Audience: Churches of Galatia
Subjects: Circumcision is not necessary for salvation, Salvation comes by faith working through love, Live according to the Spirit, etc.
Paul immediately begins his letter to the churches of Galatia by making a statement of authority saying that he has not been sent by people, but by Jesus Christ himself.
He is referring to the incident that is recorded in Acts 9:3-7 that caused him to stop persecuting Christians and instead become a believer.
The first issue that Paul addresses is the fact that the believers have been listening to false teachings, and he says they are deserting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul explains that the message, of repentance and salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, comes from God. It is not a message devised by humans or designed to please others.
It is as Peter says in 2 Peter 1:20 "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation," and referring to Paul, he says, "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures." 2 Peter 3:15-16
Paul is telling the Galatians his story of how be became a believer, explaining that it was not through the witness of a person, but from the witness of Jesus Christ himself.
He explains that he did not meet any of the disciples of Jesus until well after that incident, and he explains that everyone had known him as the one who was persecuting the Christians before meeting Jesus.
The time-line that Paul presents in Galatians is very insightful, because the events in Acts seem to flow together and do not always indicate plainly how much time is passing.
Paul explains that after he met Jesus in the sky (Acts 9), three years passed before he first met Peter (Cephas) and James. Then fourteen more years passed before he returned to Jerusalem, taking Titus with him.
Paul is explaining all these events that happened between him and the disciples of Christ in order to make his point in Galatians 2:11-21 that he is not afraid to oppose anyone who is being hypocritical. He also is making this point that Peter had become hypocritical (and needed correction), so that he can point out the Galatians hypocrisy (which he starts in Galatians 3).
In this section of Galatians, Paul tells his audience the conversation he had with Peter, giving a small teaching about being justified by faith verses the works of the law. In context, he is speaking of the issue of circumcision, which he notes in Galatians 2:3-8 and again returns to in Galatians 5:2.
Paul discusses the issue of being justified by faith in far greater detail in Romans. We know that Paul is not saying that works don't matter, since he himself opposes this in Romans 3:31 "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law." And James too contradicts this idea in his letter, in James 2:17 "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."
Paul's point here in Galatians is that justification does not come through the law; however, he is not saying anything here in Galatians about obeying it (which he does cover in Romans). This teaching in Galatians 2 is similar to the point he makes in Romans 2 about circumcision being spiritual, not literal (Romans 2:29).
Having explained the conversation he had with Peter, Paul then criticizes the Galatians for there hypocrisy.
The issue that Paul is addressing is this situation regarding physical circumcision (Physical circumcision was the sign given to Moses that a Jew was under God's law).
He is telling the Galatians that being physically circumcised doesn't matter in regards to salvation, as he also covers in 1 Corinthians 7:19, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything."
Paul has explained to Peter, as well as the Christians in Rome, Corinth, and Galatia that circumcision is really a matter of the heart (shown by obedience to God's commandments), as seen in Romans 2:26 "So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?" and Romans 2:29 "Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal."
Paul is saying that those who "keep the requirements of the law (obey God's commandments)" are the ones who are "regarded as [circumcised]," which makes them "a Jew...inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart..."
In Galatians 3, Paul gives an explanation of salvation coming from the promise given to Abraham, rather than the law. This explanation mirrors his explanation in Romans 4-6. However, Paul clarifies in Romans 6:1-2 what he is not saying, "What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?"
When Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that, "There is no longer Jew or Greek..." he is speaking of the same subject he taught in Romans 2 and 9, that "Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly..." (Romans 2:29) and "For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants." (Romans 9:6-7)
Jesus Christ has made it so that "God's people" (true Israelites) is based on faith, repentance, and obedience instead of being circumcised or Jewish by birth.
Paul then uses a metaphor that his audience would understand, of a child being considered as a slave while he is a minor.
Paul then criticizes his audience for returning to the former idols that they worshiped before becoming Christian, since he says they are celebrating holidays that honor those idols. Paul pleads with his audience to listen to him and to remember the goodwill they once felt towards him.
Paul then uses another metaphor of Hagar and Sarah to explain what he has just explained in Galatians 3, that they are children of the promise (Paul explains this same subject in Romans 4-6).
Paul returns to make his point that he has been explaining throughout his whole letter so far: "Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you." (Galatians 5:2)
Again the issue here is that Gentile Christians were getting circumcised because they were being told by false teachers that circumcision was necessary to be saved.
Circumcision by itself is not right or wrong, but the reason behind doing it was the issue that Paul was fighting against in many churches, which is why he writes about this subject in many of his letters (Romans 2, 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians, etc.)
Paul explains that the only thing that counts in Jesus Christ is faith working through obedience to God's commandments (which is seen in the connection me makes in Galatians 5:14, as well as Romans 13:8-10):
"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love." (Galatians 5:6) "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Galatians 5:14)
And Paul further makes it clear that loving your neighbor is summarizing the commandments when he says, "The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery...murder...steal...covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:9-10)
Paul further expressed the need to obey God's commandments when he says, "Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh." (Galatians 5:16)
Paul then lists the "desires of the flesh" in Galatians 5:19-21, saying, "I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God."
He then lists the "fruit of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22-23, saying "There is no law against such things." (Galatians 5:23)
Paul tells the Christians in Galatia that if anyone is found to be sinning, then they should be rebuked with kindness in order for them to repent.
Paul then tells them to "not be deceived," saying that only those who live according to the Spirit will receive eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8), encouraging them to do good to everyone.
The main reason that Paul writes to the Galatians is to deal with this issue of false teachers saying that the Gentile Christians need to be circumcised in order to be saved.
In addition to circumcision, Paul addresses the need for them to obey God's commandments by "Loving your neighbor as yourself" (Galatians 5:14), giving examples of the fruit of the Spirit that should be displayed in their lives (Galatians 5:22-23).
Overall, the main subjects Paul covers include: Circumcision is not necessary for salvation, Salvation comes by faith working through love, Live according to the Spirit, etc.
What is love? It's a call to action. Guest post by Ben Byrum.
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