MANual Lessons: Paul’s “Harsh” Letter to the Galatians

My year-long journey through The MANual, my NIV Bible for Men, is now in the section of the Apostle Paul’s epistles or letters to the various churches he visited. This next post contains his lessons to the church in Galatia. 

More about Paul’s Letters to the Churches 

Most scholars believe 13 of the 27 books of the Christian Bible’s New Testament (NT) are attributed to Paul. Some believe the number is actually 14 because there is debate regarding the true author of Hebrews. Depending on your source and translation, this results in over 1/4, or approximately 32,000 words, of the NT being attributed to Paul. Surprisingly, nearly 38,000 words are linked to Luke, who accompanied Paul on parts of his trips. To no surprise though, Luke, the physician, wrote in great detail for his Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.  

So while I have already written on The Acts of The Apostles, The Book of Romans, and Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians to follow their sequence in the New Testament, here is a chronological order of Paul’s letters:

  • Galatians (written approx. AD 47)
  • 1 and 2 Thessalonians (AD 59—51)
  • 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans (AD 52—56)
  • Ephesians, Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians (AD 60—62, Paul wrote these during his first Roman imprisonment)
  • 1 Timothy and Titus (AD 62)
  • 2 Timothy (AD 63—64, during Paul’s second Roman imprisonment)

Even though Paul is not the top contributor to the NT, he is probably the most quoted mainly because his writings stir up the most controversy. This is demonstrated by his next letter to the church in Galatia.  

About Galatia

During his three missionary journeys in the first century A.D., Paul visited several cities in the Roman province in the northern part of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The residents were called “Gauls” (a combination of Celtic and Aquitani tribes). At that time, the southern cities of Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lycaonia, Lystra, and Derbe were part of the province, although they were later assigned to other provinces. 


Paul’s Correspondence to the Galatians

The major theme of the 6 chapters of Galatians calls these new Christians to faith and freedom in Christ. The churches faced a theological crisis: their Jewish traditions constrained them to be strict followers of the Laws of Moses; yet their newfound faith and belief in Jesus invited them into freedom from these laws. 

Paul and Barnabas had just finished the trip and had returned to Antioch. Upon arriving after eighteen months on the road, Paul received a report that the churches he started in Galatia had fallen into error. A group of Judaizers—those who sought to make living under the Mosaic Law a requirement of the Christian faith—had gained an influence in the Galatian churches. The Jewish Christians disagreed with Paul’s statements that Gentiles did not need to follow many of their traditions, including circumcision. Paul wrote the book a few months before his attendance at the Jerusalem Council in AD 49, a meeting where the apostles would take up this very topic (Acts 15:1–30).

Paul’s letter countered the message of those who visited Galatia after he left that the Gentiles must follow Jewish laws to be saved. His close relationship with these early converts helps explain the extremely strong tone he took with them. From the very beginning of the letter, Paul is at his angriest. He risked the good favor of these converts to ensure they were not led off into deception. 

The Blueprint for Galatians

Chapters 1 & 2 of this book are about the authenticity of the Gospel. As is his style, Paul first starts with a greeting with his credentials. Some disputed Paul’s apostleship since he was not one of the original twelve disciples. However, he states his appointment comes directly from Jesus Christ by his meeting on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9).

This authority allows Paul to go right to his point in verse 6: he is shocked people are turning away from God and following a different way that pretends to be Good News. He curses anyone who twists the truth concerning Christ. Paul summarizes the controversy, includes his personal confrontation with Peter and other church leaders, then demonstrates that salvation is by faith alone by alluding to his conversion.  

Chapters 3 & 4 are about the superiority of the Gospel. Paul starts chapter 3 by calling them “foolish Galatians” which likely did not win them over. So he appeals to them by asking if they received the Holy Spirit by following the Laws and responding. “Of course not!” Paul says knowing they had received the Spirit by believing in Christ. He also reminds them even their forefather, Abraham, was not saved by following the law, but by having faith in God’s promises. 

Paul uses the illustration of slavery in chapter 4 to show that before Christ died for our sins, people were in bondage to the law. Thinking they could be free by trying to follow the laws, they constantly failed at it. God even sent His son, born as a Jew Himself, to help us. Paul also uses the stories of Hagar, the slave-wife, and Sarah, the freeborn-wife, to contrast those enslaved to the law, with those free who are now free from the law. 

You Have Freedom in Christ

Believing in God is a simple act of faith based on hard-to-grasp consequences. You are forgiven. You are adopted into God’s family forever. Christ moves in us to give us a new purpose. Our former life of self-absorption is no more. You have a new fulfilling life of trust and obedience that opens us up as Jesus lives in us. This freedom can change your attitude to life. 

  • In what ways does your attitude show that you are a Christian? 
  • How would you respond to someone who asks, “Why should Christiaas have different attitudes than non-Christians?”
  • What can you do to cultivate a more loving, joyful, and peaceful attitude? 

Chapters 5 & 6 are about the freedom that comes from the Gospel. Paul opens the chapter stating that Christ sets people free so do not get tied up again in the law. “Mark my words. If you let yourself be circumcised,” (meaning, become constrained by the laws), Paul says “Christ will be of no value to you at all.”

His main point is we are not saved by our deeds but by the love for others and for God.

Paul also warns us in chapter 5 to not use this new freedom to satisfy our sinful nature (Galatians 5:13). He lists acts of a sinful nature in Galatians 5:19-20: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, self ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like that keep us from inheriting the kingdom of God.

But this chapter also lists all the by-products of living the Christian life: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)

Paul finishes the book of Galatians with some final advice to the Galatians: their justification as Christians was by faith alone, not by following the works of the law. To emphasize the seriousness of this message, he took the pen from his scribe and wrote the end of the letter himself in large letters (Galatians 6:11).  

Paul also warns not to be deceived and fall into temptation again. He says to do good to all, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. He says when we share each other’s burdens in this way, we are obeying the law of Christ. 

God Buddy Focus

Paul’s aggressive tone shows just how important it was to recognize our works on the earth do not get us into Heaven.

This concept was a huge shift for me as someone who grew up a Catholic but is now a Presbyterian. It means what I do as a Christian comes out of what Christ did for me on the cross; not what I do helps me earn my way into Heaven. We can never earn God’s salvation by what we do or how well we obey God’s laws. We are saved by God’s grace alone. 

This week, discuss:

  • What does being saved by grace alone mean to you?
  • What are your biggest struggles with trying to earn your salvation with deeds? 
  • How can we share each other’s burdens in today’s world? 

My next post is Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.


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