The Epistle to the Galatians


We study to-day the Epistle to the Galatians. Galatia constituted a large part of central Asia Minor. It had large cities—Pessinus, Ancyra, Tavium, and Iconium. At Pessinus there was the temple of the goddess Cybele, the most widely revered of all pagan divinities; and at Ancyra there was the temple of Augustus and Rome. But the Galatians, to whom the apostle wrote his Epistle, were not scattered through all that Roman Province of Galatia; they belonged to the region of the Gauls, in the northwestern part of Galatia. With Moffatt, in the " Encyclopedia Brittannica," 1 r : 394, I hold to the North Galatian, rather than to the South Galatian, theory as to locality.1

It is very interesting to observe that Galati and Gauls are the same thing. Galati, Galli, Gauls are all one. It may surprise you at first to have these people in northwestern Asia Minor identified with the Gauls of France and the west bank of the Rhine; but so it is, and modern ethnological and genealogical research has brought this fact to light. This fact helps us very much to understand the Epistle which we are studying to-day.

In general we may say that the migration of nations has been from the east to the west. Wave after wave went westward from Central Asia, until at last each wave broke upon the coast of the ocean. Wave after wave went westward, but there were some refluent waves. There was occasionally a backward movement. Although the tide generally flowed from the east to the west, there was occasionally an ebb-tide; and such an ebb-tide in this advance of population gave rise to the settlement of this portion of Asia Minor by the Gauls. Repulsed perhaps by the chilly climate and almost impenetrable forests, some of these Gauls turned back from the west bank of the Rhine and marched in a southeasterly direction, probably in order that they might find a warmer climate and more fertile soil.

1 Moffatt's words are: "The identification of Gal. a : x-xo with Acts xx : 28 f.. and not with Acts 15. appears quite untenable, while a fair exegesis of Acts x6 : 1-6 implies a distinction between such towns as Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium on the one hand, and the Galatian Ywpa w'tn Phrygia upon the other." Moffatt's view is also held by Schmiedel, in his article on Galatians, in the "Encyclopaedia Biblica"; and by Gilbert, in his " Student's Life of Paul."

They were warlike and freedom-loving; they made their attempt to conquer Greece; and from Greece they were repulsed. Having been repulsed from Greece, they seem still to have pursued their march in a southeasterly direction until, invited by Nicomedes, King of Bithynia, in Asia Minor, they crossed the Hellespont, conquered the central portion of Asia Minor, and there took up their permanent abode.

These Gauls, half-barbarians as they were, were the scourge and terror of Asia Minor for almost half a century; but Greeks settled among them in so great numbers that the region began to be called GalloGraecia. And Jews settled among them, because this country was in direct line of the caravan route from the East to the West. The Jew had ever in mind the purpose of trade. The Greeks and the Jews gradually mixed with the original Gallic and barbarian population, until at last they became more quiet and civilized and more settled in their habits.

This invasion of which I have spoken, and the conquest of central Asia Minor by the Gauls, took place in the year 280 before Christ. A century after that time, having become much more civilized and probably considerably less warlike, they were subdued by the power of the Romans in 187. They submitted to the Romans, and in the year 26 before Christ this region became the Roman Province of Galatia.

This fact of the Gallic origin of the Galatians throws a good deal of light upon the characteristics of the people. The Gauls were modern French. The French are the representatives of the ancient Gauls. It is astonishing how national types persist not only from one generation to another, but from one century and from one millennium to another. From the very beginning the Gallic nation has been noted as impulsive and inconstant. Caesar spoke, even in his day, when he came in conflict with them in Gaul, of their mobility and levity of mind. In other words, they were distinguished then, as they have been distinguished ever since, for instability and fickleness. They had what has sometimes been called the fatal gift of fascination. They were mobile of temperament, they were attractive in manner, they had gifts of eloquence, they were easily impressed; but, alas, they very quickly lost the impression that had been made upon them, and they were also prone to peculiar kinds and forms of religion. Caesar, in addition to what I have said with regard to their natural characteristics, declares that they were a race excessively devoted to outward observances. In other words, a spirit not too persevering and rather superficial, easily excited and moved, was more prone to accept the outward forms of religion than it was to take strong hold of its inner substance; and so we find that from early times down to the present that race has been noted for its love of showy and ceremonial observances, for its willingness to follow the lead of hierarchy, for its submission to the external claims of priests, and for its domination by a selfglorifying spirit.

These being the characteristics of the Galatians, those ancient Frenchmen, we can see how peculiarly adapted the soil was for the seed that came to be planted in it.

A few words with regard to the early history of the church in Galatia will be necessary, in order to understand the Epistle which Paul wrote. It is very surprising that in the Acts we have almost no mention of the apostle's first visit to Galatia, and we have absolutely no mention of his second visit to Galatia. Luke tells us simply that they went through the region of Galatia; but he does not tell us that Paul preached there, nor does he tell us that any churches were founded there. Is this silence on the part of Luke (which substantially is the silence of Paul, of whom Luke is the interpreter) due to the fact that the church so soon and so quickly swerved from the truth, and made both Paul and Luke willing to say just as little about it as possible? So it may be. At any rate, it is mainly from the Epistle to the Galatians itself that we know the circumstances under which the church was originally founded.

It seems that during Paul's second missionary journey, in the year 51 or 52, the apostle, not from any desire of his own, but quite contrary to his will, was detained in this region of Galatia by a serious illness. It is exceedingly probable that he found shelter and nursing in some Jewish family; and since a man like the apostle Paul felt that he was a debtor both to the Jew and the barbarian, there can be no question whatever that he began to preach. And although it was not his intention to remain there long, his preaching seems to have been accompanied by the power of God, and both Jews and Gentiles began to be converted to Christ; in fact, they received his gospel with great joy; and the apostle, in the Epistle to the Galatians, looks back to that time, to his first warm reception among them, with the deepest emotion. He makes mention of their earnest love for him, and their willingness, if it were necessary, to pluck out their own eyes and give to him.

Some have thought that the "thorn in the flesh," with which the apostle was afflicted, was a continuous and painful disease of the eyes, so that it could be said that his bodily appearance was weak; and some have connected this disease of the eyes with that vision of the Saviour on the way to Damascus, when the glory of the Lord smote him on the face and there was left, even upon his physical system, such a sign or mark of this miraculous turning of the apostle to God as was a permanent reminder of what he had been in the past, and of the great change that had come over him.

He says in the Epistle to the Galatians, "You would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me." Some think we have an allusion to the very trouble or malady with which Paul was afflicted when, at the close of the Epistle, he says: " Ye see with how large letters I have written unto you with my own hand." The subscription of the letter is written by the apostle himself, whereas all the earlier portion of the Epistle is written by an amanuensis. Paul only certifies that the Epistle comes from himself and no other. In spite of his eyes he writes the last words of the Epistle; but, because of this trouble with his eyes, he writes with a large hand, just as one does that is partially blind.

Whatever may have been this " thorn in the flesh," and whatever the value of this explanation which I have given, it certainly is true that the apostle was laid aside there for some time; that he preached the gospel there; that he was received with the utmost gladness; that he made many converts. Those converts were probably first of all from among the Jews. The nucleus was a Jewish nucleus; and afterward there were many converts from among the Gentiles.

Paul visited this same church two years after, in the year 53 or 54; but we infer from certain passages in the Epistle to the Galatians that he was received with comparative coldness on his second visit; that he recognized certain evil tendencies in the church, against which he was compelled earnestly to warn the Galatian Christians. But it was not until he reached Ephesus, and began his three years' stay in that city (which lasted from the year 54 to the year 57), and not until some time in the year 54, a number of months after he had taken his departure from Galatia at his second visit, it was not until then that news came to him that, in spite of his urgent warnings and his recent visit, a large number of these Galatian Christians had given way to Judaizing teachers who had come among them, trying to persuade them that they must be Jews first in order to become real Christians. The whole church, indeed, was in danger of going over to the enemy and of permanently forsaking the Christ. These Judaizing teachers claimed that they were the special representatives of the Twelve; they claimed that Paul was not a real apostle, because he was not one of the original Twelve, and had not had personal intercourse with Christ in the flesh; and their opposition to him was violent opposition. They claimed that, in order that one might be an equal member in the church of the Messiah, and be a full partaker of the benefits of the Messianic salvation, he must be incorporated with the people to whom the Messiah came. In other words, they claimed that he must be circumcised, must submit himself wholly to the Jewish law and become a Jew, in order that he might be truly a Christian. And all this was an entire contradiction and direct disobedience to the decree of the Apostolic Council at Jerusalem.

Such news as this from Galatia must have stirred the apostle's heart. He felt that all his work there was being undone; he felt that those who were engaged in such preaching, and those who were yielding to their influence were casting behind them all faith in Christ, and in danger of losing their souls. So Paul writes to the Galatians this Epistle, which is intended to check these errors and bring back his converts to the truth.

The Epistle, then, was written about the year 54, perhaps in the early part of the year 54; written, therefore, two or three years before the Epistle to the Corinthians was written, and even before the Epistle to the Romans was written. And yet the object of the Epistle was to touch almost the same general point of controversy that is treated in the Epistle to the Romans. Some one has called the Epistle to the Galatians a rough draft of the Epistle to the Romans. Another one has said that the Epistle to the Galatians is a study of a single figure which was afterward, in the Epistle to the Romans, wrought out into a group. Each of these statements gives a comparatively correct idea of the relation of the Epistle to the Galatians to the Epistle to the Romans.

But there is a better illustration to be drawn from the course of a stream which has its origin in the mountains. You can imagine a mountain torrent going down from rock to rock and dashing its way along through ravine and gully, with tremendous force and energy, and then at last gliding with comparative calmness and quietness through the open plain. The same strength of doctrine, the same strength of tone which, in the Epistle to the Galatians, is like the tremendous, rushing mountain torrent we see making its way smoothly through the Epistle to the Romans as through the open plain. The stream is the same, the doctrine is the same; but the manner of utterance in the one case is very different from the manner of utterance in the other. The characteristics of the Epistle to the Galatians are quite different from the characteristics of the other Epistles of Paul.

In the first place, there is a oneness of purpose in the Epistle to the Galatians that you find in scarcely any of the other Epistles. There is one subject from the beginning to the end. Indeed, it differs exceedingly from the Epistle to the Corinthians. In that Epistle there were at least ten different practical matters, practical errors, which do not seem to have been connected by any common basis of falsehood; and the apostle had to treat them one by one; but here among the Galatians there was just one error which he had to meet, and he devoted himself to that from the beginning to the close.

Again, this Epistle to the Galatians is characterized by a uniform severity, such as you find in no other Epistle of Paul. It is very different, for example, from the Epistle to the Philippians. In that Epistle, with the exception of a few slight cautions, you find almost nothing but commendation. He would have the love of the Philippians abound more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; and he would repress certain tendencies to disunion and jealousy among them; but yet, on the whole, the Epistle to the Philippians is a commendatory Epistle; there is almost nothing in the church which he would reprove. But this Epistle to the Galatians contains no commendation. There are no salutations and there is almost no praise; there is almost continuous reproof from beginning to end. And yet, notwithstanding this comparatively uniform severity in this Epistle, the severity is mixed with tenderness. There are no personalities; there are no personal allusions in the way of reproof. No names of false teachers are mentioned; and, every now and then, the apostle's reproof seems to break into a tone of fatherly affection and remorse that is exceedingly pathetic. He says: "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again, until Christ be formed in you." He seems almost to speak from a breaking heart, and the tears seem to fall as he writes, so that, in speaking of the severity of the Epistle, it is evident that it is the severity of a loving heart. It is all meant to bring them back to Christ.

What the effect of the Epistle was we do not know. Whether the Galatians repented of their errors and gave up their wrong views we do not know. The last we know of them is what is told in the Epistle itself. As a matter of fact, we find, in church history, that that portion of Asia Minor was in after times a sort of nursery and hotbed of heresy. The Montanists, Ophites, Manichaeans, Sabellians, and Arians had their strong advocates and defenders there. And yet the Christians could not have been entirely rooted out, because we also have evidence that here, in these several churches of Galatia, many Christians endured persecution bravely, and many of these very churches made a brave fight in the last struggle between Christianity and paganism. So we may believe that, although some fell away to their destruction, Christian faith did not wholly die out, and the apostle's letter was not absolutely in vain.

With regard, now, to the course of thought in the Epistle. There is a course of thought, and it is very marked, although the unity of the treatment is singular, distinguishing this Epistle, perhaps, from all the other Epistles of Paul. There is one aim and object in it all: namely, to show that it is not by law, not by works of righteousness that man can do, that he is to be saved, but simply by faith in Jesus Christ. O

The apostle treats his subject in three different parts, and those parts are so nearly coincident with double chapters that they are very easy to remember. There is, first, the personal part—a personal narrative; there is, secondly, a doctrinal part—he enforces his doctrine; and then, thirdly, there is a hortatory—or admonitory part. The personal part occupies, roughly speaking, the first two chapters; the doctrinal part occupies the next two chapters, and the hortatory part occupies the last two chapters; and since there are only six chapters in all, you can see that the Epistle is divided into three parts of two chapters each. But in this rough way we can remember it more easily. There is just this qualification: The first part does not end at the end of the second chapter, but it does end at the fourteenth verse of the second chapter. That is all the qualification that would have to be made. You must begin the second part then, the doctrinal part, with the second chapter and fifteenth verse; but, with that single exception, this rough division will be a perfectly true one.

In the first part of the Epistle the apostle gives a personal narrative, and what is the object of it? Why, the object is to vindicate his apostolic authority. He claims that he himself has been called of God; that being called of God, he has the authority of God in his work (that, of course, was necessary in dealing with the Galatians); and that those were false teachers who were leading them astray. He shows that he received his gospel directly from God, through Jesus Christ, and that he did not receive it from the Twelve, the original apostles. He did not receive it from man at all. It came to him by the revelation of Jesus Christ, and he shows that the Twelve recognized this fact. He went up to Jerusalem and the Twelve did not assume any authority over him, as if they were his superiors and had sources of information which he had not. He shows how, of the Twelve, James and Peter, the pillars of the church at Jerusalem, gave him the right hand of fellowship; recognized his perfect equality as an apostle of Jesus Christ; and bade him Godspeed in going to the Gentiles, as they were to work among the Jews. And then Paul shows how he suffers nothing in comparison; that the apostle Peter at one time, when he was at Antioch, plainly went astray, not by preaching wrongly, but by refusing to follow his own teachings; that he, Paul, rebuked Peter to his face, and that Peter had to put up with the rebuke and had to change his course. In this way Paul proves plainly that he was not inferior to Peter, but was on a level with the very chief of the apostles.

Having proved his divine calling and apostolic authority, he can go on to the second portion of his Epistle, the doctrinal portion. His object is to show that man cannot be saved by law, or obedience to law, or works of law, but must be saved by simple faith in Jesus, by laying hold of Jesus Christ the only Saviour of the sinner. He declares that the law is not intended to be the way of salvation for sinners. It might be a way of salvation for man if he had not fallen and he were perfectly able to obey it; but just so soon as man has sinned he cannot come up to the standard of the law, and he cannot be saved by his own works. And as he cannot be saved by law he must be saved simply by faith. After he has fallen into a state of sin, the law is given him simply to reveal to him his sin and lead him to Jesus Christ.

An illustration which occurred to me many years ago will make this very plain. The law is our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believeth.

Some years ago I went on a sleeping-car to Detroit. I awoke in the morning, after a night's sleep, and I found the car had stopped, and we seemed to have reached the end of our journey. I arose; I went out of the car; and to my immense astonishment I found that the car was right on the edge of an abyss. We were on a dock; our car was on the rails, and the rails went right to the edge of the water. There they stopped. A little movement might have precipitated us into the river; and I wondered that we should be in such a position, until I saw a great ferryboat coming up to the dock. On the boat there were rails, and the rails on the boat matched the rails on the dock. Our car was pushed over on the boat, and the boat and car together went across the Detroit River. In a little while we were in Detroit. That boat was the end of the track for getting us over the river; and just so Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. Just as that track on the dock depended on the boat as the only way by which it was to be completed, just so the law, with its track laid down for us to run on, points to Christ, its completion, as the only thing that can furnish the end toward which it looks. The law can never save us, any more than the rails oh the dock could have gotten me over the river to Detroit. The law can never save me, but Christ can. The law points me to Christ, and the object of the law to the sinner is simply to show him that he cannot save himself, and that he must look to Christ alone for salvation.

The last portion of the Epistle, the hortatory portion, sums all this up, and tells men that if they turn their backs upon Christ then they turn their backs upon salvation; that if they give themselves up to the law as the way of salvation they will be under obligations to do everything that the law commands; that they cannot be saved at all by law without perfect obedience to God; and that no one can present such perfect obedience. Then there are mentioned harmony, love, forbearance, and patience, as duties of the Christian, and with the mention of these the Epistle is closed.

Is it not a singular fact that there was such strife in the early churches with regard to doctrine? I have sometimes thought these strifes were permitted in the early church in order that we might have less strife among us; in order that some questions might be settled once and for all; in order that we might be freed from trouble and perplexity with regard to them.

Baur, the skeptic, thought Christianity itself originated in this strife. Ah, no; there was strife simply because there was something to strive over; there was a historical gospel for which Paul was fighting; and the strife originated simply because there was error coming in, which threatened to reduce to a new slavery those who had found liberty in Christ Jesus.

And so Luther found in this Epistle to the Galatians, upon which he wrote his celebrated commentary, his chief engine in the great Reformation in Germany. He was so attached to this Epistle, it seemed to him so to express his own heart, he felt so deeply the value and need of it, that he called the Epistle to the Galatians "his wife." It was something as dear to him as life, something to which he was bound for all time; and he made the Epistle to the Galatians the source of a very large portion of his texts and his sermons.

In every generation of the Christian church there have been those who have been prone to precisely the errors that Paul is inveighing against in this Epistle. Ritualism everywhere is a revival of the evil which Paul denounces in the Galatians. Ritualism in its essence is the putting of some work, or ordinance, or performance of man, side by side with the simple work and power of Jesus Christ, as a means of salvation. Ritualism is some external ceremony, or ordinance, or work that man can do, as an addition to the one perfect sacrifice and atonement of Jesus Christ.

It is a very curious fact, is it not, that these two Epistles, the Galatians and the Romans—these antiJudaizing Epistles—were written to precisely those people whom history has shown to have had the greatest tendency to these errors? Now, the Romans was written to whom? Why, to the Romans. And who is it, in history, that has been the greatest exponent of this Judaistic tendency, this putting works side by side with Christ as a means of salvation? Why, it is the Roman church. Paul seems, by prophetic insight, to have recognized where this tendency was to be the strongest, and so to have written his Epistle against this tendency to the Romans.

And, again, the Epistle that strives to win men over from inconstancy and fickleness to simple trust in Jesus Christ is written to whom? Why, it is written to Frenchmen. It is written to the Galatians, for the Galatians were the early French, the Galati, the Gauls.

The nations which have shown the strongest tendency to these errors are just those which Paul has singled out to be the object of these Epistles.

Remember the Old Testament law is outlawed. Men cannot be saved by works. Why seek the living among the dead? Why go back to the sepulcher in order to find our Christ? The Christian has a new life in Christ Jesus; and it is a new life given to us upon the simple condition of trusting in our risen Lord. Faith in him, and nothing but faith in him, is the way of life and salvation; and, therefore, what we need most of all is to take to our hearts this one great lesson, that unless we trust in Christ we can have no peace inwardly and no certainty of salvation. If works must mingle with Christ's methods as the way of salvation, no one can possibly have a sufficient and solid ground of confidence, because no one can point to works that are absolutely perfect.

Let us, then, once more confirm our faith in Jesus Christ, and in the sole efficiency and sufficiency of his way of mercy and salvation, by our study of Paul's Epistle to the Galatians.