This is one of the earlier letters written by Shaul, which he wrote to the Gentile Believers who lived in the Roman province of Galatia, located in a central part of (what is today) Turkey. This was written around 48 AD.
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The problem this congregation was having dealt with the Jewish population insisting that these neophyte Gentile believers had to make a complete conversion to Judaism, starting with receiving B’rit Milah (circumcision, also called a “bris”).
Shaul starts off this letter by qualifying his position as an apostle for Yeshua, reviewing the revelation he received on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and also how he had been accepted by the Elders on the Council in Jerusalem as a legitimate apostle, endorsing (as he calls it) the gospel he preaches.
He even goes as far as to relate when he went against Kefa (Peter), who Shaul accused of being a hypocrite. He relates that Kefa would eat with Gentiles when there weren’t any Jews around, but when the believing Jews were there, he ate only with them, excluding the Gentiles.
In Chapter 2, from verse 15 through 21, Shaul explains how he came to realize that he could never live in accordance with the Torah, and as such the law did him no good as far as receiving salvation. He said he died to the law when he came to realize that faith in Yeshua was the only way to receive salvation. He said being justified in faith to Yeshua is the only way.
This statement has been totally misunderstood, and misused, to justify that Gentiles do not have to obey the Torah. The issue Shaul talks of (as he covered briefly in his letter to the Romans) is “legalism”- the idea that one must be in perfect accordance with the laws in the Torah to be saved.
When you think about it, no one, believer or not, can be justified by faith, alone. There must be some level of adherence to the commandments God gave regarding worship and treatment of others. If Shaul is teaching faith without obedience, then isn’t he teaching anarchy?
The Torah says not to kill, not to commit adultery, to honor father and mother, to be humane to animals, which Holy Days God requires us to celebrate, and many, many other things that form a way of life. Judaism isn’t just a religion: it is a total lifestyle, shaping not just the individual but the entire nation!
It is inconceivable that anyone preaching a gospel of love would also preach a life of lawlessness, which would be all that one could have if the Torah was ignored.
Do you recall the drash (parable) Yeshua gave about the seed being sown (Mark 4)? Some that fell on good soil started to take root but was choked by the weeds growing with it. This is the issue Shaul was facing in Galatia; the external pressure being placed on the neophyte believers was “choking” their faith, causing them to follow a performance-based salvation (legalism) instead of a faith-based salvation.
Shaul reminded the Galatians that Abraham was found righteous by reason of his faith, long before the law (Torah) was given, therefor obedience to the law is not going to get anyone saved. This is the crux of his discussion in this letter- he didn’t go into how to use the law properly, only that to obey the Torah to earn salvation is useless.
For the record: God told Isaac that he will make the same promise to Isaac that he gave Abraham because Abraham did all that God told him to do. (Genesis 26:4-5)
The idea Shaul is trying to get across to the Galatians (who, at one point, he actually calls “foolish” and later asks them why they listen to others) is that the law was given to be a sort of guardian, keeping God-fearing people (before Yeshua came) under a system of laws which defined the difference between sin and righteousness. Shaul even goes as far as to say that before we had the Torah, there was no sin because there was no law identifying what is sin.
Shaul makes some excellent points in this letter, such as in Chapter 3, he states that being in the body of the Messiah means we are all the same- there is neither Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female- all are one in the body of Messiah.
Of course, he is talking figuratively.
Another important lesson is that it is fine to be zealous for a cause, so long as the purpose is a good one (Galatians 4:18). But the purpose of the Galatian Jews telling these Gentiles they had to be circumcised to be saved was not good because their purpose, which may have been meant to be helpful, was (in fact) undermining Shaul’s authority and teachings and bringing the new believers back to a religion based on obedience, which has been translated in most Bibles as being “under the law”. This is one of the reasons that people have misinterpreted this to mean obedience to Torah is wrong for Gentiles.
One of the well-known lessons from this letter is Shaul’s definition of the Fruits of the Spirit, which is what we are supposed to live by. Those fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The purpose of this letter was never to be a polemic against the law, but rather to recommit these confused people to faithful obedience to Torah, which is what Shaul preached to them about being one with the Messiah. He said being circumcised or not makes no difference with regard to salvation through Messiah, and that the ones telling them they must be circumcised are only trying to bring them back under the system of performance-based salvation, which Judaism has lived under for centuries.
Shaul never meant for the Galatians, or anybody accepting Yeshua as their messiah, to ignore the Torah or any of the laws: he only wants to make sure that the reason people choose to be obedient to the Torah is done from the faithful desire to please God, and NOT to “earn points” towards salvation.
Search as diligently as you can, and you will not find anywhere, in any of the letters Shaul wrote, any statement that those who are in Messiah can ignore God’s laws or reject the Torah. On the other hand, neither has he outrightly stated that they must obey the Torah. I believe this is because there was never a question of whether or not to obey the laws, only a question of WHY to obey the laws.
At the end of this letter Shaul says (Galatians 6:16), “Peace and mercy to all who obey this rule (i.e., his teachings about circumcision and faith), even to the Israel of God”. The term “Israel of God” is confusing- who is that, exactly? Isn’t there just the one Israel, the Jewish people? Can there be a different “Israel”, an Israel of people who aren’t Jews?
This confusion has given birth to the ridiculous and blasphemous belief called Replacement Theology, which states that because the Jews rejected Yeshua, God has rejected the Jews as his chosen people and Born-Again Christians are now the chosen people of God, the very “Israel of God” Shaul mentioned.
Boy oh boy, would I love to show how wrong that is, but it will have to wait for another time.
The next letter we will analyze is to the congregation in Ephesus, which (if you recall from Acts) was not one of Shaul’s favorite places to be and gave him quite a lot of tsouris.
That’s it for now, so l’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!