Galatians: Context (Part 1 of 6)
Today I’m beginning a series on a book of the New Testament called Galatians. Each book of the Bible is indispensable and important in its own way and Galatians is no exception.
In fact, Galatians is a very important book for both professing Christians (people who think of themselves as followers of Christ) and for those who are at a point in their lives that they want absolutely nothing to do with self-righteous people, organized religion or the institutional church.
That’s because, in this book, God gives Christians the facts on what the Christian life is really all about—and helps those who aren’t Christians see that a lot of what is sometimes called the Church and that masquerades as Christian Faith actually has nothing to do with Jesus or with biblical Christianity. So, if you’re a Christian, a spiritual seeker or something in between, this study is for you— and I’m glad you’re reading.
Today, before I really get into the text of the book called Galatians, I want to help you understand the historical background that led to the writing of the book.
WHY? Why spend time on that? Because anytime you study ANY book of the Bible, you need to understand what led to and precipitated the writing of that book. Nothing happens in a vacuum. God doesn’t just inspire Scripture for no reason. There were goings on in the early days of Christianity—things that became of such a critical and serious nature that God Himself intervened and, through the agency and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, guided the Apostle Paul in the writing of this book.
The problem with that is that lots of people feel lost in the Bible, and studies like this often get a little confusing to people. For that reason, as I approach this study, I’m going to break it down into little, bite-sized pieces—and I’m going to explain it bit by bit, piece by piece and morsel by morsel, so nobody feels left in the dark. And I’m going to try to take the complex and sometimes complicated story of the Bible and New Testament and put it in plain language that I hope you can understand. And with that introduction, here we go!
The Old Testament Context
To understand Galatians, you must understand Judaism and the Old Testament. So that’s where I’m going to start, with a brief introduction of how the Bible and the book of Galatians fit together.
Judaism as an organized religion isn’t the first ‘organized’ religion in the history of the world, but the Judeo-Christian God (the God of the Bible) is the only God that Christians believe in and that is the one mentioned throughout the Bible. God is eternal and has always existed. That God created humanity and all that is. God established boundaries and expectations for people, which they broke and violated. God expelled them from His presence because of their disrespect and rebellion—because their actions proved they weren’t interested in having an intimate relationship with Him. Even though God allowed people to rebel, like a loving parent, He still loved them and pursued them with forgiveness and cared for and provided for them.
Fast forward: At a certain time in history (around 1450 BC), God established a holy covenant with a man named Abraham. Abraham had a child, Isaac. Isaac had two sons, one of whom was named Jacob. So the God of the Bible became known as the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Genesis 32:9). Jacob was later renamed Israel after a supernatural experience he had with God. Jacob, now Israel, had twelve sons, each of which had large families that, over time, became clans, then tribes. Generally speaking (and this is oversimplified and not exactly the way it occurred), the dozen sons of Jacob/Israel became the Twelve Tribes of Israel. God wanted to honor the agreement He had with the descendents of His follower, Abraham. They had been enslaved over the centuries that followed by Egypt (Exodus 2:23-25). God then rescued them from Egypt and gave them a parcel of land (called the Holy Land) that He had promised to them hundreds of years earlier.
They later became a nation under God—known as the nation of Israel (comprised of the twelve tribes of Israel)—and they were governed by God’s Law—that is, the Old Covenant, and namely, the Ten Commandments. And when they broke the Law, they had to make blood offerings to God (Leviticus 1-7) to show sorrow for their sins and make restitution to God for what they’d done. Later, the nation had a break up, and what remained were two smaller nations—one named the nation of Judah (which was comprised of the tribe of Judah, namely the Jewish people). God then continued to interact with them, to have His Will done on earth through that Covenant people.
The New Testament Context
Ultimately the Jewish people, as a whole, failed to keep their end of the deal, leading to a New Covenant— meaning God established an additional covenant with a new group of people, in order for His Will to be done on earth. The original people He made this covenant with (John 12) were the Jews—but were told to include all people, particularly Gentiles (Matthew 28). So while the Old Covenant was with the Jewish people as an ethnic group, the New Covenant still honored that covenant (Romans 9-11), but introduced all non-Jews, called Gentiles, into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
How does this work? Well, instead of breaking the Law and making offerings of animals, Christians trust in Jesus Christ who made HIMSELF an offering for sin which is why He died on the cross. After Christ was murdered and then resurrected from the dead, the church sprang into existence. That meant Christians would no longer make offerings and do all of the things written in the Old Testament (like be circumcised as a young child or man, make animal offerings, keep certain dietary or eating regulations, and so on). All of those things became obsolete when Christ did His work (Hebrews 8:8-18).
In Jerusalem, at a Jewish holiday called Pentecost, a few weeks after the resurrection, the Christian movement as we know it today sprang into existence and Christian bodies/churches—groups of Christians meeting together (I’m not talking about churches as-in ‘buildings’) began to be established everywhere. Over time, those churches spread throughout the then-Roman Empire. They first began as Jewish followers of Jesus (in Jerusalem, Samaria and Jewish communities elsewhere), but in time churches were established among Gentiles too—just as Christ had told them to do.
The Pauline Context
The leader who helped Gentiles (non-Jews like many of us) become introduced to Jesus was a Jewish leader named the Apostle Paul. The primary leader who helped Jewish people find Christ was the Apostle Peter as well as James, the half brother of Jesus.
But understand this—because this is part of the key to understanding the Book of Galatians— In some churches, there were both Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Not only were they different ethnicities and nationalities, but were from totally different cultures, and the Jews were known to have a great sense of pride about their heritage as God’s people. But now, as you know, God was including Gentiles in His plan—like He had ALWAYS wanted to, but the Jews failed to do. Some Jews were jealous that God had included the Gentiles in His New Covenant—and were resistant to non-Jews coming to Jesus in the New Covenant (Acts 14:45-47).This ongoing struggle led to the situation in churches in the area of the world known as Galatia (basically current day Turkey).
In the New Testament, after the life and times of Jesus appears (in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), there is a short history of the early church (Act.s) and then the letters to the churches begin. Those letters are called ‘epistles’ because an epistle was a type of letter writing technique at that time. Paul wrote many epistles—letters—to Christian believers, some Jewish believers and some Gentile believers. Here, in Galatians, we read of a church with both. They were having problems understanding what the New Covenant really meant—and what God expected of people. There was a sharp disagreement about that, and it was confusing people about the truth.
Today, people are also confused about the truth. Why? Because Churches are often confused too. In the next few weeks, we’ll discover the real truth about the Christian message—and it’ll help both Christians and seekers understand what the message of Jesus really was and is.