As we begin our study on the book of Galatians, I believe the best place to start in the text is with an overall view to identify the main reason Paul wrote to this congregation. Within that context, we can then look at the key themes that run throughout this book. I see three key themes in this letter. Remember that Paul is writing one letter to one specific congregation who is dealing with one major issue. So, the themes are all related and most certainly do overlap inside the text. Nevertheless, I have found that after I noticed these three themes, understanding Galatians became much easier within the context of the other Apostolic Writings.
First, let’s address the overall problem or struggle that the Galatians are facing. Paul brings this to light immediately in chapter 1 stating:
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— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
It is here that Paul highlights the main focus of his letter. You will see this thread flowing throughout Paul’s writings. Rebutting what “these troublers” are saying is Paul’s motivating factor in most of what he writes in this epistle. This is the framework or context from which Paul writes. Most everything he writes will be to address this problem. So within this framework, I see three key themes that support and develop Paul’s argument to the Galatians, urging them to reject these false teachers.
The three key themes are as follows:
Now the titles I have given to each theme are most certainly an oversimplification. Each topic is more specific in nature as it flows within the larger context of the overall problem the congregation was facing. So as we go through, I will narrow down the scope of each theme.
As I mentioned before, the major dilemma that Paul addresses in this letter actually revolves around if the believers in Galatia are going to allow their troublers to distort the gospel delivered by Paul. In order to understand the conflict, we must first understand what Paul refers to as his gospel.
The answer is found collectively in all the writings of Paul, yet in Galatians there is a very succinct description of the crux of Paul’s gospel.
so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Paul preached that Gentiles were justified before God solely on account of their faith in the Messiah Yeshua. God verified this by giving them His Spirit. So then the next question is, what distortion were these troublers putting on this message? The most concise answer is found in the closing remarks of chapter 6.
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.
These false teachers came in teaching that unless Gentiles were circumcised, they could not be saved. It is absolutely paramount that you understand this point. I want to take a moment and define who these false teachers are and what destructive heresy they were preaching.
Who Are These False Teachers Distorting Paul’s Gospel?
In Judaism, it was, and is, a completely foreign idea that an uncircumcised individual (i.e., Gentile) could be accepted by God while remaining uncircumcised. During Paul’s time there was a specific group, Scripture refers to them as the Circumcised Party (Acts 11:2), that was made up of professing Jewish believers. Yet these false brothers were really only interested in getting Gentile believers to become circumcised that they may then exert their influence and power over them. They were teaching contrary to truth, that Gentiles had to be circumcised if they wanted salvation and justification before God. They weren’t truly interested in the glory of God or Gentile salvation, but instead they were interested in boasting of their great number of followers, or how many devout proselytes they converted. It helps me to think of these people as a religious denomination or even a political party. Paul makes this abundantly clear in two different place in Galatians.
They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.
For you see, inside Judaism, when a Gentile became circumcised, it is literally like them becoming Jewish through a process called proselytization. Once a proselyte, they would then be required by the Circumcised Party to subject themselves to the entire Oral Torah passed down in ordinances and traditions within Judaism. So when these Jewish false brothers convinced the Gentiles to submit to the entire customs and traditions of Judaism, then they would no longer be persecuted by other Jews for preaching justification through the Messiah. Instead, they would actually be esteemed and congratulated for bringing in new converts to Judaism! Again think of a denomination or political party, the larger their membership size, the more boasting they do!
I want to make this clear. They were not teaching true obedience to God’s laws from a place of faith. That is always acceptable in the sight of the Father. Instead, they were teaching and requiring Gentiles to submit to interpretations and traditions that actually violated the law of God. One of Judaism’s traditions is that Jews cannot eat with “unclean” Gentile sinners. Peter quotes this law of man in Acts 10:28. So engrained in Judaism was the traditions of man that even Peter had to receive revelation from God to stop submitting to that man-made law. In other articles I have shown the motivation behind some of these laws:
The sway that these false brothers had was so strong that both Peter and Barnabas fell trap to this hypocrisy, and Paul had to confront them!
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
You can see through this text that this issue is bigger than just being circumcised. In fact, in Paul’s day circumcision had morphed into a “membership card” into the larger body of Judaism with all of its Oral Torah, traditions, and regulations, some of which were not even rooted in the Word of God. Paul tells Peter that they expect the Gentiles to live like Jews. This is not in regards to obeying Yahweh’s commands, but instead, submitting to the regulations of Judaism by becoming a proselyte. The proof that this isn’t about keeping God’s actual commands is because Paul clearly indicts these false brothers as not keeping God’s law (Galatians 6:13).
Ultimately, they distort this truth of the gospel – that only through faith in the Messiah is one accepted and justified in the sight of God. They were nullifying the grace and Spirit of God given to them through faith. Rightfully so, Paul is very upset that the Galatians are permitting such nonsense to persuade them to try and earn their right standing with God.
Frankly speaking, everything in the book of Galatians is written from this backdrop. Paul is contending for the truth of the gospel of faith. You need to read Galatians understanding that everything Paul writes is referring to salvation and justification. If you miss this paramount conflict between Paul and these false brothers, you will be guilty of distorting Paul’s writings to teach things that contradict his other writings. But if you see that it really is about how someone is justified, then you can rightly understand some of the more difficult phrases presented in this text.
Flowing from the study of our first theme, gospel, we arrive at the theme of justification. I find this theme to be the backbone for Paul’s gospel, as well as the context to discuss our next theme. In order to fully grasp how much Paul discusses and debates about justification in Galatians, we need to do a study on what justification is and what all it entails.
Justification, in it’s simplest form, is best interpreted as being accepted by God. One is justified in the sight of God through faith in Yeshua. I have created a list that shows how this works.
- Yahweh defines holiness through His Torah – “Be holy as I am holy.”
- A human sins by violating or transgressing the holiness of Yahweh as expressed in His Torah.
- He is now under the curse of sin and death. He is a slave to this curse until he makes the payment the Torah requires.
- He is unable to adequately pay for his sins – chiefly because he will continue to commit them and is not set free from the practice of sinning.
- The Messiah Yeshua is sent as payment for humanity’s debt, and willingly takes upon humanity’s consequence – death.
- Additionally, Yeshua becomes a curse by hanging on a tree.
- The sinner trusts and believes (i.e., “has faith”) that Yeshua is the Messiah of Yahweh and that Yeshua’s death is the acceptable sacrifice before God that pays for all of his debt accumulated by sinning.
- Through faith, the sinner is also freed from the curse of sin and death, meaning he is no longer a slave to sin, and is now freed to practice God’s righteousness (simply meaning he is now free to start doing what is right as defined by God).
- The sinner is re-born into life and freedom. This re-birth makes him a child of God. And if he is a child, then he is an heir to the inherited blessings of His Father’s promises that came through Abraham– the Spirit of the Messiah.
- Now, as a child of God and rightful heir to eternal life through the Spirit of Messiah now dwelling within him, this man can live a life pleasing to God by walking according to His Father’s Torah that defines holiness.
Every time I see our Father’s plan for the redemption of humanity, I overflow with praise! This is the good news, hallelujah!
What I want to draw your attention to, specifically when trying to understand the book of Galatians, is points 7-11 on that list. This grouping of events are less like a list of subsequent actions and more like simultaneous interdependent results of faith. They are all a package deal. You cannot have 7 and 8 without also having 9-11. This is important because Paul will use language from anywhere on these listed items to convey the same overall idea of justification. He might say justified in one text, yet refer to the giving of the Spirit in another. Both texts are dealing with the theme and topic of justification; it is just different yet parallel language that is being used. Here are a few examples of Paul stating the same thing in different ways. Each new way he phrases an idea adds depth and meaning to the idea of justification.
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
I want you to notice the language Paul uses in each passage. Each of these scriptures deals with the topic of being justified before God. Yet each has specific language that may deal with different aspects of justification. The wording Paul uses may fall into any number of 7 through 11 on the list I created, even so, each passage is still dealing with the bigger idea of justification. Like I mentioned before, being justified and its blessings are a package deal.
The point being, Paul is going to great lengths in Galatians to preserve what he calls the “truth of the gospel”: That there is nothing a man can do from his own works to earn justification (and all that it entails) from God. I will re-emphasize that almost everything Paul writes in this letter pertains to the question of how.
- How were you saved?
- How were you justified?
- How were you made righteous?
- How did you receive the Spirit?
- How did you become sons of God?
- How did you receive the blessing of Abraham?
The answer clearly being by faith in Yeshua. Anyone who teaches a different gospel is cut off from the Messiah and has fallen away from grace.
This final key theme that I see flowing throughout the book of Galatians revolves around the concept of law. At the onset of this topic, it is necessary to define the purpose of the law as ordered by the Lawgiver, Yahweh our Father.
If you want to learn more about the purpose of our Father's Torah and how it relates to the believer, please check out our series titled The Relationship Between Torah and Believers. The following is the first post in that series.
Yet again, I stress that Abba never intended for man to try and earn his righteousness and justification by keeping the Torah. Doing “works of the law (Torah)” in an attempt to earn an acceptable standing before God is a perverse teaching that came about because Israel refused to submit to God’s way to obtain righteousness, which is faith in the Messiah. Paul writes about this extensively in the book of Romans, specifically Romans 9:30-10:4. In fact, it could be plainly stated that any attempt to establish your own righteousness causes you to fail to obtain the very righteousness you seek. Talk about getting in your own way! Yikes!
Moving back to Galatians, you need to understand that most of what Paul has to say concerning the law in this epistle has to do with the use of the law in an attempt to earn justification. Very little in this letter has to do with the law as a standard for right living. In fact, Paul never argues against the law being used for its God-given purpose – as instructions for holiness. When Paul talks about “works of the law” it is always 100% of the time in context with someone trying to earn their justification before God. Neither Yahweh, Yeshua, nor Paul ever intended people to try and become righteous by their own works! Yet the Circumcision Party was teaching that the Gentiles needed to rely upon doing “works of the law” (getting circumcised and doing what Judaism commanded) in order to know that they were saved. This is a perversion of the reason God gave us His Torah. It also causes unnecessary confusion when people like myself try and return the children of God back to our Father’s instructions revealed in His Torah!
My prayer is that each section has built upon one another so fluidly that by this point you can see and discern the meaning of Paul’s writings in the text.
There is much confusion and wrong teaching stemming from the book of Galatians in today’s churches. The main culprit that I have identified in this article is the lack of understanding of the conflict between the false brothers and Paul. The central theme of Galatians is “How is a person saved and justified? By works of the law, or by faith?”. Almost everything Paul writes in this book will be to answer those questions. If you do not understand this as the starting point for all of Paul’s arguments you will be guilty of misconstruing his statements. Nothing in the book of Galatians teaches that the law is “done away with” as the standard for righteous living. Absolutely nothing. Everything in this letter is written about salvation.
My prayer is that you will take the time to really investigate the position and themes I have shared with you throughout this article. In doing so, I believe we can rightly divide God’s Word and begin to understand the roles of Torah, faith, and the Spirit better.