The congregations of the Roman province of Galatia in Central Asia Minor were especially dear to the Apostle Paul. He had come here, with Barnabas, on his first missionary journey, Act_13:14-52; Act_14:1-23, spending considerable time in the cities of Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. With Silas he had gone to the same district of the Galatian province on his second journey, Act_16:1-6, at which time he had taken Timothy along with him. Again, on the third journey, he went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples, Act_18:23, before going down to Ephesus. It appears, from the account in Acts as well as from the present letter, that the Gospel was, on the whole, received by the inhabitants of this part of Galatia with great enthusiasm, and they, in turn, may have carried it to the regions toward the north, where the descendants of the Celts, or Gauls, lived, who, coming from the northern part of what is now France, had migrated eastward in the third century before Christ and found a home in this fertile and beautiful country south of the Black Sea. At the time when Paul wrote this letter, therefore, there may have been flourishing congregations not only in Southern Galatia, in the sections of the country which were Phrygian and Lycaonian by nationality, but also in the region adjoining, with all of whom Paul was personally and intimately acquainted. These churches were composed principally of converts from heathenism, although there was a liberal sprinkling of Jews.
The reason which prompted Paul to write this letter to the Galatian Christians was the following. Shortly after his last visit among them a number of Judaizing teachers came to Galatia and began to make trouble, Gal_1:7. The method of these converted Jews, who still adhered in their hearts to all the precepts of the ceremonial law, was simple, but effective. "They insisted that faith in Christ was not enough to obtain righteousness before God, life, and salvation. They told the Galatians that it was necessary to salvation to keep the ceremonial law of the Jews, to submit to circumcision, observe the Jewish feasts, etc. Paul had taught the Galatians that in order to become righteous in God's sight and obtain life and salvation, nothing more was needed than faith in Christ. To destroy this doctrine, these Judaizing teachers hinted that Paul was no true apostle of Christ, that he had never seen the Lord, and that he owed his knowledge of the Gospel to the apostles who had their headquarters at Jerusalem. They were prompted by unworthy motives, Gal_4:17; Gal_6:13. They soon succeeded in winning over the greater part of the churches. What made their success easy was the fact that some members hoped to escape persecution if they would enter into outward fellowship with the Jews, Gal_6:12. Many were ready to receive circumcision, etc. , Gal_3:1; Gal_4:9 ff; Gal_5:1; Gal_6:13."
The Epistle to the Galatians is one of the earliest, as many scholars believe, the very first letter which Paul wrote, very likely from the city of Corinth, about the year 51, or from Ephesus, a few years later. Its form and language indicate great commotion in the apostle's mind, as well as a holy zeal for his apostolic office and for the purity of the Christian doctrine as taught by him. Though much briefer than the letter to the Romans, it is a doctrinal epistle throughout and of peculiar significance in the fight against Judaism. It may readily be divided into three parts. In the first, personal or historical, part Paul defends his apostolic office as one entrusted to him by God, a fact which appears not only from his being acknowledged by the apostles at Jerusalem, but also from his rebuking of Peter. In the second, doctrinal, part Paul offers the proofs for the soundness of his doctrine that salvation comes not by works, but by faith, since the nature of the Law is such as to make it necessary for the Christians to be free from its dominion, a fact which is typified also in the story of Isaac and Ishmael. In the third, practical or hortatory, part Paul draws the ethical conclusions from the doctrine as taught by him, with the admonition to hold fast the liberty in Christ Jesus; he warns them against the yoke of circumcision, against walking after the flesh; he urges them to give evidence of brotherly harmony and fellowship.
Luther summarizes the contents of the letter as follows: "The Galatians had been brought by St. Paul from the Law to the true Christian faith and to the Gospel. But after his departure there came the false apostles, that were disciples of the true apostles, and seduced the Galatians to believe that they must be saved through the works of the Law and were committing a sin if they did not keep the works of the Law... in opposition to them St. Paul extols his office and does not want to be considered less than any other apostle, boasting that he had his doctrine and ministry from God alone, in order to quell the boasting of the false apostles that relied upon the true apostles' work and name... This he does in the first and second chapters, and concludes that everyone must be justified without merit, without works, without Law, through Christ alone. In the third and fourth chapters he supports all this with Scriptures, examples, and parables, showing that the Law brings sin and condemnation rather than righteousness, which is promised by God by grace only, fulfilled by Christ without the Law, and given to us. In the fifth and sixth chapters he teaches the works of love which should follow faith."
Introductory Greeting and Doxology. Gal_1:1-5
v. 1. Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead,)
v. 2. and all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia:
v. 3. Grace be to you and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ,
v. 4. who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:
v. 5. to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen.
Paul opens his letter in the style of writing which was in use at that time, with his own name and the designation of his office. But there is a peculiar emphasis to the word "apostle" in this case, since the agitators had challenged his right to this title, which did not merely signify "one sent," but had assumed the dignity of an official designation, pointing to the divine authority of the bearers, specifically to the call of Paul to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ by an immediate command of the Lord. This emphatic vindication is brought out also in the next words: Not from men, nor through a man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead. The opponents had probably said that his only call had been that extended by the congregation at Antioch, Act_13:2-3, and that he had originally received Baptism and the gift of the Spirit through the agency of a mere man, Ananias of Damascus, Act_9:17. Therefore Paul insists that his authority was not from men, just as the Scripture-account has it that he was sent forth by the Holy Ghost, Act_13:4, that Christ Himself had sent him to the Gentiles, Act_22:21. Neither was his call a mediate or secondary call only, even though he did not receive the Spirit at the time of the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost. His call is through Jesus Christ and therefore also through God the Father; it is a divine call, its validity cannot be questioned. That Jesus, whose name Paul here mentions first, is fully equal in essence with the Father is brought out also by the addition of the words: Who raised Him from the dead. By that act the Father had acknowledged and confessed the Son before the whole world as the true God and eternal life, as coequal with Him in deity, in power and authority. Paul mentions this fact here, partly because the resurrection of Christ made his own call possible, partly because he thereby became a witness of the resurrection of Jesus. His words are a ringing, preliminary declaration of his apostolic authority.
Without mentioning any names, Paul sends greetings also from the group of brethren in whose midst he was at that time residing and working. In the emphasis upon the matters which he felt compelled to broach, the apostle was not alone, but he knew that the other Christians of Corinth or Ephesus were of the same opinion, which implied that the Galatians, if they gave ear to the false teachers, would sever themselves from the fellowship of their brethren, not to speak of the offense which they would be giving to a whole Christian community, no matter how small. His letter is addressed, not to a single congregation, but to the churches of Galatia, to the several congregations which had been founded as a result of Paul's labors, his intention being that the epistle should be read before them all and thus have a cumulative effect.
As in his later epistles, the apostolic blessing is briefly summarized in the wish for grace and peace: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ! Through Christ the believers have grace, complete forgiveness of sins; in Christ they have peace with God. Through Christ God has become their dear Father, and the exalted Christ is their Lord. "Therefore Paul, in this greeting, has laid down a short summary of his doctrine, namely, that no one can be justified but by the grace of God, in no way through works, and that the restlessness of conscience cannot be quieted but through the peace of God, thus not through the works of any virtue or satisfaction."
The great price which Jesus paid in order to bring us grace and peace is shown in the next words: Who gave Himself for our sins. Here the emphasis is upon the wonderful sacrifice which Jesus made in our behalf, as a gift of grace to those that did not merit even an infinitesimal fraction of such merciful kindness. He made use of no half-way measures; He did not rest satisfied with some unusual display of mere goodness; His gift was nothing less than His own person, a gift which could be fully accomplished only in and through His death; it was a sacrifice and sin-offering that has no equal in the history of the world. "Christ Himself was both Offerer and Offered, both High Priest and Sacrifice, in one person. " And the effect of this perfect substitution and expiation was that He might tear us away from the present world, evil as it is. The result of the redemption of Christ in the case of the believers is both to tear them away from the evil influence, from the moral corruption of the world, and also to safeguard them from the final destruction of everlasting damnation which the world is bringing upon itself by its present attitude toward Christ and His salvation. The Christians are in the world, but not of the world. They deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, Tit_2:12. And all this Christ does and effects in us according to the will of God and our Father. The fact that we are being kept in such a miraculous manner is not due to our own merits or efforts, but to the merciful will of God, which was manifested in Christ and His work of redemption, which wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, 1Ti_2:4. And therefore Paul wants all the praise, all the honor, to go to the gracious God, in all eternity, a declaration which he crowns with his confident "Amen. " See Php_4:20; 2Ti_4:18.