When was the Letter to the Galatians Written?

Galatians was written after the great dissension between the believers in Antioch (Acts 15:2; Gal 2), but prior to the Church Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, therefore somewhere in AD48-50.  The letter to the Galatians therefore represents Paul’s argument before the Church Council, while the Church Council decision substantially made an end to the dispute in the letter to the Galatians. 

Both Galatians and Acts 15 mention a visit by Paul to Jerusalem and a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch, but the two cities are mentioned in opposite sequences:

The visit to Jerusalem in the letter to the Galatians was a private meeting with a small number of important people, while the visit to Jerusalem in Acts resulted in a large public meeting with a formal church council decision.  For this and other reasons these were two different visits to Jerusalem.

But the two disputes in Antioch are the same.  Both were caused by men that came from the church headquarters in Jerusalem and taught that, unless you (Gentile Christians) are circumcised, you cannot be saved.

On this basis a threefold sequence is proposed:

  • First an informal visit to the leaders in Jerusalem,
  • Followed by the public dispute in Antioch,
  • which was resolved through a formal Council decision in Jerusalem.

Since the letter to the Galatians does not mention the Jerusalem decision, it must have been written before that decision, therefore somewhere in AD48-50.

Purpose – To prepare for a discussion of the early development of the church, this page reconciles events in Jerusalem and Antioch, described in Acts, with the events in the same cities, described in Galatians.  This will help to determine where the letter to the Galatians fits into the early development of the church.

Dates – See here for a table with dates for key events in the early church.  As indicated by this table, chronologists do not always exactly agree on the dates, but they more or less agree.  For that reason the dates in this article are all approximates.

The letter to the Galatians mentions:

  • A visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (2:1-10)
  • Followed by a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch (2:11-24)

Acts mentions the two cities in the opposite sequence:

  • First a dispute between Paul and other Christians in Antioch (15:1-2)
  • Followed by a visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (15:4-30)

Some argue that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-10 is the same as his visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15.  There are similarities, such as:

  • The key issue in both visits is whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised (Gal 2:3; Acts 15:5).
  • In both Barnabas went with Paul (Gal 2:1; Acts 15:2).

However, the details of the two visits are too different to refer to the same visit:

  • In the letter to the Galatians Paul took Titus along as an example of the work he does under the Gentiles (Gal. 2:1, 3), but there is no mention of Titus in Acts 15.
  • In Galatians Paul went to Jerusalem “because of a revelation” (Gal 2:2), but in Acts it was because of a decision of the brethren in Antioch (15:2).
  • In Galatians Paul visited “those who were of reputation” “in private” (Gal 2:2). In Acts “they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders” (15:4), and the entire church council, consisting of the “apostles and the elders” (15:6, 22) decided the matter.
  • In Galatians “those who were of high reputation” (Gal. 2:6, 9) simply “gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (2:9). In Acts there was a formal church council decision, where-after leading men from the Jerusalem church were chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas with a formal letter explaining the decision “to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles” (15:23).

Further indications that the visit to Jerusalem in Gal 2:1-10 cannot be the council decision in Acts 15, include:

  • If the visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as in Acts 15, then the council decision was taken before the incident in Antioch in Gal. 2:11-24 and therefore before the letter to the Galatians was written. But this is very unlikely because Paul would then have mentioned the Jerusalem decision in the letter to the Galatians, because the entire purpose of Galatians is to argue against the circumcision of Gentiles.
  • If Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as the Acts 15 church council meeting, then James would not have sent men afterwards to Antioch to preach the circumcision of Gentiles (Gal. 2:12).  Also, Peter and the other Jews would not have responded in Antioch the way they did (Gal. 2:12-13).

It is therefore proposed that these two visits to Jerusalem were not the same.

It is rather proposed that the two disputes in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21; Acts 15:1-2) are the same.  Both disputes were caused by “men (that) came down from Judea” (Acts 15:1) (“from James” Gal. 2:10) and taught “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1) (“the party of the circumcision” – Gal 2:12).

On that basis the following sequence of events is proposed:

  1. Knowing that a dispute would burst out in the open, the Spirit first led Paul to informally visitthose who were of reputation” (Gal 2:2) in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10).
  2. This is followed by the dispute in Antioch, described in both Galatians 2:11-24 and Acts 15:1-2.
  3. This is followed by the more formal visit to Jerusalem, to resolve the dispute through a formal Council decision (15:4-30)

We are now able to date Galatians relative to these three events.  Since Galatians mentions the dispute in Antioch, but does not mention the Jerusalem decision, and since that decision is critical for the topic in Galatians, namely whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised and live like Jews, it is proposed that Galatians was written by Paul while on his way to Jerusalem after the Antioch incident.  Since the Jerusalem council decision is dated to AD48-50 (about 20 years after Christ’s death) it means that Galatians was written during those same years.  It would make Galatians the earliest of Paul’s letters.

This conclusion corroborates with the information in Gal. 2:1-10, namely that the first visit to Jerusalem was “after an interval of fourteen years” (Gal. 2:1).  The key event mentioned in the previous chapter is Paul’s Damascus-conversion (1:16) in AD35.  It is therefore possible that the first visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was “fourteen years” after AD35, which will bring it to AD49.  On the assumption that the Antioch-dispute and the Jerusalem church council decision happened within a year or two after the first visit, the Jerusalem council meeting could have been in AD50.

NEXT: Building …

TO: Galatians Table of Content

TO: General Table of Contents

Colossians 1:23-28 – The mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations

Paul in chains
Paul in Prison

As prisoner Paul rejoices in his suffering because it was “the stewardship from God bestowed on” him for our benefit (1:25).  God gave Paul the task to proclaim a mystery that has been hidden in past ages, namely that believing Gentiles are also descendants of Abraham—and share in the glory of the age to come.  

1:23 if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.

Moved away – Some teach that God decides who should live eternally and who should go to hell, irrespective of what they are or do.  Such teachers consequently have to promote the ‘once saved, always saved’ concept, but the current verse implies that people are able to move away from God.  God does keep people.  Romans 14:4 says “and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand”, but people are able to resist God’s keeping power and move away “from the hope of the gospel” (1:23).

Warning – Against the background of the deception threatening the Colossians (2:8), Paul here warns the predominantly Gentile Colossian Christians (1:27, 21) to remain on the firm and sure foundation of the message preached to them (1:23).  This warning will be repeated four times in chapter 2 with growing seriousness.

HopeHope of the gospel – This is the “inheritance of the saints” (1:12), “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (1:5) and “the hope of glory” (1:27).  “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (3:3-4).

1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

Sacrificed Himself

My sufferings – Paul wrote this letter from prison (4:3).  When Paul served, being in ministry was the greatest sacrifice that one could make.  The Lord said to Ananias:

Go, for he (Paul) is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).

Paul’s message also reflects the greatest sacrifice that was ever made—the cross.  For that reason God gave him strength, and Paul could claim that he labored, “striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (1:29).

Today however, being in ministry, in general, no longer requires that level of sacrifice.  But the lack of sacrifice is also reflected in our lives.  Most of our own decisions are based mainly on what would get us further, not on a consideration of the will of the Lord.  This even includes the decision to enter God’s kingdom. Even in our desire to allow God to show us our own faults, we are motivated by what would help us to victory without suffering loss.  We are still living for ourselves, not for Him.  We are walking much more in self-centeredness than in Christ-centeredness.

This is also reflected in our message.  We today have so little power to transform the minds and hearts of people because we do not live, and do not preach the immense sacrifice of the cross.  Consequently it is difficult today to see much difference between church and non-church people.  Although it is many, many times larger, the church is now but a phantom of what it was even in Paul’s time, .

The cross is the power of God, and it is the center of all we are called to live by.  The cross is the gospel and the salvation with which the church was entrusted.  We must return to the cross.

1:25 Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 1:26 that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, 1:27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 1:28 We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. 1:29 For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.

These verses may be analyzed into two concepts:

The first “the stewardship from God bestowed on” Paul (1:25), “admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom” (1:28), “striving according to His power, which mightily works within” Paul (1:29).

The second is the purpose of his ministry, which is “for your benefit” (1:25), to establish “Christ in you” (1:27), “that we may present every man complete in Christ” (1:28).

Christ in you (1:27) – This indicates the close relationship between Christ and the believer.  We must be “complete in Christ” (1:28) but the mystery among the Gentiles isChrist in you” (1:27).   Christ explained that everyone is in everyone; “the Spirit of truth … abides with you and will be in you”, “I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:16-20).

Mystery Fellow HeirsMystery – The “mystery … has been hidden from the past ages and generations” – In Ephesians 3:1-6 Paul similarly wrote:

… by revelation there was made known to me the mystery … which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel …

Mystery GentilesWhat this mystery is, is clearly stated in Ephesians and less clearly so in Colossians, but it does seem clear that it is the same mystery, because Colossians also relates the mystery to the Gentiles, and indicates that the mystery is “Christ in you” (1:27), which means to be a child of God.  The mystery that is now revealed is therefore that non-Jews believers “are fellow heirs” (Eph. 3:6) of the promises made to Abraham (Gal. 3:29; Rom. 4:13).  Today this principle is generally accepted, but in Paul’s day it was a novel idea and a new message that God gave Paul to preach, resulting in severe controversy in the church.  For the Jewish Christians, who were in the beginning the majority of the church, this was contrary to everything they were told as Jews.  In their view, to be saved, one had to become a Jew through circumcision.

Colossians Table of Contents

Next: 2:1-4

 

The Father rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.

Colossae
Colossae

Knowledge is a key theme in Colossians (2:3), which indicates that the “deception” (2:8) in Colossae claimed to have special knowledge, but in the kingdom of His beloved Son we receive truth (1:5-6), knowledge, spiritual wisdom and understanding (1:9-10)

1:9 For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 1:10 so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 1:11 strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously 1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. 1:13 For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Pray (1:9)

Paul in prayerPaul believed in the power of prayer (1:3, 9).  Through prayer he was in constant contact with God (1:9).  “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).

“His” refers to the Father (1:9, 11, 14)

Verse 9 refers to “knowledge of His will”, while verse 1 refers to “the will of God”, who is described as “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).  “His” in 1:9 therefore refers to the Father.

1:11 refers to “His glorious might”.  This refers back to “God” in 1:10, who is defined as “the Father” (1:3).

1:13 refers to “His beloved Son”.

These verses therefore continue the focus of verses 2 and 3 on the Father.  In the minds of some Christians today the Father does not loom large.  They tend to think more of Christ, but these verses inform us, as already indicated by 1:2-3, that the Father is the Active Force that “has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints” (1:12).  The kingdom belongs to “His beloved Son” (1:13), but it is the Father that “rescued us from the domain of darkness”.  Let us therefore honour the Father.

RescueRescued (1:13)

Verses 13 and 14 describe the work of redemption using many different phrases:

Rescued us from the domain of darkness” (1:13);
Transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (1:13);
Redemption” (1:14); and
Forgiveness of sins” (1:14).

In whom we have redemption (1:14)

Although it is “the Father” that rescues us (1:13), it is Christ “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:14).  It is the Father that “qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints” (1:12), and Christ is the Means by which he does that.  The word “in” implies a mysterious unity between Christ and believers.  This mysterious unity is also described by the metaphor of Christ as the “head of the body, the church” (1:18).  We receive forgiveness of sins from the Father when we become united with His Son.

Knowledge of His will (1:9)

These verses continue to emphasise the importance of truth, in contrast to the error that threatened the church in Colossae. Paul prays for the Colossians for “knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9) and “knowledge of God” (1:10). “Knowledge” is a key theme in the letter to the Colossians. According to 2:3 in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge“. It is important to note that Paul “say this so that no one will delude you” (2:4). The interpretation in this commentary is based on the assumption that the points that Paul emphasizes, compared to his other letters, are indications of the nature of the “deception” (2:8) in Colossae. It is therefore concluded that the deception in Colossae claimed that it has special knowledge.

Light … darkness

Light and DarkNote the contrast between the “kingdom of light” (NIV 1:12) and the “domain of darkness” (1:13). Light allows us to see; to understand. Particularly, as explained by the current verses, to understand “knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9).

To Colossians Table of Contents

Next: Colossians 1:15-19 The image of the invisible God

Colossians 1:1-8 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God to the faithful brethren at Colossae.

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ
Paul

These verses introduce the letter,
– identify Paul as sent by Christ and as the author of this letter,
– identify the church in Colossae as the addressees and
– identify God, t
he Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as the One Who willed Paul’s apostleship (1:1), and as the One Who we must thank (1:3);

 

1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

Paul – He always starts his letters with his own name.  This is why Hebrews was probably not written by Paul.

 

Sent by God
Sent one

Apostle – An apostle is somebody sent.  Paul is an “apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1), which means he is sent by Christ.  The implication of this verse is that Timothy was not an apostle.  He did not receive a direct instruction from Christ (1:1).

1:2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. 1:3 We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, 1:4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints;

God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
God the Father

Father (1:2, 3) – The focus in these verses is on the Father, not on Christ.  “God” in verse 1 is identified as the “Father” in verses 2 and 3.  As in the prayer which we received from our Lord, God is “our Father” (1:2), which means that He deeply cares for us and continually protects us.  He is the active Force behind Paul’s work (1:1) and behind what Christ did (1:12; 2:13, 15).

Give thanks (1:3) – We receive grace and peace from “God our Father” (1:2), and in return we thank “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).  That is the true circle of life: He gives us everything we need and we honour Him for that.

1:5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel 1:6 which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; 1:7 just as you learned it from , our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf, 1:8 and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit.

Hope (1:5) – “Christ in you” is “the hope of glory” (1:27), namely the hope for “the inheritance of the saints” (1:12).  “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (3:3-4).

TruthTruth (1:5, 6) – In this letter, as in many of his other letters, Paul had to oppose a distortion of the truth.  For that reason we find early on in this letter an emphasis on “truth” (1:5, 6).

This letter, being a letter, is addressed to a specific audience to address specific issues.  To some extent Paul’s letters only give us 50% of the story.  We read his rebuttal of deceptions, but we only indirectly read about the deceptions itself.

Grace (1:6) is God’s merciful kindness; His free gift.  Everything we receive from Him is His free gift.  The kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).  We are saved by His merciful kindness.

Epaphras (1:7) – Paul himself had not worked in the area of Colossae (1:4, 7-9; 2:1). Apparently, Epaphras, one of his helpers, established a group of believers there (1:7; 4:12, 13).  It seems as if, while Paul was in prison in Rome, Epaphras visited him, informing him of the spiritual growth of the Colossian church (1:8; 2:5), but also of the “deception” (2:8) troubling his church.  In Philemon 1:23 Paul mentions a Epaphras that is “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus”.

TO Colossians Table of Contents

Next 1:9-14 The Father Rescued Us