The Truth - Galatians 1:1-10
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True Freedom- Galatians
The truth 1:1-10
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 fellow. 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!’
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 the question is this: is Joe right?
Now imagine that 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.
Of course we all know that 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.
Truth matters. It matters because at the end of the day truth is essential to freedom, without it we are just going to be bullied, coerced and enslaved by those who have the power. But with truth on our side, we can say, ‘You are wrong. This is the case and we cannot believe otherwise.’
And one early group of Christians who was to discover this for themselves, but not without some powerful persuading by the apostle Paul, lived in a region in southern Turkey known as Galatia. It was now some 15- 18 years since Jesus had died on the cross, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven as the world’s rightful ruler. And one man whom God singularly used to spread this message was a former vicious opponent of Christianity, a Jewish elitist we know as Paul. As he travelled throughout Galatia, in the power of the Holy Spirit he would argue the Christian case and people would be converted. They then met together to worship Jesus. These gatherings were called churches. In turn these new believers would tell their friends about how they too could enjoy the life changing experience of sins forgiven and a personal relationship with God which comes through simple trust-faith. And so the movement began to expand as rich people, poor people, slaves, free men, Jew, non-Jew embraced this liberating life changing message.
But as often happens whenever this message of freedom in Christ is grasped other people came along 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 to hell because they are not as good as they think. It does matter what you believe you see, whether you are sincere or not.
This is why Paul writes with such urgency and passion. Notice there’s no note of praise or expression of gratitude to these believers as you often see in his other letters; it is straight down to business which comes to a head in v 6. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in 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’ or better still, ‘defecting’. To abandon the Christian faith is not to abandon a philosophy but betray a person – God, ‘the one’ who called you.’ Paul is so traumatised by what is happening that he says he is ‘astonished’, in a state of shock, not least because it has happened so quickly! The problem is, as Paul puts it, is that, ‘Some people are throwing you into confusion’- literally ‘agitating you’- by trying to ‘distort the Gospel of Christ.’ From what we can glean from the rest of the letter, a group of Jewish teachers, who claim to be Christians, have come in on the coat-tails of Paul’s ministry to insist that in addition to believing in Jesus as the Messiah they must also in effect become Jewish by keeping the Jewish law, get circumcised, and observe Jewish ritual. That is why they are referred to as Judaizers. In other words, for these people salvation is not simply a gift to be received, it is a reward to be earned. God may do his part by sending Jesus the Messiah, but we have to do our part by keeping the Jewish law.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the ‘Magna Carta’ of evangelical Christianity. Someone describes it like this, ‘It shows how Paul saved Christianity from sinking to be a mere sect of Judaism or, as he saw it, degenerating into a form of paganism.’
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, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. If these Judaizers are going gain any traction in their ‘Back to Moses’ campaign, it could only happen by convincing these young converts that their hero Paul had misled them, that he is not all that he is appears. The key to achieving this was to attack his apostolic credentials that he wasn’t in the same league as the others like Peter. After all he had not been an original disciple of Jesus, he hadn’t been around to see the resurrection appearances, he hadn’t received the apostolic commission with the rest of them. He was a ‘Jonny come lately’ to the Christian game. ‘Whatever he is teaching’, they said, ‘is second hand, picked up in bits and pieces from the other apostles back in Jerusalem and patched together rather hurriedly like a badly made quilt- his message was bound to have flaws and be deficient.’ ‘What is more’, they claimed, ‘he was only out to curry favour with people which is why he made out Christianity to be easy, all this talk of ‘faith alone’ stuff without any religious works- what sort of religion is that! And we are here to put in what Paul has left out.’
And so right at the outset, Paul launches a pre-emptive attack on such slander.
First, by declaring himself ‘apostle’, which means, ‘sent one’. The question is sent by whom? Paul is emphatic that it wasn’t a human being who sent him, that would have meant he only had human authority which may be no better or worse than any other. Rather it was by the direct action of ‘Jesus Christ and God the Father’. Notice he puts Jesus before the Father. Why? Probably because he has in mind Jesus’ personal commissioning of him on the Road to Damascus. Then he speaks of God the Father having ‘raised [Jesus] from the dead’. This underscores how unique Paul was in contrast to the other disciples. They received their commission and authority before the resurrection while Jesus was on earth; Paul received his commission after he had returned to reign in heaven through a special appearance. The source of Paul’s authority then is divine coming straight from the Father and the Son.
The significance of this is that 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- sent especially to the Gentiles. And so we should treasure what he says and defend 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 the teaching of Paul. It is a distinction with no difference.
What is more, you can’t question Paul’s motives as being a mere ‘man pleaser’ either, hence v10, ‘Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Paul would have made a great Yorkshireman; he was blunt and would call a spade a spade. As we shall see in a moment, Paul uses rather intemperate language which is not going to endear him to anyone and so he hardly comes across as someone with such a fragile ego he is seeking approval all the time, a religious chameleon that 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 good enough. At one level, in terms of our moral failure and spiritual need, in God’s sight there is no difference between the crack dealer and the car dealer, the robber and the Rotarian- all lives offend him if they are lived outside his saving rule. That offense has to be placated and dealt with for us to have any peace with our Maker. So is there any good news?
Well, yes there is and it comes in the form of a divinely focused message v 3-5, 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, to whom be glory for ever and ever.
What we need, and what God wonderfully supplies, is not a religion so beloved by the Judaizers, but a rescue found in a cross.
There are five jewels of the cross we discover in these verses which compares with the dross of the Judaizers and all DIY religion.
First, the death of Jesus was both voluntary and determined. On the one hand Jesus gave himself for our sins, he wasn’t forced or coaxed into doing it, he willingly did it out of love. On the other hand this was ‘according to the will of the Father’. In the eternal counsels of the Godhead it was agreed that this would be the way sinful men and women would be brought back to God in their waywardness- the Father sends his Son and the Son willingly goes.
Secondly, the death of Jesus was for our sins. In the Bible it is normally the case that the one who sins is the same as the one who dies. Here the Son dies in our place so we don’t have to die, that is, bear our own penalty in death- he takes our place.
Thirdly, the purpose of Jesus death was to rescue us. Rescue us from what- adolescent boredom, a low self-esteem? No- the ‘present evil age.’ There has never been a golden age on earth, since the Fall it has been an evil age that has dominated humanity; this is why we have global as well as local problems, political as well as personal failures. But with the coming of Jesus the King, a new royal age has broken into our world, and by trusting in Jesus we can move from one to the other, enjoying something of the future age now in the power of the Spirit.
Fourthly, Jesus death brings grace and peace. Grace is sheer unmerited kindness, and peace is the sweet reconciliation with God and each other.
Finally as a result of Jesus’ death God will be glorified for ever. Only the Triune God could do something like this, alone having the wisdom, power, and unrelenting love to achieve it inspite all the opposition from the devil and our natural selfish and foolish selves. Of course all the angels and the redeemed are going to be lost in endless praise to the God who did the impossible.
Now can you see why Paul is beside himself with concern? This is the Gospel he is talking about and which these Christians are about to throw away for a cheap imitation! If I can put it like this: God has poured out his whole heart and soul into our rescue in the person of his dear Son. This is not something which can simply be relativised - ‘just another point of view’, or something you can take or leave or modify according to your own personal preferences- ‘I like Jesus the moral teacher but not the divine Saviour’. God’s eternal honour is at stake as well as our eternal well-being. In Texas you have all these signs around the place which says, ‘Don’t mess with Texas!’ Well you don’t mess with the Gospel either! And Pal makes that plain by what he says next:
That this is a divinely cursed situation- v8, ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse [This is a command, it should read, ‘They are to be under God’s curse]! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, they are to be under God’s curse!’
Paul allows for no exceptions, actual or hypothetical: ‘If anyone is proclaiming to you a gospel, [literally], overreaching what you received he is to come under a divine curse.’ The idea is that these new so called gospels try to go beyond the grace of Christ- overreach it by adding something to it. It is Christ plus religion. And those who tamper with the Gospel by changing it just a fraction are to come under a curse so dreadful, so irretrievable it almost doesn’t bear thinking about. But Paul says we must think about it, hence it appearing front and centre of the outset of the letter.
So why does Paul draw upon the strongest vocabulary available in his arsenal, saying these people should fall under a divine curse for what they are doing by tampering with God’s message, even ever so slightly?
Let me illustrate why by telling you about a great British film classic starring Orson Wells, called ‘The Third Man’.
The story is set in post-World War 2 Vienna. It centres on an American, Holly Martins, who has been given a job by his old friend, Harry Lime. On arrival he receives the news that Lime is dead. Here is a spoiler alert. Lime has only faked his death. All along, Lime has been an opportunistic racketeer, stealing valuable, life-saving penicillin from Allied military hospitals and selling it on the black market. In order to maximise his profits, Lime dilutes the penicillin, the full horror of which is revealed to Martin when he is taken to a hospital to see brain damaged children who have received the tainted vaccine.
It is not too difficult to see the parallels with what Paul is saying here about what happens when people tamper with the Gospel.
The gospel is like the life-saving penicillin which is only effective when it is kept pure. Heresy which is what tampering with the Gospel is, is akin to the diluted vaccine which causes irreparable damage, in some cases accelerating the debilitating effects of sin, resulting in would-be believers becoming the spiritual equivalent of brain damaged children. In other cases it leads to spiritual death. Furthermore, just as the tampering of the penicillin vaccine was in a way an affront to its discoverer, Alexander Fleming, so messing with the Gospel is a blasphemous affront to its Divine Giver.
To say that Gospel truth doesn’t matter or that it is up for negotiation or change so it ‘fits in with modern culture’ is like saying the purity of penicillin vaccine doesn’t matter- it does matter because people’s eternal destiny is at stake and the stakes don’t get any higher than that!
Let me be personal for just a moment.
I have given over pretty well the whole of my adult life to proclaiming and defending this Gospel, sometimes better than others. 25 years of those being here at St Johns. Also during that time I have heard the term ‘Gospel’ banded about the Church of England, but also in other denominations, with free abandon while its content has steadily become diluted or twisted such that it is not recognisable as the same Gospel Paul talk of here. Now I guess you might be expecting me to say how upsetting I find this. To some extent that is true. But what bothers me most is that I don’t find it upsetting enough. I don’t find that I am moved to the kind of outrage and defensiveness Paul expresses here. It may be due to the fact that I am getting older and the older you get the more mellow you become and you have to steel yourself more and more to do battle compared to when you were younger- and you get tired. And that bothers me, because I want to be stirred as Paul was stirred and I want you to be stirred too. For when I look out on our children growing up in this wicked world, I want them to have the security and joy of knowing Jesus as their Lord and Saviour- and that will not happen if the Gospel is tampered with. And as we have a robust safeguarding policy in operation in this church, we are to have a robust spiritual safeguarding policy in operation too, with leaders and ministers who would rather die than allow these little ones to be led astray by well-meaning people who are just plain wrong and doing the devil’s work in Christ’s name. That includes Archbishops and Bishops, theologians and pastors, that includes youth workers- and the thing is if we don’t look out for each other, it could include me and Scott. When people are appointed to positions of authority in the church, like the new Archbishop of York, who are fundamentally wrong on the Gospel and what flows from the Gospel-Christian behaviour, I don’t want to resignedly shrug my shoulders with a ‘Oh well, what do you expect, it could be worse’, because that would reveal something wrong with me. I pray that as I get older, my passion for Gospel truth will also grow more passionate, that I will be all out and out for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus, defending it, which is sadly necessary, as well as joyfully proclaiming it. But at the end of the day it is all worthwhile because the glory of eternity is in view.
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