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Why Was the Apostle Paul So Angry With the Galatians?

Written by: George Greene

The letter to the Galatians stands apart from the Apostle Paul’s other writings due to a number of distinctions, but the most prominent may be the detectable anger in which the letter is written. Not only does he proceed to call them fools (Galatians 3:1) and state that he wishes those who are troubling the Galatians would ‘emasculate themselves’, but he also informs them that it is, in fact, his own hand that is writing in all caps (Galatians 6:11). So why is Paul’s letter to the Galatians so strongly worded? Let’s examine the context.

Who are the Galatians?

While there are some who believe the Galatians were actually the Gauls of north-central Asia Minor, most believe them to be the churches birthed from Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey to the Southern region of Rome, the province of Galatia (Acts 13-14). The letter’s indications of Paul’s personal investment strongly suggests the latter. The churches would have received the letter around A.D. 49. This would make ‘Galatians’ the first of Paul’s epistles.

Why was Paul angry with the Galatians?

According to Paul’s own words and description, after he had left these churches which he had labored for and founded, someone came in and began to instruct them that they needed to be practicing the Law of Moses in order to be saved. This was not only a contradiction to his teachings and a challenge of his authority in those churches, but a distortion of the very gospel of Christ. It should also be mentioned that on Paul’s first missionary journey in which these churches are believed to have been begun, he himself had encountered great opposition from the Jewish communities in Pisidian Antioch. They were strongly against him for preaching salvation to the Gentiles and informing them that only by faith could they be forgiven and freed, a thing which the law of Moses could not do. During this journey, Paul was severely persecuted, some even believe he was killed in Lystra after being vicious beaten, and stoned, only to rise from the dead (Acts 14:19-20). In any case, taking this context into consideration, Paul’s anger over these matters should be no surprise to us.

What was Paul’s response?

Paul’s address to the Galatians is singularly focused on one issue, unlike his other works where he covers a range of subjects, questions, and specific situations facing local churches and pastors. In Galatians, Paul is concerned with only one thing. Immediately after calling them fools, he asks them this question:

“This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2)

This is the focal point of this epistle. Are we, having been born of the Spirit, still bound to live under the Law of Moses? In the first two chapters, Paul begins his address to the churches by clarifying that he himself is not aligned nor sent by any agency of men, but was ‘an apostle through Jesus Christ and God the Father’. After a short reprimand for so quickly abandoning the gospel he had just preached to them, he proceeds to defend his credibility and credentials. In chapters three and four, Paul clarifies to them the role of the Law: It was put in place to stand as a mediator and its intent was to guide us to Christ (Galatians 3:19). In the final chapters Paul passionately concludes his letter to the Galatians by imploring them not to return again to the yoke of slavery, but to live in the freedom of the Spirit by faith.

What can we learn from Galatians?

The Galatians had fallen prey to that which had disturbed and disrupted much of early Christendom. The great debate of what role the Law of Moses had in Christianity, particularly in respect to the Gentiles, had swept over the church and caused great strife. This issue had become so great that it would eventually require the council at Jerusalem to intervene and issue an official edict to all the churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The edict stated that they were not be become burdened under the law, only that they should ‘abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood… and from fornication.’ (Acts 15:29)

We can see several ways this old problem afflicts the church today.

First, in a literal sense, this is growing confusion among churches regarding the role the Law of Moses should play in our lives as believers in Jesus Christ. There is an important distinction between the law of Moses and the Law of God. While both names can be found interchangeably in the scriptures, there are contexts in which they are separated. Specifically speaking, the Law of God, written upon our hearts, is a moral law (Romans 1:18-32; 7:22). In contrast, the Law of Moses was “added because of transgressions” until Christ (the seed) would come (Galatians 3:17-19), making it temporary (Romans 10:4; Ephesians 2:15). The Law of Moses was given to the children of Israel while they were in the wilderness. It contained regulations for the priesthood, sacrifices, rituals, holy days, purifications, and offerings, all of which foreshadowed Christ (Hebrews 10:1). It is this law that Paul is addressing in Galatians. 

Now the law is good and should be studied as there is great value and benefit in the understanding of the Hebraic roots of Christianity. The observance of certain aspects of the law may provide great spiritual enrichment. But as it says in James 2:10-11, if one breaks one law, they break the whole law. Therefore, seeing as the temple system is no more and thus making it impossible to follow the entirety of the law, our pursuit of righteousness through the law can never be accomplished, nor was it ever to be so. The law was never capable of redeeming us (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; 3:11). Looking at the early church and learning from them, we must take great care in our handling of Hebraic law, as it has become a point of great dissension and strife throughout the history of Christianity. 

Secondly, too many Christians today are struggling to believe in the work Christ has done on the cross. Our teachings, although scattered in doctrine and varying in practice, can agree that the saving grace of Jesus, the free gift of the Spirit, is obtained through faith and not of works. We have all been taught that salvation is a free gift of God.

So why then, seeing we have been instructed on correct doctrine, do so many Christians suffer daily, working for their salvation? We know the truth, and yet we who struggle in our sin and shame still hide ourselves from God, as we attempt to ‘be good enough’ to face our Savior again. We work the ground in fruitless labor only for it to yield us thorns and we negate the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We know the truth, let us believe in it now

Thirdly, in our ministries, we have forsaken the guidance of the Holy Spirit for preplanned services, strategies, and programs. Our man-made systems have become our law. We have gone into Hagar’s tent because we can control the outcome, instead of waiting for the promise of God to show up in Sarah’s tent. What room have we left for the Spirit in our perfectly timed services and our expertly tested evangelistic strategies? Paul warns us that the product of Hagar’s tent, Ishmael, will grow up and persecute Isaac, the son of the free woman. The flesh will always rise up against the Spirit. The two cannot remain in the same house. 

Paul writes in anger over this matter to the Galatians, because he cannot understand why they would choose to adhere to a gospel of law and works, over the gospel of freedom in the Spirit. Why do we? 

“You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7)

Perhaps we have chosen to cling to the law for the very reason the Galatians, Pharisees, and religious leaders did. The flesh, that earthly part of us, yearns for power and control. The Pharisees had established over 1400 years of religious duty and rote practices before the Messiah came. Change is hard, especially when it means yielding the right of authority over our lives and the decisions we make. They resisted Christ because they feared the Romans would take away their place and their nation (John 11:47-48). The law was safe. It was all they knew. It gave them control over their lives, and it told them what to do, how to act, and even how and what to eat. But there is no freedom in the law. 

I think sometimes we choose the law because the Spirit scares us. He is out of our control. We have written Him into a doctrinal prison, and forbidden Him to speak, lest He should say something and prompt us to actions that step outside our comfort zone.

I believe this is why many leaders in the Church have rejected Him and taught blasphemous doctrine to those entrusted to their care and instruction. It is our nature to fear that which we do not control. To walk in the Spirit is to surrender yourself to the Spirit. And yet in that surrender comes a great freedom and with it, the greatest adventure. Let Him take you into the mission where God must show up.

It was during the sermon on the mount when Jesus declared that He had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). The Law of Moses, given by God, has been fulfilled through Jesus Christ. It is finished.

The curtain has been torn, the veil removed.

Paul’s frustration with the Galatians still echoes today, and the message has not changed.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)


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