Question: "What is the history and significance of the churches in Galatia?"
Answer: Galatia was a region in central Asia Minor, located in the highlands of Anatolia, now known as central Turkey. Paul and Barnabas passed through this area on the first missionary journey, establishing several churches there. Timothy was from the area of Derbe and Lystra in Galatia.
Galatia has a long history. In the third century BC, the area was invaded by Gallic Celts, and that is what gave the area its name: Galatia means “land of the Gauls.” Rome conquered Galatia in 189 BC and made it a province in 25 BC. The name Galatia first appears in the New Testament in Acts 16:6 as a region where Paul had preached the gospel.
In the New Testament, Galatian believers are often grouped with those in neighboring provinces. Peter wrote “to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). Luke coupled Galatia with Phrygia in Acts 16:6 and 18:23.
When Paul addressed his letter to the Galatians, he wrote “to the churches in Galatia,” rather than to a single church as he usually did with other letters (Galatians 1:1–2). Scholars believe that Galatians was most likely the first book of the New Testament to be written, around AD 49. Paul had founded this church and was concerned because the new Galatian believers were being influenced by the Judaizers, Jews who taught that salvation required keeping the Mosaic Law (specifically circumcision), as well as believing in Jesus (Galatians 2:14).
The Galatian churches were a mix of both Jew and Gentile converts, and the Judaizers worked to convince the Galatian churches that the Gentile believers must be circumcised before they could fellowship with the Jewish believers. Paul wrote to clarify what he had initially taught them, that salvation was by faith alone through the grace of God extended to anyone who believed (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Paul was dismayed at the way the Galatian believers were so easily influenced away from the truth of the gospel, and he was adamant that salvation is not dependent on human works: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6–9).
Later, on the second missionary journey, Paul again traveled through Galatia to revisit and encourage the churches in that region. As he and Silas visited each church, “they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey” (Acts 16:4), with the result that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (verse 5). It was during this time that Timothy began traveling with the missionaries (verses 1–3).
The book of Galatians, addressed to the churches of Galatia, is a master’s thesis on salvation by grace alone, through faith (see Galatians 2:21). The theological crisis in the churches in Galatia was confronted head-on, and all the church benefits from Paul’s exhortation to trust in Christ alone. Those today who try to add to the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection with their own works would benefit from a study of Galatians.