The churches of Galatia have a historical record kept for us in the book of Acts. The Galatian churches would have been the cities that Paul preached in and established churches on his first missionary journey. These churches would be the churches in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. It is important that we remember the treatment Paul received while preaching the gospel in these Galatian cites. Recall that the Jews were against Paul and his companions in Antioch (Acts 13:50) and Iconium (Acts 14:2). These very people chased Paul into Lystra and caused enough problems that Paul was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19). The Jews were a strong threat against the Christians in these cities. This is important background information as we read Paul’s letter.
Structure of New Testament Letters
As always, knowing the form of a typical letter will help us find the key themes and key purpose for the writing of the book. The form of a first century letter had this look typically:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Structure of Galatians
Paul begins by stating that he is the author of this letter and he is an apostle (1:1). What is very interesting is that the form of the letter already breaks right here after just a couple words. The typical form of Paul’s letters is that he states his name and rank as an apostle, and then declares the recipients of the letter (see 1 Corinthians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1). But that is not what happens here. As we have noted repeated throughout our study of the epistles, when there is a break in the form, there is a reason and the author is breaking the form intentionally to grab the readers’ attention. “Paul, an apostle—not from men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me” (1:1; HCSB). It is immediately clear that one of the main charges Paul is going to deal with his that he is an authentic apostle. Paul declares that he is not an apostle of men nor through men, but was made an apostle by Jesus Christ and God the Father. We will notice this resembles the theme of the letter shortly.
At the end of verse 2, Paul declares the recipients: “to the churches of Galatia.” Galatia was simply a province in the Roman Empire like Achaia and Macedonia. Verses 3-5 contain the salutation, which would the next natural part of a letter in the first century. “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (HCSB). This is an extended salutation for the other letters of Paul up to this point have ended after the words “our Lord Jesus Christ.” But Paul continues the salutation into a benediction similar to the second letter to the Corinthians.
The next part of the letter ought to be the section of thanksgiving. But rather than give thanks, Paul declares exasperation and condemnation in verses 6-11 of chapter 1. The Galatians had accepted an alternative form of the good news, but it was not God’s good news. The Judaizers were troubling these Galatians churches, changing the gospel message. Paul declares that if anyone preaches another gospel, even if it were an angel from heaven, let that person be accursed. This paragraph sets the tone for what Paul is going to teach the Galatians. This letter is a defense of the gospel that Paul preached to the Galatian churches.
Authenticity of the Gospel (1-2)
Paul begins by defending the gospel that he preached as genuine. In verses 11-24 of chapter 1 Paul declares that the gospel is genuine in regards to its origin. We can see this in verses 11-12, “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (HCSB). To prove this point, Paul recounts how he did not consult with the apostles about the message he had received. Paul received his gospel from God and he did not go to Jerusalem to be taught “the finer points.” God revealed himself to Paul and entrusted Paul with the gospel message.
In chapter 2, verses 1-10 Paul describe how the gospel is genuine in its nature. He points out that Judaizers attempt to pervert the gospel in the same way against him. But Paul says that he did not submit to them perverters of the gospel for one moment (2:5). Further, Paul had been entrusted with the gospel just as Peter had (2:7). Paul did not receive a “lesser” gospel. God worked through Peter in the same way that God worked through Paul (2:8) and all the apostles acknowledged this grace God had imparted to him (2:9).
In verses 11-21 of chapter 2 Paul argues that the gospel he preached was genuine in regards to its effect. Paul opposed Peter to the face (2:11). Paul is not saying this as a matter of esteeming himself. The point is that the gospel Paul received must have been directly from God if he felt compelled to correct Peter and what Peter was teaching.
Superiority of the Gospel (3-4)
In chapters 3-4 Paul is arguing that the gospel he preached is superior to the supposed gospel the Judaizers were teaching in Galatia. In chapter 3 Paul is showing how the gospel he preached leads to a superior relationship and has superior effects. We see this argument beginning in verse 5 of chapter 3: “So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (HCSB). Along with this, Paul intentionally ties together the receiving of the promise of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. This is to show the superior relationship found in the gospel Paul preached. “So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith” (HCSB). Verse 14 is very clear in showing that these promises are tied together. “The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (HCSB). The superiority of the gospel’s effect continues in verse 18 as Paul shows that God’s promises are fulfilled through the gospel and not through the law.
In chapter 4 Paul continues to show the superiority of the gospel, but now in regards to its superior privileges. In the first six verses of chapter 4 Paul shows that the first superior privilege we have is that we are heirs. The second privilege found in the gospel Paul preached is that we are children of God (4:7-20). The third privilege found in the gospel is that we are proven to be Abraham’s seed. Paul argues that we are of the seed of Abraham through Sarah and that Hagar represents Mount Sinai and the old covenant (4:23-25). Therefore, cast out the slave and her son (the old law) and be children of Sarah (the new covenant and gospel Paul preached) (4:30-31).
Freedom Through the Gospel (5-6)
The final two chapters is Paul’s explanation that through the gospel we have freedom in Christ Jesus. The first fifteen verses of chapter 5 is Paul’s call to the Galatian Christians to stand firm and not go back to the law (5:1). Paul declares, “You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace!” (5:4; HCSB). To reject the message that Paul preached is to fall from the grace of God. Paul also declares that rejecting the gospel causes one to be cut off from God (5:4,7,10,12).
The rest of Paul’s letter centers around Paul encouraging the Galatian Christians to walk by the Spirit and not according to the flesh. First, Paul commands them to avoid the works of the flesh and adopt the fruit of the Spirit (5:16-26). Paul continues into chapter 6 commanding the Galatians to walk by the Spirit in how they treat other people. “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2, HCSB). “So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (6:9-10, HCSB).
Galatians 6:11-18 wraps up Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In verse 11 we see that Paul takes the pen from the scribe, trying to impress upon the Galatians the importance of the message he is teaching them in this letter. The closing is not a standard closing but rather is simply a reemphasis of Paul’s message written by his own hand. Notice that there is not a doxology nor is there a section of greeting, which is common in first century letters and in Paul’s letters. No greeting, no closing, and no doxology. Paul just simply tells to them to not accept the teaching of these Judaizers and that the marks on his body are proof of his honesty and purity in God’s word.