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The Galatian Heresy

in the Plan of God

Understanding the Galatian heresy and its place in the plan of God opens the
doors to understanding the relationship of the old and new covenants a major
issue in New Testament theology. It also helps us understand the apostle Peter
himself and the kind of transition the early Jewish church faced, as well as the
situation of the Gentile Christians who were caught in the middle of a controversy
among Jews who claimed to follow Jesus. Finally, in so far as this entire theological
controversy was obviously part of Gods plan, studying the Galatian heresy and
the controversy surrounding it helps us understand how God uses sin and error for
the progress of His kingdom.

Historical and Chronological Background

Before we can tackle the problems that Paul faced in the Galatian churches,
we have to set the historical scene. However, there are controversies here in two
areas. To whom did Paul write the epistle of the Galatians? When did Paul write
the epistle to the Galatians? The two questions are related. The word Galatia
could refer either to a Roman province or to a geographical region, so an epistle
addressed to the churches of Galatia could conceivably refer to churches in the
Northern area which is geographical Galatia. In that case, the churches which
would have been largely composed of people who could have been ethnically
referred to as Gauls from whom the geographical region gets its name. If these
were the recipients of Pauls letter, it could not have been written until after Pauls
second missionary journey (Acts 16:6 ff.).
This used to be the common understanding of the Galatian churches.
However, another theory has become more popular since the work of Sir William
Ramsey, whose archaeological research in Asia Minor did much to elucidate the
historical backgrounds for Pauls epistles. If Pauls letter is addressed to churches
that he visited on his rst missionary journey, recorded in Acts 13-14, they would
be located in the Roman province of Galatia, in the Southern area. As we see from
the story in Acts, the churches would have been clearly a mixture of Jew and
Gentile planted in a social context of Jew-Gentile controversy.
The South Galatian theory not only ts the story of Acts better, since there is
no actual record of churches established in North Galatia and the churches in the
South would naturally have faced problems with Jew-Gentile relationships, but it
also harmonizes well the chronology of Galatians and Acts. In addition, the South
Galatian theory suggests that the book of Galatians was written before the great
Jerusalem council of Acts 15, where the question of circumcising Gentiles was
decided by the rst ever church council. After Acts 15, it hardly makes sense for
anyone claiming to be from James to assert that Gentiles must be circumcised (Gal.
2:12), since James himself, with Peter, too, participated in the council which
condemned that view.
Thus, I assume that the Galatian churches were in cities that Paul visited on
his rst missionary journey Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe and
perhaps others. This brings us nally to the matter of chronology. Paul says in
Galatians 1:18 that his rst visit to Jerusalem was three years after he was called to
serve Christ. In the book of Acts, this is recorded in Acts 9:26-30. Luke did not
mention that Paul meet Peter on this occasion, but the record in Acts ts Pauls
description in Galatians a short visit to Jerusalem of about 15 days, which
resulted in churches throughout Judea praising God (Acts 9:31; Gal. 1:23-24).
Pauls second visit to Jerusalem, he tells us in Galatians 2:1-2 was fourteen
years after his call to the apostleship. He and Barnabus traveled to Jerusalem in
response to a revelation. Acts 11:27-30 records the revelation of a great famine and
the church in Antioch deciding to send Barnabus and Saul to Jerusalem with a gift
to help the churches of Judea. This visit can be dated because Luke tells us in Acts
12:20-23 that it was at this time that Herod suddenly died because of Gods
judgment. The date would be AD 44. Luke records that Barnabus and Saul
returned to Antioch at this time (Acts 12:25). Not long after their return, they were
commissioned to spread the Gospel (Acts 13:1-3).
The chronology of Acts and Galatians, then, is clear. If Paul visited Jerusalem
with Barnabus fourteen years after his conversion at about the time when Herod
died, Paul was converted in AD 30. The rst visit to Jerusalem recorded in Acts
9:26-30 would have been in AD 33.
This gives us a skeletal chronology for the rst parts of Acts as well.
Everything recorded in Acts 1 through 9:22 occurred in AD 30, the year of Christs
death and resurrection. From Acts 9:22 to the end of Acts 12, Luke reports the
history of the next 11 years of the Churchs growth. Pauls missionary journey in
Acts 13-14 and the Jerusalem council are not precisely dated. Considering the data
as a whole, the council would probably have been in AD 49, give or take a year.
Pauls missionary journey to the churches in Galatia represented a journey of
over 1200 miles. He may have begun late in AD 44 or in AD 45 and presumably
took at least two years. Paul and Barnabus traveled rst through the cities
mentioned in Acts 13-14 and then revisited each city, establishing elders for the
churches that had been planted (14:23). If his journey ended sometime in AD 47,
then Paul would have received news shortly after of the churches in Galatian
folding to pressure from Jewish Christians, perhaps claiming to be from James (cf.
Gal. 2:12), who taught that Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved (cf. Acts
15:1-2). The churches in Galatia, Paul said, had turned from his Gospel quickly
(Gal. 1:6) and Paul must have responded immediately. This suggests that Galatians
was written in AD 47 or 48, not long before the Jerusalem council.
Apparently the Judaizers visited the churches in Galatia, disrupting them and
creating a controversy, which Paul answered by his letter. Then, perhaps the same
Judaizers or others of the same opinion came to Antioch to confront Paul and
Barnabus directly. Since these men were from Judea and probably claimed to
represent the apostles, it was decided to send Paul and Barnabus to Jerusalem to
bring the matter to a clear conclusion. Once the council of Jerusalem made its
public declaration, the matter of Gentiles being circumcised could no longer be a
major issue in the churches. After Acts 15, whoever claimed that Gentiles must be
circumcised to be saved could be easily answered with the united voice of the
apostles in a public declaration from a council held in the Holy City itself. The
circumcision issue was put to rest by AD 50.

The Transitional Era

In the broadest sense, the entire era from the incarnation of the Son of God to
the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 is a transitional era. The coming of the
Messiah into the world already decisively changed history, but incarnation alone
could not have introduced the new covenant era. Jesus had to minister to Israel as
her Messiah, die on the cross for the sins of the world, and rise again from the dead
to ascend and be seated at the right hand of God in order for the kingdom that He
announced to be established and the world to enter the new era.
However, the existence of the temple in Jerusalem meant that there seemed to
be two divinely sanctioned brides of the Creator God. Jesus Himself said that
the temple was His Fathers house and the apostles preached and worshipped
there, even after the Church had been ofcially established at Pentecost. It was
only when the temple was destroyed by an act of divine judgement, as Jesus
predicted (Mat. 24), that the rejection of old covenant Israel and the establishment
of the new covenant Israel was made publicly manifest.
Within this long transitional era, there are important though smaller
transitions as well. On of the most striking is the change of the disciples of Jesus
from their partial unbelief before His death and resurrection to their robust faith
after the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. In the book of Acts, there is also a transition
from the era when the church is almost exclusively Jewish to a time when the faith
of Christ has spread throughout the Roman empire and is embraced by Gentiles as
well. This transition, however, has not received as much attention as it deserves.
Until Peter is sent by God to visit Cornelius, the Gospel has only been
preached among Jews and Samaritans. The visit to Cornelius was some time after
Pauls rst visit to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, and before Pauls
visit to Jerusalem in AD 44 to bring relief to the churches in Judea. Otherwise, it is
difcult to date with any precision. The signicance of the incident in the book of
Acts, however, is profound. The story of Peters visit to Cornelius is the longest
single narrative in the entire book (Acts 10:1-11:18). Not only are there repeated
references to the Centurions and Peters visions in this story (Centurion: 10:3-6,
22, 30-32; 11:13-14; Peter: 10:9-16; 11:4-10), Peter also refers back to this incident at
the Jerusalem council in the decisive speech that effectively brought the whole
debate to an end. What happened at this visit brought about an unexpected
change in the history of the early church.
This may surprise a modern reader. After all, when Jesus rose from the dead,
He commanded His followers to disciple the nations (Mat. 28:19). In spite of
this, however, it was not clear to Peter or the other disciples that they were to
preach the Gospel to Gentiles. After the persecution that occurred after the stoning
of Stephen apparently led by Saul (Acts 8:1) the Jewish Christians were
scattered away from Jerusalem. What is remarkable here is that for some reason,
they conned their Gospel preaching to Jews only (Acts 11:19). This same lack of
insight about the universal character of the Gospel is evident in the story of Peters
visit to Cornelius. Without a special divine visitation, it would not have occurred
to Peter that the Great Commission could mean that he could eat with Gentiles and
preach the Gospel to them.

And he said to them, You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a
Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has
shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So
when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you
sent for me. (Acts 10:28-29)

However, even a vision from God sending Peter to the home of a Gentile was
not enough to enable Peter and his Jewish freinds to grasp the full meaning of the
Great Commission. Peter did, of course, preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, but he
apparently did not imagine that they could be baptized without rst having been
In my book The Baptism of Jesus the Christ, I pointed out Hal Lindseys remarkable exegesis of
Matthew 28:19. Lindsey asserted: Go therefore and make disciples of [Greek = out of] all the
nations.. . . We are told to make disciples from out of all the Gentiles. You dont disciple nations,
you disciple individuals, so the Greek word translated nations should be understood in its most
frequently used senseGentiles. However, the Greek of Matthew 28:19 does not include the
Greek word out of. In fact, Jesus actually commanded exactly what Lindsey said cannot be done.
In Greek, the verb here is disciple, which is translated into English as make disciples of since
the word disciple in English is not a verb. But if we make it a verb to understand clearly what
Jesus said, the command is disciple [verb] the nations [direct object]. There implication here is
not that we are to make some disciples out of every nation but rather that the nations of the world
are to be taught to believe in Christ and be baptized. Jesus is commanding His disciples to conquer
the world through the Gospel. See: The Baptism of Jesus the Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock,
2010), pp. 197-98.

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all
who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised
who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy
Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing
them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared,
Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have
received the Holy Spirit just as we have? (Acts 10:44-47)

In addition to the Great Commission and to special revelation in a vision, it
was necessary for God to pour out the Spirit in an evident display of His
covenantal blessing in order for Peter and those with him to understand that
Gentiles were to be received into the body of Christ simply upon the basis of their
professed faith.
If the story of Peters slow realization ended here, it would be remarkable
enough, but there is more. Sometime after the revelation of Gods inclusion of the
Gentiles in Acts 10, Peter visited Antioch and was eating with Gentile Christians
(Gal. 2:11), but when Jewish Christians from James arrived, Peter separated
himself from the Gentiles and ate only with the Jews. Certainly the vision in Acts
10 should have made the matter of table-fellowship clear to Peter, but he gave in to
the social pressure of the Jerusalem Christians.
Even more surprising than Peter here, however, is Barnabus. Not only had he
had been fellowshipping with Gentile Christians in Antioch since he was rst sent
there by the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:19-22), he had also accompanied Paul on a
missionary journey to the Gentiles during which they would have celebrated the
Lords Supper with uncircumcised Gentile Christians. Paul, therefore, is shocked
that even Barnabus was led astray (Gal. 2:13).