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Paul's letter to the Galatians was probably written in 57 A.D. during his third missionary journey. Paul spent three years in Ephesus (54-57 A.D.) during that missionary journey, but then made a quick trip to Macedonia (Acts 20:1), where he wrote his letter to the Galatians. He then went to Jerusalem, where he was arrested and detained for a few years.
In reading the book of Acts, it is clear that much of Paul's ministry was spent refuting the idea that non-Jews were less equal in the sight of God than Jews. As Orwell wrote in the 1950's with such great irony, “All men are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” Paul's teaching on equality greatly antagonized the Jews but was a cause of great rejoicing among the Greek converts to Judaism.
Paul (and Barnabas) always went to the synagogues first, in order to give them the first opportunity to hear the Gospel. It seems that the Jews were interested in the Gospel of Christ until Paul and Barnabas showed that “there is no difference” between Jew and Greek insofar as one's position in Christ or in relation to the Covenants of God. At that point most of the Jews exploded in anger, often attempting to kill the apostles. (See, for example, Acts 13:47-50 and Acts 22:21, 22.)
Paul also ran into problems among the Jewish Christians who attempted to remain in good standing in the synagogues and in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple had a dividing wall in its outer court. Only Jewish men could come into the inner court to be “nearer to God,” while all non-Jewish proselytes and women were consigned to the outer portion of the courtyard.
The actual sign on the temple wall was discovered by M. Ganneau in 1871. It reads:
“No Gentile may enter beyond the dividing wall into the court around the Holy Place; whoever is caught will be to blame for his subsequent death.”
Paul wrote of this dividing wall in Ephesians 2:14-18,
14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace... 18 for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
The dividing wall in the Temple was the great symbol of inequality and “enmity” between Jews and Greeks in their approach to God. Being situated about ten feet higher than the “Court of the Gentiles,” it instilled in the Jewish mind the idea that they were more beloved of God, that they enjoyed a higher status as “chosen” ones, and that by virtue of their race they enjoyed greater privilege than other men. Paul made it clear that Christ abolished that dividing wall in order to reconcile the two groups making peace by the unity of the Spirit. Both groups had equal access to God.
The mother Church in Jerusalem, led by James, the earthly brother of Jesus, considered itself to be a sect of Judaism, rather than a distinct movement. Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, wrote in his Ecclesiastical History, II, xxiii, that James was called “The Righteous” even by all the devout but non-Christian Jews in Jerusalem. James was a Nazarite, and thus, as Eusebius says,
“He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen.” [Lessons in Church History, Vol. I, ch. 25.]
The Jerusalem Church tried very hard to maintain good relations with the Temple, but in the end, James was martyred at the Temple in 62 A.D. for his testimony of Jesus. When the Temple was destroyed a few years later (70 A.D.), the Christian dependence upon the Temple was broken, and Paul's view of equality prevailed. This lasted until Darby began to preach Dispensationalism in 1850, a view which gradually began to rebuild the dividing wall and re-establish the Jews as being more privileged than other believers.
The book of Galatians was written within the context of the Jewish opposition to his missionary efforts. Further, Paul was being opposed by “Judaizers” who worked hard to maintain Christianity as a sect of Judaism and to remain in fellowship with the temple. They continued to sacrifice animals and to observe all the rituals of the Old Covenant manner of worship. The only real dispute they had with the priests was whether or not Jesus was the true Messiah.
Paul alludes to his personal conflict with the Judaizers in Gal. 1:6, saying that they teach “a different gospel.” They “want to distort the gospel of Christ.” He then proceeds to refute it in the rest of the letter.
This is the core purpose of the book of Galatians. Paul and Barnabas stood on one side, the Judaizers with “a different gospel” opposed them, and the vacillating Galatians stood in the middle, pulled by both sides, trying to figure out whose gospel was genuine. The Judaizers seemed to have an advantage in that they claimed support from the “Mother Church” in Jerusalem. But Paul carried papers (with James' signature) of the Church Council in Jerusalem, whereby James had agreed with Paul on the crucial issue of circumcision (Acts 15:24).
The conflict between these two factions centered around the relationship and distinction between Judaism's Old Covenant and Christianity's New Covenant. How did the New Covenant affect the religious system and way of thinking? How did it affect our relationship with God? Did these changes put away the Law? or did it offer corrections to men's interpretations of the Law? Did the New Covenant offer a new manner of justification? or did it correct an old misconception? Did God favor Jews over non-Jews? What does it mean to be “chosen”? Is it a matter of privilege or calling? How do “chosen people” relate to the other nations?
These were the major issues of the First Century in those transitional years from Jesus' ministry to the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple forty years later. The debates were often heated. But in the end, God brought in “His armies” (Matt. 22:7) and destroyed the Temple and the city which was central to Judaism and even to the Jerusalem Church. This single event in history broke the church's dependence upon the old forms of Temple worship.
When we understand the historical context of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, we will find that it is very applicable to us today, for once again the same issues have arisen in the modern Laodicean Church. We find it necessary to reclaim the New Covenant from the Judaizers of today who have revived all the arguments of the Judaizers of the First Century and who attempt to reinstate the relationship that the Jerusalem Church had with the Temple.
Dispensationalist teaching proposes a third temple to be built in Jerusalem, complete with a dividing wall, animal sacrifices, Levitical priests, the Old Covenant, and Jewish ownership of the whole earth, complete with all non-Jews as slaves in a Jewish world. This is a revival of the distorted gospel. Those who promote such teachings, Paul says twice, “let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8, 9).
We must take this very seriously, then, to avoid the curse of Paul, spoken by the unction of the Holy Spirit.
Some have tried to turn this issue into a dispute between Paul and James, but this is not quite accurate, because there was no serious dispute between the two men themselves. Nonetheless, the Judaizers claimed James as the head of their faction in order to add weight to their position.
The difference between Paul and James was only a matter of emphasis, as evidenced by the epistle of James. Whereas Paul showed that Justification was by Faith alone, apart from works, James' epistle shows that genuine Faith is evidenced by works. In other words, if one claims to have Faith but has no change in his life, then the faith is bogus. I have no doubt that Paul agreed with him on that point.
But the Judaizers went far beyond the issues set forth in the epistle of James. James, it seems, led the Jerusalem Church more as a manager than as a doctrinal leader. He allowed people to think for themselves, even if they were wrong. More than that, he continued to practice Judaism in nearly every way as he had done prior to the cross. The only notable exception was that he maintained a staunch witness that Jesus was the Christ. James added the Messiah to Judaism and tried hard to reform Judaism so that it would include recognition of Jesus as Messiah.
Ultimately, James failed in his mission, though he was the most important intercessor that Jerusalem had. But even James could not prevent its destruction, which had been prophesied by Jesus Himself (Matt. 24:2).
Peter was caught in the middle of this dispute as well. He did not want to offend the Judaizers in the Jerusalem Church, yet he too agreed with Paul's teaching on the equality of the believers. After all, Peter had received a vision of the sheet full of unclean animals coming down from heaven, accompanied by the command, “kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). The lesson in this was not about unclean animals but about non-Jewish people: “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15).
When the messengers arrived from the Roman centurion a few minutes later, Peter understood this vision. He explained it in verses 34 and 35,
34 And opening his mouth, Peter said: I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit upon the non-Jews proved this to Peter (Acts 10:44-48). They were baptized the same day, even though none of them had been circumcised, as the normal requirement would have been if they had gone to the Temple for conversion to Judaism.
When Peter then reported these events to the Christians in Jerusalem, they criticized him, saying in Acts 11:3, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Peter then told his story, and verse 18 says,
18 And when they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well, then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
There were, however, Judaizers who apparently did not hear this testimony or simply did not believe the revelation. Many years later, Peter was in Antioch fellowshipping with and eating with uncircumcised believers. But when Judaizers arrived from Jerusalem, Peter (Cephas) withdrew and acted differently in front of them. Paul writes of this in Gal. 2:11-13,
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.
Peter wanted to be diplomatic, since his ministry was to “the circumcision” (Gal. 2:7) and did not want to offend them. But Paul was of an entirely different mindset. He felt it was absolutely imperative to break down the dividing wall and to place all men on equal footing. It was extremely important that an apostle of Peter’s standing would set the example for the rest of the Church.
What grated him the most was the fact that Peter had been given specific revelation of the truth of God's impartiality (Acts 10:34), but he was afraid to stand upon that Truth. And Barnabas, too, who had already preached the Gospel with Paul on their first missionary journey, joined the hypocrisy.
Paul was incensed by this and stood strong against the faction of the circumcision. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Paul nearly single-handedly tore down the dividing wall in the Church, though this revelation had been given specifically to Peter. Peter was fearless in so many areas, but in this particular issue he was quite timid and fearful.
Given the historic nature of the conflict between these two Christian factions in the first few years of the Church, it is little wonder that the book of Acts focuses so much upon this issue. It starts with the day of Pentecost, where “proselytes” are specifically included in Acts 2:10 among those who heard God speaking in their own language. Peter then followed up with a sermon about the Spirit of God being poured out upon “all flesh” (Acts 2:17).
Then we read of Philip, who went among the despised Samaritans to preach the Word. They too received the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17) without the benefit of circumcision. Philip then explained the Word to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:27), who too was baptized. This particular event fulfilled the very passage that he had been reading in Isaiah 53. That passage actually began in Isaiah 52:13, and verse 15 says, “Thus He will sprinkle many nations.”
The entire record of the book of Acts is designed to prove that God is impartial in His dealings with all nations. It is designed to help break down the dividing wall that was anchored in the minds of the Jewish believers. This was the great issue of the first forty years of the Church. During that time, Paul stands alone in the dispute, with James, Peter, and even Barnabas willing to let him take the heat whenever these viewpoints clashed.
This is the historic context for Paul's epistle to the Galatians. If we do not understand its historic setting, we may misunderstand the letter, thinking that Paul was focusing upon other matters that are more peripheral. But as we will see, the central issue was whether the Old Covenant was still in force, or if it had been replaced by the New Covenant. These covenants were represented by two forms of circumcision: physical and heart. Hence, the issue was also whether or not physical circumcision was necessary for salvation (justification).
This is the “law” issue that Paul was discussing. Paul had no problem with the law as a revelation of the mind of God. The issue was whether or not one's vow of obedience (as Israel made in Ex. 19:5-8) could save a person, seeing that no man could keep such a vow. Any man could be circumcised in the flesh, but this did little or nothing to make him righteous in his character. Hence, the law itself spoke of heart circumcision (Deut. 10:16; 30:6), which shows that physical circumcision was only a type of the real circumcision that God required.
Physical circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant and its offer of salvation to all who vow obedience and actually perform their vow perfectly. No man could fulfill such a vow, and so no man has ever been saved by the Old Covenant, regardless of his good intention. Paul shows that justification has always come through the New Covenant and its heart circumcision.