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True devotion - Galatians 4:12-20

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 13th November 2005.

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Four clergymen were taking a short breather from their heavy schedules, and were sitting on a park bench, chatting and enjoying an early spring day. ďYou know, since all of us are such good friends,Ē said one, ďthis might be a good time to discuss the problems that are disturbing us.Ē They all nodded in agreement. ďWell, I would like to share with you the fact that I drink to excess,Ē said one. There was an astonished gasp from the other three and shaking of heads. Then another spoke up. ďSince you were so honest, my friend, Iíd like to say that my big problem is gambling. Itís terrible, I know, but I canít quit. Iíve even been tempted to take money from the collection plate.Ē Another astonished gasp was heard, and more shaking of heads. And then the third clergyman spoke. ďIím really troubled, brothers, because Iím growing fond of a woman in my churchóa married woman.Ē More gasps. There was a long pause while the fourth man remained silent. After a few minutes the others coaxed him to open up. ďThe fact is,Ē he said, ďI just donít know how to tell you about my problem.Ē ďItís all right, brother. Your secret is safe with us. Youíre among friendsĒ ďWell, itís like this.Ē he said. ďYou see, Iím an incurable gossip.Ē

            Well if you think those guys had problems, then spare a thought for the apostle Paul, whose letter to the Galatians were studying this morning. Because here is a pastor with a real problem. Now the problem that Paul was facing concerned this church which he himself had lovingly begun in Southern Turkey, which heíd prayed for and which heíd even suffered for. This was a group of young Christians that Paul had poured his heart into. Heíd been like a devoted mother or a dedicated father in terms of the parental love that heíd shown them. And at first this young church grew and Paul delighted in his spiritual daughter. But now she has been wooed by other suitors, false teachers who have infiltrated the church and are beginning to lead them astray. And what grieved Paul so much was that this church had so quickly deserted the liberating message about Jesus and were turning to DIY religion. For the false teachers were teaching that Jesus was great but that you needed to do other rules and rituals to make you a really top notch Christian. It was Jesus +. You needed to keep doing religious works in order to keep in Godís good books. And Paul is outraged. Because his spiritual children are in great danger and the false teachers arenít leading the Galatians deeper into Christ but away from him. So do you remember what Paul said in verse 11 at the end of last weekís passage: ďI fear for you that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.Ē And at the end of our passage in verse 20 he says heís perplexed about them! So his whole letter is a passionate call to them to come back to Christ and the freedom he offers, and then to stand firm in that freedom. Donít let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery he says in chapter 5 v 1.

            But now in this passage, Paul takes a slightly different tack. Because so far in the letter, Paul has given some excellent theological reasons why the Galatians should give up the false teaching. But in this passage, he does something a bit different. He reveals his heart. He appeals to them from the heart as their loving pastor, the man who has shed tears on their behalf. And whenever Paul opens his heart, then there is much to learn. And as Paul argues with them on this deeply personal level he will ask the Galatians two questions which go to the very heart of the issues at stake in this letter. And the Spirit who inspired Paul to write these words is the same Spirit who speaks through these words today. And he is asking us these same two questions. Because the issues are no different for you and I. We too today can so easily be taken in by this false teaching and false thinking, as many are. And we too need to hear and accept this passionate and deeply personal passage as an antidote to the false teaching around us. So what questions does Paul ask us. They are these:

1) Where is your Joy? (Vv 12-15)

2) Where is your loyalty? (Vv 16-20)

1) Where is your Joy? (Vv 12-15)

So the first question that Paul asks the Galatians comes in verse 15: ďWhat has happened to all your joy?Ē Where is your joy? Because Paul recognises that there has been a change in these Galatians. Something has happened to make them different. Now there was a time when everything was wonderful. They were full of joy and they welcomed Paul as their friend with open arms. Verse 13: ďAs you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.Ē Do you remember, says Paul, the first time I came to you. I wasnít exactly a barrel of laughs and nor was I the great evangelist sweeping all before me! It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Now there are all sorts of guesses as to what Paulís illness was. Some think that Paul had contracted malaria on the coast of Turkey, and had gone up to the hilly region of Galatia to recover. And not one to miss an opportunity, he began to preach the gospel to the Galatians. Others think that he had some sort of eye complaint, which may explain why Paul says that the Galatians were willing to give their very eyes to Paul. But that could easily be the 1st century equivalent of giving someone your last Rolo, if you remember the adverts. Itís simply a figure of speech saying youíll do anything for a friend whatever the cost. Well whatever it was, Paul was in a bad way. In fact in verse 14 he says that he was a trial to the Galatians. Paul seems to have been a labour intensive patient. Maybe his mere physical presence was hard for them to bear, such that they were tempted to treat him with scorn or derision as he says in verse 14. In fact legend has it that Paul was pretty ugly at the best of times, so having a debilitating eye complaint or malaria wouldnít have helped. Weíre told that he was a short, fat, balding man, who wasnít very good at public speaking. But whatever the precise details, one thing is clear. It was amazing that the Galatians should hear him out and put up with him! Humanly speaking they should never have taken him in- they should have packed him off back to the coast on the first bus to Bodrum. But they didnít. They welcomed him. In fact, in verse 14, Paul says that they welcomed him as if he were an angel or Jesus himself. Isnít that extraordinary! So struck were they by his message that they put up with his illness and weakness and welcomed him with open arms as if an angel of heaven had visited Galatia, or even Jesus himself. That was how much they loved Paul and his message. There was nothing about Paul that attracted the Galatians. It was the gospel itself. And just as an aside, doesnít that show that the power of the message is not actually in the messenger. Itís in the message itself isnít it? Itís the message of the gospel applied by the Spirit of God that is so powerful. Itís spiritual dynamite! So donít be discouraged if you think you are weak or unimpressive, if you think youíre not especially gifted or intellectually able, that you cannot argue or speak persuasively. Remember itís not you or I who will ever persuade people to become Christians. Itís in Godís gospel where the power lies. And he uses human weakness for his powerful gospel purposes, just as he did that time with Paul in Galatia. And he can use you and me too!

            But for all the joy and love that the Galatians showered upon Paul when he first arrived, now all that has gone. Because things have changed. Something has gone tragically wrong in their relationship with Paul. Because according to Paul in verse 16 they now consider him their enemy. And even more tragically they have lost that joy they once had! Verse 15: ďWhat has happened to all your joy?Ē And the answer is painfully simple. They have moved away from Jesus Christ. They have accepted the lies of the false teachers hook line and sinker. And they are now depending not on Godís grace to live the Christian life, but their own merit. They are trusting in their performance to impress God. And as soon as you start doing that then it is no surprise that you lose your joy and first love. Because if you start trusting in your performance in spiritual matters to make you right before God, or to keep in Godís good books, then you are bound to start feeling guilty and second rate. Because you will never be able to keep it up. You will always fall short of Godís perfect standards. And slowly but surely your Christian life will take a nose dive. We fall for the same thing the Galatians were suffering from. Works based Christianity. Now of course, we donít deny we are saved by Godís grace. We know that we are not good enough for God, that Jesus died in our place on the cross. Yes we know that. But that is where our trust stops. We continue the Christian life believing that we must keep up all the rules and regulations to stay in Godís good books. And it leads to joyless Christianity. The sort of Christianity that is totally unattractive to the outsider looking in. All the outsider sees is people living out a rule based life largely through guilt or fear that they will step out of line. When in fact the Christian life is all of grace from start to finish. Now that doesnít mean that there is nothing we must do. Weíll see in a few weeks time that being a Christian does not mean we are to sit back and wait for heaven. But the point is that being a Christian is about trusting the grace of God every day, not just at the start of our Christian life. Living joyfully in the knowledge and freedom that we are Godís children by grace and not because of what we do. 

And that is Paulís exact antidote to joyless Christianity. So have a look at verse 12: ďI plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong.Ē Now itís likely that what Paul is doing here is that heís encouraging the Galatians to come back to his way of thinking, that is in the freedom of the gospel. That was how Paul came to the Galatians. He came bringing the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wasnít bound by laws and rules. He came and brought the joyful gospel which says that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. So heís saying, come back to my position. Abandon your joyless slavery to rules imposed by false teachers. Come back to Christ and know again the wonderful truth of being a child of God, not because youíve earned it but because God has given you that gift. Because, Galatians, youíve lost your joy. What has happened to your joy?

And by his Spirit, God is asking that same question to you and me today. Have you lost your joy? Have you forgotten that being a Christian is about being freed from legalism? Maybe you have lost your first love? Maybe if you are honest, you are not quite as excited about the fact that Jesus Christ died on a cross for you. Now itís very important to see that Paul is not necessarily asking us to be happy, to have a smile on our faces all the time. Because joy and happiness are not the same thing in the Bible. For example James urges us in his letter to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds. Heís not expecting us to say ďhooray, Iím sufferingĒ in an outward way. No, joy is that quiet trust and unshakeable confidence that God has your life in his hands and will never ever let you go. And so you delight in him and live trusting his grace day by day. Yes, it might well lead to outward happiness but not necessarily. So Paul can command us to rejoice in the Lord always in Philippians 4. You cannot command someone to be happy. But you can command someone to have Christian joy, because joy is far deeper than happiness. And itís something that can sustain us in the most difficult of times.

Listen to how one Christian put it. He wrote this in the year that his wife underwent five operations for cancer, including painful bouts of chemotherapy, and when he was having grave difficulties in his work and suffering from serious self doubt. He said: ďThe greatest discovery that I have made in the midst of all the difficulties is that I can have joy when I canít feel like it. When I had every reason to feel beaten, I felt joy. In spite of everything, God gave me the conviction of being loved and the certainty that nothing could separate me from him. It was not happiness, gush or jolliness but a constant flow of the Spirit through me. At no time did God give me the easy confidence that everything would work out as I wanted it on my timetable. But I knew that he was in charge and would give me and my family enough courage and grace for each day. Joy is always the result of that confidence.Ē That joy can only be yours when you lay aside self confidence and self reliance and come back to the liberating love of Jesus. I plead with you brothers, become like me, says Paul. Where is your joy?  


2) Where is your loyalty? (Vv 16-20)

But Paul asks the Galatians and us a second question in verses 16-20. And that is where is your loyalty? Because the sad fact was that in rejecting the apostle Paul, the Galatians were rejecting the gospel itself. In embracing the false gospel of the new teachers, they had embraced lies and rejected their true apostle. You see, the problem is that if you reject Paul, you are rejecting Christ. For Paul has already argued in chapters 1-2 that his gospel was not something he or anyone else made up. It was something he had been given directly by Jesus himself. I received it, he says in chapter 1, by revelation from Jesus Christ. And that is why Paul is so passionately committed to defending his unique authority in Galatians. Itís not out of any personal pique or arrogance. Itís because he knows their salvation is at stake. Ignore Paul, and you ignore Jesus himself. Because Paul is Christís apostle. Move away from Paul and his gospel and you move away from Jesus and the life giving gospel of God. And that is how this point is connected to the first. Because loyalty to Paulís gospel is the way to maintain your joy. So it was no surprise to see that the Galatians had lost their joy because theyíd ditched Paul as their apostle. Theyíd turned to false teaching. And for us, if we turn away from the true preaching and teaching of Godís word, if we show loyalty to those who donít preach Godís word, then donít be surprised if you find yourself leading a joyless and legalistic Christian life. Because you and I need the true preaching of the word, authentic Biblical ministry, to keep us on the right track. Biblical ministry is vital to healthy, joyful Christianity. And so here Paul lovingly and passionately reveals his heart to them and pleads for them to come back. Paul is simply asking his Galatians converts ďwhere is your loyalty? Are you going to be loyal to me and the Lord Jesus? Or to the false teachers and lies? Where is your loyalty?Ē And from this section we learn three lessons about the true and godly pastor, again vital lessons which we will do well to heed ourselves lest we fall prey to false teaching.

i) The True Pastorís Method- First, then, the true pastorís method. Tell the truth. Thatís what authentic ministers do. They tell the truth and they tell it straight. Verse 16: ďHave I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?Ē The plain fact is that the Galatians do not like hearing the truth. Paul has always been one for telling the truth, and they didnít mind it when he first came. But somethingís changed. And the change has occurred in the Galatians as theyíve listened to the false teaching. And when you fall for false teaching, you donít like it when you are told the truth. Because the truth is often painful to hear and hard to swallow. For the Galatians it would mean swallowing their pride and admitting they have been bewitched and hoodwinked. And if you baulk at the truth, if you shy away from admitting and applying the truth to your life, then youíll slide away from Christ and into falsehood.

            So what kind of minister do you want to hear? Someone who will flatter you and stroke your ego or someone who put the truth plainly. Now we donít always like it, but we need to ask where is our loyalty. To people who teach the truth, or to others who will give us what our itching ears want to hear? Now there are plenty of people in our land who will give you want you want to hear. How many who will give you what you need to hear? And where will your loyalty be? So if you need to move to another part of the country in the next year or so, what kind of ministry will you be looking for? Strong personality, fine jokes, powerful presence, great music, sharp suits? You might find all those things, but if this ingredient is missing, donít touch it with a bargepole. Because itíll drain you spiritually, not build you up! And the joy of your grace empowered Christian life will be sucked out of you.

Now I know the value of this faithful ministry in my own experience. I was 18 at the time and living a life which contradicted my outward profession of Christian faith. I knew what me and my friends were doing was wrong, but I couldnít stop. Until one day, an older and wiser friend sat me down and warned me where I was heading. If I claimed to be a Christian I should stop being a hypocrite, repent of my godless lifestyle and start taking my Christian faith seriously. Now I can tell you those words of truth were hard to take. That man could have become my enemy. But he was a kind friend who knew what needed to be said. And humanly speaking that conversation saved me from wasting the years ahead. He displayed the first mark of the true pastor, a mark that Paul embodied. He told the truth as it needed to be told. Will you be loyal to such truth telling people? 

ii) The True Pastorís Mindset- But secondly, Paul reveals the true pastorís mindset. And that is loving service. Because you could be passionately committed to the truth of the gospel but be a pastor who is like a sledgehammer cracking a nut. They are often the sort of people who are far more interested in a following than loving their people. But for Paul that was never an issue. See what he says in verse 17: ďThose people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!Ē See how Paul is passionately committed to his people. His mindset is one of love. So in verse 17, all these false teachers are interested in is getting the Galatians following them. They want to alienate the Galatians from Paul. They want the Galatians to be zealous for them. Can you imagine anything so crass in the ministry? Wanting a following rather than spiritual growth, as weíll see in a moment. Yes, itís fine to be keen and zealous, but make sure its in the right direction, says Paul. If youíre going to be zealous, be zealous and keen towards me, the true apostle, and make sure you do it all the time, not just when Iím with you. Can you see the apostleís heart here? I am in the pains of childbirth for you, he says. Iím perplexed for you, he says. I plead with you, he says in verse 12. This isnít the cool detachment of a scientist at work. This is the passionate commitment of a pastor to his people. Itís not that he wants their loyalty for his own sake. Itís because he loves them so much, and canít bear the thought of them following false teachers away from Christ.

            Now itís worth pondering if you are involved in any sort of Christian leadership, whether as a Homegroup leader, a student team leader, a PCC member, a womanís group leader, childrenís group leader, whatever it is. Do you show such love for the people you minister to? Ministering to people is more than a matter of simply teaching the truth, vital though that is. Itís also a matter of the heart. Itís about loving people. And if you come to your particular ministry with a cool detachment just to get the job done, then can I urge you to examine your heart. Because ministering the word of God to Godís people can never be done in such a detached way. You never get that impression from the apostle Paul. No, he was man passionately committed to those he served. And he had their best interests at heart.

iii) The True Pastorís Motive

Which brings us to our final point. The true pastorís motive- That Christ be formed in people. And that is Paulís motive. Thatís why he does the job. Verse 19: ďMy dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!Ē Paul is mixing his metaphors a little, but the point is clear. Heís like a mother in the pains of childbirth and he pleads with them, longing that they become more like Jesus. His greatest desire is that Christ is formed in them. That they become more and more like Jesus Christ. But they will never do that unless they give up the false teaching they have been duped by, and come back to the true teaching of the gospel, and the true minister Paul.

            And that will always be the first and most important priority of a gospel minister. That they will long for Christ to be formed in your heart. That is why they will tell you the truth, sometimes at great cost to themselves, and sometimes at great pain to you. And their mindset will be one of passionate love for you, not wanting your idolisation, not wanting the kudos or glory of a great following. But simply because they want you to become like Jesus. Is that the minister you want?

As we finish, let me tell you about one man who put this ministry into practice. He was one of the most influential clergyman of the early part of the 19th century, and he was called Charles Simeon. And he was an extraordinary preacher of the Gospel. When he arrived as Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, in Cambridge, the normal congregation, who didnít want him, simply didnít turn up. The church wardens locked all the pews so those who did attend couldn't sit down. Eventually some started to come along and were converted. They had to stand in the aisles throughout the service and even then Simeon was only allowed to have one service in the morning. If he wanted any more they would have to be outside or elsewhere. At his own expense he brought some chairs and set up benches for people to sit on. But the church wardens threw these out into the churchyard. This went on for five years. When he began he couldnít find a single person who would even say Ďgood morningí to him. People would spit at him in the street, and throw dead cats at him as he preached in the open air. But he laboured away with passionate love and commitment to the truth for fifty years. His method was to tell the truth. His mindset was love for his people. His motive to see Christ formed in them. And he did those things despite the cost. At his funeral the whole town turned out to pay tribute to a great and godly man. Is this the sort of ministry you want? If so will you loyal to it? Because it is this faithful gospel ministry which will work for your joy in the Christian life. This is the sort of ministry which, under God, will lead to Christ being formed in you. And then youíll be able to stand firm in the joyful freedom of Jesus Christ all the days that he gives you.






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