The letter to the Galatians may be Paul’s most important, representing the life and death struggle for the universal Church. It may have been followed by what may be the most important event in early church history, the Council of Jerusalem.
Paul also exhibits his most combative attitude in this letter. He does not open with any sense of gratitude for the church at Galatia, as was his custom. Paul, instead, must take on those other “teachers” who are presenting a “different gospel”, which undermines Paul’s gospel of justification by grace. Those other teachers were what Paul calls the “circumcision faction” (NRSV), who were demanding Gentile believers to observe the law of Moses, to become circumcised, which is to rely on Jewish Heritage.
Paul had met with Peter, had joined him at table fellowship with Gentiles, and later rebuked him for pulling away from that fellowship when those “Judaisers” arrived. Even Barnabas pulled back and joined in this “hypocrisy.” Paul calls into question the motives of those teachers; was it to avoid persecution or to gain some advantage?
It’s unclear exactly who those other teachers are that are putting Gentile believers under a “yoke of slavery,” but his words for them are as biting as ever. He claims they will “pay the penalty,” that they are “accursed,” and he wishes that they would “castrate themselves.”
Paul declares that the believers who have come under that “yoke” are “stupid” and “foolish.” They are by their actions denying the sufficiency of Christ, the gospel of Grace Paul preached to them. They are willing to “add” something, as if something more were necessary, to their simple trust in God.
Paul’s argument is that everyone, even Jews who do ‘works of the law’ in accordance to their heritage, must abandon their hope for a right relationship with God through trust in any other means, including Jewish Heritage. We must all find our hope and place our trust in Christ alone. Paul argues that Jewish heritage is more than adherence to Mosaic Law. Their father is Abraham, whose faith in God and not his adherence to any law. Therefore, Paul argues that reliance on law is finished for all Christians. The law does not and cannot foster the kind of faith and trust that leads to life. The Law was an imperfect agency, added as a kind of tutor, which identifies sin.
Followers of Christ are to emulate the trust of Abraham. The controversy called for the Council of Jerusalem. The consequences of this letter and this issue had divided churches, and if it had not been resolved, may never have allowed for Gentile believers without conversion to Judaism. The consequences would have dramatically hindered missionary efforts. The core of this issue may be the strong tendency of many Jews to place their trust in their ethnic and religious identity.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians calls us to eliminate all barriers to full religious participation based on race, sex, social status, etc. This is the challenge, I believe, for any cross-cultural transmission of the gospel. For that reason, if this controversy had not been sufficiently quelled, it would have done irreparable violence to the gospel of grace.