Tuesday, November 14, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 1:10-24

Address 4
Zeal Revealed

Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1:10)

It is truly awe-inspiring to read the accounts of the first missionaries who came to Uganda, men like Alexander Mackay the founder of the Uganda mission. Mackay was a practical man, an engineer by training, but he was also a single-minded man, and his mind was trained on the goal of building God’s kingdom. Looking at the Victorian world around him in England, Mackay commented:

Has Christianity become such a half-hearted thing that the beginning and end of it is a routine of worship and putting on a respectable appearance in the eyes of people?… May the Lord have mercy on our hardness of heart, and give us grace to devote ourselves and everything that is ours to His service alone.

Mackay’s attitude, his spirit, is what the Bible calls zeal. Zeal is a passionate commitment to God and his purposes. The zealous soul is like a magnifying glass which one turns toward the sun so that the rays may be focused on an object and set it on fire. The prototypical man of zeal in the Old Testament was named Phinehas. When Israelite men began to sleep around with foreign women, Phinehas made an example of one couple by thrusting them both through with a spear. God commended this act, saying: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was zealous [this is sometimes translated jealous] with my zeal among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my zeal” (Numbers 25:11).

The Lord Jesus himself is a model of zeal. After he had entered the temple and chased out the money-changers, his disciples remembered the verse from the Psalms: “Zeal for your house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you have fallen upon me” (John 2:17; Psalm 69:9). There is a subtle irony in this verse. Jesus himself is filled with zeal for God’s house, but he is also persecuted who think they are serving God zealously by doing so.

Now St. Paul was, from start to finish, a zealous man. This was true when he was Saul the Jew as well as later when he was Paul the apostle. As he says, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (1:14). In another letter, he describes his former life like this:

If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)

Saul was not only a Hebrew born and bred, but he claims that he kept the law of Moses perfectly (the word “blameless” actually translates “spotless”). But Saul’s crowning boast was that he persecuted the Christian church. He saw himself as a latter-day Phinehas, killing the blasphemers of the one true God.

Some people think Saul was burdened by a guilty conscience at the time of his conversion, but by his own description he was full of zeal. The book of Acts describes Saul as “breathing threats and murder” as he rode along the road to Damascus. Then everything changed:

…suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:3-6)

In our letter to the Galatians, Paul describes this experience as the time “when God was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (1:16). The key word here is the word reveal (apokalypsai). The basis for Saul’s zeal had been revelation. God had revealed himself as a “jealous God” and Phinehas, for instance, had persecuted idolaters in the name of God’s zeal. Before his conversion, Paul undoubtedly thought he was serving God’s revealed will, particularly the Law of Moses, in killing Christians (cf. John 16:2).

Now on the Damascus Road, Paul’s zeal is revealed. His zeal is revealed to be directed not against God’s enemies but against God himself. Paul describes this moment as a visionary call, as when God appeared to Jeremiah and told him he had been called before his birth to be a prophet. He also describes the event as a Resurrection appearance of Jesus, “out of time,” that is, after Jesus had ascended into heaven.

I think it is fair to say that this new revelation tore down the foundations of his former life in Judaism (that is why he can speak of it in the past tense). It almost certainly took Paul many months and even years to rebuild his understanding of God in the light of the Risen Jesus. While we can assume Paul learned the basic story of Jesus from the Christians who baptized him and took him in, he makes clear that the core truth of the revelation came from God. I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus (1:16-17).

What did Paul think about as he traveled along the road to Arabia, no longer a zealous persecutor but a penitent apostle? I think we can conclude that all the seeds of his later Gospel preaching and teaching are planted in this Damascus Road revelation.

First, there is Paul’s Christology, i.e., his doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ. “Who are you, Lord?” he asked of the blinding light. The light, which in Old Testament visions is always identified as Yahweh, now answers, “I am Jesus...” The Great I AM is one with Jesus of Nazareth! Paul is forced to recast his understanding of the Jewish Messiah. The Messiah is not David's son but Son of God, hence far greater than David ever was. Yet he is truly man, the very Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified by the Romans.

This dawning truth leads to a new soteriology (i.e., the doctrine of salvation). The voice said: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul undoubtedly found it offensive to think of a man cursed by the Jewish law and shamed on a Roman cross as worthy of God’s honour. After his conversion, Paul never denies that Jesus was cursed and crucified, but in an instant he saw that it is through these awful human judgments that God’s salvation was accomplished and God’s justice transferred to us in his place. It is for this reason that the heart of his Gospel becomes “Christ died for us, for me.”

The revealed Saviour reveals a new community, according to Paul’s new ecclesiology or doctrine of the church. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul didn’t think he was directly persecuting Jesus. Jesus was dead and gone to hell, so he thought. But now on the Damascus Road the risen Jesus says in effect, “inasmuch as you do it to my disciples you do it to me.” Paul’s wonderful notion of the Church as Christ’s very body, his claim that we are called to share in his risen life and Spirit is founded in the realization that Jesus and his people cannot be separated.

The Messiah whom Paul meets on the Damascus Road is not content to be just the Savior of the Jews. He is the cosmic Lord, seated at the right hand of Power. The missiology, or missionary imperative, of this vision follows naturally. “Go” is the operative word from on high, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” From now on, Paul will be a driven man, not in persecuting Jesus, but in bringing Good News of Jesus.

Finally, Paul’s vision of the Risen Jesus impacts his eschatology, his doctrine of the end of all things. As a Pharisee, Paul believed in a resurrection of the dead to life in a renewed land of Israel. But now he recognizes that the decisive resurrection had already occurred and that this resurrection implied a far more blessed state, life in union with the Son of God in a heavenly commonwealth, than any restored Jewish state could ever offer.

We live, in the West at any rate, in a lukewarm and lackadaisical times, where being laid back and tolerant are cardinal virtues. . The poet Yeats described our age this way: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This complacency is interrupted at times by weird and irrational acts of violence like that of the man in the United States called the Unabomber who sent letter bombs to scientists because he believed technology was corrupting the world. And then we have the Islamic “martyrs brigade” who are daily crying “Allahu akhbar” (“God is Great) as they blow themselves up along with hundreds of innocent people.

Paul’s age was a more passionate time, when the name Zealot could be worn with pride. One particular Jewish group was named for the daggers they hid under their cloaks to assassinate Roman officials. Paul himself was such a zealot, though his rage was directed not at the Romans but at the Christians.

On the Damascus Road, Paul’s zeal was revealed to be nothing more than sin. No doubt in those early days of his conversion Paul looked back on his Jewish boasting with regret and shame. More importantly, Paul began to acquire a different kind of zeal, one patterned on the way of the Cross. So he concludes his letter to the Galatians with these words: “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

May we begin this day with a zeal for God and his purposes. May we pursue this not angrily or pridefully but by “walking in the steps of his most holy life.”

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

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