process of spiritual growth and maturity. (See also 1 Tim. 2:15 for another of Paul’s references to childbearing.)
People can be confused by this terminology since Jesus called our salvation being “born again”. Context is the key: Jesus was talking to a Pharisee about salvation, and Paul is talking to the saved about how they are being tricked into a return to old religious practices. Remember that this letter was addressed to “brothers and sisters”, that is, fellow believers. After all Paul has said about law, promise, and inheritance, how can we think this can be reversed? Would he say two opposite things in the same letter?
The Galatians had forgotten that Abraham had two lines of descendants: slave (Ishmael) and free (Isaac). These two literal children represented the Law and the Promise. (Note Paul’s use of the analogy: he is using Hagar’s child to represent those under the Law, that is, earthly Jerusalem, while those who have Abraham’s faith are of the heavenly Jerusalem.) Just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the unbelieving Jews were persecuting those who became Christians. So Paul is telling the Galatians that they must “send away the slave woman”, that they must not go back into slavery to law.
In addition, the people were not thinking through the implications of going back under the law. To be under law is to not be under grace; to be under contract is to not be under promise. Paul turns again to the rite of circumcision as a symbol of all that is wrong with legalism, going so far as to equate the legalizers with that which is “cut off” and discarded. In stark contrast is the only way for anyone to be justified: faith empowered by love. Referring back to the previous pairings, Paul now expresses the Jew/Gentile pairing as “no circumcision or uncircumcision” in Jesus.
Turning back to the people after aiming at the legalizers, Paul tells them that they had been running a good race but the legalizers cut in front of them. Though he is confident that they will eventually get back on track, he has no kind words for what is apparently a particular individual who is causing all the trouble. He appeals to reason: if he (Paul) were just going along with the circumcision, why would they be persecuting him? As a final insult to the legalizers, Paul adds deep sarcasm to crudity by suggesting that those who are so fond of cutting should just keep going!
But after all this effort at driving home the point that we are free, Paul puts it in balance by reminding the Galatians that freedom is not license, as he also wrote to the Romans. Our freedom is from sin, not to sin. We are free from the prison of legalism, but should we then spit in the face of the One that bought our freedom? That’s what Paul is saying about the new “law” of love in the Anointed; we are now free, but we are also indebted to the blood of Jesus that bought us. We no longer desire those things that would grieve the One we claim to love.
Does Paul once again apparently suggest we have a salvation that can be lost, by saying “those who commit such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”? No, he’s just mentioning that the outward acts of “the flesh” are opposite the outward acts of the spirit. The lost are known for self-indulgence, and such will certainly not inherit the Kingdom. Only children get an inheritance, and they are not disowned every time they stray.
The case has been made and the closing arguments given. Now Paul begins to wind down with some general instructions.
We are a Body, a community of believers. As such we must help each other when we stumble. This is a preventive measure that Paul is prescribing for the Galatians, to keep them from stumbling again. Instead of comparing ourselves with others we must always look to Jesus, our true “role model”. And those who teach such truths are to be honored and also helped materially if needed.
There are consequences to actions and beliefs. God will not be fooled or bribed or dishonored; He will certainly pay us back in proportion to how we lived. So the wise will live in such a way as to please God, and that includes striving for the good of others. And we should put fellow believers first, as Paul also wrote in 1 Tim. 5:8.
Many assume that Paul’s reference to writing in large letters must be proof of his having eye problems, but notice where he writes it: just before making one last jab at the legalizers. He is emphasizing their sinister motives, and writing large so they don’t miss it. They are the ones whose motives are to be questioned.
There is only one Gospel, one Way, Truth, and Life. We all are “cut off” from the world, not by a physical act but by faith in Jesus alone. We are new creations and can no longer keep living as though we belong to the world. Paul reminds them that he has been “branded” with Jesus’ seal of ownership, his physical sufferings for the faith. His detractors could make no such claim.
In spite of all the intense emotion and harsh criticisms, these are still believers and still precious ones for whom Jesus died. Paul signs off with what the Galatians should know by now is a genuine blessing.