Galatians is one of the most striking letters of the Apostle Paul, both for its intensity of personal concern and succinct summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Galatians was written by Paul (1:1) to a group of churches in the Roman province of Galatia (1:2), which is in present-day Turkey. Paul wrote this letter sometime around 52 AD, plus or minus five years. There is scholarly debate about whether this letter was sent to churches in southern Asia Minor or northern Asia Minor. It seems most likely that the recipients were in southern Asia Minor, consisting of churches that Paul planted in and around Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 13-14), and which he subsequently visited in his travels (Acts 16:6; 18:23).
Our view of the geographical location of the churches shapes our understanding of the nature of the recipients. If, as suggested, the recipients were in southern Asia Minor, they would be a culturally diverse group of Gentiles. However, if the recipients were in northern Asia Minor, they would predominantly have been Gauls, who settled there after invading the area in the third century BC. Either way, the churches Paul is writing to are now influenced by “the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:12), who are Judaizers of some sort.
Paul writes in more personal terms in Galatians than in nearly any other letter, twice indulging in extended autobiographical reflections on his life and ministry (1:13-2:21; 4:12-20). His personal reflections are a means by which Paul directly addresses the challenge to the gospel that has arisen within this group of churches (1:6-9; 2:11-14), as well as the validity of his gospel and ministry as “apostle to the Gentiles” derived directly from God (1:11-12, 15-16). The Galatian believers have come under the spell of a group of people, likely Jewish Christians, who are warping the gospel. Paul goes so far as to call their message “really no gospel at all” (1:7) because they are commingling faith in Christ with a command to observe circumcision, the Mosaic law, and certain dates, as necessary badges of faith.
One significant question about the historical background of Galatians is how we should fit together Paul’s two visits to Jerusalem mentioned in this letter (1:18; 2:1-10) with the five visits recorded in the Book of Acts (Acts 9:26-30; 11:30; 15:1-30; 18:22; 21:15-17). This question centers on whether the visit to Jerusalem mentioned in Galatians 2:1-10 fits with the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1-30 or with Paul and Barnabas’ famine relief for the Judean churches in Acts 11:27-30. The first approach leaves us with unanswered questions about why Paul fails to mention his other visits to Jerusalem in Galatians, while the second approach alleviates those previous concerns by questionably suggesting that Paul’s conference with the Jerusalem apostles in Galatians 2 goes unmentioned within the Acts narrative. Scholarly conflict on this issue shows us that there are unresolved challenges with both approaches.
Galatians follows an epistolary structure with two major sections, as well as an introduction and conclusion (adapted from Longenecker, Galatians and G.W. Hansen, “Galatians, Letter to” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters):
Argument from Scripture (3:6-4:11)
Allegory from Scripture (4:21-31)
Ethical instruction (5:1-6:10)
Free—A Study on Galatians
This six-part series was preached in a multi-ethnic urban church. The church spent the Fall walking through an extended preaching series drawn from the life of Abraham intended to help the community understand how we develop our life of faith. Turning from this “father of our faith,” the church spent the first part of the new year mining Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches for a New Testament perspective on faith. The series aimed to both deal with the theological concept of faith, tensions between faith and obedience, our freedom as children of God, and the resulting call to live out our faith, both as individual Christians and as the Christian community.
Series description: In a culture and world that values freedom, we encounter strong words from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). The message of Jesus Christ is a message of radical freedom that leads to abundant life. But what does that look like for us?
Big idea for whole series: How do we get ahold of God by faith in Jesus Christ in a way that frees us to live the abundant life without veering into rigid legalism or lax permissiveness?
Text: Galatians 1:1-24
Title: The Only Message
Exegeticla Idea: The real message of the gospel is at stake in Paul’s writing to the churches in Galatia. He is wrestling with his listeners on their approach to life with God. Paul begins the letter with a strong statement on the importance of our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news. He also reflects on his calling and the radical nature of the gospel to the Gentiles.
Big Idea: The gospel message is central to our faith and cannot be sacrificed or altered.
Text: Galatians 2:1-21
Title: The Real Gospel
Exegeticla Idea: Paul continues to reflect on his own story and how the unique revelation of the gospel came to him and what that meant within the early church and in relation to his authority as an apostle. This is a key historical section that helps us understand the ministry of Paul and why we should take him seriously as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” He presents the basic issue at stake in Galatians: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (2:21).
Big Idea: The real gospel is a message of freedom—not a new law—centered in Jesus Christ.
Text: Galatians 3:1-29
Title: Receiving the Gift
Exegeticla Idea: Paul explores the relationship between the law and faith, righteousness and grace. Drawing upon the life of Abraham and the revelation of the Law to Moses after the Exodus, Paul makes a case that there is a justification before God through Jesus Christ that comes from faith apart from the law. He begins to explore what life looks like in light of the grace of God.
Big Idea: The Law is the context for the powerful promise of grace given to us by God through Jesus Christ.
Text: Galatians 4:1-31
Title: Becoming Children
Exegeticla Idea: Paul calls the Galatians to a new life of freedom in God. He uses an allegory about Hagar and Sarah in order to illustrate the radical new beginning and life we have as children of grace and not children of law.
Big Idea: Through Jesus Christ we are given the gracious gift of becoming God’s children and heirs of his promises.
Text: Galatians 5:1-26
Title: Spiritual Freedom
Exegeticla Idea: What does it really look like to live with freedom? Paul describes the freedom in Christ that comes by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. Here is the famous fruit of the Spirit discussion.
Big Idea: We are set free by God through Christ not to do whatever we want, but in order to serve others in love and walk by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Text: Galatians 6:1-18
Title: Free to Live
Exegeticla Idea: Does freedom mean we are careless about how we live with God? No, in fact Paul draws upon Old Testament teaching to say that our daily lives are intended to become reflections of the grace of God that frees us from the enslavement of sin, giving us freedom within life as new creations.
Big Idea: Living under the Cross and in the Spirit, we are free from pride, foolishness, fear, and earning.
Paul writes to an early church community in the midst of turmoil about the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how it is lived out in community. Galatians offers the opportunity to preach on issues like:
the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
Paul’s fierce defense of the gospel in Galatians reveals that it is an important book for upholding the true gospel of Jesus Christ. While Romans is more theologically in-depth, Paul cuts to the heart of the matter on the essential nature of the gospel, with special attention to justification by faith, the interplay of faith and works, the place of the law in our Christian discipleship, and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments in God’s story of salvation history.
Freedom is a key topic in Galatians. We are freed from the power of the law to become children of God by the infilling of the Holy Spirit. However, that freedom from sin is not license to sin. Rather, we are set free, as Paul highlights in the latter half of the book, to freely live with the Holy Spirit and bear the signs of his presence in the fruit of the Spirit. This freedom in Christ calls us to live freely with one another as equal sisters and brothers in the family of God.
Because of Paul’s autobiographical sections, we are able to engage with topics of conflict and unity through the evident humanity of the early church leaders. Paired with the Book of Acts, we might engage with issues of tension and difficulty in the early church as a way to help the church today grapple with our humanity around conflicts we face, as well as the call to unity as Christ’s body on earth.
Throughout Galatians, Paul brings together great stories and themes of the Hebrew Bible: Abraham and Sarah, Sarah and Hagar, faith and law, circumcision, Jews and Gentiles, and more. This letter serves as a great bridge between the heroes of our faith in the Hebrew Bible and what it looks like to be a person of faith today. At the same time, this letter provides the preacher a great opportunity to tell the story of God from Genesis through Revelation in a way that helps the hearer understand how the pieces of the story of God fit together. This is also an opportunity to show the consistency of God’s character, in that, contrary to the teaching of Marcion in the past and many today, there is one God, consistently gracious and holy, reigning over both the Old and the New Testaments.
Justification by Faith
Writing to this Gentile church with the gospel on the line, Paul affirms that we are justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ alone. “We may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16). The combination of our inability to completely live out the requirements of the Law with Christ’s ability to completely fulfill the Law’s requirements gives us a firm place to stand before God and in life. This message is not just for Jews, but is for any who would come to God by faith.
This theme flows from that of justification by faith. Because of Jesus’ complete work, we are now set free in life. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Paul links this theme of freedom backward to Christ’s work on our behalf and forward to the Holy Spirit’s presence within us as we “keep in step” with him (5:25). This holy, joyous freedom in Galatians echoes Jesus’ words: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Unity in the church
Galatians presents us with a church in conflict over the gospel, specifically with its founder. Nowhere else in his letters is Paul so harsh in his condemnation of what is happening in the church as here in Galatians: “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let that person be under God’s curse!” (1:9). At the same time, Paul’s fierce words are intended to call the church back to the true gospel, which is the only source of true unity. Our unity with one another requires a unity with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that is rooted in the gospel.
Equality in the Church
In the midst of the circumcision group trying to make good Jews out of the Gentile believers, Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). The radical freedom that comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ is the basis of living in radical equality as God’s people. Three important categories by which people are distinguished and valued (or de-valued) are radically remade in Christ: ethnicity, socio-economic standing, and gender.
Life in the Holy Spirit
The strong emphasis upon Jesus Christ is paired with a strong emphasis upon the Holy Spirit. From Galatians 3 onwards, the Holy Spirit is the drumbeat of the letter, mentioned as a gift because of the gospel (3:2), the promise of God (3:14), the One who secures our place in God’s family (4:6), and the One who brings to life God’s character, called “the fruit of the Spirit,” in us (5:22-25).
My Encounter with Galatians
I preached a series on the Book of Habakkuk, which deeply engaged our church with topics of suffering, endurance, and God’s redeeming power. Right in the middle of Habakkuk we stumbled across a verse that has fueled a lot of theology in the New Testament and beyond: “but the righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4, RSV). That verse anchors a good deal of the Paul’s argument in Galatians related to the law and the gospel, and the role that faith plays in justification: “Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11). This verse fueled the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther described it with heartfelt affection: “The Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am as it were in wedlock.” Galatians was powerful in Paul’s day, powerful in the days of the Protestant Reformation, but no less powerful in our own day. I wanted our church to see that again with fresh eyes.
In light of the brief introduction to the topic of faith and faithfulness we received from Habakkuk, it seemed like a good time to delve deeper into the topic of faith. We began that deeper dive as a church with an eleven-week teaching series on the life of Abraham and Sarah, entitled “Faith Life,” in which we examined what it looks like to respond with faith to God’s call. After that, we turned to a series on Galatians, in an effort to avoid works-based, earned righteousness into faith-based, Jesus-birthed, Spirit-sustained righteousness.
I scheduled the series at the beginning of the calendar year in an effort to link our faith journey with New Year’s resolutions or goals, and had our congregation join in together in memorizing Galatians 2:20 throughout the series: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Every week we would recite the verse aloud together, which was something new for us as a church. It became a defining moment for many of us.
Looking back, I wish I had taken more than six weeks for this series. While we were able to walk through each chapter and introduce key themes, having at least a couple more weeks would have enabled us to dwell in certain points of the book a little longer. There are times for galloping through a book of the Bible, but even though Galatians at times feels like an urgent, dashed-off letter to a church in crisis, perhaps we could have stopped for water along the way.
F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).
Martin Luther, Galatians, The Crossway Classics Commentaries (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998).
Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1990).
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.