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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The authority of Paul is spelled out from the beginning:
Gal 1:1 Paul, an apostle—sent 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.
- 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.
SO WHAT MADE PAUL SO MAD?
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.
WHERE DOES THIS TAKE US IN OUR JOURNEY THROUGH GALATIANS?
For now – in this small beginning – some key thoughts
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
- 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.
- https://www.udemy.com/courses/ 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.
Posted on June 12, 2015, in Sunday Morning Sermons and tagged build on right foundations, building, Demas, Galatians, god of this age, grace, Messiah, Paul's gospel. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.