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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)

Exploring the gospel – The gospel in the Old Testament

12 Jun

The gospel is often presented as a ‘New Testament’ phenomenon with a huge chasm between its counterpart ‘the Old Testament’. It is offered as a new message, bringing a seeming divide between the Ancient Jewish/Gentile and first-century Jewish/Pagan worlds. Was this the case concerning the gospel in the days of the likes of Isaiah? Is the gospel present in the Old Testament, and if so, is this the gospel message personified in Jesus the Messiah?

700 years before Jesus’ ministry on earth the prophet Isaiah emerges amongst an exiled Jewish people who desire desperately for God to vindicate them and to rid them of evil that manifested itself in forms of oppression, injustice and poverty. Their beloved temple had been desecrated and its creator God had seemingly withdrawn. Their world seemed to be in major disorder, their land desolate and government corrupt. Israel had failed to be a light and redeeming nation, there seemed to be no hope. This sets the scene for the announcement of ‘good news’. Isaiah proclaims as follows in chapter 40 and 52:

Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of good news,
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of good news;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (40.9)

How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who announces [b]peace
And brings good news of [c]happiness,
Who announces salvation,
And says to Zion, “Your God [d]reigns!” (52.7)

These scriptures speak of God returning to Zion and returning his people from exile. The good news is to be announced, declaring ‘here is your God’, ‘your God reigns’. God is creation affirming, he is coming to restore his earth by becoming King, by reigning on earth as he does in heaven.

N T Wright states, ‘When their [Israel’s] god, YHWH, acted within history to deliver his people, the spurious gods of the heathen would be defeated. If and when YHWH set up his own king as the true ruler, his true earthly representative, all other kingdoms would be confronted with their rightful overlord.’

The hope of the gospel had been proclaimed through Isaiah, that God would send his messenger to declare God King of all by bringing forth justice.

So is this the same gospel we see proclaimed in the New Testament?

The good news is announced in and through the Messiah to Israel as he gathers disciples unto himself. Jesus presents throughout his life the Kingdom of God through word and deed as he heals the sick and raises the dead, affirming God’s creation and restoring God’s people unto himself. As the climax of Christ’s death and resurrection unfolded, many of his follower’s hopes would have dwindled. Their longing for restoration, vindication, freedom from exile, oppression, and purging of evil had been dashed as they saw their beloved teacher and hopeful Messiah overcome, yet again, by the imperial pagan powers they longed to be freed from. But, the story did not end there.

This Messiah who looked in certain defeat, gloriously and authentically rose from the powers of death. The King could not be overcome by evil, rather the declaration that ‘God reigns’ was confirmed eternally. ‘God is King of this world you belong to, and as you follow this announcement your belief and confession grants you to become part of the King’s redeeming, earth affirming, and creation dwelling family.’ The gospel spoken by Isaiah of peace, happiness and salvation becomes very real as God continues to redeem his creation through his reign. The world that is in turmoil, conflict and chaos is reordered through the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

The gospel therefore is continuous throughout all scripture, New and Old. The good news is declared all the way through the Old Testament and points to the climactic appearance of the Messiah, who will one day return with an even fuller climax to establish his Kingdom, renew his creation and grant his sons and daughter’s peace, happiness and salvation from this present evil age.

Sources:

http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Gospel_Theology_Galatians.pdf

 

Exploring the gospel – Pope Benedict XVI Definition

6 Jun

Benedicto_XVI,_2011

Over the past few weeks and months I’ve realised how little I understand the gospel. The natural and simple question that came to mind this week is ‘what is the gospel?’

The word is used so often in Christian, and even non Christian circles that it’s true essence and meaning is deprived, leaving our understanding a little malnourished.

So, I have begun a voyage to explore the gospel somewhat further and therefore feed my malnourished understanding, hopefully making it a bit healthier.

Interestingly, after a little research, I found out that the word gospel in English originally derives its etymology from the Anglo-Saxon translation ‘godespell’ or ‘godspell’ being a compound of two differing words: god (God) and spell (tidings or story). Godspell was later translated to gospel and meant ‘the story concerning god’.

How fascinating? Well, I found it interesting anyway. The word gospel seems to have been lost in translation, and I wonder how much we really understand its meaning to be ‘the story of God’. When I think of the word ‘gospel’ I often imagine an evangelist preaching on a street corner ‘hell fire’ and ‘brimstone’, condemning people to the eternal bottomless pit of endless suffering. Or people shoving leaflets in my hand, bribing and blackmailing me with strange information about a God that doesn’t seem in touch with reality. How about the classic alter call? That surly connects in my mind to the word gospel – ‘put your hand up and receive Jesus into your heart’. I wonder if this is the gospel we hear about in Matthew’s writings, or the good news we read from Paul.

After a quick Google search for the word gospel (cheating I know), I found that Trevin Wax from the gospel coalition had compiled a long list of Christian definitions by persons such as N T Wright and John Piper.  After reading several excellent definitions, I came across, in my opinion, a fantastic elucidation of the gospel, unexpectedly through my naivety, written by Pope Benedict XVI:

“The term has recently been translated as ‘good news.’ That sounds attractive, but it falls far short of the order of magnitude of what is actually meant by the word evangelion. This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world…. The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a changing of the world for the better.

“When the Evangelists adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this: What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here – a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk but reality…. the Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech – not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform. Mark speaks of the ‘Gospel of God,’ the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place. For here it is the real Lord of the world – the Living God – who goes into action.

“The core of the Gospel is this: The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

– Pope Benedict XVI, from Jesus of Nazareth, pgs. 46-47.

There is so much to comment on in this quotation; however I will try to keep it brief and point out a few misnomers concerning the current understanding of the gospel in contrast to the gospel the Pope describes:

1/ We have lost the magnitude of what is meant by the Greek word evangelion – the meaning of the word gospel has become so dull in our understanding that we know little of its power, being reduced to the ‘hellfire’ message we often hear in the street today. The magnitude and the audaciousness of the message led many to be persecuted and martyred. To defiantly declare to emperors someone else other than them was Lord and Saviour was most certainly not attractive. I wonder if I declare in God’s story through me that Jesus is Lord and Saviour of the world.

2/ The gospel isn’t just information, its transformation – the gospel isn’t solely information giving, compelling leaflets and attractive church youth groups. The gospel is the power of salvation to those who believe. It is action, not through self righteousness but through the transforming act of the life, death and resurrection of the son of God.

3/ The gospel announces that Jesus is Lord and Saviour of the world – though not wrong, the gospel is so much more than a commitment to Jesus at a meeting. It’s a declaration that Jesus is Lord, which the current rulers, leaders and governments who promise ‘peace and safety’, who announce the ‘hope of justice’, and guarantee ‘blessings for the poor’ can’t perform. Only in the story of Christ is there hope for the world.

A bit much for a Thursday evening, but suffice to say, I will continue on the journey to explore this gospel of which I haven’t even touched the surface. Come and join me in submitting to the word, and ask ‘what is the gospel?’