Chapter 2:<B> </B>The Letter to the Galatians

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 2:<B> </B>The Letter to the Galatians

Upon returning to the shores of Syria after his long residence in Corinth, Paul had news that greatly disturbed him. An enemy had appeared in his rear. Among the people who had accepted his teaching about Jesus were many in the towns of central Asia Minor -- Iconium, Derbe, Lystra, and Antioch. These places lay in what the Romans called Galatia, though that name included also an additional district lying farther north. They were in the region that has in recent years been traversed by the new railway through Asia Minor. Their people had welcomed Paul as an apostle of Christ and had gladly accepted his message of faith, hope and love.

But there had now come among them Christian teachers of Jewish birth, who looked upon the Christianity Paul presented as spurious and dangerous. Who these men were we have no way of knowing, but their idea of Christianity can easily be made out. They believed Jesus to be the completer of the agreement or covenant God had made with Abraham. In order to benefit by his gospel one must be an heir of Abraham, they held, and thus of God’s agreement with him; that is, one must be born a Jew or become one by accepting the rite of circumcision and being adopted into the Jewish people.

There was certainly some reasonableness in this view. The men who held it were indignant that the Galatians should call themselves Christians with out having first been circumcised and having thus acknowledged their adoption into the Jewish nation; and they considered Paul a wholly unauthorized person and no apostle at all, since he was not one of the twelve whom Jesus had called about him in Galilee twenty years before, nor even a representative of theirs. It was evidently the feeling of these new arrivals that the twelve apostles were the sole genuine authorities on Christianity and what might be taught under its name. This claim also seemed reasonable, and it made the Galatian believers wonder what Paul’s relation was to these authorized leaders of the church, and why he had given them so imperfect an idea of the gospel. They admitted the justice of the claims of the new missionaries and set about conforming to their demands in order that they might be as good Christians as they knew how to be.

Where Paul first learned of this change in the beliefs of the Galatians is not certain, but very probably it was at Antioch in Syria, to which he returned from Corinth. He wished to proceed as soon as possible to Galatia to straighten matters out in person. For some reason he could not start at once, and so he wrote or dictated a letter in which he did his best to show the Galatian Christians their mistake. This he sent off immediately, probably intending to follow it in person as soon as he could do so.

The letter Paul wrote is the most vigorous and vehement that we have from his pen. It shows Paul to have been a powerful and original thinker, and is the more remarkable as it was written, not as a book or an essay, but simply as a personal letter, intended to save some of his friends from wrong views of religion. In opposition to the claims of the Jewish-Christian teachers from Palestine, he affirms with his very first words that he is an apostle, divinely commissioned, with an authority quite independent of that of the apostles at Jerusalem. This authority Paul bases on his own religious experience and convictions, in which he feels that the Spirit of God speaks to him; and this rightly seems to him the best, and indeed the only, kind of religious authority that really reaches the inner life.

The demand of the newcomers in Galatia that the Christians there should undertake some of the practices of the Jewish law, such as circumcision and the religious observance of certain days, Paul denounces as unreasonable and dangerous. It is dangerous because if acknowledged it will surely bring in after it the necessity of obeying all the rest of the Jewish law, and will reduce the religious life of the Galatians to the tedious observance of countless religious forms. It is unreasonable because even in the case of Abraham, long before there was any Jewish law, faith, that is, an attitude of trust in God and obedience to his will, was the only thing that made men pleasing to God. It was when the Galatians came into this attitude of trust and dependence upon God that they felt the presence of his spirit in their hearts as never before, and in this fact Paul finds evidence of the genuine worth of the gospel of faith that he has preached to them. The Law and the life of religious formalism which it brings with it can never bring this consciousness, as Paul knows, for he gave it a long trial before giving it up in despair and turning to the gospel of faith, hope, and love. In a word, the Law makes men slaves, the Gospel makes them free. This has been Paul’s experience and it is his teaching.

Galatians is in fact a charter of religious freedom. Its noble ideal of the religious life, so far from being outgrown, still beckons us forward, as it did those obscure townsfolk of the Galatian uplands long ago. Paul knew its dangers, but he knew its promise too, and saw that for those who would sincerely accept it, it opened possibilities of spiritual and moral development which could never he reached by the lower path. The Christian had received the very Spirit of God. By that he must regulate his life. If he did so, he would be in no danger of gross and vulgar sin, but would find freely springing up in his life the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control.

This is the ringing message that Paul sent in hot haste to the Galatians. He usually dictated his letters to one of his companions, such as Titus or Tertius, writing only a line or two himself at the end. And this he probably did in this case, but emphasized it all, with a touch of humor, by writing his autograph lines in very large letters. But some have thought that in his haste he wrote this entire letter with his own hand. It was carried by some trusty messenger away through the mountains to the nearest Galatian church and there read to the assembled brethren. Then they probably sent it on to the next town where there was a band of believers, and so it passed from one church to another until all had heard it. Some perhaps had the foresight to copy it before it was sent on its way, and so helped to preserve to later times Paul’s first great letter.