Key Themes in Galatians

The main problem Paul addresses in the book of Galatians is the status of Gentiles in the current stage of salvation history. 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.

GalatiansA 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 because he is 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 of the letter. What is missing from this letter is the status of the Law for Jewish Christians. Should a Jewish Christian continue to keep the Law? They appear to have done so, but that is not really the issue that Paul treats in this letter.

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? It appears that there were some believers in Paul’s churches who did in fact “sin that grace may abound,” or at the very least continued in some Gentile practices that were offensive to God. Rather than keep part of the Law (the so-called “moral law,” for example, or the Ten Commandments), Paul tells his readers that they are “in Christ” and that they ought to live like it. They are to “live by the Spirit” rather than the flesh. Paul 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 led by the Spirit of God and manifest in the “fruit of the Spirit.”

8 thoughts on “Key Themes in Galatians

  1. Jewish Christians who are continuing to abide by the mosaic law seems to be the central theme of Paul’s ministry. I think for anyone who read acts or Galatians for the first time would think of Paul as quite the audacious character. But that is probably why God chose him for this ministry in the first place, because Paul is bold. Obviously Paul and Barnabas new that they would not be able to convince the Jews that there is no need to religiously follow the law anymore because of Christ’s grace, so he had to approach the Jerusalem council in order to “get the bill passed”…which probably left the Jews feeling pretty ticked off.

    It was crucial however, that Paul insisted on telling the Gentiles that even though they are saved by grace, they must continue to live in their faith and be abstain from evil. Paul was preaching to plant seeds in people…he wasn’t there to debate or argue or provide them motivation. That came from their own motivation and the work of the Holy Spirit within them.

  2. Galatians 2:15-16 says, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…” Paul’s main issue that he needs to touch on is that the Jews no longer have to live under the law of food laws, or circumcision, but rather they now live under the law of Grace where your sins are forgiven through faith in Christ Jesus. Polhill also talks about when Paul met with the Jerusalem leaders “all was going well in his private meeting with the leaders. Then the false brothers slipped in” (Pohill 111). Paul then had to defend what he was saying, and “Paul did not yield to their pressure for a moment” (Polhill112). He had pressure from people trying to convince the counsel that they needed to keep the law, but Paul stood his ground until the council came to an agreement and sent a letter out to the churches saying that the Jews did not have to follow the law in order to be a Christian.

  3. It is pretty clearly explained throughout Acts 15 that the Gentiles were not converting to Christianity; also, you touched on this in the last paragraph that in fact, Gentiles were free from the Law but were to live by the Law of Christ. Even though Paul never really talked about whether or not Jewish Christians needed to keep the Law, I think it is somewhat up to the Jew. God called the Jews to follow the Law – that was their way of giving their lives to God and honoring Him – so if the Jewish Christian still feels the need to follow the Law and that’s how they feel they are being honoring to God and they truly want to do that, then they should be able to. However, if they become a Christian and don’t really see the point of following the Law anymore, then I think it would be okay that they live by the Law of Christ instead. Honestly, only God really knows what is the right thing to do in this situation, but by looking at the Jews and their past and also the Law of Christ, I feel it would be okay if Jewish Christians chose whether or not to follow the Law (according to what they think God wants them to do).
    In Romans 14:13, Paul talks about how we should not be a stumbling block to out brothers and sisters. This is one of the motivations that Gentile Christians would have for following moral laws or the Law of Christ. If they lived however they wanted and didn’t worry about the affect that their sin had on other Christians (Jew or Gentile) then it could be wondered whether or not they truly gave their life over to Christ.

  4. Culturally speaking, when a man or woman goes from being a person of Jewish faith and enters Christianity they change though Christianity and its faith started from the promises given to the Jews and the true God of Abraham. Though they change they still carry with them what it means to be a Jew, they are not going out to eat BLT’s with the local prostitute because they no longer are under the law, they are still a Jew. For new converts this could be a huge shock and extremely dis-comfortable. However with the birth of new things, also comes opportunity. Paul addresses in Galatians the questioning of his calling, of who he is, and what authority he has. On top of that he addresses people who call out the Gospel he preaches it and twist it for there own gospel. “He was angry with the disturbers for proclaiming such a perversion of the gospel. He implied that their other gospel was a path straight to hell” Polhill 139.

  5. Paul does a good job at teaching and showing to everyone that Gentiles are free from the law and don’t have to follow it. He makes it clear that God does not show favoritism or give more grace to others. He talks about the fact that it isn’t works by which we are saved, but by our belief and faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice. It is clear that there is nothing that we can do to receive more favor or grace in God’s eyes. The fact that circumcision in itself is a work proves that you don’t need to do that in order to be saved or be a believer in Christ. Christ came so that we could have freedom from the law and gave a new law and command. The reason that Christ was crucified is because He was preaching that the law is not by which they are saved but by believing in the One that God sent.

  6. Should a Jewish Christian continues to keep the Law? The answer is so simple its silly. Yes and No. It is definitely up to convictions they have from God. They need to know There is the law of Christ that is the Canopy over every law, therefore cancelling Mosaic law out. If either Jews or Christians feel compelled to keep the law it should be a personal conviction, and definitely something they should not press unto another. Following the Law should be the product of a conviction from God, something to pray over, or just being its something you just enjoy doing. But definitely not necessary for the Jewish Christian.

  7. As you said at the end that even though the Gentiles are free from the law, they now have to live by the Law of Christ; it’s true, that even though the Gentiles didn’t have to follow the Mosaic Law they must follow a different law. They could believe that Jesus was the Messiah and still continue to sin and live the ways that they were living, but in the end they must face God, and God will make that decision if they truly lived by the new Law of Christ or not. Same goes with the Jews as well, yes they believed that they should live by the Mosaic Law, and that they should be circumcised and should follow food laws, but God is going to be the only one at the end who decides who is going to be in the kingdom of Heaven, and who is not. God doesn’t play favoritism, if you are Jewish and follow the Mosaic Law or if you are Gentile and follow the new Law of Christ, he will judge just as equal.

  8. The sound of “freedom from the law” initially sounds like permission to live however one would like to live, but when we see that Paul replaces it with living by the law of Christ, we know that it requires extremely high moral and ethical standards. When we really think about what it means to live by the fruits of the spirit, that is in no way a life of freedom of temporal, worldly pleasure. When Paul lists the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-20, the consequences for going along in sin are huge- “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” In the historical context, I do feel as though I can understand why the Pharisee Christians were concerned with the Gentiles abiding by the Law, especially because it was their tradition and they viewed Christianity as a movement within Judaism as Polhill stated. Paul is very clear that Gentiles should not live a life of sin, because they know of God’s grace, rather they should live under the law of Christ and live by the Spirit.

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