What is your first instinct when you are criticized? Or what is your first response when you hear an idea that you hate?
It often is to attack the person or group who said it, isn’t it? If we find fault with them, we don’t have find fault with ourselves. If we can assault the character of the person who offended us, then it disqualifies what they have to say. This is the old strategy of attacking the message by attacking the messenger.
Many of us remember when we first shared our faith with our family or friends. We said openly that our salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And we often said this only to hear in response, “Who do you think you are? Who has brainwashed you? What makes you think you know more than our priest? I guess some people need a crutch.”
If you want to attack the message then it’s a good strategy to attack the messenger. No one knew that more than Paul the apostle.
Paul was the first true missionary apostle to the nations. His message was clear: salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Souls were being saved, and churches were being established.
Then false teachers infiltrated Paul’s churches. They came with a ‘Jesus-plus’ message. They falsely claimed the support of the apostles back in Jerusalem. These false teachers were saying that a ‘yes’ to Jesus means a ‘yes’ to the whole Jewish law. Each Christian must observe every one of God’s 613 Old Testament commands, from circumcision to holy days and food laws. If you’re going to be a true Christian, then you need to be Jewish Christian.
These false teachers were claiming that Paul was a false apostle promoting an easy gospel motivated by his desire for the approval of others. He was a ‘b-grade’ apostle who had gone rogue by corrupting the message of Christ. These false teachers were re-writing history, so Paul re-tells the Galatians the true story.
Paul was an easy target. He wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles. He only met Jesus after the Lord had risen from the dead. Paul also had a reputation for killing Christians. All this raised the question—is Paul a legitimate apostle? So let’s have Paul tell us his own story. For Paul says that his message of salvation came directly from the risen Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (NIV)
There are no middle men when it comes to Paul and Christ. God revealed his Son directly to Paul on the road to Damascus.
Paul not only was saved but he was given a job—to preach Christ to the nations. Galatians 1:15-16:
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. (NIV)
We would probably have expected Paul to say that God had revealed his Son to him so that he might be saved. But Paul doesn’t say that. He says that God revealed his Son to him so that he might preach him to the nations. Paul was both converted and commissioned at the same. He was saved and put into service in the same moment. And Paul is clear that God called him by his grace. Paul never forgot that he was the worst of sinners. He went from persecuting the faith to preaching the faith, and he did so as the worst of sinners.
Paul is a reminder to every person here today that you can only ever be the second worst sinner. You are not the “worst sinner”—Paul is. The point is that if Jesus can save Paul—the worst of sinners—he can save you. Paul never forgot that he needed to be saved more than anyone else. No one is so bad they cannot be rescued by Christ. No one is so good they don’t need to be rescued by Christ.
But whether you think you are good or bad, I plead with you too book into our ‘Explaining Christianity’ course. We have such good news to share with you.
Paul’s message of salvation came directly from Christ. And this meant that Paul did not get his gospel or his apostleship from the other apostles. For the next surprise in Paul’s account of his own conversion and calling is that his first instinct was to not consult any human being. Galatians 1:16-17:
[…] my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. (NIV)
Once Jesus commands you, you don’t need a second opinion. Instead of going east to Jerusalem where the apostles were, Paul immediately went south to Arabia, and then back to Damascus where it all began. We know from the book of Acts that Paul was preaching his heart out for Jesus from the very first week of becoming a Christian.
You don’t need anyone to give you permission to share Christ. Once you’re saved, you speak. It took Paul a full three years before he finally went to Jerusalem. It wasn’t that far, only 276 kilometers. And when he did get around to getting to Jerusalem, he was only there for fifteen days. And while he was there he only met two other apostles, Peter and James. No other members of the Jewish church met with Paul during his first visit to Jerusalem as a Christian. All that they had heard was that the man who had been killing Christians was now preaching Christ.
Then Paul says that it was another fourteen years before he went back to Jerusalem. Christianity is not built on one man’s private experience. The Christian faith rests on the many eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, and Paul is just one of those. But Paul is thumping this point, that God revealed his message directly to him and commissioned him to be an apostle. Paul’s authority was not a delegated authority.
As a pastor of MBM, I only have a delegated authority. I was saved at twenty, encouraged to go into ministry at 26, I went to Moore Theological College at 27, studied for four years, and then I started MBM. Along the way, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney required four years worth of reports on me by various ministers and members of the congregations of which I was a member. I was interviewed each year by at least three or four people for my suitability, including a regional bishop and the archbishop. And then my name was taken to my congregation to see if there was not anything else against me. Only then was I ordained. Even now, I am licensed to do this work by the Archbishop of Sydney. In this way, I have only a delegated authority.
But it was not so with Paul. Christ himself directly called Paul to be an apostle on the Damascus Road. Paul was in a class of his own.
When ministers and Christians don’t see Paul’s calling as unique, they make a big mistake. For then they don’t see the importance of taking counsel with others. They begin to say that the Lord told them to do this or that—even though it’s surprising that God did not tell anyone else—and then the whole thing falls flat on its face.
Paul was uniquely called by Jesus as an apostle and commanded to preach the gospel to the nations. And the rest of us in ministry were not called in the same way and we don’t carry his authority.
We’ve just welcomed our new staff member, Steve. When I caught up with Steve recently I said to him, “Brother, I don’t want your loyalty, just your respect. Be loyal to Jesus. This church and the gospel is bigger than either of us.”
After fourteen years of preaching, Paul eventually went to Jerusalem. Paul did this because God told him to. Paul didn’t want his mission work to be undercut by Jewish false teaching putting pressure on his people to get circumcised. So Paul went to Jerusalem to make sure that the apostles at Jerusalem were sharing the same gospel that he was. In Galatians 2:2, Paul says:
I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. (NIV)
Paul’s gospel message was not from the apostles, but it was in line with the gospel of the other apostles. They were all on the same page. That was what Paul discovered when he went to Jerusalem. And so any false teacher who was saying otherwise was telling a lie.
And to prove the point, Paul took Titus with him to Jerusalem. Titus was a missionary co-worker with Paul, but he was not circumcised. So the question then was, “Would the apostles in Jerusalem make Titus get circumcised?” Would the apostles stand for the truth of the gospel, that circumcision is not necessary to be saved, even when false teachers pushed their way into the private meeting and put pressure on them? And the good news is that both Paul and the Jerusalem apostles stood firm together, Galatians 2:5:
We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. (NIV)
This is critical to understand: what was at stake at this meeting was the truth of the gospel and the freedom of the gospel. Paul’s was a fight for freedom.
Imagine how different our church would be if Paul had lost that battle? What it would have meant was that before we baptize a male teenager—like we did last weekend—we would have to ensure that every male had been circumcised. Ouch! Sorry guys, it’s off to the doctor for the snip before we can baptize you and call you a child of God. But thankfully, all the apostles were on the same page, as Galatians 2:9 tells us:
James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. (NIV)
The truth and freedom of the gospel was guarded. And so they lived happily ever after—well, not really. False teachers are like a dog with a bone. They don’t take no for an answer.
The false teachers lost that battle in Jerusalem, but they would come back again when Paul was in Antioch. This time it would not go so well.
And this tells us that we need to fight and keep fighting for the truth and freedom of the gospel—not just in what we say but in how we act as well. We are always fighting for freedom. For Peter got the truth right in Jerusalem, but Peter got the behaviour wrong in Antioch. Galatians 2:11-14:
When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (NIV)
The apostles are the foundation of the church. But for a brief moment there was a crack in the foundation—like that sink hole in New Zealand. This was the biggest conflict that the world had ever seen. Forget World War 2! This was a rift between two apostles, and the truth of the gospel was at stake. False teachers came from Jerusalem to Antioch and had put pressure on Peter to withdraw from associating and eating with Christians who were not circumcised. The surprise was that Peter—who held his ground in Jerusalem—was not holding his ground here. To make matters worse, no one except for Paul was holding their ground—even Barnabas, who was with Paul and Paul’s co-worker, had folded like a deck of cards. Paul was the last man standing. And he was standing for the message that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
At this moment in the history of the church, the truth of the gospel was at stake. Paul is not telling this awkward story to justify himself. Something much bigger was at stake—the truth and freedom of the gospel. The salvation of the world was at stake.
We still have to guard the gospel of grace. For example, baptism is a God given sign of union with Christ, but it doesn’t save. There are two groups we won’t baptize at MBM—those who don’t put their trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, and those who think they have to be baptized to be saved. We treat baptism as an obedient act—there’s no problem there. But treat it like a salvation act and we won’t do it.
What happened with Peter was hypocrisy of the highest order, because it was the hypocrisy of believers, Galatians 2:13:
The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (NIV)
In that moment, I don’t think Peter changed his message. He had changed his behaviour. This was so important that Paul condemned Peter in public: “You hypocrite!” Peter was enjoying the freedom of the gospel, but by his behaviour he was not letting others enjoy the freedom of the gospel. Peter was enjoying the privileges of the new covenant by eating pork, but then when the false teachers came he was acting like an old covenant Jew by pulling away from Christians who were not circumcised. These were Christians who Christ had bought with his own blood. This was not about being rude—it was about not acting in line with the truth of the gospel of grace.
How we conduct relationships is ultimately a gospel matter. How we relate is as important as what we teach. We undermine the gospel as much by our actions as in our teaching. If I preach the gospel of grace but only talk to my own kind, I’m guilty of not acting in line with the gospel. If I refuse to be reconciled to a brother or sister in Christ, I stand condemn with Peter.
If Paul had lost this battle, no one would be saved. Christianity would be just another legalistic religion. But I think the truth of the gospel has often been lost. We evangelicals are strong on the truth of the gospel, but we speak in a way about our Pentecostal brothers like they were not in fellowship with us. The error is that we treat the Corinthians problem like it is the Galatian problem. I felt the need to repent of that sin years ago. How easy it is to be pressured and fear humans.
So why did Peter fail the test and Paul didn’t? One reason was fear.
But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
Peter feared men while Paul feared God. The way we guard the gospel of grace is by holding to the truth and acting in line with the truth. That battle starts today, in those who you gravitate toward and those who you avoid.
May we grasp—even if it is for the first time—that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. May we teach it clearly, believe it sincerely, and act on it accordingly. May we never undermine the truth and freedom of the gospel, by our words and deeds. May we never withhold fellowship in the gospel from anyone in Christ, either inside or outside MBM.
In the name of Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.