Today we begin a new sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and if you haven’t seen it already, please do take a few minutes to watch a short video from Youtube that provides an overview of the book. The link to this overview has been provided for you in the weekly news update and it’s really helpful in understanding the background to Paul’s letter.
Now the key issue that Paul is addressing in the Galatian church is false teachers. These false teachers have been ‘causing trouble’ within the church. In 1:7 Paul says ‘Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion.’
The Greek word translated here as ‘throwing you into confusion’ Paul uses again in 5:10 and again at 6:17 where it is translated as ‘causing trouble’ or in other versions as ‘disturbance’ or ‘unsettling’. In whatever way we translate it, these false teachers were creating problems in the Galatian church.
- The question of authority
Paul and Barnabas founded the Galatian church on their first missionary journey. After they had departed to continue spreading the gospel in other places, false teachers had arrived in Galatia and began to undermine Paul’s authority. They were Christians but they were Judaizers, in other words Christians converted from Jewish religion, and they were emphasising the need for Christians to follow the Jewish practices especially circumcision to become ‘real’ Christians. To the Galatians who were young in the faith, they were unsure which gospel message to believe, and which teacher to follow. Both viewpoints seemed to be plausible, well-reasoned and sincerely held and they were promulgated by intelligent, upright and god-fearing teachers. So, they were unclear as what rituals and practices were necessary for them to be practicing Christians. It was all a question of whose authority was uppermost. Whose viewpoint to follow.
Which is why, in several places throughout Paul’s letter he appeals to his credentials as an Apostle commissioned by Jesus himself. 1:1 ‘Paul an apostle – sent not from men or by man but by Jesus Christ and God the Father’ and again in 1:11 suggests that the gospel that he preaches is not made up by an individual but he is speaking with the authority of God. Paul is not wanting to claim that his message is something that he made up or that it was devised by him but rather that it has the authority of God himself.
If you have ever been in a church for a number of years, you may have experienced for yourself times when new people begin attending church and they have a slightly different message or way of thinking to that which is the prevailing message within a church. It is hard to be clear as to which viewpoint is the right one to follow and it can be very disruptive to the church’s mission. Perhaps the easiest way to work out whether or not what someone is saying is reliable and trustworthy is to test it, and here are three ways of testing.
- Is the teaching supported by the Bible and consistent with biblical teaching OR is it counter to the Bible and based on cultural or historical belief? In 1:6 Paul explains to the Galatians ‘Some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ.’ So, we need to test claims against the word of God.
- Does the message bring glory to God OR glory to the self-appointed arbiter of the faith? Sometimes the teacher who is bringing this alternative message is trying to create a dependency on themselves for the ‘truth’ or even cultic adherence to the teacher. In 1:10 Paul explains this point ‘Am I trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men.’ But Paul makes clear that if he did this he would ‘no longer be a servant of Christ.’ Being a servant is a biblical calling hence, Paul is following the Bible’s teaching whereas these Judaizers are not.
- Maybe a simple question to ask is ‘Is what these newcomers teaching edifying to the church? Does the message build up the Christians and make them closer to God? OR does their message create division, disunity and disharmony? And Paul talks more about this in chapter 3 which I will be talking about later in the month.
Authority of the teacher is key. Paul continues to show the differences between his teaching and the teaching of the Judaizers around an important doctrine of the faith that is the question of salvation.
- The question of salvation
Now I don’t want to steal preachers thunder in the next few weeks. They will go into this discussion in a more detailed way but one of the key tenets of the Christian faith that was promulgated by Paul was ‘justification by faith’ in contrast to ‘justification by works.’ This has been such an important area of debate throughout church history with Luther and Calvin during the Reformation in Europe as well as the English Reformation with characters that Wycliffe and Whitfield leading to the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662 by Thomas Cranmer.
Here within the Galatian church Paul begins the debate around the question ‘How can sinners be ‘justified’ and accepted in the sight of God? How can a ‘holy’ God forgive sinful men and women, and reconcile them to himself restoring them to his favour and friendship?
Paul just puts his stake in the ground in 1:3 ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age…’
Perhaps the key word there is ‘rescue’. Paul believes that salvation is only possible through the atoning death of Jesus on the cross and you will see as we continue through the letter, it is full of discussion around the cross.
2:20 ‘the son of God loved me and gave himself for me’
3:01 Paul describes his ministry as ‘placarding’ Christ crucified before men’s eyes
3:13 ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us upon the cross’
6:14 Paul’s personal philosophy is to ‘glory in the cross’ and so it goes on.
But this idea of rescue is all about what Jesus has done ‘on the cross’ to enable us to be ‘justified’ before God rather than focusing as the Judaizers were on rituals and rule keeping, to enable us to earn our way into God’s kingdom. Maybe the words of Jesus ‘If the son sets you free you will be free indeed’ were playing around in Paul’s head or even his own words in 4:7 ‘So you are no longer a slave but a child, God has made you also his heir.’ But more of that to come in the next few weeks.
So, a key discussion within the letter is these questions around salvation and how are we as Christians ‘justified’ or made ‘righteous’.
- How should we practice our faith and live it out in our daily lives?
- Implication of us being justified by faith or made righteous by Jesus death on the cross is that there is no difference between us. The Judaizers were trying to make out that they were true Christians because they had their Jewish heritage to fall back on and were God’s chosen people who had received the Law which made them superior to new converts to Christianity but Paul has something to say about this. 3:1 ‘You foolish Galatians. Who bewitched you? Did you receive the Spirit by observing the Law or believing what you heard? After beginning with the Spirit are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’ And later on 3:26 ‘You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Do you get the idea that Paul is trying to get across? As a result of what Jesus has done on the cross we are all part of a new multi-ethnic family. (But more of that later!)
- Second implication of salvation through faith in Jesus, we have freedom in Christ to live life in the Spirit. 5:1 ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ In order that we may ‘Live by the Spirit’ in 5:16 displaying 5:22 ‘The fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’
Hence, Paul is encouraging the Galatians to become this new multi-ethnic family in order to live in harmony being transformed by the Spirit and displaying the fruit of the Spirit.
To sum up…
The Judaizers are creating problems in the Galatian church and they are questioning the authority of Paul. Hence Paul, expounds the doctrine of salvation by accentuating justification by faith as a means to enable sinful humans to become righteous and focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus in reconciling us to God. But Paul recognizes the importance of not abusing our freedom in Christ that comes about by being made righteous but rather using it to enable us to live lives that are transformed by the Spirit within a new multi-ethnic family. Over the next few weeks we will discover how this becomes possible.
Category: Sermons , Services , The Bridge