Week 6 – Reading Galatians 1-6

We start a period of reading through some of Paul’s letters with Galatians. Some scholars think this is the earliest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. It is a letter written in the heat of controversy within the Galatian churches Paul planted and between Paul and opponents, focussed on the relationship between Gentile believers in Christ and the Jewish law, particularly circumcision. It addresses a number of major theological issues that are also discussed in Romans. It has also been at the heart of recent debates among New Testament scholars about how best to understand Paul’s theology, his relationship to Judaism and the disputes he had with Jewish opponents.

Paul opens by speaking of his own apostleship and describing God’s work of rescue in Jesus from the present evil age (1.1-5). In contrast to the opening of his other letters, he then expresses his astonishment at their recent changed conduct and curses all – even himself – if they preach another gospel (1.6-10). He sources his gospel to a revelation of Jesus or from Jesus (1.11-12) before recalling his own story: his life in Judaism (1.13-14), God’s action and purpose (1.15-16) and his response (1.17-24) in terms of his travels and meetings and relationships with other apostles.

His autobiography picks up many years later with him offering more details of his relationship with Jerusalem and its leadership (2.1-10). This signals some of the issues that will be addressed more fully in the letter – circumcision, freedom, opposition to Paul and his gospel - and highlights the letter’s concern with what is to be required of non-Jews (the uncircumcised, Gentiles) who believe in Christ and the relationship between Jewish and Gentiles Christians. This is the issue over which Paul disputed with Peter (Cephas) in Antioch where it focussed on Jewish and Gentile Christians eating together (2.11-13). Paul confronted those Jews who withdrew and the heart of the debate is over justification – being declared righteous or in the right by God – and the role of the law (2.14-21). He presents two opposing views which he clearly sees as also at play among the Galatians. The meaning of both has led to much debate. Peter he presents as concerned with “works of the law” (which some see as seeking to obey all the law’s commands, others as referring to those “boundary marker” works which distinguished Jews from Gentiles such as circumcision and food laws). Paul, in contrast, appeals to “faith in Christ” (although this could also be translated as a reference to the “faith(fullness) of Christ” rather than our faith in him).  He ends again with personal testimony about his own experience and union with Christ crucified.

The third chapter recalls the Galatians to their first encounter with Christ crucified and experience of the Spirit, again contrasting faith and works of the law and introducing the new contrast of Spirit and flesh, which is not a reference to being physical but to life apart from and opposed to God (3.1-5). Paul then begins a detailed argument which goes back to Abraham – the father of the Jews and, he states, of all who believe, including the blessed nations or Gentiles (3.6-9, citing Genesis 12.3, 18.18 and 22.18, key texts of God’s covenant with Abraham).   The contrast between Law and faith is then explored with reference to the law’s curse (Deut 27.26), the prophet’s promise (Hab 2.4) and the Law’s way of life (Lev 18.5). Christ is then presented as redeeming from the law’s curse (Deut 21.23) so that the original promise to Abraham might be fulfilled and the Gentiles in Christ receive faith and the Spirit (3.10-14).   This contrast between promise and law is then explained by appeal to common practice and the promise to Abraham in order to show that this earlier promise rather than the later law is God’s way of fulfilling his purposes (3.15-18). The law had a different role than fulfilment of the promise (3.19-20) but is not opposed to the promise (3.21-22). Prior to the fulfilment in Christ, Paul describes Israel as like a child under a guardian (3.23-25) before he describes what is true of all who are in Christ by faith and baptism – God’s children and Abraham’s seed and heirs of promise (3.26-29).

The situation of a child heir is then compared to that of a slave and this is presented as the situation before God sent his Son (with echoes of the Exodus redeeming slaves from Egypt) to redeem the Galatians and make them sons through the Spirit of the Son (4.1-7). The Gentile converts are then described as reverting to their former slavery in their desire to embrace Jewish legal customs (4.8-11). Paul instead calls them to become like him (4.12) and recalls his initial ministry among them and their positive response in contrast to their current one (4.12-16). He then attacks those he sees as causing the problems (4.17) before making a pained parental appeal (4.18-20). Given their desire to return to the law, he then appeals to it with a reading of the story of Sarah and Hagar and their two sons and an appeal to Isaiah 54.1. In this he weaves together key contrasts of Spirit and flesh, promise and flesh and freedom and slavery (4.21-27) before locating the Galatians as children of promise and the free woman and, by reference to Gen 21.10, showing how they should respond to those Paul opposes.

Chapter five opens by stressing the centrality of freedom in Christ’s work and portraying the Galatians as in danger of returning to slavery (5.1) and being separated from Christ. This is because of their desire to be circumcised and come under the Law (5.2-4) rather than remaining with what Paul says they have in Christ and the Spirit (5.5-6). He again highlights the fact they have changed under pressure and attacks those he blames, insisting he does not preach circumcision and as a result is persecuted for the scandal of the cross (5.7-12). Freedom, he insists, is not the same as licence but leads to law-fulfilling love (5.13-15) as the believer is led by the Spirit and, not under law, resists the flesh (5.16-18). The contrast is then filled out by describing the works of the flesh which exclude from the kingdom (5.19-21) and the fruit of the Spirit (5.22-23). Those belonging to Christ are then defined as those have crucified the flesh and live and keep in step with the Spirit (5.24-25).

Various practical outworkings of this way of life are then set out (5.26-6.6) with a reminder of how one will in future reap what one sows (6.7-10). The final hand-written appeal again attacks opponents and their concern for literal flesh in circumcision (6.11-12), contrasting boasting in circumcision (meaningless given new creation) and boasting in the cross whose effects he describes in personal and cosmic terms (6.13-15). He closes with the blessings of peace and mercy on the Israel of God, an appeal not to be troubled and a prayer for Christ’s grace to be with the Galatians.


To listen to or download a reading of each chapter from Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone (SPCK), click here.

To read Galatians online at STEP follow the links below (the right hand box gives some help and can be closed to give text on full screen, the site is worth exploring for more detailed study of any text):

Galatians 1-3

ESV & NIV side by side

ESV & Greek side by side (with various highlighting (when you hover the mouse over words and references) and search tools that don’t require knowledge of Greek to use)

Galatians 4-6

ESV & NIV side by side

ESV & Greek side by side (with various highlighting (when you hover the mouse over words and references) and search tools that don’t require knowledge of Greek to use)

Fulcrum Articles on Galatians

For other materials on Galatians on Fulcrum look at these pages:

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