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Exploring the Gospel – The Gospel in Galatians

2 Aug

In the letter to the Galatians, we find the Apostle Paul amazed at the fact that many are so rapidly deserting Christ for another gospel (1:6), of which Paul emphasises there is not really another. There are some people who are seeking to disturb the Galatians and distort the truth they have received.

Who were these people seeking to distort the truth of the gospel? The Judaizers were ‘so called’ Christians who taught that in order to be part of God’s family and justified on the last day, followers must observe the Mosaic law, specifically circumcision (2:3), dietary laws (2:12) and calendar observance (4:10) which marked Jews out as the people of God.

Paul opposed vigorously the idea that gentiles must be circumcised and therefore wrote the epistle explaining the truth.

The question we may pose then is, ‘what is the different gospel Paul describes in Galatians 1:6?’

According to man

From man:

The false gospel Paul speaks of is from man and is contrary to the gospel the Galatians had initially received (1:9). He gives a long account of how the gospel he received was not according to man, rather it came ‘through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1:12).

To please man:

The reason the Judaizers wanted to distort the gospel was because they sought the favour of men as opposed to God. The desire to seek favour of someone often reflects an inner longing to be accepted. Chapter 6 verse 12 shows us that these men desired to put on a good show, compelling gentiles to be circumcised so that they would not be persecuted for the cross of Christ (6:12).

Even the Apostle Peter stood condemned because he separated himself from the gentiles. The reason for this behaviour was fear; he feared the party of the circumcision and therefore sought to please man rather than God (2:12).

The sobering words of Paul inform us that if we want to seek the favour of men, we are not servants of the Messiah (1:10).

Distorts

The false gospel presented in this epistle reveals how the true gospel is distorted. The word ‘distort’ used in Chapter 1 verse 7 means literally ‘to turn around’. The message the Galatians had received initially was now being turned around by the Judaizers. They were being led back to the message they had heard before the gospel had been preached to them, namely, that in order to be part of God’s family (or be a proselyte) you have to be circumcised, not only that, it is compulsory to observe dietary and calendar laws. Chapter 4 verse 9 and 10 describe how some had ‘turned back again to the weak and worthless, elemental things’, things they desired to be enslaved to once again.

Sons of God through faith or law:

Jewish circumcision was a sign that you were part of the covenant of God and therefore Abraham’s descendants. For Jews, eating with uncircumcised gentiles was also prohibited and therefore observing dietary laws reflected your covenant status. The gospel was so distorted by the party of the circumcision that even Peter was led astray, therefore withdrawing from the gentile Christians at meal times. The true gospel allowed Jew and gentile to eat together as one people; the distorted gospel led Jewish believers to withdraw from the gentiles believing themselves to be the true people of God.

The good news had been turned around so much so that surprisingly Peter compelled gentiles to live like Jews. Proselytising them as Jews had previously been customary under the old covenant in order to be in right standing before God.

The Galatians had begun in the spirit by receiving the true gospel, however, turning to a false gospel, they were now perfecting their covenant status by circumcision, being as Paul describes, ‘perfected by the flesh’ (3:3).

Paul addresses this hypocrisy by explaining that man is not put in right standing with God by ‘works of the law’ but through faith in the Messiah. In other words, circumcision and torah observance has no power to make you a son of Abraham (part of God’s family) because ‘cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law to perform them.’ (3:10). No Jew or gentile has ever held fast to the law completely other than the Messiah himself. Therefore the observance of torah is not an indicator that man is an heir of promise, for ‘the righteous man shall live by faith’ (3:11). Before the revealing of faith in the Messiah, Jews were kept under guard by the law until the fathers set date (3:23, 4:2). The law therefore became a guide to Christ, for the promise could only be given to those who believe in him (3:24). Consequently in chapter 3 verse 26 (which in my understanding is the central verse of Galatians) we become partakers in God’s family through faith in the Messiah who puts us in right standing with God. In Christ then, there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised. Those who belong to Christ through faith are all one, being Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise, not through ‘works of the law’ (3:28, 29).

Enslaves

Galatians 4 tells of Abraham having two sons, one by the bondwoman and the other by the freewoman, the first is a slave, and the latter is free. The bondwoman was born according to the flesh. Why? She bore her child by natural means apart from promise of God. The freewoman however, bore her child through God’s promise to Abraham. Therefore the child of the bondwoman became a slave and the child of the freewoman became free. Paul explains that those who are of the bondwoman shall not be heirs with the freewoman and therefore those in the Messiah are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.

Subjection to slavery

As a result, those who joined in with the hypocrisy of circumcision, Paul declares to be subject to a yoke of slavery and consequentially severed from the Messiah, no longer part of God’s family, fallen from grace (Galatians 5:3,4). He testifies that those who want to be circumcised must thus keep the whole law to be put in right standing before God (5:3). Before the Messiah, the defining sign that a Jew was a member of the covenant was circumcision, and if a member of the covenant, all other rules had to be obeyed.  Those who had not been tricked by the false gospel and relying upon circumcision, Paul says are by faith hoping for future vindication. Tom Wright states,

‘Paul speaks of the time when God will declare publicly and completely that all those in Christ really are his people. This is ‘the hope of righteousness’, the longing for the time when God’s vindi­cation and justification of all his faithful people will be made manifest, the time of the new creation ( 6.15).’

If the Messiah’s people hope for vindication though faith, verse 6 must be true, ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.’ His people are not defined by observance of torah, rather faith working through love.

Flesh vs Spirit

If God’s people are identified by ‘faith working through love’, how then is this defining marker outworked?

Paul encourages the Galatians firstly with their call to freedom, and secondly to walk by the spirit (5:13,16). This new creation in the Messiah is to use their freedom to serve one another through love. Their statement of faith is ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (5:14). Paul describes the contrasts of those of the bondwoman, who are not heirs of promise to the sons of the freewoman, those who are sons of promise. The sons of the flesh outwork their sonship in immorality, impurity, sensuality and so on (5:19-21). The sons of the spirit practice the spirit’s fruit, love, joy, peace and so on (5:22-23). Those who belong to the Messiah, the true sons of God, share in his crucifixion, being crucified to the fleshes desires and passions, no longer part of the bondwoman.

The false gospel in Galatians is that to be part of God’s family, heirs of promise and be justified on Jesus’ return you must be circumcised and observe works of the torah.

So what is the true gospel in Galatians?

The true gospel is that you are God’s family, heirs of promise through faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Conclusion

What does this mean for 21st Century Christians?

1/ According to man – we must be careful to ensure we receive the gospel through a revelation of Jesus Christ and not through man. Though we may hear the good news through man as a mouthpiece we have to be careful to discern it through the lens of the Messiah. One practical way of doing this is to follow Paul’s example. He didn’t rely on men’s understanding of truth, rather he went away. It is not clear what Paul did during his time away, and it would not be beneficial to isolate one’s self. However, it is beneficial to search the scriptures and consult with Jesus himself on truth. Relying on man can be naive and lead to distortion of truth.

2/ Distorts – For many reasons, one of which may be fear, we turn around to embrace false gospels and neglect the true gospel God wishes to reveal to us in the Messiah. In 21st century western society are not be being compelled to circumcision to be accepted by God, nevertheless I would suggest there are alternative gospels being declared and embraced. Here are a few:

  • Prosperity gospel: Believe in Jesus and he will give you all you ever wanted, the big house, the flashy car and a thriving Christian ministry.
  • Moralistic gospel: In order to be in right standing with God and earn his favour you better have ensured you did not harm anyone, gave to charity and lived a good Christian life.
  • Antinomian gospel: You’re saved by grace and faith alone and don’t have to live according to God’s ways, forget the law. Don’t worry, you can do what you want, you’re already in.

These are some of the many different gospels we are challenged with today.

3/ Enslaves – One of the many consequences of allegiance to false gospels is that those who submit to them become enslaved and therefore severed from Christ. God’s grace only stretches to those who obey the true gospel and its boundaries. For this reason those who are bewitched by alternative gospels cannot be part of God’s family. If we are to live in freedom then we must ensure we submit ourselves to truth. Here are some suggested ways of doing this.

  • Boast only in the cross of Jesus the Messiah and Lord (6:14)
  • Through love serve one another (5:13)
  • Seek the favour of God and not men (1:10)

The Church and Ethnic Jews

14 Jun

I love history, especially history about Ancient Roman architecture and construction. Great Britain is soaked in Ancient Roman history in terms of its structures and buildings. If I were to locate a marvellous Roman excavation and replace it with a modern building, I’m sure many historians, organisations and even government would be horrified at my dishonour and arrogance. The new building that I constructed has written off hundreds of years of history, society and great importance to the formation of contemporary Great Britain. The better option would be to restore it to be all it was created to be.

This is similar to the Church and ethnic Israel’s position. The Jewish people have great history and importance. Paul describes many of their attributes in Romans 9 as follows: ‘theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah’.

If the Church were to come along and say, ‘we don’t need any of that, we are now the new chosen people of God, and in fact we don’t even need to consider our history or founders of our faith’ then we would be committing a great crime, being arrogant and dishonouring. God would not be happy. Rather, the people of the Messiah (the Church) must honour and not write off their heritage, history and foundations. The architecture God used in the form of Israel to bring about his redeeming purposes for his people in Christ is highly significant and must be preserved. Not only must this history be preserved, but our attitude towards the ethnic Jews of our day must also be of honour and respect. We should not be arrogant, as Paul describes in Romans 11, toward the Jewish people, ‘If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches.’ The gentiles have been grafted into Christ (the olive tree) along with believing Jews to form the church. However, just because we have been grafted in to God’s family does not mean we are better or superior to the branches that are not currently part of his family (unbelieving Jews).

Using the analogy above (though not perfect), we might say that God is in fact restoring the ancient building (rather than replacing it) under new management, namely the Messiah. The new restored part of the building (God’s family through the Messiah) should not say ‘I am a new building, better than the old one that used to exist’. Rather it should say ‘I honour the previous existing building and desire it to be renewed to the requirements of the manager’. The new restored part of the ancient building is fulfilling its destiny to be the building the architect desired it to be.

In summary:

1/ the church must recognise, honour and respect its Jewish foundations and history ensuring it is preserved and understood

2/ the church must not be arrogant toward unbelieving Jews who are not yet part of God’s family, thinking of itself as more superior

3/ the church’s desire should be for God to restore humanity (Jew and Gentile) into a commonwealth through the Messiah to be all it was designed to be

What is God doing amongst our Community of Believers?

10 Jun

I have been part of the Amblecote Christian Centre community from the age of three. During the many years I have spent involved in this community of believers God has been at work in a fundamental way.

Eight years ago there was a change in church leadership in terms of its structure and more traditional leadership style. The church community had previously relied and appointed one man as a pastor to oversee the church community, give direction and vision, preach sermons and many other duties involved in leading. However, the church leadership changed as God sought to challenge the way we thought concerning the purpose of his body. We no longer relied on one man; rather, we formed a leadership team to oversee the duties of the church fellowship. The mission and vision befitted God’s heart for our community and was ‘to equip believers to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven’. The whole community took up the mantle to be empowered to build God’s Kingdom as he looked to change the traditions to which we had become accustomed.

After a period of time God revealed in many ways our religiousness. He spoke to us clearly through scriptures such as Matthew 15:8, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” God revealed to many in the congregation that though they performed good works, were actively involved in community projects, giving and charity, their hearts were still in bondage to the world. We talked and acted like ‘good Christians’ on the outside yet inwardly our affections for self prevailed. Many also struggled with issues of self righteousness and even penance (though not overtly), trying to atone their sins by good works, therefore feeling more acceptable to God.

The further God revealed our helplessness, vulnerability and inability to keep his commandments, the more he unveiled his son Jesus to us. We slowly came to realise that our efforts and good works were no match for the work Christ had accomplished at the cross. Our need to be in control of our destinies and assurance were triumphed by Christ’s faithfulness and his suffering at Calvary.  Chapter three of Philippians promenaded itself within our midst as we understood more clearly that all our righteousness was likened to filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and our pharisaic ways were now being considered garbage (Philippians 3:8) as we sought ‘to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10-11). Our fundamentals had been shaken as God delighted in making the congregation’s foundation Christ rather than man.

As a church we embarked on a teaching series in the book of Romans as God captivated us with the truth of the gospel. The teaching could be summed up in four main categories:

1/ Individualism

Previously many had viewed the gospel and soteriology as individualistic. We believed God to be more concerned with saving individuals than vindicating his collective people. Failing to see Paul’s emphasis on community, we often risk endorsing a faith ‘that teaches our mutual interdependence into a religion of privatized piety’.[1]

Our understanding is now being transformed by the gospel that is much greater than my personal plan of salvation; the gospel affects society, politics, education, creation and us corporately as a community.

2/ Consumerism

Consumerism influences our society and culture tremendously. We pick and choose what we like when we like. Often this mentality influences how we approach Jesus and his word. As a community many would admit that our understanding of God was pick and mix, often selecting the scriptures and doctrines of Christianity we wanted to hear and discarded others that weren’t so pleasing, therefore giving us a warped view of the gospel.

Now, as we read scripture and walk together as a community we try to focus on centralising Christ and his word, ensuring we submit to the gospel holistically.

3/ Existentialism

Existentialism plays a huge role in our current world in which our individual existence thrives on feeling and experience to determine truth. God conversely challenged the church’s desire to determine truth through feeling and experience. Many of us looked for experiences of God on a Sunday morning but were duly disappointed when God ‘did not turn up’. Feeling and experience are important; however this became the sole focus.

God is currently helping us to ‘worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4:24), ensuring our understanding of the gospel is not shaped exclusively by experience and feeling but by God’s word and our faithfulness to it.

4/ Imperialism

Under previous models of leadership within the church, many believed that those in a leadership role were more superior and important, especially in terms of ministry. Many attended church on a Sunday morning and felt the position of the pastor was more important than the everyday congregational member’s role in society and working environment.

Through a change of leadership and understanding of the gospel we now seek not to construct an imperial, superior model of church membership, rather we endorse the gifting of all believers, and function to serve one another in building the Kingdom of God together under the headship of Christ who is impartial.

Conclusion

God has worked in many ways to bring the church community to the foot of the cross. We are being moulded into his image through his word. God uses many circumstances that are not always pleasant to bring us into submission to him. He is always gracious and merciful to us and we now understand more fully our ‘sonship’ and his loving ways of disciplining us as a father does his ‘son’.  God continues in Christ to bring us to the foundations of our faith, enlightening us to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. By no means are we perfect, however there is no doubt God is moving within the church community as he brings to completion the great work he started.

Bibliography

New American Standard Bible, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 1985.

Thompson, Michael B., The New Perspective on Paul, Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd, 2010.


[1] Thompson, ‘The New Perspective on Paul’, P.6