Main Themes in Galatians

The main problem Paul addresses in the book of Galatians is the status of Gentiles in the Church. Are Gentiles converting to Judaism? The immediate occasion for the letter is a problem with Gentiles being forced to keep the Law by some persons coming from Jerusalem claiming to have authority from James. This Jewish party accepted Christ, but they held to a keeping of the Law in addition to faith in Jesus. Paul calls this a “new gospel” that is not really a gospel.

A secondary issue is Paul’s authority to declare that Gentiles are free from the Law. The Judaizers are likely questioning Paul’s right to teach that gentile converts do not have to keep the law. Who is Paul? Where did he get his authority? The first two chapters address this issue. Note that this is a theme that is found from the very first lines of the letter – Paul is an apostle by the authority of Jesus Christ and the Father himself!

A third issue in the book concerns the status of the Law in the new age. If Paul has authority as called by Jesus personally to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, and if the gentiles are really set free from the restrictions of the Law, what was the point of the Law in the first place? This is covered in the third and fourth chapters.

It is likely that a major part of the opponent’s message concerned Abraham and the promise of God to Abraham. If you are going to follow the God of Abraham and participate in the blessings of Abraham, like Abraham you must accept the sign of the covenant – circumcision. Paul goes to the same texts that the false teachers might have used, Genesis 15:6 and 17:4-14. He develops the idea that the promise is foundation for the law, to accept the sign of the covenant is to accept the whole covenant, fully realized in the Law of Moses.

Finally, if gentiles are freed from the Law, what is their motivation to behave in a moral and ethical way? Has Paul cut off the gentile from the Law so that they can live any way that they choose to? To live by the Spirit is not libertine sinful living – he covers this issue in the last two chapters of the letter.

If Paul was allowing the Gentiles freedom from the Law, this might have implied to some law-keeping Jews that they were free entirely from moral restraints. Perhaps Paul is teaching that Gentiles can accept Jesus as the Messiah and live the way that they have always lived. To a Jew, things like circumcision and food laws were very important, but true ethical living was more important.

Paul must defuse this criticism of his Gentile mission by showing that the Gentile is free from the Law, but now he lives by a new law, a Law of Christ. This new law is a law of love, a law that is guided by the Holy Spirit. The “sin list” in chapter five makes it clear that Paul is not advocating an anarchist libertine freedom, but rather a life that is lead by the Spirit of God and manifest in the “fruit of the Spirit.”

35 thoughts on “Main Themes in Galatians

  1. Indeed moral law & gospel, such is the Gospel/Good News of St. Paul, the Apostle of/to the Gentiles, his specific ‘economy’! But always “for the Jew first and also the Greeks (Gentile). (Rom. 1:16 / Gal. 3:22-29)

  2. Polhill said, “Paul often spoke of salvation in terms our dying with Christ, dying to the old way of life, dying to the law” (146). If gentile believers are supposed to die of the law there isn’t much motivation except to live a righteous life because out of your appreciation of God’s mercy on us. I believe Paul knew that this would be a concern among the Galatian people because he confronts this issue very quickly. Should the Gentiles keep sinning just because they can? Paul replies in Galatians 2:17-19 by saying, “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.” I believe that 1 John has some powerful statements made about this issue as well. 1 John 2:3 says, “we know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.” If we don’t obey him and live our lives in a disrespectful way, are we really his children. Sometimes this can be a struggle in my own life because even though I think I am devoted to God, many times my actions aren’t parallel to my beliefs.
    In P. Long’s post he said, “To a Jew, things like circumcision and food laws were very important, but true ethical living was more important.” I think this point is even illustrated in David’s life. David says, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:16-17)”. David recognizes that God wants his life to be honoring to God. God takes more pleasure in a sacrificed life than a sacrificed bull.

  3. Judaizers wanted “the best” of both worlds (the Law + Jesus). They wanted to keep their traditions and laws and add Christ the Messiah into the mix (140). “They were ignorant of or they ignored the decisions reached at the Jerusalem Conference” (140). Paul wanted to make it clear to the Galatians that this is was a false gospel (Galatians 1:6-9; 2:3-4; 2:11-14; 3:10-13). The law has been fulfilled in Christ and now righteousness comes not from my works but from the work Christ has done for me (Matthew 5:17; Galatians 2:19-21). I think it is interesting that, “the Galatians may have been turning to the legalism of Judaizers out of a felt need for a guide in their daily life” (151). I get that idea completely. The practical nature of do this don’t do this and God will count you righteous is appealing. We live in a culture today that wants 3 practical ways to be happy, 7 steps to financial victory, and 10 tips for having a great relationship. Sadly, those practicalities keep people from growing beyond that of performance. We want God to tell us what to do, where to go, and when it will all happen (relationship between employee and boss) but God calls us instead into relationship which is much deeper than performing orders. Paul set out to prove the opposite… life apart from the law is freedom.

    • This is a good point. Legalism is appealing because I can measure myself against a scale (and against other people!). If I have a twelve-step program, then I know I am progressing. But God wants us to be his children – how can I measure “being a child of God?”

    • “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
      Paul’s soteriological procedure cannot be understood unless you understand which law he is referencing. The fact is the law was changed by Jesus after his ascension by adding to it. Only those who have the faith to obey the addition are the ones whom God will declare righteous.

      • I am curious what text you would use to prove Jesus changed the Law by adding to it after the ascension?

        I think the majority of Romans readers would understand Rom 2:13 as referring to the Mosaic Law / Torah. In the context, he will go on to show that no one is able to keep the Law so no one can be declared righteous by it (Rom 3:23), it is only through faith in Jesus (apart from the Law) that one is declared righteous.

    • In the churches Paul visited, there were Jew and Gentile believers. The Judaisers, also seen in Acts 15, were seeking to have the Gentiles be circumcised to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ, according to Galatians 6:12-16. I think Paul is distinguishing those who seek to be justified by the law vs those who are justified by the work of Christ, and that the illustration of contrast between the children of the free woman and that of those out of bondage is a lesson for the saved Jew among them by way of reminder as to who the true Jew is.
      Even Peter and Barnabas had been influenced by these guys.
      I think a lesson to us today is to beware of slipping in a little religious tradition thinking it will bring any merit, acceptance with others, is as trying to add to the finished work of Christ.
      There is more in the epistle, but this was one point I feel is important.

      • Do you think the Judaisers encounter at Antioch where both Barnabas and Peter were swayed occurred AFTER the Jerusalem council in Acts 15?

      • Yes, I also have seen that both the conflict with Peter and the letter to the Galatians fits before Acts 15.
        Have you seen how the letters to the Corinthians and Thessalonians include practical instruction about the 4 commands to the Gentiles as well as also collecting for the saints affected by the famine?
        I do believe Satan sought to create division, but Jerusalem’s true saints were on the same page with Paul as he was sent with the commands-Acts 15:18
        It is nice to meet you all-I have met very few people who are even thinking about these things.

      • “Have you seen how the letters to the Corinthians and Thessalonians include practical instruction about the 4 commands to the Gentiles as well as also collecting for the saints affected by the famine?”

        Off the top of my head, this is surely the case for 1 Cor, but I would think less so for 1 Thess. This is interesting to me, since one of the problems I have seen is Paul’s non-reference to the letter from Acts 15. It is a powerful argument for an early date for Galatians (since he could have claimed James as an ally after Acts 15). But 1 Cor is certainly after Acts 15 and he still does not directly mention the letter or the four “suggestions.”

        At some point on the blog (or in my teaching, mostly following Bruce Winter) I have tried to argue the four commands from Acts 15 are all related to eating meat sacrificed to idols in the context of a Greco-Roman banquet held at a Temple. A Corinthian male would have thought going to these kinds of banquets were a right, especially for a young man being accepted into Corinthian society. So Paul’s warnings to not associate with prostitutes and the discussion of food relate to a real problem for the Corinthian believers and are addressed by the letter, although Paul still never mentions the actual letter.

        “I have met very few people who are even thinking about these things.” We are out there…there are dozens of us.

      • Agreed Galatians does not indicate the resolutions found in Acts 15. Whereas Paul does not mention the letter from the council, it is clear (mostly in 1Corinthians, these issues were needing addressed, and Paul, with the authority given him through the Lord, addresses them. See also 1 Cor. 5-8, 10:6-8 and 1Cor. 11:2.
        I believe Paul’s ministry during the Acts period,is the administration of the Church whose hope is earthly; both Jews and Gentiles who are manifesting the spiritual sign gifts, who maintain a distinction in roles. Hopes described in Romans 15:4-8-Jews, 15:9-21-Gentiles) Under the umbrella of the mystery(ies) of Christ, but not yet the revelation of the mystery(final revelation) of a nationless church whose hope is heavenly with Christ as Head.

        “dozens”- : ) I haven’t met any in my area- I’ve been 3 years out from a Mid Acts assembly.

  4. I love that Paul goes through the texts that those opposing him used to sway the church of Galatia. He clearly knows how to debate well. By establishing his credibility in Galatians 1-2 first, and then using the arguments against these false teachers, he clearly has the upper hand.
    As Plong mentioned, “He develops the idea that the promise is foundation for the law, to accept the sign of the covenant is to accept the whole covenant, fully realized in the Law of Moses.” In continuing with all that Paul had to cover in his letter, the bottom line seems to be that gentiles are not converting to Judaism, rather they are apart from the law and now live by the Spirit: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”. Paul didn’t want them to take advantage of the grace that is theirs in Christ or become prideful, but wanted them to be compelled by the Fruit of the Spirit and not be swayed by false teachers seeking to change the heart of the gospel. “Paul used the language of being in/with/of/through Christ in a variety of contexts which embrace the totality of the Christian experience: salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, incorporation into the church/body of Christ, empowerment for the Christian ethical life, participation in the new creation.” (147)

  5. You can feel the tension in this letter from Paul. He was facing so much opposition from both sides of many debates and that stress comes through a little bit in his words.(Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”) And his agitation is justifiable. These topics are super hard to face and it gets even harder when you’re trying instruct a church about these matters.
    I really liked what John Polhill said about the problem of the law and the Gentile believers, “Jews were not to become Gentiles when they became Christians, and Gentiles were not to become Jews.” (136) I feel that in the midst of all this conflict Paul was trying to maintain the sacredness of the Jewish culture. Although the Jewish Christians were set free from the law, it was still an important part of their worlds and Paul did a very good job addressing this touchy subject.

  6. “Paul was absolutely livid. He was angry with the Galatians for so quickly deserting the truth gospel for a perversion…thy were abandoning the Spirit for the flesh.” (Pohill 139) I think that Paul wasn’t just upset at the teachings of or the teachers of the “old way”, but was more upset with the general population of the Galatia Church because they were following the law instead of living in the Spirit. But I wonder if the Church of Galatia simply didn’t know any better. I wonder if they did not fully understand the difference between what Jesus did in creating a New Covenant and ridding the Law. I mean, it’s not like they are coming from the same background that we are, here in West Michigan, with this “little Jerusalem” that we live in. And it is not like they had the entire Bible like we do today. They were also “baby Christians”, they didn’t have Bible College to attend to get a better understanding of what it meant to be a true child of God without the Law.
    I do find it interesting how Paul does some teaching about the differences between the Law and the Spirit in his letter and does not just chew out the congregation and teachers for still following the Law. Galatians 4:21-31 is a prime example of where Paul does some extra teaching on the differences of Law (flesh) and the Spirit.

  7. I find it interesting in Galatians how Paul goes from “telling off” the Galatians (Gal. 3:1-14) to pleading with them (Gal. 4:8-20) He is so passionate for these people that he continues to go to them and ministering to them. Gal. 4:8 “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were saves…” This passage happens some time after Paul “goes off” on the Galatians. He says he was like them at one point, and became like them to minister to them. It is so amazing to me how much Paul cares for these people. He continually ministers to the people, even though they anger him so much. He loves them as Christ loved us.

  8. I think it is a bit ironic, yet not unexpected, that the Judiazers were so upset over this issue of Gentiles and Law, since the Jews were extremely unsuccesful in bring God to the other nations or even bringing those nations into their faith. That was a main purpose and duty of the Jewish people; to be the People of God (Genesis 35:10).

    The idea of these Judaizers sticking to this “new gospel” is not surprising, nor should they face blame for those actions. Being a Jew meant keeping the law; loving the law. It would make no sense to them for the Jewish messiah to be againt their love for the law. But, for them to teach that the law was a requirement was an understandable yet innapropriate teaching. Of course Paul had to quickly address the issue so that this false teaching did not spread any further.

    But, are the Jews free from the law? I think recognizing what we see in our own “Christian” society gives a great indication of what Paul (or God through Paul) was teaching. Today, Christians may not be required to keep the law but we still follow biblical principles and “moral living guidlines” to keep us on track in our faith. We as Gentiles are not allowed to run free doing whatever we can so that “grace may abound.” Paul is clear that sinning is not the answer. The law is in place to free us and to show us how to live. The message is not a message of abandoning the law, but one of being free in the grace of God. There is great hope in knowing that we are to “die to the law and live in Christ” (Polhill 110).

  9. The last main theme in Galatians is the freedom in Christ that believers had. This means that Gentiles were not obligated to follow the law and become proselytes. For a Gentile to become a follower of Christ did not mean that they were converting to Judaism. It actually meant that there was more freedom because a believer is set free from sin. Galatians 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Later in verse 13 it says to use the freedom in Christ to serve one another, not to indulge the sinful nature. There are two ways to use that freedom, either to indulge in sin or to love one another (Polhill 151). Ultimately, the freedom we have in Christ should unite believers in their pursuit of God. The reason for that unity is because the response to our freedom is to serve one another instead of condemning each other based on rules and the law. The Judaizers in Galatians did not understand the freedom that Christ gives us, and instead they tried to impose the law on Gentiles because they believed that this was the correct way to live. They were obviously missing something, and that is why Paul was so adamant in responding to them.

  10. “Finally, if gentiles are freed from the Law, what is their motivation to behave in a moral and ethical way?” This reminds me of the passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul rebukes the church there for living immorally. Now that we’re no longer under the Law, we are technically allowed to do whatever we want, but that doesn’t mean that the consequences for disobeying the principles of the Law have changed or disappeared. The Judaizers who were attacking Paul basically accused him of liberating the Christians to the point of abusing their new-found freedom in Christ (Pohill 141). Paul, however, explains that it is because of the freedom they have gained through the grace of Christ, that Christians are able to freely love Him, as they are no longer bound by the weight of the Law. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3), and furthermore in verse 6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Our motivation as Christians to live moral and ethical lives is our love of Christ, and desire to show that love to Him and to the world.

  11. Galatians 1:22 reminded me of how Paul and what he preached was not posted on the internet when he said that he “was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.” The people of the early church relied a lot on oral communication which makes it hard to transport large amounts of information. There was no printing press to write these letters on to spread so it must have been important to hear the letter read in a group.
    The end of the letter to the Galatians sums up what it is all about well when it says “what counts is a new creation” which is a our rebirth in Christ when a person comes to the saving knowledge. This is the paramount theme of the book. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. What i am confused about is the statement in 6:17 when it says “Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”

  12. To P. J. Long
    The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the sin of first degree murder, the complete violation, i.e. fulfillment, of the written code of law. That the law was changed after the sin of his murder is directly stated in Heb. 7:12, according to the scripture. I suppose you’ll disagree with this stated fact.

  13. I think that Paul wasn’t just upset at the teachings of or the teachers of the “old way”, but was more upset with the general population of the Galatia Church because they were following the law instead of living in the Spirit. But I wonder if the Church of Galatia simply didn’t know any better.

  14. Paul clearly states that his apostleship is from God not from man. Since Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, appointed Paul, Paul was a qualified witness of the gospel and the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.

    • Baraka,
      Who agreed with Paul’s boastful self-serving claim about himself? One man clearly stating something about himself does not mean it is true. Can I get a witness ??

  15. Paul had to defend his apostleship for there was a general belief that a true apostle must be the one who witnessed the ministry, death and ressurection of Jesus christ.p

    • Caroline,
      This “general belief” came from Jesus and Apostles He appointed – they were all completely in agreement that the Apostles were 12 and only 12 WITNESSES as you described, and the 12th is Matthias.

      Paul’s opinions and claims about his own “apostleship” stand alone. Other than Paul talking about himself, NO ONE in the pages of the Bible ever said that Paul was appointed an apostle. Not even Luke said that (no he didn’t say that in Acts 14) and Peter never recognized Paul as an apostle in any way either (in 2 Peter).

      If you believe Paul was appointed an apostle, and your source of information is the Bible, you have one and only one witness to back you up – “Paul said so.” That is all. And it is not enough Let ever matter be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses, as Jesus reminded us from the Torah.

      • You really do not understand the the Twelve or apostleship. Being an apostle does not mean you are one of the Twelve. Perhaps you need to beak away from some traditions yourself!

        The Twelve have a specific function and role in Acts, Paul is an apostle appointed by Jesus for a different role, just as James the Lord’s Brother was appointed to a different role after the resurrection.

    • This is a good point Caroline, thanks. I think you are right. Although Paul did claim to have seen Jesus after the resurrection (1 Cor 15:8-11), he was not a witness of his life as far as we know. At least in Galatians, the attack on Paul as an apostle is that he is not “authorized” by the Twelve in Jerusalem; Paul’s assertion is that he is an apostle appointed directly by Jesus and NOT one of the Twelve.

  16. No, PAUL did not understand “apostleship” – but somehow he thought he was the expert on the subject. You are listening to Paul (and Paulist traditions) while ignoring Jesus and the 12 Apostles Jesus appointed. Jesus and the 12 all agree unanimously that there are only 12 Apostles and the 12th is Matthias.

    Paul redefined the word “apostle” to include himself, claiming authority he was not given by God. Jesus never appointed Paul an apostle, despite Paul many loud claims about himself. No one agree with Paul. And one man’s testimony about himself is not valid.

    If we want to know what a apostle really is, why in the world should we accept Paul as the authority on the subject? (rather than Jesus, and the apostles Jesus appointed, like Peter, Matthew & John?)

    • I am curious where you would go in the canon to describe “apostleship” from perspective of Peter, Matthew or John? I suppose you might say “the gospels,” but it seems you are missing the point that the Twelve are a special group particularly called by Jesus for some particular tasks. That is all going to be found in Gospels.

      Paul was never part of the Twelve and never claimed to be part of the Twelve, and even labored to show he was not part of that group or even under their authority (Galatians 1-2 for the most part, but 1 Cor 15:9-11). Like the Twelve, Paul is specially called by God for a particular task, and he can refer to himself as an apostle since that is the very definition of the word – someone given a particular task to do on behalf of someone.

      You continually want to make Paul one of the Twelve, or think that I want Paul to be one of the Twelve, and possibly think Paul claimed to be one of the Twelve. You are arguing against something that is not even a thing anymore. Time to let it go and let Paul stand alone and try and understand what God was revealing through him.

  17. “Let Paul stand alone”??
    That is the recipe for a false religion. One “special man” comes along after Jesus with “special writings” and says, “follow me, listen to me, my words are the words of God because I said so, you can’t understand Jesus’ teachings or who Jesus really was unless I explain it to you, and I don’t need another witness because God is my witness.” Paul, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon, thousands of self-appointed “Apostles” around today…. it’s the same formula.

    Not even Jesus claimed He could stand alone. One man’s testimony about himself is not valid. No exceptions. Jesus didn’t write any books or letters, but rather He had 2 eyewitnesses (Apostles Matthew & John) plus two other witnesses (Mark & Luke) record His testimony for us. Apostle Peter’s words in Acts 1, recorded by Luke are very valuable, and Peter’s letters are insightful too.

    2 Peter is probably one of the most abused letters in the Bible, with Paul worshippers twisting Peter’s words to claim Peter was “endorsing Paul and affirming Paul’s supposed apostleship and that Paul’s words are the word of God”, when in truth it’s exactly the opposite. Peter was distancing himself from Paul and Paul’s writings, while still trying to be loving and speaking what good he could of this “problem person”. who had an attitude problem, didn’t know very much of Jesus’ teachings, was very ambitious and hungry for power, and had been relentlessly promoting himself as an “Apostle” when he was not. If you read 2 Peter carefully and see what Peter actually said and didn’t say about the Scripture and about Paul, it will be enlightening.

    Paul WAS under the authority of the 12 Apostles – at least he was supposed to be, but he was rebellious, and wanted to be Boss.

    You wrote:
    “Paul is specially called by God for a particular task, and he can refer to himself as an apostle since that is the very definition of the word – someone given a particular task to do on behalf of someone. ”

    No, you are begging the question.
    That is basically PAUL’s definition, which is the basis for our modern traditional definitions.

    Try looking up the word “Apostle” and related words everywhere in the New Testament EXCEPT Paul’s writings for a definition of what an Apostle is.
    (Acts 14 and Hebrews 3:1 are the odd exceptions, which need a little explanation and looking at context. Look EVERYWHERE ELSE in the NT other than Paul, and the picture is crystal clear.)

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