This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the person at ground zero of that reformation is none other than Martin Luther. Do you know which book of the bible that brought Luther into a collision course with the Catholic Church? That would be the letter to the Galatians and Luther was so passionate about this short epistle that he actually said that he felt married to it. So what is the big idea and big deal about the book of Galatians? The wonderful people at the Bible Project have produced a short video that answers that question.
The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the believers in Galatia out of passion and frustration. To understand this it is important to understand the context by which Paul wrote it. At the time the letter was written, Christianity had grown from a Jewish messianic movement within Jerusalem to a movement that was reaching the broader Roman Empire. Inevitably there were as many non-Jews as Jewish people within the Jesus movement. This growth did not sit well with many Jews and sparked a significant debate on how gentiles (non-Jews) were to be incorporated into the Christian movement. There were many Jews who believed that gentiles needed to adhere to Jewish distinctives such as a kosher diet, circumcision, and observing the Sabbath. Some Jews actually went into churches and repudiated Paul’s message of justification by faith alone by demanding that gentile males be circumcised in order to be considered as part of God’s covenant people.
Paul is angry and saddened by this and does two things in the first two chapters of his letter. He defends his message and authority. His message of the gospel of the crucified Christ was not one he pulled out of thin air but rather from being commissioned by Christ Himself! Paul even recounts a moment when he even confronted Simon Peter for avoiding gentiles during a meal as a betrayal of the gospel. Paul adds more fire to his argument by stating clearly that people are not justified by the works of the Torah but rather by faith in Jesus the Messiah. To be justified is to be declared righteous and the reason it has to be “declared” is because we are to trust in what Jesus did for us, not for what we have done for ourselves. When people place their faith in the person and work of Jesus what is true of Him becomes what is true of them!
This beautiful exchange that occurs through Christ’s death and resurrection results in a new multi-ethnic family. Chapters 3 and 4 of Galatians answer the questions of who is involved in God’s family and what it means to live as a covenant family? By the use of his background in Judaism, Paul reminds the church at Galatia that the patriarch Abraham was justified by faith and that God’s ultimate purpose was to have a large multi-ethnic family who would relate to Him on the basis of faith (Gen 12:3; 22:14). If this is true then what is the purpose of the Law? Here again Paul reminds the Galatians that the law was always intended to be temporary and that the law had a negative and positive role. The negative aspect of the law was to provide a magnifying glass on the human sinfulness while the positive aspect of the law was to act as a tutor to prepare His people for the coming Messiah. This makes sense but one question remains. How will gentiles learn God’s will without the laws?
Paul spells out the answer to that question in chapters 5 and 6 by reminding the Galatian church that God produces change in people through the Spirit of Jesus. Though the laws are good and wise, in our sinfulness we have no power to obey them. Therefore we need His spiritual work within us to produce a life that is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is great news but this fruit needs cultivation and we are to continually prune our lives by forsaking sinful thoughts and behaviors and trusting His promises for us. As Paul put it, ““if we live by the spirit, we have to keep in step with the spirit (Gal 5:25)” In the end, Paul warns the Galatian Christians that the people trying to get others to do the works of the law in order to be justified were engaging in an adventure of missing the point. The real point is that the Gospel of the crucified Christ creates a new multi-ethnic family that is transformed by the Spirit.