Galatians 1:11–24 (NRSV)
Paul’s Vindication of His Apostleship
(Cp Acts 9)
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23 they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
The early era of the church is one that was filled with much confusion. We often think of the early church as being this utopian version of the church before the organization came in and corrupted it, and in many ways that is true. The flip side of it was there was very little organization, very few traditions, and even less understanding of what their basic beliefs were. Consider this for a moment. Jesus lived among mankind, not just any group or human society but the Jewish people. This occurred because God chose this group of people, this nation so to speak, though which to make his most prominent revelations. It was through this group of people that we, or all humanity, received the Word of God.
This concept of the Word of God is part of the issue. What is the Word? Depending on which branch of the faith traditions we are attached to we would get a differing expression as to what the word of God means. It could mean the traditions of the Church because word means wisdom so the wisdom of God is protected and distributed through the assembly. It could also mean scriptures, because the wisdom of God was given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the various authors who in turn wrote the words down to pass the knowledge to the next generations. But there is another interpretation of what the Word of God could mean, or more accurately who the Word of God is, or who the source of the wisdom of God is: that would be Jesus. This latter interpretation is the interpretation that the vast majority of early church theologians or Fathers held.
The word of God, the wisdom of God is Jesus. So as the early church attempted to organize into the various branches we now know today, this is where they began. Who is Jesus and what authority does He have? I say that the vast majority of early church Fathers held to the interpretation of the Word as being Jesus but these other two forms also had their place in the earliest traditions of the church.
Since Jesus came to us through this one particular group many believed that the only access to God would require all people to become members of this nation. They preached Jesus as the Messiah but to gain access to this messiah and to be members of His kingdom they took on a very strict view of what nation meant. They attached the ideas of nationalism and religion together and as a result the only way to be a follower of Jesus one had to become part of the nation of Israel. Is this the gospel of Christ? That question is one of the greatest questions that has plagued the church since its emergence.
This is a very important question for the people of Galatia, because so much of their previous cultural norms differed from the traditions of the people of Israel. The way they settled disputes were different, the way they determined inheritance was different, the way they expressed faith, and the way the celebrated all had different customs. What could they keep and what would they turn from if they became part of this emerging Kingdom of God? This is a question that still cycles in our contemporary culture. We are a people group that has dedicated ourselves to the ideas of private ownership, freedom of expression, and self-governance. None of these things are norms in the Old Testament culture. Can we as a people honestly consider ourselves as followers of Christ and American? Can any aspect of our culture be considered Christian?
I ask that question and I hope is does cause us a little discomfort, because that would show us that there is some sort of difference between the kingdoms of Men and that of God. If we do not examine ourselves and open ourselves up to the inspiration of the Spirit we may never know the life God has for us just waiting for us to take hold of it. But then we also must ask the question are we to become Jewish? This is where we find the people of Galatia, and why Paul writes them this letter.
Paul begins by telling his story. He tells them who he was prior to his conversion. He discusses what drove his passions, and how he enacted those passions. He openly and honestly tells them that he was a zealous man. He was filled with this religious vigor that was beyond anyone of his age. He approached the traditions of the ancient Hebrews with such passion that he violently opposed all that questioned them. This narrow view of life with God made him attractive to the religious leaders and feared by the early church who followed the teachings of a rabbi that was not as acceptable to the ruling cast. All of this ambition lead him to seek the sources of wisdom and truth, which eventually came to a dramatic revelation that caused him to change directions. He found the Word of God on a road to Damascus, which is in present day Syria, where he traveling to kill the followers of Jesus and realized that God had other plans.
Paul tells his story, and reveals to the people of Galatia that the gospel that he taught did not come through the various traditions that he studied in his life before. The origins of it did not come from the interpretations of men but it came from a divine source. The wording of this does not necessarily dictate that Paul heard this directly, it could have been revealed to him through an examination of Jesus’ teaching or though total inspiration of the Spirit, but what it does indicate was that he knew that this was the truth, the very Word of God. He then told them that in response to this revelation he changed. He once pursued the Jewish teachings with great passion now he journeyed a different path. That path took him down to other places where he grew in knowledge and understanding and began to share what God was teaching him. God called him before he even spoke to those known to be Apostles. Paul began his ministry before he even spoke to those people that were closest to Jesus. Paul had already begun his missionary journeys, the journeys that encouraged people to come to Jesus that had reached this very place of Galatia even before the assembly in Jerusalem all knew their greatest persecutor had become their greatest ally.
After this first leg of his missionary journey Paul did meet with James and Peter, and from that they did agree that the gospel that Paul taught was within the scope of Jesus’ teachings and they gladly accepted Paul into their number. This tells us some very important information. It speaks about the most important aspects of the kingdom and it also reveals to us where we often get distracted.
If we were to read the core of the gospel that Paul taught we would find that He taught that all are saved by faith through the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. That Jesus is the revelation and true Word of God and he calls us to follow him as he follows Christ.
What Paul taught was relational faith. The true gospel is not based on the legalities of the ancient teachings but is based on our relationship with Jesus and the life we live with Him. Life with God and with the community was the Gospel that Paul taught. How do we live with God? Dietrich Bonhoeffer chased the answers to this question throughout his life because he lived in a period of history that caused everyone to question the traditional understandings of everything. Germany at that time lived for the nationalistic expressions of faith. They thought that Christianity and being a German was one in the same. So whatever the nation did was a result of divine providence. The church was divided into two basic groups the liberals that only saw the life of faith as a moral code to live by void of any divine indolent, and the fundamentalist that were also teaching moralistic tradition that were demanded by the divine for acceptance into the kingdom. If we were to widen this out both traditions were focused legalism, and they resemble the differences between the two major factions in the first century Jewish traditions. In both cases they seek to make mankind acceptable and Bonhoeffer in his book Ethics says,
“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethic is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. But if one does so notwithstanding, that can only mean that Christian ethics claims to discuss the origin of the whole problem of ethics, and thus professes to be a critique of all ethics simply as ethics.
“Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin.”
Paul and Bonhoeffer both taught that if we are to truly have the Wisdom of God we must first seek a relationship with God. And if we seek this relationship the will of God will become our own and guide us in our lives today.
It is this seeking after God. This participating in life with God in the holy rhythm of life that Jesus himself showed us that we will again become united to true humanity. Life with God is not about keeping rules but being with Him who created us. And that is not through the keeping rules and striving to not sin. It only comes through devoting our life and lifestyle to listening to the Spirit and living accordingly. How do we do this? By living a life following the rhythm of life that Jesus showed us; making it our custom to worship together, withdrawing often to pray in the isolated places away from distraction, and to minister according to the leadings the Sprit gives.
We can get caught up and distracted by many things. We can be distracted by the things of this world, seeking the pleasures of the flesh and forgetting to commune with God. But just as bad is the seeking to be morally right in all things to follow the letter of the law while missing the point of the relationship God seeks. God desires to commune with us to talk and walk with us his most prized creation. He desires this so much that He sent His Son to live with us and to show us how to live the truly human life, and to provide a way to overcome the wages of our sin by dying on the cross and raising again in victory. Paul tells the people of Galatia that the extremes can be detrimental to the gospel and all that matters is to live following Jesus.
As we enter into this time of Open worship I want us to consider how the concepts of legalism are affecting our relationship with God and others? And also our own personal liberties? Can our personal habits stand under the examination of the Spirit? There is only one gospel are we living it?