GALATIANS: Introduction from Kenneth Wuest  


From Kenneth Wuest's commentary on Galatians.
Word Studies in the Greek New Testament.
Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1966 (Galatians by Wuest in 1944).
Wuest's entire commentary on Galatians is available on line at the present time at:

1. The Historical Background of the Letter
Before entering upon an exegetical study of Paul’s Galatian letter, we must consider the following
questions: first, Where were the Galatian churches located?; second, Who were the Galatians?; and third,
Who were the Judaizers and what did they teach?
First, then, as to the location of the Galatian churches. Some have held that these churches were situated
in that section of Asia Minor designated on the map as Galatia, in which are situated the cities of Pessinus,
Ancyra, and Tavium. This is known as the North Galatian theory. Others hold that these churches were
located in the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. This is the 1 South Galatian theory.
The first theory had a clear field until Sir William M. Ramsay, a traveller in Asia Minor and a student of
the Book of Acts, demonstrated that the Roman province of Galatia included at the time of the founding
of the Galatian churches, not only the territory of Galatia, but also the country immediately to the south of
it in which were situated the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe.
In 278–277 b.c., a people known as the Gauls left their home in southern Europe and settled in northern
Asia Minor. After 232 b.c., their state became known as Galatia. King Amyntas (35–25 b.c.), the last
independent ruler of Galatia, bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, and Galatia became a Roman province, 25
b.c. During the first century, the term Galatia was used in two different senses: geographically, it referred
to the territory in the northern part of the central plateau of Asia Minor where the Gauls lived; and
politically, it was used to designate the Roman province of Galatia as it varied in extent. There was a wide
difference between North and South Galatia in respect to language, occupation, nationality, and social
organization. The northern section was still mainly populated by the Gauls, and was pastoral, with
comparatively little commerce and few roads.
But in South Galatia the situation was radically different. This section was full of flourishing cities, and
was enriched by the constant flow of commerce across it. This was the natural result of its geographical
position and political history. In ancient times it was the highway along which Asiatic monarchs kept up
their communications with the western coast of Asia Minor. When Greek monarchs ruled in Syria and
Asia Minor, the highway between their capitals, Syrian Antioch and Ephesus, passed through South
Galatia, and was the principal channel through which Greek civilization flowed eastward. These monarchs
planted colonies of Jews and Greeks along the extent of this highway. The Caesars inherited the policy of
the Greek monarchs, and planted fresh colonies along this road in order to secure this important route to
the east for their legions and their commerce.
Dr. Henry Clarence Thiessen, B.D., Ph.D., D.D., chairman of the Department of Bible, Theology, and
Philosophy at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, an authority among evangelical scholars, says in his
most excellent book, Introduction to the New Testament, that now all scholars agree that Paul was in the
province of Galatia when he on his first missionary journey visited Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe
(Acts 13:1–14:28). He says that Sir William Ramsay has proved this conclusively, and that no one today
disputes the assertion.
Dr. Thiessen also states that it seems clear that Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36–18:22)
went through North Galatia (Acts 16:6) after he had passed through South Galatia, Luke using the term
Galatian in its territorial sense. On his third journey, he visited the disciples in North Galatia made on the
second journey (Acts 18:23). Dr. Thiessen remarks that it is significant that Luke uses the word disciples
rather than churches in connection with Paul’s visit to North Galatia on his third journey. The implication
is clear that the Galatian churches as such were in South Galatia and that there were only scattered
disciples in the north section. Paul, Dr. Thiessen says, always used the provincial names of the districts
that were under the Roman domination, never the territorial, except as the two were identical in
significance. He speaks of Achaia, Macedonia, Illyricum, Dalmatia, Judaea (in the Roman sense of
Palestine), Arabia, and Asia as provinces.
Dr. Thiessen asks some significant questions, the obvious answers to which point to the opinion that, as
he says, the Galatian letter was written primarily to the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and
Derbe. First, is it likely since Paul alway used the provincial names of districts, that he would speak of
Galatia in any other sense? Second, would it not be strange for Luke to tell us so much about the founding
of churches in South Galatia (Acts 13:14–14:23), and for Paul to say nothing about them? Third, does it
not seem strange, on the other hand, to think that Paul would write so weighty a letter as the Epistle to the
Galatians to churches whose founding is practically passed over in silence by Luke, as would be the case
if the Galatian churches were located in North Galatia? Fourth, would it not be strange also for the
Judaizers of Palestine to pass by the most important cities of Iconium and Antioch in South Galatia, where
there were a good many Jews, and no doubt, some Jewish Christians, and go to the remoter Galatian
country to do their mischievous work?
The location of the Galatian churches in South Galatia, will help us understand the identity of the Galatian
Christians. And this brings us to our next question, Who were the Galatians? It was Paul’s practice to
establish groups of churches around the capitals of the Roman provinces, link those centers together by
chains of churches along the principal roads, and so bring into being an ecclesiastical organization closely
corresponding to the divisions of the Roman empire. He made the provincial capitals of Pisidian Antioch,
Corinth, and Ephesus, the centers of church life, as they were centers of imperial administration, and
surrounded each with its group of dependent churches. Paul and Barnabas left Syrian Antioch on their first
missionary journey with the purpose of extending the gospel to the Greek cities of Asia Minor and the
famous centers of Greek civilization in Greece itself. This was a radical departure from the previous
method by which the gospel was spread. Heretofore, the good news was spread by providential
circumstances such as persecution, where refugees took their faith with them in their flight (Acts 8:1–4).
But here we have a purely missionary enterprise. They sailed to Cyprus, landed at Salamis, went through
the island, took a boat at Paphos and sailed to Perga, and then took the highway to Pisidian Antioch. This
highway continued to Ephesus, which city would put them in touch with the Greek cities of Asia Minor
and the mainland of Greece itself. Paul could have gone to Ephesus by sea from Perga, but at a certain
time of the year, autumn, the violence of the winds made the sea voyage along the Aegean coast
dangerous, and travellers would take the highway from Perga through Antioch. Had Paul intended to
evangelize the cities of South Galatia, he would have taken the overland route from Syrian Antioch
through Tarsus, as he did on his second journey.
Arriving at Antioch, he was seized with a sudden attack of illness which forced him to stay in that city,
and made necessary the abandonment of his projected tour of evangelism in the Greek cities of Asia
Minor and the Greek mainland (Gal. 4:13) . There in Antioch he preached the gospel and from there he
was driven by the Jews. He could not continue his journey westward to Ephesus because of his illness, so
the only thing he could do was to strike out for home.
He accordingly took the great highway back through Tarsus on which the cities of Iconium, Lystra, and
Derbe were located. After establishing churches in these cities, instead of going back to Syrian Antioch by
way of Tarsus, he retraced his steps in order to establish his young converts in the Faith, his illness having
been presumably alleviated, which fact permitted him to take the long way home.
The religion of the Gentiles in the South Galatian cities was more oriental than Greek. Its degraded type of
sensuous worship could hardly satisfy the conscience even of a heathen community to which the
influences of western civilization had come. Greek philosophy and Roman morality created a nobler idea
of human duty and divine government than could be reconciled with the popular religion. Thus all the
better feelings of educated men and women were stirred to revolt against the degraded superstition of the
Into this conflict of religious ideas, the Jewish synagogue entered. The Gentiles flocked to its higher and
nobler conceptions. However, while they gave adherence to the exalted ethics of the synagogue, yet they
would have nothing to do with the sacrificial system which centered in the Jerusalem Temple. To Paul’s
preaching, they gave a cordial welcome.
In the synagogue at Antioch (Acts 13:14–43), the Jews heard the impotence of the law for salvation
announced, and the Gentiles heard the offer of a salvation procured at the Cross and given in answer to
faith in Christ alone. From that hour, both Jew and Gentile recognized in Paul the foremost champion of
the Gentiles, and the most formidable adversary of Judaism, which latter had been set aside by God at the
Cross, but which, under an apostate priesthood, was still being nominally observed.
Before this first missionary journey, the Christian churches had been predominately Jewish. The teachers
were Jewish with an Old Testament background. While interpreting the Old Testament in a new light,
they yet fixed their hopes on the future kingdom of a national Messiah. But now, the newly formed
churches were predominately Gentile, and the Gentiles recognized the Lord Jesus, not as a Saviour looked
upon as the Messiah of Israel only, but as a world-Saviour. Thus, the Galatian Christians were not for the
most part, the fickle-minded Gauls of North Galatia, but Greeks and Jews of flourishing cities situated on
the highways of commerce and government.

This brings us to our third question, Who were the Judaizers, and what did they teach? In order to answer
this question properly, we must no back to Cain, for it was he who first exhibited the tendencies which
form the background of the teachings and activities of the Judaizers. Adam had instructed his sons, Cain
and Abel, as to the proper approach of a sinner to a holy God, namely, by means of a blood sacrifice
which pointed to and symbolized the actual sacrifice for sin which God would some day set forth, even
the Lord Jesus. However, the offering of such a blood sacrifice in itself would not result in the salvation of
the offerer. That offering was to be only an outward visible manifestation of an inward fact, namely, the
act of that offerer in placing his faith in the coming virgin-born child who would crush the head of the
serpent, Satan. Without that act of faith, the offering of the sacrifice would be a mere form, and a mockery
in the eyes of God.
Cain’s reaction to this instruction was that he rejected the teaching of salvation through faith in a
substitutionary sacrifice, and substituted for it his own personal merit and good works. Abel followed the
instructions of his father, his faith leaped the centuries to the Cross, and he was declared righteous. Since
the time of these two men, these two diametrically opposed tendencies are seen in the human race. We see
them in the history of Israel.
There always was the remnant in Israel, a little group which offered the symbolic sacrifices as an
indication of a real living faith in the future substitutionary sacrifice, and there was always the larger
group, which, while it went through the ritual of the Levitical sacrifices, yet exercised no heart faith to
appropriate a salvation offered in grace on the basis of justice satisfied by the atonement, but depended
upon personal merit and good works for salvation. These two groups were in existence in Israel in the first
century. An illustration of the first is found in such believers as Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary the virgin, the
disciples other than Judas. An illustration of the second we find in the priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, and
the Herodians, who while observing the sacrificial ritual of the Temple yet ignored its significance and
depended for salvation upon personal merit and their own good works.
From this latter group came two attacks against New Testament truth, inspired by Satan, two attempts of
the Adversary to destroy the newly-formed Christian Church. One of these was the attempt to substitute
good works for faith in Christ. This was met by the letter to the Galatians. The other was the attempt to
invalidate the atoning worth of the Cross by urging the Jewish wing of the Church to return to the
Levitical ritual of the Temple. This was met by the Book of Hebrews. 2 The first was aimed at the Gentile
wing of the Church, the second, at the Jewish group in the Church. The Judaizers were members of this
unsaved group in Israel, seeking to maintain a corrupt form of the Jewish national religion as against the
Christian Church which had been formed at Pentecost. So much for their identity. We now approach the
question as to their teachings.
Our first source of information is Philippians 3:2–6, 3 where Paul warns the Philippian saints against the
Judaizers. He calls them dogs. The Greek word was a term of reproach among both Greeks and Jews. He
calls them evil workers. The term implies, not merely evil doers, but those who actually wrought against
the gospel. He speaks of them as the concision. The Greek word occurs only here in the New Testament.
A kindred verb is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, speaking of the mutilations
forbidden by the Mosaic law such as the pagans were wont to inflict upon themselves in their religious
rites. The Greek word which Paul uses is a play upon the Greek word circumcision. Paul characterizes
those who were not of the true circumcision as merely mutilated. Heathen priests mutilated their own
bodies. The Judaizers mutilated the message of the gospel by substituting works for grace, and thus their
own lives and those of their converts.
Then Paul contrasts true believers with the Judaizers by saying that the former worship God in the Spirit
whereas the latter have confidence in the flesh. The best Greek texts read, “worship by the Spirit of God.”
The implication is clear that the Judaizers did not worship in the energy of the Holy Spirit, which means
that they were unsaved. The words have confidence are in the Greek literally, “have come to a settled
persuasion.” That is, these Judaizers had come to a settled belief in the merit of human attainment. They
depended upon good works for acceptance with God, which teaching goes right back to Cain.
Then Paul enumerates some of the human attainments and merits which the Judaizers were depending
upon for acceptance with God. The first was circumcision, marking out that person as a member of the
Chosen People, Israel, separating the people of that nation from all other peoples as the chosen channel
through which God would reveal Himself and His salvation to the human race. The rite had nothing to do
with the personal salvation of a Jew or his acceptance before God. The Judaizers made it a prerequisite to
salvation. Luke records the fact that “Certain men which came down from Judaea (to Antioch) taught the
brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
Circumcision was obedience to a command of God. Thus it is included in what we call good works. All of
which means that the Judaizers taught that salvation is by good works.
Second, they taught that acceptance with God was brought about by virtue of the fact that one was a
member of the nation Israel, “of the stock of Israel.” John the Baptist met this teaching when the Pharisees
and Sadducees came to him. He said to them, “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to
our father” (Matt. 3:9). Our Lord encountered the same teaching when the Jews claimed to have Abraham
as their father, which fact would provide for their acceptance with God (John 8:39).
Third, they taught that an ecclesiastical position in the religious system of Israel gave one acceptance with
God. Paul says that he could also have claimed that as a Pharisee he was accepted with God. Fourth, the
faithful observance of the law would provide for them a righteousness acceptable with God. Paul speaks
of this same thing in Romans 9:30–10:3, where Israel is said to have failed in obtaining a righteousness
acceptable with God because the nation ignored the righteousness of God, Christ, given in answer to faith,
and went about to establish its own righteousness by doing good works. This was typical of the rank and
file of Israel, of course, with the exception of the remnant. Isaiah (64:6) speaks of the same tendency of
Israel all down the ages when he predicts that at the Second Advent of Messiah, Israel will finally
acknowledge that all of its righteousnesses are as filthy rags in God’s sight.
Paul distinguishes between the righteousness which is in the law and the righteousness which is by faith
(Rom. 10:5, 6). The first would be possible to a perfect sinless person. By his perfect obedience to God,
he could accrue to himself a righteousness. But no sinner can perfectly obey the legal enactments of the
Mosaic law, and therefore any attempt to produce a righteousness would result in what Isaiah calls filthy
rags. The Judaizers clothed themselves with these. The righteousness of God, Christ, offered to the
believing sinner in answer to his faith, is infinitely more precious and meritorious than any righteousness
which a sinless person could accrue to himself by a perfect obedience to the will of God. Paul in
Philippians 3:9, 4 says that he will have nothing to do with the righteousness which the Judaizers have. He
will have nothing else but the righteousness of God.
After enumerating the various things that the Judaizers were depending upon for salvation, and saying that
he could depend upon those also, Paul says that he has discarded all dependence upon these, for
dependence upon these kept him from Christ. That means that the Judaizers, depending upon these things,
were unsaved.
Our next source of information regarding the Judaizers we will find in Romans 2:17–3:8. Paul, writing to
the believers at Rome, finds it necessary to combat this same Jewish tendency of dependence upon Jewish
ancestry, the law and a knowledge of the same, and circumcision. He shows the Jew that with all his
boasted privileges, he is still an unsaved man as shown by the fact that he does not practice what he
preaches (2:21–24). He devotes chapter 4 to showing that salvation is not by works (1–8), not by
ordinances (9–12), and not by law observance (13–25), saying that Abraham was justified by faith alone,
was saved before the rite of circumcision was performed, and that the law is a ministry of condemnation
rather than of salvation.
We turn now to Philippians 1:14–18. 5 Paul is writing from his prison in Rome. He informs the
Philippians that one result of his imprisonment was that many of the brethren were becoming more
confident in the Lord by reason of his own fearless example, and were preaching the gospel in the face of
opposition and persecution. This group, composed of true believers, was motivated by a love for Paul and
sympathy for him in his present distress. The other group was announcing the Messiah out of a spirit of
rivalry and envy, seeking to make Paul’s imprisonment more distressing to him. They announced Messiah
not sincerely, but with mixed motives, insincerely.
This group was at odds with Paul. They were the Judaizers who dogged Paul’s footsteps, ever seeking to
undermine his work of evangelization and the founding of churches. They announced Jesus of Nazareth as
Messiah, but in a most inadequate way. They could not have announced Him as the Lamb of God who
took away the sins of the world, for they preached salvation by works. An illustration of the hazy,
inadequate, and erroneous conception which the apostate Jewish world had of its Messiah in the first
century is found in the fact that the writer to the Hebrews, in combating the Judaistic attack upon
Christianity from the standpoint of a return to the Levitical sacrifices, finds it necessary to prove from Old
Testament scripture that the Messiah is better than the prophets of Israel, the angels of God, superior to
Moses, Joshua, and Aaron. The writer to the Hebrews was not fighting a straw man. He would not waste
time nor energy nor space in his treatise to refute an argument or a system of teaching that did not exist. 6
In addition to circumcision and obedience to the precepts of the Mosaic law, the Judaizers taught that it
was necessary for these Galatian Christians to keep the Jewish feasts (Gal. 4:10). They did not touch the
matter of the Levitical sacrifices so far as the Gentiles were concerned, for the latter were attracted only by
the pure monotheism and high precepts of the Jewish synagogue, and rejected teaching regarding salvation
through a substitutionary sacrifice which this symbolic system presented. And the very fact that the
Judaizers left this part of the Mosaic law alone so far as the Galatian Christians were concerned, shows
that they considered the Temple sacrifices a mere form, and not an essential part of the revelation of God
to Moses so far as salvation was concerned.
Thus the Judaizers belong to that section of the nation Israel that was unsaved. They are to be
distinguished however from the rest of their brethren after the flesh, in that they had infiltrated into the
visible Christian Church, and were attempting to set up a perverted legalism built around the Mosaic
economy, whereas the others rejected Jesus as Messiah, were holding aloof from the Church, and were
persecuting the Jews in the Church. While giving a mental assent to the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth,
they had at the same time a most inadequate view of that office. They taught that acceptance with God
was to be had by means of personal merit obtained through the individual’s good works and that the saved
individual was sanctified by observance of the legal precepts of the Mosaic law.
The Judaizers did not attempt to introduce the economy of the Old Testament into the Church, but a false
view of that economy. Sinners were saved in Old Testament times by pure grace just as they are today,
without any admixture of good works. Had the Judaizers believed in their hearts in the true economy of
the Old Testament, they would not have been false teachers, but true believers in the Lord Jesus, for all
Old Testament saints alive when Jesus came, accepted Him as Messiah and High Priest, and those who
over-lived the Cross, became members of the Body of Christ at Pentecost.
Here therefore was an attempt on the part of Satan, working through Israel, to ruin the Christian Church,
not by introducing Old Testament Judaism, but a false conception of the same, by going back to Cain and
his system of salvation by works. Paul was the chief exponent of grace, and the apostle to the Gentiles. It
was therefore necessary to undermine, and if possible, to destroy his work.
This the Judaizers tried to do by two methods. First, they endeavored to depreciate Paul’s apostolic
position and set up the Twelve Apostles as the real interpreters of Christ in order that they might thereby
discredit his authority as a teacher of grace. They argued that Paul was not one of the original Twelve, he
had not listened to Christ’s voice, he had not seen His face, he had not attended on Christ’s ministry, and
that he had not been sent out like them at His express command. Furthermore, they said that he had not
received the gospel by direct revelation from Christ as had the others, but had gathered it at second-hand
from the Twelve.
The second method they used was to substitute a salvation-by-works system for the doctrine of pure grace
which Paul preached. Paul therefore found it necessary to defend his apostolic authority, which he does in
the first two chapters of Galatians; and to show that salvation was by grace before the Mosaic law was
given, and that the coming in of the latter did not supersede nor affect the economy of grace in the least,
and this he does in chapters three and four. Then, because the teachings of the Judaizers were working
havoc in the lives of the Galatian Christians, he found it necessary to introduce some corrective measures
emphasizing the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the Christian, which he does in chapters five and six. Thus
the epistle can be summed up in three words and divided into three sections, Personal (1, 2), Doctrinal (3,
4), Practical (5, 6).
The inroads of the Judaizers into the Galatian churches took place during Paul’s third missionary journey,
for Paul had visited them again on his second journey, and at that time there were no evidences of their
destructive work. It was during his third journey, when Paul was either in Macedonia or Greece, and about
a.d. 55, 56 (Thiessen) that Paul received word of the serious danger which the Galatian churches were in,
and recognized in that danger, a serious threat to the whole Christian system. From the following
considerations, it seems probable that the way in which Paul found out about the activities of the Judaizers
was that accredited representatives of the Galatian churches had come to Paul to obtain a decision on the
whole matter of their teachings concerning his apostolic credentials and his gospel of pure grace without
works. Paul does not seem anywhere in the Galatian epistle to be uncertain with regard to the facts and
conditions among the Galatians which are presupposed and discussed by him. It is hardly possible that his
information was derived solely from private sources, letters, or oral statements of individual Christians as
is the case in I Corinthians 1:11, 11:18. Again, there is nothing in the letter which would lead one to think
that it is an answer to a writing sent to Paul in the name and by the direction of the churches. It is much
more probable that accredited representatives of the Galatian churches came to Paul, of whom he could
have inquired as to the details concerning the matters which they had brought to his attention. Otherwise
he could not have written this epistle without first asking for an explanation of the surprising things that
were going on, or without expressing doubt as to the truthfulness of the reports that had come to him.
Being assured of the facts, he proceeds to pass judgment on them. Finding it impossible to go at once to
them, he writes this letter (4:20). We are now ready for the exegetical study of its contents. 7


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