Galatians - Our Liberty in Christ
"Stand firm in the liberty by which Christ has made us free!" Such is the trumpet-note of this immensely important epistle. A piece of very unhappy news had come to the Apostle Paul while he was somewhere (we are not sure where) on his 3rd missionary trip: his converts in Galatia, who showed him such tender affection while he was among them1, were turning away to a different gospel.2 And their betrayal was a source of bondage; they were unknowingly being wrapped in chains by their new teachers. How often is this the state of a believer who should be free in Christ! Jesus comes to pull a man up from the ground, sheer his ropes and dress him in white; then the man by sloth drifts back into the swamp of sin. St. Paul tells them they had started well in the faith, but then asks in consternation, who hindered them from obeying the truth?3
The teachers that were causing the Galatians so much trouble were a menacing group of Judaizers that constantly followed on the Apostle's heels. These were Christian Pharisees who sought to impose Jewish ceremonialism on the churches—especially circumcision. "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved!"4 This was their battle-cry; and into Galatia they came shouting this erroneous phrase and threatening the believers if they did not submit to the razor. The churches in Galatia were made up mostly of Gentiles; but these swaggers announced that no mere Gentile could become a follower of the Messiah unless he first became an accredited Jew. They ignored the warning of our Lord by pouring the new, rich wine of Christian faith into the old, shredded wineskins of the Levitical law.5
The Judaizers knew that the only way to successfully bring the Galatians under their yoke would be to disparage the authority of St. Paul. He was, they said, no Apostle at all; he was certainly not one of the Twelve; he had never seen Jesus except in a vision; all he knew of Christianity he learned from the Jews in Jerusalem; he preached a distorted and unlawful gospel; and anyway, who gave him authority to preach to Gentiles? Who gave him apostolic privileges? St. Paul was a sham, his message misleading, and his character untrustworthy. And so the Galatians, renowned for their fickleness, turned away from their father in the faith to follow this new gospel of lies.
St. Paul moved immediately to respond; his keen eye saw the danger involved. Not merely was his own authority at stake, as well as the salvation of his Galatian converts; but the outcome of this struggle would determine the very nature of the Christian Church in the world. One question stood at the forefront of his mind: would Christianity open its arms wide to freely redeem all nations—or would it forever remain a strict and limited sect of Judaism?
Thus the theological theme of the epistle can be stated: "Law versus Grace". Is the Christian's life, and salvation, based mainly on a code of laws or on God's grace?6 Is God pleased more by circumcision or by faith?7 Are the true sons of Abraham those who keep the Sabbath and avoid pig's flesh, or those who live by faith?8 Ultimately, do we inherit salvation by the Levitical law or by God's own promises?9 It was St. Paul's aim to convince them that the Law was only a temporary "tutor" for the training of God's people until they were mature enough to realize the fullness of God's grace. To be kept under law would be to treat a temporary tutor as a permanent master.
The spiritual theme can be stated: "Freedom versus Bondage". There are many who have cherished chapter 5 of this epistle as a golden discourse on spiritual freedom from sin. St. Paul speaks frankly on the war between spirit and flesh,10 and the need to nail the passions of the flesh upon Christ's cross.11 He points out the insidious nature of sin when he says that even an ounce of sinful leaven can permeate the whole lump.12 He says he has confidence in the believers13 and all but cries out for them to stand firmly in freedom and not let sin entangle them again with a yoke of bondage.14
The epistle can be divided into three main sections, each comprising two chapters: PERSONAL (chs 1,2), DOCTRINAL (chs 3,4), EXHORTATIONAL (chs 5,6).
St. Paul begins in the PERSONAL section with a defense of his apostleship against the attacks of the Judaizers. After the greeting he utters a stern rebuke to the Galatians for their apostasy and denounces the false teachers.15 He then asserts that he is in every degree a real Apostle by stating that: (i) he received his apostleship directly from Christ16 (ii) he could not have earned it from the Twelve, since he stayed aloof of them for three years following his conversion17 (iii) the big-shot church leaders could add nothing to his teaching18 (iv) he was officially recognized by the three "pillars" of Christianity—James, Peter, and John19 (v) his authority was so firm that he could even rebuke Peter, the chief of the Twelve, for his inconsistency.20
In the DOCTRINAL section St. Paul presents a rigorous argument for the superiority of God's grace over the Law. He rebukes the Galatians for replacing the flesh for the Spirit and the works of the law for the obedience of faith21—although Abraham himself was justified by faith.22 The Law, so far from justifying, only condemned sinners; but Christ rescued us from the condemnation.23 And since God's promise to Abraham was 430 years before the Law, our inheritance of the kingdom must be by promise, not by law.24 So then, what purpose did the Law serve? It was an inferior plan, given as a witness against sin, as a badge of our state of bondage. It's only value was as proof of our need for redemption in Christ. So why have they, after knowing Christ, returned to the weak and beggarly elements of the Law?25 Furthermore, the Law itself admits the superiority of grace because Isaac, who represents the covenant of grace, is a true son; and Ishmael, who represents the covenant of Law, was cast out.26
Finally, in the EXHORTATIONAL section, St. Paul shows how an upright gospel ought to bear fruit in the Christian life. St. Paul urges them to walk (not just believe) in the Spirit27 and to be careful never to use their spiritual liberty to indulge the flesh.28 The most famous and beautiful passage is that enumerating the fruits of the Spirit.29 They must remember that whatever they sow they shall reap, in due time.30 He ends by exclaiming one of his abiding principles: "I have been crucified to the world." And as always, he wishes peace and mercy for all those who walk in the truth.31
5 Mt 9:16,17