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This epistle was probably written by Paul (Gal. 1:1) about A.D. 57, on the third missionary journey from Ephesus during his two years of residence there. There is substantial basis, however, for the claim that it was written from Corinth, shortly before Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans. Dr. Lenski advances the theory that it was written from Corinth on the second missionary journey about April, A.D. 53. After Paul visited the Galatians, he discovered that the Judaizers had followed him and the churches were listening to them. Paul wrote this letter to counteract their message and to state clearly the gospel.
Paul visited the Galatian churches on each of his three missionary journeys. There is no mention in the epistle of another visit to the churches. This epistle was evidently Paul’s last word to these churches, written after he had visited them on his third missionary journey.
In the case of the Epistle to the Galatians, the people to whom it was sent are important, which is not always true with other epistles. Also, the destination of this book has given rise to what is known as the North Galatian and the South Galatian theories. It seems more reasonable to suppose that it was sent to the churches in the area Paul visited on his first missionary journey, but this does not preclude the possibility that it had a wider circulation, even as far north as Pessinus, Ancyra, and Tavium. I believe that Paul was writing to all the churches of Galatia. This area was large and prominent and many churches had been established there.
The word Galatians could be used either in an ethnographic sense, which would refer to the nationality of the people, or it could be used in a geographic sense, which would refer to the Roman province by that name. Regardless of the position which is taken, there was a common blood strain which identified people in that area where there was a mixture of population. The people for whom the province was named were Gauls, a Celtic tribe from the same stock which inhabited France. In the fourth century B.C. they invaded the Roman Empire and sacked Rome. Later they crossed into Greece and captured Delphi in 280 B.C. They were warlike people and on the move. At the invitation of Nikomedes I, King of Bithynia, they crossed over into Asia Minor to help him in a civil war. They soon established themselves in Asia Minor. They liked it there. The climate was delightful, and the country was beautiful. When I visited Turkey, I was pleasantly surprised to find how lovely it is along the Aegean and inland, also along the Mediterranean.
In 189 B.C. these Celtic tribes were made subjects of the Roman Empire and became a province. Their boundaries varied, and for many years they retained their customs and own language. They actually were blond Orientals. The churches Paul established on his first missionary journey were included at one time in the territory of Galatia, and this is the name which Paul would normally give to these churches.
These Gallic Celts had much of the same temperament and characteristics of the American population, that is, of those who came out of Europe or England. It is interesting to see what was said concerning my ancestors (and maybe yours). Many of these Germanic tribes were wild and fierce. Caesar said of them: “The infirmity of the Gauls is that they are fickle in their resolves, fond of change, and not to be trusted.” This description fits the majority of Americans in our day. We are fickle in our resolves. We are fond of change—we want a new car every year. We like to get the magazine that is dated next week. Another described them as “frank, impetuous, impressionable, eminently intelligent, fond of show, but extremely inconstant, the fruit of excessive vanity.” That is a picture of the American population today. A man runs for office and we vote for him. Then in four years we forget him. Do you remember who was president ten years ago? Or twenty years ago? We are fickle people, not very constant. I’m very happy that it was said we are eminently intelligent, because that’s what we think also. And the reason for our high estimation of ourselves is the fruit of excessive vanity.
In the Book of Acts we read that the Galatians wanted to make Paul a god one day, and the next day they stoned him. What do we do? We elect a man to the presidency and then we try to kill him in office. I think it is quite interesting that our system of government has survived as long as it has.
Therefore the Epistle to the Galatians has a particular message for us because it was written to people who were like us in many ways. They had a like temper, and they were beset on every hand by cults and “isms” innumerable—which takes us, likewise, from our moorings in the gospel of grace.
1. It is a stern, severe, and solemn message (see Gal. 1:6–9; 3:1–5). It does not correct conduct as the Corinthian letters do, but it is corrective. The Galatian believers were in grave peril because the foundations of their faith were being attacked—everything was threatened.
The epistle, therefore, contains no word of commendation, praise, or thanksgiving. There is no request for prayer, and there is no mention of their standing in Christ. No one with him is mentioned by name. If you compare this epistle with the other Pauline epistles, you will see that it is different.
2. In this epistle the heart of Paul the apostle is laid bare, and there is deep emotion and strong feeling. This is his fighting epistle—he has on his war paint. He has no toleration for legalism. Someone has said that the Epistle to the Romans comes from the head of Paul while the Epistle to the Galatians comes from the heart of Paul. A theologian has said, “Galatians takes up controversially what Romans puts systematically.”
3. This epistle is a declaration of emancipation from legalism of any type. It is interesting to note that legalists do not spend much time with Galatians. It is a rebuke to them. This was Martin Luther’s favorite epistle. He said, “This is my epistle. I am wedded to it.” It was on the masthead of the Reformation. It has been called the Magna Carta of the early church. It is the manifesto of Christian liberty, the impregnable citadel, and a veritable Gibraltar against any attack on the heart of the gospel. As someone put it, “Immortal victory is set upon its brow.”
This is the epistle that moved John Wesley. He came to America as a missionary to the Indians. But he made a startling discovery. He said, “I came to America to convert Indians, but who is going to convert John Wesley?” He went back to London, England, and was converted. When I was in London I had a guide take us to Aldersgate and we saw the marker that designates the place where John Wesley was converted. (His was called an “evangelical conversion,” which is the only kind of conversion the Bible speaks of.) John Wesley went out to begin a revival—preaching from this Epistle to the Galatians—that saved England from revolution and brought multitudes to a saving knowledge of Christ. Wilberforce, one of his converts, had a great deal to do with the matter of child labor and the Industrial Revolution that brought about changes for the working man.
In a sense I believe this epistle has been the backbone and background for every great spiritual movement and revival that has taken place in the past nineteen hundred years. And, my friend, it will be the background for other revivals. I would like to see the Spirit of God move in our land today. I would like to hear the Epistle to the Galatians declared to America. I believe it would revolutionize lives.
4. Galatians is the strongest declaration and defense of the doctrine of justification by faith in or out of Scripture. It is God’s polemic on behalf of the most vital truth of the Christian faith against any attack. Not only is a sinner saved by grace through faith plus nothing, but the saved sinner lives by grace. Grace is a way to life and a way of life. These two go together, by the way.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 46: Galatians. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)