GALATIANS - A Verse-by-Verse Commentary

by Thomas W. Finley

Background to Galatians

There is a difference of opinion among Bible teachers concerning which churches are addressed in this letter and when it was written. There is no absolute proof for which of the theories is correct, but this issue does not impact the overall teaching of the epistle or its application to our lives today.

Gal. 1:2 reads, “To the churches of Galatia.” The problem is that the term “Galatia” was used in a couple of different ways in the first century. In one use the term Galatia described a geographic area in the northern part of Asia Minor, which was populated by certain ethnic tribes (you can see this use in Bible maps). The other use of the term was in a political sense, as there was a Roman province termed Galatia which contained territory that extended into the southern part of Asia Minor, an area where Paul visited on his first missionary journey. Thus, the “southern Galatian theory” says the epistle was written to churches in the southern part of Asia Minor, and includes cities visited in Paul’s first missionary journey (Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe – Acts 13, 14).

The “northern Galatian theory” holds that the letter was written to churches possibly established (but never explicitly mentioned in Acts) during his second missionary journey. Supporters of the northern theory point to Acts 16:6, which states that Paul and his band “passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region.” However, the reference here to the “Galatian region” does not necessarily equate to the northern area. It is argued that instead the reference in Acts 16:6 speaks of one area – the Phrygian-Galatic area within the Roman province. The “southern Galatian theory” currently holds more weight among Bible scholars.

Dating of the epistle – its relationship to the Acts 15 council

Although not critical to its message, the relationship of the Acts 15 council to the epistle of Galatians is an interesting question. Was Paul’s visit to Jerusalem noted in Gal. 2:1-10 the same occasion as his visit to the council in Acts 15? Paul first visited Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Gal. 1:18-19). This visit corresponds to Acts 9:26-30. Gal. 2:1 records a second visit to Jerusalem, taking place after a period of fourteen years, meaning fourteen years after Paul’s conversion. This visit could be the same as that recorded in Acts 11:30, where Paul and Barnabas brought funds to Jerusalem from Antioch for famine relief. Some interpreters say Paul did not mention this visit in Galatians, but only referred to the Acts 15 council visit in Gal. 2 as a second one, not a third one, because it was not related to his argument concerning his apostolic authority (Gal. 2:5-10).

Other Bible teachers note that the Acts 15 council does not correspond to the Gal. 2:1-10 visit because the Galatians record reports only a private meeting with certain apostles, whereas Acts 15 records a public meeting with many present. Also, it would seem strange that the outcome of the conference in Acts 15, with its important bearing on the questions raised in the epistle to the Galatians, would not be noted in the Galatian letter. Those who support the theory that Acts 15 and Gal. 2:1-10 are speaking of the same event argue that the private meeting took place before the public one.

All of this discussion plays into the dating of the epistle. Since we know that the council took place about 50 A. D., the letter could have been written shortly after the first missionary journey in the province of Galatia, but before the council took place. (This view would also line up with the “southern Galatian theory.”) The other view holds that this letter could have been written later, sometime after the council in Acts 15. Those who support a date after the council in Jerusalem usually date the epistle around 54-55 A. D., citing some similarities to other writings of Paul in that time frame.

In conclusion, to me it seems best to say that the epistle was probably written before the council in Jerusalem because the council’s discussions and decisions would have been important in arguing against the Judaizers plaguing the Galatian churches. The letter also, under this view, would have been written to the churches established in Galatia on Paul’s first missionary journey. Since Paul had established a base in Antioch (see Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-4; 14:26-28), it is likely that he wrote this letter to the Galatians from Antioch not long after his first missionary journey to Galatia. This would place the dating of the epistle around 49 AD, and make it the first of Paul’s epistles, and certainly one of the very earliest of all NT books. This seems very significant. I believe the Holy Spirit inspired this epistle at this early date to help the church be clear on the distinctions between grace and law, and to help the church realize how grace is the foundation of the Christian life.

The occasion of the letter

It is clear from the letter that the negative influence of some outsiders (Judaizers) upon the assemblies gave rise to Paul’s writing (Gal. 1:7; 3:1; 4:17; 5:10, 12; 6:12-13). “Judaizers” is a term that has been applied to that group of religious people who mingled among first century believers and promoted the practice of Jewish laws and customs - either as a means for being “saved” or for being “sanctified.” It has its modern counterpart in “legalists” or “legalism,” which will be discussed in this commentary. Paul was writing to combat the false teaching being thrust upon these churches and, in conjunction with this, it seems he was also dealing with some accusations against his own status as an apostle of God commissioned with the truth.

The purpose of the letter

Paul’s purpose was to bring the Galatian believers back to the true track of grace because they were being taken away by the Judaizers to the track of law. The “good news” about grace, as we shall see in detail in the comments on the text, applies both to our eternal salvation (Eph. 2:8-9) and to the progressive sanctification (holiness) of our living as born again believers [1]. Through solid historical and Scriptural argumentation Paul intended to expose the false teachings of the Judaizers and reorient the believers to grace, which we will see later involves the working of the Spirit of God in the believer’s life. He was laboring once again for them - this time not to bring them to a new birth, but to bring them to maturity in Christ – “until Christ is formed in you” (4:19). Paul’s purpose in writing this letter is clearly discernable, and this purpose dominates the letter repeatedly. The purpose of any letter is important for interpretation of the text, and Paul’s definite purpose in this letter must be kept in the front of our minds as we seek to understand what he was saying to his original audience in each section of the writing.

The theme of the letter

The theme of the letter is the grace of Christ as sufficient for both initial justification (imputed righteousness received through faith), and progressive sanctification (increasing holiness) in the believer’s life. Since the recipients of the letter are already believers, the main stress is on grace (as the life and power of the Spirit) for sanctification, instead of law, as promoted by the Judaizers who troubled the Galatians. An important verse of the epistle is Gal. 2:20. When placed together with 2:19, one gets a powerful picture of how Paul lived the Christian life: “For through Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

Interpretation helps

Throughout this commentary I will provide some helps on how to most accurately interpret Scripture. In this “Background to Galatians” section we see something important for understanding a book of the Bible, especially an epistle (a letter to NT believers). It is critical that one try to understand the historical setting involved with the letter, the specific occasion that gave rise to the writing, and the purpose of the author in writing to his audience. A good Bible dictionary will often give some help on these matters.

Discerning an overall theme in an epistle helps the interpreter bring into focus what major spiritual truths the Holy Spirit is seeking to make known through the human author, and this will help us apply it to our lives. The overall theme will also likely have some bearing upon the interpretation of any particular passages within the letter, as will the purpose of the writing.

The first goal of interpretation is always to try to understand exactly what the author himself was actually trying to say to the original recipients of a letter or text. This is a cardinal rule of literal Bible interpretation. We must put aside our own preconceived theological ideas and seek to see what the text actually says, in line with what the author intended. Otherwise, we will be reading into the text a meaning that the author did not intend. If at first our theological framework seems threatened by the seeming plain and logical meaning of the text, then we should not try to twist the text to fit our theology. Instead, we should wait humbly on the Lord for more light and understanding, being willing to change our ideas. It is honoring to the Lord if we honestly say that we don’t yet understand a text. It is dishonoring if we can’t honestly figure a text out and yet we proceed to throw out a meaning that fits our theology.

We must rely upon the Holy Spirit and pray in dependent faith for enlightenment as to the interpretation of any Biblical text. Yet, we cannot get correct light from the Holy Spirit if we ignore sound principles of Biblical interpretation. Sometimes light on the exact meaning of a text does not come until we have read it many times, and even over many years. The real meaning of a particular text is often confirmed by having knowledge of many other Scriptures that help bring the meaning into focus. Therefore, a good understanding of any verse or passage requires knowledge of the whole Bible, a correct understanding of various theological and spiritual themes in the Bible, and the more immediate context of the verse. We must be patient and not think that we can always understand Biblical texts in a quick way or an easy way. It takes much patience, much reading and study, and much reliance upon the Lord.

The growth of our own spiritual life should also go hand in hand with our pursuit of Biblical knowledge. Some academic knowledge of the Bible may be gained through study alone without the pursuit of spiritual growth. However, the knowledge of God Himself will be missed, and the true spiritual riches of the Scriptures, as well as the full truth of the Scriptures, will not be gained. The Bible is firstly a spiritual book, not just a book of facts, history, teachings and doctrines. It requires spiritual illumination to see the truths of Scripture in an enlightened way, and it is the spiritual man who can appraise the things of God (1 Cor. 2:10-15).

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] The Greek word “sanctification” means to be “set apart.” It is used to show how we are “set apart” to God. The root word in Greek carrying this idea is also used in translated English words such as “holy,” or “holiness,” or “saint.” There are three primary aspects of a believer’s sanctification. Firstly, every believer is already holy in his “position” before God. This positional aspect of sanctification involves our position “in Christ,” our spiritual union with Him, based entirely upon His redemptive work in salvation (Heb. 10:10). We are already holy in our position before God. Thus, the NT often calls believers “saints.” However, this sanctification does not describe our “condition” – how we might be living at any given time. The second aspect of sanctification is our experiential sanctification, and it describes our spiritual condition in daily life. Such sanctification in our experience should be “progressive,” whereby we are progressing in holiness of life over time (Rom. 6:19; 1 Pet. 1:14-16). The final phase of sanctification is termed ultimate sanctification and points to the future when Christ returns and the believer is finally transformed to be like Christ.