Galatians :: Catholic News Agency

Author: Paul of Tarsus

Date Written: 53 or 54 AD

Paul wrote this circular letter to churches in the Roman province of Galatia where he had ministered. The letter was meant to be read aloud in each congregation, so it is helpful to think of it as a speech rather than simply a letter.

Paul's authority in these churches was being challenged by a certain set of teachers. These teachers were Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles would have to be circumcised and practice the whole Mosaic law in order to be full members of the Christian church. Scholars debate the origin of these teachers and their exact views. The Galatian Christians are mostly Gentile and on hearing the letter they must decide whether to follow the corrupt teachers or return to the authentic Christian understanding which Paul presents.

Paul begins by establishing his authority as an apostle. Apparently, his opponents had accused him of not being a true apostle or of being inferior to the other apostles. Paul explains from his life story how God called him to be an apostle and gave him the revelation of Jesus (1:16). He consulted with Peter (Cephas) and James in Jerusalem and then proclaimed the gospel for 14 years without seeing the other apostles. When he did see them again, they approved of the message he had been preaching to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 15).

But Paul confronted Peter in Antioch because Peter had stopped eating with the Gentiles out of fear of the false Jewish teachers-the "circumcision party." Paul challenged Peter's hypocritical behavior. It is significant that Peter and Paul did not have an intellectual or doctrinal dispute, but only an argument about Peter's actions.

The central theological question of Galatians is justification: How is a person saved? If we forget the original context of the letter and do not read it as a whole, we are bound to get confused by the arguments Paul sets forward. He confronts the false teachers insisting that "all who rely on works of the law are under a curse" (3:10). When he uses the word "law" he is referring to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the Law of Moses. So the phrase "works of the law" primarily refers to doing things that the Law of Moses proscribed like circumcision and dietary restrictions. Paul makes it very clear that "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (2:16). We cannot earn our salvation. Jesus won our salvation by his death on the cross. We obtain this salvation by faith, which is a free gift of God.

Though the Law cannot save us (3:11), it does serve a specific function as a schoolmaster or guardian which prepares us for Christ (3:24). The Law prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the Son of God, so that they may be transformed from slaves of the Law to sons of God. Paul announces the great freedom we have in Christ as sons of God. He regards the Law of Moses as a "yoke of slavery" (5:1). Thus if a Gentile Christian accepts circumcision, he is obliged to keep the whole Law because he is trying to justify himself by works of the Law, not by the grace of Christ. He reverts from sonship to slavery.

Galatians introduces a very helpful piece of spiritual wisdom, that we are to walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh (5:16-26). When we become Christians, the desires of the sinful nature (the flesh) are supplanted by the desires of the Spirit. The struggle for holiness is the working out of these opposing desires.

Finally, though Paul emphasizes the free gift of salvation in Christ by faith, he also mentions the importance of doing good (6:9) and constantly acting in love. We are called to accept salvation through faith in Jesus and to pursue holiness by walking in Spirit and doing good.

By Mark Giszczak



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