Galatians – The Backdrop for Galatians

July 18, 2008

To celebrate the Year of St. Paul, we begin now a study of the Epistle to the Galatians, a work which is authentically Pauline. The most argumentative and passionate of all his letters, it speaks to an extremely contentious issue in the early church: whether a Gentile male had to be circumcised to be considered fully Christian. Theologians aptly recognize this epistle as "spiritual dynamite," and the ways Luther and others interpreted this book ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Galatians is well-renowned as a book that celebrates Christian liberty. Paul posits that if Jesus Christ is solely sufficient for our salvation, then a Christian’s life must remain unadulterated by an outdated legalism and non-Christian philosophies.

To provide a bit of historical background, after persecuting the Way and undergoing a dramatic conversion, Saul (only later called Paul) began his ministry outside Damascus. A few years later he presented himself to the Church in in Jerusalem, who quickly sent him to Tarsus because of his infamous reputation. While Paul was in Tarsus, a mass influx of Gentile Christians entered the primarily Jewish Church in Antioch. The problems that arose when these Gentiles intermixed with Jewish Christians presented a dire problem, especially considering that the latter group had safeguarded their pedigree for generations. Barnabas traveled to Antioch to survey the situation for the Church of Jerusalem. Overjoyed at the conversion of so many Gentiles, he soon realized that these new Christians need an experienced teacher and called Saul from Tarsus to take the office.

One day, while the leaders of the Church of Antioch were at prayer, the Holy Spirit said to them, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (Acts 13:2). Heeding this command, the Church sent them to Cyprus and then to Asia Minor where they ministered to southern Galatia.

Upon returning to Antioch, Paul found troublesome Judaizers coercing Gentile Christians to undergo circumcision. When Peter arrived in Jerusalem, Paul contested the practice of the Apostle of eating only with Judaizers or by himself, whereas he used to eat freely with Gentiles. After Paul publicly rebuked Peter about this, the matter was decided at the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 50 (cf. Acts 15). Although many scholars debate over the dating of Paul’s letter, the fact he does not mention the council’s decision in Galatians clearly places its composition prior to A.D. 50.

Studying this epistle reveals that Paul is far more than just a cantankerous character. Rather, he emerges as a staunch defender of all that is essential to the Gospel, one who is more than willing to stand up a powerful school of legalists to uphold the truth.

Amidst all the theological arguments in this book, Paul takes great care to describe a living spirituality in which Christians experience the full life of Christ: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Gal 2:20).

Music: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 by Johannes Brahms, performed by the Skidmore College Orchestra. www.musopen.com

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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