Monday, November 13, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 2:1-14

Address 5
Compelling Truth

“If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews” (Galatians 2:14)

Last week I examined the nature of zeal for God, most particularly the zeal overwhelmed and then transformed Saul the Jew so that he became a Christian and an apostle to the Gentile world. At the heart of this zeal, I argued, was a revelation. Paul later described it in his letter to the Galatians as the moment “when God was pleased to reveal his Son to me…” (Galatians 1:10).

Today we are going to see how this revelation leads Paul to be zealous not only in preaching the Gospel to the unevangelized but also leads him boldly to oppose the heirs of the Old Covenant, the Jews, and even “messianic” Jews like James, Barnabas, and Peter. The key phrase St. Paul uses in our passage, which he repeats twice, is the truth of the Gospel (verses 5 and 14) and the complement of this phrase is the little word compel, which he also repeats twice (verses 3 and 14).

I wonder if you have heard the expression of something being a compelling truth. A compelling truth, as opposed to an accidental truth, is a necessary truth that forces further implications on a person. For instance, the horrible truth about AIDS is that if a person is diagnosed with the HIV virus, he is going to die sooner rather than later. This disease, of course, is a subset of a more general compelling truth, that we are all going to die, we are all walking around with a “death gene,” because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was compelled to rethink his whole understanding of God and his own standing with God. In all these cases, the truth that God revealed to Paul on the Damascus Road forced him to “repent,” which literally means “change one’s mind.”

Above all, Paul was compelled to rethink totally the meaning of the Law. For a Jew, the Torah or Law of Moses was the chief source of identity and a chief source of pride and delight. “Oh, how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day”, says the Psalmist. This is the spirit of Judaism, and it had been the compelling truth that motivated Saul the Pharisee to persecute the church.

But there is another sense in which the Law was compelling. It is of the very nature of law that it forces obedience. We have a saying in the United States: “There are only two things in life that are inevitable: death and taxes. You cannot say, “I do not wish to pay taxes this year,” or “I think taxes are too high; I’ll just pay half of what is due.” No, if you do not pay the full amount of your taxes, you will be taken to jail.

This was the attitude of the Jews, and still is among Orthodox Jews, toward the 623 commandments of the Law of Moses. They saw the Law as a yoke, which compels oxen to pull the plough, but they regarded this yoke positively. The obligation of the Law was seen as a delight rather than a curse. Law-keeping was the prime virtue of the Jews, which explains why Paul had been so enraged against the Christians for following a man who had been executed under both Jewish and Roman law as a criminal.

Now let us turn to our passage. In this section of Galatians, Paul is recounting the events since his conversion in order to establish that he is an independent apostle, not one whose gospel derives from the other apostles. In doing this, he stops at two crisis points in which the compelling truth of the Gospel led him to oppose those who were trying to hold on to the compelling demands of the Law. Let us look at each of these crises.

The first crisis occurred when Paul went up to Jerusalem bringing Titus, one of his Gentile converts. Perhaps Paul was bringing Titus as a kind of first-fruits of his mission preaching. “Look here,” he could say, “God is opening his grace to people like this man here.” But clearly the arrival of the former Pharisee Saul, now Paul, along with a man who either by dress or accent was a “Gentile sinner” as Jews called them, caused quite a stir.

“Just what we suspected,” some of his former colleagues, the Pharisees, may have said. “Paul has become a Greek-lover. He has sold out our heritage.”

“No, Paul has not sold out our ancient faith,” Peter and James may have answered. “He still observes the traditions of our fathers. Note how he has come up to celebrate the feast at the Temple. We followers of Jesus Messiah are still good Jews. We are simply bringing in the harvest of the nations, as the prophets predicted for the last days.”

“If we are good Jews, if Paul is bringing Gentiles into the covenant,” one group of disciples argued, “then let them be circumcised with the covenant sign. This will show our fellow Jews that we have not abandoned the Way of Torah.”

Paul himself describes this last group as “false brethren brought in to spy on the freedom we have in the Gospel.” Today scholars call them “Judaizers,” i.e., people who believed that the Gospel of Jesus in no way removed the obligation to keep the Law. The Judaizers’ attitude toward Gentile converts was: “if they want to come into the covenant, let them put on the yoke as we have.”

Circumcision was the covenant sign given to Abraham (Genesis 17). It was a dramatic scar in the flesh, marking one as a Jew for ever. In some areas of Uganda, I believe, circumcision is still a dramatic rite of passage to manhood, when a young man may even be compelled to be circumcised. One can imagine Paul’s horror when the Judaizers sought to carry Titus away to be circumcised. Even worse, the apostles themselves wavered for a moment. Why not let him be circumcised, they thought, since that would quiet some of the criticism of their new movement.

To this kind of compromise thinking, Paul says, “we did not yield submission even for a moment.” Paul was not going to allow his fellow apostles to get away with shoddy thinking, but his argument took narrative form, as he retold the stories of his mission preaching. As the apostles listened to Paul’s accounts of Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus without taking up the yoke of the Law, they knew he was right. Paul puts it this way: “When they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship.” Therefore Titus was not compelled to be circumcised, and crisis #1 had passed.

Crisis #2 followed some time later “when Peter came to Antioch. Apparently, the Judaizers had a table fellowship there, a “Jews only” club, where the food was kosher and non-Jews were, well, not on the invitation list. Peter seems to have come to Antioch wanting to be “all things to all people.” He probably visited Gentile congregations and ate their food without any scruple. Apparently he also visited the Judaizers’ club, and they challenged him to justify his breaking the Law of Moses. At which point, he “drew back.” And when Peter wavered - “out of fear,” Paul claims - other Jewish Christians, and even Paul’s companion Barnabas, joined him.

Have you ever heard of a “slippery slope” argument? Once you start with a false premise, you slide step by step down into the mud pit. What would have happened if Paul had allowed the apostles to restore the compelling character of the Law? At first no doubt both Jewish and Gentile Christians would have said hello – “Grace and peace” – as they passed along the street. But never again would a Gentile set foot into a Jewish home, or a Jew share a polluted meal with a Gentile. And before you knew it, Jewish Christians would revert to being more Jewish than Christian, and Gentile Christians would be seen as “not real Christians.”

Paul could foresee that the end result of Peter’s compromise would be to restore the compulsion the Law, to exclude Gentiles from salvation, and to deny the new revelation which Paul had received that a person, whether Jew or Gentile, “is not justified by works of the Law by through faith in Jesus Christ.” He knew that this issue was the barricade where he must fight to the death, that if he ever gave in on this point, the battle for faith and for the Gentiles would be lost.

When I was a student at university, one of my best professors was Jew by birth. He spoke of “great alternatives” which one might live by. A “great alternative” is a worldview, a whole pattern of belief and behavior that follows from it. It is a compelling truth. Judaism is one of the great alternatives, given by God to his Old Covenant people. Paul himself had been convinced that walking in the Law was the path of life.

But on the road to Damascus, God revealed to him another alternative, another compelling truth – what he calls the truth of the Gospel and what I have referred to as the truth about justification. In the next passage in Galatians, Paul is going to sum up neatly and for all time what the heart of that truth is.

Come back next week and we shall learn more about this great alternative.

These eleven expositions were addressed to students at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, in the Fall of 2000.

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