During this time, Paul wrote a letter to his friends in the churches of Galatia, the larger region of Turkey encompassing all the places he & Barnabas had visited on their extended mission trip (269).
Paul had learned that — in Turkish Antioch & the rest of Galatia, as in Syrian Antioch — certain Jews were trying to have it both ways. They claimed to be Christians, but they also insisted on keeping the law of Moses which was the foundation of Jewish faith.
These Jews were trying to persuade Galatian Gentile believers first to become Jews — in order, as they said, to become complete Christians. Their initial appeal was for the new Gentile believers to be circumcised, just like the Jews. But then they also appealed for the new believers to follow other parts of the Mosaic law — such as keeping certain feasts & holy days — just like the Jews.
Paul was very worried about his new Galatian brothers & sisters in Christ. His letter to them emphasized that salvation from God’s punishment for our sins comes by God’s grace, through living faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation cannot come by keeping the law of Moses, apart from living faith in Jesus.
Paul recalled a particular incident in which he had corrected Peter for the same error that was now tempting the Galatian believers. Peter had been enjoying an extended period of fellowship with the Gentile believers in Syrian Antioch. But when a delegation of Jewish believers came from Jerusalem, Peter had separated himself from the Gentile believers & begun to fellowship exclusively with the Jewish believers. Paul thought this was two-faced, and he had called Peter on it in public.
In his letter, Paul challenged the same hypocrisy of the Galatian believers. He presented a compelling scriptural argument that we can’t have it both ways; we can’t be legalistic Jews & faithful Christians at the same time.
In our day, it would be like saying that we can’t be saved from an eternity in hell by obeying any religious rules – regardless of which “church” is trying to impose those rules on us. We can only be saved & assured of eternity in heaven, by trusting Jesus as our savior & obeying Jesus as our master. In other words, we not only have to believe what Jesus teaches, but we also have to do what Jesus teaches. Paul referred to doing what Jesus teaches as “faith working in love.”
The only way this is possible, said Paul, is for us to surrender our entire lives to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit. Our human nature is essentially selfish; only God’s Spirit can make us unselfish. When we are born again by God’s Spirit into new life, we must then let God’s Spirit control that new life.
Paul listed some of the many sordid sins that result when we are ruled by the desires of our flesh. These were contrasted with some of the many virtues that result when we are ruled by God’s Spirit. Foremost among these virtues is love — which expresses itself variously as joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness & self-control — all known together as the fruit of the Spirit.
Our love for God is shown when we love other people & help them bear their burdens in life. Paul said that it simply doesn’t matter if a person is circumcised or not. All that matters is if we live by “faith working in love.” In other words, we have to show our love for God by loving other people.
Paul’s bottom line in his letter to the Galatian believers was essentially this:
- We are freed from trying to live by the letter of the law of Moses, when we accept the impossibility of ever doing that in the strength of our sinful flesh.
- We are freed to begin living by the spirit of the law of Moses, when we faithfully submit to the leading of God’s Spirit & rely on the strength of God’s Spirit to love other people.
(269) This letter is known simply as Galatians; some believe it may have been written several years later.