In this Introduction to the Bible, we learned about how the ascended Jesus revealed the message of the gospel directly to Paul. Paul had not been one of the apostles that travelled with Jesus in his 3 year mission when he walked amongst the people of Judea, Galilee and the surrounding areas.
Paul’s message about Jesus was directed to the non-Jewish people – the Gentiles. Paul went on many journeys to spread the news of Jesus and along the way he help to set up several churches. Paul’s first missionary journey, with Barnabas, was to Cyprus and Asia Minor including the Galatia area (AD46-48) as described in the book, “The Acts of the Apostles” chapters 13 and 14. These first Gentile churches were close to Paul’s heart. After his journey finished, Paul had received reports that these churches had started to believe a different version of the gospel to one he had taught them. Some people from Jerusalem were teaching that following the laws of Moses, which included circumcision as part of God’s covenant with Abraham, was essential to their salvation in Christ.
Paul then writes this letter to the churches in Galatia to correct this error of teaching. Read Galatians 1:1-10 and 2:1-16. “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas (Peter) in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” Galatians 2:14
Paul attacks this teaching in a strong tone, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1). Read all of chapter 3 where Paul lays out his teachings about salvation and asks if it is achieved by faith or by the works of the Law. His point is that Jesus Christ brings a new teaching of faith in himself – God’s Son – and this is the path to salvation (righteousness) with God and also that this supersedes the righteousness of following the law and its traditions. “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” (3:23)
Paul is reinforcing his teaching that Gentiles do NOT need to follow the law and traditions of the Jewish people. In fact the verses that follow are a beautiful demonstration that in Christ everybody is equal since we are all adopted as children of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3: 26-29
These are powerful words that shaped the world of the first century Gentile believers, and subsequently the believers in the reformation era that started with Martin Luther’s posting (31st October 1517) of 95 arguments against the Roman Catholic Pope and the errored teachings of church. Luther followed Paul’s arguments that we are saved by faith and by God’s grace, and not by our own actions or attempts to please God and satisfy the laws and customs.
The worry that the established church of the first century (based in Jerusalem), and the established church of the 16th century (based in Rome), had with the teaching that ‘faith is all you need’, is that this might lead to people doing whatever they wanted to do and disregarding God’s desire for good. This is the big question of faith versus works: Do I gain salvation only by my faith in Jesus, or do I gain salvation by obeying the laws and traditions?
Paul writes this to churches in Galatia:
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ … So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:13-22
These were words for the troubled churches in Galatia, these are words used by the leaders of the reformation for a troubled church, and these are words that still speak to us today.
Paul’s teachings are solid – we are saved by faith in Christ and are freed from the requirement of the law of Moses and it traditions to be loving followers of Jesus – loving God, loving neighbour.
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.” (Galatians 6:18)
Reference and Further Reading
- Overview of the letter to the churches in Galatia
- Maps and descriptions of the Paul’s journeys as recorded in the book of Acts
https://www.ccel.org/bible/phillips/CN092MAPS1.htm (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)