Bewitched? - Galatians 3:1-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I wonder if you have ever been taken in by a practical joke. Well some years ago, two students decided that they would try and pull off a practical joke in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The first student, a man called Willie Rushton, stealthily put a label on an ordinary plug socket in one of the galleries which read: "Plug socket, designed by Hans Plug (born 1908)." Meanwhile, his friend, Nicky Bird, with equal cunning, labelled an ordinary bench which tourists used to sit on whilst admiring the other exhibits. His notice read: "The Bennidorn Bench, designed by the Marxist minimalist Van Der Pohe, around 1958. Van Der Pohe, the fake label went on to explain, believed in the primacy of shoddy goods. ĎCheap and cheerlessí was his catchphrase. Here he has fashioned something uncomfortable out of vinyl and Formica to discourage loitering." Well having positioned their two labels, the students took a bet on whose label would last longer. After two months, Van Der Pohe was discovered by the museum not to have existed, but Hans Plug remained for over a year, much to the annoyance, apparently, of the poor cleaner who had to use a huge extension cable so as not to damage the exhibit.
Well there are many fraudsters in our world arenít there? And whilst some things are just funny practical jokes, yet in other areas it is much more serious. So imagine a con artist ripping off an elderly or vulnerable person with a sob story which ends in demanding money. Imagine a doctor offering an injection to an undiscerning but trusting patient which he says will help them, but which in fact kills them. Imagine a youth worker taking advantage of his position with a young girl and getting her pregnant. And when we hear of those sort of things happening then rightly we are angry. We hate to hear of people being duped and led astray. But we should be far more angry when we hear of false teachers of the Christian faith leading people astray and offering them a version of the truth which is no truth at all. That should be something that causes us deep despair and a determination to fight against it. Because to try and dupe people in the realm of the gospel is cruelty of the most serious kind because quite simply you are playing with peopleís eternal destinies. For false teaching only ever leads its teachers and its followers to hell and never to heaven.
And if you think Iím exaggerating, then take a look at the opening verse of our passage in Galatians chapter 3. Because that is the burden of Paulís heart as we come this morning to Galatians chapter 3 v 1: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" Someone has come in and has bewitched these Galatians. Theyíve been duped, conned, hypnotised into following a message which is not leading them to God, but leading them away from God. And Paul is flabbergasted! In fact, more than that heís outraged! Heís livid! So cast your eye back to chapter 1 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." If you remember the problem was that after Paul had come with the liberating good news about Jesus Christ to these people in Turkey, others had come in offering these young Christians something extra. They had come in offering what they called the "true gospel". And to get this "true gospel" you had to do all sorts of extra religious rituals based on the laws of the Old Testament. And the trouble was that the Galatians had fallen for it hook, line and sinker. And that is why Paul is writing this letter. Heís reminding them, as he says in chapter 5 v 1, that "it is for freedom that Christ has set them free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." And all the way through the letter, Paul is urging these young Christians to turn aside from the false gospel and come back to Christ and the true liberating message that Paul had brought them. For heís the true apostle with the true message sent and authorised by Jesus himself.
And in our passage for this morning, we find that Paul gives them three things to remember which will enable them to give up following falsehood and turn back to the truth. And weíll find too we must pay very close attention to what Paul is saying lest we too fall into the trap of false gospels. And whilst we might say "Iíd never do that," weíll discover that it may be closer to home than we first thought. So what does Paul urge us to remember:
1) Always Remember Godís Grace (Vv 1-5)
2) Always Remember Godís Plan (Vv 6-9)
3) Always Remember Godís Saviour (Vv 10-14)
1) Always Remember Godís Grace (Vv 1-5)
So first of all in verses 1-5, Paul says to us always remember Godís grace. Now Paul begins this section by telling the Galatians that they have made a very serious mistake. Verse 1: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" And again in verse 3: "Are you so foolish?" Now the word Paul uses here is pretty strong, so strong in fact that this is the way one translator, J B Philips, puts it: "O you dear idiots of Galatia!Ö You canít be so idiotic [can you]?" It captures brilliantly the sheer folly of the Galatiansí position, and the passionate commitment to them by the apostle Paul. Have you lost your mind, he says? But why is Paul so irate? Well because, he says in verse 3, they began with the Spirit and are now trying to attain their goal by human effort. Theyíd begun their Christian lives by trusting in Christ and receiving the gift of the Spirit. Itís the way every Christian becomes a Christian. You trust in Jesusí death for you on the cross and God changes your heart by his Spirit. He washes you clean. He forgives you. But now theyíre continuing their Christian lives by trusting in their own performance. They had begun with the grace of God, but are now continuing in their own strength. And itís all because they have submitted to the false teaching of the false teachers. Theyíd swallowed the lie that to get to be a fully fledged Christian you had to tack on lots of Jewish rules and rituals. Christ + everything else. And Paul says, "Youíre mad! Youíve gone potty! Youíre fools!"
And so to make his point he asks them directly about their Christian experience. Have a look at verse 2: "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothingóif it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" Some amazing things have happened to them. They have received the Spirit of God, theyíve been washed clean and forgiven. They have witnessed God do amazing things in their midst. Theyíd even suffered for the sake of the gospel, probably some form of persecution! Did all these things happen to them because they submitted to a load of old rules and regulations or because they trusted the free gift of God? Well the answer should be crystal clear. Of course it wasnít because they kept some laws. It was because they trusted the free message about Jesus, a message that Paul says in verse 1 heíd made crystal clear to them when he preached to them. "Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified." In fact the word "portrayed" here may well suggest that Paul had drawn out the cross on the ground, or on a board for them all to see. Christ was clearly portrayed for them all to see. And theyíd understood the message. In short theyíd begun the Christian life by trusting in the grace of God. It was Godís free and undeserved gift of forgiveness through Jesus that the Galatians had received. Verse 5, God gave them his Spirit. It was nothing to do with their performance. Because as weíll see a bit later on, our performance can never ever meet Godís grade of total perfection. No, they had begun by trusting in the precious, loving grace of God. So why, why on earth submit yourself to a set of rules and start to try and live the Christian life by performance and self effort instead of continuing to trust in the grace of God. Why have you been so foolish? Youíve been bewitched, says Paul.
Now to help us grasp the total folly of their actions, let me tell you about Charles Blondin. Charles Blondin was the tight rope walker who used to walk across the Niagara Falls between Canada and the USA on a tight rope. And he would do all sorts of stunts on the rope suspended hundreds of feet above the crashing waters. Heíd go back and forth, heíd push a wheel barrow across and heíd even eat a meal sitting on a small stool. And one time he carried a volunteer across on his back, one the most supreme acts of trust history has even seen! But just imagine if that man on Blondinís back suddenly said halfway across: "Actually, Mr Blondin, this is all very well, but I donít trust you any more. I want to get off and walk on without you!" Can you imagine how stupid that would be. It would be daft, idiotic, and down right dangerous. And in a far more profound way, these Galatians were being equally stupid when they were effectively saying to Jesus: "Look Jesus, itís been great riding on your back so far. But weíll walk from here on our own. Weíll make our own way to heaven thank you very much!" Well how foolish can you get! Itís madness. And in fact itís down right dangerous, because the so called gospel they have believed of Jesus + works, wonít lead them to heaven. It will lead them to hell. Because at itís heart, it is not Christ dependant- it is self dependant.
Now of course, we might say to all of this, "Well thatís great for them, but Iím not in danger from this sort of teaching. Iíd never fall for it." But people do. There are churches which will preach a gospel which says unless you do this, that or the other, you are not a proper Christian. Whether it be on the issue of baptism, or how much money you give, or whether you have experienced a particular spiritual gift, or whether you believe a particular doctrine, or whether you practice certain rituals each week. Yes, we do need to be careful, because we can be easily sucked into that sort of Jesus + religion which is plainly wrong. But I want to suggest that there is a far more subtle form of this Galatian problem going around which is danger of affecting every one of us. And that the problem of performance related Christianity. Itís the thinking which says, "Yes, I know I am saved by grace, but I need to keep in Godís good books by doing all sorts of things in my Christian life which please him." And we gauge our spiritual health on how weíre doing on those particular works. And the problem is that often these things we do are good things but done with the wrong motives. So we try and read the Bible every day, but skip a few days or have a bad week, then we feel weíve totally blown it with God. Or what about doing things for God, like running a group, visiting a person in need, helping in the church in some way? Is it done because somehow we feel we can impress God, or because we simply are overjoyed to serve our Lord? Or how about with church attendance- do we come in order to keep God on our side, so to speak, or because we long to worship him together and encourage fellow believers to keep trusting the grace of God for another week. You see it is so easy to live our Christian lives by merit, trying to clock up brownie points with God, rather than by grace. And we believe that our status as Godís children depends on what we do. Now, donít get me wrong. Reading the Bible, prayer, coming to church, using our gifts in Godís service are all vital in the Christian life. But donít letís ever deceive ourselves into thinking that we must do them to keep in Godís good books. Because otherwise we end up living our Christian lives out of guilt, instead of out of the wonderful liberation of being a forgiven child of God. The fact is as forgiven Christians we are in Godís good books. Weíve been justified, weíre right with him. Weíre his children! He loves you and delights in you! And I know from my own experience how crushing it can be to try and live your Christian live through your performance and self dependence rather than trusting the grace of God every day. All it does is lead to crippling guilt and spiritual shipwreck, because of course we can never keep it up. So donít live your Christian life through guilt. Live it in the knowledge that you and I need to stay dependant on the grace of God all of our lives, not just at the start but all the way through. Never ever move from the grace of God like these Galatians. Instead always remember Godís grace.
2) Always Remember Godís Plan (Vv 6-9)
But Paul has another string to his bow as he seeks to wean these Galatians off works religion. And so he tells them secondly always to remember Godís plan. Verse 6: "Consider Abraham" Now we might be a little confused as to why Paul suddenly introduces Abraham at this point. But Abraham was a big player in Jewish history, and no doubt was a major figure in the thinking of the false teachers. They would probably have said something like this: "OK, Galatians, weíve brought you the real gospel, not this mangled form that Paul gave you. And do you know who weíve got back up our theory. Abraham himself. He underwent circumcision. And heís our model. Heís our hero. Weíre the real children of Abraham. You need to do what he did." But Paul does something far cleverer. He takes us back to what the Bible actually says about Abraham. Paul says: "OK, Galatians, do you want to talk about Abraham, do you want to use him as your hero? Well let me tell you a thing or two about Abraham." Verse 6: "Consider Abraham: ĎHe believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.í" Paulís point is very simple. Abrahamís salvation is not dependant on rules that he has kept or rituals that he has done. It is about faith in God. Thatís what saved him. Abraham believed Godís promises and God credited it to him as righteousness. That means that God declared Abraham right with God, forgiven and set free from sin. And he did it, not because Abraham had earned it by his faith. But because Abraham trusted what God had already said to him. Do you remember back in Genesis 12, God had given some wonderful promises to Abraham, and what had Abraham done? He had taken God at his word and left everything to follow God. Now thatís faith- acting on the word of God. And there is no mention here of laws or rituals or anything else. No, this great hero of the faith, Abraham, was saved through faith. In other words he trusted Godís grace.
And even more staggering than that is what Paul says in verse 8: "The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ĎAll nations will be blessed through you.í So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." Part of the promise that Abraham received was that through him, or through his offspring, all the nations of the world, people like you and me, would be blessed. And in the NT we find that this blessing comes through Abrahamís offspring Jesus. And the wonderful thing is that both Abraham and us, the promised nations, are saved in the same way. By faith. Verse 7: "Understand, then, that those who believe [which is another way of saying "have faith in Godís promises"] are children of Abraham." So there is only one way of salvation. Abraham was saved by faith because he trusted the promises of God, even though he never saw them fully fulfilled. And we are saved by faith, trusting those same promises, which we see now fulfilled in Jesus. So is there any mention of works or rules here? No! And who are the real children of Abraham? Those who have faith in Godís promises, those who believe the good news about Jesus.
Can you see what Paul is saying? He is saying that the way to become one of Godís people, the way to join this amazing people that God is gathering together, is not by following rules, but by faith, trusting in the gracious promises of God which are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It was the same in Abrahamís day and it was the same in the Galatiansí day and itís the same in our day. Itís as if Paul is saying: "Look, you Galatians, at your spiritual heritage. Youíre part of something much bigger than your little church in Galatia. Youíre part of the whole family of God stretching back to Abraham, if you believe these same promises. What a heritage you have! What a plan of God that he has made for our salvation. So donít blow it now by relying on silly works of the law. Youíve been greatly blessed by coming into Godís amazing family by faith. Donít forfeit this incredible privilege. Remember Godís plan.
And that is just as important a lesson for us as it was for the Galatians. Because it is all too easy to forget how incredibly privileged we are and how amazing Godís plan of salvation is. And as we beaver away at our Christian lives, it is easy to lose focus on Godís much bigger plan of salvation. We might consider that our Christian lives are pretty weak and pathetic, and certainly in Hull and in Britain things are hard. Maybe youíve not seen anyone become a Christian for a while. Maybe trying to witness for Christ at work it like hitting your head against a break wall. And you wonder quite frankly whether it is all worth it. It just seems so small and weak. And if you never realise what you are part of, then itís tempting to look elsewhere for spiritual fulfilment and meaning, or at the very least question whether the Christian life is really worth it. So what you and I need to remember is the bigger picture.
I remember the very first time I went walking in the Lake District. I was 11 and went with a school trip. And we climbed Sca Fell Pike, which is the biggest mountain in England. And it took hours of hard slog to get there. Weíd chomped through our rations of corned beef sandwiches before weíd even got out of the van, let alone saved any for the three hour climb. So after three hours we were fairly weary. And I remember thinking like giving up at various points along the way, partly because we couldnít see the top of the mountain at all. Was it really worth it? Why did I bother to volunteer for this trip anyway? But when we did finally get to the top, it was a breathtaking sight. It was a beautifully clear day, and the view made the hard slog worthwhile. We could see where weíd come from, as well as miles around.
And sometimes, spiritually speaking, you and I need to take our eyes off the road, the hard slog of the Christian life and come back to the mountain top for a breath of fresh air and a renewed perspective. To look at Godís amazing plan of salvation. For friends, if you are trusting Christ, then you and I are part of something very special indeed. We are part of Godís amazing rescue plan which stretches right back to Abraham and beyond into eternity. The view is spectacular! And every single person who will be in heaven will be there not because of good works, but because, like Abraham, they have trusted the promises of God in Christ. Those are the true children of Abraham. And in the face of despair and temptation to resort to self dependency, never forget that are you are part of Godís amazing plan. Never forget your spiritual heritage. Always remember Godís plan.
3) Always Remember Godís Saviour (Vv 10-14)
But thereís one last plea that Paul wishes to make to urge these Galatians to give up their works religion. And that is always to remember Godís Saviour, which Paul makes clear in verses 10-14. Now it becomes obvious straight away from these verses why we need a Saviour. Because Paul says in verse 10: "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ĎCursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.í" Now for the Galatians who were putting themselves back under the law, this would have come as a real blow. Because the fact is if we want to get to heaven by works, then we have to be perfect. Only perfection can dwell in Godís perfect world. But if we break the law, then we fall under a curse. And the fact is that every single one of us falls into that category.
Now itís just possible that there are some here who do believe they are good enough for God. In many of our surveys and discussions with non church goers, the vast majority say that they are good enough to go to heaven. Theyíve not murdered anyone, theyíve been as good as possible. God, the typical English gentleman, will let us all in anyway. And many of us live our lives by the tower block method of morality. That is most of us would put ourselves at about floor 10 of twenty in the moral tower block. 20 is perfection, ground floor is pure evil. And the past mark for getting into heaven would be about floor 8. No weíre not perfect we admit, but weíve tried our hardest. Above us are people like Mother Teresa and Cliff Richard. Below us are people like Harold Shipman or J R Ewing, you know the sort of people. But nice people like us will go to heaven. But sadly that is a very long way from the God of the Bible. No, Godís standards are perfect. He is a God who holds perfect standards of justice. And not one of us make the grade. And whilst we draw the line on the tower block horizontally at level 8, God draws the line vertically right down the middle. Which means that none of us naturally can go to heaven, but all of us can if only we recognise how and admit our need. Because as Paul makes it clear in verse 11: "Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ĎThe righteous will live by faith.í" The Bible itself admits, says Paul, that we cannot get to heaven by our own merits. We must instead trust Godís way.
And what is that way? Well itís a way of great cost and much pain, but itís the only way it could be done. We must put our faith in Godís Saviour, the Saviour he himself has provided. Jesus Christ, Godís only Son. Verse 13: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ĎCursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.í When Jesus Christ died on the cross, he bore the curse of breaking Godís law that we deserved to bear. He himself was perfect. He kept Godís law perfectly, the only person ever to do so. But as a perfect substitute he stepped into our place and took the curse we should rightly take ourselves. To be hung on a tree in the OT meant to die horrifically for something that you did. Because death was the punishment, the curse, of breaking the law of God. And Jesus figuratively speaking was hung on a tree, died on a cross.
And what was the result? Verse 14: "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." The death of Jesus on the cross means that we can become children of Abraham, people who inherit Godís amazing promises. We can become children of God, receiving the Spirit of God and washed clean and forgiven. And that is the only way you and I can be with God forever. That is the only way we can cross that vertical line down the moral tower block. But if you continue to trust in your own works to get you to heaven, then Paul says to you, with all the love in the world, that you are fool. Youíve been taken in by the lie that you can work your way into Godís good books, like the Galatians. So I plead with you if you have not yet trusted Christ alone for your salvation to fling yourself on his mercy. For there is no other way to be saved. And if you are a Christian here, then I would urge you, as I challenge myself, to make it your habit to come back to the cross time and again. Because what else could you possibly want after seeing the wonderful things Jesus offers through his death on the cross. Why on earth would you possibly rely on your own performance when Jesus has done all it for you. No, keep trusting this cross, and especially today, as we share bread and wine in remembrance of what Jesus has done. Let us repent of our self sufficiency, and come humbly before the Saviour and receive his grace in our time of need. Never ever move away from the cross of Christ. Always remember Godís Saviour.
You see even today, there are plenty who would demand our ears to hear what they would have to tell us about the true way to God. But they are offering a false gospel, which only leads away from God and not to him. So like these Galatians we need to heed Paulís warnings in this passage against works based religion which again and again tempts us to forfeit the wonderful privileges that are ours in Christ. They donít save. They are lies. Instead always remember Godís grace. Always remember Godís plan. And always remember Godís Saviour.
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