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How to Read the Bible Book by Book: Galatians

Galatians 3:1, 6: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.

Along with the book of Romans, there may be no other letter written by the Apostle Paul that has more impact on the history of the church than the book of Galatians. It is not nearly as long as Romans, nor is the theme exactly the same. But there is a common subject that is shared between the two books—the idea that one is justified by faith in Jesus Christ through our faith rather than by works of the law. This idea revolutionized the world once in the first century A. D., and then it did so again in the sixteenth century during the time of the Reformation. It speaks to us of a truth that is very counterintuitive to our thinking: a person cannot be right by God based on their level of obedience. A person is right before God based on their belief in God’s promise. When that belief takes hold of a person’s mind and heart, it will change a person’s actions. They will certainly become more obedient. But the obedience doesn’t come first…faith comes first, and then obedience follows.

It is quite likely that Galatians was the first letter that was written by Paul. In Acts 13 and 14 the story is told of Paul’s first missionary journey. Most of that journey took place in four different cities in the region of Galatia. It appears that after Paul left, other Christian missionaries came behind him who were heavily influenced by the idea that faith in Christ was not all that was needed to be right with God, but also obedience to the law. Especially in their mind was obedience to the distinctive customs of the Jewish people, including things like food laws, Sabbath rituals, and, of course circumcision above all. It is likely that this happened before the council of Jerusalem took place in Acts 15, when the issue was settled for the whole church. In these early days of missionary work, the issue of the Law of Moses was not yet clear. Many Jewish converts were not ready to give up their old rituals, and they wanted to bind them on new Gentile believers.

The book of Galatians is Paul’s attempt to stop the growth and influence of this idea that faith in Christ must be supplemented by obedience to the law. For Paul, this was a break from the fundamental truth of the gospel which says that salvation comes solely by God’s grace through the means of faith. To lose this central fact was to lose the gospel and to send people into despair because no one could keep the whole law. And if you committed yourself to being obedient to part of it as a means of salvation (like with circumcision, for example), then you were bound to keep all of it. No one could. The law only brought condemnation.

Because this is so serious, the letter of Galatians has a very solemn and sharp tone to it. Paul does not begin with pleasantries as he does with many of his other letters. He jumps right to the point. The letter can be split up into three different sections, each being two chapters long.

The first section covers chapters 1 and 2 and vindicates Paul’s authority to preach this particular message of justification by faith. In 1:6-10 Paul states his thesis for the whole letter. After expressing his astonishment that the people should so quickly have abandoned the gospel message he preached to them, he tells them that even if he or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel different from the one he originally delivered to them, that person should be eternally cursed.

Paul wants to know if it looks like he is trying to win the approval of man by preaching such a message. And in the rest of chapter 1 and throughout chapter 2 Paul will show how the gospel he received was free of human influence. He was not influenced by any of the major churches (1:18-24), nor was he influenced by the leaders in Jerusalem (2:1-10), nor was he even influenced by Peter himself. As a matter of fact, he once had a very uncomfortable confrontation with Peter over this very issue (2:11-21). Paul received his gospel message straight from Jesus himself, and therefore it is the authentic saving message.

Section two covers chapters 3 and 4 and brings to light the primary theological message of the letter. Paul wants to know if they received salvation and the promised gift of the Holy Spirit by obeying the law or by their faith in Christ. (3:1-5). Abraham himself, who was Israel’s patriarch and the first Hebrew to be right with God, was credited with being righteous because of his faith, not because of his obedience to the law. Indeed, when Abraham was alive, the law had not come into being yet. Abraham was righteous because he believed God’s promise (3:6-14). Anyone who tries to depend upon the law for their right standing before God is under a curse because the law curses lawbreakers. Paul will go on to say there is nothing wrong with the law, of course. The problem is not with the law, but with us. In our natural state—in the flesh—we do not have the power to fully obey God’s law. Therefore, all we do is bring its curse down upon us. So the law was given to us to be a kind of tutor in order to watch over us and train us until the time of Christ so we could be freed by faith (3:21-33). To make the law a means of salvation is to ignore its true purpose. That point is furthered by a strange allegory between Sarah and Hagar (4:21-31)

The final section of the letter (chapters 5 and 6) then applies Paul’s message. It is for freedom that we have been set free from the curses of the law (5:1). We are now free people who live by the Spirit. But even though that is true, we should not abuse this fact by indulging our old fleshly nature rather than living by the Spirit (5:16-25). We should be producing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. The letter then ends in chapter 6 with an admonition to watch out for one another and to be generous in our giving.

The letter of Galatians is not large by any means. However, despite its size, it packs a large punch. What could be more important to know than that we are saved by grace through faith rather than law keeping? It is the best news we could possibly receive.

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