Paul is frustrated and angry because of what he has heard of the dispute going in in Galatia. He often sounds like an overwrought parent trying to deal with a problem child. (He even uses that analogy himself at one point in the letter.) These emotions at times get in the way of careful exposition, but at the same time they give us a letter in which we can find out a great deal about what really matters to Paul. We see his deep attachment to those whom he lived with and his fervent aspiration to give them the very best gift there is: freedom in Jesus Christ.
Galatia was a region in Asia Minor between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. This is now central Turkey, in the area of Ankara. In Roman times (in Paul's time), there was a Roman province of Galatia, but it doesn't necessarily follow that Paul referred only to the area within the provincial boundaries. An interesting aside is that the Celtic people for whom Galatia is named are of the same ethnic stock as those for whom Gaul (France) was named; one group settled in Asia Minor while the rest migrated to the west.
Paul not only greets the Galatians, but also sets the stage for his message. Paul holds his authority from God, not from human beings, so this message is to be understood as a message from God. Of course, it is also Paul's own message and Paul is joined in greeting the Galatians by the Christians who are with him. Paul's wish is that the Galatians might have the grace and the peace that God gives – which is nothing more than a continuation of the gift which God has already given in Christ.
No matter what other people may be saying, there is only one gospel. There is no authority in heaven or earth which can change this good news. Paul will not be diplomatic or accomodating if that would involve compromising the gospel message.
The gospel comes directly from Jesus Christ. Paul used to be zealous in the Jewish religion and a student of the traditional understanding of God's will, but this did not bring him the good news. God called Paul directly and gave him the gospel. Afterward, Paul had no need to find other people to fill in missing detail of this gospel; God had given the good news complete. The drama of Paul's personal conversion makes the origin of the gospel especially apparent. The story of his conversion also helps to establish Paul's right to speak as an expert about God's good news.
Eventually, Paul did consult with the rest of the church. This meeting confirmed that what Paul had received from God was the same good news as what the Christians in Jerusalem knew and preached. Paul did not need any approval from the leaders of the movement; the meeting was important because it show that all the members of the church were sharing in a partnership to spread the good news.
This partnership requires the partners to correct each other when they err. Paul took on just this task in Antioch (and with no less a personage than Simon Peter). This particular example is significant because it relates to the dispute simmering in Galatia at the time. Paul shows that he has been consistent on the question of obeying Jewish rules. At the same time, his story points out that this issue has confused more Christians than just those in Galatia.
Paul was a Jew, as he already pointed out; he was a member of that nation which had been chosen to receive God's Torah. But Paul had to become a believer in Christ just as the non-Jews did. There is no difference. Christ is the true life, and it is Christ who is living in the Christian. This life is a leap beyond the Torah. To say otherwise, to say that life was already available in the law, would be to say that Christ gave himself for no reason.
The best way to understand faith is to recognize it in your own experience. The Galatians had faith when Paul was there. When they believed the good news, the Spirit came and wonderful things happened. Again, faith can be recognized in the experience of ancient times. For example, Abraham is remembered as righteous as a result of his faith. Faith was the critical aspect of Abraham's experience, just as it was the essential aspect of the Galatians' own experience.
The law is quite different from faith. Law demands perfect behavior. Everyone who fails to be perfect – which means each one of us – is cursed in the law's own words. (See Leviticus 26:14-17fdrrr.) But the curse of the law is nothing compared to God's grace. Christ was willing to take the curse of the law on himself in order to bring God's gift to us. (See Deuteronomy 21:23.)
A person's will is a promise to posterity. It is different from a contract in that the person's posterity has no part in setting the terms. The person making the will acts alone, just as God does. No one else can change a person's will, and no one can changes God's promise. Certainly the law, which came after 430 of living in Egypt, does not change God's promise to Abraham. The law does have a purpose, of course, but it is not essential to God's promise.
The scripture's use of the collective "posterity" (or "offspring") makes Paul think of Jesus, in whom God's promise is fulfilled. Christ, by living in us, makes all of us Abraham's offspring.
Paul's argument may make it seem that the law is actually harmful, but that is not what Paul means. The law served to set some limits until the time of faith arrived. In this sense, the law served in a capacity similar to the compulsory school attendance system: It helped to keep us out of trouble and in a situation where we could grow into the promise for our lives.
Now the time of faith has come. Now we assume our places as the heirs of God. We each have Christ's own life living within us, giving us a special resemblance to God. Everyone who has this faith shares equally in the fulfillment of that promise which God first made to Abraham.
A young child who inherits an estate is placed under under a guardian. The life of such a child is regulated and controlled just as though he were not an heir: There is bedtime and school, rules and allowances. But in the future the entire estate will belong to the child. In spiritual matters our own history is similar to this. In the past, religion may well have meant adhering to rules, offering sacrifices at the right times, celebrating the correct festivals. This is no longer right. God has come to us and given us our inheritance; we should accept our freedom.
The Galatians themselves illustrate the right way to respond to grace. When Paul was with them they were happy and they would have done anything for him. This enthusiasm has been lost to division and discord. The people causing this discord are trying to make themselves into leaders and role models in an attempt to seem important. Paul is left at his wit's end, feeling that he must begin again to teach them all over from the beginning.
Some people are advocating obedience to the detailed rules of the Jewish law, but Paul finds an allegory in the law itself to refute them. The story of Abraham's family is traditionally used by the Jews to define their special relationship to God – for the Jewish nation is, in fact, descended from Abraham through Sarah. Paul turns this story on its head by pointing out that natural conception is associated with Hagar, not Sarah. What is more, Hagar is associated with Sinai in the story, and Sinai is associated with the law. God's grace is connected with natural descent and the Torah, but with special intervention and the fulfillment of God's promises. Finally, Paul points out that the purely natural order of descent is tied to slavery, while God's grace is associated with freedom.
"For freedom Christ has set us free; …
do not submit to salvery!"
Christ has given us freedom. We should not forget the gift which we have received.
Anyone who chooses the rule of the law is also denying the freedom which Christ offers. Law and grace can't both be the source of life (as Paul already pointed out in chapter 3). We have to make a choice. Circumcision by itself means nothing either way, nor does any other rule by itself. What matters is faith strong enough to change life.
Those people who have been preaching differently have upset Paul because they have upset and confused his friends in Galatia. Paul hopes that they will be punished for this trouble – or perhaps they will get careless and punish themselves first.
Being free from the multitude of rules of the old religion does not mean that we should follow whatever impulse enters our minds. If we did that, we would only have traded one master for worse one. The freedom that God gives is the freedom to do what God's Spirit wants. The Spirit should control us. In this way our lives will be filled with cooperation instead of feuding, humility instead of jealosy, self-control in place of drunkenness.
Helping others to udnerstand their shortcoming is our Christian duty, but examining ourselves is even more important. Make an honest evaluation of what you do. Find the good things in your life and take pride in what is really good. If you do this, you won't have any reason to compare yourself to how other people appear to be. Share the good things in your life with your teacher or spiritual guide, if you have one.
Paul emphasizes the value of positive realism and of searching out the good things in your life on which you can build. This is in contrast to the tendency to copy the behavior of whoever gives the impression of being successful in life. Underlying this advice is the recognition that true freedom is well grounded in reality.
If you sow wild oats, don't expect to harvet lettuce and cherry tomatoes. Likewise, in order to obtain life you have to obey the desires of the Spirit of God, who gives life. Those who cultivate good will obtain the fruit of eternal life.
The only thing worth boasting about is being a new person in Christ. Others may boast about their influence over other people, or about their social standing. Paul is dead to such worldly glory, thanks to Christ's gift of new life. Physical signs don't make any difference and can't set you apart as someone special. The one thing which can make a difference is becoming a part of "the Israel of God", God's obedient people.
Paul hopes that this dispute is put to rest, along with any others like it. The scars of his suffering testify that Paul is a true follower of Christ; his opinion in this matter ought to be given deference. Paul prays the Jesus' grace will be with his readers, who remain brothers to him.