Galatians A translation

Paul’s letters as usually translated are not always easy, often dealing directly with issues that are remote from us today and employing a sort of shorthand of highly condensed reasoning which, while perhaps immediately comprehensible to the readers of his day, require a sophisticated set of interpretative tools if they are to be easily related to today, particularly if you try to read them in a standard translation such as the KJV. For this reason alone paraphrases are often very helpful, contrary to what scholars are likely to say. This is certainly true of the letter to the Galatians, the historical occasion for which has almost nothing to do with us directly, and yet there are particular passages, notably chapter 5, which are seminal. The range of translations is great and very rich, and some of them are very helpful — I would note particularly the Amplified Bible; but there is room for more, for translations which make what I understand Paul to be saying still clearer. The sort of model I have in mind is the great 18th century work of Philip Doddridge, his ‘Family Expositor’, which so to speak fills in all the gaps in such a way as to make the Bible very readable to his audience. His work is perhaps too wordy for us today, and, yes, it contains a great deal of his own thinking; my goal is to avoid the wordiness, but also not worry that I am imposing my ideas on Paul – the intent is to avoid the ideas imposed by other translations which I think are not good! The methodology has been to ransack numerous sources for anything that helps make clear the message of grace and Paul’s renewed effort to convey this and this alone. (The three works that have been most helpful are Doddridge, K. Wuest’s Expanded Translation with his notes, and Roger Forster Paul’s Gospel in Romans and Galatians.) If Paul were writing today, he would not have written his letter in the form normally encountered; the objective here is to get somewhere near to the way I think he would have written to the Galatians today, unpacking in particular the places where his thinking is most condensed, while maintaining sufficient grounding in the particular circumstances to mean that it is the same letter.

A first, exemplary, problem we face with the book of Galatians is that the immediate debate about circumcision just has nothing to do with us, and that as soon as the book is couched in terms basically to do with whether the Jewish law was to be imposed on the Galatians, how the Jews and non-Jews were to be related, it just passes us by; for us to benefit from reading Galatians we need to see that while this was the occasion for the letter it was not Paul’s central concern, so in translation it is important to emphasize the more crucial, general aspect. But secondly, it gets much more difficult if (and when) the central issue is made out to be an issue about salvation, when it only really has to do with this tangentially. The central tenet of so much of Paul’s teaching has to do with the absolute unity of Jews and gentiles in Christ, which for us has simply to do with church unity. To Paul the dissolution of barriers was the most wonderful discovery, and, contrary to the teaching of the Reformers, this was the central message of the letter to Romans, too. Paul had discovered that “you are all one in Christ”; “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, not even male or female.” I believe Paul was just so overwhelmed by this that he could scarcely comprehend anyone wanting to destroy it. This, referred to in Ephesians as the breaking down of every wall, is something we can easily relate to, and if we read the letter to the Galatians in this light, relating everything to this one idea, it becomes accessible, relevant, and where, frankly, I had once found this book the most difficult and least interesting in the NT, particularly on the basis of the KJV, it suddenly becomes of the greatest interest.


Paul, apostle, with an authority not derived from men or mediated to me by any other merely human person, but an apostle by the direct agency of Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead; this it is who, together with the brothers travelling with me, extends greetings to the churches of Galatia, with the desire that grace and peace continue to be yours from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, from the Christ who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the corrupting influence of the present age, in accordance with the will of our God and Father. To Him[1] may all glory be ascribed forever and ever.

I am amazed that you should be turning away so soon from the one[2] who called you in[3] the grace of Christ, and should succumb to a differing version of the gospel, one which is no longer genuinely good news. There are people coming in to disturb and trouble you, perverting this gospel of Christ which I preached to you.  Indeed, should we ourselves or even an angel appearing from heaven announce something purporting to be the gospel but which goes beyond what we originally preached to you, let that person be anathematized.[4] As I have said previously, I am now saying again that if anyone preaches to you a message purporting to be the gospel but which is not what you received and accepted from me, let them be anathematized.

As you can see from this strong language, I am not making any effort to appease anyone; my views are consistent and definite as I represent God’s grace. I don’t know what you have been told, but I am not endeavouring, and never have, to seek favour with people by pleasing them rather than God; if that were the case I would not in fact be a servant of Christ. However, I am stating categorically that the message of good news that I preached to you does not have a merely human source; I did not receive it from another person like myself, nor was I taught it at some college, but it is the result of direct revelation given to me by Jesus Christ.

In the past, as you know, the whole course of my life was determined by the law-keeping but apostate Judaism which rejected its own Messiah; I went to extremes in this and was continually attacking and persecuting the Church of God, wasting it. In fact, in purely religious terms I outstripped all my fellows, particularly in refuting anything to do with Christ; I was fixated on the traditions of pharisaism in which I was immersed, and its whole legal construct, rather than on the Word of God itself. Then, however, God intervened and called me by his grace, the God who had set me apart even in my mother’s womb for the task I am now fulfilling. He took pleasure in revealing, unveiling, His Son in me[5] so that I would be equipped to proclaim Him and his good news across the unbelieving, pagan world. My immediate response was not to seek communication with flesh and blood; there was no consultation; I did not visit Jerusalem, which is where all those who had previously been appointed as apostles were to be found, but instead I journeyed into Arabia, into the desert.[6] After that I returned to Damascus, and it was only in the third year that I went to Jerusalem to make contact with Peter, and indeed stayed with him there for fifteen days, not meeting any of the other apostles apart from James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you of this, before God, contrary to what you may have been told; what I am telling you is the whole truth. It was then that I moved to Antioch, and the adjoining area of Cilicia.[7] I spent such a short time in the Judaean churches, among those there who were in Christ, that I would have been recognized by very few; they basically knew little more than that a man who had previously been persecuting them was now preaching the faith he had resolutely sought to destroy; and those who were indeed in Christ glorified God in this, unlike the very same Hellenistic Jews with whom I disputed then, who had killed Stephen,[8] who tried to kill me, and who, effectively, are now disturbing you.

It was after some 14 years without detailed consultation with the apostles in Judea that I was on another visit to Jerusalem together with Barnabas to confer specifically about this issue of submission to religious rules, the rule pertaining to circumcision which marks a person off as Jewish in particular. I took Titus, a non-Jew, along with me to demonstrate and insist that conformity to these rules is not necessary to the life in Christ. When I went, I did so in line with the personal behest of the Spirit, who spoke to me, as is his way, and the purpose was that I communicate[9] just exactly what the good news is that I am still preaching among the gentile non-Jews like yourselves. This communication was made privately, in repeated discussions with everyone who enjoyed high standing. I approached the discussions with some anxiety, because if the content of my preaching did not meet with the approval of the central figures, this would soon come to present a considerable handicap to my work since it would have meant the opposition of the Jerusalem church. The very same false ‘brethren’ who are troubling you had infiltrated the church, as they commonly do; not understanding the freedom Christ brings from conformity to religious ways of doing things, they were trying to impose their rules and force outsiders into the constraints of Judaism. But they did not succeed, and specifically, Titus was not compelled to be circumcised — this Greek gentile was not forced to become a Jew. Not for one moment did we yield to or even countenance the idea that Titus might submit to their demands; this was critical if the truth of the good news was to remain the news of freedom to you.

More though, while I am not personally impressed by anyone’s status, believing that we are all held to account by God solely in accordance with the contents of our heart, there was the issue of whether those of genuine status in the church would add anything to what I had to say: but they didn’t. Quite the contrary. They endorsed my gospel and understood that the preaching of the good news to those outside the Jewish fold, the ‘uncircumcision’, had been entrusted to me in just the same way that preaching good news within the Jewish fold had been entrusted to Peter. It was evident to them that the same God who was at work so effectively in support of Peter as an apostle to those with the old religious structures in place was equally at work powerfully in my ministry to those outside all of that. Indeed, James, as leader of the church, with Peter and John, all of whom were seen as pillars by the church in Jerusalem, came to realize rather more deeply the grace that had been given to me, and so gave a solemn and formal pledge to Barnabas and myself, the ‘right hand of fellowship’, a compact that we should go to the nations while they focused on the single nation of the Jews. As they did so, they emphasized that we should continue our care for the poor, a ministry they knew plenty about, Jerusalem having already been among its beneficiaries.[10]

However, now we come to an even more outstanding crisis point as to the way religious patterns are to be followed. Some time later Peter himself came to Antioch, and he acted in such in a way that I had to confront him head on, publicly, about behavior which was just thoroughly blameworthy, and seen to be so by the church. The circumcision issue had been decided; non-Jews need not follow the Jewish laws. But need Jews themselves follow the many legal prescriptions? Should they be allowed in this way to potentially divide the church? Peter had been eating with non-Jews, contrary to Jewish law, when men associated with James and sent by him also came to Antioch to investigate whether indeed Jews were eating with non-Jews, which their scruples continued to disallow. Peter initially drew back, and then went the whole way, separating himself from his fellow but non-Jewish believers, intimidated and unsure of himself in relation to the Jewish laws. The other Jews in the church, along with him, knew better than to do so, but like Peter they pretended not to have been eating with the non-Jews, and even Barnabas went along with this hypocrisy.

When I saw this disregard and prevaricating attitude towards the truth of the gospel, I publicly challenged Peter with everyone present. “If you, as a Jew,” I said, “are following the normal social observances of a non-Jew, eating with them, not following the norms of Jewish religious practice, how can you now, apparently, be forcing those practices on the non-Jews? If they are going to continue in fellowship with you they will have to comply with those rules. You and I, we Jews, are such by birth, and in our former condition no doubt looked down on these Gentiles as useless sinners; even so we now know that observance of our Judaic religious customs is not what puts us in right standing with God; we know that it is the faith of Jesus Christ[11] that does this, and so we have become faithful to Jesus Christ so that his faith might indeed justify us; we have therefore put behind us religious observance.  Following religious prescriptions can in no way justify anyone. But now if we Jews are seeking to be justified by Christ, then we are openly admitting that religious observances do not justify, and that we Jews are sinners just like the Gentiles. If we don’t now keep the law, it’s not this that makes us sinners. Sinners is what we already were! Christ does not cause us to sin by having us abandon the law! That would be absurd!”[12]

If I, or anyone,[13] declare as valid something we had previously invalidated, just as Peter had done with the Judaic restriction on eating with non-Jews, we make it clear that we see ourselves as having broken the law. But for me, all this to do with the law and religious observance has lost all its force; in fact it drove me to distraction, and having given it up I am now able to live for God. When Christ was crucified, I was crucified too;[14] I am dead to any religious observance and instead have a new life which is no longer “my” life but is Christ living in me. The life I now live in this physical flesh I live through the faithfulness of the Son of God, who did all I could not do,[15] loving me and giving himself for me. We are in no position to set aside the grace of God, frustrating all he wishes to do; if our right standing with God has anything at all to do with any religious observance, then Christ’s death for us is meaningless.

For this reason, if what I have been told is true, I think you Galatians must have lost your minds! Some malignant influence has come to bear on you and turn you away from the truth which was so plainly presented to you, the truth of Christ crucified — he died, putting him beyond the reach of religious observance, before then being raised to life. As you seek to lead a Christian life you need to ask yourselves whether you received the Spirit in the first place as a result of observing laws or whether it was purely because of the message of good news you heard and then believed. If, as you know very well, it was because you simply believed and trusted, it is just incredibly stupid to suppose that, having started out in this way in dependence on the Spirit of God, the previously useless endeavors of your own nature, particularly as evidenced in religious practices, should lead you on to completion. You have suffered a lot for your faith — and I can hardly believe that it is all in vain.

Let us look at this again. God has supplied his Spirit to you and has worked and is working miracles among you. Has this been because you have been successfully conforming to religious precepts, or is just that he spoke to you and you listened? We have a great example of this in the very Old Testament whose models of religious practice your enemies are trying to impose on you. We find it said with regard to Abraham that he believed God [who had spoken to him] and, as a result of this trust, God regarded him as in right standing. You therefore need to understand that it is this trust alone which makes us the sons of Abraham[16] which you are being told you need to be. It is as we trust that we are blessed along with Abraham who also believed and trusted.

This all becomes still more evident when we look at the nature of religious observance and our efforts to conform to externally imposed rules. The nature of any law is to impose penalties on those who fail to comply. This is explicitly true in the case of the OT laws to which appeal is being made. It says, Every person who does not continue steadfastly to uphold and obey every last detail of what is written in the book of the law is cursed.[17] But the very same OT states of itself that it is not, anyway, the objective of the law and religious observance to justify anyone in God’s sight; in fact it says straightforwardly that  the person in right standing with God lives their life by faith [not by following rules]. It also says that the law and the patterns of behavior it prescribes are just not a matter of faith; you can live in accordance with the law without particularly trusting God. The law says don’t steal, so you don’t steal, and this is good, but it is not trust in God per se. The law says of itself that if you follow and obey the law you are living uprightly, but that is all, and says nothing about your life in God. We do see[18] that there is a curse on we Jews that comes as a result of our not managing to keep all the legal prescriptions; well, Christ has delivered us[19] (that is, we Jews) from that curse at great cost to himself.[20]  The way he did this was by taking the curse upon himself and indeed becoming a curse himself[21] as we find written in the scriptures everyone who hangs on a tree is accursed. As a result of we Jews being delivered from the curse of the law we are now free to do what we were always supposed to do in God’s programme and bring the blessing promised to Abraham to those outside the Jewish covenantal system;[22] that blessing comes to you in the person of Christ Jesus, and we all together, Jews and non-Jews, now receive the promise of the Spirit simply by believing.

This position with regard to law and religious observances can be considered from a human standpoint by thinking about the nature of covenant. If we make a solemn binding agreement which is properly ratified then it cannot be made void and neither can it be altered.[23] In the case of Abraham and what God referred to as his “Seed”, which is to say an anointed descendant, certain promises were made. We need to note that the promise recorded was not made to “seeds”, that is, many, which might well refer to Israel, but to just one, “to your Seed”, who we know to be Christ. Subsequent to this solemn covenantal promise, some 430 years later the whole legal structure of the law was promulgated, but this in no way annuls the covenant God had already ratified; the promise is not inoperative but still stands. It follows simply that the law does not affect the inheritance promised in the covenant; if the inheritance was connected to religious observance then it would not be flowing from covenant, but it came to Abraham as a promise.[24]

If the promise is sufficient in itself, we might well ask what purpose is served by the subsequent law. Well, the promise is just that, a promise, and in the interim between its being given and its fulfilment some means of regulating and dealing with wrong behaviour[25] was necessary until such time as the chosen Seed to whom the promise pertained should come. The law, unlike the promise, did not come directly from God but was appointed by angels[26] and that with the mediation of a man, Moses, who had to carefully explain it to the people.[27] No mediator is needed when there is a gratuitous promise, so there was no mediator in the case of the promise to Abraham, and indeed the promise was to the “Seed”, Christ, who is God, so again no mediation was needed in the giving of the promise – God is not divided! We see again the primacy of the promise.

Does this mean that the law is somehow opposed to the promises of God? No, of course not. In fact the whole legal system established under Moses was so good that if any legal system could ever have given life, this would be it; this legal system came from God so we might well expect it to bring about right standing with him, but that was not its purpose. No, the fact that the law is there and necessary makes it clear that Israel too, like everyone else, was and is subject to sin and in need of the promise to be made effective through the faith of Jesus Christ in those who believe. Before this faith came, that is, the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, we[28] Jews were kept under guard, under lock and key, focused on the concept that the human problem is sin.[29] The way out was always the same, the promise, so the law was always pointing in that direction, looking for the day the fulfilment would come and the full object of faith be revealed. The law therefore served the Jewish people as tutor, constantly showing us our need and reminding us that this day of fulfilment would come, pointing us to Christ so that we would be justified by trusting him. With the full content of faith now revealed, there is no longer a need for us to have the law as tutor.[30] For this reason it is evident that all of you, non-Jews along with we Jews, are together in being sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Legal observance has nothing to do with it; if you have been baptized into, immersed in and united with Christ, you have put him on as your clothing and we are all wearing the same apparel, and it is therefore no longer possible to distinguish between Jew and Greek, between those of you who are slaves and those who are free and independent, not even between male and female; you all, right now, without any addition, have the same standing and life in Christ Jesus.[31] If you belong to Christ, then you are now Abraham’s seed and so heirs, having already inherited all that is contained in the promise, just as was promised.

The point is that the inheritance has now take place. We Jews were always signified as heirs, but as long as the heir is still a child and has not reached their majority, they are effectively in the same state as servants; although set to become the master of the whole estate, they certainly don’t yet have the keys. Instead the youthful heir is subject to guardians, to those who manage their affairs for them until the time set by their father to assume ownership. In the same way, we Jews were in the condition of children, and were subject to basic (moral) principles,[32] to rules we were to follow. However, at the set time, God commissioned and sent His Son from heaven into this world, where he was born of a woman, into a world where he would subject himself to law; his purpose was to deliver us from our servitude to legal observances and place us into our established status as recognized sons. In the same way, you too are sons, and God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts (in the same way as he sent His Son into the world), so that you now loudly proclaim, “Abba! Father!” None of you is therefore any longer a mere lackey but instead, a son, and this being so, an heir of God through Christ.

So why would you want to change anything? In the past, before you experienced God and knew him, you, as pagans, served gods which are no gods, searching for guidance and life, for principles by which to live. Now, however, you have experienced God first hand, you have come to know him, or, as it might be better stated, God has come to know you, recognizing you as sons; so how can you consider reverting to basic principles which have no power in this new life as acknowledged sons, but to which you apparently wish once again to be subject?[33]

There is not just the issue of circumcision but such details as the Mosaic feast days and other observances of days, months, seasons and years.[34] I am frankly afraid for you and concerned that all my hard work, to the point of exhaustion, with you and for you, will prove to have been a waste of my time. My dear friends, brothers and sisters, I urge you to be like me, free of the law. I had to be set free from it in order to become like you, untrammeled by such things. Why would you want to separate from me? It wasn’t you that mistreated me when I was with you; it was the Jews in the synagogue. Our personal relationship was such that you would have done almost anything for me. As you will remember, when I first preached the gospel among you I was suffering physically;[35] you neither despised me nor rejected me but you received me as a messenger of God,[36] as though I were Christ Jesus. How great was the sense of blessing you enjoyed! You would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me if it were possible, but now it seems that I have become your enemy because I persist in telling you the truth. These people are very keen to win you over, but their intentions are far from good; in saying that you are outside their little circle of blessing, their idea is to make you jealous and so come over to their side. No doubt it is a good thing to be made much of, not only by myself — so long as the purpose is good. My little children, my sons and daughters in faith, I am once again laboring over you as if giving birth, until such time as Christ is firmly formed within you and you know you have no need of the nonsense these people are bringing; I long to be present with you, to be able to speak with you personally and be able to deal more tenderly, because right now I feel thoroughly perplexed.

Let’s go over this again. Apparently you want to be under the law, but first of all you need to hear what the law says. Turning again to Abraham, we hear that he had two sons, the first born to a slave woman and the other to a free woman. The child who was born to the slave woman we may say was a child of the flesh: God had nothing to do with this. The child of the free woman however was the fruit of the promise made to Abraham. This can be treated allegorically.[37] The allegory is this: just as there were two women there were also two covenants, two arrangements to subsist between God and man; the first was simply a freely given promise, the covenant made with Abraham and indeed with Sarah; the second was the interim covenant of Mount Sinai which made arrangements for dealing with the flesh, we might say for dealing with the principle operating in the birth to Hagar of Ishmael, so we can say that Hagar and her offspring represent the law, which, as we have seen, reduces us to the status of minors in need of a tutor. This second covenant, Mount Sinai, Hagar, is what is currently to be seen in Jerusalem, the centre of law-keeping, God rejecting, Judaism, which is thoroughly in bondage to religious observances. Sarah however corresponds to the picture of the heavenly Jerusalem;[38] this Jerusalem from beyond earthly confines is free, and she, Sarah, Jerusalem, we may say is our mother, a picture we find extended as we pursue the allegory in Isaiah, where we read ,[39] “Rejoice, you childless woman, you who are unproductive; burst out and shout for joy without even having to go into labour, for the children of the one who was desolate are still more numerous than she who has long had a spouse.”[40]

You Galatians, then, correspond to Sarah’s son, Isaac, and are children of the promise. All that time ago, the child of the flesh, Ishmael, allegorically the child of law, persecuted the child who was born in accordance with the ways of the Spirit, and it is just the same now in your case. The Scripture here is so pertinent: it says, “Cast out the serving woman and her son; the son of the servant is not to be an heir together with the son of the free.” Friends, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the servant girl, bound to a life of servitude; we are children of the free woman, born to freedom. We are therefore to be steadfast in the freedom Christ has given us from the constraints of the religious system, and not follow the alternative of entanglement with the bondage of its associated observances.

I say as solemnly as I can that if you choose religious observance as the way forward, in this case, circumcision, Christ will cease to be of any immediate benefit to you at all. I tell you solemnly that the moment you submit to particular religious observances as part of your justification, you become obligated primarily to those observances, and in the case of circumcision and taking on a Jewish identity, you are obligated to fulfil the whole of Judaic law.[41] The grace of Christ becomes non-operational in you the moment you see yourself as doing well because of some religious observance — you are no longer relying on God to look after you and have lost your hold on his grace.[42] Our position is rather that the right standing with God we already have produces within us hope, and we abide in this positive expectation through the power of the Spirit by faith, trusting him. That’s how we live![43] In this life, in Christ Jesus, following specific religious rules such as circumcision has no efficacy at all, and neither can we brag about not being circumcised: it simply doesn’t matter. There is just the one thing which is of any value and that is our faith in him which finds it expression in love.

You were running along very nicely; we could say you had the inside lane, but you are being blocked out by someone cutting across you; they are turning you away from the straight course of truth. This idea that you need to mix faith in Christ with Judaism is certainly not what I taught you.[44] The trouble is that just as a little yeast raises a substantial amount of dough, this impurity will work its way insidiously through the whole church; but I have confidence in you, in fact a settled confidence in the Lord that you will take the same view as me. However, anyone who troubles you in this way will have a judgement to bear, whoever they might be.[45]

Did I preach any necessity to be circumcised when I was with you? No, of course not, such preaching is defunct, and I am not preaching it now, which is why I am being persecuted. The cross, which is what I do preach, is a stumbling-block and an offence because it means you can’t rely on anything intrinsic to yourself, particularly your nationality and identity as a law-keeper. I wish these people who are troubling you would go the whole way: rather than stopping at the Jewish rite of circumcision, I wish they would go on to the pagan practices you see around you and totally emasculate themselves![46]

Brothers and sisters, the basis of your calling is the freedom we have been talking about — the Christian life cannot be lived without this being thoroughly internalized;[47] but with this there comes a responsibility not to live for self-gratification, but instead exercise our freedom by serving one another with godly love. Rather than coming under the law’s condemnation as we struggle to observe it, we are in a position to fulfill it in its entirety; indeed the whole of the law can be summarized in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you turn back to religious observances, you will immediately start judging one another again (for either adhering or failing to adhere to the standards to which you personally subscribe), biting and devouring one another like animals until any sense of community is destroyed.

What I am saying then is that if you wish to restrain the life of the flesh and the desire for self-gratification, that is if you want to follow the way of holiness, the answer is not to put yourself under laws but to follow and walk closely with the Spirit,[48] following his inward moving. In your life you do have two forces pulling in opposite directions, the flesh with all its old habits wants to go one way, while the spirit is tugging you in the opposite direction, so that it is actually difficult for you to go the way of sin.[49]

So, if you are being led by the Spirit, you are simply not going to be embroiled in the dissensions and strife occasioned by law keeping. If, on the other hand, the unregenerate nature of the flesh is given free rein, it will have its outworking in a whole range of behaviours: adultery and every sort of sexual immorality and impurity, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions,[50] heresies,[51] envy, murder, drunkenness, rioting and so on. As I have told you previously, people who habitually engage in such behaviours will never prove to be heirs in the kingdom of God. However, the fruit of the spirit[52] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. No one can bring any law to bear against this. The key here is that those who belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature of the flesh with its passions and desires;[53] so, in view of the fact that we have the new life principle of the Spirit operating within us, that is the way, through the Spirit’s activity, that we are to order our conduct.

Don’t suppose yourselves to be worthy of some special honour because you are fulfilling some regulation or practice, thereby provoking others, causing dissent and envy. On the contrary, brothers and sisters, when, and we are all subject to this, someone finds themselves to their surprise entangled in a fault of some kind, those who are not bound up in such a way[54], the spiritual among you, should then help to restore that person, gently, with a spirit[55] of understanding, always reflecting on their own tendency to judge; the temptation is always there. We are to help others carry whatever weighs them down, serving, and so fulfilling the law of Christ. If we don’t do this, it will be because we see ourselves as morally superior to the other person, in which case the reverse is true and we are deceiving ourselves. Instead of judging others in that way (that is, by the letter of the law), we are instead to scrutinize the fruit of our works, and this is where we can find real ground for rejoicing, not in lording it over someone else. If we assume this responsibility, if we crucify the flesh, then we may be helpful to others, and as a practical issue you should maintain fellowship,[56] spending time with just such people as are teaching in this vein.

In all of this you must not be deceived: it is God you have to deal with and you must not thumb your nose at his ways — whatever you sow is invariably what you will reap. If your sowing, your investment of time and effort, is to the flesh rather than to the things of God, you will reap the consequences natural to the flesh, that is, decay and corruption, but if you sow with a view to the Spirit, then the Spirit will prove to be the source of eternal life. Commensurate with this, we must not let weariness about doing good overtake us; at the appropriate season, there will be a harvest as long as we don’t tire and walk away from it; when the opportunity presents itself, and it will, do good to everyone, and particularly to those who belong to the household of the faith.

You will see that I have taken great care over this letter, using the most formal of formats.[57] It’s people who want to look good before others and be able to boast of having recruited you who want you to adopt Judaic practice and be circumcised; were they to follow the cross of Christ which has ruled that out, they would likely be persecuted. In fact these very people, though themselves circumcised, Jews, are not really law-keepers themselves,[58] and it’s really to cover this over, to compensate, that they want you circumcised. As for me, I have only thing about which I can boast, and God forbid that I should find cause for glory in anything other than this, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all of that old way of doing things has been crucified to me, erased, and has no hold on me. In Christ Jesus this whole business of finding identity by conforming to particular religious practices is utterly irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the new life and its realization. You can think of this as our one rule, and to everyone who orders their conduct on this basis there will be peace and mercy; these are God’s people, his Israel.[59]

I remind you that I bear around in my body the evidence of my being persecuted for our Lord Jesus, the scars of many wounds. Think about this before you take further steps into bondage; instead, brothers and sisters, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ fill the spirit of each one of you.

[1] To Christ. In context, Paul clearly, in my view, is not here referring to the Father. His focus is continually on Christ.

[2] Every article I read, every translation that tries to make this explicit, except for one, says that this ‘one’ is God. However, it seems to make at least equal sense to say that it is Paul. Paul called them, on God’s behalf, as an apostle, in and into the sphere of Christ’s grace; instead of listening to him, they are now listening to others, and he therefore is at pains to stress the genuineness of his authority and to resist those who are running him down. It is Doddridge who is the exception and agrees with this. Were the Galatians actually turning away from God? It is not clear that Paul is saying that at all, unless you follow, for example, the KJV of 5:4, which says “you have fallen from grace.” No, they wanted to walk with God but were being misled, so Paul later says that he has confidence in them. They were however turning away from Paul! As a means of persuasion, it seems very counter-productive to start your letter by accusing the recipients of such a gross offence as rejecting God!  See also 5.8 and note.

[3] This is more accurate than “into” or “by”, as well as fitting better in context.

[4] This is very strong; it means that they be utterly separated from God. It is more than ‘accursed’, the common translation; it suggests being under a prohibition, a ban; the OED says ‘consigned to damnation’.

[5] In so far as the result of this is Paul’s preaching, it seems likely that the thought here is more that Christ would now be seen in him by others rather than there being a reference to Paul’s personal, inner experience.

[6] There is an intriguing article by NT Wright entitled Paul, Arabia and Elijah. Although in this translation I did not use the word zeal, the KJV nicely translates Paul in 1:14 as saying that he had a “zeal for the law”. This zealousness was a long tradition in the OT, going back to Phineas, Jehu and Elijah (‘I have been very zealous for the Lord of hosts’). All these men engaged in violent action, as did Paul. After defeating the prophets of Baal, Elijah fled to the desert, to Sinai, where God turned him around and gave him a commission. Wright’s suggestion is that Paul in his zeal was consciously following Elijah. Apparently it should be noted, however, that ‘Arabia’ was a very vague term in Greek, so that although it might be pleasing to think of Paul at Sinai, it’s not necessarily the case.

[7] It is not initially easy for this to be reconciled with Acts 10, where we are told that Paul, ‘immediately’ preached in Damascus, was then brought to ‘the apostles’ and moved about freely in Jerusalem, preaching, before being ‘sent away’ to Tarsus. Some commentators seem to gloss over the difficulty, but the Expositor’s Bible tackles it directly, pointing out that Luke is recording the external events, where Paul is more concerned with subjective experience. A possible sequence of events is that Luke simply misses out Paul’s retirement ‘into Arabia’, being concerned only with the public ministry in Damascus; that Paul then went to Jerusalem; that Barnabas introduced him to an apostolic council, but that he only ever actually met with Peter and James; that he spent enough time in Jerusalem, during which 15 days were spent with Peter, to stir up enough trouble for it be necessary for the church to send him away, north to Cilicia, which is the province to which Tarsus belonged; and that in verse 21 here Paul is summarizing the whole 10 year period which culminated in Barnabas seeking him out in Tarsus and taking him to Antioch.

[8] This would seem the logical outcome of the proposed reconciliation of Acts 9 and our passage here. Paul took over from Stephen’s preaching in so far as both he and Stephen were speaking, as recorded here in Acts 9 and in Stephen’s case Acts 7, to the same people; Stephen attacked what Judaism tended to become — opposed to God — and Paul made it even more explicit — that God was now turning to the non-Jews.

[9] It’s possible that there is a play of words here in which Paul contrasts himself with those who he said were to be anathematized. The word there is anathema; here the word for communicate is anatithemi.

[10] There is no reason to see this as a report on another council than the one recorded in Acts 15. The basic issue is the same. However, Paul does not report here what looks like the smudging of issues in Acts 15:29, where the gentiles are ‘required’ to abstain from things sacrificed to idols etc. This addition makes it look like the council did not wholly trust non-Jews! Nevertheless, Paul does not make an issue of this here.

[11] There is considerable discussion about the translation of this phrase, which is more commonly translated as “faith IN Christ”. I choose against that with the reasons adduced by Roger Forster as support for my theological preference. It could also be translated as “the faithfulness of Christ”. There are also very good reasons to translate the Greek word pistis not by “faith” but by “trust”. Faith is somewhat abstract; trust is much more personal.

[12] Perhaps a translation should be definite, but there is a good alternative here. “It looks from your behavior as though when we are seeking to be justified by Christ rather than by religious observance, and thereby putting the religion behind us, you in fact think we are becoming sinners. This would mean that Christ is leading us into sin, which is ridiculous.” This is simpler but fails to iterate Paul’s recurring thought that there is no distinction now between Jew and non-Jew.

[13] Note that here the quotation marks have, somewhat arbitrarily, been dropped. It really isn’t clear where Paul is reporting his words to Peter and where he returns to addressing the Galatians. However, if Paul is seen at this point as continuing to speak to Peter, his comment seems to me to become redundant, since he had just covered this ground.

[14] I think this phrase would require a book as a note, so it is left standing as it is, with all its potential.

[15] Crucifying me.

[16] We might point out that “sons” here means being of the same nature as Abraham in terms of trust, not in terms of becoming part of the physical race descended from him. The Galatians must have been hearing that they needed to become sons of Abraham in a physical sense, and that this meant circumcision.

[17] Not the same word as before – this is epikataratos.

[18] For example in Deut 28.

[19] The question of who this “us” refers to is critical to understanding the whole book. Having been taught that it refers to me, and that this verse about being redeemed from the curse of the law refers to me, I have simply always been unable to understand the letter. I have tried in vain to apply it to myself, and I simply can’t, so the whole letter, except for chs 5 and 6, which are eminently practical, just misses me if that is the point. Indeed, the closer you look at this particular passage, the more logically inconsequential Paul’s argument seems if the “us” includes the Galatians, and by extension you and me. Paul has just been telling the Galatians that the Jewish legal prescriptions, the law, does not apply to them, so why is he now suddenly saying that it is important for them to know that they are “redeemed from the curse of the law”? It makes no sense. The reason it makes no sense is that it is wrong. As in his discussion with Peter, Paul’s “us” means the Jews. I could never understand, had no idea, what it means for me to be “redeemed from the curse of the law” — and no wonder, because I have never been under the law. Paul’s argument to the Galatians is not “you have been redeemed from the curse of the law” but “don’t go under the law”. How simple! (Forster agrees that “us” means “we Jews.”) However, it is still difficult to see how this verse 13 connects logically to the next verse, so for this, see the translation and its note.

[20] There are good reasons to avoid the use of the word “redeem” here. The analogy easily gets taken too far. If we could limit ourselves to seeing redemption in terms of Boaz’ redemptive act towards Naomi and Ruth, the “kinsman redeemer,” it would avoid a lot of theological problems. To speak of deliverance at a personal cost to Christ seems to cover the case very well, particularly in light of Paul’s earlier statement, translated in the KJV as who loved me and gave himself for me. It cost Jesus dearly, and translating like this we avoid the questions people raise about to whom the cost of redemption was paid.

[21] This is a very strange statement, and one that initially I would rather avoid and say simply that He was “accursed”; however the text specifically says that He became a curse. How can a person BE a curse? Well, I have a dog that lives near me that barks at all hours— that dog is a curse to the neighbourhood. Does Paul mean something like this? There seems to me to be a psycho-spiritual wellspring here that is much deeper that saying that Jesus was accursed, as Paul’s scriptural quotation says, or that he simply bore the curse.

[22] This must be what Paul is saying. There has to be a logical connection between verses 13 and 14, and Christ’s redeeming of people from the curse of the law cannot directly be a source of Abraham’s blessings coming on the Gentiles because, like Abraham, they were never under the law. There therefore must be another, indirect, unstated, connection; given Paul’s perennial concern with the relationship between Jew and non-Jew, this has to be it — and the ensuing passage supports this view.

[23] Not without the consent of both parties we might add.

[24] We might also make the obvious point that the law was not the inheritance, though this might not have been so obvious to religious Jews, who may have seen the Torah in precisely that light.

[25] Many sources say here that the purpose of the law, the extensive system found in the Pentateuch with its regulations about behaviour and its provisions, often sacrificial, for sin, was to show sin for what it is, to transform it from merely being wrong to being seen as definite, culpable transgression (the word used  here) of the law. As Wuest puts it– it shows that “sin was not only the following evil impulses but . . .  was the violation of the laws of God”. While certainly true as an effect of the law, I don’t see that this is what Paul is saying, that is, I don’t think he is saying it is the primary purpose of the law — rather it is a secondary, incidental effect. For one thing it does not fit well with the picture he is about to bring of the law as a tutor, a guide, and, generally, the primary purpose of the law was to make provision for sin, regulating it, providing means for forgiveness with its sacrificial system which pointed forward to and pre-figured Jesus, and also, in one respect, simply as a legal code for society.

[26] This surprises when we look at the Exodus account of the giving of the law since angels do not seem to be mentioned, but this was, we read, a well-established tradition among the Jews, and evidently accepted by Paul.

[27] As one does with children.

[28]Careful note needs to be taken of the pronouns used. Throughout this passage Paul alternates, according to who he is talking about, between “we” and “you”.

[29] Whereas other nations were always liable to and did develop doctrines and practices that denied this.

[30] We note that Paul does not say that there is no need for any law; just that there is no need for the Jewish laws to serve them, the Jews, as a tutor. Paul is not saying that we no longer need laws to keep us “on the straight and narrow”; no, he is simply and constantly saying that the law and legal observance cannot in any way justify but only point to the need for justification, and since the justification has now come they are no longer needed to do that. If this was true for the Jews, how much more was it unnecessary and retrograde for the non-Jews to put themselves under the law’s tutelage.

[31] This is really a very powerful argument against the Galatians taking on board extra religious observances (circumcision in particular). It is sometimes thought that Paul tends to get side-tracked in his thinking. I do not believe this; Paul is very focused and highly disciplined in all he says. “Have the same standing” is, I think, what is meant by “are one in Christ Jesus,” a statement which can sound like a rather pleasing sentiment but without conveying anything very much. I think this one verse is the heart of what Paul is saying in this letter.

[32] Some translations talk about “elemental spirits” or something similar here, but this does not seem to make any sense. “Elementary teaching” or “basic principles” is much better.

[33] Plainly this is crazy. This passage makes so much consistent sense when we see it as Paul pursuing his picture of sons entering their inheritance. Why would such a person turn back to their tutor?

[34] One would suppose that the reference to years would involve the 7 year Sabbath and the Jubilee. Perhaps such observance would be a good idea, but not as an evidence of godliness! A first unhappy observation is that some church groups would use this text wrongly as a reason not to follow any kind of church calendar – “we don’t keep Christmas.” A second would advise churches to be careful about going too far in being “Messianic” – calling Jesus Yeshua and paying attention to the Jewish feasts: all very interesting, but easily becoming legalistic.

[35] There are vigorous arguments brought by the best preachers with a focus on healing (notably TL Osborn) that Paul was not sick. However, the very “best” Christians do at times get sick – though we trust they also recover in line with the preaching of faith – and it certainly looks in this passage as though Paul had a problem with his eyes. One of the finest men I know anything about was HA Baker, missionary in south-west China. Together with his tribal people he both saw many great healings and also suffered terrible sores on his legs, a lot of physical suffering; he did get better in the end. There is also a good testimony to thus by Randy Clark in The Healing Breakthrough. He states the teaching that Paul’ ‘thorn in the flesh’ was not a physical ailment,  but also tells of a period in which he suffered severe back pain – before being healed by God.

[36] The Greek word is also the word for angel. It doesn’t initially seem to me likely that Paul would use the word lightly, but he has already used it earlier when he says “if I or an angel from heaven preach a different gospel”; he may also have been thinking of his reception in Lystra when they thought he was a god. So “angel” may well be what he was thinking; there is certainly a lot of hyperbole in these verses.

[37] In what follows it is initially far from easy to see an argument that would carry much force with the Galatians. As giving us an important principle of OT biblical interpretation its value is plain, but as an argument to persuade the Galatians, I think a lot of digging is necessary.

[38] This was a common thought among the rabbis. It must be a reflection of the way, for example, the tabernacle of Moses was a copy of the heavenly. We also have the picture of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down from above in Revelation as the final fulfilment of the promise, of grace.

[39] 54:1

[40] Somewhat ironically, this was originally spoken to Jerusalem. The blessing is very evidently miraculous, since she does not go into labour, and does not even appear to have a spouse.

[41] This is a good point to quote Dunn (The Epistle to the Galatians p.266): “No Jew that we know of thought of the Jewish way of life as a perfect life, that is, without sin or failure. Rather, it was a total way of life, which, through the cult, its sacrifices and atonement, provided a means of dealing with sin and failure.” Paul is talking about how we are going to live, not how to start the life of faith. He wants the Galatians and us to experience ongoing life in the Spirit, the life of sons, not of minors under a tutor rapping our knuckles, but as sons with an understanding of our status.

[42] In Phil 1:19, Paul talks about the “supply of the Spirit”. This surely is what is in mind here. It is worth noting that where the KJV says “you have fallen from grace”, with its extreme connotations, the word translated “fallen” is more correctly translated as here.

[43] This is the meaning of being saved by hope (Rom 8:24). It should be noted that some commentators say that in this verse “righteousness” is the hope — we hope for righteousness. I think this makes no sense.

[44] Again, as in 1:6, Doddridge alone of the writers I have looked at supports reading the “one who called you” as Paul rather than God. However, it makes perfect sense, particularly when we look 2 verses further and see Paul talking about what he said when he “called” the Galatians to faith.

[45] As in other places in Galatians, which is usually seen as the first of Paul’s letters to have been written, we might think of passages in other letters where we find Paul developing things further. Here, I think of him writing to the Corinthians and saying that he was “present in spirit” to judge.

[46] If left without the reference to pagan practice (Wuest says emasculation was practiced at Pessinus in the worship of Cybele), Paul seems to be simply using strong language; but with the suggestion that circumcision and Jewish law were in essence similar to a pagan ritual Paul is both being very radical and adding to his argument. (We might also add a little note — one translation here says, ‘I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves’; ‘going the whole way’ was what, in my translation, Peter did at Antioch.)

[47] Commentators commonly seem to suggest that Paul is now moving on to the practical part of his letter, as though this were separate from the doctrinal part, but, while translations such as the KJV tend to make it easy to believe this, it is just not so: he is continuing with his tightly argued reasoning about freedom from religious observance, which means “walking after the Spirit.”

[48] In the ensuing passage it’s difficult to know whether or not to capitalize “spirit.” The Greek did not capitalize, so it is not clear. In this verse it looks like it means the Holy Spirit; in v.17, it looks more like the human spirit; and in v. 18, it looks again like the Holy Spirit. When we come to v.22, the “fruit of the spirit,” there are strong reasons to see this as the human spirit. In one sense it doesn’t matter in so far as Paul tells us in his Corinthian correspondence that “a person united to the Lord is one spirit.” Again, when writing about speaking in tongues, he says that the “Spirit gives utterance,” but also that “my spirit prays.” There is an arbitrary element to the translation here.

[49] In a translation such as the KJV, it is left unclear what it is that you can’t do — “you cannot do the things that you would” — does this mean the good things or the bad things? Or perhaps Paul is just putting us in the position of quandary and weakness he expounds in Romans 7. However, in that passage too there is an answer (in ch 8), a victory, and in the previous verse here he talks about successfully restraining the flesh, so that is his focus and intent. A word of testimony here: I had been “born again” at the age of 11 — “there’s been a big change in me!” However, through serious misunderstanding of what the Bible was supposed to be all about, I tried to get away from it, as far away as I could, but all my endeavours at “sex ‘n drugs ‘n rock ‘n roll” were a dismal failure. I “could not do the things that [I] would”! There is, however, plenty of room for discussion on this issue.

[50] It’s interesting to note that the list here, while clearly applicable to us individually, may also apply to community, and in fact, given the context, that may be Paul’s principal thought.

[51] The meaning of the Greek word is to offer an alternative point of view.

[52] One reason to see this as the human spirit has to do with John 15, where Jesus says that “you are the branches” and that we “bear much fruit.” It is noteworthy here that we do not “produce” the fruit, which is a product of the vine, but we do “bear” it; we are involved! It is also worth noting that if the emphasis was on the Holy Spirit, we might expect the fruit to be born regardless of human character, in the same way as spiritual gifts may be manifest without reference to character; but, no, growth in grace is part of this fruit bearing, so an emphasis on the human spirit is appropriate. We might also see “self-control” as confirming this.

[53] At the risk of being repetitive, but underlining the consistency of Paul’s argument, this is because we are not trying to meet religious standards — as stated in Romans, we died to the Law.

[54] Paul is perhaps employing some irony here by referring to such people as “the spiritual,” much as he does with the Corinthians; the context here, though, makes me doubtful of this.

[55] Clearly with small s here.

[56] The Greek here has no reference to financial responsibilities.

[57] The “large letters” of a literal translation refer to the formal style of uncials.

[58] Perhaps unlike Paul himself, who had attempted scrupulously to keep the law and had “excelled”?

[59] The name Israel means “as a prince, having power with God.” We note that what I have been presenting as Paul’s steadfast purpose throughout this letter is pursued to the very end – the union of Jew and non-Jew.