Controversy at Galatia

The issue at Galatia was whether Gentiles must be circumcised and keep some, at least, of the deeds of the Torah

The letter to the Galatians is the response of the Apostle Paul to a specific controversy that had arisen among the churches of Galatia. At issue was the status of Gentile believers. Must Gentile the convert to the faith conform to Jewish practices and submit to the regulation of the Mosaic Law, especially to the rite of circumcision?

The heart of Paul’s response was that “in Christ” the old distinctions between “Jew” and “Gentile” were no longer relevant. In him, the covenant promises had found their fulfillment. What determined membership in the covenant community was not the “deeds of the law” but the “faith of Jesus Christ.”


The Mosaic law was much more than a statement of theological principles or a set of moral codes that regulated human conduct. In the summary statement made at Mount Sinai, we read:
  • (Exodus 19:3-6) - “And when Moses had gone up to God, then called Yahweh to him out of the mountain saying, Thus, shall you say to the house of Jacob, and tell the sons of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bare you upon wings of eagles and brought you to myself: Now, therefore, if you will indeed hearken to my voice, and keep my covenant, then you will be mine as a treasure beyond all the peoples, for mine is all the earth. But you will be mine, as a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you will speak to the sons of Israel.

Israel was chosen by God as His treasure above all other nations.  The Law was not simply a collection of moral precepts but a covenant between Yahweh and the entire nation of Israel.

The pronoun “you” in the passage is plural, not singular. It was not individual Israelites that accepted the covenant one by one, but the entire nation proclaimed in unison - “All that Yahweh has commanded we will do.”

The Law was given to Israel and NOT to any other nation, and her obedience to the Torah was vital to her possession of the Promised Land.  The Torah was a national contract between Yahweh and Israel, one that included a sacrificial system, dietary restrictions, laws of inheritance, civil regulations, penal codes, and so on.  Some of its regulations were specific to the nation residing in Canaan such as the establishment of cities of refuge and regulations governing inheritance.

The Law was intended to keep Israel holy and separate from the surrounding nations.  The dietary restrictions, for example, were designed to keep Israel distinct from its pagan neighbors and to maintain its ritual purity - (Leviticus 20:24-26).

None of this means that the religion of Israel was closed to Gentiles. The Law provided the means for Gentiles to join the covenant community, including circumcision (for males) and submission to ALL the obligations of the Law.

In effect, Gentile “converts” became members of the nation of Israel. And since circumcision was THE fundamental sign of the covenant, it was not optional.


Originally, the church was composed of Jews and Jewish proselytes. It did not view itself as a new religion but as a messianic movement within Judaism. Jesus did not abrogate the faith of Israel, but he fulfilled it.  The first chapters of the book of Acts record how this new “way” spread among the Jewish people.

It was not until sometime later that the gospel was offered to Gentiles when Peter visited the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. The latter was a “centurion of the band called Italian.” Although a Gentile in Roman service, he was also “devout and feared God… doing many alms to the people and supplicating God continually.”

Cornelius was an adherent to the precepts of the faith of Israel, He loved the Jewish people, yet he remained uncircumcised. By the time Peter arrived, he was not yet a Jewish proselyte - (Acts 10:13-28).

The opening of the gospel to the nations necessitated divine intervention through the visions received by Cornelius and Peter. The latter saw a sheet descending from heaven filled with ritually unclean animals. A voice commanded him to eat. This he refused to do.  As a devout Jew, “at no time had he eaten anything common or unclean.” The voice responded, “What things God has cleansed do not make common” - (Acts 10:9-16).

Following this vision, two men from Cornelius arrived and told Peter - “Cornelius, a centurion, a man righteous and fearing God, well–attested by the whole nation of the Jews, has been instructed by an angel to send for you to his house and to hear words from you.”

Though uncircumcised, Cornelius had an excellent reputation among the Jewish people.  God did not choose just any Gentile for this pivotal event, He selected one known by many Jews for his devoutness and moral character.

But despite his well-attested character, Peter responded, “You well know how it is unlawful for a Jew to be joining himself or coming into one of another race.” This statement demonstrates the obstacle to welcoming Gentiles into the covenant community. Regardless of how righteous a man might be, he remained outside the covenant and ritually unclean if he was uncircumcised. Peter continued:
  • Yet to me has God pointed out that I should be calling no man common or unclean...of a truth I find that God is no respecter of persons but IN EVERY NATION, he that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”

During his sermon, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles while Peter was speaking. This caused amazement among the Jews with him for “upon the Gentiles also the free–gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out.” God gave the very same gift of the Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles - (Acts 10:29-48).

Only after the Spirit fell on the Gentiles did Peter confess that people from every nation were acceptable to God if they feared him and lived righteously regardless of whether they were members of Israel, circumcised or uncircumcised.  The “revelation” on that day was the acceptability of Gentiles AS GENTILES into the church.

Some believers in Jerusalem found fault with Peter’s actions. He had fellowshipped with “men uncircumcised and ate with them.”  They did not criticize him simply for eating with uncircumcised Gentiles.

Peter justified his actions by pointing to the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles: “If the same free–gift God gave to them as even unto us when we had believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that could withstand God?” – (Acts 11:1-3).

The fact that God had given the Spirit to Gentiles while they were still in an uncircumcised state was irrefutable evidence that He had accepted them because of their faith in Jesus.  After hearing Peter’s defense, the church at Jerusalem glorified God and declared, “even to the Gentiles has God granted repentance for life.”


In chapters 1 and 2 of his letter, Paul details how he received his gospel for the Gentiles by divine revelation, a commission confirmed by the leadership of the Jerusalem church. He also describes how certain “false brethren, secretly introduced, slinked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus.”

Paul refers to an earlier controversy in Antioch when Jewish believers from Jerusalem infiltrated the church to spread disruptive teachings, including claims that it was inappropriate for Jewish believers to eat with uncircumcised Gentiles.  The pressure was so great even Peter and Barnabas were caught up in it - (Galatians 2:1-13).

The Apostle to the Gentiles would have none of it and confronted Peter over his hypocrisy:
  • (Galatians 2:14) - “But when I saw that they were not walking with straightforwardness regarding the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before all: If you, although a Jew, like them of the nations and not like the Jews live, how do you compel them of the nations to live like Jews?

The key phrase is “compelling Gentiles to live like Jews.”  The Greek verb is a strong one and means “to compel, force” (anangkazō – Strong’s #G315).

The infinitive rendered “to live like Jews” occurs only here in the New Testament (Ioudaizo – Strong’s #G2450) and refers to efforts to compel non-Jews to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.

This was the crux of the matter. Some Jewish believers in Antioch were “compelling” Gentiles to conform to Jewish practices.  To refuse to eat with Gentiles insinuated there was something defective in their faith and conduct.

The controversy in Galatia focused on circumcision (“If you are getting circumcised Christ will profit you nothing”). Paul’s opponents were “compelling you to get circumcised.” To be members in good standing, must Gentile believers add circumcision to their faith in Jesus? - (Galatians 5:12).

This controversy is not surprising.  The first disciples were all Jews.  It was only after the incident with Cornelius that the Gospel was opened to Gentiles, at least formally. Was not Jesus the promised Jewish Messiah? Questions about how Gentiles were to enter the covenant community were inevitable.

The new “Jesus movement” was connected to the faith of Abraham.  It was natural for Jewish believers to look to the old covenant for the things that defined the people of God.  Inevitably, circumcision would become an issue. It was the original sign of Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham, and it even predated the Torah.

And proponents of circumcision had a strong scriptural basis. Did not the Law already provide the means for Gentiles to enter the covenant community, namely, circumcision? This was the situation at Galatia addressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatians.



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