Turn to Galatians 1 as we begin this new series. Having said it's a new series, because of Easter, the next time we come back to Galatians is in a month's time, so I'm actually going to look briefly at the first 10 verses to give you a bit more of a way in to this very important letter.
So let's go on a journey to a region in southern Turkey known as Galatia. It's 18 years since Jesus died on the cross. And the breathtaking message that he's been raised from the dead and is now alive and reigning in heaven has begun to sweep through the Roman Empire. And one man whom God singularly used in this way was a former persecutor of Christians and Jewish elitist – Paul. As he travelled throughout Galatia he would argue the Christian case in the power of the Spirit and people would be converted. Churches were planted and they met together to worship Jesus. They'd then tell their friends how they too could enjoy the life changing experience of sins forgiven and a personal relationship with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And so the movement grew: rich and poor, slaves and noble men, Jew and Gentile, black and white - it didn’t matter- the only entry requirement into the kingdom of God is a turning to and a trusting in the God-man Jesus as rescuer, ruler and friend.
But you can be sure of this: wherever the liberating message of a free relationship with God through Christ is offered, there'll be others coming along behind trying to replace it with a religion of bondage. Whereas the Gospel breaks down barriers, false teaching and religion erect them. Liberty is exchanged for legalism; mercy is replaced with merit and the result is that people, who sincerely believe they're going to heaven because they're not that bad, are in fact heading straight to hell because they're not that good. You see, sincerity is not the issue, salvation is. As Paul states in chapter 2: A person is not justified [declared not guilty and right with God] by works of the law but through faith in Jesus.
That's why Paul writes as he does with such urgency and passion. Notice in v3-5 there’s Grace and Peace to you but no words of praise to the new Christians which he gives in his other letters - it's straight down to business v6&7:
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. (v6-7)
Paul speaks of these Christians 'deserting' God. You see to abandon the Christian faith isn't to abandon a philosophy but a person – God - 'him who called you in the grace of Christ', it's an act of personal betrayal. Paul's so traumatised by it he says he's 'astonished'. He's gobsmacked. They're turning to a different gospel when there is no other gospel. And it's happening so quickly. The problem he says, v7, is that, 'Some people trouble you - or are throwing you into confusion - literally agitating you - and want to distort or pervert, that is reverse – the gospel of Christ.'
Now as we glean from the rest of the letter, a group of Jewish teachers, who also claim to be Christian, have come in and insist that in addition to believing in Jesus you must also become, in effect, Jewish - keeping the Jewish law and so get circumcised if you're male and keep the Jewish rituals. In other words salvation is earned as a right not given as a gift. What's more, to keep in with God you had to keep on keeping the rules.
Can you believe that? Of course you can, because it happens today. What the Bible says is added to and so denied and people are being eternally lost as a result. Jesus says, 'I am the way, the truth and the life no one comes to the Father except through me'. Others say, he is a way, but you can get to God through Islam too. Paul says, 'Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ is not his'. Others say 'No, you must have a special experience of the Spirit, such as a falling down, to be a real Christian and we are the people who can give it'. The Bible says, 'Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved', but some churches will say, 'Do that and be baptised, attend mass, go to confession and you might be saved eventually, after paying off some more debt in purgatory'.
Yes there are people out there queuing up to rob you of your freedom in Christ, freedom from the law as a system of salvation, and who are wanting to stop you knowing that freedom if you're not yet a Christian. And it's all done in the name of religion.
So, how does Paul counter these false teachers with their false Gospel both then and now? Well first, we're introduced to
A DIVINELY APPOINTED MESSENGER v1-2:
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.
Clearly these Judaisers, these false teachers have been attacking Paul, questioning his apostolic credentials. An apostle is someone who's been commissioned and sent by the risen Lord Jesus himself and so carries his authority. But 'Paul wasn't one of the original twelve', the false teachers would claim. They think everything he teaches about Christianity which is right he learnt from the apostles in Jerusalem, but everything he teaches about Christianity which in their view is wrong he's made up himself. What's more, they say, he's only out to please people. That's why he tries to make Christianity easy, all a matter of faith, not religious works.' Out of a desire to make the message more appealing to Gentiles they claimed that Paul had removed from the gospel certain legal requirements. Legal requirements, such as some of the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament, which the Judaisers believed were still binding on the New Testament church.
So Paul launches a pre-emptive attack on such slander and false teaching. For a start he declares himself v1, 'apostle' – not even 'an apostle' in the original - but straight 'apostle'. Why? Because the risen Jesus who met him on the Road to Damascus commissioned him to be the apostle to the Gentiles - the non-Jews. So he wasn’t sent by men - such as Peter or James back in Jersualem or by any human being. His was a divine appointment, coming straight from king Jesus himself 'raised from the dead' and approved by God the Father. So what Paul says isn't his own personal opinion, but divine revelation. Without Paul much of the New Testament would be missing. He's our apostle especially since most of us here this morning aren't of Jewish descent. And so we should treasure what he says, because Jesus sent him especially for us. So don’t listen to those who try and drive a wedge between the words of Jesus and Paul, for what Paul wrote was inspired by the Spirit of Jesus.
What's more, you can’t knock Paul’s motives as being a mere man pleaser.
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. (v10)
Paul would have made a great Northerner wouldn't he? He called a spade a spade, which is hardly going to endear him to everyone, so he doesn’t come across as a man pleaser who changes his message to fit his audience. The fact is you can’t please God whilst trying to please men, because the Gospel message is offensive to natural man. It tells him that he's not good enough for God and never can be. Why? Because in God’s sight there's no difference between the crack dealer and the car dealer, the robber and the Rotarian - all such lives offend him as they're lived outside his rule - and God is angry. And somehow that anger has to be turned away otherwise we're in very serious trouble. Who wants to die and face an angry God? I don’t. So is there any good news? Well yes! It comes in the form of
A DIVINELY FOCUSED MESSAGE v3-5
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 for ever and ever. Amen. (v3-5)
You see what we need, and what God so wonderfully supplies, is a rescue not a false religion. And what a rescue and at what a cost! God's Riches At Christ's Expense - which spells GRACE. We can't earn our rescue and we don't deserve it. It's only by God's grace, literally an undeserved act of kindness, through faith in Christ and not by works. The thief on the cross who accepted Jesus just before he died is proof of this. It's the gift of God. V4&6 stress that God's grace comes to us at his initiative, by his call and not because of anything we've done. He says that God the Father gave his Son Jesus for our sins. V4 Jesus willingly gave himself for our sins on the cross to deliver us from the present evil age which is characterised by wickedness and bring us peace with God. Yes the Son of God loved you and gave himself for you (2:20). And this was according to the will of our God and Father. God's will is behind these events.
Do you know what all that means? He's talking about the cross. Just picture it for a moment. God's on his throne. You're on the earth. And between you and God, suspended between you and heaven, is Christ on his cross. Your sins have been placed on Jesus. God, who punishes sin, releases his rightful anger on your offences, your mistakes and Jesus received the blow. Since Christ is between you and God, you don’t. The sin is punished but you're safe in the shadow of the cross, through faith in Christ. But if you strut around pointing to what you've done, how good you are, how religious you've been, then you've in effect just signed your own death warrant. You take the blow yourself.
And notice how kind God has been in doing this for you. He gave his Son. Would you do that? Would you offer the life of your child for someone else? I know I wouldn’t. There are those for whom I would give my life. But if you ask me for a list of those for whom I'd be willing to give one of my sons, then the sheet would be blank. But not God’s sheet. Your name is there, as is mine - for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. To God be the glory.
Now tell me: what sort of person will turn to the God who's done such a wonderful thing, whose heart was broken on the cross, whose blood was spilt and say – 'Keep it. I don’t want it. I'll make my own way to heaven thank you very much, because the one thing I won't accept is charity from God or anyone else.' What sort of person would do that? Well, sadly most of us would. That's what we're like by nature and so we make up 'do good' religions to satisfy that quest for self-justification. There are so called Christian versions of it and non- Christian versions and do you know what the apostle Paul says of those who promote religions which are all about us doing things to get to God? He says they're quite literally damned liars. So thirdly and finally
BEWARE DIVINELY CURSED PREACHERS v8-9
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. (v8-9)
Do you understand what Paul's saying? He's calling down a solemn curse which will result in the eternal damnation of anyone who teaches that people can be saved other than by receiving God’s loving forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Paul would wish himself damned rather than do this. Even if an angel were to turn up at a service, and if with his ringing angelic voice declare that you are to believe in Jesus plus - then he too can go straight to hell. Paul's incredibly serious. He's not being nasty - he's uncompromisingly blunt because - he actually cares. Why?
Well first, because other so called gospels and religions lead to the eternal death of people. Let me explain. I don't know if you've seen the classic film 'The Third Man' It's set in post war Vienna. The place has been devastated by the war, things are in chaos, morality is lax and disease is rife. This provides an ideal breeding ground for the black market. One such racketeer is the main character - Harry Lime. Now there’s a scene in which a journalist enters a hospital and sees children lying row upon row in beds in terrible agony. Some are clearly dying, others are maimed mentally. Why? Well, because Harry Lime and others like him have made a profit by selling watered down medicine – and this is the result. How do you think that journalist felt towards the racketeers? Did he shrug and say 'It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you're sincere.' Of course not. He's angry. So when people water down the only medicine there is which can deal with our most fundamental problem - our estranged relationship with God caused by our sin - so that people drift off into a Christless eternity, then our reaction shouldn't be any less than Paul’s. People’s eternal destiny is at stake. If the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope or Jonathan Redfearn preaches another Gospel than the one the apostle Paul preached - they'll rightly be eternally damned; for they would've done the cruellest thing any human being could do - stopping people from knowing the love of God in Jesus and sending them into a dark eternity with no hope. They'll have committed nothing short of spiritual genocide.
But secondly, other so called gospels lead to the dishonouring of the Lord Jesus. You see, to say we must do things in order to be saved implies that Jesus on the cross hasn’t done enough, that it was deficient in some way. It means instead of him receiving all the glory and all the thanks for leaving the beauty of heaven to hang on the beams of a cross covered with the filth of our sin to save us, he has to share it, he must thank us for doing our part. And rightly Paul will have none of that - as he says at the end of the letter 'May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.'
Now perhaps all of this is new to some of you and it may even sound a little offensive. But think of it like this - if it were even remotely possible for God to accept you and me on the basis of our being decent and religious- don't you think he would've done so? Doesn't the fact that he sent his Son whom he's loved from all eternity to bleed and be broken on the cross mean there was no other way your sin and mine could be dealt with? Here's the medicine, there's no other and God pleads with you to take it before it's too late. Trust in Christ.
And if you're a Christian then rejoice in the fact that God couldn't give more for you than he already has - for if you have his Son, the Lord Jesus, then you have everything. V5 To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.