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Introduction to the Book of Galatians

Jul 27, 2010

Paul's letter to the Galatians was probably written in 57 A.D. during his third missionary journey. Paul spent three years in Ephesus (54-57 A.D.) during that missionary journey, but then made a quick trip to Macedonia (Acts 20:1), where he wrote his letter to the Galatians. He then went to Jerusalem, where he was arrested and detained for a few years.

In reading the book of Acts, it is clear that much of Paul's ministry was spent refuting the idea that non-Jews were less equal in the sight of God than Jews. As Orwell wrote in the 1950's with such great irony, "All men are created equal, but some are more equal than others." Paul's teaching on equality greatly antagonized the Jews but was cause of great rejoicing among the Greek converts to Judaism.

Paul (and Barnabas) always went to the synagogues first, in order to give them the first opportunity to hear the Gospel. It seems that the Jews were interested in the Gospel of Christ until Paul and Barnabas showed that "there is no difference" between Jew and Greek insofar as one's position in Christ or in relation to the Covenants of God. At that point most of the Jews exploded in anger, often attempting to kill the apostles.

Paul also ran into problems among the Jewish Christians who attempted to remain in good standing in the synagogues and in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple had a dividing wall in its outer court. Only Jewish men could come into the inner court to be "nearer to God," while all non-Jewish proselytes and women were consigned to the outer portion of the courtyard. Paul wrote of this in Ephesians 2:14-18,

(14) For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, (15) by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace... (18) for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

The dividing wall in the Temple was the great symbol of inequality and "enmity" between Jews and Greeks in their approach to God. It instilled in the Jewish mind the idea that they were more beloved of God, that they enjoyed a higher status as "chosen" ones, and that by virtue of their race they enjoyed greater privilege than other men. Paul made it clear that Christ abolished that dividing wall in order to reconcile the two groups making peace by the unity of the Spirit. Both groups had equal access to God.

The mother Church in Jerusalem, led by James, the earthly brother of Jesus, considered itself to be a sect of Judaism, rather than a distinct movement. Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, wrote in his Ecclesiastical History, II, xxiii, that James was called "The Righteous" even by all the devout but non-Christian Jews in Jerusalem. He was a Nazarite, and thus, as Eusebius says, "He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen." [See my book, Lessons in Church History, Vol. I, ch. 25.]

The Jerusalem Church tried very hard to maintain good relations with the Temple, but in the end, James was martyred at the Temple in 62 A.D. When the Temple was destroyed a few years later (70 A.D.), the Christian dependence upon the Temple was broken, and Paul's view of equality prevailed. This lasted until Darby began to preach Dispensationalism in 1850, a view which gradually began to rebuild the dividing wall and re-establish the Jews as more privileged than other believers.

The book of Galatians was written within the context of the Jewish opposition to his missionary efforts. Further, Paul was being opposed by "Judaizers" who worked to maintain Christianity as a sect of Judaism. Paul alludes to this personal conflict in Gal. 1:6 as "another gospel" and proceeds to refute it in the rest of the letter.

This is the core purpose of the book of Galatians. Paul and Barnabas stood on one side, the Judaizers with "another gospel" opposed them, and the vacillating Galatians stood in the middle, pulled by both sides, trying to figure out whose gospel was genuine. The Judaizers seemed to have an advantage in that they claimed support from the "Mother Church" in Jerusalem. But Paul carried papers (with James' signature) of the Church Council in Jerusalem, whereby James had agreed with Paul on the crucial issue of circumcision (Acts 15:24). 

The conflict between these two factions centered around the relationship and distinction between Judaism's Old Covenant and Christianity's New Covenant. How did the New Covenant affect the religious system and way of thinking? How did it affect our relationship with God? Did these changes put away the Law? or did it offer corrections to men's interpretations of the Law? Did the New Covenant offer a new manner of justification? or did it correct an old misconception? Did God favor Jews over non-Jews? What does it mean to be "chosen"? Is it a matter of privilege or calling? How do "chosen people" relate to the other nations?

These were the major issues of the First Century in those transitional years from Jesus' ministry to the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple forty years later. The debates were often heated. But in the end, God brought in "His armies" (Matt. 22:7) and destroyed the Temple and the city which was central to Judaism and even to the Jerusalem Church. This single event in history broke the church's dependence upon the old forms of Temple worship.

When we understand the historical context of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, we will find that it is very applicable to us today, for once again the same issues have arisen in the modern Laodicean Church. We find it necessary to reclaim the New Covenant from the Judaizers of today who have revived all the arguments of the Judaizers of the First Century and who attempt to reinstate the relationship that the Jerusalem Church had with the Temple.

Dispensationalist teaching proposes a third temple to be built in Jerusalem, complete with a dividing wall, animal sacrifices, Levitical priests, the Old Covenant, and Jewish ownership of the whole earth, complete with all non-Jews as slaves in a Jewish world. This is a revival of what Paul called "another gospel." Those who promote such teachings, Paul says twice, "let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8, 9).

We must take this very seriously, then, to avoid the curse of Paul, spoken by the unction of the Holy Spirit.

This is the first introductory part of a series titled "Galatians." To view all parts, click the link below.


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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones

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