Do you ever feel trapped?
I have a very vivid memory of being trapped. It was a hot summer's day and my wife locked me in the porch for the best part of the day.
Maybe I should explain! For reasons I can no longer remember, I didn't have my house keys. Suzanne had to leave for work first but got home before me, so she needed to keep her keys. Our house has two front doors - an inner one that locks itself and an outer one which needs a key to lock. So we agreed on a plan. When I left, I would shut and lock the inner door but would leave the outer door unlocked. Not ideal, but it would work.
When I came to leave I shut the inner door before realising the outer door had been locked. It would seem that old habits die hard - especially in the daze of an early morning. I was well and truly trapped! In a tiny porch. On a very hot day! It was several hours before I could contact the one and only person who had the keys to let me out. She came as quick as she could. It's a shame she didn't make it before the postman arrived - who was confused to find a dehydrated and rather agitated man trapped in the porch.
Do you ever feel trapped?
Sometimes we can be trapped by the things we are doing in our life. You want to stop doing them, but you can't. We keep doing things that are wrong and we want to stop doing those wrong things but we can't. We feel trapped. And we are trapped.
The Bible describes us as slaves. We are slaves to sin. That means we can't stop doing the bad things we do. And we are also slaves to the devil. It's like we're working for him, we're doing for him what he wants us to do. There is nothing at all that we can do to set ourselves free.
But Jesus can set us free from the slave master. He gives us freedom so that we are no longer enslaved . So that we are not slaves to our sin any more. so we don't keep doing the bad things again and again and again. and so that we don't do what the devil wants us to do anymore. Jesus sets us free and gives us new life.
And he did this when he died on the cross. When he died on the cross he paid the price to set us free from our sin. He died on the cross in our place. He paid our price to set us free from our sin. So that we are no longer trapped but we are free.
The big point of our Bible passage this morning is that we are in danger of being trapped again and abandoning the freedom we have in Christ Jesus.
Look at verse 4:
"Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery."
The slavery that this is talking about is not knowing or forgetting that Jesus' death and resurrection is our only hope, and the only reason we can stand before a holy God totally forgiven and set free from the power and punishment of sin.
The devil wants you to forget the gospel and all the implications of the gospel: that your standing with God has absolutely nothing to do with your performance for God, but it has everything to do with Jesus’ performance for you.
As we look at this passage in more detail, let me introduce or re-introduce you to the characters we meet here, and to recap for you what we've learned in our series studying this letter so far.
First we have Paul.
Paul is the key character. He wrote this letter to the church he helped start in what is modern day Turkey. We saw that in 1:1:
[From:] "Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him [Jesus] from the dead."
Paul had a very specific role - to bring them a direct message from God. A message that he didn't make up. Look at 1:11-12:
"For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ."
And we saw last time that he didn’t get his message from the other apostles but directly from the risen Jesus.
Second we have those Paul is writing to: the Church in Galatia
Paul is writing to them because they were in danger of ditching the gospel and becoming trapped again. Look at 1:6
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel."
If we read on we see who'd behind this - those he goes on to call the 'False Brothers'. v 7:
"there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ."
They insisted that what you DO matters. Of course you need to trust in Jesus and his death - but that's not enough. If you really want to be accepted by God, more is needed. Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.
Finally, we hear about the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
They are significant because the false brothers were claiming to have come from Jerusalem bringing with them the original and correct Christian message that was taught by the leaders there. They were claiming Paul's message was different to the message taught by the other apostles; that he received it from them and had then distorted it.
So much for introductions!
Paul's Second Visit to Jerusalem
In Galatians 2:1-10, Paul tells the Galatians about a second visit he made to the church leaders in Jerusalem. Let's read 2:1:
"Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentile "
He describes going to Jerusalem because of a revelation and describes it as a 'private meeting' and so I take it this is not referring to what is known as the 'Jerusalem Council' from Acts 15, rather the time the church in Antioch sent famine supplies via Paul and Barnabas to the church in Jerusalem in response to a prophecy by a man called Agabus described in Acts 11.
While he was there, Paul took the opportunity to consult more ‘officially’ with the church leaders there about his message and ministry. Why did he do this? Let's read on. v2:
"I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain."
Paul’s meeting with apostles was not because he thought 'maybe my gospel is wrong after all - I better check I've got it right'. That would make no sense, given what he's said so clearly in ch1 about his message being from God. What was he worried about?
Paul was afraid that the apostles were going to buckle on the issue of circumcision and in so doing they were going to undermine all he had given his life to doing. He wanted to protecting what he was teaching and his work among non-Jewish people. If they did not make a clear stand on insisting that the only thing needed to be made right with God was to trust in Jesus then he had laboured in vain. The false brothers were not authorized at all by Peter or the Jerusalem church, although the Jerusalem church were slow in stopping them.
Paul did something very powerful! He took with him a Greek man called Titus who had become a Christian through his preaching. v3:
"But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek."
This is genius! The fact that Titus was not forced to be circumcised was proof that the false brothers doctrine was different from the apostles’ doctrine. Titus was walking, living proof that the apostles at Jerusalem held the same beliefs as Paul- he left as he had come and they did not insist on him being circumcised. Titus was living proof for the Galatians that the false brothers were the one who taught a different gospel. The apostles gospel, like Paul's, was a gospel of grace and he would not budge on this issue. We are not saved by the rituals and traditions of men but by the cleansing blood of Christ who died on the cross to set us free. vv4-5:
"4Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— 5to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you."
Paul is absolutely clear: the other apostles added nothing to his message, they recognised the gospel he had already preached as the same gospel they were preaching. vv6-9
And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
You'll notice that Paul repeatedly refers to the Jerusalem leaders as those 'who seemed to be important'. He's not being disrespectful - he talks this way because the false brothers were contrasting Paul's gospel with those they claimed were 'real apostles'.
The point is: when Paul met them no correction was needed. There were no changes to be made. They accepted Paul and gave their full endorsement to his message.
The only difference between them was who they were focussing on - Paul to the gentiles and Peter to the Jews.
And then finally in v10 he points out that even the one thing they did urge him to do was something he was already committed to doing anyway – he didn’t even get that ‘from them':
"Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."
I have 4 ways this passage is significant.
1. The Church in Galatia needed to insist only on what the gospel required.
The big idea of the book of Galatians is that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone because of Christ alone. To add any extra requirements to the gospel destroys the gospel message and destroys the freedom we have in Christ Jesus.
Like the church in Galatia, we too should insist only on what the gospel requires or we will lead people back to slavery.
We must be careful not to preach a gospel that insists on anything else as necessary for God to accept us. What in our ‘church culture’ are we in danger of insisting on? What sort of Christians do we look down on? How do we fall into adding to what the gospel requires? Are we careful that the truth of the gospel is preserved?
How about you? Have you forgotten that simple gospel message?
2. Paul and Barnabas carefully considered the context when they preached the gospel
We too must take into account the context in which we preach the gospel so that we make sure we communicate accurately and faithfully. We need to pay special attention when communicating to those from a different culture to ensure we do not impose aspects of our own culture on them as if they were a part of the gospel itself.
That's certainly true in the work we do as a church in reaching out to international students from all over the world with the good news of Jesus. For example, we must not send them back thinking the way we do things here is the only right way to do church. We need to be careful to distinguish between primary gospel issues and secondary issues that we can and should be flexible over. We need to be very clear on the gospel and alert to even the most subtle of cultural differences.
9 years ago during my 1st sabbatical, I spent time considering options for further theological training. I came across some very strange advice. I was told that where I was going to end up should decide what sort of training I got. The standard advice was: if I was going to stay in this country and be ordained then I needed top-level training: a rigorous Bible college course that included both Greek and Hebrew. 2 years would be the very minimum I should consider. If I was planning to be a missionary and work cross-culturally then I didn't need all that: 6 months of more practical training would be enough.
I wasn't convinced! The risk of the gospel being lost in translation mean that more care is needed when communicating to those from a different background to ensure the truth of the gospel is preserved.
That will be true of any cross-cultural work we do as a church and as we pray and prepare for the new work at St Joseph's in Benwell we need to pay careful attention to this issue. There is a real danger we will impose the way we doing things here without appropriately adapting to those we hope to reach. I think that will mean identifying and sending some of our best people to make sure that doesn't happen. we need those gifted by God, like Paul was, to carefully consider the context when they preach the gospel.
3. Paul identifies and apposed False Brothers
We too should oppose those who although they teach that you need to trust in Jesus and his death - also teach that's not enough.
To teach that what Jesus did on the cross is not enough to save us is wrong and it is deadly. To lose your grip on the true gospel is to desert and lose Christ himself and the salvation and blessings he gives. Paul goes to war against them and we need to do that too. Who today adds to the gospel message. In what ways are you tempted to add to the gospel of Jesus Christ? How much do you care when you hear someone changing the gospel message?
4. The church in Jerusalem & the other apostles were united in the gospel
One of the powerful effects of Paul's visit to Jerusalem was for everyone involved to see that they were entrusted with exactly the same gospel and that it was the same God who was at work in them all. This led to a powerful unity in the gospel.
That is one of the most wonderful effects of having a diverse church family - with a wide range of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and personalities - all united in the same gospel message.
We are also united in the gospel with churches all across our city, this country and indeed all over the globe. We need to recognise other gospel ministers and ministries as our brothers and sisters in Christ - however different they may be on secondary issues. It doesn't mean we need to always do everything together, but it does mean we need to find ways to express that unity with very different gospel ministries in different places - as we do already.
For Paul and the gentile churches it meant taking a collection for the Jewish church when they faced a severe famine. What could it mean for us? Perhaps for us too, demonstrating our unity is tied up in remembering to care for the poor.
We've seen that Jesus sets us free by his death on the cross. We need to avoid the danger of being trapped again and abandoning the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. We must oppose those who themselves have abandoned the gospel message and unite with those who hold firm to it. May God help us as we seek to do that!