Galatians: Background of the Epistle

In the whole bible, there is no more passionate, comprehensive, yet concise statement of the truth of the gospel than Galatians. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone. No work can earn salvation. We stand justified before God only through faith in Jesus Christ; nothing else will save us.
— Introduction in The Nelson Study Bible NKJV

Before we begin a study of the Book of Galatians, and any book of the bible, especially the epistles, we must discover the background it was written against. If we understand:

  • Where were the Galatian churches?
  • Who were the Galatians?
  • What were the circumstances of its writing?
    • What were the problems?
    • Are there any antagonists?

 

Where were the Galatian Churches

There is some debate as to where the churches were located. Are they in the northern part of the Roman province of Galatia where a group named the Gauls migrated from Europe to what is now Turkey? Are they resident in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia along the commerce highways? Most now agree that the Galatians were in the southern cities Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe where Paul planted churches along his missionary journeys. The concern between the two groups only sheds light on the year Paul wrote Galatians.

Who were the Galatians

If we conclude that the people were from the southern part of the province and lived mostly in the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe we can get a good overview. These people although coming from a pagan background had quite a bit of Grecian and Roman influence. Greek philosophy and Roman morality provided a higher ideals which could not be reconciled with the pagan superstitions.

When the Jewish synagogue entered into this part of Asia Minor the peoples in the region gathered to the higher thoughts and nobler intentions. They did not, however, adhere to the Jewish sacrificial system.

Into this religious atmosphere entered Paul, preaching the Gospel of Christ. Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. A salvation purchased by Jesus on the cross of Calvary. Paul preached grace throughout the region, establishing churches and discipling new converts as he traveled.

The Circumstances of the Letter

After Paul had left the region, a group of Jews infiltrated the churches and began to teach more was needed for saving faith. These foes were called Judiazers and their teaching created havoc with the true faith in the churches of Galatia.

In first century Israel there were two groups of Jews. A remnant demonstrated living faith in the sacrificial system that pointed to the future atoning sacrifice — Jesus. Examples of this group would be Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist and the virgin Mary. The majority went through the ritual of the Levitical system exercising no faith in the sacrifice but depended instead upon personal merit and good works for salvation. Examples of this group would be the Pharisees, Saducees, and Herodians. The Judiazers were from this latter, unsaved, group.

The Judiazers opposed the Gospel by teaching to depend on merits to obtain favor with God. First, circumcision was required. Second, one had to be a member of the nation of Israel. Third, they taught a position within the religious system obtained favor with God. And, fourthly, The Mosaic Law must be observed.

The two-pronged attack that the Judiazers thrust into the churches included, first, discrediting Paul as an apostle of Jesus thus undermining his authority to preach the Gospel and second, by substituting a salvation-by-works system for the doctrine of pure grace which Paul preached.

Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians to combat this threat to the Christian Church.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • Chapters 1 & 2 : Paul defends his apostleship and authority
  • Chapters 3 & 4 : Paul defends the doctrine of justification by faith alone without works
  • Chapters 5 & 6 : Paul exhorts the Galatians to live out their faith and liberty

This study is not meant to be exhaustive. On the contrary, for the Christian, it is hoped that this study will enlighten your eyes to the richness and clarity of the Bible and encourage more study. For the person who does not yet know Jesus Christ as Savior, this study will hopefully find you alerted to Christ and His appropriation of salvation for everyone. I challenge you to put your faith in the finished work of Christ for the saving of your soul, mind and body.