Galatians 2:4 – Coming Attraction

You know how when you go to the movies they always show previews for movies yet to be released – coming attractions; little snippets of the movie that are designed to give you a glimpse of the full movie enough to whet your appetite?  Here as we get into chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches he gives just such a glimpse into a theme he will develop more fully later.  It’s a teaser into the possibilities of the Christian life and the purpose for Christ’s death and resurrection.  Intrigued aren’t you?

Let me first remind you of Paul’s purpose in writing this letter and put his comment into context.  Paul was concerned that the Galatian disciples had abandoned the truth of the gospel he had preached because certain false teachers had told them that to be “really” saved the Galatians had to practice all the Jewish Law also.  Paul writes this letter to re-emphasize the gospel and assure the churches in Galatia that the gospel he preached to them was true.  He also gives them a timeline of his interactions with Peter, John and the other apostles to show that he did not just parrot their message but received the gospel from Jesus Himself.  In the middle of this explanation Paul gives a “coming attraction.”

Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.  (Gal 2:4, 5   ESV)

The key phrase – the coming attraction – is this: our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus.”  According to Paul, inherent in the gospel is a freedom that Christians enjoy, a freedom that these false teachers were trying to rob, a freedom that Paul felt was important enough to fight for, a freedom that Christ won on the cross.

We usually think of Jesus’ death as gaining us salvation for eternal life in heaven “someday”.  But here Paul hints at something available to us right now, today – freedom.  But what does this mean?  Let me define the kind of freedom I think Paul is referring to here.  It is not the ability to do whatever we want or live however we want, but freedom, true Christian freedom, is “the unobstructed pursuit of God.”

Life, satan, sin, the world throw up all kinds of obstacles to our ability to pursue the kind of relationship with God that we long for.  It sometimes seems we have to slog through life just to get by, just to get a moment to pray or worship.  That is not how God intended our life to be.  When Jesus walked out of that tomb, He cleared the way of all the obstacles that impeded our ability to know and connect with God.  Here are Scriptures references that describe ways in which Jesus removed the obstacles to our pursuit of God.

Romans 8:31-35 describes the kind of life we can experience with Jesus.  A life free of accusation, want, aloneness and condemnation.  Instead we can experience a life of support and encouragement, supply and resources, connection with the Father who loves us, knowing that we will never experience any kind of emotional, spiritual, relational or physical abandonment.

In Romans 6:6-7 Paul talks about being free from being mastered by sin – having to do what it says.  By ourselves, we have no power or authority to say no to the demands of sin operating in our life.  We can’t escape and we can’t rebel and we can’t fight.  But Christ literally and actually took bolt cutters to those chains so that we could escape and no longer be under sin’s thumb.  Think of the story in Acts where an angel releases the imprisoned Peter from the chains that held him and opened the prison doors to allow Peter to walk free.  This is what Jesus has done.  We are able to walk free through our life.

Romans 8:2-3 refers to the “law” of sin and death – this would imply that sin and death have (or had) the power to dictate how you live, what you can and cannot do.  This “law” constrains the kind of life God meant us to live.  Jesus freed us from that law.  It’s like no longer being subject to the repressive laws of a dictatorial nation.  Instead we now live in a country ruled by the Spirit with His life-giving laws – not repression but liberation.

Hebrews 2:14-15 refers to the “fear of death.”  I have always thought that this referred to fear of physical death, and that may be true, but I think it can also refer to the emotional and relational death that the devil tries to impose upon people. Are we not freed from the devastation of fear of loneliness, anger, shame, guilt, depression, worthlessness, hopelessness, worry?  Jesus came to destroy those very works of the devil and allow us live free of the effects of fear.

There is more to learn about freedom in Christ later in Galatians.  For now if we accept the definition of freedom I gave earlier – unobstructed pursuit of God – then these verses tell me that to live unobstructed means being set free from:

  1. The overbearing domination of sin – I don’t have to do it. I can choose a different way.
  2. The repressive laws of sin and death – I don’t have to live with my head down fearful that I stepped over the line one too many times or that I just need to work harder.
  3. The fear of being stuck in this death spiral. There are literally no chains, no nets holding me down.  I walk away a free man.
  4. The hopelessness that my life can be different or better.
  5. The fear that I will always live broken and will die broken

This fear, death and sin is replaced with an assurance of the Father’s positive favor towards me.  In all things and in all circumstance and in all my blunders, I still experience His smile.  This is what Christ’s sacrifice– the true gospel – has made possible.

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Galatians 1:15, 16 – God is not surprised

Do you ever think that God is surprised by events in your life or decisions you make?  Do you think He looks at you and says, “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!”  It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?  But often times we actually believe that He is taken by surprise and that is quickly followed by, “There’s no way He could love me after I did that!”  And so we start to believe that God has given up on us.  Nothing could be further from the truth and this next passage in Galatians makes that clear.

First, remember Paul’s life story.  He was a strict, law-keeping Jew belonging to the sect of the Pharisees.  These folks were strict.  And Paul says about himself that he was even excelling at being a Pharisee.  Not only that but when an upstart group of Jews claimed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, he went after them with a vengeance.  He hunted them down and threw them in prison.  This was not the type of guy that you could argue into the Kingdom or think he would be a good candidate to lead the new Church.  When those first century Christians saw him coming they ran the other way.  Yet Paul makes this truly incredible statement about himself.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me… (Gal 1:15, 16   ESV)

There is something very important to see here.  God had called Paul and set him apart from before he was born, before Paul had said or done anything, but God waited until He was ready to reveal His Son to Paul.

God knew Paul.  He knew Paul would be a strident Pharisee.  He knew Paul would persecute His church and jail His followers.  He knew Paul had murderous intent.  He knew Paul would care more about tradition than truth.  And yet He called him and chose him for his mission to the Gentiles.  Not only that, God’s timing was God’s timing.  He was not caught off guard or waited too long nor was God shocked at the way Paul had turned out.  No, God acted when it pleased him.  It was not dependent on Paul’s “readiness” to know Jesus.  All this God had decided before Paul was even born!

It should be comforting to us to know that God’s plans for us are already laid out just waiting to be revealed at the right time – at God’s pleasure.  So do I think that maybe God is too slow? Yep.  Do I think that maybe my time is passing me by?  Yep.  Is that true?  Nope.  The same God who set Paul apart, has set me apart and has set you apart for His mission for us in this life.  When and how remains in His good pleasure.

I am learning to rest and be assured in God’s perfect timing in my life.  “When God was pleased He…” becomes my guiding principle here.  God knows my days, my weaknesses, my sin and He calls me and reveals Himself to me at the right time.  That is what He did in Paul’s life and I firmly believe that it is true for us too.  No surprises.

Galatians 1:14, 23-24 – Before and After

We’ve been working through the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches and we’ve seen him present the true Gospel of Jesus against those who would distort it.  And he makes the case that the gospel he preached he received by revelation from Jesus and not from the other apostles.  It was important for Paul to establish this so that the Galatians could have confidence in what they believed.  This was the subject of the previous post.  Paul continues to make his case with some astounding autobiographical statements that bear closer examination.  In verses 12-24, he relates some facts about his life before his conversion and after. But here I want to focus on just two really interesting verses within this autobiographical section and what we can learn from them.

And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. (Gal 1:14)

They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they glorified God because of me. (Gal 1:23, 24)

Paul reviews his pre-conversion life as a strict Pharisee, excelling in his pursuit of righteousness through the Law and going so far as to persecute Christians.  But the statement that caught my attention was, “so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”  His concern, his driving force was simply to protect man-made traditions.  He doesn’t even claim to be zealous for God’s truth or Moses’ law.  No, it was about the traditions.

I had to ask myself, what “traditions of the fathers” have I held onto, perhaps too tightly, instead of to the gospel?  Do I have a pet theology that I hold on to?  Or have I swallowed whole the particular traditions of a particular denomination or church group?  Or perhaps it is a certain end-times scenario?  Has defending my position become more important than presenting the Gospel of Jesus?  I’ve been thinking a great deal about this and I would encourage you to ask yourself the same questions.

From pursuing the traditions of the fathers, Paul makes the transition to his conversion – to the time God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Did you catch that: God took the initiative to reveal the Son).  The reaction among the Christians he had been persecuting was nothing less than astonishment and wonder – “they glorified God because of me.”  The change must have seemed miraculous to them.  And indeed it was.  Paul the persecutor was now Paul the preacher.  Paul the destroyer was now Paul the disciple.  There was no rational, natural reason for Paul to turn from Judaism to Jesus.  There would be no convincing a man like Paul that the gospel was true.  And there would be no way that Paul would simply accept a man-made story.  Paul’s conversion had to be God’s doing.  Everyone recognized that this was a remarkable, unexpected event that only God could pull off.  It was a miracle.  He was not convinced or persuaded by man but by God.  God gets all the credit and Paul gets none.  This is the true mark of the Gospel, that God always gets all the credit, all the glory, all the praise.

I don’t have a dramatic conversion story like Paul’s.  I suspect that few of us do, but it doesn’t matter what our story is.  What matters is that God took the initiative to reveal His Son to us.  He pursued us even when we weren’t looking for Him, even when we didn’t care to look for Him or even when we were deliberately running from Him.  I don’t want people to be impressed with my skills, knowledge or wisdom.  I want people to glorify God because of what they see in my life and recognize that it is just as much a miracle as Paul’s turnaround.

Galatians 1:11 – The Gospel Authorized

Some years ago after I did a teaching series at church a young man approached me troubled by my teachings.  He did not dispute my content, my delivery or the biblical basis of my sermons.  His problem was that I did not quote other commentaries or Christian leaders.  He wanted me to base my teachings on the words of other men not on what the Lord had spoken to me.  Don’t misunderstand me, I read books by smarter-than-me and godly people; I listen to various teachers online; I pay attention to my pastor’s teachings on Sundays, but at the end of the day I need to base my faith, my teachings and my life on what Jesus shows me about Himself not on what others say about Him.

In these next two verses that we are examining today, Paul wants his Galatian disciples to know that the gospel he preached to them was not based on human revelation or transmission.  The gospel was given to him by Jesus Himself; the gospel he preached came out of his relationship with Christ.   This is what Paul says in verses 11 and 12 of chapter 1.

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.  For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (ESV)

Paul makes the bold assertion that he was not authenticated, accredited, validated or authorized by any group of men or by an organizational structure, but by Jesus Himself.  Paul, later in this letter, takes great pains to explain the timeline of his interactions with the other apostles to make clear that he did not go to them first to learn the gospel.  He is making the claim that his authority as an apostle was just as valid as that of Peter, John or James and that the gospel he preached was just as true and faithful to Jesus as theirs.  Paul wanted the Galatians to have confidence in the Gospel they had heard and he wanted to make sure that the Galatian’s faith be firmly grounded in the Truth of God and not on mere human credentials.

Here’s my challenge to you.  When we share “our” gospel, what authority do we appeal to?  To our church denomination or tradition?  To the person we heard it from?  To some currently famous teacher? Or are we confident in the revelation of Jesus in our lives and can speak out of our own interaction with the Truth?  The people we are sharing with will know the difference.  Are we simply parroting the words of others or speaking out of the Word implanted in us.

Galatians 1:10 – People Pleasing

We like being liked, don’t we?  We feel validated and important and worthwhile when we feel that we are liked by others.  We are searching for significance in a world that seems to beat us down.  So if I can have a following or have a lot of Facebook friends doesn’t that mean I am doing or saying something right?  Doesn’t it mean that I am alright?  Not at all, we know people are fickle. Having a following is no indication of the validity of your message.

The Apostle Paul wanted nothing to do with trying to please people.  After a rather strongly worded rant against those who would distort the Gospel (read previous post here), he makes this statement:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1:10  ESV)

The gospel as Paul presented it was crazy to anyone who heard it: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”  (1 Cor. 1:23).  It was unpalatable to everyone.  It would have been much easier for Paul to preach a gospel that “made sense.”  A gospel that was watered down and not so demanding of faith in the work of Christ.  Perhaps a gospel that included some performance of religious devotion from his hearers.  Or some feel-good gospel that made us the center of the universe, that catered to our needs.  At least people could understand that.  But that is not the Gospel and that is not what Paul preached.  His goal was not to be popular or liked but to preach Christ – alone.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.  (1 Cor. 2:2,5  ESV)

Paul is saying that you cannot have two masters; you cannot have split allegiances,  either you are working to please men or to please God.  If you are going to serve Christ then you are going to have to follow His lead.  Trying to please people means you are putting them first and giving Jesus a backseat in your life.    Jesus said, preach the gospel.  He did not give us the option to NOT preach the gospel and He did NOT give us the option to change it, nor was people pleasing one of the options he gave us.  If the gospel is as central and critical as Paul claims then catering to people’s feelings or sensibilities in order not to offend them is not an option.

I read an article recently by Dr. Alex McFarland titled, “Ten reasons millennials are backing away from God and Christianity.”  In it he says this, “Finally, is it really any wonder that kids raised in the churches of 21st century America aren’t often stirred to lifelong commitment? Most churches are so occupied with “marketing” themselves to prospective attendees that they wouldn’t dream of risking their “brand” by speaking tough-as-nails truth.  For evangelical youth mentored by many a hip and zany “Minister to Students,” commitment to Jesus lasts about as long as the time it takes to wash the stains out of T-shirts worn at the senior-year paintball retreat.”

That is what Paul is talking about here.  We completely lose our authority and the power of the gospel when we try to please people by distorting the gospel.

There’s a difference between people pleasing and caring for people.  Just because we won’t cater or water down the gospel doesn’t mean we have to be deliberately rude, arrogant, difficult, confrontational or antagonistic.  We can still be loving and kind, in fact, we must, without compromising the gospel.  Isn’t that what Jesus did?  Isn’t it more loving to present the true gospel that leads to salvation than a watered-down version that leaves people on the road to hell?

Let us not offend people by presenting our own ideas of the gospel or with a wishy-washy gospel, but if we must offend let us offend people with the Gospel of Jesus.

Galatians 1:6-9 – The Gospel Twisted

Have you ever been to an amusement park or carnival and seen those funhouse mirrors?  You look at yourself and see an image of yourself stretched and thin or squished down.  It’s funny.   But imagine now that someone tried to convince you that the distorted image you are looking at is the real you.  The person telling you this would be lying and would being doing you a great disservice.  How could you know what is real anymore?  This is what Paul is dealing with in his letter to the Galatians.  Some false teachers were preaching a different, distorted gospel than the one, true Paul had proclaimed and the Galatians had believed.  These false teachers taught that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not enough to fully save them, the Galatians also had to follow all the Law of Moses.  Paul minces no words in his denunciation of this false gospel and those teachers.  He gets right to the point in verses 6-9.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (ESV)

Paul uses three strong words here that are at the heart of his message: desert, distort and accursed.  Let’s look at each one.

Desert.  The Galatians transferred their allegiance from grace to law, from Christ to Moses.  You can say they are traitors to the truth and running to the “other side.”   They are abandoning the side of truth.  Synonyms for deserting are: forsaking, dumping, ditching, walking out on, going AWOL, jumping ship, relinquishing.  Why would anyone do that? Paul wants to know.  He is incredulous!  It’s like giving up a real diamond ring for costume jewelry.  It reminds me of the story of the Israelites at Mount Sinai.  God had miraculously taken them out of Egypt and now they were waiting for Moses who had gone up into the mountain to talk to God.  The Israelites grew tired of waiting and created a golden calf statue to worship instead of God (Exodus 32:8).  The Israelites had seen God’s power, His miracles, His presence and yet they turned to a golden calf.  Likewise, the Galatians had seen God’s power, experienced His presence, believed in Jesus and yet turned to this false gospel.

Distort. It means to “turn around.”  So the false teachers took the truth of the gospel – salvation in Christ alone through grace – and twisted it around to mean salvation in Christ PLUS working to earn your righteousness – Christ PLUS self-effort.  They were distorting the image and word of Christ – like a funhouse mirror that distorts our reflection.  To do so is an affront and offense to God.  I think that is why Paul is so incensed and calls down curses on those who would preach “another” gospel (vs 8-9).  It is robbing God of his glory and giving it to man.  The true gospel of Jesus Christ has to be the standard against which we calibrate all other teachings and teachers.  Since the gospel is not man-made, man cannot change it.  How someone handles the gospel is the only way we can determine if they are a false teacher.  Do they preach Christ alone or Christ plus?

I don’t think I had seen before just how critical this is.  If Paul was so incensed at the twisting of the gospel and at the desertion of the believers, imagine how God feels when His gospel is twisted and His people abandon him.

Accursed.  This is strongest possible word Paul could use to express his disdain for these false teachers.  It is a word used in the Old Testament for cursing false prophets.  Paul is essentially saying these people should go to hell!

The Gospel is the means by which God calls us to salvation; it is not through logic, philosophy, wealth or prosperity, miracles, great men or through fear, guilt or shame.  There is only one way.  There is only one Gospel.  If we reject or twist that Gospel, then there is no other way for someone to be saved.  No wonder Paul uses such strong language in cursing the false teachers or anyone else, including angels, who would preach another Gospel!

In our day, I don’t think many Christians would be tempted to believe that we had to follow all the Laws of Moses as a means to be saved.  And yet we are not immune from turning to “another gospel”.  We have to ask ourselves if there are ways in which we have turned from the purity of Christ and His Gospel to our own man-made ideas of how we are saved or should live as Christians. It’s easier, isn’t it, to make up our own rules or find our own comfort.  We have a penchant for trying to fend for ourselves independent of God.  It is our fierce rebellion.  We don’t want to be beholden to God so we turn to those things that we can understand or control.  But in the end we know it is neither real nor satisfying.

Let me be bold in proposing some modern, “different” gospels.  How about the Jesus-will-make-you-rich gospel; the Jesus-is-just-a-good-teacher gospel; the God-accepts-you-without-you-having-to-give-up-your-sin gospel; the Jesus-plus-“be a good Christian”-and-follow-the-rules-to-look-and-act-right gospel; and finally, the Jesus-only-died-for-your-past-sins-so-it’s-up-to-you-to-live-a-good-life-now gospel.

How has the Gospel been twisted in our life?  In what areas have we turned to man-made ideas rather than God-given revelation?

I have been taken by the centrality of the Gospel in Paul’s thinking.  He is fiercely protective of it and I think I finally understand that attitude.  The “gospel is the power of God for salvation.”   So it must be preached.  The TRUE gospel must be preached.  It cannot be adulterated, distorted, twisted, added to, or subtracted from.  Any attempt to turn the God-given gospel into some man-made formulation must be vigorously resisted.  For if the true gospel is not presented then the hearers cannot be saved and they are doomed.  Not only that, but, a false gospel robs God of the glory that He is due for his marvelous grace and gives it to man.  Paul would have none of that.

Galatians 1:3-5 – The Gospel Introduced

(Read introduction to this series here)

Years ago at a church I was serving, one of the teen girls came up to me and asked me, “What is the Gospel?”  I was a little surprised because this young woman had grown up going to church and yet did not know this most fundamental truth.  Clearly, the churches she had been a part of, ours included, did not do a good job instructing her and perhaps that is more wide-spread than I would care to think.  But if we don’t have a clear, rock-solid understanding of what the “gospel” is, then our faith rests on shaky ground.

Paul, in writing to the Galatians understood this and so at the start of his letter he gives a brief summary of the gospel he has been preaching and which he spends the rest of the letter explaining and defending.  Now, many people would simply skip over these verses thinking this is just a greeting and not really significant, but Paul uses this presentation of the gospel as his jumping-off point for his main argument to follow, that the Galatians have abandoned this gospel.  But more on that later.

So here it is in verses 3 through 5.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (ESV)

Paul starts by saying that we are currently under the “present evil age” because of our sin.  He says something similar in Ephesians 2:1, 2.  Paul says that Jesus came to deliver us, in other words, we are not able by ourselves to escape our sin or this “age.”  We need to be rescued.  Remember in Romans 7:24, Paul wails “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Paul understands that he, and we, need rescuing.  He spends all of Romans chapter 7 bemoaning his inability to free himself from his sinful passions, but needs an external deliverer.  And he follows up his wail with, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  That is what he is saying here in Galatians, Jesus gave himself up to death to free us, deliver us, from the sin which keeps us bound to this evil present age.  Deliver implies being moved from one location to another.  Jesus has literally and spiritually picked us up and out of “this present evil age” and moved us into the heavenly kingdom.  This is good news people!

It’s really good news!  You see, that little word “sin” encompasses all of satan’s work in the world and our lives and so is not able to be overcome or purged simply by self-effort.  It is too big.  It takes Christ to free us.  Jesus gave himself for “our” sin, all of it, mountains of it.  There is no such thing as insignificant sins that can be cleared away by a few of our good works.  In commenting on this verse, Martin Luther said, “For if our sins could be removed by our own efforts, what need was there for the Son of God to be given for them? Since Christ was given for our sins it stands to reason that they cannot be put away by our own efforts.”

And finally, Paul says that this was done according to God’s will.  It was not a surprise, or a man’s idea, but a deliberate action taken by Jesus with full consent of the Father.  It was God’s action from beginning to end.  It’s a plan no human would ever have thought of.  And as a result, through Jesus we receive Grace – which is God’s sovereign act in rescuing us, and Peace – which is the result of our deliverance and now describes our status in relationship to God.

So there it is, the Gospel in two verses:  We are stuck in this evil age because of our sin, we can’t get ourselves out of it and Jesus came to deliver us through His death and resurrection resulting in peace with God.  You can use this brief outline start your conversations with friends, family, coworkers or perfect strangers.

But let me makes two more points before we wrap up.  God had a grand purpose in sending Jesus to deliver us.  In this Gospel, He demonstrates to the universe, both here on earth and in the heavens (Ephesians 1:10 and 3:10) His great mercy, love and wisdom in putting this plan into action and ultimately ensures that he receives the praise and glory he deserves.  He gets all the credit and humans get none.  That is how it should be.

Let Mr. Luther make my last point.  “In this whole epistle Paul treats of the resurrection of Christ. By His resurrection Christ won the victory over law, sin, flesh, world, devil, death, hell, and every evil. And this His victory He donated unto us. These many tyrants and enemies of ours may accuse and frighten us, but they dare not condemn us, for Christ, whom God the Father has raised from the dead is our righteousness and our victory.”  Did you catch that?  Nothing and no one dare condemn us!  Jesus won.  That also means we dare not condemn ourselves when we fall into some sin.  No, we stand up and say, “Though I fail a thousand times, still Jesus has paid ten thousand times more.”  That my friends is great news.