The Churches of Galatia

J. H. Large, Lesmahagow, Lanark

Part 3 of 7 of the series Churches in the Acts

Category: Exposition

3. GALATIA

Quotations are from the Revised Version

Who were the Galatians?

Although at one time the question was much debated, there now seems to be widespread agreement that the Epistle to the Galatians was sent to churches in the area evangelized by Paul and Barnabas during the journey described in Acts 13. 13 to 14. 25. Some of the points made in this article will carry weight only with those readers who share the writer’s conviction that the cumulative evidence amply justifies the above view.

Four towns are named, Antioch in Pisidia (not the Antioch of Acts 11), Iconium, Lystra and Derbe and it seems clear that churches were established in each. But the expression ‘every church’ in 14. 23 may suggest that there were more than these four. Certainly ‘the word of the Lord was spread abroad throughout all the region’ of Antioch, 13. 49, and later the missionaries preached in the country surrounding Lystra and Derbe, 14. 6-7. It is sound spiritual strategy to establish a solid base in a suitable centre and to spread out from this. Possibly the converts had a share in sounding out the word, as we know was the case in Thessalonica, 1 Thess. 1. 8; cf. Acts 19. 10.

Paul’s Entry into Galatia

It would seem that Paul’s health broke down in the malarial district of Perga so that, instead of tarrying there to evangelize, he pushed on into the healthier regions of Galatia, returning to Perga later, 14. 25. His remarks in Galatians 4. 13, ‘Ye know that because of an infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you the first time’, have been taken to mean that but for the need to recuperate he might not have visited them. Why should such an ardent servant of Christ, divinely commissioned and entrusted with such a momentous stewardship have been so often hampered by ill-health? There are many mysteries in life but we may rest assured that God has His own wise purpose in all that He allows. The apostle’s handicaps high-light his amazing fortitude and endurance in pushing on despite bodily weakness and in face of intense persecution and cruel ill-usage by the enemies of the Gospel. Nor ought we to overlook his super-human courage when, for the sake of helping the new converts, he retraced his steps to re-visit these towns, when he might have returned to Syrian Antioch by continuing his journey eastward.

Paul’s Preaching

As we have remarked before, valuable lessons are to be learned from a comparative study of the various sermons recorded in this book. His approach to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch bears such obvious resemblances to Stephen’s method before the

Council in Jerusalem that we are justified in believing that the martyr’s line of argument deeply impressed him, though at the time it only increased his resentment. Stephen got the hook into Paul’s jaw and later God landed the fish. Stephen’s life was cut short but in a sense he lived on in the work of Paul. No work of the Spirit of God ever comes to naught.

Paul did not charge the Jews in Antioch with the crucifixion of Christ as Peter rightly did the Jews in Jerusalem. Peter boldly said ‘Ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay’. Acts 2. 23; cf. 4. 10. Paul placed the direct guilt in the same place - he did not say ‘ye’ but ‘they that dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers’, 13. 27. Note also ‘they’ in verses 28-29. Nevertheless, when he discerned their hostile reaction, like Stephen at a similar point, he solemnly warned them of following the awful example by rejecting the salvation offered in the name of Christ, vv. 40-41.

It is equally instructive to observe the different approach to the pagan peasants in Lycaonia although, of course, the special circumstances must be borne in mind. With the Jews he made ample use of the Scriptures they knew so well and whose authority they accepted, but such an argument would only have bewildered the simple Lycaonians who had no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, he appealed to facts within their own experience - nature’s witness to God; ‘that ye should turn from these vain things unto the living God, who made the heaven and the earth’ and who ‘gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons’, 14. 15-17. Can anyone imagine Paul talking to Jews in the synagogue like that? It is obvious how inappropriate either would have been to the other, yet many estimable preachers take little or no account of their hearers’ background when presenting the Gospel.

We are not to conclude from this special sample of preaching that Paul did not go farther than the subject of natural evidences. In his letter to the Galatians he could remind them that before their very eyes ‘Jesus Christ was openly set forth crucified’, Gal. 3. 1. This suggests that whereas Paul brought to bear on the minds and consciences of instructed Jews the inescapable connection between their own prophecies and the death and resurrection of Christ, his appeal to the Galatians was more to the heart.

But this is not to say that the missionaries were satisfied with a superficial and emotional work. Just as the believing Jews and devout proselytes were urged to continue in the grace of God, 13. 43, so later on Paul and Barnabas confirmed the souls of all the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith and realistically warning them that they must be ready to face tribulation, 14. 22. Paul would have felt that he had laboured in vain if saints did not continue steadfastly in the faith, Gal. 4. 11; Phil. 2. 16; 1 Thess. 3. 5.

The Reception Given

True to the sad general pattern traced in the Acts, the Jews on the whole (with happy exceptions) rejected the message of a crucified Messiah and became the relentless persecutors of Paul and Barnabas, especially when the message was drawing away proselytes in whose conversion to Judaism they took such pride. Evidently the Galatian churches were composed mainly of Gentiles including many who were rescued direct from paganism. ‘At that time, not knowing God, ye were in bondage to them which by nature are no gods’, Gal. 4. 8. If we are to take the inhabitants of Lystra as a sample of the native population of Galatia then they would appear to have been rather primitive people. After acclaiming Paul and Barnabas with wild enthusiasm as gods, they could be swayed by equally fanatical Jews to stone Paul and drag him out of the city leaving him for dead. Their excitability, fanaticism and fickleness accord very well with the impressions left upon us by Paul’s letter. Those who had received the Gospel hailed Paul as an angel from God, even as Jesus Christ. So great was their exuberance and emotion that, deeply touched by the discomfort and inconvenience which he suffered through some painful and perhaps disfiguring affliction of the eyes, they would have plucked out their own eyes if that could have done any good. Yet these were the people who could be so easily swayed by false teachers, Gal. 4. 13-15.

Their Spiritual Growth

But we are not to think that there was nothing more than mere shallow ebullience. They began in the Spirit, Gal. 3. 3, and in the enjoyment of their newly-found blessings, 4. 15, were willing to suffer many things for Christ’s sake, 3. 4. They ran well for a while, 5. 7. How well some must have run becomes clear when we consider that Paul and Barnabas on the return journey were able to appoint for them elders in every church, Acts 14. 23. This obviously supposes remarkable spiritual growth to a real degree of spiritual maturity in a matter of a few months. The godly care which was taken to make proper provision for the spiritual needs of new assemblies at an early stage in their development heeds to be taken to heart to-day. Too often leadership is allowed to get into the hands of quite unsuitable men to the eventual detriment of the testimony. The apostles appointed elders with due solemnity - with prayer and fasting, just as had been the case when they themselves were separated to the work in the first place, Acts 13. 3. If men are entrusted with responsibility in the church in a casual manner, can we be surprised if they sometimes take their duties lightly? Or have we to admit that an attempt to act with proper solemnity would look incongruous because of the general lack of gravity in other church affairs?, Titus 1. 5 ff.

Their Defection

In the light of such early promise, we can better appreciate Paul’s keen disappointment on learning that the Galatians were ‘so quickly removing’ from Him that called them in the grace of Christ unto ‘a different gospel’, Gal. 1. 6. He was not the man to cherish fond illusions about the character and temperament of converts (e.g., Titus 1. 12-13) and he cannot have been ignorant of the instability of the Galatians, but the defection was, nevertheless, so rapid that he was amazed.

Our generation has had evidence of how work once so promising can suffer severe set-backs by an amazing resurgence of heathenism. Missionaries in such a situation, who have been tempted to feel that their labours have almost been in vain, will understand the agony of the apostle’s heart reflected in the urgency and vehemence of his letter. Of course, in the case of the Galatians it was legalism which was the threat, but in principle it was a return to the bondage of ‘weak and beggarly rudiments’, Gal. 4. 8-9. After he had begotten them in the Gospel it must have been very hard to find that those who would once have plucked out their eyes for him were now listening to his detractors, imbibing their pernicious teaching and looking at him askance as if he were now their enemy, 4. 16. Had it been simply that they had turned away from him his stout heart would have endured it better. When no man stood by him at his trial he could rejoice that the Lord stood by him and pray that those who failed him might be forgiven, 2 Tim. 4. 16. But the Galatians were being turned away from the Lord by the influence of these legalists, who had their own selfish ends to serve. The result was strife and bitterness with the danger that believers would bite and devour one another, 5. 15.

Paul’s Attitude

All this was a sore trial to Paul. Those who think that the apostles were of different flesh and blood from ourselves find it difficult to understand how a man like Paul could be perplexed, but this is what he clearly says, 4. 20; cf. 2 Cor. 4. 8. He was tempted to wonder whether he had laboured in vain, 4. 11. It is interesting that it was to the Lycaonians of Galatia that he confessed to being a man of like passions, Acts 14. 15. But although deeply hurt and grieved he did not petulantly write them off as a bad debt. He still loved them (‘my little children’, 4. 19) and generously made allowance for the baneful influence of the false teachers - ‘O foolish Galatians, who did bewitch you?’, 3. 1. He did not give up hope; he travailed in birth for them again, 4. 19, retaining his confidence in them, or rather in the Lord respecting them, 5. 10. Being assured that the original work was of God, 3. 3, he clung to the conviction that God would bring them back.

Was his Confidence Justified?

If, as we believe, the visit recorded in Acts 16. 1-6 was subsequent to the circulation of his Epistle among the Galatian churches, then we have good ground for believing that under God his letter had the desired effect. The Jerusalem decree which he now distributed would support the stand he had taken and we are told that the churches were established in the faith and increased in number daily, 16. 5. What an unspeakable relief this would have been to the apostle’s sorely tried heart.

Moreover the delightful episode concerning the young man Timothy gives us a re-assuring picture of conditions. The R.V. margin of 1 Timothy 1. 18 (‘the prophecies which led the way to thee’) coupled with the reference to the presbytery (eldership) in 1 Timothy 4. 14, indicate that there were at that time spiritual men with prophetic insight able to discern that the young man was being marked out by God for some special service, and who accordingly drew Paul’s attention to him. Timothy had also earned the commendation of the brethren in other churches in his locality and Paul who, like his name-sake king Saul (see 1 Sam. 14. 52), was always on the look-out for promising men, took the initiative in encouraging Timothy to embark upon the work under his guidance, Acts 16. 1-3. Paul had earlier done the same with an older and more experienced man when he ‘chose Silas, and went forth, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God’, Acts 15. 40. Undoubtedly many difficulties would be avoided if spiritual elders were to consult with godly and experienced missionaries when the question of commending young men for work in the mission field has to be faced.

Evidently some, and young Timothy among them, had remained steadfast during the time of general defection. But we must remember that he was not a native Galatian, but the son of a Greek father and a believing Jewish mother. He had been instructed in the Scriptures from his childhood and would not be so easily swayed as the more volatile Galatians, 2 Tim. 3. 15. But equally evident is the fact that at least some of the elders had remained loyal to the truth and they are probably referred to by Paul, ‘let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things’. Gal. 6. 6.

Then again, six or seven years later, Paul tells the Corinthians that he had given direction to the churches of Galatia with regard to the collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem, from which we may conclude that his authority was once more recognized and that the believers were happy to cooperate in this work of love, 1 Cor. 16. 1.

These considerations should give some encouragement to any who have lamented the apparent eclipse of years of labour in fields which once seemed so promising but where subversive influences appear for the time being to be so successful.