A while back someone in our church asked if I knew anything about a group called the International Church of Christ. And I said, ‘Yes, why?’ And the answer was that she was feeling disturbed by a conversation with one of their members, who’d quizzed her about whether she’d been baptised and how and who’d done it. And he’d basically said that unless people were baptised ‘properly’ (by which he meant by his church), they were still not accepted by God – whatever anyone else might tell them. And she was a very new Christian, so no wonder she was disturbed. Because an experience like that leaves you asking things like: ‘Well, who should I believe? This preacher or that preacher? This church or that church? And have I been foolish to trust the people I have believed – accepting their version of Christianity as the right one? And how can I be sure that what I believe really has put me right with God?’
Well, those are the questions that the Christians in Galatia were asking, and that’s why Paul wrote them his letter to the Galatians, which we’re looking at on Sunday mornings. And the first part is all about who we should believe and why. So you might have faith in Jesus, but feel worried that you don’t have good reasons for it, and wobbly when you’re challenged about it. Well, this morning’s passage is for you. Or you might simply be looking into Christianity, and worried that you’re just being asked to believe, to ‘have faith’, when what you need is evidence i> on which to believe that God is there. Well, this morning’s passage is for you.
So would you turn in the Bible to Galatians chapter 1, and look down to v6, where the apostle Paul writes:
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— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (vv6-7)
So, Paul had brought the gospel – the Christian message – to this area called Galatia. These people had come to faith in Jesus. Paul had moved on. And then some new people had arrived, calling themselves Christians, but bringing a very different message about what was necessary to be sure of God’s acceptance. So it was like the International Church of Christ rocking up and troubling that woman I mentioned at the start. So I’m going to call these new people ‘the troublemakers’. And the Galatians were asking, ‘Who should we believe?’ And in chapter 1, you can tell that Paul is answering what the troublemakers were saying about him in order to undermine the Galatians’ confidence in him. And the troublemakers were saying something like this:
‘Look, to know what you should believe, you need to listen to the apostles who were actually with Jesus when he was on earth – Peter and the others. Because Paul only became an apostle later and he got his message from them. And you need to realise: he’s guilty of changing the message to make it more acceptable to you non-Jews. You see, Paul’s told you that to be accepted by God and please God, all you need is to trust in Jesus and then live for him without having to take on the Old Testament (OT) law. But that’s not true. So you do now need to start keeping the OT law – in particular, to get circumcised, because that’s always been the outward mark of being in relationship with God.’
That’s what the troublemakers were saying. So in Galatians, the first thing Paul had to do was to say, ‘I did not get my message or my ministry from the other apostles. I got them directly from the risen Jesus.’ So, I’ve got two headings this morning:
Firstly, THE GOSPEL WE BELIEVE RESTS ON JESUS’ RESURRECTION
Look on to Galatians 1, v11:
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 [by Peter or the other apostles], but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (v11-12)
Now what did Paul mean by ‘a revelation of Jesus Christ’? Well, turn back to Acts 26, and v9, where Paul is up in front of a Roman governor and a Jewish king, telling the story of how Jesus was revealed to him:
“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints [ie, Christians] in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
“In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26.9-18)
So up to that point, Paul (also known as Saul) had been so anti-Christian as to make Richard Dawkins look positively tame. But then the resurrected Jesus made a final ‘one-off’ appearance to Paul. And in that moment, Paul learned the three fundamental things that make up the gospel:
• First, he learned that Jesus is Lord.
In some way I can’t get my head round, Paul was allowed to see beyond time and space to the resurrected Jesus in his heavenly glory. And in that moment, he realised that the man he thought had been rightly crucified for making blasphemous claims to be the Son of God was the Son of God. He realised that Jesus had been right all along, and that he had been wrong all along.
And although we encounter Jesus today through the Bible – not through resurrection appearances like this – that’s basically the first thing that happened in the process of me becoming a Christian. I realised that, so far, I’d completely ignored the person who should have been right at the centre of my life – and that I was therefore deeply in the wrong with him. And I wonder if you can relate to that, yet – whether you can say, ‘Jesus is Lord and I am not’?
• The second thing Paul learned is that Jesus is amazingly gracious.
Up to this moment, Paul had been hunting Christians to death. And when he asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ the answer was, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’ So Jesus was saying to Paul, ‘It’s me you ultimately hate; it’s members of my body you’re ultimately hurting and killing. All your sin is ultimately against me, Paul.’ But what does the risen Lord Jesus then say to him? He basically says, ‘On your feet, because I’m forgiving you all that, I’m having you back, and you’re going to serve me by taking that message of forgiveness to the world.’
Jesus is amazingly gracious. I almost said, ‘unbelievably gracious’ – because in the face of your own sin and self-knowledge, this is the thing at the heart of Christian faith that I think is hardest to believe. The eighteenth century pastor and hymn writer John Newton began life as a slave trader. He was often drunkenly violent and was responsible for the suffering, sexual abuse and death of many African slaves in his possession. But like Paul he discovered that even he could be forgiven, which is why his most famous hymn begins, ‘Amazing grace…’ Whatever you’ve done, whatever the people you’re trying to share your faith with have done, Jesus is able and willing to forgive it all – whatever it is. I wonder if you believe that, yet?
• The third thing Paul learned is that Jesus is for everyone.
On the one hand, that means he’s true for everyone – because things that happen in history are true for everyone. E.g., it’s true for everyone that David Cameron became Prime Minister through the last election. And you may say, ‘I’m not a Tory type and I don’t believe in him, I don’t want him to be Prime Minister.’ But he is: it’s true because it happened. And similarly, Jesus became the rightful Lord of everyone through his resurrection back to heaven. And that’s also true for everyone. So when people say to me, ‘Well, personally I’m not the religious type – but I’m glad your belief helps you,’ I say, ‘But it’s true whether or not you’re the ‘religious type’ (which, incidentally, I’m not). And it’s not just ‘my belief’ – it would be just as true even if I personally didn’t believe it, because it really happened – look at the evidence in the Bible.’ So Jesus is true for everyone.
But on the other hand, Jesus is also needed by everyone. So in this final ‘one-off’ resurrection appearance to Paul, Jesus said, ‘I’m sending you to the Gentiles.’ Ie, ‘I’m not just sending you to Jewish people like you, but to everyone else – atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, very moral, very immoral – anyone and everyone. Because whatever they think about themselves and their own goodness and their own religion (if they have one), they still all need forgiving to be put right with God – and that only happens through me,’ says Jesus.
So Jesus is true for everyone and needed by everyone. I wonder if you’ve faced up to that, yet?
Well let’s now turn back to Galatians 1 and v12 again. Paul says:
For I did not receive [my message] from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (v12)
So he’s saying to the Galatians, ‘Don’t believe the picture the troublemakers have painted. The true picture is that I got my message direct from Jesus in that final, ‘one-off’ resurrection appearance on the Damascus Road.’
But with the troublemakers sowing doubts about Paul, the Galatians would have been wondering, ‘Can we really believe that? What’s the evidence for that?’ And Paul answers that question next, v13:
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. [I.e., ‘I did not get my message or my ministry from the other apostles, because I was preaching for years in Arabia and Damascus before I’d even met any of them.]
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. (vv13-24)
So what changed Saul from someone who persecuted Christians to death, into someone who preached Jesus, and as a result was persecuted to death himself? What explains that, if not the resurrection of Jesus? And that goes for the other apostles, as well. When Jesus was crucified, it all but destroyed their faith in him. And yet six weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion, they were preaching him as the rightful Lord of all, and kept preaching him even when they started to be persecuted for it, even when they started to be killed for it. What explains that if not the resurrection of Jesus? That’s the question you’ve got to answer satisfactorily if you want to walk away from Christianity saying, ‘There’s nothing in it. I can safely ignore it.’
Backing off all that detail, the point to notice is that Paul didn’t say, ‘Look, just believe me; just ‘have faith’.’ Instead, he gives reasons for believing – he says, ‘Look at the evidence that I saw the resurrected Jesus – look at how I changed from persecutor to preacher.’ And that’s typical of the whole Bible. It doesn’t come at us saying, ‘Look, just believe; just ‘have faith’.’ It says, ‘Look at the evidence that God has revealed himself in events that really happened – above all, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.’
So if you’re just looking into Christianity, we’re not saying, ‘Please pack away your brain and ‘just believe’.’ We’re saying, ‘Please apply your brain to the evidence in the Bible and ask yourself, ‘Is this really true? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is he really the Son of God?’ And if you are a Christian, you need to learn that evidence, so you don’t wobble every time your faith is challenged, and so you can talk about Jesus more confidently.
So that’s the main point that Paul was making in this morning’s passage: the gospel we believe rests on Jesus’ resurrection. Just to end with, I want to make a secondary point from what he says about his conversion in v15. So,
Second, PAUL’S CONVERSION IS AN EXAMPLE OF GOD’S WISE SOVEREIGNTY OVER OUR LIVES
Just look down again to v15, where Paul talks about:
when he [which is referring to God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me... (v15-16)
So Paul is saying, ‘Before I even existed, God decided that he would intervene in my life and turn me back from my rebellion against him.’ And if you’re a Christian, it’s for the same reason. It’s because before you even existed, God decided to intervene in your life to bring you into relationship with himself. It’s not because you went looking for God, but because he came looking for you.
So, e.g., a while back I got to know a student here called Aku. When he arrived in Newcastle from Finland, he wasn’t a Christian and wasn’t looking to be. But one of our students was helping with the university’s international welcome, met Aku and invited him to church. And he came along here one evening. And talking to him afterwards I said, ‘So would you call yourself a Christian or are you just thinking about it?’ And he said, ‘Not even thinking about it. In fact, I don’t really know why I came.’ So I said, ‘Well, how about giving it a look?’ And he said, ‘OK. How?’ And he came to the equivalent of Christianity Explored back then. And then we read Luke’s Gospel together. And then he went home for Christmas. And he came back in January to tell me he’d put his faith in Jesus. And he said to me, ‘You know, I came to Newcastle to study; but I think God brought me here to bring me to know him.’ And that’s the story of every conversion: God is sovereign – he takes the initiative and is in control of the whole process (even if it happens through growing up in a Christian home where you can’t really look back to a time when you weren’t a Christian).
But coming back to Paul, that leaves you wondering, ‘Why did God allow that whole anti-Christian part of his life? What purpose did that serve?’ Well, to end with, turn on to 1 Timothy 1 and v12, where Paul answers that question. Here’s how Paul saw God’s wisdom in allowing his pre-conversion past:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1.12-16)
Ie, ‘God allowed that murderous past of mine so that my conversion would assure others that God can forgive anyone anything.’ So just imagine someone coming to Paul in his pastor’s office and saying, ‘I’ve had an abortion. God can’t forgive that, can he?’ Paul would be able to say, ‘Yes he can. Because I’m also responsible for the taking of life. But I’ve been forgiven through Jesus’ death on the cross, and you can be too.’
There are things that many of us wish we hadn’t done in our pre-conversion past – as well as since: things we regret, things that have messed us and others up, things that we’ve struggled with ever since. But one reason God allowed them was so that we’d be able to say to others, ‘Yes you can be forgiven. I’ve done that, as well. That’s true of me as well. But I’ve been forgiven through Jesus’ death on the cross, and you can be, too.’ So, eg, I know someone who, sadly, has had an abortion. And in the aftermath, she went along to a church to see if she could find any help. And she sat next to this woman who, at the end of the service realised she was a new face and asked what had brought her along. And this person I know just blurted out that she’d had an abortion. And she said to me, ‘I doubt I would ever have gone back to that church if that woman hadn’t looked at me and said, ‘So have I.’’
God is sovereign over our lives – over everything in our pre-conversion past and everything since: over our sinning, over our being sinned against, over all our experience and all our training and all our suffering. And we need to trust that everything he has allowed and is allowing us to go through is shaping us to serve his purposes better – above all, shaping us to display his grace in forgiving us and then in sustaining us in all our weaknesses and difficulties. You may feel you’re a rubbish witness to Jesus because of all your weaknesses and difficulties – but it’s precisely in weaknesses and difficulties that God’s grace is most clearly displayed so that people see that he is the reason we keep going, he is the reason we’re the people we are.
And the two points we’ve seen this morning are really the two things that people who aren’t yet Christians need to hear. They need to hear the gospel of Jesus’ death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead. And they need to hear (and see) our experience of Jesus – how he’s forgiven us and is changing us and working is us – to help them believe that he could forgive and change and work in them, too.