It may be that Paul wrote to the Galatian churches quite early in his ministry, after his first missionary journey. When Paul visited the Galatian cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (Acts 13:1-14:28), the Jewish leaders strongly opposed him. They were not willing to hear that God’s salvation was free for Gentiles apart from adherence to the Mosaic law. In Galatians, Paul argued that since Gentiles were justified by faith in Christ and not the Mosaic law, their spiritual habits and lifestyle were to reflect Christ and not obedience to the law of Moses. Paul later wrote that adherence to various elements of the Mosaic law was a matter of liberty for Jewish Christians (Romans 14), but in Galatians warned the Gentiles of Galatia that if they submitted to life under the law, then Christ would be of no value to them. Paul opened the letter by setting out his character and call as an apostle of the gospel of Christ (Gal 1:1-11). Paul reminded his readers of the circumstances of his life and his most recent ministry activities (Gal 1:12-2:14). He went on to set out his thesis: since Gentiles are justified by faith in Christ, they must not submit to the law as a system of spirituality (Gal 2:15-21).
(1) In Gal 2:3, Paul wrote that when Titus, a Gentile, accompanied Paul to Jerusalem, Titus did not feel compelled to be circumcised. The Lord made a covenant of circumcision with Abraham, commanding him to circumcise Ishmael and all the males of his household (Gen 17:1-14). The Lord told Abraham that any male who was not circumcised would be excluded from the covenant blessings He promised to Abraham. Abraham obeyed the Lord’s command by circumcising Isaac when the boy was eight days old (Gen 21:4). When Moses travelled toward Egypt to confront Pharaoh, the Lord threatened Moses because he had not yet circumcised his own son (Exod 4:24-26). Moses commanded Israel to circumcise their children but prophesied that one day the Lord would circumcise the hearts of His people so that they would fear the Lord (Deut 30:6). Before Joshua led the people into the promised land, he circumcised all the males who had been born in the period of wilderness travel (Josh 5:1-9). In Gal 2:1-10, Paul recounted to the Galatians that he and Titus went to Jerusalem to visit the apostles and set his gospel before them. They brought with them an offering from the church in Antioch for the needy saints in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). While Paul and Titus were in Jerusalem with the apostles, some were persuading Titus to undergo the Jewish rite. Paul said that those advocating circumcision were attempting to rob Titus of his Christian freedom (Gal 2:4-5). In Paul’s account of his departure from Jerusalem, he noted that he planned to take the gospel to the Gentiles while Peter, James, and John would evangelize the circumcised (Gal 2:10). Paul’s use of “the circumcised” as a way of referring to the Jewish people expressed how strongly the Jews advocated circumcision.
(2) In Gal 2:11-14, Paul confronted Peter for separating from Gentiles at meals, promoting Jewish food laws. In addition to being circumcised, the descendants of Abraham were to avoid certain foods. In Lev 11:1-23, 41-47, Moses commanded Israel to avoid certain types of land animals, fish, and birds. He reiterated these commands in Deut 14:3-21. These laws called for Israel to abstain from the sinful practices of the nations that inhabited Canaan in the days of the conquest. As Israel maintained the covenant of circumcision and observed food laws, they could maintain their distinction as God’s holy people. While Paul was ministering in Antioch (Acts 14:26-28), Peter came down from Jerusalem to visit the believers there and partook in unrestricted table fellowship with the Gentiles. Yet “when certain men from James” (Gal 2:12a) came from Jerusalem, Peter withdrew and separated himself from the Gentiles because “he feared those from the circumcision party” (Gal 2:12b). In fear of upsetting those in Jerusalem, Peter abandoned his earlier confession at the home of Cornelius, that “God doesn’t show favoritism” (Acts 10:34) and submitted himself again to the dietary restrictions found in the law. In time, other Jewish Christians, including Barnabas, joined the hypocrisy. Paul accused them of “deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). With the unity of the church at stake, Paul confronted Peter in the presence of everyone: “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14). In Gal 5:13-14, Paul wrote, “You are called to freedom, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”