Before beginning the commentary on the book of Galatians, let me emphasize the importance of the “Reference Framework.” Those who have the privilege of teaching about any book of the Holy Scriptures, have at the same time the responsibility of conforming to the “Reference Framework” of the indicated book. In this case, we will talk about the book of Galatians. This “Reference Framework” must necessarily include:
- The Historical Context, 2. The Social Context, 3. The Biblical-Theological Context that is very important, and 4. The Study of Philology (which is the science that studies a culture, as manifested in their language and literature). It is important to know the meaning of the words in their original language. The study of the Bible requires a basic knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. We recognize the admirable work done by Bible translators, but it is necessary to understand that the meaning of a word in the source language does not always find an equivalent or similar word in the receiving language. There are times when a term in the original language does not exist in the language to which it is to be translated. Those who teach the Bible should be aware of these difficulties and explain the meaning of the word in its original language.
Another aspect that should be taken into account by the person who teaches the lessons of the “Bible Study Guide” is that it should detect the main point, problem, or reason why that book was written. It should not deviate from the main theme and reach conclusions that are remote from the purpose for which the book was written. The author will use supporting texts. For example: Speaking of the book of Galatians, the author included the text of Phil. 2: 2 (NKJV), where Paul speaks to the Philippians about “being of one accord, of one mind.” A teacher can use this reference and turn it into the main topic, but this is not convenient, since he will spend most of his time talking about the unity, (which is not the main topic), and in the end fails to clarify and highlight the main topic.
Dr. Carl Cosaert (who was commissioned to prepare the study of the book of Galatians) is a professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University in the United States. In this study, the question we must consider is: Why has the book of Galatians been such an important pillar of the Protestant Reformation? The answer is simple: Galatians addresses crucial issues for the Christian such as: 1. The role of the Law in Salvation, 2. The nature of Spirit-led life, 3. Our condition in Christ, and 4. How can sinful human beings be justified before a holy and just God? We will clarify at least the first point.
- The Role of Law and Salvation. In Gal. 2:16 Paul asserts that “Man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” The word gr. nomos, translated ‘law’ corresponds to the translation of the word Torah. In Hebrew, Torah means “instructions” and specifically refers to the instructions of God given to the people of Israel through Moses. For about five hundred years, the Torah was the five books of Moses, identified in Christianity as a Pentateuch. However, Torah was translated as law, because they considered that the indications of God were not optional but mandatory. For the Jews, the Old Testament word Torah identified the totality of laws, ordinances, commandments, decrees, and statutes, which add up to 613 (ten moral commandments and six hundred and three that cover different areas of human ethics such as civil, economic, liturgical and biological).
In Western culture, when the word law is heard, it’s often assumed it’s referring to the Ten Commandments. But this concept does not correspond to a translation adjusted to the Hebrew reality. Sometimes Torah is used to identify a part of the commandments, laws or statutes, but as a general rule, it refers to the totality of laws and commandments. In the province of Galatia, the problem that arose was whether Gentile-Christians should undergo circumcision as a sign of the covenant, which was explicitly ordained by God in Gen. 17: 4-11. Which of the Ten Commandments refers to circumcision? The answer is none because circumcision is part of the 613 commandments, but it is not included in the Ten Commandments. Bible preachers and teachers should take into account that in using the term ‘law’, it is necessary to clarify by context, whether it is referring to a part or all of the laws and commandments, also identified as the ‘Law of Moses”.
Today there is an unnecessary dispute regarding the interpretation of the book of Galatians on the subject of salvation. The laws of God were never given to Israel as a parameter of salvation, but as a manual of ethics, which determined how the Israelites should live in community and in harmony with each other. Because of faulty interpretations, a line in the sand has been created, in which one side affirms that God’s “law” is part of the picture of salvation, while another side affirms that we are saved by grace, through faith, and often neither explains what the true meaning of the word grace is, nor the true meaning of the word faith.
Unfortunately, Christianity has given an incomplete gospel when affirming that by the sacrifice of the Son of God, salvation is assured. Let’s put it this way: With the death of the Lamb of God (the Messiah), humanity was granted the passport to travel to the New Jerusalem. In our world, the passport is the document that identifies you and authorizes you to travel. With the passport, you can leave the country, but to enter another country, a visa is required. The passport is authorized by the issuing country. The visa is authorized by the receiving country. A passport is used to leave one country, but not automatically to enter another. If an airline carries a passenger who only has a passport, he is responsible for returning the passenger to his / her country of origin, and also must pay a fine, for non-compliance with the aeronautical laws established by the respective countries.
Revelation 21: 1-7 describes the requirement of God (covenant / alliance). Those who finally enter the New Jerusalem will have accepted and fulfilled this requirement. The covenant / alliance would be the equivalent of the visa, and it is an imperative requirement to enter the New Jerusalem and be part of the kingdom of God. Have you heard satellite preachers or preachers from the pulpit warn about this essential requirement?
Preachers should be careful not to present a cheap grace and very easy salvation when the requirements of God are being ignored. From before the foundation of the world, salvation was always the result of God’s grace and justice. That idea, that in the Old Testament salvation was by law and in the New Testament is by grace is a false idea and presents a distorted image of God. It is as if God would have made salvation very difficult to those of the Old Testament, and very easy to those of the New Testament. This concept is absurd. It is not so, and it would not be fair on God’s part. By prejudice to Jews and to Judaism, some theologians have ignored the Old Testament and have concentrated solely on the New Testament, dealing with the concept of the law in the Old Testament and grace in the New Testament. Salvation is not gained by godly behavior, but by a relationship with God, in which the Lord determines whether the person is fit to live in His eternal kingdom. The fruits (or the works) appear as a natural result. If there is no fruit, it is because the relationship is not right. It is necessary to fix the relationship, and the fruit will appear automatically.
- The role of faith in Salvation. When considering the role of faith, it is necessary to identify the term. The word heb aman means firmness, security, trust, permanent and quiet belief. Moses identifies these traits first in God when he says to Israel: “Therefore know that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God (heb aman) who keeps covenant …” Deut. 7: 9. The word heb aman identifies God’s relationship with the human being, and also the relationship of the human being with God. When we go to the New Testament Paul tells us that: “Abraham believed (gr pisteuo) God.” Gal. 3: 6. The word gr pisteuo means to believe, to trust, to place trust in someone. And here it is necessary to make the difference between an intellectual belief, product of logic, reasoning, evidence, which does not include trust, and, a belief that identifies an attitude of full trust and dependence on God. That is why James warns: “You believe (gr pisteuo) that there is one God; Good you do well. Even the demons believe (gr pisteuo), and tremble. “Sant. 2:19 (NKJV). Of course, the demons believed, but they did not trust God. Note that to believe (as an intellectual process), trust is not required; but faith, which is related to belief in God and salvation, demands trust as an indispensable characteristic. You can believe without trust, but you cannot trust without believing. It would be convenient for preachers to change their discourse, and instead of emphasizing faith alone which is interpreted as belief only, emphasize faith as trust in God.
- What was the real problem in Galatia? Let’s understand a little bit about the Jews who converted to Christianity. Already fourteen generations had passed (a generation lasts one hundred years, so fourteen generations is equivalent to 1,400 years) since the people of Israel received the instructions of God through Moses. The generation of Jews of the first century of our era conformed a new generation. This generation, like the previous ones, did not have access to the Hebrew Scriptures. These scrolls were in the sanctuary (and later in the Temple), and it was the priests who had the privilege of reading and studying them, to share the knowledge and instructions of God with the people, the king, and the judges. It was not like today, that every family and every person can have direct access to a Bible.
Dr. Justo González, an outstanding historian and columnist, writes: “In ancient Israel, it is estimated that the literacy rate was about 3 percent of the Jewish population. In ancient Greece, some city-states established public schools. The children went to school at the age of seven, or went to barracks, should they live in Sparta. Classes were held in private precincts and houses, taught subjects such as reading, writing, math, singing, playing and flute. In ancient Rome, boys and girls were usually educated, though not necessarily together, in a system very similar to that prevailing in the modern world. Only the Roman elite managed to receive a complete formal education. During the Middle Ages, the majority of the population remained illiterate and practically isolated from the literate culture of their time. Only members of the clergy received education, which had access to both religious and other cultural knowledge.
This means that not only in Israel but in other nations, literacy was a privilege of a small group of the population; a situation that continued until the Middle Ages and changed in the middle of the nineteenth century of our era, thanks to the industrial revolution, the appearance of the printing press, and the new criteria of access to formal education.
The Christian Jews of Paul’s time were simply commenting on what the legal and real situation was in Judaism over the centuries. They were born into a Jewish family and were automatically recognized as part of God’s people by descent from a Jewish mother. They were circumcised at eight days, as the Law of Moses said, attended the sanctuary and the temple presenting their offerings, and knew that there were regulations to accept a proselyte (a person of another culture and religion who wanted to be part of the Jewish people). The Christian Jews were fiercely defending what they considered the bastions of Judaism. Saul of Tarsus did likewise. These Christian Jews were doing just that, and Paul now classifies them as ‘the Judaizers’. Why? The explanation is this:
God decided to remove the kingdom to Israel and transfer it to a new organization that did not yet exist: The church (ekklesia). Jesus said to the Jews, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation bearings the fruits of it” (Matthew 21:43). God’s decision to replace Israel also included a new model (or new paradigm) for the Christian Church: 1. The church would not conform to a political-religious state, It would not be located in a specific geographical region, 3. No longer would it use only one language. Ancient Israel, which was the special people upon the earth, would give way to the new Israel which would now be the special people upon the earth. These privileges were conditioned by the covenant/alliance, and the privileges of the new Israel would likewise be conditioned by the covenant/alliance. What is striking is that no one warned Christian-Jewish believers about this change and about this new model (or new paradigm). It was not explained how the organizational structure of the church would be, nor was it clarified what would be the financial design, governing bodies, designation and recognition of those called to preach. The church itself would have to decide on this new situation and so began the Council of Jerusalem.
Paul was rightly displeased, because Christian Jews should have sought an interview with Paul, or sought Peter’s help to clarify these changes that were apparently violating God’s clear indication in Gen. 17: 4-11. Going directly to Galatia, and explaining to the Gentile Christians that they had to practice circumcision was not a wise decision, even though they would have had the best intention of defending their Jewish-Christian religion, for circumcision was the sign of the covenant. How is it that something so vital was seemingly unknown? These Christian Jews did not receive a theological seminar that allowed them to understand the new model for the Christian Church. On the other hand, they were disavowing the ministry of the apostle Paul, for they left many questions in the air. Let us not be harsh against these Christian Jews, for if we had lived in that time and with those conditions, we would probably have agreed with them. Likewise, today, we do not agree that a religious leader can alter the decision of God on the seventh day, which is holy, blessed, the Sabbath day. Thus in Galatia, the problem arose around the sign of the covenant and was not a discussion on models of salvation, which is what has become today the controversy over the book of Galatians.
- What would be the general vision in Galatians? We can understand the book of Galatians by dividing it into three sections: First section would include chapters 1 and 2, second section would cover chapters 3 and 4, and the third section, chapters 5 and 6. In the first section (chapters 1 and 2), Paul answers the question, how can people be saved? The key word is faith, understood as full trust in God, and not as intellectual belief alone. In the second section (chapters 3 and 4), Paul identifies the key person in that process: God. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son …” Gal. 4: 4. In the third section (chapters 5 and 6), Paul describes the transformation that occurs in people who cling to God. Here, the fruits of the Spirit are identified. In this way, the whole Deity intervenes—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Dr. George W. Brown, former president of Inter-American Division (1980-1993) comments: “Congratulations on this excellent manuscript. It evidently reflects diligent scholarly work on the subject with which it deals. It makes for inspiring reading.”