What is the occasion of Galatians?
As with most things, there are different views of when Paul wrote Galatians, but I think the most likely scenario is that he wrote it around 48 AD, from the city of Antioch, just before the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. And the reason for this is because he mentions his confrontation with Peter, which took place in Antioch (Gal. 2:11), and this was all after Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas, which you can read about in Acts 13-14.
So Paul and Barnabas are called by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2) while in Antioch, their home base, and they go to Seleucia, sail to Cyprus, sail to Perga in Pamphylia of Asia Minor. John-Mark ditches them and goes back to his mother in Jerusalem, they go to Pisidian Antioch (different Antioch from they were sent), then go to Iconium (where they are almost stoned), then Lystra (where Paul is actually stoned, dragged out of the city, and left for dead). But he gets back up somehow, and goes and preaches in Derbe. He then makes a return trip to strengthen the disciples exhorting them to continue in the faith saying “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22-23) And finally gets back to Antioch to give report of his trip.
Now if all those places I mentioned are foreign to you, look at the maps in the back of your Bible if you like. And if you are familiar with modern day geography, Antioch is in Syria, and all those other places, besides Cyprus, are in modern day Turkey. These are places along the eastern part of the Mediterranean sea.
Okay, so Paul’s been stoned, persecuted by the Jews, John Mark ditched him, it was rough first journey, and he comes back to Antioch to find that one of the original twelve apostles, Peter, is not keeping in step with the gospel. This is remarkable! For Roman Catholics who claim papal infallibility and boast in tracing their spiritual lineage back to the Apostle Peter, I mean, and yet here is a apostle living a very fallibly life, getting the gospel wrong. This is probably why Paul said, if anyone preaches to you any other gospel than the one you received, let him be accursed, even if its me or angel from heaven. If the message is different, don’t believe them, let them be accursed.
So Paul confronts Peter, and he knows, this whole Jew/Gentile division, the debate around whether or not the Gentiles need to be circumcised to be saved is not going away, and it needs to be settled and agreed upon what the policy is. And we read in Acts 15:1 “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.”
So Paul and Barnabas are sent as delegates from the church in Antioch to Jerusalem for the this meeting of the council. Sidenote, this is where get some of our church government ideas about presbytery and council and how that works (but that’s another show).
So back to Galatians and when it was written, if it was written after the Jerusalem Council, where they made this official statement on circumcision and salvation for the Gentiles, it seems like Paul would have just referenced that decision. So when we say Galatians was written prior to the Jerusalem council we are making an argument from silence, because it make no sense to me, and most scholars that he would not mention since that is very reason for writing the book. So most scholars date it just prior to the council, which puts it right around 48 AD.
The other thing I would add is that Galatians is almost like something you would write for circulation for people to read so that when the Council happens, they have already thought about, heard both sides of the argument, and agree with Paul’s position. Before there is presbytery meeting or council, usually they send out some kind of agenda, this is what we are going to discuss, and its even possible copies of Galatians were sent ahead to Jerusalem so they could prepare for the debate. That’s me speculating, but its certainly possible based on the timeline and order of events we have in Acts.
One last thing on Galatians, at the very end, Paul says “From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And it’s helpful to have all that context from his first missionary journey (Acts 13-14) in your head as you read Galatians because he probably still has bruises from the stoning, scars and marks in his body for preaching this gospel of free grace to Jews and Gentiles. So if you were one of the other apostles, unsure if this Paul guy was the real deal, Galatians is the proof of his authenticity, that he received this gospel not from men, but from Jesus himself. And he has already suffered for it, with marks in his own body.
So that’s Galatians, it’s probably the first letter that Paul wrote, from Antioch around 48 AD.
Okay what about Ephesians?
What is the occasion of Ephesians?
Well fast forward about 12 years to AD 60, and Paul is imprisoned in Rome. The book of Acts (Acts 28) ends with Paul under house arrest around AD 59. “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, 31 preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.”
So the books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon are all considered prison epistles, and were likely written during this first Roman imprisonment. So everything in the book of Acts has already happened, and we have to use the contents of these books themselves, and from other NT books to reconstruct our context and chronology.
So between Paul’s first letter of Galatians, and these prison epistles, a lot has happened, more than I can cover in this episode, but he has gone on two other missionary journeys all over the Mediterranean Sea, he’s been shipwrecked, persecuted, dragged before Jewish courts, arrested, he’s made friends along the way, Titus, Timothy, Epaphras, Silas, many more. He’s written Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-2 Thessalonians, and he still hopes to travel to Spain. You’ll remember he wrote Romans hoping that we would get to visit them, and the way he gets there is by appealing to Caesar as a roman citizen and so is brought there by the Roman authorities, free trip, albeit a rocky one.
So he’s in Rome, under house arrest, preaching the kingdom of God, and he of course is concerned about the churches, and how they are doing.
If you remember Acts 20, one of my favorite chapters in Acts, where Paul says farewell to the Ephesian Elders, he calls them to Miletus before he boards a ship to Jerusalem, and there is this moving exhortation he gives them, he says savage wolves are going to come in, men will rise up from among their own ranks to draw away the disciples, and he tells them to remember everything he taught them and how he lived among them for 3 years, warning them day and night with tears. And they are all pray together, weep, hug kiss each other and accompany him to the ship to see him off. This is a heart wrenching goodbye.
And that is who Paul is writing to now from Rome. He loved the Ephesians, he has invested his life in the church there, and so he write this letter to strengthen them.
Not a few fun facts, in google maps I can see how long it would take to bring a letter from Rome to Ephesus. This is 1300 mile journey, and in modern day, with a two ferry rides, it would take 25 days to walk there. That’s walking 8 hours a day nonstop. So this is a long trip that Tychicus, who delivers this letter (Eph. 6:21) has to go on. He is the messenger. And we know from Colossians and Philemon that he also delivered those two letters as well and Onesimus (Philemon’s runaway slave but now converted Christian) goes along with him.
Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon Were Sent Together
So Paul writes Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon together, send them to Colossae and Ephesus by the hand of Tychichus, and Onesimus is his travelin companion. It’s pretty cool, just imagine you are one of those guys, carrying God’s inspired word, Paul’s autograph to deliver them over a 1300+ mile journey. This is some serious sacrificial ministry, and that is what we are reading today. The very words that Paul wrote, and Tychichus delivered to these churches. Amazing!
What is the occasion of Philippians?
Now what about Philippians, well Philippians is likely written toward the end of Paul’s first Roman imprisonment, and it is a thank you letter to them for the financial support they gave to Paul. Philippi was the first church Paul planted in Europe, Lydia was his first convert, and you can read about that in Acts 16. So that was about 12 years ago, during his second missionary journey, and the church has gotten word that Paul is in prison, and so they send support to Him by the hand of Epaphroditus. We know from the letter itself that Epaphroditus brings the book but falls ill, and almost dies. It’s possibly the journey itself causes this sickness (it was 800+ mile trip!). But eventually he recovers, and Paul send him back to them with this thank you letter, and says he’s going to send Timothy to them shortly after.
So if you pay attention as you read to these little names, locations, and details, often at the very end of these books, or made in passing along the way, you can actually get a ton of context for the book, and you can really feel the force and affection that Paul has for these churches.