Monthly Archives: June 2015

Sunday Sermon 21 June 2015 – Paul to the Galatians (3)

Readings: Acts 11:19-26,  Acts 13:1-3; Galatians 2:11-21


I once went to two mental asylums in one day. No –  I was not looking for a bed or room. I was completing a Masters in Pastoral Counselling and Psychology, and it made sense to visit the places where people were locked away for their safety and ours. There were all kinds of people who thought they were prime ministers or famous heroes – one lady claimed to be Margaret Thatcher.

Which reminds me of the story of Margaret Thatcher visiting a retirement home – and introducing herself as the British Prime Minister. Thatcher spoke to one of the inmates and asked him: “do you know who I am?” The patient replied: “No, dear, but I should ask the nurse if I were you. She usually knows.”

I don’t think any of us really would know what it must be like to learn again from scratch who you are – say after an accident where you lose your memory. Amnesia is the word.

These lines from Paul’s letter to the Galatians are actually quite difficult to understand – precisely because they involve losing one identity and gaining another.

Refugees have to work on that don’t they – and oh my there are a lot of them trying to get to new countries at the moment. (Just by the way, Saturday was international refugees’ day – and the numbers are higher than they have ever been.) Emigrants also have to find a new identity. This many of us know.

Paul’s conflict in this letter is not just about other missionaries with a different point of view. Or a different interpretation of the gospel. It’s about fundamental Christian identity – who you are in the Messiah Jesus.

Paul’s conflict with Peter is over the same issue – and his conflict with the churches in Galatia.

Peter had had a vision – if you remember – a sheet coming down from heaven loaded with forbidden un-kosher food. He was convinced about the need to break out of that Jewish mould. He associated with gentiles and ate with them.

But here he changes his tune – and refuses to eat with non-Jews.

In short, Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy. The word means wearing a mask. And much to Paul’s horror, his partner Barnabus, known as the son of encouragement, went along with this. For some reason they were concerned about what the Jewish contingency would think about eating with non-Jews.

The point is – the church in Antioch we read about in Acts 11 and 13 – where Paul and Barnabus were sent out from – was a multicultural church, and they certainly weren’t all Jewish. This was where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The moment you identify with this label – and call yourself a Christian – your identity shifts from being a Torah-keeping Jew or a “Gentile sinner” excluded from God’s family – into the family of the New Covenant – your identity is in the Messiah Jesus.

We used to sing a song years back about this shift. “It’s no longer I that liveth – but Christ that liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:20 from the KJV).

I’m not sure that I understood back then. The key verse is Galatians 2:20, which lines up exactly with Paul’s teaching on baptism in Romans 6.

Gal 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. He goes on to say: Gal 2:21- I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

If we have died to our old selves, then our new identity is “in Christ”. In fact that phrase “in Christ” is key to all of this. Listen to Paul elsewhere:

  • Rom 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
  • Rom 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
  • 1Co 1:30 It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

And probably my favourite:

  • 2Co 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Those who are “in Christ” – Christians – are part of a new fellowship, a new covenant and a new family.

Tom Wright reminds us that the identity marker for Jews was circumcision. The identity marker for Christians is faith. He continues:

And if we are ‘in’ the crucified Jesus, that means that our previous identities are irrelevant. They are to be forgotten. We are no longer defined by possession of the law, or by its detailed requirements that set Jew over against Gentile. ‘I died to the law, that I might live to God.’ We must now learn who we are in a whole new way. Who then are we? We are the Messiah’s people, with his life now at work in us. And, since the central thing about him is his loving faithfulness, the central thing about us, the only thing in fact that defines us, is our own loving faithfulness, the glad response of faith to the God who has sent his son to die for us. This is the very heart of Christian identity. Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 26). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

And one of the sure signs of being together in this New Covenant is to eat together. Tom Wright put it this way: To have separate tables within the church is to spurn the generous love of the Messiah. One of the marks of Jesus’ public career was open table-fellowship. God intends it to be a mark of Jesus’ people from that day to this. Wright, Tom (p. 27).

Communion is one of the special meals with profound significance. Every meal together is an intimate sharing amongst those who are family in Christ. And like the church in Antioch – our background is irrelevant!

It’s a new identity that comes with being rescued from the evil age which we spoke about two weeks back: Gal 1:3  “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Gal 1:4  who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age …” reaches a climax in Galatians 2:20 – “And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Kingdom New Testament).


Sunday sermon 14th June – Paul to the Galatians (2)

Readings: Acts 22:1-22; Galatians 1: 11-24


Persecution in the early church was particularly bad during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian towards the end of the 3rd Century AD. Not all Christians were courageous enough to face torture or death. There were those who renounced their faith and made offerings to Roman state gods or the Roman Emperor, and often burned their Christian texts.

Those who refused to submit to the Roman Empire and were found with Christian texts were often killed. This meant that the clergy were very vulnerable because they were most likely to have the Bible in some form or another. Many of those who renounced their faith and burned their books were clergy, although there were also lay people.

Later on when the church was restored (in the early 4th C) and persecution died down – it created an issue. Diocletian’s successor Constantine declared tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD (The Edict of Milan).

So what do you think happened? Those who had denounced their Christian faith carried on as priests. One of them was nominated as a bishop. People were less than thrilled about that, and a split, a schism, took place. The church was divided for a long time – hundreds of years – on this issue, and eventually other issues too.

The movement to exclude Christians who had denied their faith, particularly in North Africa, was led by the Donatists. They were one of the earlier charismatic groups – one of the interesting things they did was in confession – the Catholics heard confessions privately. The Donatists heard confession publically in front of the whole congregations. Sundays must have been interesting! (You can read about the Donatist controversy if you are interested in this period of church history.)


How people respond to persecution or other threats such as invading conquering armies is always a challenge. What happens afterwards is the key issue. It’s no different from post-war conflicts in Europe – those who collaborated with the Nazis were not regarded as traitors.

Who knows what you and I would if our lives were on the line. Would you own Christ with a gun pointing at you?

So think about Paul then.

This time it’s not about accepting someone back into the fold who was persecuted and renounced their faith. Paul was the primary persecutor of Christians. He was the one hunting Christians down!

You can imagine how tough that was for Christians to swallow. This very committed Jewish, Pharisaical, scholarly and ruthless man, this zealous oppressor who travelled around looking for Christians to lock up, starts showing up at church, so to speak. Walking into Christian meetings. Actually on his mission trips he went around preaching in Synagogues, or in homes or at river sides – wherever he could.

It has been suggested that his role model could well have been the prophet Elijah – Saul the Pharisee would have been determined to keep Israel from idolatry. Like Elijah and the prophets of Baal!

Tom Wright says this about him: He saw himself, it seems, as a latter-day Elijah, cleansing Israel of the horrible nonsense about Jesus of Nazareth, who couldn’t have been the Messiah because he was crucified, and who certainly couldn’t be worshipped because in any case the Messiah wouldn’t be divine.


If there is ever an example of grace, it is the conversion of Saul who becomes the Apostle Paul.

And so  the text: In his defense of the Gospel, he writes this to the Galatian churches in chapter one, verse thirteen: Gal 1:13  For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. Gal 1:14  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 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

What a remarkable change in this man.

His testimony is very much like that of some of the prophets. Especially verse 15: But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace…

Listen to Isaiah on this sense of being chosen by God: Isa 49:1  Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. Isa 49:2  He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.

And also Jeremiah: Jer 1:4  The word of the LORD came to me, saying, Jer 1:5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

And so back to Galatians 1 – we read from verse 15 again: Gal 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 

God revealed his Son to Paul – and everything changed. It’s the trip to Arabia that intrigues me. These are the hidden years in Paul’s life.

And there is this angle – Mnt Sinai (also know as Mnt Horeb) was in Arabia. Moses encountered God there. Elijah encountered God there – especially when he was fleeing from Jezebel. There’s that brilliant passage there which has made its way into hymns and songs:

1Ki 19:11  The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 1Ki 19:12  After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1Ki 19:13  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Ki 19:14  He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 1Ki 19:15  The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.

There’s this fascinating parallel between Elijah and Paul – going to the mountain of God – and being sent off to Damascus.

They each had their own issues.

Can you imagine what was going on in Paul’s head? Tom Wright also says this:

But then – and here he slips into talking about himself as an Old Testament prophet – Paul was stopped in his tracks, just as Elijah had been. Elijah, dejected and depressed, went off to Mount Sinai to meet his God afresh, to learn about the still small voice as well as the earthquake, wind and fire. Saul of Tarsus went off, probably to Sinai (he says ‘Arabia’, which is where Sinai was), most likely for a similar private wrestling with the God whom he worshipped. This God, to Saul’s horror and amazement, had now revealed his son, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the pagan nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as he loved Israel. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)


We were praying this week about prisoners. How ironic that we so often want people locked up for the longest time possible. You hear it on TV so often – when people are sentenced for their crimes.

Yet we have this murderer who writes so much of our New Testament.

It is Paul who says this of himself: 1Ti 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1Ti 1:16  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

I reckon that Paul wrestled about this grace in those three years in Arabia.

Tom Wright again says this: But it is a central strand of most Christian living that everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will. It is necessary, too, that Christian leaders should be seen to be telling their own story truly.

…everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will.

We all do. We need time with God – especially alone – where we seriously reflect on his grace in our lives too. And what he may be saying to us.

In Paul’s case it seems that the Gospel was revealed to Paul directly from Jesus – as we saw last week.

Who knows what He will say to us if we take the time to wrestle with his will. Or just to be in His presence. It’s part of the shift that we talked about last week as we looked at Galatians 1:3-4 – 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.

Paul understood the shift he had to make. His zeal was shifted to his new task to share the gospel with non-Jews – with gentiles like us. Galatians 1:23-4 again: They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they praised God because of me.

As do we!



Closer to our time Amazing Grace worked in the writer of the hymn – the slave trader, John Newton. Let’s see an extract about him and his conversion. In the movie William Wilberforce visits his old preacher Newton more than once.

(Video “Amazing Grace” – the wrestling of John Newton.)

Note: I am indebted to Tom Wright again.


Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 8-9). SPCK. Kindle Edition. Here I have been influenced by Wright’s lectures “Paul and his letter to the Galatians”. This is from the course  NTWRIGHT ON LINE through the Wisconsin Centre for Christian studies.

Sunday Sermon 7 June 2015 – Paul to the Galatians (1)

Readings: Galatians 1:1-10;  6:11-18


We begin this week with a series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Most of us know a little about the book – our favourite verses are those about the fruit of the spirit. At least we know about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

What we don’t know is that this little book is possibly the oldest Christian document we have. It certainly is full of passion and energy – Paul gets very stressed and worked up in it – and for good reason. There are big issues at stake.

The renowned preacher John Piper says of this letter: You can’t read Galatians and think, “Well this is an interesting piece of religious reflection”—any more than you can examine a live coal with your bare hands.

Introductory remarks                                                                          

  1. We read the beginning and the end of the letter today – to get a sense of what it is – a letter with a real context. Unlike our letters, the name of the writer comes first.

But note that it is ALSO from the brothers “with him”. He is not really a lone ranger.

  1. We need to know who it is written to, and sometimes we gloss over this. Listen again: “To the churches in Galatia:” There is more than one church that has got in a muddle here, and these churches are probably situated in what is today southern central Turkey. Troubles were brewing in a number of churches that he had planted.
  1. The authority of Paul is spelled out from the beginning:

Gal 1:1  Paul, an apostlesent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— Gal 1:2  and all the brothers with me, To the churches in Galatia:

In case you think that the letters of Paul have less of Jesus than the four gospels, Paul makes it clear that what he has to say and teach is from Jesus himself.

  1. And then the salutation:

Gal 1:3  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Gal 1:4  who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, Gal 1:5  to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

We often gloss over these greetings too – but here we have some key markers – boundary lines – about the gospel and the cross. “Grace and peace from 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.” There is an immediate flagging of the broader issue than our individual salvation – it’s more than us – he gave himself for our sins “to rescue us from this present evil age

At that time followers of Judaism believed world history was divided in two ages – the present age (of wickedness and gloom), and the age to come (when God would intervene and fix things).

It’s the new age that we live in – the Messianic age which began with Jesus’ death and resurrection, that is at stake here. What is it meant to be like? Paul is clearly irked by what is happening in these Galatian churches. They had somehow changed the basics, and he was pretty cross with them.

The word “age” is sometimes translated as “world”. Sometimes it is referred to as the “age to come”. For example:

Heb 6:4  It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, Heb 6:5  who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, Heb 6:6  if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Rom 12:2  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

2Co 4:3  And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 2Co 4:4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  


Let me illustrate the problem here with an analogy.

How many of you have built a house? Imagine you hire an architect to draw up the plans, and you get consent, and the foundations are laid. It’s a family home – and even though your family is quite diverse, the home is designed for all to live in community together.

And while you’re away on holiday, someone else comes along and changes the whole thing. You come back to your building site and it’s a mess. Nothing like what you planned. And the different and diverse members of your family are cut off from each other in different sections of the house. They can’t get together at all – not even for meals or to watch a bit of TV.

And the builders tell you – “that architect of yours had it all wrong.  He had some funny ideas, but we are the real authorities. This is how it’s meant to be.”

I can imagine heads would roll. You would be less than thrilled. I haven’t built a house, but I know from those who have that they like to keep an eye on the whole process for good reason.

Paul was less than thrilled in this instance too.

He’d planted churches in the area of Galatia. This was his ministry – starting churches, training and appointing leaders, and then moving on.

Tom Wright puts it like this: Paul’s project is, he often says, building: but he’s building with people, not with bricks and mortar. He lays foundations for this building by telling people some news which is so good it’s shocking. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 4). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

There are other building analogies he uses. For example when writing to the Corinthian church where there were people who supported him, and others supporting Apollos (a conflict therefore) he says this:

1Co 3:9  For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 1Co 3:10  By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 1Co 3:11  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1Co 3:12  If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 1Co 3:13  his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 1Co 3:14  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 1Co 3:15  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

To get back to the news he proclaimed when building the foundations of the churches in Galatia. This news – the “gospel” was quite shocking.

We sometimes think about the “gospel” in terms of the four spiritual laws, or a formula to come to faith though repentance, or a reformed faith or post-reformation way of thinking following Luther for example. Or for that matter a Methodist one where Wesley had his “heart strangely warmed” when he met Jesus at a meeting on Aldersgate street in 1738. All of these are fine.

At the very least we have personalised the gospel message – Jesus died for our sins and we are justified (made righteous in God’s sight) by faith and we have peace with God (we looked at all those themes in Paul’s letter to the Romans).

The news is shocking because it has wider ramifications than our personal faith and getting to heaven. Tom Wright puts it like this:

According to Paul, there is one God, the world’s creator (standard stuff for the Jews, that), and this one God has now unveiled his long-awaited plan for the world. The unveiling took place in a Jew called Jesus; Paul says this Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, a kind of king-to-end-all-kings (sounds like a challenge to Emperor Claudius). Jesus was executed by the Romans; that’s what they did, often enough, to other people’s kings. But Paul says that the true God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s the beginning of the good news, but it doesn’t stop there.

According to Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that this God is now building a new family, a single family, a family with no divisions, no separate races, no one-table-for-Jews-and-another-for-Gentiles nonsense. Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would be Lord of all the world; so, Paul argues, he’d have to have just one family. And, though this family is the fulfilment of what this God had promised to the Jews, the remarkable thing is that, because of Jesus, you don’t have to be a Jew to belong. The God of Israel wants to be known as ‘father’ by the whole world. So, with this good news, Paul has laid the foundation of a people-building in central south Turkey. Then he has moved on.

And then he hears the bad news. Other people-builders have come in. Oh, they’ve said, Paul didn’t really know what he was doing. You could get into trouble for that kind of thing. In any case, Paul just got his funny ideas by muddling up things that other people had said to him. We’ve got it from the real authorities. This people-building has to have two sections. Yes, we all believe that Jesus is the Messiah; but we can’t have Jewish believers and Gentile believers living as though they were part of the same family. If the Gentile believers want to be part of the real inner circle, the family God promised to Abraham, they will have to become Jews. The men must be circumcised. All must keep the law, must do the things that keep Jews and Gentiles neatly separated. That’s the real good news, they said: you’re welcome into God’s family if you follow the law of Moses.

Think about that scenario, and you’ll see why, in this opening paragraph of his letter to Galatia, Paul sounds as though he’s trying to say several things at once, all of them pretty sharp. The key things he’s talking about are apostleship and gospel. Grasp these, and the rest of the letter will start to make sense.

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 4-5). SPCK. Kindle Edition.


For now – in this small beginning – some key thoughts

  1. If you only had Galatians, and not the longer letter to the Romans, most key aspects of the gospel message would be covered or referred to one way or the other.
  1. This very short introduction asks this question of you: Have you been rescued or delivered from the present evil age? It’s still at work – despite the evil one’s defeat on the cross – the war is still on. You can’t deliver or rescue yourselves. For Paul this is the new exodus from slavery to sin and liberation into God. And remember that Jesus prayed this in John 17:15 – My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
  1. 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. Amen.

John Piper in a sermon on this passage write this: The experience of deliverance from the present evil age enables us to bear witness with our lives that we belong to another King and another kingdom and another age. And it begins with a changed heart and a changed mind. He calls his sermon To Deliver Us from the Present Evil Age but the alternate title he was going to use is this:  “Grace to You and Glory to God.”

  1. Are we building our lives and our church on the right foundation? Always a great question. Are we really committed to the gospel of transformation?

Is there a change from this old age to the Kingdom of God in us?

There’s this fascinating and sad passage in Paul’s first letter to Timothy: (NIV) 2Ti 4:9  Do your best to come to me quickly, 2Ti 4:10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.(NRSV)  2Ti 4:9  Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica

It’s the same word for “age” and “world” that crops up.  Aeon. Eon in English.

I have this deep concern that what actually happens here – and is happening – is that too many of us are in love with this present world.

Demas deserted Paul – because he loved the present world or age too much. That happens here too. Ultimately Demas deserted God and His Kingdom. Romans 12:2 applies – like him we are conforming to the world’s standards rather than being transformed!

Amen. Enough for today.

Acknowledgements: Tom Wright’s thoughts have shaped this reflection:

  • Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
  • Here I have been influenced by Wright’s lectures “Paul and his letter to the Galatians”. This is from the course  NTWRIGHT ON LINE through the Wisconsin Centre for Christian studies.