Galatians - Its Background, Context and Overview
Sunday, September 13, 2009 -
Today we launch into what will be an extended study through the whole book of Galatians. It could well be that no New Testament book cuts more relevantly into today’s church. The issues of legalism (which we will touch on in our introduction), holiness, and the life of the Spirit are perceived with extensive confusion in the church today. Be at prayer that God will help us apply His truth with life and grace to our hearts!
1) SOME BRIEF BACKGROUND INFORMATION TO PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
Paul had evangelized the southern districts of Galatia and established congregations there on his first missionary journey. These events are described in Acts chapters 13 and 14.
Upon his return to Jerusalem he received the disturbing news that false teachers - Judaisers - had made their way into these new congregations and polluted the teaching he had given. The central feature of this false teaching was that these new Gentile Christians were being told that, in addition to faith in Jesus Christ, these new believers had to be brought under the umbrella of nationalistic Judaism if they were to become God’s people.
Before Paul left on his second missionary journey, and just before the famous Jerusalem Council mentioned in Acts 15, Paul sent off this letter to the Galatians. This was around 47 or 48 A.D., making Galatians one of the earliest New Testament documents.
2) THE CONTEXT OF THE GALATIAN CORRESPONDENCE
Knowing the context makes all the difference in the world in properly understanding the message of any Scriptural passage. We need to know the exact nature of the problem Paul was addressing if we are going to properly apply the text to our own situation today.
Paul’s comments about legalism have been badly twisted out of shape over the years. Paul wasn’t writing to deal with the issue of wearing lipstick, or smoking, or going to movies. Paul was facing a very specific and important threat in these Galatian congregations. These Jewish teachers were trying to draw these new Christians back under the system of Old Covenant Judaism. While not opposed to their new found faith in Christ (these teachers seemed at least open and sympathetic to the faith of these Christians), these teachers, none the less, were teaching that faith in Christ’s work on the cross was, in itself, not enough to turn Gentiles into God’s people.
This is the reason for the stressing of the two specific laws of circumcision and purity at keeping table (that is, not eating with Gentiles). Both of these laws were selected out of many because, more than any others, these two laws stressed the separateness of Jews from the rest of the nations. This was the whole point for these false teachers. These new Christians needed to also take on the Jewish heritage if they were to become God’s people, the children of Abraham.
This explains Paul’s recounting of his confrontation with Peter (and Barnabas as well) over this very issue of separating themselves from the Gentiles when they ate (Galatians 2:11-14). Why should Paul care about those with whom Peter ate? Because this whole issue was not just a social issue. It was the key theological issue these false teachers were peddling. Paul speaks to this issue of adding Judaism as a requirement for salvation in Galatians 3:3 and also 2:21 and 3:19.
3) A QUICK OVERVIEW OF THE LETTER
For simplicity, the book can be divided into three primary teaching units:
a) The first two chapters deal with the all important issue of truth and authority in the Christian faith. This is significant because virtually all of the first Christians converted from other religions. What made them do so? This is especially important in an age of increasing tolerance of religious pluralism.
b) The second two chapters deal with the nature of salvation. How is a person made right with God? What do we have to do? What is the role of good deeds in getting to heaven?
c) The final two chapters deal with the all-important subject of Christian holiness. Once one is saved, how does one grow in holiness? Does holiness matter if we are not saved by works? What difference does holiness make?
Next week we’ll launch into the first five verses of chapter one and consider the question, “Why do Christians think theirs is the only true religion?”