The Book of Galatians: Introduction
July 18, 2023
by Peter Amsterdam
The Book of Galatians: Introduction
The book of Galatians is a letter (or epistle) that the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, a province of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). In Paul’s day, the province of Galatia touched the Black Sea on the north and the Mediterranean Sea on the south. Galatia became a Roman province in 25 BC, and amongst its residents were people from various ethnic groups who had migrated to Asia Minor. Many of them were originally from Gaul (France), but over the centuries, they had migrated eastward and settled in Galatia. The book of Acts records Paul’s travels through “south Galatia.”1
There is some debate about when Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, with two main views on the topic. The first view is the North Galatian theory, which claims that the letter was addressed to the churches in North-central Asia Minor, where the Gauls had settled when they invaded the area in the third century BC. According to this view, Paul visited this area on his second missionary journey between AD 53 and 57.
The second view is the South Galatian theory, which says that Galatians was written to the churches in the southern area of the Roman province of Galatia, where Paul founded churches in the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe on his first missionary journey. Some historians believe Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians from Syrian Antioch in AD 48–49 after his first journey. Others think it was written in Syrian Antioch or Corinth between AD 51 and 53. While the dates of Paul’s writings are important to historians, for most of us it is enough to know that Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians and that we can benefit from this epistle.
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia.2
Throughout Paul’s writings, he often affirmed his authority as an apostle at the beginning of his letters, as he has done in this passage.3 He was first called as an apostle when the risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus.4 He was also called to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles.
For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.5
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles.6
Paul’s apostleship was verified by the churches he established.
If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.7
Paul emphasized that his apostleship did not come from human origin. This statement indicates that he was responding to charges that some had made regarding his apostleship. It seems that some opponents doubted his credibility, claiming that his gospel had a human origin. However, that was not the case. His apostleship did not come from human beings, but directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father.
In stating that God raised Jesus from the dead, Paul was pointing out the significance of the resurrection. A new age had arrived, in which God would fulfill all His promises to Israel and to the entire world. However, the Galatians were moving in the wrong direction by binding themselves to circumcision and the Mosaic law. Because Jesus had risen from the dead, believers were no longer required to follow the law.
Paul continued his opening passage by stating that the letter was not sent by him alone; it also came from fellow believers who were with him when he wrote to the Galatians. The letter wasn’t written to only one church, but to all the churches in Galatia.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.8
Paul prayed that God the Father and Jesus Christ would bestow grace and peace upon the believers. In Paul’s writings, God’s grace generally refers to unmerited favor given by God to believers. However, it sometimes also refers to God’s transforming power, as it does here. This was an important point, as the Galatians were in danger of accepting a “gospel” that denied the grace of God.
The grace and peace which come from Jesus are rooted in His sacrificial death on the cross, the giving of Himself. It is through His suffering and laying down His life for our sakes that we can be forgiven for our sins. Jesus’ death was necessary because of human sin. He gave Himself so that those who believed in Him would receive forgiveness for their sins. He surrendered His life to atone for our sins, resulting in believers being spared separation from God and being eternally reconciled to their heavenly Father.
…who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father…
Paul now explains the purpose of Jesus’ self-giving. He died to save believers from the evil of the present age (including our present age), which the Galatians were falling into by believing that it was necessary to be circumcised in order to be a Christian. To accept that belief would mean falling back into the Mosaic covenant, after having been delivered from it through Jesus’ death on the cross.
…to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Having spoken of Jesus, who died for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, Paul declares a doxology. A doxology is an expression of praise to God. God’s glory and honor are displayed through Christ and His giving His life on the cross. As one author says: Indeed, God will be praised forever because of his saving work in Christ.9
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.10
Paul now begins the body of the letter, where he introduces the situation which caused him to write this urgent letter. He is shocked that the Galatians, whom he had brought to the Lord, were departing from the message he had preached to them. They were turning away from the hope they had for the forgiveness of sin and abandoning the grace which was theirs in Christ. Paul reminded them that God had called them to grace in Christ. In this context, those who are called are being chosen. The calling refers to the work of God of bringing some who hear the gospel to salvation.
By turning back to the Mosaic law and circumcision, which Jesus had fulfilled through His death and resurrection, the Galatians were departing from the gospel and were moving toward a gospel of human achievement rather than of God’s grace.
Not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.11
Paul made it clear that the so-called gospel of those who were deserting him was no gospel at all. They were troubling the believers and causing them to doubt what Paul had taught them. It is probable that these troublemakers were Judaizers, believers who wanted to observe the Jewish way of life as taught in the Old Testament. Some of these troublemakers caused the believers to doubt the gospel which Paul proclaimed. It’s likely that they came from the outside and taught that the gospel preached by Paul was defective. The phrase some who trouble you is plural, which points to a number of opponents.
Those who were disturbing the Galatians, who wanted to distort the gospel of Christ, were trying to convince the believers to turn from the true gospel to a false gospel. As will be seen later in Galatians, these Judaizers tried to persuade the believers to follow the Old Testament laws in order to become part of the people of God. Paul considered such requirements to be a false teaching, as it forced Gentile believers to adopt the Mosaic law to attain salvation.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.12
Paul emphasizes that the message depends on the content, whether it conforms to the gospel, rather than on the messenger. Accordingly, even if Paul and his partners or an angel proclaimed a false message, they would fall under God’s curse. In this and the next verse, Paul indicates that proclaiming another gospel is a major infraction. He doesn’t view it as a minor departure from what he taught and preached in Galatia.
In saying that those who were proclaiming this false gospel should be “accursed,” Paul refers to the final destruction and condemnation as seen elsewhere. If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.13 Paul draws on Old Testament verses where the word means “destruction,” such as Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.14 Paul makes the point that punishment will be meted out to those who proclaim another gospel, and it will not just be excommunication by the church, but rather punishment meted out by God.
As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.15
Paul reinforces what he had previously written about being “accursed,” but he broadens it somewhat. Again, he likely had the Judaizers in mind, who were preaching a false gospel. He pronounced a curse on them, and included anyone else who preached a message which is contrary to what he had previously preached.
Before stating this, Paul reminded the Galatians that he wasn’t teaching anything new. He had told them that the gospel could not be altered when he first witnessed to them. Paul made the point that the Galatians had heard and received the true gospel when he had first preached to them. Therefore, anyone who preached the gospel in Galatia would have to preach the same message as taught by Paul.
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.16
Apparently the Jewish opponents felt that Paul failed to preach the whole gospel, which they believed included the requirement of circumcision. They probably felt that he omitted circumcision to gain favor from the Gentiles in Galatia. In response, Paul began his letter by addressing his apostolic authority, and he rebuts the notion that he is pleasing people.
If he wanted to please people (which he did not), he wouldn’t have become a servant of Christ. His curse on those who proclaim another gospel shows that his goal is to please God rather than people.
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Acts 13–16.
2 Galatians 1:1–2.
3 See Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1; Titus 1:1.
4 Acts 9:1–7.
5 1 Timothy 2:7.
6 Romans 11:13.
7 1 Corinthians 9:2.
8 Galatians 1:3–5.
9 Thomas R. Schreiner, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians (Zondervan Academic, 2010), 78.
10 Galatians 1:6.
11 Galatians 1:7.
12 Galatians 1:8.
13 1 Corinthians 16:22.
14 Exodus 22:20.
15 Galatians 1:9.
16 Galatians 1:10.