An inspired messenger and a messy situation - Galatians 1:1-10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about Joe. Joe says, `It doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere.' He is a very liberally minded, tolerant kind of bloke. He goes to church every Sunday, but he would be the last person in the world to press his religion on anybody else, least of all his wife. 'I am sure we will all find our own way to God in the end,' he confidently affirms. 'The Hindu has his way, the Muslim has his way, I have mine and my wife has hers. But like lines of longitude on a globe, eventually we shall find that our paths converge at the same pole. How could God possibly be so intolerant as to let only Christians into heaven? No, it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you are sincere!’
And there is no denying that Joe's is an immensely attractive point of view, especially in our modern world where mosques and temples vie with churches and chapels on the High Street and when religious intolerance of any stripe must not be tolerated. But is Joe right?
Let us imagine that Joe, like me, enjoys walking. One day while out for a walk he meets a hiker.
‘Lovely day, 'Joe says. 'Great,' replies the hiker enthusiastically, 'I am on a pilgrimage to Canterbury They tell we there is an impressive cathedral there.' Joe considers for a moment. He is pretty sure the road the hiker is on leads in the opposite direction. But he is not infallible is he? And he would hate to be a wet blanket on somebody else's religious enthusiasm. Surely, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. If this fellow really wants to get to Canterbury, that road is as good as any other. You see, he reasons; It doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere.
Now picture another scenario. This time Joe works in a chemist's shop. He is not a trained pharmacist, but he packs the shelves and serves on the counter. Along the way he has picked up a little bit of knowledge about medicine. One day an elderly lady comes into the shop, clutching a box of pills. ‘My friend gave me these,' she says. ‘He says they will cure my arthritis. But I'm not sure how many to take. Can you help me?' Joe looks at the unmarked box hesitantly. Privately, he is almost sure he has seen the pharmacist dispensing pills from the poisons cupboard that look remarkably like to these. But then, what does he know about drugs? And he would hate to discourage anyone in their suffering. ‘If you really think they will help you, my dear, you just take as many as you like,’ he advises. After all, he reasons to himself, it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere.
Now of course the fact is it does matter what you believe regardless of whether or not you are sincere, especially if what is at stake is the truth and the lives of other people.
Now this morning I want you to come with me on a journey to a region in southern Turkey known as Galatia. It is some 15- 18 years since Jesus died on the cross. And the breathtaking message that he has been raised from the dead and is now alive reigning in heaven has begun to sweep through the Roman Empire like wildfire. And one man whom God singularly used in this way was former hater of Christianity and a Jewish elitist – Paul. In fact as he travelled throughout Galatia; in the power of the Holy Spirit he would argue the Christian case and people would be converted. Then they met together to worship Jesus. These meetings were called churches and these folk in turn would tell their friends about how they too could enjoy the life changing experience of sins forgiven and a personal relationship with God based on trust-faith. And so the movement began to grow: rich people, poor people, slaves, noble men, Jew, non-Jew, black white- it didn’t matter- the only entry requirement into the saving reign of God is a turning to and a trusting in the God-man Jesus as rescuer, ruler and friend.
But you can be sure of this: wherever the liberating message of a free relationship with God through Christ is offered, there will be others coming along behind trying to replace it with a religion of bondage. Whereas the Gospel breaks down barriers, religion erects them. Liberty is exchanged for law; mercy is replaced with merit and the result is that people, who sincerely believe they are going to heaven because they are not that bad, are in fact heading straight to hell because they are not that good. You see, sincerity is not the issue, salvation is.
That is why Paul writes as he does with such urgency and passion. Notice there’s no perfunctory greeting, ‘Hope all is well with you’ or even words of praise to the new Christians which he does in his other letters-it is straight down to business v 6 ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by 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.’
Paul speaks of these Christians ‘deserting’. You see to abandon the Christian faith is not to abandon a philosophy but a person – God ‘the one’ who called you’, it is an act of personal betrayal. Paul is so traumatised by what is happening he says he is ‘astonished’, he can hardly believe it is happening- but it is. And it has happened so quickly too. The problem is, as he says that, ‘Some people are throwing you into confusion- literally agitating you- and are trying to pervert, that is reverse – the Gospel of Christ.’ Now as we glean from the rest of the letter, a group of Jewish teachers, who also claim to be Christian, have come in and insist that in addition to believing in Jesus you must also become in effect Jewish- keeping the Jewish law, get circumcised (which I would have thought would reduce the number of adult male converts significantly) and keep the Jewish ritual. In other words salvation is earned as a right not given as a gift. What is more, to keep in with God you had to keep on with keeping the rules. It was called nomism. Now can you believe that? Of course you can, because it is happening today. What the Bible says is being added to and so denied and people are being eternally lost as a result. Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life no one comes to the Father except by me’- others say, he is a way, but you can get to God through Islam or Hinduism too. Paul says, ‘Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ is not his’, others come in and say ‘No, you must have a special experience of the Spirit, a falling down, to be a real Christian and we are the people who can give it’. The Bible says, ‘Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’ , but Catholicism- Roman or Anglican says, ‘ Do that and be baptised, attend mass, go to confession and you might be saved eventually, after paying off some more debt in purgatory’ Now I tell you plainly, there are people out there queuing up to rob you of your freedom if you are here this morning and love the Lord Jesus, and who are wanting to stop you knowing that freedom if you are not yet a Christian. And it is all done in the name of religion.
So, how does Paul counter these false teachers with their false Gospel both then and now?
First, we are introduced to a divinely appointed messenger vv 1-2: Paul, apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.’ Obviously these false teachers have been attacking Paul himself, questioning his apostolic credentials. An apostle is someone who has been commissioned and sent by the risen Lord Jesus himself and so carries his authority. So what an apostle says in the name of Christ is to be taken as if Christ himself were saying it. But ‘Paul was not one of the original twelve’, the false teachers would claim. Everything that he teaches about Christianity which is right he learnt from the apostles in Jerusalem, but everything he teaches about Christianity which is wrong he has made up himself.’ What is more, he is only out to curry favour with people. That is why he tries to make Christianity easy, all a matter of faith, not religious works.’ Now Paul launches a pre-emptive attack on such slander. For a start he declares himself ‘apostle’ – it may not even be ‘an apostle’- but straight ‘apostle’. Why? Because the risen Jesus who met him on the Road to Damascus commissioned him to be the apostle to the Gentiles, that is the non-Jews. So he wasn’t sent by men-like Peter, James and John back in Jersualem or by any human being, his was a divine appointment, coming straight from king Jesus himself ‘raised from the dead’ and approved by God the Father. So what Paul says is not a matter of his own personal opinion, but divine revelation. The fact is if it weren’t for Paul most of the New Testament would be missing. He is our apostle especially since most of us here this morning are not of Jewish descent. And so we should treasure what he says, because Jesus sent him especially for us. So don’t listen to those who try and drive a wedge between the words of Jesus and Paul, for what Paul wrote was inspired by the Spirit of Jesus.
What is more, you can’t knock Paul’s motives either as being a mere man pleaser, hence v10, ‘Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.’ Paul would have made a great Yorkshireman; he called a spade a spade. As we shall see in a minute, Paul uses some pretty intemperate language which is not going to endear him anyone and so he hardly comes across as a man pleaser, a religious chameleon who changes his message to fit his audience. The fact is you can’t please God whilst trying to please men, because the Gospel message is offensive to natural man. It tells him that he is not good enough for God and can never be. Why, in God’s sight there is no difference between the crack dealer and the car dealer, the robber and the Rotarian- all such lives offend him as they are lived outside his rule- and God is angry. And somehow that anger has to be turned away otherwise we are in very serious trouble aren’t we? Who wants to die and face an angry God? I know I don’t. So is there any good news? Well yes there is.
It comes in the form of a divinely focused message v 3, ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father...’ You see what we need, and what God so wonderfully supplies, is a rescue not a religion. And what a rescue and at what a cost! Paul says here that God the Father, gave his Son Jesus Christ for our sins. Do you know what that means? He is talking about the cross. Just picture it for a moment. God is on his throne. You are on the earth. And between you and God, suspended between you and heaven, is Christ on his cross. You sins have been placed on Jesus. God, who punishes sin, releases his rightful anger on your offences, your mistakes and Jesus received the blow. Since Christ is between you and God, you don’t. The sin is punished but you are safe, so long as you remain in the shadow of the cross. But the moment you decide to leave there and strut around pointing to what you have done, how good you are, how religious you have been, then you have in effect just signed your own death warrant. You take the blow yourself.
And notice how kind God has been in doing this for you. He gave his Son. Would you do that? Would you offer the life of your child for someone else? I know I wouldn’t. There are those for whom I would give my life. But if you ask me for a list of those for whom I would be willing to kill one of my sons, then the sheet would be blank. But not God’s sheet. Your name is there, as is mine- for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.
Now tell me: what sort of person will turn to the God who has done such a wonderful thing, whose heart was broken on the cross, whose blood was spilt and say – ‘Keep it. I don’t want it. I will not only make my own way to heaven thank you very much, because the one thing I will not accept is charity from God or anyone else.’ What sort of person would do that? Well, sadly most of us would. That is what we are like by nature and so we make up ‘do good’ religions to satisfy that quest for self-justification. There are so called Christian versions of it and non- Christian versions and do you know what the apostle Paul says of those who promote them- religions which is all about us doing things to get to God? He says they are quite literally damned liars. This is a divinely cursed situation these Christians are in. Look at v 8 ‘Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (damned) As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
Do you understand what Paul is saying? He is calling down a solemn curse which will result in the eternal damnation of anyone who teaches that people can be saved other than by receiving God’s loving forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Paul would wish himself damned rather than do this. Even if an angel were to turn up at one of our services at St Johns, which certainly would get your attention there would be no dozing off with a flaming angel standing in the pulpit, and if with his ringing angelic voice declare that you are to believe in Jesus plus- then he too can go straight to hell, because that is where he belongs to, not heaven. Paul is serious you see. He is not being nasty tempered or having a bad hair day- he is uncompromisingly blunt because- he actually cares. Why?
First, because other so called gospels and religions lead to the death of people. Let me explain what I mean. Some of you will have seen the classic film starring Orson Wells called the ‘Third Man.’ It is set in post war Vienna, which, to put it mildly is grim. The place has been devastated by the war, things are in chaos, morality is lax and disease is rife. Of course this provides an ideal breeding ground for the black market. One such racketeer is the main character played by Orson Wells, called Harry Lime. Now there’s a scene in which an investigative journalist enters a hospital and sees children lying row upon row in beds in terrible agony. Some are clearly dying, others are maimed mentally. Why? Well, because Harry Lime and others like him have made a profit by selling watered down penicillin vaccine – and this is the result. How do you think that journalist felt towards the black marketers? Did he shrug his shoulder and say ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere.’ ? Of course not. He is angry. Friends, when people water down the only medicine there is which can deal with our most fundamental problem- our estranged relationship with God caused by our sin so that people drift off into a Christless eternity, then our reaction should not be any less than the apostle Paul’s. People’s eternal destiny is at stake. If the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope or Melvin Tinker preaches another Gospel other than the one the apostle Paul preached- they will rightly be eternally damned; for they would have done the cruellest thing any human being could do- stopping people from knowing the love of God in Jesus and sending them into a dark eternity with no hope. It is nothing short of spiritual genocide they will have committed.
But secondly, other so called gospels lead to the dishonouring of the Lord Jesus. You see, to say we must do things in order to be saved implies that Jesus on the cross hasn’t done enough, that it was deficient in some way. It means instead of him receiving all the glory and all the thanks for leaving the beauty of heaven to hang on the beams of a cross covered with the filth of our sin to save us, he has to share it, he must thank us for doing our part. And rightly Paul will have none of that- as he says at the end of the letter ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Now you may be here this morning and all of this is new to you and may even sound a little offensive. But think of it like this- if it were even remotely possible for God to accept you and me on the basis of our being descent and religious, do you not think that he would have done so? Does not the fact that he sent his Son Jesus whom he has loved from all eternity to bleed and be broken on the cross mean there was no other way you sin and mine could be dealt with? Here is the medicine, there is no other and God pleads with you to take it before it is too late. Become a Christian.
And if you are a Christian then rejoice in the fact that God could not give more for you than he already has- for if you have his Son the Lord Jesus then you have everything.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.