A Brief Bible History/Section 2/Lesson 20

LESSON XX

The Third Missionary Journey. The Epistle to the Galatians

At Corinth, on the second missionary journey, the Jews made charges before the Roman proconsul Gallio against Paul. But Gallio dismissed the charges as concerning only the Jewish Law. It was an important decision. Judaism was tolerated in the Roman Empire, and if Christianity was regarded as a variety of Judaism it would be tolerated too. Such was usually the practice of the Roman authorities in the very early days; the Roman authorities often protected the Christian missionaries against the Jews.

Finally leaving Corinth, Paul went by way of Ephesus, where he made only a brief stay, to Palestine and then back to Syrian Antioch.

Acts 18:23 to 21:15

After having spent some time at Syrian Antioch, he started out on his third missionary journey. Acts 18:23 to 21:15. First he went through Asia Minor to Ephesus, apparently passing through Galatia proper on his way. At Ephesus he spent about three years.

The Epistle to the Galatians

It was probably during this Ephesian residence that Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians; and probably "the churches of Galatia" to which the Epistle is addressed were churches in Galatia proper in the northern part of the great Roman province Galatia. Another view regards the Epistle as being addressed to the well-known churches at Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, which were in the southern part of the Roman province. When this view is adopted, the writing of the Epistle is usually put at a somewhat earlier time in the life of Paul.

The occasion for the writing of the Epistle to the Galatians can easily be discovered on the basis of the letter itself. After Paul had left Galatia, certain other teachers had come into the country. These teachers were men of the Jewish race, and they are usually called "Judaizers." What they taught can be established fairly well on the basis of Paul's answer to them. They agreed with Paul in believing that Jesus was truly the Messiah, and that he had risen from the dead. Apparently they had no objection to Paul's doctrine of the deity of Christ, and they agreed, apparently, that faith in Christ is necessary to salvation. But they maintained that something else is also necessary to salvation—namely, union with the nation of Israel and the keeping of the Mosaic Law. The Judaizers, then, maintained that a man is saved by faith and works; whereas Paul maintained that a man is saved by faith alone.

The Galatian Christians had been impressed by what the Judaizers had said. Already they had begun to observe some of the Jewish fasts and feasts. And they were on the point of taking the decisive step of uniting themselves definitely with the people of Israel and undertaking the observance of the Mosaic Law. It was to keep them from taking that decisive step that Paul wrote the Epistle.

At first sight the question at issue might seem to have little importance to-day. No one in the Church nowadays is in danger of uniting himself with Israel or undertaking to keep the ceremonial law. If Paul had treated the question in Galatia in a merely practical way, his letter would be of no value to us. But as a matter of fact Paul did not treat the question in a merely practical way; he treated it as a question of principle. He saw clearly that what was really endangered by the propaganda of the Judaizers was the great principle of grace; the true question was whether salvation is to be earned partly by what man can do or whether it is an absolutely free gift of God.

That question is just as important in the modern Church as it was in Galatia in the first century. There are many in the modern Church who maintain that salvation is obtained by character, or by men's own obedience to the commands of Christ, or by men's own acceptance of Christ's ideal of life. These are the modern Judaizers. And the Epistle to the Galatians is directed against them just as much as it was directed against the Judaizers of long ago.

Paul refuted the Judaizers by establishing the meaning of the cross of Christ. Salvation, he said, was obtained simply and solely by what Christ did when he died for the sins of believers. The curse of God's law, said Paul, rests justly upon all men, for all men have sinned. That curse of the law brings the penalty of death. But the Lord Jesus, the eternal Son of God, took the penalty upon himself by dying instead of us. We therefore go free.

Such is the gospel of Jesus Christ as preached by Paul, and as defended in the Epistle to the Galatians. That gospel, Paul said, is received by faith. Faith is not a meritorious act; it simply means accepting what Christ has done. It cannot be mingled with an appeal to human merit. Christ will do everything or nothing. Either accept as a free gift what Christ has done, or else earn salvation by perfect obedience. The latter alternative is impossible because of sin; the former, therefore, alone can make a man right with God.

But acceptance of the saving work of Christ means more than salvation from the guilt of sin; it means more than a fresh start in God's favor. It means also salvation from the power of sin. All men, according to Paul, are dead in sin. Salvation, then, can come only by a new creation, as Paul calls it, or, as it is called elsewhere in the New Testament, a new birth. That new creation is wrought by the saving work of Christ, and applied by the Holy Spirit. And after the new creation has been wrought, there is a new life on the basis of it. In the new life there is still a battle against sin. But the Christian has received a new power, the power of the Holy Spirit. And when he yields himself to that new power, he fulfills in its deepest import the law of God. Only he fulfills it not by obedience in his own strength to a law which is outside of him, but by yielding to a power which God has placed in his heart. This new fulfillment of the law on the part of Christians is what Paul means when he speaks of "faith working through love"; for love involves the fulfillment of the whole law.

Such was the gospel of Paul as it is set forth in the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul had received it from the Lord Jesus Christ. Without it the Church is dead. It need not be put in long words, but it must be proclaimed without the slightest concession to human pride, if the Church is to be faithful to the Saviour who died. We deserved eternal death; the Lord Jesus, because he loved us, died in our stead—there is the heart and core of Christianity.

QUESTIONS ON LESSON XX

  1. Describe Paul's first visit to Corinth.
  2. Where did Paul go at the beginning of the third missionary journey?
  3. What was the occasion for the writing of the Epistle to the Galatians?
  4. What great principle is defended in the Epistle? What is the meaning of the death of Christ? What is the meaning of "justification by faith"?
  5. Give an outline of the Epistle, showing the three great divisions.
  6. Why does Paul give, in the first part of the Epistle, a review of certain facts in his life?