Scripture: GALATIANS 1:1-10
We are living in crucial times for the Church. The heart of our faith is being attacked and discarded by some Christians. Many people claim to be Christians but they do not believe or do the things that Christians should believe and do. They claim they have a right to believe and behave as they like in the name of tolerance, freedom and justice.
President Bill Clinton, caught in his latest sex scandal this week, delivered the State of the Union address to standing ovations. He was talking the economy. His listeners were thinking sex. The SMH said "Washington has accepted that a Clinton presidency could continue to operate on two seemingly irreconcilable levels: the pursuit of idealistic and challenging programs of reform on the public stage and the pursuit of a sleazy lifestyle offstage."
Can Christians operate like that? Are there abiding Christian standards of belief and behaviour? Of course. But people who hold post-modern beliefs and who live without regard for Christian standards claim they have a liberty to believe what they like so long as they are sincere, and a liberty to behave as they want so long as they don't harm others. These attitudes are central to the greatest threat facing the Church today. These ideas impact the faith of our children and grandchildren and the church of the third millennium.
This issue of the true nature of Christian belief and behaviour is not new. It was the issue troubling the early church. The Apostle Paul wrote one of his greatest letters to Christians caught in this conflict in Galatia (now central Turkey). This letter has a surprising relevance to the Church today.
This letter has been called "The Magna Carta of Christian Liberty". It became the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation. It was a favourite of Martin Luther. The English translator, J.B.Phillips, said that translating the Bible, was like an electrician rewiring an old house while the power was still turned on. When you handle the scriptures aright, they are alive, vibrant, shocking. They are contemporary in the most amazing way.
As we study the Apostle Paul's Letter to the Galatians throughout this year, we will be amazed at how contemporary are the issues. Faced with a post-modernist world and a church influenced by the liberal theology of the twentieth century, the Apostle would write exactly the same to us. That is a result of the inspiration of God in the writer.
The great Englishman, Rev John Stott preached on Galatians in 1965-6 at All Soul's Langham Place, London. He said then: "This message is astonishingly relevant to our situation in the church today. The apostle is dealing in Galatians with issues which are far from dead; the principles behind them are still of vital importance. During the months when I was preaching this series, I kept saying this kind of thing to myself: "Here we are, a comparatively sophisticated congregation in twentieth-century London, giving ourselves week after week to the systematic study of a short letter written in the first century by a then more or less unknown Jewish Christian to obscure little congregations tucked away in the mountains of Galatia." The study has left me more deeply convinced than ever of the divine inspiration, and therefore the permanent authority and relevance, of the Scriptures."
The reason for writing this letter was that there were some church leaders who were turning to a different Gospel. Galatia was in central modern Turkey. Scholars debate whether the Galatian churches were in the north of the country around the present capital Ankara, among ethnic peoples known as Galatians, or in the south around the churches he founded around Lystra, Derbe and Iconium in the province the Romans called Galatia. It matters little. The entire distance covers only 300 kilometres from the city of Tarsus where Paul ministered for years. Paul wrote his letter somewhere between 48 and 52AD. It will unfold throughout this year, but now we note his introduction. Galatians 1:1-10 Like all early letters, he starts by introducing himself and stating why he is writing.
1. THE APOSTLE PAUL'S AUTHORITY.
V1-2 "Paul, an apostle, sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead, 2 and all the brothers with me, To the churches in Galatia."
On the face of it, that is straight forward and clear. But here is the first contemporary issue, an issue that is as relevant to us today as any. The churches had been visited by some false teachers who attacked both Paul's gospel and his authority. They contradicted his gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone saying something different was needed. And they attacked his authority by say: "Anyway, why take notice of Paul?"
So Paul starts in defending his gospel as the truth of Jesus Christ, by re-asserting his own authority as an apostle appointed by Jesus Christ.
It is preferable to speak of Paul as "the Apostle Paul" rather than St Paul. In the New Testament all believers are called "saints" and a few people were called "apostles". Today, all Christians may be called believers but no-one is called an Apostle. Not the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury or Billy Graham is called an Apostle. Paul spoke of those believers who were with him as brothers but he alone was an apostle, which means one sent by God.
He used that term of himself constantly, pointing out that he was appointed to be an apostle to take the gospel to the Gentiles by Jesus personally in the same way as Peter was appointed as an apostle to take the gospel to the Jews. Paul re-affirms that he was "sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead." His authority was from "Jesus Christ and from God who raised Him from the dead." Today there are groups of theologians and other Christians who reject Paul's authority. Many feminists dismiss Paul's writings by saying "Well, that passage is only by Paul." That is strange, for no two people have elevated the position of women in the community and in the church more than Jesus and His apostle Paul. But derisively, many feminists dismiss Paul because they haven't read him or fully understood his gospel of liberty over culture.
Others are post-modernists who teach the apostles were merely first century witnesses to Jesus and that as twentieth century witnesses to Jesus, our views are just as valid as their views. Perhaps, because of our scientific knowledge, our views are even better than those of the apostles.
So they read the scriptures then say "Well, that is interesting, but here is a better, more up-to-date view." They refute the apostles. They reject the Biblical authority. They present their own feelings and thoughts as the real truth freed from first century limitations and ignorance. This is really a revival of an early heresy called "Gnosticism" which puts "me" at the heart of everything. Where-ever "self", "me", "my feelings" are the arbiter of truth you have first century heresy in New Age clothes.
The apostles were unique, and their writings are authoritative. They were unique in their personal call and commission by Jesus Christ; unique in that they each saw the Risen Lord; unique in their inspiration by the Holy Spirit. We must not exalt ourselves over them. We may not promote our opinion over theirs. We cannot claim the authority of ourselves over the authority given them by God. If we would accept Jesus, we must accept His apostles.
But while the apostles give us the teachings and commands of Jesus many moderns do not want to accept them. We want His benefits without our obedience.
We want to believe but not to behave. I have never read a modern theologian who wants to revise their teaching upwards - to greater holiness, to more godly living, to more pure behaviour. They instead, dismiss the authority of the apostles and their writings, and allow more permissive behaviour and less godliness. In the Biblical view the authority of the apostles came from Jesus Christ and God alone. It did not come by appointment of men or councils. They were "sent not from men nor by man" but by Jesus Christ Himself. Accept Paul as an Apostle and you must accept his teaching.
2. THE ESSENTIAL GOSPEL.
V3-5. 3 "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." Paul usually sends a message of "grace and peace" because those two words sum up his gospel. All of that good comes from God's grace which is the origin of our salvation, and the result is that we have peace with God, our neighbour, ourselves and our environment. It is all of God's grace, not earned in any way by our efforts. It ends in reconciliation over the alienation we have with God, our neighbours, ourselves and our world. Grace is the gift of the Father, and peace is the result of what was accomplished in the Son.
That peace, which is the result of God's grace comes through 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." The coming of Jesus and the shedding of His blood upon the Cross was no accident. His death was an act of love and free self-giving. Jesus was never to be just a heroic freedom fighter, a religious poet, a Jewish prophet or any one of the dozen other titles some theologians give to Him these days. His primary purpose was to give Himself "for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age". The gospel is always a rescue mission. Our self-sufficiency, self-esteem and self-achievement can never save us from sin. But by God's grace and in accord with His will, Christ died for our sins and rescued us from this evil age. That is the heart of Paul's gospel then and now. This is the touchstone of orthodox faith. If you want to test any preacher, ask him or her to affirm this.
For we live in a era when many people are trying to twist the meaning of the gospel just as they did in Paul's day.
3. CHANGING CHURCH ATTITUDES TO THE GOSPEL.
V6-7 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-- 7 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 describes the new teaching to which some of the Galatians "are turning" "a different gospel". The new teaching throws believers "into confusion" as they are "trying to pervert the gospel of Christ." When people pervert the gospel, they throw believers into confusion. That is why the greatest threat to the church is never persecution from without, but always perversion within. Conversely, those who help believers most are those who proclaim the Gospel faithfully and clearly.
4. THE CHRISTIAN REACTION.
V8-10 8 "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! 10 Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." Paul's response is clear and hard. He condemns the false teachers. He does not try to win the praise of men or please others. Instead he seeks to be a servant of Christ, faithful and true. So must we. There is no other Gospel. Accept the grace of God through the saving faith in Jesus.
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
ONLY ONE WAY J R W Stott IVP 1976
THE EXPOSITORS BIBLE COMMENTARY F E Gaebelein Ed, Vol 10 Zondervan 1997
THE INTERPRETERS BIBLE Vol 10 R T Stamm Abingdon 1953
WOMEN IN EARLIEST CHRISTIANITY Ed C D Osborn Vol 1&2 College Press 1995
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD Editorial 29.1.98 p14
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