How to read Galatians


  • Content: a heated argument with the (Gentile) Galatians believers against some Jewish Christian "missionaries" who insist that Gentiles be circumcised if they are to be included in the people of God

  • Author: the apostle Paul, joined by "all the brothers and sisters" with him (1:2)

  • Date: probably ca. A.D. 55 (although some think as early as 47-48), with no indication of place of origin

  • Recipients: Gentile believers in Galatia, either ethnic Galatians (whose territory in central Asia Minor had been earlier settled by people from Gaul [modern France]) or those in the Roman province of Galatia, which also included peoples of Pisidia , Lycaonia, and Phrygia (Acts 13-14; 16)

  • Occasion: the churches of Galatia have been invaded by some agitators (5:12) who have questioned Paul's gospel and his apostleship; apparently some Galatians are on the verge of capitulating to them, which sparks a vigorous defense by Paul of his gospel and his calling

  • Emphases: Paul's apostleship and gospel come directly from God and Christ, not through human mediation; the death of Jesus has brought an end to ethnic religious observances; the Spirit produces the righteousness the law could not; the Spirit enables believers not to yield to sinful desires; one receives the Spirit through faith in Christ Jesus


Like 2 Corinthians 10 - 12, this letter is clearly three- sided- Paul, to the Galatians, against the agitators. Paul is obviously red-hot (just like God in the Old Testament when his love for Israel has been spurned). Full of the Holy Spirit and in keeping with the nature of rhetoric under such circumstances, Paul writes with passion and forcefulness. Here you will encounter caustic and biting jibes at the agitators as well as fervent, sometimes cajoling, pleas to the Galatians not to give in to them. What could have inflamed such intensity?

The answer: The gospel is at stake, especially as it includes the Gentiles, law-free, in the people of God-not to mention Paul's own calling as apostle to the Gentiles. If the Galatians cave in to circumcision, everything God has done in Jesus Christ and is doing by the Spirit to include

Gentiles in the people of God will have come to nothing (2:21). God's story itself is on the line.

Thus Paul comes out with guns blazing. First, he takes on the agitators'slander of his apostleship. In a series of three narratives, he starts by distancing himself from Jerusalem (1:13-24; his apostleship and gospel do not have human origins in any form), then points out Jerusalem's concurrence with him (2:1-10), and finally notes that any failure to keep the accord came from Jerusalem itself (2:11-14).

He then uses his speech to Peter on the latter occasion to launch his argument with the Galatians (2:15-21). The rest of the letter fluctuates three times between argument, application, and appeal (3:1-4:7/4:8-11 / 4:12-20; 4:21 -27 / 4:28-31 / 5:1 -12; 5:13 -24/ 5:25 -6:10/6:11 -17).

His argument is that the cross of Christ and the gift of the Spirit have brought observance of the Jewish law to an end. Notice how his appeals run the gamut, sometimes reflecting on past relationships (4:12-20; 5:7-10), sometimes pointing out the consequences of their proposed

actions (4:8- 11;5:2-6), and sometimes disparaging the agitators (5:7-12;6:11-13).


You may find the argument sections of this letter a bit hard to follow; this will be because of its "in house" nature, where Paul is arguing with the agitators on their own grounds. But with a little background knowledge you should be able to unpack it well enough.

Here is an instance where special vocabulary tells much of the tale. Note how often these key words occur: law 32x; flesh (TNIV 7x "sinful nature") 16x; works 7x (6x "observing the law" lit. "works of law"; 1x "acts of sinful nature," lit. "works of flesh"); circumcision/circumcise

13x; Christ 38x; the Spirit 17x; faith/believe 22/4x; grace 8x; justified/justify 8x; Abraham 9.x; promise 10x; son/seed 13/5x; freedom/free 4/6x; enslave/slave/slavery 11x; Gentiles 10x. While most of these words also occur in Paul's other letters, the number of times they appear in

Galatians (and Romans as well) is out of proportion to their occurrences elsewhere.

At issue is the question, who are the true children/seed of Abraham and thus true heirs of the promises made to Abraham? Paul's answer: Those, especially Gentiles,who have faith like Abraham's, who are thus freeborn sons and not slaves. They have become so by faith in Christ

and the (promised) gift of the spirit; on the other hand, those who would enforce Gentile believers to be circumcised are bringing them under the Jewish law and thus into slavery. Justification comes only by grace; to revert to circumcision is to seek advantage with God through works of

law, which Paul sees as of the flesh (=ultimately putting trust in one,s own achievements). All of this boils down to one basic matter: on what grounds are Gentile believers included in the people of God (=become part of Abraham's seed)? on their trusting Christ and their reception of the Spirit (their true identity marker), or by adding Jewish identity markers as well?

But why Abraham, you might well ask? Why not simply remind the Galatians of the story of Christ? The answer lies almost certainly with the arguments of the agitators, who have taken Genesis s 17:1-22 as their primary text. There God established circumcision as "an everlasting

covenant" in a context where Abraham was again promised to be the father of "many nations" (repeating the blessing of the Gentiles from Gen 12:3); in this context God promises that Sarah herself would bear a child, the legitimate heir-while Ishmael is already a young man. In all fairness, the agitators were not advocating a righteousness based on works; they had themselves put their faith in Christ. But, they would have argued, just as Abraham believed God (Gen 15:6) and then was given the covenant of circumcision, so the Gentiles who believe in Christ need to be circumcised in order to become the true children of Abraham, and thus heirs of the promise. At stake for them in the end is their own identity as the people of God since the marks of identity for Jews in the Diaspora were especially circumcision, the food laws, and the

sacred calendar, including Sabbath keeping.

Paul sees clearly where such an argument leads-to an equation that reads, "grace + works of law : favor with God." But adding a plus factor to grace in fact nullifies grace. Thus he argues that "grace + nothing : favor with God." Otherwise, believing Gentiles must in fact become Jews in order to be completed as Christians (3:3). Thus Paul appeals first to the Galatians' own experience of the Spirit (3:1-5) and then to Genesis 15:6 (which precedes 17:1-22 in the story), which says of Abraham that his faith alone was what God counted as righteousness (Gal 3:6-9). The rest of chapters 3 and 4 spell out various implications of these first two arguments. Paul shows first the preparatory and thus secondary nature of the law in relation to Christ and the Spirit (3:10- 4:7), and, then he shows that by rejecting Christ, the contemporary Jews have in effect made themselves the heirs of Ishmael rather than of Isaac (4:21-21). In any case their observance of the law is selective, and for Paul, to be under law means that one must observe the whole law (3:10; 5:3; cf. 6:13). not just parts of it.

The final argument (5:13-24) points out that the Spirit alone is sufficient for the kind of life in the present that reflects the likeness of Christ and stands over against the "desires" of the "sinful nature" (=flesh, referring to living in a self-centered way that is hostile to God)-which is precisely where the law failed. It could make people religious, but not truly re-formed so as to be shaped into God's own character (which is what the fruit of the Spirit reflects).




Note how this unique salutation anticipates the argument by focusing on the heart of the gospel (w. 4-5).


A Curse on the Agitators

You may find this paragraph abrupt, and for good reason, since this is Paul's only letter to a church that does not include a thanksgiving and prayer. Instead, he assumes the role of the prophet, pronouncing a double curse on those who are derailing the Gentile Galatians with a foreign gospel (and on any others who would do so).


In Defense of the Gospel - Part 1: Paul and Jerusalem

It is significant to note that Paul begins the defense of his gospel by defending his apostleship (which was a direct commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles). Thus, after a transitional sentence (1:10) against those who imply that by not insisting on circumcision, Paul is merely trying to please people, Paul begins by asserting that his gospel is not of human origin but came to him by revelation (w. 11 - 12). The defense of this assertion then proceeds by way of a three-part chronological narrative-( 1 ) that his gospel and apostleship (in contrast to that of the agitators) are absolutely independent of Jerusalem (w. 13-24), thus capitalizing positively on what his opponents see as a negative; (2) that his gospel is nonetheless in agreement with Jerusalem and has their blessing (2:1-10, only spheres of ministry differ); and (3) that Jerusalem (in the person of Peter), not he, broke faith with the agreement (vv. 11-14).


The Theological Propositions Set Forth

Using his speech to Peter at Antioch as the point of reference, Paul makes the primary assertions about his gospel that the rest of the letter will argue-(1) that righteousness is "not by observing the law," (2) that righteousness is "by faith in Jesus Christ" (who brought law observance to an end), and (3) that the indwelling Christ (by his Spirit, of course) is the effective agent for living out the new righteousness (v.20). Otherwise, Christ died for nothing (v.21).


In Defense of the Gospel - Part 2: Christ and the Law

As you move now to Paul's theological defense of his gospel, note

especially that it begins and ends with an appeal to his readers' experience of the Spirit (3:1-5; 4:6-7). The rest of this first argument is based on Scripture. The heart of it shows Christ's role in support of the first two propositions of 2:15-21: Having brought the time of the law to an end he has ushered in the time of faith. Thus, Paul argues (in sequence):

3:7-9-Abraham's true heirs are those who, like Abraham (and now

including the Gentiles), have faith (in Christ Jesus).

3 : 10- 14-The law is not based on faith but on doing, which means

doing the whole law (not just selected portions), which is also a "curse" because it excludes people from living by faith; thus Christ died so as to remove the curse so that Gentiles might be included by faith and through the Spirit.

3 :15 - 18-Here Paul argues that the law which came much later than the covenant with Abraham, is quite unrelated to the "promise" (that Gentiles will be included in the people of God-through the promised Holy Spirit) given to Abraham's "seed" (personified eventually by Israel's king, and thus finally realized in Christ)

3:19-22-Why then the law? It was added to confine God's people (keep them fenced in, as it were) until the promise was to be realized. And in any case, it was not intended to bring life, nor could it bring life (only Christ and the Spirit can do that).

3:23-4:7-The merely supervisory role of the law is over' Using the analogy of a child coming of age, Paul concludes (twice: 3:23-29; 4:1-7) that only faith in Christ Jesus produces true children/heirs, thus setting them free from slavery, through the gift of the Spirit (the Spirit of the Son, the true heir!).


Application and Appeal

In verses 8-11 Paul applies the preceding argument to his readers' specific situation. Since God knows them as his children, why go back to slavery? Notice the more personal, relational nature of verses 12-20, where he appeals to the Galatians to return to their earlier loyalty to him and devotion to Christ.


Once More: Argument, Application, Appeal

In 4:21-27 Paul returns to the scriptural argument of 3:6-4:7. By taking up the themes of Abraham, slavery and freedom, he demonstrates by an analogy from Genesis that "doing the law" would mean slavery, while Christ and the Spirit mean freedom.

Note how this is followed by a threefold application and appeal. The Galatians are like Isaac, the free son of the "free woman" by "the power of the Spirit," and like Isaac, they are being persecuted by the slave woman's son, Ishmael-the Jewish Christian agitators (4:28-31). Again, note the personal nature of the appeals-(1) with a fervent call that the Galatians face up to the consequences of capitulating to circumcision, including their need to keep the whole law (5:1-6), and (2) with a scathing denunciation of the agitators, who have themselves abandoned faith in Christ and are acting like a runner who cuts off others to keep them from winning (5:7-12).


In Defense of the Gospel - Part 3: The Spirit and Righteousness

Paul concludes by taking up the third proposition from 2:15-21-the indwelling Spirit has replaced law observance, because the Spirit can do what the law could not, namely, effect true righteousness (5:13-14, 22-23) and effectively combat the (w desires of "the sinful nature [flesh]" 16-21). Be sure to catch that this is set in the context of community disharmony (w. 15, 26; note that eight of the fifteen "acts of the sinful nature" are sins of discord!). They are thus urged to live by the Spirit, who has brought them to life following Christ's death and resurrection (w. 24-25). All of this is applied to very practical issues in 6: 1-10.


Conclusion: Circumcision No, the Cross Yes

Paul concludes with another blistering attack on the agitators, who compel Gentiles to be circumcised but do not themselves keep the (whole) law (w. 12-13), before turning the Galatians, attention once more to the cross (vv. 14-15). The final blessing (v. 16) is for ail who live by the "rule" of verse 15 (circumcision is utterly irrelevant; only the new creation counts).

Because of the nature of the opposition, in this letter the basic lines of the truth of the gospel are most clearly drawn. our understanding of the christian faith would not be the same without this letter. Above all else, it serves as our own charter of freedom.