We begin St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians this week.  Galatians is a fiery epistle, putting on full display the passion Paul had for the congregations he knew as family.  Paul and Barnabas had founded the congregations in Galatia (the northern part of modern Turkey around Ancyra).  According to Paul and Barnabas’ custom, they kept moving, planting new churches in other regions.  After Paul and Barnabas had left Galatia, men from Jerusalem came to those congregations and preached that Paul had given an incomplete Gospel of Jesus.  These false teachers insisted the Gentile Christians keep all the Jewish laws, including the rite of circumcision.  Paul’s response is strong and insistent.  If the Galatians think they can earn salvation by keeping Jewish laws, they are cut off from Christ!

When people read Galatians, they sometimes wonder how it fits in to the history we have in the book of Acts.  After studying the matter, here is my understanding.

Acts 13:1-14:28 describe the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas.  It ends with them coming to Antioch:  “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.  And they remained no little time with the disciples.”  The open door of faith to the Gentiles probably created a stir, not just in Antioch, but back in Jerusalem, too.  I believe it was at this time, AD 47-48, that the events of Galatians 2 occurred.  Paul, Barnabas, and Titus met privately with James, Peter, and John in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-10).  Titus was not required to be circumcised and the Apostles gave Paul and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship.”

It probably made sense to the Apostles to send Peter up to Antioch to see things first hand (Galatians 2:11-14).  Though most Jews would not eat with Gentiles for their state of ritual uncleanness, the Antioch Christians saw all Christians as made clean by the cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit.  When Peter came to Antioch, he joined the table with all of the Gentiles.  But then when some other “men came from James,” Paul was bold to confront Peter face-to-face.

What a moment!  Peter had walked on water with Jesus.  Peter was one of only three to see the transfigured Jesus.  Peter was the first to confess Jesus to be the Christ and the Son of God.  While Peter was following Jesus, Paul was opposing Jesus.  Paul had stood by approving of the death of the first Christian martyr.  Now Paul was bold to stand against Peter.  It is hard to imagine!

The only way Paul could be so bold was to be utterly confident in the Gospel revealed to him.  He explains, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).  If our ability to stand before God and sit at the holy table with one another comes through keeping the law, we’ll always find places we have fallen short.  If our ability to stand before God and sit in fellowship with one another comes through grace and faith, then Peter could not withdraw from Gentile Christians.  Paul was right.

And the church found Paul to be right.  After Paul wrote Galatians sometime between 48-49, Christian leaders called for a council in Jerusalem.  We read about this in Acts 15:1-35.  It probably occurred around the year 49.  Paul and Barnabas told of their mission work.  Peter spoke in favor of this work.  James concluded, quoting the Old Testament prophecies, that no Gentile Christian need be circumcised.

That means that when we read Galatians, we are reading a letter that comes from the middle of a controversy with a ton at stake.  Paul’s work as an apostle was threatened at a time when it was just beginning.  The Gentile mission was threatened at a time when it was just starting to show fruit.

If things had gone differently, if the church had rejected Paul’s teaching in Galatians, we wouldn’t only not be reading Galatians in the Bible, we wouldn’t be reading Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.  We probably also wouldn’t be reading Luke, Acts, and Hebrews, all written by Paul’s companions.  We—we Gentiles—probably wouldn’t be Christians at all.

Some of what we read in Galatians was probably terrifying in the moment.  Paul and Peter at odds?  Paul claiming that Gentiles who were circumcised were actually cut off from Christ (Galatians 5:4)?  Paul wishing his opponents would cut themselves instead of Gentiles (Galatians 5:12)?

It’s worth remembering these hairy times in the early church when our own congregations go through hard times.  We believe the Holy Spirit was leading the early church, but sometimes our imaginations whitewash the challenges, the fighting, the invective.  Then when we see our own challenges and fighting, we doubt the Spirit is actively leading us.  That’s another way Galatians can encourage us.  Peter made a big mistake and tempers flared, but the Good Shepherd was still guiding His flock.  He was still guiding His flock twenty years after the Ascension.  He is still guiding His flock as we approach 2000 years after the Ascension.  Thanks be to God!