Man made or God given? - Galatians 1:11-24
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Back in the mid nineteen eighties in America, a scam was uncovered which involved faking medical school certificates for phoney doctors. It was estimated that some 10,000 doctors had counterfeit foreign medical degrees, which, because they were so good, had fooled almost everyone in positions of authority. The con man behind the deception was a man called Pedro De Mesones, and through selling fraudulent documents, he had earned $1.5 million over three years. Well De Mesones was eventually caught, and during the trial, the prosecution said that many American citizens would have received medical treatment from phoney doctors. These phoney doctors had paid De Mesones, who had then provided them with their fake documents claiming they completed medical school and training. In fact, they had done nothing of the sort. De Mesones, who ended up serving a three-year prison sentence for mail fraud and conspiracy, admitted to the court that in three years of faking medical degrees, he provided about 100 clients with false transcripts showing they had fulfilled medical requirements of schools they didnít attend. "Clients paid me anything from $5225 to $27,000 for my services," De Mesones said. "In all I earned about $1.5 million in those three years. But I only got to keep about $500,000 of this total. The rest went on bribes and expenses." The heart bleeds! But it all goes to show how easy it is to dupe people. And of course, the trouble is in this case, the deception is very serious indeed because it is about life and death.
Now in our passage for today, we meet a man who is being accused of deception. The apostle Paul is being accused of being a fraud. And the accusations are very serious indeed, because the implications of that accusation concern life and death issues, but this time not physical but spiritual and eternal. If you remember, Paul was writing to some churches in southern Turkey in an area called Galatia. Now these were churches that Paul himself had founded after a successful preaching tour. People had been set free from crushing burdens of guilt and the pressure to do many good deeds to get into heaven. And they had come to know the liberating truth of being forgiven by God through Jesus Christ.
But not long after, other teachers had come through those towns and undone all of Paulís good work. They said that Paul had only got the message half right. ĎYes being a Christian is great, they said. But you need to keep the Jewish law as well. You need to be circumcised, to follow the Old Testament laws in order to be a really top notch Christian. In short, you need Jesus + other rules and regulations. Paul is deceived and is deceiving others.í So these false teachers were attacking Paul. For Paul, you see, was claiming to be an apostle, one of a very select band of men given a specific personal commission from Jesus himself. But these false teachers were saying that Paul got all his teaching from the other apostles, men like Peter and James and John, not Jesus himself. And then he had made a load of other stuff up as well. Heís watered down the good news and heís left out the fact that you need to keep the Jewish law, said the false teachers. Paulís not a true apostle. Heís a fraud. Heís a deceiver. Heís an impostor.
And when Paul hears this news, he is furious. Because these Galatian Christians have fallen for these false teachersí lies hook, line and sinker. Theyíve been duped, hoodwinked into following Jesus plus doing lots of rules! So he writes to tell them how foolish they have been, and tells them to give up all those rules and regulations and come back to Jesus. And if there is perhaps one verse that sums up Paulís message it comes in chapter 5 verse 1: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then and do let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery."
And at the beginning of the letter, in our passage, Paul takes the time to defend himself against the claims of the false teachers that heís an impostor or a fraud. Now why do that? Why bother to take the time to tell us about his travel plans after his conversion. Surely it reads more like something out of a Michael Palin film than a passage from the Bible? You know the sort of thing, 80 days around the Med with the apostle Paul! But actually the reason for the defence is not for the geographically curious, or because his personal pride has been damaged. It is because if Paul is a true apostle, if he has been sent by Jesus himself and not by men, and if his message is true, then the Galatians are in danger of going to hell not heaven. Itís that serious. Because they are being duped by false teachers into following a false message. For as we heard last week, there is only one gospel. Paulís gospel which is the good news of Jesus himself. Itís his version which is true. All other versions are perversions. And itís just as serious for us today. Because there are plenty of people who want to rubbish the apostle Paul, to get us to believe a slightly different version of Paulís message. But unless we believe what Paul says, unless we accept that his message is the message of living God himself, then we are danger of going to hell rather than heaven. And that is why it is a matter of life and death. Add to the message just slightly and you destroy it, as we will see all the way through Galatians. So Paul must defend himself against the charges of being a fraud because he knows that the very gospel is stake, not just in Galatia, but in the whole world to which he ministers. Rubbish Paul, and you discredit the whole Christian message. Thatís the stakes. For Paulís message is Godís message. So letís see how Paul defends himself against the charges. And in his defence, Paul gives two pieces of evidence to show that he is the real McCoy, the true apostle of Jesus.
1) Paulís Conversion- All of Grace
2) Paulís Commission- All of God
1) Paulís Conversion- All of Grace
So the first piece of evidence weíll look at is Paulís conversion, that itís all of grace. Itís all about the grace of God. Because quite frankly you could not meet a man who was more unlikely to become a Christian. Letís have a look at verses 13-14: "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers." Paul begins by reminding the Galatians of what he was like. For Paul was a very zealous Jew. He would have got top marks at Saturday school when he was a child and at university he would have been one of the brightest students winning every prize and scholarship going! And we learn elsewhere that he was the pupil of one of the most famous rabbis of the day. So Paul can say that he was advancing in Judaism beyond many of those his own age. He was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers. Paul was passionate about his Judaism. In fact so much so, that he actively persecuted the fledgling Christian church. He says he intensely persecuted the church and tried to destroy it. The word Paul uses for Ďdestroyí is a very strong word which Greek writers used to describe invading armies destroying whole cities. Paulís savage intent was to raze the Christian church to the ground. He was on a mission to stamp out Christianity because he thought it was a deeply offensive cult. That was how passionate he was. And do you notice that this is all public knowledge. He says in verse 13 that the Galatians have heard this. It was common knowledge. Everyone knew who Paul, or Saul as he was known as a Jew, was. He was a Jewish hero. Everyone knew how much he hated Christianity. If they had tabloids then, he would have been on the front and back pages, and also been in the supplements. You can imagine the headlines, canít you. Maybe the Jerusalem Post: "Savage Saul shuts suspects in the slammer." Or perhaps the Bethlehem Daily Mail: "Rabid rabbi wrecks rebelsí religion!" This man was red hot for his faith. So there is absolutely no way in the world that Paul would chose to become a Christian. It canít be anything to do with his choice or him making up a new religion. And just think what he would be asked to give up. Fame, fortune, reputation, family, security, and a job for life. To replace it with persecution, infamy, poverty, loneliness, insecurity. There is no way Paul in the world would choose on his own account to do that! In fact, when he did become a Christian, some of the Christians were so sceptical they thought it was a trick to get Paul into the church!
But what Paul hadnít counted on was the grace of God. Verse 15: "But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man." "But when GodÖ" Those are perhaps the precious words in Paulís whole vocabulary. I was going this way, says Paul. But God. There is a complete change of subject. From a Paul led life, to a God led life. Paul was going his way, careering down a path that was leading away from God and taking everyone in his path! But God stepped in and took the initiative. God was the one who saved Paul. He is the one who forgave Paulís sin through Jesusí death on the cross. And, if you remember the story, it took a special resurrection appearance of Jesus himself on the road to Damascus to turn Paul around. The last resurrection appearance of all. And it was to Paul. Paul was off on another persecution. But God. God was pleased to reveal Jesus in Paul. Paul was stopped in his tracks by the risen Jesus, and blinded by his glory. And more than that, Paul now knows that God had set him apart from birth. God had always planned to use Paul for a very significant task. And God called Paul by his grace. That free gift of God which Paul in no way whatsoever deserved. Now can you see at any point in this story how Paul could have made up such a story or brought upon himself such a change of heart? Can you believe that a life can be transformed like that apart from the grace and power of God. No, Paulís very testimony shows us that he is not dependant on himself or others for his conversion. It all began with the grace of God, free, undeserved, and precious mercy.
Now it just worth us pausing for a moment to ponder this amazing truth. Because the fact is that it is only the grace of God that can change lives. And when we depend on our own merit to get us to God, then we will fail, time and time again. One of the books I read as I prepared this talk was a book on Galatians by Martin Luther, the reformer of the 16th century. In it he describes his own state of mind before he became a Christian. He was a monk, but he tried to live the Christian life by following rules and regulations in his own strength. Listen to how he puts it: "Like Paul, I too, before I was enlightened by the gospel, was a zealous as anyone for the traditions of the fathersÖ. I tried to keep them myself, Ö punishing my poor body with fasting, watching, praying and other exercisesÖI crucified Christ daily in my monastic life and blasphemed God through my false faith in which I then lived all the timeÖ. I was given to fasting, watching, praying and so forth. Yet underneath this cloak of holiness and trust in my own righteousness, I fostered continual mistrust, doubting, fear, hatred, and blasphemy against God. My righteousness was nothing but a filthy puddle and the very kingdom of the devil." Luther came to see that for all his good deeds, for all his so called religious fervour, it was a sham, because he did not know Jesus Christ. He had to come to see that, like Paul, even his best deeds were like filthy rags. He had to accept Godís grace as the only way of salvation. And itís the same for you and me. And if you are here today, trying to live your life, as many do, believing they are good enough for God, then can I say you are sadly mistaken. In fact far more than that. You are dangerously duped. Rather the only thing that will save you is to come to God for forgiveness and depend on his grace and mercy in Christ. For like Paul, each of must realise that becoming a Christian is nothing to do with us and our decision. For no-one can save themselves. Rather it is all of grace. And thatís Paulís first piece of evidence that he puts before the jury. His conversion- all of grace.
2) Paulís Commission- All of God
But Paul brings a second piece of evidence before the jury as to show heís an authentic apostle. His commission is all of God. In other words Paul has been given a message to preach with the authority of the living God himself. So letís go back to verse 11: "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Now this time Paul goes on the offensive. He directly tackles the charge that heís a fraud and a phoney. "Paul youíve copied your gospel from the other apostles, the false teachers were saying. And Paul what you have got youíve distorted into a false gospel." It reminds me of the time I heard about an essay a student once received back and it had the following words on it from the tutor: "This is both good and original. Unfortunately, what is good is not original and what is original is not good." And that was the charge against Paul. What is good is not original and what is original is not good. So Paul says: "That is complete rubbish. I have a personal commission from God to preach about Jesus Christ. Itís Godís message and I have Godís authority." Verse 11, it is not something man made up. I want you to know this brothers. Galatian Christians, donít believe everything you hear. Believe me when I tell you I have a unique apostolic commission from Jesus Christ himself. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it. Rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. And in the rest of our passage, he unpacks both those truths in reverse order.
a) A Revelation from Jesus- So in verses 15 and 16, he explains that his commission was a revelation from Jesus: "But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man." Weíve already seen that Paulís conversion was all of grace. But notice what it is that God gives to Paul to do. Paul has been set apart and called for a very specific purpose- That he might preach Jesus Christ among the Gentiles, that is non Jewish people like most of us. And it came about through a revelation. God revealed his Son in Paul, or it could also mean to Paul. In other words, Paul experienced a personal revelation of Godís Son Jesus. His eyes were opened and he was given a job to do. To proclaim this Jesus to the Gentiles. And all of that happened on the road to Damascus. So in Acts 26, when Paul is giving his testimony before a Roman official about what happened on the road to Damascus, he says that Jesus told him to go to people and tell them all about the forgiveness he offers. No man told him. It was a commission from Jesus himself by personal revelation.
b) Not taught by man- And nor was it taught by men, which is the second part of his argument that he tackles in verses 17 and following. And his point is simply that he had very little contact with any of the apostles in the years following his conversion. You see if Paul had spent many years in Jerusalem with all the apostles, then you could understand the charges sticking. Perhaps Paul did get all his facts and views from them. But Paul maintains in verse 17 that in the immediate aftermath of his conversion, he went into Arabia, which is miles in the opposite direction from Jerusalem. In fact, it was three years, according to Paul in verse 18, before he finally made it down to Jerusalem, and even then he only spent a fortnight with Peter and James. Hardly an intensive course of theology to get things straight. And in any case, the purpose of the visit, says Paul, was to get acquainted with Peter. My uninformed guess is that they spent more time fishing and getting to know one another, than checking out whether Paul was sound or not. Oh, Iím sure they talked about the faith. But not so that Paul could find out the truth! He knew it already! And it would be many years later that Paul would make his next visit to Jerusalem as we read in chapter 2 verse 1. So all in all the false teachersí argument is very thin. Paul was certainly not schooled by the apostles. In fact, he says he went to Jerusalem just once in 14 years, for two weeks, and even then he only saw two of the apostles. And by the time of the second visit, we read in chapter 2 v 9 that the apostles recognised that Paul had a unique commission from Jesus to proclaim the gospel to the gentiles. So the first meaningful contact in fourteen years with the other apostles is not for an examination of Paulís theology, but rather a confirmation of what Paul is already doing, as weíll see next week.
So can you see what Paul is doing? He is defending himself against the charge that his gospel is derived from others and that heís distorted what heís derived. Rather heís received a commission from Jesus himself and heís had little or no contact with the apostles. No Paulís commission is all of God.
Now letís take a step back and pause to reflect why this is so important for us 2000 years later. Why is it that God has allowed a passage like this to be included into this Bible? And why does Paul consider it so important that he spends almost a third of the letter in chapters 1-2 defending himself? Well let me suggest to you two very important implications of this passage for us today.
i) Paulís Teaching is Godís Teaching- The first is that Paulís teaching is Godís teaching. That is to say that what Paul says comes from God because he has the authority of Jesus himself. Now today that is a very difficult thing for many in the wider church to swallow. Because many want to drive a wedge between Paul and Jesus. They will say: "Yes, we love Jesus. Heís always teaching about love for others. But I donít like that nasty Paul. Especially his views on sex or women! Paulís homophobic and a misogynist!" Now in case you think Iím exaggerating then let me tell you that I have heard that opinion spoken many times by clergy and other church leaders and by many churchgoers in churches with a reputation for good teaching like our own. I remember sitting in a meeting with a few other clergymen, where one of Paulís letters was openly mocked and laughed at as it was read out. I kid you not. And these were men and women who were soon to be in the leadership positions in this diocese. And in fact, it may be there are some of us here who hold to that view. Who are at the very least slightly uneasy about the teachings of the apostle Paul. But the implications of what Paul is saying in this passage is that his teaching is Godís teaching in every aspect, whether it be in his discussions on human sexuality, marriage, holiness, or Godís way of salvation. Whatever it is, he speaks the word of God. And if you and I claim to be followers of Jesus, then it means we accept Paulís teaching as Godís teaching. And we will stand up for it and defend it in todayís world. Because Paulís teaching is Godís teaching.
b) Paulís Gospel is Godís Gospel- But secondly, and related to the first application is that Paulís gospel is Godís gospel. If Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ with a unique commission from God, then Paulís gospel is Godís gospel. In other words, there is no other way to be saved other than the way Paul teaches. Forgiveness through the cross of Jesus Christ only. And that is why Paul is so strong in this letter about any additions to his gospel. Because if you add to it you destroy it. No, to reject or distort Paulís gospel is to reject and distort Godís gospel. There is only one way of salvation. Jesus only. And itís a matter of life and death.
Now it may seem unpalatable to us in our multi cultural, multi faith world but itís the truth. Like it or not. And if you claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you must have the courage to stand up for this gospel. Because what cruelty it would be to tell people it doesnít really matter, when all the while we know full well that they are heading for an eternity without God. Yes it may well get harder for us to stand with Paul and say there is only one gospel. We may get flak at work, we may find it hard at home, we may well be hated on the uni campus or thought of as freaks. But stand we must. Because there is no other way of salvation. "I want you to know brothers, says Paul, that the gospel I preach is not something that man made up." Will you stand with Paul for this great news of the grace of Jesus Christ? Will you live and share it when the opportunities come? Because nothing else makes sense of life, and nothing else brings us to know the living God.
And that is why Paul is concerned to defend his apostolic credentials. Because in the end itís a matter of life and death, eternal life and death. And it matters to us 21 centuries later. For if he is an impostor, then you and I have no hope. There is no good news. But heís not. Paul is no fraud. Heís the real McCoy. And heís shown it here by his conversion and his commission. All of grace and all of God.
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