1. Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;)
2. And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia.
Who were the Galatians? To what race did they belong? Where did they live? Can we trace their existence in later times? Are they still to be found in their old country or in some other land?
These questions are more easy to ask than to answer; but they cannot be put aside altogether, even when we are studying the Epistle for devotional purposes, that is, to gain guidance and stimulus for our daily lives and thoughts.
No one has thrown so much light on the matter in modern times as Professor Sir William Ramsay, of Aberdeen, who has travelled, studied, and written with unceasing diligence, so as to bring before our minds the state of things in Asia Minor in St Paul's day. Galatia stood at that time not only for a particular district, but also for a Roman province north of the Taurus, which included many districts, and contained, among other centres of population, the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. The first visit which St Paul paid to this region is shortly described in Acts xiii. and xiv.
The population was mixed. There was a considerable Jewish trading element; a Græco-Roman element, which made for law and civilisation; and an uncivilised, barbarous native element, partly Celtic and partly of an aboriginal stock—probably Hittite. There were roads, thanks to the Romans, in all directions, but accommodation must have been rough, brigandage plentiful, international jealousies numerous, misunderstandings frequent. The Greek language would be understood more or less in most places, but people thought and felt in their mother tongue. In this connection we may recall the reference to "the Speech of Lycaonia" in Acts 14:11.
Such were the people amongst whom Paul found himself in his first great missionary journey. He had left Cyprus behind him; he had parted with Mark; and he had crossed the Taurus in company with his fellow-labourer Barnabas, a man of very different calibre from himself. These two had proclaimed the Saviour first to those who were of the stock of Abraham, and had taught them that justification—that is to say, acceptance with God—was to be attained through faith in the Lord Jesus, not by the law of Moses. Then they had turned to the Gentiles, and had been the means of bringing light and salvation to many. Wherever these two went they founded a community of Christians—partly Jewish and partly non-Jewish—of all classes and ranks, including men, women, and children. On their return journey they confirmed these Communities in the faith, encouraged them to stand fast amid persecution, and appointed elders over the Churches. These elders were no doubt carefully instructed, for much depended on them when (as is generally supposed) there were no written Gospels, and all teaching was oral.
Some time later (Acts 15:36) the state of these Churches was laid upon Paul's heart. "Let us go again," he said to Barnabas, "and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do." Simple words, but they sprang from a devoted heart, and they led to great results. He found, as he had suspected, Judaism working like leaven everywhere, but he carried with him the apostolic decree of Acts xv., by which Christianity was preserved from becoming a mere Jewish sect.
Later still, difficulties increased and multiplied, and at last Paul was led to write the letter which lies before us, of which it has been said that every sentence is a thunderbolt. It must have cleared the air at the time, and it clears the air still. Luther said of it, "This is my Epistle, I am wedded to it." It stands for truth, for liberty and for a Christlike life. It breaks up the fallow ground of our heart; it puts Christianity on a right foundation; it sets forth the moral and spiritual influence of the cross of Christ, and the new-creating power of the Spirit.
Before studying this Epistle, portion by portion, it is very helpful to read it as a whole and at a sitting. Give, if necessary, two or three hours to it, having solemnly prepared your heart for the task by prayer. Let the Epistle produce its legitimate impression on your heart and life. Some parts will pass over you without causing any definite result, but others will reach you, stir you, humble you, and prompt you to put on the Lord Jesus Christ afresh, and to renew your devotion to Him. May the Eternal Spirit Who inspired Paul to write, inspire us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the message contained in this stirring letter!
Lord, open Thou mine eyes to see, my mind to understand, and my heart to realise and love the Truth as it is in Jesus, especially as it is set forth in this Epistle, that it may make its mark on my thought and character, and that it may confirm me in the faith and life of the true Christian. I ask this for Thine own Name's sake. Amen.