Galatians - an overview
The New Testament portion of our daily readings for the last two days has brought us to consider the inspired Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians. It would seem appropriate therefore, to give an overview of the Epistle, pointing out it’s main themes and features.
The overriding theme of the Epistle deals with the issue of the Judaizers – those who insisted that as well as to believe in Christ, it is also necessary to be circumcised as per the law of Moses. In the first chapter, the Apostle refutes this notion, describing it as “another Gospel”:
“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ …” (Gal. 1:6-7).
Notice the terms used here, and contrast them with the prevailing spirit of our age. We live in an age which is in some respects like the times of the judges, when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (cp Jud. 21:25). In today’s parlance, everyone has their own “point of view” – they see and do things according to their personal viewpoint, which is of equal validity as that of the next man.
But the Bible never speaks in this way. Our Lord did speak of seeing or not seeing as thus:
“the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mat. 6:22-23).
Notice this point: men are either in light, or in darkness. A man who is in darkness does not simply have a “different point of view” – according to Scripture, he is in the dark: he can have no point of view: he can’t see anything! The situation is that the word of God is truth – and absolutely so: “Sanctify them through thy Truth: thy word is Truth” (Jno. 17:17) was the prayer of Messiah. Because God’ Word is absolute Truth, that which differs from it is not truth. And being not truth, it is by definition false. Hence the Apostle in the chapter before us speaks of the Judaizers as preaching “another Gospel” – which in actual fact, is not another valid system of salvation: it is a perversion of what is true, and something that cannot save.
Chapter 2 describes the Apostle’s approach to these “false brethren”. They endeavoured to “bring us into bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the Gospel might continue with you” (Gal. 2:4-5). There was an important work to be done by way of edifying the Ecclesias and proclaiming that which was right. There was no time to waste, especially on those who had already declared their hostility to the Apostle’s work.
In the Old Testament, Nehemiah had a similar approach. There were those who sought to hinder the building of the House of God – the Temple – and they sought to engage Nehemiah in debating the issue – at least, that is what they said, in reality they sought the opportunity to do him harm:
“Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying Come, let us meet together in one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you …” (Neh. 6:2-3).
Here is the point: it is different to speaking to someone who has a genuine desire to hear what the message is. But wasting time debating with those whose only goal is to do us harm will not further the cause of the Truth. Better to be like Paul and Nehemiah, and devote our time wisely in the Lord’s service.
Another key phrase of Galatians chapter 2 is the apostles expression, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). And again in chapter 5, verse 24: “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and the lusts thereof”. In passing through the waters of Baptism, we associate ourselves with the crucifixion and resurrection of Messiah. We resolve to do what he did: to lay down our lives in service to Yahweh. So the Apostle describes elsewhere:
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead, by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life … knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him …“ (Rom. 6:3-4, 6 – see whole chapter)
“The flesh” is crucified with Christ, with all it’s resident affections and lusts – there is therefore no need to observe circumcision as under Law of Moses: “he is not a Jew which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:28-29). The cutting off the flesh in our day is being circumcised in heart, not in body.
The main theme of chapter 3 is how the seed of Abraham are considered such, not because of physical descent, but by having the faith of Abraham: “even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:6-7). Indeed, we find that the promises that were given to faithful Abraham constitute the Gospel, which the Galatians were moving away from:
“and the scripture foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).
The blessings to come upon the nations will be through Abraham’s promised Seed: “which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). But because being counted as sons of Abraham is based upon faith and not natural descent, the promises apply repentant faithful Gentiles, as well as Israel. So the apostle speaks of how:
“that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:14).
This chapter also describes to us the purpose of the Law of Moses:
“Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made …” (Gal. 3:19).
The Mosaic legal system then, was a code of conduct which regulated the behaviour of the people of Israel until Messiah came. It taught them what sin was and condemned any who did not keep it in all its particulars – something which no man could do. Hence the Apostle elsewhere describes it as being a “ministration of condemnation”. It brought a knowledge of sin but could not remove it (Heb. 10:4, 11). In our chapter it is written:
“… but the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Gal. 3:22).
This was a function of the Law: by its condemnation of all who were under it, it demonstrated that man could not save himself. Those who would find forgiveness and reconciliation were taught by its sacrificial principles that their salvation could only come through one who would be the “lamb of God” who would take away the sins of the world (Jno. 1:29). Hence the Law performed the role of a Tutor, or Schoolmaster, leading the faithful to Christ:
“… wherefore the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 32:24).
Notice, the function of the Law was to bring us into a situation whereby we might be justified by faith: of itself, it could not save – it wasn’t designed to save.
Chapter 4 returns to the theme of how the believers were looking back to the Law, rather than forward to Christ:
“how turn ye back again to the weak and beggarly elements whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest by any means, I have bestowed upon you labour in vain” (Gal. 4:9-11).
The Apostle then appeals to the Old Testament record to make an allegory:
“Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondmaid was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai , which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all …” (Gal. 4:21-26).
Here, we see how the literal events concerning the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, also form an allegory of events yet future to him. The comparison is that Ishmael represents the natural seed, whereas Isaac represents the children of promise – born from Jerusalem which is from above. The Apostle continues to describe how that just as Ishmael was cast out because of his hostility to Isaac, so in the events surrounding AD 70, natural Israel were to be cast out for their persecution of the believers:
“… But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born of the spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless, what saith the Scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free” (Gal. 4:29-30).
So we have re-emphasised the vital point that it is not the natural seed who are accounted the sons of Abraham, but the children of promise – those who are heirs to the promises made to him.
Chapter 5 continues this theme, commending with the exhortation:
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).
The overriding message of this chapter is to follow the ways of the spirit, rather than the ways of the flesh:
“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Gal. 5:16-18).
Again, earlier in this chapter, the point is made:
“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself …” (Gal. 5:13-14).
Love, therefore, is the fulfilling of the Law (Rom. 13:10). To walk after the Spirit of Christ, in love towards each other, is a hallmark of the disciple of Messiah. And those who walk after the Spirit shall manifest the characteristics which are the fruit of the Spirit:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit …” (Gal. 5:22-24).
But before yielding fruit, the seed must be first sown into the believer’s heart – as per the parable of the Sower. Chapter 6 focusses our attention on this aspect:
“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall ye also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption: but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting …” (Gal. 6:7-8).
We must therefore exert our energies to seeking first the kingdom and righteousness of God, and all other things we need will be added to us. (Cp. Mat. 6:33). Reaping what we sow, we need to ensure that the seed is good seed, and our hearts are receptive enough to receive it.
It is a characteristic of those of like precious faith, that they will help one another, bearing each other’s burdens:
“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2)
Or as the writer to the Hebrews has it:
“wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed” (Heb. 13:12-13).
We need therefore, to lift each other’s hands, and strengthen the feeble knees, so that together we shall inherit the glories of the Kingdom. We are not under the Mosaic code of conduct, but we do need to “fulfil the law of Christ” in order to be saved from our sins. Let us therefore manifest the spiritual fruits that comprise the characters of the faithful, and display that love and concern for each other, without which no man shall see the Lord.