Who Were the Galatians?

Galatians  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 9
If you will look at the map in your Bible that shows the Apostle Paul’s journeys, you will see that Galatia is not a city but a province; just as in China, Kiangsu is not a city but a province. Kiangsu Province has many cities in it, as Nanking, Shanghai, Soochow and others. So the epistle to the Galatians is a letter written not to the Christians living in one city, like the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Philippians or Colossians, but to a number of churches or assemblies in the province of Galatia.
In the book of Acts we read that Paul made three missionary journeys through these parts. In the first of these journeys (see Acts 13 and 14), Paul and Barnabas were sent forth by the Holy Ghost from Antioch, that city in North Syria where the disciples were first called “Christians.” (Acts 11:2626And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:26)). Antioch in Syria was the chief city for the Gentile Christians, just as Jerusalem was for the Jewish Christians. From Antioch Paul and Barnabas went by ship to the large island of Cyprus. This was the native home of Barnabas. They preached the gospel through this island and went on to Antioch in Pisidia. We must remember this is not the same city as Antioch in Syria. Both received their names from a great general named Antiochus.
Almost the whole city of Antioch came to hear the gospel, and the Jews in the city were filled with envy (Acts 13:4545But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. (Acts 13:45)) and stirred up the devout and honorable women and the chief men of the city, and they expelled Paul and Barnabas from their coasts. (Acts 13:5050But the Jews stirred up the devout and honorable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts. (Acts 13:50).) What strange tools the devil uses to do his work! How little “the devout and honorable women” (Acts 13:5050But the Jews stirred up the devout and honorable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts. (Acts 13:50)) realized whose work they were doing! We must notice how the Jews treated Paul and Barnabas, for it was they who stirred up all the trouble for the apostles.
From Antioch Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium and preached the gospel. Again the Jews stirred up the Gentiles against them, but they stayed a long time preaching there, until both Jews and Gentiles planned an assault against them. (Acts 14:55And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully, and to stone them, (Acts 14:5).) When they knew of it, they fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and the region round about there, and there they preached the gospel. (Acts 14:6, 76They were ware of it, and fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about: 7And there they preached the gospel. (Acts 14:6‑7).)
At Lystra Paul healed a lame man, and the people cried out, “The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:1111And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. (Acts 14:11)), and they wished to worship the apostles and offer a sacrifice to them. But Jews from Antioch and Iconium came and persuaded the people of Lystra, and they stoned Paul and drew him out of the city, supposing he was dead. Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up and came into the city; and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. (Acts 14:19, 2019And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead. 20Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. (Acts 14:19‑20).)
In the end of Acts 15 and the beginning of chapter 16 we read of Paul’s second missionary journey, and we see that Timothy’s home was in these parts. You will remember that Timothy, though a young man, was one of Paul’s most trusted helpers. His mother was a Jewess who believed, but his father was a Greek. Paul wished to have Timothy go forth with him to preach the gospel, “and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:33Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:3)). We must remember this as we read the epistle to the Galatians, for there we find that Paul refused to allow Titus, another of his helpers who was altogether a Gentile, to receive circumcision, even though the Jews in the assembly at Jerusalem tried to compel him to do so.
In the end of Acts 15 and the early verses of chapter 16 we see that Paul went through the cities where he had preached on his first journey, and when he came to Derbe and Lystra he chose Timothy to accompany him. Now in Acts 16:66Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, (Acts 16:6), we read for the first time of Galatia. “Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia..” (Acts 16:66Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, (Acts 16:6)). is all the Bible tells us. Does this mean the northern part of this province where there were a number of cities, or is it the parts near Derbe and Lystra? We do not really know. It is strange that although we know much about all the other important assemblies that Paul founded, such as Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and Thessalonica, yet the Bible tells us of scarcely a single incident of any kind and not one single name of a person or place in connection with Paul’s preaching in Galatia. It seems as though the Spirit of God draws a veil over the history of these assemblies which so soon, and so seriously, turned aside from the true gospel.
In Acts 18:2323And after he had spent some time there, he departed, and went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples. (Acts 18:23) we read of the beginning of Paul’s third missionary journey: “He departed [from Antioch], and went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples”. Men who understand Greek tell us that the words “country of Galatia and Phrygia” probably do not mean these are two different countries, but instead this country might be called either Galatia or Phrygia. Perhaps we should notice that in Acts 16:55And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily. (Acts 16:5) JND and other Scriptures we read of “the assemblies,” but in this verse (Acts 18:2323And after he had spent some time there, he departed, and went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples. (Acts 18:23)) we read of “disciples.”
This is all the Bible tells us of this part of Paul’s third missionary journey, the second through Galatia, and again we see that the Holy Spirit keeps the veil drawn over these assemblies.
There are several things we think are true about these visits. We learn most of these things from remarks in the epistle to the Galatians. But even of these things we are not quite sure that we are correct.
First, we think that Paul first preached the gospel to the Galatian people because he was taken ill while traveling in their country. “But you know that on account of weakness of the flesh, I first preached the gospel to you.” ch. 4:13 (literal translation). We think that Paul had not intended stopping in Galatia to preach the gospel. Perhaps he wished to hurry on to the important city of Ephesus, which lay further to the west. But God kept His servant in Galatia by some illness, and so the Galatians received the gospel. God has many ways of guiding His servants. In Acts 16:6, 76Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, 7After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. (Acts 16:6‑7), we see that the Holy Spirit forbade Paul to preach in Asia and would not allow him to go to the large province of Bithynia, lying to the north. Instead the Lord called him to Macedonia in Europe. The Lord used a night vision to guide him this time: a man of Macedonia saying, “Come over... and help us” (Acts 16:99And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us. (Acts 16:9)). But in 1 Peter 1:11Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, (1 Peter 1:1) we see that the Lord provided some other way to bring the gospel to Bithynia. How important for us to allow the Lord to guide our every step. And He is willing and able to guide us.
We also think this illness was of such a kind as to make Paul lose face and to take away his natural strength. Perhaps it also affected his eyesight. (See ch. 4:14, 15.) Though the Galatians first knew Paul as a sick, feeble, homeless wanderer, they did not despise nor loathe the temptation in his flesh. They received him as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. They would have plucked out their own eyes, if they could, to give to him. (ch. 4:15.) This was the way Paul remembered their loving welcome at the first, and it made more bitter the fact that now they were turning away from him.
Another thing we learn from the epistle to the Galatians is that Paul seems to have been troubled about these assemblies even while he was visiting them. As we read the epistle together we will notice several occasions in which Paul reminds the Galatians that he had already told, or warned, them of these things. See, for example, ch. 1:9, 13; 5:21.
From 1 Cor. 16:1, 21Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. 2Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. (1 Corinthians 16:1‑2) we learn that Paul had given orders to the assemblies of Galatia with regard to the collection of money for the saints. He had told them, “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him” (1 Cor. 16:22Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. (1 Corinthians 16:2)). As we read the second chapter of Galatians together, we must speak again of this matter, so we will not speak more of it now, except to say that we suppose Paul gave the Galatians these orders on either his first or second visit to them.
As we read the epistle to the Galatians, we will see that the great subject of the book is GRACE compared with LAW. Wicked men were trying to turn the assemblies in Galatia away from Paul’s teaching of grace, and away from their love and loyalty to him.
As we read this epistle we will see that these wicked men were also trying to force a division between Paul and the apostles in Jerusalem, Peter and John and James. We will see that Paul was compelled to publicly rebuke Peter. (ch. 2:11.) It is beautiful to see, in view of these troubles, that Peter addresses his first epistle “to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:11Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, (1 Peter 1:1)). And his second epistle is addressed to the same persons. (2 Peter 3:11This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: (2 Peter 3:1).) Both Paul and Peter together can seek to feed the same sheep and strengthen the same saints. And in 2 Peter 3:1515And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; (2 Peter 3:15) Peter speaks of “our beloved brother Paul,” (2 Peter 3:1515And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; (2 Peter 3:15)) thus telling us that no grudge or hard feeling remained between these two great servants of the Lord. We will speak of this again in ch. 19 of this book. It is peculiarly sweet to see that Galatia is included in these parts to which Peter writes, assuring us of the unity of the early Church and giving the assemblies of Galatia an indisputable proof that no division had come between Peter and Paul, and that they not only were of one mind, but they loved and honored one another.
As far as I know, this is about all we know about the assemblies of Galatia; and you will see that it is very, very little. And we are not certain that we are right about all the things of which we have spoken. It almost seems as though a special judgment from God rested on these assemblies that were giving up grace for law, and leaving Christ for commandments.