Galatians – Introduction, Background & Context

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Paul’s Context

Before looking at Galatians, it is good to look at the background of Paul’s letters. What was going on at that time? What were the pressing issues that Paul was addressing?

We have traditionally read Paul according to the view of Martin Luther. Luther was struggling with “works righteousness,” the practice of trying to earn merit with God through good works. This weighed Luther down, and he was earnestly looking for relief and assurance that God had accepted him. Luther found this assurance in the “justification by faith” teachings of Paul.

This has been the major way that Paul has been interpreted in Reformed Faith since that time. Paul has been speaking to us as individuals, about our personal faith. We have also believed that Paul was taking a stand against his Jewishness, or the traditions of his Jewish faith. This is how we have read his comment in Galatians, “If any man preaches any other gospel, that that which we have preached, let him be accused.”

We have taken this to mean that if anyone adheres to traditions of faith, such as circumcision in Paul’s day, or the traditions of the Catholic church in Luther’s day, then they are accused of God. This has led us to a series of separations within the Protestant faith. First, we separated from the Catholics, and then from each other, whenever our faith traditions varied even slightly.

We have taken away from Paul’s teaching an individualism, and a political life, in which we have separated from Jewish people, and then from all others we have seen a difference with. This way of looking at faith was around long before Luther. This may be the reason why the Reformed movement fell into this view so easily.

This view of faith began to develop after Constantine and others began to politicise the church. Faith began to be seen on an overly individualist level, removed from Paul’s initial context. Augustine spoke of faith in this way. In his writing, faith was predominately about his personal struggles.

This has become the main view of faith in Western culture since that time, especially in the Reformation. It masks a political purpose. If faith is primarily about our personal walk, then we can separate from those we feel are wrong, fail to care for those people in their suffering, and even dispossess their lands and riches in times of war.

This is really a self-serving faith, leaving Protestantism’s children, today’s Evangelical groups, largely without a true Pauline identity in how to respond to the divisions, wars and poverty in our world.

The early church wasn’t like this in character. Its faith brought them into bridge building redemptive lives with all those around them, from whatever political, racial, or faith tradition background. They saw faith as a community building issue.

Today, we can read Paul’s letters from our own Reformed view, or from the context of Paul’s own objectives when he wrote the letters. What was Paul doing when he wrote his letters? What was the problem Paul was addressing? Galatians is one of the clearest letters for us to see the issues Paul was writing to rectify in the churches.


The Book of Acts

Let’s start with the book of Acts, which describes what the Holy Spirit was doing in Pauls’ day. We begin in Acts two, the Day of Pentecost. Pilgrim Jews from all over the Roman Empire had come to Jerusalem for the annual feast. When the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, these pilgrims gathered around to hear the miracle. They heard the disciples speaking in all the native languages of their home regions.

This is part of what we call the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit. The obvious question is, what is the message that these signs point to? What was the Holy Spirit saying through these signs and miracles? We need to put ourselves in the context of that time to answer this.

Up until that time the salvation plan of God had been largely for the Jewish people. If gentiles wanted to become part of God’s plan, then they had to become Jews first. They had to be circumcised and follow the other ritual traditions of the Jewish laws in Moses. The Jewish nation had control over the faith. Gentiles were free to join, but they could only join by becoming Jews in custom and practice, and by being part of their hierarchical system of worship.

This was the issue the Holy Spirit addressed immediately on the Day of Pentecost. By opening the faith to all these languages, throughout all the known gentile nations, the Holy Spirt was saying that the way was free for gentiles to become part of the people of God. They were to be included, on no other basis than by receiving the Spirit alone. The Spirit, not the traditional customs, made up the body of God’s people.

We see straight away what people like Paul meant when they spoke of the Spirit. We have applied terms like this to our own private lives. But when Paul spoke of the Spirit, he meant the uniting and love centred call of the Spirit, to build a common community of faith. We will see this when we get to look at Paul’s letters. This view makes an enormous difference to our Christian lives.

We see this in each place in Acts where these signs of the Holy Spirit appear. In Acts eight, Philip goes to preach the gospel in Samaria. There, the Holy Spirit confirms that these people are included in to the family of God, on no other basis than by receiving the Spirit. In Acts 10, Cornelius is brought into the family of God, once again, only because he received the Spirit. The Spirit confirmed this with the signs of tongues. In Acts 19, we see the same thing in Ephesus.

In each case, the Spirit is pushing more and more outward from Jerusalem, and showing that all humanity is included in the new community by faith. Faith, here, means that which includes us as one. Faith is a community term, that means that by faith God bridges our traditions to make us one new family.

All of this was surely controversial in Paul’s day. That is why the signs were needed. Unless these signs were present, no one would have believed that this was God’s purpose. For so long, the traditions of Moses had become the identity markers for God’s family people. If this was to change, there must be powerful signs that this was God’s new purpose. Acts is about these signs, that insisted upon the transition of God’s family, from its former Mosaic markers, to the new markers of Spirit, grace and faith.


Paul’s Questions

This was the pressing issue of Paul’s day. Again, the pressing issue of Paul’s day was not the issue of Augustine, or of Luther, about their private struggles for justification before God. The pressing issue was one about identifying who God’s people were, who the family included. This was the controversy Paul was thinking of and addressing in his letters.

Another way of thinking of Paul’s question is this. Paul was addressing who the people of God were, who would bring about the eschatological promises of God. God had promised Israel that he would use them to renew the world, to restore the creation. Who would be the people who would bring this pass, and how would they do it?

This was Paul’s context. As a Pharisee, Paul answered these question through the Torah, the law of Moses. He believed the people of God were the people who kept Torah. By this, Paul meant especially the outward markers of Torah, like circumcision, food laws, hand washing and sabbaths.

To Paul, this marked out who the family of God was, who was included in this family.

Paul also believed that this family was the people whom God was using to fulfil his end-times purposes. The last-days people, who would transform the world and fulfil the promises of God’s kingdom coming to our world, would be the people who kept Torah and who also forced Torah upon the world around them.

This is what Paul was doing before he knew Jesus. He was subjecting the world around him to Torah, and arresting believers in Jesus who lived by the Spirit. Paul’s issue, or his controversy, that weighed upon him so heavily in the first century, was not the issue Luther was wrestling with.


Paul’s Answers

When we turn to Paul’s letters, we see his answers to these questions. His view has been totally changed, now that he has received the Spirit of Christ. But he is essentially writing about the same thing. He is outlining who God’s people are, who is included in God’s family, and what the mark of identity is that these people show. He is also outlining Torah in his new refreshed understanding.

And now he has a fresh view of how God’s people are bringing about the kingdom promises of God in the world.

Paul isn’t writing about faith, grace, justification, Spirit, from the viewpoint of our personal salvation.

They include our personal salvation. But Paul’s point is what we are being saved into. Faith, grace, Spirit, justification, are used by Paul to mark out the new family of God. And the terms are used to show how God’s world renewal promises are being fulfilled through his family. And Paul is showing that faith and grace are the Torah. He uses faith (Greek, pistis) to mean faithfulness, which is the agape love of living Torah, written on renewed hearts. This, Paul says, fulfils the whole law.

It will help to look briefly at a couple of Paul’s other letters. When we see what Paul is doing in Romans and Ephesians, for example, it gives us a clue for understanding his message in Galatians.

The situation in most of Paul’s churches was the same. He was facing the same pressing issue in each of these centres, namely, the acceptance of Jews and gentiles into one new body, based on the Spirit alone, and what that meant for their fellowship together.


A Review of Romans

Romans appears mainly addressed to the Jewish believers in the church. All believers are included, but the gospel is a Jewish gospel and the issues on how their Jewish nationalism now crossed over into a global message and global fellowship had to be keenly worked out and explained. There were strong interests working against this wider inclusion, as we would expect with any group taking in so many new and strange members, even today.

The opening chapters of Romans seem to address Jewish superiority. This isn’t peculiar to Jews. Any of us have the same sense of superiority today, when it comes to mixing at various levels with other people. God had to break through the idea that he elected the Jews for their own sake, rather than for the sake of us all, for the entire world. This is common to all people. We all think that our privilege is for us, or for our group, the ones who are for some reason worthier.

Paul addresses the idolatry and sin of the gentiles. But this wasn’t so that we, the people of God, could quickly point out the sin of others in the world. Paul quickly turns to the Jews, the people of God, just like us today, and showed that their lives were not really any better. They had turned against Jesus, the perfect outcast, instead of doing what the Torah said, about bringing in the outcast. Before we accuse the Jews, we should realise we do the same every day, when we turn away from the refugee, the homeless or the sinner. When we turn away from the last of these, we turn away from Christ in his hour of trial.

So, if the Jews are no better than the gentiles, and if we are no better than others in our world today, then Paul’s point is that our group, traditions, faith and law don’t commend us to God. Rather they serve even more to condemn us. They point out what we have done wrong even more.

This puts the Jews and gentiles in Rome on an equal footing. They are both guilty before God and both in need of grace. This grace is provided freely to us both, and shown to us fully in the gospel of Christ.

Paul makes sure that there is no exclusion of anyone. He also speaks to the gentile believers and tells them not be proud against the Jews, who suffered for us all in their election. They were elected for the world, and served the world in their fall. We all should be grateful, compassionate and serving of the Jews in love in return.


There Is No Difference

In chapters three and four, when Paul comes to speak of our justification and our faith, he does so in terms of our unitedness in one body. He speaks of justification, not to teach doctrine on our individual salvation, though that is part of the gospel, but to show that we must accept each other based on the Spirit alone. The topic Paul is addressing in Romans three and four is the body’s unity.

Paul repeatedly states that “to all who believe, for there is no difference,” “then what becomes of boasting,” “or is God the God of the Jews only, is he not the God of the gentiles also, yes of gentiles also… who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith.” The terms here of “boasting,” “justify” and “faith” are not used by Paul to explain our personal salvation, but to explain that we are called to receive each other in one new body, without boasting against, excluding or putting conditions upon the other group of people. The concept of “boasting” here isn’t used to explain our personal response to God, though of course it would include that, but to show that we as one group should not boast against any other group in our inclusion of each other in Christ.

And the reason why Paul brings Abraham into the argument, in Romans four, isn’t just as a proof text about how one is justified by faith, but also to show Abraham’s foresight, that the gentiles also would be justified in this way. The gospel is precisely the fulfillment of what Abraham believed, that the kingdom of God would break out from the Jewish people, to invite and include all people from all nations, based on the work of the Spirit alone. The point here is about a faith that is common, that makes us one family. Paul is speaking about the one family of God in Abraham.


In the Spirit

And there is another point here we see in passing, that aligns exactly with Paul’s argument we will see later in Galatians. “Do we make void the law by faith? No rather, we establish it.” By insisting upon circumcision, we make the real part of the law void. By dividing from our brothers and sisters who are uncircumcised, we do not fulfil the Torah of loving neighbour as our self. So, division is a work of the flesh. It is self-centeredness, it is against neighbourly care. It is not love.

As we see in Galatians, to be in the flesh means to draw back into division from others. To be in the Spirit means to draw towards others in caring love. This is what the Spirit is doing in our lives. The terms “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit,” aren’t terms just about our personal lives, but about how we relate in self-centredness or in loving care towards others. The Spirit is a community building Spirit.

The Spirit is a people and world restorer. We are in the Spirit when we embrace his inclusive movement, outward from ourselves towards others, just as God moved towards us in Christ.


God’s End-Times People

We can see that Paul was answering his questions. Who are the people of God in Christ? They are those who have the Spirit. What is their mark of faith? It is faithfulness, or the love they have for one another. In what way are these people the eschatological, end-times people of God? These are the ones who are light and salt to their localities, living out mercy and enemy love amid brute empire, renewing the powers and nations.

We can see how important it is to read Paul correctly. If we read Paul as writing about our personal salvation by faith alone, then it leaves us more open to a self-centred faith. If we are reading the letters of Paul this way during the Middle Ages, then we will likely react against the Jews and against their traditions. Our faith becomes divisive and an excuse for negative reactions against others. This is exactly what has happened in church history.

Paul wasn’t condemning circumcision. He wasn’t saying the Jewish believers in Christ shouldn’t live in their traditions. Paul wasn’t saying that he himself had stopped being a Jew when he believed in Christ. He was saying that Jewish believers shouldn’t take their traditions as the basis of their fellowship with other believers. He was saying they aren’t justified by their traditions, so they should accept and love other believers in Christ, even if the others don’t adhere to the Jewish traditions.

Today, the problem often isn’t between us and the Jewish traditions of circumcision, but between us and those of other Christian denominations. It is common to say other groups are wrong because of their different practices, and the Catholics, because of their traditions. We say that Paul was encouraging faith for us to renounce the traditions of others, rather than to bring Christian believers of different traditions together. When we take our stand on a separate faith, and think that Paul was encouraging this, we see our division as “the will of God.”

But these divisions are fleshly, not spiritual in their origin, no matter the texts we use to justify them.

They expose an individualistic character in us, that leads us to think we are better than others, and to withdraw from equal and loving fellowship with them.

This equips the church very poorly for the world we live in today. If we build walls within our own Christian family, how much more will we build walls between us and others outside our faith who are in need today. This means when the world is suffering and breaking apart in division, hatred and selfishness, the church has a limited healing witness of care and love within this world. We instead standoff in judgment.

Our individualistic way or interpreting our faith becomes self-serving, really a crime, in a world that needs people like Jesus walking through it, bringing the hope of a different kind of kingdom, in which we care for our neighbours and bring the light of selflessness to a world in sin.


Restoring One Another

We should instead see that Paul calls us to love one another from across our different Christian backgrounds. This nurturing fellowship then equips us to serve the world like Jesus served it. This is the Torah. This is being faithful to the covenant.

Then, if any of us is in error about our faith is some way, we try to correct/ restore each other in love, knowing that we also have errors. This was the conclusion to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and this is how we apply Galatians six today, seeking to build community between those of different Christian traditions, rather than divide. If we can’t do this, then how can we call Jesus Lord, who commands us to love our brother and sister.

Saying they aren’t our brother and sister is a false escape. That would be to no longer live in the Spirit, the way Acts and Paul spoke of the Spirit’s purpose and action in our lives, but in the flesh, driven by our divisions and arguments. Paul was clear about this in Galatians five. We are no longer loving our brother and sister, which love is the Spirit working in God’s eschatological people.


A New Community

Before we leave Romans, we will have a brief look at Romans ten. There is a well known gospel passage here, about the way we are saved, through believing in our heart that God has raised Christ from the dead, and confessing with our mouth that he is Lord.

This is another passage we have taken to be about our personal faith, but that isn’t the point Paul was making. The confession that Jesus is Lord, means, of the whole body. His Lordship is pointing to our love for each other in Christ. We won’t go into chapter ten in detail, where Paul is speaking about Israel’s historical salvation from Babylon. He is saying that the church is God’s eschatological people, coming out of darkness to build new community and renew the world, as Isaiah depicted the new creation. This is the salvation Paul is speaking about.

Romans ten brings Paul’s teaching into context for us. Paul’s point about salvation is the same as it was in Romans three and four. Paul is speaking about the whole church community, “everyone who believes,” “there is no distinction between Jew and gentile (with our different traditions, because of faith), for the same Lord is Lord of all (of the whole body), giving grace to all who call on him.” And then Paul quotes Joel, “All who call on the Lord shall be saved.” The point from Joel is that Jews and gentiles are grafted into one body by faith, just as the Spirit was showing in the book of Acts.


Paul’s Ecclesiology

The point Paul is making isn’t soteriological, from an individualistic view. Paul’s soteriology is about the church. Soteriology means the doctrine of our salvation. Paul discusses this issue from the perspective of ecclesiology, which means the doctrine of the church. To Paul, ecclesiology comes first, whereby in most of our bible studies, it comes last. Most of our teaching is about salvation from our individualistic perspective. This is not at all biblical.

Paul is speaking about a new ecclesia, a new community, to bring about a new eschatology, a new world. Soteriology is only brought in as the subject serves Paul’s wider purpose, about the kingdom for God, how God has been faithful to his promises to Israel, through Jesus Christ, who now renews our hearts and fellowship. In fact, this is what soteriology is to Paul, a church that renews the outcast.

This is salvation, the Torah of love for neighbour written on our hearts, fulfilling Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. Salvation isn’t being saved and going to heaven. It is renewal of our hearts, from self to God and to his people/ creation.

Our look at Romans helps give us a context for understanding Galatians. Let’s look next at Ephesians.

By the time we have scanned through Paul’s message in this letter, we should be ready to tackle the same issues with Paul in Galatians.


A Review of Ephesians

We see that Ephesians is all about the church, and our unity of faith in Christ, and it only brings in salvation-faith in this context. Ephesians is the book of Acts explained in letter form. It is explaining what the Spirit is doing, in building a new unified church of Jew and gentile, or today, between ourselves, from all our different traditions and backgrounds.

Once again in Ephesians, soteriology is set well within the context of Paul’s eschatological, ecclesiological vision. God is uniting all things in Christ, in his church, to bring about a renewal of his creation. This renewal happens from within our fellowship, in our lives or care for each other, which Paul explains in Ephesians four and five. This life spills over into the world, transforming our cultures and powers. When the powers strike against the church, trying to profit from divisions, we stand in the faith of neighbourly love. Ephesians one to six are about the Holy Spirit working this new creation witness out in our lives.


The Role of the Spirit

Paul opens Ephesians by explaining the mystery of God’s will, to bring all things in heaven and earth together in Christ. This is a Hebrew figure of speech, which means the Jews and gentiles are becoming one in Christ, and all the powers in heaven (in control over humanity) and on earth (in our various forms of earthly rule and culture) will not be able to prevent this from coming to pass and renewing the creation.

Then Paul moves to the Holy Spirit, showing he is bringing this inheritance to pass in our lives. This is what the Spirit was doing in Acts, “giving us faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (rather than divisions), and love for one another.” This is the Spirit’s work, drawing us into united loving fellowship. This is the baptism in the Spirit. This is new life, even love for our enemies, the inheritance of caring family, which the Spirit grows us into. It is not natural, but requires the Holy Spirit in a new heart.

In Ephesians two, Jews and gentiles are “made alive together in Christ.” This is what grace and faith are about. Paul isn’t speaking here of our personal salvation, but that which unites us as one, calling us out of a reliance on our former traditions of separation and division, to instead love and care for one another.

This is the context in which Paul speaks again of our “boasting.” It isn’t boasting on a personal level, though this also isn’t good, but regarding the traditions of our group, which have separated us.

Instead, we “are his workmanship,” united by grace and faith.


Paul’s Point About Faith

It is funny that we have taken this passage to argue either for Calvinism or Arminianism, which has nothing to do with Paul’s point. “Faith is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God… not of works (of our traditions).” The point Paul is making is our traditions, that we allow to divide us. We are not saved by our traditions, but by grace, and this then makes us one body. To argue about Calvinism/ Arminianism, is to break down the unity that Paul said God has given us faith for.

Paul’s statements in Ephesians about the Spirit, about grace and about faith, are not about our individual lives, but about the things that make us one people of love. This is the way we should take this soteriology, as Paul’s ecclesiology.


One New Humanity

Paul goes on to explain what he is speaking about, the mystery, which is that Jews and gentiles are being drawn together by the Spirit into one new body. The rest of Ephesians two and three explain this new humanity, this new creation, that is brought together in love and not divided by our older religious traditions. This is what the Spirit in doing in the book of Acts.

It was a mystery, because Israel’s call is being revealed in this new way, and the Torah’s full light is now being brought out into the open, which is neighbour love. The Spirit now equips us to follow this light in a way that the law could not do. The Spirit frees our hearts from condemnation, and allows us to pass this same grace and faithfulness, which we have received from Christ, onto our neighbour and even to our enemy. Whole new communities become possible in our fallen world.

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of this new family. He is head of principalities and powers, which includes traditions, such as circumcision and washings. Christ has fulfilled the cleansing that these traditions pointed to, therefore he has removed them as divisive powers over our communities. Now Jesus, his love and faithfulness, is the cornerstone of community, not our slavish traditions.

This brings our unity, by his Spirit working love. These are the “good works we are created for.” Paul meant our works of love between Jew and gentile, between us today and others in the body of Christ, no matter their background. Paul mentioned these good works in the context of our coming together to serve each other freely. This loving unity is the works, and what we have been created for in Christ. This loving community is true Torah (good works), not our private works of the law.

Ephesians is permeated with calls to unity. This is the wisdom we are revealing to the powers of the world, that build walls of division between us. Even Pauls’ prayer in Ephesians three is addressed to the Father, who is “head over all the families of the world.” Paul’s purpose is, that through the new Spirit led love of the church, these families and nations, will continue to be drawn together in the gospel, so the mission of the Spirit in Acts, may spread through the entire world in our time.


Not Salvation Mystery

So then, after a quick run through parts of Romans and Ephesians, what do we see? We don’t see people consumed with the question of works righteousness, from the point of view of their private salvation. We don’t see Paul writing to solve these mysteries of personal salvation doctrine, whether by faith, or by works, whether Calvinist or Arminian. These are not the questions Paul is asking.

What we do see is Paul writing in the context of the first century, with the major shift of salvation history. That is, the sudden and large influx of gentiles into the promises of God to the Jewish people. How was this to be understood? How was the church to assimilate these new people? How were the Jews to associate with them, considering their previous traditions?


Summary of Paul’s Questions

We see in Paul’s letters, that the questions Paul is facing are ecclesiological and eschatological. They are to do with the church community. And they are to do with the end-times, the promise to the Jewish people that they would reshape the world. How was this to happen? Would it be through a fellowship based around the Old Testament laws of Torah? Or would it be through a new fulfilment of the Torah written upon our hearts? Would it be by the love of God, working through a new community, in which people from all backgrounds are free to receive and serve one another, bringing a new mercy and justice to our world’s societies?


Todays Questions?

And what do these new questions mean to our faith today? Now that we understand the questions that Paul faced, what is the call of God for us? If God is inviting us into a new community, based on grace, and faithful service to others, what does this mean for how we work out our differences in our fellowships? How do we build communities of unity, rather than divide through our individualistic perspectives?

And what about the things this new kind of church learns through our reconciling and redemptive fellowship together? How can these lessons spill over into the world around us, and help bring healing to a race and class torn society? How can the church point to a better future in a world of poverty and war? How can the church point us all away from self-centred lives, in a world that needs the love of God?

Can we bring lessons from a new church life, in which people from different classes and racial groups, live in love and service of each other, notwithstanding their diverse backgrounds and perspectives on life, and even sometimes on doctrinal views within the Lordship of Christ? How can this church which walks in humility, care and respect for its different members, provide a witness for a broken, divided world in crisis?

The lessons we bring may include service, rather than withdrawal, seeking to mend division, rather than retreating in self-preservation. Taking up our cross in Christian communion, teaches us to show a world the difference taking up our cross means, and the healing power it has for our nations.

This is the new eschatological, world renewing kingdom, God has called us into, together.

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