Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. As part of our Letters to the Church series, we’re taking a brief look at each epistle in the New Testament. This week, we look at one of Paul’s shorter and most focused letters: his epistle to the Galatians.
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
Start Reading it Here: Galatians 1
When was it written? Uncertain, but likely around A.D. 50. It might be one of Paul’s earliest known letters.
To whom was it written? “Galatians” could refer to people living in at least two different parts of the Roman empire, so we don’t know for certain—but this letter was probably written to the network of early Christian churches in the Roman province of Galatia (modern-day central Turkey).
Why was it written? As is often the case with Paul’s letters, the epistle to the Galatians was written to address a specific problem in the recipients’ communities. In this case, the problem was caused by “Judaizers:” Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile (non-Jewish) converts to Christianity must abide by Jewish traditions (notably circumcision). In the early years of the Christian church, as the Gospel message spread far beyond its geographic roots in Palestine and out into the wide Gentile world, the question “What must I do to be saved?” needed a clear and decisive answer. Paul composed this letter to settle the matter once and for all.
What does it say? Unlike some of Paul’s other letters, which cover a wide range of themes and topics, the epistle to the Galatians is short and focused. Threats to the early church’s spiritual health usually came from the hostile pagan world, in the form of sinful vice, un-Christian philosophies, or the temptation to backslide. But the threat facing the Galatian churches came from within, and it probably had good intentions: it came from Christians who couldn’t accept that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was truly free.
Today, Christians are quite familiar with the idea of salvation as a free gift of God—no strings attached. But many early Christians, particularly those from Jewish backgrounds, struggled to believe that something as momentous as salvation didn’t come with a few rules and requirements. If the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the culmination of God’s covenant with Israel, it made sense to them that the behavioral rules of that old covenant still applied.
But a Gospel that came with rules wasn’t truly free. Paul insists that any gospel which requires humans to jump through behavioral hoops is no longer the gospel of Jesus Christ; it’s an entirely different, false gospel; a “gospel contrary to the one you received.” The price of redemption was paid by Jesus Christ alone; it can’t be earned by observing rituals or carrying out the “right” behaviors.
- Galatians 3:1-14: Belief in Jesus Christ, not adherence to laws and rituals, is the core of the Gospel.
- Galatians 4:8-11: Paul is exasperated that the Galatians, having found freedom, are lapsing back into spiritual slavery.
- Galatians 5:1: The Gospel offers freedom, not slavery to a new set of rules and laws.
What can we learn from Galatians? The book of Galatians outlines the important concept of Christian liberty—the idea that belief in Christ frees people from the impossible burden of being perfect and following all the rules. This is a more difficult concept to accept than you might initially assume: although few Christians today insist on adherence to Jewish traditions, a look at church history through the centuries (and today!) makes it clear that humans just can’t resist adding rules and restrictions to the simple message of Jesus Christ. Those rules might be well-intentioned, and it might be wise to follow them… but the instant we imagine that following those rules is necessary for salvation, we’ve bought into the false gospel about which Paul warned the Galatians.
Consider these questions as you read Galatians today:
- Does your experience with Christianity cause you to associate it with freedom, or with a list of rules to follow? What has shaped your perspective?
- If extra rules encourage good behavior and don’t hurt anyone, why do you think Paul saw them as such a threat?
- Throughout his letters, Paul urges Christians to behave righteously and in a God-honoring fashion. Does that contradict his message here about freedom from rules?
- Imagine that you’ve received this letter from Paul. What might you write back to him in response?