The letter to the Galatians is a unique letter in several ways. For instance it is the only letter which is written to a group of churches. It is not exactly clear if these churches were in North-Galatia or in South-Galatia. To me, it seems most likely that these churches were in South-Galatia because there were a number of well-known cities such as Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. You can read about these cities in the Acts 13 and 14. Paul had been there preaching the gospel.
The letter is also unique because of the cool tone and the powerful language Paul uses. After a short, necessary introduction he starts directly to denounce the evil for which the Galatians had opened their minds. In other letters he always starts with a word of appreciation for the good that was present; only after that he starts writing about the wrong. He doesn’t do that with the Galatians. He comes straight to the point. He is in a hurry. That has to do with the reason of his writing. What’s going on?
In the churches in Galatia people had come who said that the believers should be circumcised and that they had to keep the law. These people also said that Paul was not a real apostle. The serious point was not that these people were there. Such people have always been there and they still exist today. But worst of all is that their false message was accepted by the Galatian believers. It is a serious matter that such people, with such a false message, still find their way into the church today. That’s why this letter is still relevant, even today. Perhaps you're not yet aware of the depravity of this doctrine that these people bring. Even the Galatians weren’t. But the further we get into our examination of this letter the clearer it will be for you.
A good way to help you understand Paul’s attitude, is a comparison between this letter to the Galatians and two of the previous letters he wrote. I refer to the letter to the Romans and the first letter to the Corinthians. I assume that you have already studied these letters a little. So it will sound familiar to you if I say that Paul in his letter to the Romans, so the believers in Rome, wrote about the gospel as the only possible way for a sinner to be justified before God. The sinner is justified through faith.
In the letter to the Galatians Paul also writes about justification through faith. The difference is that he writes this letter to believers who were inclined to rob this tremendous truth of its power and blessing by introducing again the law in their life. Whoever does this, affects the perfection of the work of Christ. In an impassioned plea Paul writes in this letter a crystal clear defense of being justified through faith alone, without works of law. He demonstrates in an unquestionable way how faith and law exclude each other completely as the means to be justified before God. Therefore the letter to the Galatians is an impressive and essential complement to the letter to the Romans.
If we compare the letter to the Galatians with the one that is written to the Corinthians, something else will become clear. The church in Corinth was not what you would call a model church. Okay, it was an example, but one as a church should not be. In his letter to them Paul needed to mention many cases that were unacceptable and he had to exhort them about it. They even tolerated a sin you couldn’t even find among the Gentiles. Still Paul wasn’t as sharp in that letter as he is in the one he wrote to the Galatians.
In Corinth the mistake was mainly in the behavior of the Corinthians. They lived carelessly; they had not yet judged all their pagan practices. Their thoughts about a practical Christian life were not sufficiently formed by the knowledge of God’s thoughts. In his letter to them Paul does his utmost to correct this. Their sinful practice was totally unacceptable, but you still find that Paul is willing to give them time to change these things. He even starts his letter with blessings and thanksgiving.
For the Galatians he has a very short blessing and not even a thanksgiving. The reason is that the Galatians had opened their minds to another gospel than the gospel of Christ that he had preached to them and that they had accepted. This other gospel was a mixture of faith and keeping the law and it meant a flagrant violation of the perfect work of Christ. Christ and His work were at stake. That’s why he uses such a cool tone in this letter and he lets them hear his powerful protest.
We are much more quickly convinced of the wrong practices found with the Corinthians, than we are of the wrong doctrine that found acceptance with the Galatians. Paul wasn’t. We may be thankful to God that He led His servant Paul to write this letter. Because of this, we are able today to judge evil according to its true content and deal with it in the way God wants.
Division of the letter
1. Galatians 1:1-5 | Introduction
2. Galatians 1:6-2:21 | The historical section
In this section Paul explains the source of the gospel he preached, his call and his relationship to the brothers in Jerusalem and to Peter.
3. Galatians 3:1-4:31 | The doctrinal section
In this section he explains the difference between justification through faith and justification through the law; he also clarifies the meaning of the law.
4. Galatians 5:1-6:10 | The practical section
This section is about the characteristics of the new life and how that becomes visible in the daily life of the believer.
5. Galatians 6:11-18 | Closing remarks