Wednesday, November 15, 2000

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

Address 3
Frustrated by Grace

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel. (Galatians 1:6)

I have already learned how important it is in your society to give the proper greetings to people and pay due respect to everyone who is at hand. St. Paul usually observed this custom in the letters to his churches. He would begin with a formal greeting and then thank God for the “saints” and for their work and witness. But in Galatians, Paul breaks the mold.

After a brief personal introduction, in which he refers to them only as “the churches of Galatia,” he jumps immediately to a word of rebuke: “I am amazed that you are deserting him who called you…” This is virtually addressing them as traitors and rebels. Not that Paul intended to disinherit and curse them all. Indeed, we shall see that he has a kind of double standard. For those who deliver and teach a false gospel, he says: “let them be anathema,” i.e., have nothing to do with them. But for those who have fallen away from the truth of the Gospel, his word is: Repent, come back.

In the past two weeks I have begun to introduce the question of what is the Gospel, what are the characteristics of a Gospel or evangelical Christian, and particularly what role justification by faith plays as the heart of the Gospel. St. Paul will focus every verse and every word in this letter in order to give a clear answer to these questions, because he is convinced that the Gospel is a wonderful new thing that has burst onto the scene of history and he is its messenger.

Conversely, for Paul those Christians who have heard the Gospel, received it into their hearts, and then fallen away from it are of all people the most to be pitied and to be warned. Paul wants every single Christian to be with him in heaven, and here in Galatia he is going to fight his opponents in hand-to-hand combat for the souls of those who believed and then were tricked into a false Gospel.

Next week I shall begin to define what the “false Gospel” is that Paul’s opponents, whom we shall call Judaizers, taught. Today, however, I wish to focus on the true Gospel, which Paul sketches out briefly yet crucially in five verses. Let’s look at his opening words more closely.

As in most letters, the author identifies himself: Paul, along with a title apostle. So I might begin a letter, “Stephen, Vice Chancellor.” Sometimes a messenger – that is what “apostle” means – would name himself and identify the king or master who sent him. So Paul goes on to say that he is an apostle, not from man nor through man but through Jesus Christ and God the Father. Right here at the beginning he makes a huge point, which separates him from his opponents and from later bishops and preachers of the Gospel. He is not a normal human messenger, but a divine messenger, like an angel on assignment.

The sender is Jesus Christ and God the Father. We Christians may not find this little phrase striking, but to Jewish ears it would seem almost blasphemous, because Paul is placing the Jewish man Jesus on the same plane as God the Father, the Great I AM. One of the earliest signs of the distinctive character of Christianity was that certain Jews began to offer worship to Jesus, an act that would surely break the commandment against idolatry – unless Jesus himself was one with God the Father.

But that is exactly the claim Paul is making. Jesus Christ and God the Father are one. Indeed he names Jesus first because that was how he came to know the true nature of the hidden God of the Old Testament. St. John expressed the same idea of the unveiling of the nature of the biblical God when he said: “No one has seen God, the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made [the Father] known” (John 1:18).

So Paul jumps right in by making clear that he is bringer of new knowledge of God. God the Father is made known in Jesus Christ, and he has confirmed this by raising him from the dead. But there is more to his revelation than this. This news is not an interesting new religious insight, some tidbit of knowledge for a spiritual elite to talk about. No, the revelation of Jesus Christ has an immediate impact on everyone, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. This revelation strikes to the heart of the question I ended with last week: “How do you justify your existence?”

Now most of you are probably accustomed to saying the Apostles’ Creed in church. In fact, we often say it so quickly and routinely that we do not even notice what we are saying. The same thing seems to have happened with the Galatians. When Paul says -

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. -

he is really reciting a little creed, a brief summary of his Gospel. Perhaps these words were part of their first catechism when they converted to Christ and were baptized. Perhaps they could even repeat it by heart the way you can sing many hymns and choruses. Probably if you asked the Galatians, “Do you believe this?” they would reply, “Of course, we’re Christians. Of course we believe it.” But they have quickly come to the point of merely paying lip-service to this gospel.

Grace to you and peace. This is Paul’s unique adaptation of what we call a “salutation line” of a standard letter, as when we write: “Dear John.” In their letters, Jews used to say “Shalom” – Peace, while Greeks used to say “Charis” – Grace. Paul puts the two greetings together: “Grace and peace.” But this is not some casual grace and peace; it is a very special grace and peace that come from not from the messenger but from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul is boiling his Gospel down to its essence here. He does not mention God the Father as Creator of heaven and earth, nor does he mention the Virgin Birth, nor Jesus’ life and ministry. He goes directly to the heart of Jesus’ coming: he gave himself up for our sins. The phrase “gave himself up” packs a powerful blow. It refers to what we call Jesus’ “passion”: his being betrayed, arrested, accused and abused, and finally crucified. But being handed over also includes his “self-emptying,” his becoming man in the first place. He who was equal to God the Father humbled himself, He who knew no sin became sin for our sake.”

Can’t you see now why Paul is so angry and worried and frustrated, like a father whose daughter goes off to the city to study at the university and becomes a “sex worker” instead, or whose son uses his tuition money to buy beer. “I am astonished, I can’t believe after all the gifts I freely gave you that you would turn around and do this…” St. Paul is saying to them.

Not after Jesus Christ has died for your sins. Most cultures including the Jewish culture know something about sin. That is why all cultures have some form of sacrifice. But here Paul is making a much greater claim: that Jesus gave himself up for the sins of the whole world, that he has done this once for all so that sacrifices need not be repeated world without end, and that he is offering us in exchange an unimaginably rich eternal life with the heavenly Father.

Paul says: Jesus died in order to deliver us from the present evil age… to the glory of God the Father. As I said, most cultures know about sin, evil, and death, and they know something about forgiveness, and life beyond the grave. I understand that in African traditional religion it is often thought that the spirit of the dead ancestor lives on for several generations in the family memory before it is finally lost. In the Gospel Paul first announced to the Galatians, he taught them that the present age is more evil and corrupt than any traditional religion could possibly deal with. No repetitions of “I’m sorry” can reconcile us to the holy God. No human funeral rites can preserve and prepare a single soul for the age to come. If there had been such a sacrifice or ritual, then it would not have been necessary for God’s Son to give himself up to death.

But Jesus Christ did come and die on the cross, and God raised him from the dead, showing that all this was according to the will of God the Father. Let us note here how the Father and the Son work together for our blessing. The Son gives himself up for us, but the Father sends the Son. The Father raises the Son from the dead, and in so doing the Son glorifies the Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever.

I hope you can now see why Paul is so amazed that the Galatians have abandoned his gospel. The word “amazed” can refer to a miracle. When Jesus did a miracle, it says: “They were all amazed.” But in Galatia it is a kind of reverse miracle. It’s like a curse or a magic spell, and Paul will later say “Who bewitched you?” (Gal 3:1). He simply cannot believe that they would give up the blessings of grace and peace that come with the Gospel for something else, for something reeking of this present evil age.

But then at the same time, maybe Paul was not taken utterly by surprise, for it is of the very heart of the Gospel of justification that it is amazing and can only be grasped by faith. So, you see, the Galatians were not especially corrupt or wicked people. They were in fact just like us: people who could put their faith in Jesus one moment and next moment walk away as if they had never really heard or understood.

Perhaps that is why Paul determined to write a letter not only to the Galatians but for all time. Perhaps that is why Paul’s letter has been preserved in Scripture for us. We need to hear Paul’s frustrated rebuke - “How could you turn so quickly from the Gospel?” - again and again ourselves. And only when we allow that rebuke to enter our ears and our heart can we renew our faith and say with overflowing hearts: “I believe in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ, who loved me and gave himself up for me…”

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

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