Summary of Galatians: Understanding the Basics of Galatians in the Bible
Here is a short summary of Galatians: Galatians was written by the apostle Paul to a handful of churches in the region of Galatia who were being led astray from the truth of the gospel. They were being told that in order to inherit the promise to Abraham, be justified, and be a full part of the people of God they must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. Paul calls this a different gospel and pronounces a curse on any who would preach such a gospel.
In chapters 1-2, Paul defends his ministry and message by showing that he received his gospel from revelation, that it was upheld by the Jerusalem leadership, and that he has the authority to call out even Peter. Then in chapters 3-4, Paul builds a theological case that being in a right relationship with God and being part of his people comes by faith not the Law, just as it did for Abraham.
And then finally, in chapters 5-6, Paul contends that to live as the people of God entails faith working through love in the power of the Spirit. So God’s people are those who live by faith in Jesus the Messiah and walk by the Spirit.
Backstory to Galatians
It’s the late 40’s A.D., not even a full two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the gospel that Jesus is the risen Messiah and Lord has already spilled over out of the borders of its Jewish roots in Judea and Galilee, and into new Gentile (non-Jewish) lands.
There was a thriving multi-cultural church in the major city of Antioch, Syria. That church sent Saul (aka Paul) and Barnabas out to spread the news about Jesus further to the west on what we call the first missionary journey. Their preaching quickly found fertile soil among the Gentiles and they eventually brought the gospel into the region of Galatia. They made disciples and gathered churches in places like Antioch of Psidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (see Acts 13-14), and there was much opposition especially from Jews because Paul and Barnabas were preaching that Gentiles were fully welcome in the people of God in Christ.
But Paul kept on preaching and welcoming Gentiles, because for Paul, this was a central gospel issue. If Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and the culmination of Israel’s story, that means the blessing of Abraham is now available for all nations. And thus Gentiles can join Abraham’s family as Gentiles, and inherit all of God’s promises as his sons and daughters.
Summary of Galatians: “If Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and the culmination of Israel’s story, that means the blessing of Abraham is now available for all nations.”
But some Jewish believers in Jesus struggled to see this necessary implication of the gospel. They still believed that, in order to really be a part of God’s people and to be heirs of the promise to Abraham, Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, especially the visible indicators of the Law such as food laws and sabbath keeping.
And some particularly conservative Jewish followers of Jesus believed this so deeply and zealously they couldn’t be silent. Their people had, after all, bled and died for their Jewish heritage and identity. There was no way they were going to let those sufferings amount to nothing now by pretending Gentiles were just the same as them!
So some time after Paul and Barnabas left Galatia, those Jews who thought this way (traditionally they are called Judaizers) came into the region, infiltrated the new churches, and began to teach that unless they were circumcised and kept the Law of Moses they really weren’t saved and weren’t part of Abraham’s family. They made their case with the Old Testament Scriptures, and bolstered it by questioning Paul’s credentials as an apostle—certainly he didn’t have the authority of people like Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem.
“They still believed that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, especially the visible indicators of the Law such as food laws and sabbath keeping.”
When Paul got word of this, he was furious. To teach what they were teaching was to preach a completely different gospel! It misrepresented the Scriptures, misunderstood the promise to Abraham, ignored how Israel had broken the covenant and was under its curse, and minimized the presence of the Holy Spirit among them. And all of that indicated that they had fundamentally misconstrued who Jesus is and what his death and resurrection had accomplished.
And the fact that it sounded like some of the Galatian believers were buying into this false gospel deeply concerned and frustrated Paul.
So he fired off a strong letter of correction to the churches in the cities of Galatia that he started on his first journey, and that’s the letter we call Galatians.
That’s the basic backstory to Galatians. But there is one particular question that scholars debate which is worth mentioning. That question is…
Was Galatians written before or after the Jerusalem Conference described in Acts 15?
That question arises because the Jerusalem Conference wrestled with essentially that exact same issue as Galatians does and because Galatians 2:1-10 describes an event that sounds strikingly similar to the one described in Acts 15. So the question becomes this: are Galatians 2 and Acts 15 describing the same event?
At present, many (if not most) scholars answer the question in the negative: the event described in Acts 15 is not the same one as described in Galatians 2. They reach this conclusion primarily because of how Paul lists his visits to Jerusalem in Galatians 1-2. If Galatians 2:1-10 is the same event as Acts 15, then Paul left out the visit to Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 11. Some believe doing that would undermine the point Paul is making in Galatians 1-2. That’s not the only reason for the conclusion, but it is the major motivation for it.
For my part, I think Galatians 2:1-10 does describe the same event as that in Acts 15. It seems to me unnecessary to speculate that there were two meetings dealing the with the same issue, in the same city, involving the same people, and reaching the same conclusion all within just a couple years of each other.
“For my part, I think Galatians 2:1-10 does describe the same event as that in Acts 15.”
Either way, Galatians 2:1-10 describes a leadership-wide decision to support Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, and thus the issue doesn’t significantly alter our understanding of the material in Galatians.
An Overview of Galatians
Paul’s letter to the Galatians can be viewed as has having three main sections. Chapters 1-2 focus on Paul’s conversion and ministry and defend his apostolic authority. Chapters 3-4 provide the main theological argumentation, and thus focus on Abraham, the Law, Faith, and being sons and daughters of God in Christ. Finally, chapters 5-6 draw out the implications of all of this for living as God’s people in Christ, showing that the mode of living is now by faith through the Spirit. All of this makes the point that in Christ is now where God’s people are found, and through faith in him, they live a life of love by the power of the Spirit.
Galatians opens in 1:1-5 by emphasizing two features central to the letter: Paul’s authority as an apostle appointed by God and the centrality of Jesus’ death for God’s plan of redemption. The situation is so dire in Galatia that Paul skips his usual thanksgivings and gets immediately to the point. In 1:6-10, he expresses his shock that the Galatians are believing a false gospel and abandoning God. He even pronounces a curse on any who would preach a different gospel than the one he had originally preached.
Then Paul begins a lengthy autobiographical section in which he defends his message and his ministry. In 1:11-24, he retells his conversion experience in such a way so as to show that he had been not just a faithful Jew prior to following Jesus, but he had actually been the poster child for up and coming zealous rabbis. As such, he had even persecuted Christians and tried to destroy the church. His conversion was purely because of God’s mercy and grace, not because Paul was looking for something he didn’t have. Not only that, but it wasn’t dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem. Indeed, he received his gospel from revelation, not from men.
“His conversion was purely because of God’s mercy and grace, not because Paul was looking for something he didn’t have.”
Next, in 2:1-10, Paul describes another visit to Jerusalem 14 years after his conversion (this is the visit that’s debated whether it corresponds to Acts 15 or not). This visit entailed a meeting with the Jerusalem leadership to decide whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised and submit to the Old Covenant Law in order to be saved. And the Jerusalem leaders upheld Paul’s ministry and message.
Finally in 2:11-21 Paul recounts an interchange he had with Peter in the city of Antioch. He describes how Peter acted like a hypocrite when he quit eating with Gentiles out of fear of offending some visiting Jerusalem Jews. So Paul publicly called Peter out. All of this demonstrates that Paul is not subservient to Peter, or anyone else from the Jerusalem leadership. Paul ends his account of this interchange by summarizing his words to Peter and those words become the springboard for the rest of the material in Galatians.
At this point, Paul launches into the second main section of the letter, a theological defense of the place of the Gentiles in the people of God in Christ. He begins by raising the heart of the issue in 3:1-5 and he does so by arguing from the Galatians’ own experience.The way he puts it is, Did you receive the Spirit by faith or the Old Covenant Law?
Summary of Galatians: “Did you receive the Spirit by faith or the Old Covenant Law?”
In 3:6-14, Paul begins to demonstrate that their experience actually agrees with Abraham’s experience: God declared him righteous by faith not by the Law and promised that everyone, including the Gentiles, who have faith (now specifically faith in Jesus) will be blessed along with Abraham. Paul also points out here how the Law didn’t bring the blessing but a curse, because Israel failed to keep the Old Covenant Law and suffered the curse of exile. The way to inherit the promise to Abraham is through faith for Jew and Gentile alike, not through the Law.
In 3:15-18, Paul continues building his case by showing that the promise to Abraham preceded the giving of the Law by 430 years and thus supersedes it.
So why was the Law even given then? In 3:19-25 Paul explains the purpose of the Law: to be a temporary pedagogue to lead people to Christ. So it came after the promise, was intended to be temporary, and its end goal was to lead people to Christ.
Thus in 3:26-4:7 Paul states it as clearly as he can: now that faith in Christ has come, the Old Covenant Law’s day is done. Now by faith in Christ all people—Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, men and women—are sons of God and thus heirs of all that God has promised. And by his Spirit, all together now call God father.
Summary of Galatians: “Now by faith in Christ all people are sons of God and thus heirs of all that God has promised.”
At this point, in 4:8-20, Paul breaks off his theological case to appeal to the Galatians to return to Paul and his message, and to have Christ formed in them.
Then in 4:21-5:1, as the culmination of his theological case against the teaching of the Judaizers, Paul offers a retelling of the Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael story found in Genesis. Paul’s retelling takes the very faith lesson that story makes in its original Old Testament context and applies it to the situation in Galatia. In doing so, he makes the point that in Christ, they are children of the promise and free like Isaac. The Judaizers are enslaved like Ishmael. Thus live out the freedom that Christ has given you!
This leads into the final main section of the letter in which Paul draws out the specific implications of all of this for how the Galatians should live. The first matter he takes up is circumcision, which was the covenant symbol of the Law. So in 5:2-12, Paul explains that accepting the Old Covenant symbol of circumcision obligates you to keep the whole Law. And that means you haven’t merely cut off the foreskin of your flesh but you have been cut off from Christ and fallen from grace. This is so serious and Paul feels so strongly about it that he ends the paragraph by saying with powerful irony that he wishes those who were teaching the necessity of circumcision to go the whole way and castrate themselves!
Summary of Galatians: “Live out the freedom that Christ has given you!”
If keeping the Old Covenant Law is not the way to live the Christian life, what is? In 5:13-25, Paul answers that the way to live out the freedom they have been given in Christ is by faith working through love in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit will produce the very character in them that the Law aimed at but couldn’t produce on its own.
In 6:1-5, Paul encourages those who are walking by Spirit to deal with sinning brothers and sisters by being gentle and keeping an eye on their own behavior, knowing that they too are susceptible to sin.
He also encourages the Galatians to be generous, sow to the Spirit, and do good to all people in 6:6-10.
Finally in 6:11-18, Paul stops dictating the letter for another to write and takes up the pen himself. He signs off with a very pertinent challenge: boast only in Christ and his cross, not in circumcision or anything else, because all that matters is the new creation Jesus has brought by his death on the cross.
Summary of Galatians: “Boast only in Christ and his cross, not in circumcision or anything else, because all that matters is the new creation Jesus has brought by his death on the cross.”
Galatians in 10 Passages
1. “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel.”
2. “For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not of human invention. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
3. “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from the Gentiles; nevertheless, knowing that a person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law; since by works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”
Summary of Galatians: “A person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus.”
4. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
5. “Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.Therefore, recognize that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.”
6. “Now, that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘the righteous one will live by faith.'”
7. “Therefore the Law has become our guardian to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith…For you are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”
—Galatians 3:24, 26
Summary of Galatians: “The Law has become our guardian to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”
8. “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.”
9. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”
10. “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
 All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard.
For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.