Imagine being called by God to take the message of Jesus to a certain group. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you displayed God’s power and you delivered the message clearly. The group you were sent to accepted the message. They began to live it out. God, then, called you to another group, but you planned on returning to this group and encouraging them in their faith.
While you are gone, some other “believers” came in behind you. They said that your message was only part of the story. You weren’t fully a part of the family of God. You needed to perform certain rituals in order to be fully accepted by God. The people, who originally accepted your message, accepted this message as well. How would you feel? You would probably be angry at those who came in behind you. And you would probably be frustrated over your flock because they were so easily led astray. Remember, this message you were sent to them with was given to you directly from Jesus. You displayed the power of God in their midst. You lived a life of integrity and displayed your faithfulness to this message. But still, your group was led astray. How would you respond?
This is basically the story of Galatians.
Several questions need to be addressed: The letter is written by Paul. Who is Paul? He identifies himself as an apostle. What is an apostle? Is that important? This letter is addressed to the Galatians. Who are the Galatians? What relation does Paul have with these people? Why did Paul write this letter to them? What does this mean to me?
Who is Paul?
The Pre-Christian Paul:
We first encounter Paul in the Bible in Acts 7. A young Christian man named Stephen is being tried on the count of blasphemy (a serious crime in Judaism, liable to the death penalty in certain circumstances). When Stephen reaches what his accusers think is the height of his blasphemy (claiming to see Jesus at the right hand of God), they put him to death. And a man named Saul is there. Saul was probably Paul’s Hebrew name, and Paul may have been the name he used in Greco-Roman contexts.
Acts 7:57-8:1 – At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As Stephen lay dying, the text notes that Saul approved of their killing him. (Dig? What did this mean?)
We see that this act led to a great persecution against the Christians in Jerusalem. And this Saul: (8:3 – Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison).
This persecution becomes so bad we see in
Acts 9:1-2 - Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
What other clues can we glean from the NT as to what Paul was like before he became a Christian?
In his testimony later in the book of Acts that he was a Jew from Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 22.3). Tarsus was a city in what is now southeastern Turkey. It was then…
A little later in this testimony we see that he was brought up in Jerusalem and was educated under Gamaliel and he was trained in the Law of his ancestors. Gamaliel was a very important teacher in Judaism. He was a member of the Sanhedrin (a type of Jewish Supreme Court. We see him in Acts 5).
Paul was a very religious man, who was very concerned about following the Law of Moses to the letter. He believed that his service brought him a sense of righteousness before God.
Paul will tell the church of Philippi that he was from the tribe of Benjamin and a Pharisee. His zeal for God was shown in how he persecuted those who he felt were blaspheming God (by claiming that this Jesus was God’s equal).
We see in Acts three accounts of Paul’s conversion (the second two were Paul’s accounts during trials). We will look first at the account as it flows in the narrative of Acts. We saw earlier that Paul was actively persecuting the early church, from Jerusalem to Damascus (in modern day Syria). It was on the road to Damascus that Paul encounters Jesus and it changes his life, his vocation, his worldview and his theology.
Read Acts 9:3-19
After Paul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus, Paul becomes a powerful witness for the one he sought to destroy.
We see another interpretation of this event in Paul’s letter that we are about to discuss, Galatians.
We get another element to the story here. Paul reveals that he went into Arabia. There has been much speculation on what Paul did in Arabia, but more than likely, Paul began to study the Torah (and all of the OT) with a new lens. He began looking for Jesus in the Hebrew Bible. He saw how the entire story of God’s revelation of himself to the people of Israel was pointing to the arrival of Jesus. He began to interpret the OT in light of what Jesus had done (and was continuing to do in and through the Church). One thing he became convinced of was that uncircumcised Gentiles could be put right with God through faith in Christ without first becoming Jews. Key
After Paul had processed all of this, and after he gathered information on the life of Jesus from his disciples, he began to tell others about who Jesus was and why everyone should follow him. He spent a good deal of the first part of his ministry back in his hometown of Tarsus. One of the church leaders, an encouraging man by the name of Barnabas (who defended Paul after his encounter with Jesus, when many in Jerusalem were rightfully afraid of him), brought him to the hotbed of Christian growth, a nearby town called Antioch.
What is the connection to the Galatians?
Paul the Missionary
It was from Antioch that the Holy Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas and sent them on a journey to tell others about Jesus and to start churches in those areas. This brings Paul to Galatia. This story is found in Acts 13-14. He spent time sharing Jesus in towns of a Roman province called Galatia (modern day central Turkey). Galatia gets its name from an ethnic group of people called the “Gauls”. They have a connection to native French people and actually run back to the ancient Celts. Paul spent time in the southern Galatian cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. While in these cities, Paul began to lead people to faith in Jesus but he also encountered opposition. Most of this opposition came from Jewish people who had the same zeal for the Law of Moses that Paul had before his encounter with Jesus. They had the same zeal to stamp out this Jesus movement (and stamping out Paul as well. Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra).
Galatians is basically a letter to the churches that Paul started.
Why is he writing this letter to the Galatians?
These Galatians were being deceived by some Jewish Christians who were mixing Judaism and Christianity. What we will find is that there was a group of Jewish “Christians” who believed that non-Jews (the majority of the Christians in Galatia) needed to submit to certain Jewish rituals in order to be accepted fully as believers. The major ritual was circumcision for males. It was the sign that God gave to Abraham that his people were to be set apart from the rest of the world. (The thought was that Jesus was a Jew, the early church was Jewish, therefore Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to properly become Christians). This would become a major issue in the early church. We will see in this letter that two very important church leaders got into a public confrontation over this issue (Peter and Paul in chapter 2). Ultimately the early church called leaders from all over the church at the time and had to solve this issue. We see this conference detailed in Acts 15. (Recap?)
Why should they listen to Paul?
For one, he started these churches. Paul also claimed the authority of an Apostle. What does that mean? From what we can gather from the New Testament, an Apostle was someone who had seen the risen Lord and was commissioned by him to proclaim the gospel and start churches. They had authority in the churches they started. Other signs of an Apostle were signs, wonders and miracles. Another task of the Apostles was the transmitting of the words of the prophets and of Jesus to the church.
Other notes of interest about Paul: he was not married (and probably never married, despite what some will say about his role as a Pharisee). He had some kind of physical affliction. It is mentioned in
2 Cor. 12.7-9
and in our letter in Galatians 4.12-14
One of the marks of an apostle was persecution. Paul also suffered much for his decision to follow Jesus. We get a good portrait of the persecution Paul suffered (as well as his compassion for his churches):
2 Cor. 11:21b-29
Why is this letter important to us today?
Are you ever tempted to put your trust in anything other than what Jesus has done for you? Are there things that you do that make you feel like God owes you some sort of blessing? Does God owe you heaven or a good life because you go to church, serve the poor, read your Bible, avoid “sinful” activities? If so, you need to read this letter. Or, at times are you tempted to think that your understanding of Jesus or your way of being Christian is better than someone else’s? (Reword these two sentences). Close with Paul’s understanding of the gospel:
Eph. 2:8-9 - You have been saved by grace through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – no by works, so that no one can boast. The sign that you’ve received this gift of grace is repentance (a changed life that is devoted to following Jesus in the power of his Holy Spirit).