Do Not Turn Back

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This morning we come in our studies in Paul's letter to the Galatians to chapter 4 and verses 8-20. And after an introduction my headings are: first, A SPIRITUAL TRAGEDY; secondly, HOW IT HAPPENED; and thirdly, WHAT IS NEEDED. So by way of introduction let me give you some context.

The Apostle Paul had travelled to Galatia evangelizing people living in parts of what is now Turkey. The converts were both Jews and Gentiles. But what did Paul teach these people? Answer: the gospel or the good news. But what precisely is that? According to Paul himself, the gospel that he preached and that converts (I quote) "received, in which they stood, and by which they were being saved, if they held fast to it," was (this is 1 Corinthians 15 verses 3-4):

"that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared [to a number of disciples]."

That is Paul's own summary. However, this gospel message, because Christ is risen, was (and is) not to be just received as truth, but, as Paul said, "stood in", "saved by" and "held fast to". For true faith in the one who died and rose again involves a life-affecting commitment and a personal relationship with Christ made real and effective by God's Holy Spirit. And such a faith commitment to Christ was all that was needed to be right with God or to be "justified". And that was because Christ's death was for our sins.

So no religious duties or moral good works were needed to atone for those sins, if by faith we were, as it were, joined to Christ. For, as Paul had explained to the Galatians, Christ was cursed (or punished) in our place. And that was huge good news. Because the religious duties we perform or our moral good works will never be good enough to make us right in God's eyes. And for pagan Gentiles it was particularly good news. Many of them were warming to the God of the Jews. However, to relate to him meaningfully, the Jews taught you had to be circumcised. This was in their law. And, not unnaturally, pagan males were not too keen.

But here were Paul and his friends saying, in effect, that with the coming of Jesus Christ much of the ritual law had been fulfilled in Christ and was no longer necessary. Yes, the Moral Law and the Old Testament's wisdom teaching about all sorts of things is still highly relevant, and the law still reveals your failings. But it can never get you right with God. However, faith in Christ can. So all that was the gist of what Paul and his friends had taught over the few days they were with these early believers in their various towns or cities in Galatia.

Then they left.

But when they left Galatia, after their first or second visit some teachers from Palestine visited the churches founded by Paul and his friends. And these teachers said that faith in Christ as Paul taught it was not enough. You would not be saved unless you were circumcised and fulfilled other parts of the Jewish law. Not unnaturally Paul saw this as terrible. It would undermine everything he taught and for a range of reasons.

First, the Jewish law, because it couldn't be kept, was never the way to get right with God, however much it had value. Secondly, this requirement for circumcision would have stopped the mission to the Gentiles and so to the majority of the world, because they would have rejected it. And, thirdly, saying circumcision was necessary to salvation, blasphemously devalued the death of Christ for us on the Cross. Therefore, Paul's righteous anger was at boiling point.

So much by way of introduction.

We can now come to our first, heading, A SPIRITUAL TRAGEDY.

Three things need to be said. First, these teachers were saying festivals were required. Look at verses 10-11:

"You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have laboured over you in vain."

Naturally Paul is depressed and feels he has "laboured … in vain". For Galatian Christians were now being taught to observe certain Jewish festivals as a requirement for salvation, as we've said. Paul, of course, wasn't against festivals as such. The Christians had Sunday and Paul kept the feast of Pentecost – but not for their eternal salvation.

But secondly and more importantly Paul was worried about what these Galatians were turning back from, compared to what they were turning back to. For there was a turning back from what Paul describes as "knowing God". Look at verses 8 – 9a:

"Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now … you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God."

Knowing God is what we are made for. Certainly this is the absolute essential for true human flourishing. John reports Jesus saying at the start of his High Priestly prayer in John 17.3:

"This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

And God said, through Jeremiah, as we heard in our Old Testament reading,

"Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me" (Jer 9.23-24).

But knowing God intimately as "Father" and adopted sons (as Paul has written earlier in this chapter) is different to knowing, say, a work colleague. It is altogether in a different league. It is more like knowing the Queen. There is no chance of knowing her unless you are in the Royal Household, or for some reason she chooses to make contact with you.

But as you trust Christ and are in that new adoptive relationship with God, you can relate freely. And you discover that you are first known by God, who knows all about you and cares for you. And you can hear God speak through his Word, the Bible, and you can respond in prayer at any time and in any place.

And this is why the Resurrection is so important – that second half of Paul's gospel. For Jesus Christ through the Resurrection, as has been put, "is now, so to speak, loose and at large." That means anyone, anywhere, can enjoy the same kind of relationship with him as the disciples had during his earthly ministry. But, of course, it is not now visible and physical but invisible and spiritual.

However, these Galatians were giving all this up – a personal relationship with God through Christ. And Paul is appalled.

For, thirdly, in its place, there was an opting for the weak, the worthless and slavery. Look at verse 9b. It refers to …

"… the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world whose slaves you want to be once more."

Biblical scholars are not really sure what that means. But whatever it precisely means, these Galatians were giving up a personal knowledge and relationship with almighty God (the creator of the world), and with his Son, who the Bible says, "upholds the universe by the word of his power" (Heb 1.3) and who died for our sins and rose again and is now King of kings and Lord of lords – they were giving all that up for something that was "weak and worthless" and made people "slaves". That was a spiritual tragedy.

So now our second heading, HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

Look at verses 12-17:

"Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them."

The simple answer to how it happened is in the pronoun "they" in verse 17 that refers to false teachers. For these Galatian Christians were not only exchanging the knowledge of God for what was weak, worthless and enslaving.

Also they were exchanging the Apostle Paul and the truth of the gospel for smooth-talking self-seeking false teachers who were gradually leading them into spiritual death. But for that, first, there would have been the work of the evil one creating unbelief. Paul said elsewhere in a similar situation that …

"the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor 4.4)

But, secondly, there were these false teachers. One of the last things Paul said in a farewell address to church leaders in another area of modern Turkey and as recorded in Acts 20 was this:

"I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert" (Acts 20.29-31).

And exactly this was happening in Galatia. For people were turning away from the truth of the gospel and all that went with it because they were not alert to false teachers. But how did they not see they were false?

Well, and this is the third point, there was a lack of mature judgment when Paul was absent. In verse 20 he says, "I wish I could be present with you now" but he wasn't. Reading between the lines, the Galatian leaders made judgments too much on externals. For example, external physical factors meant these false teachers looked better and came across better than Paul. From what Paul writes it is pretty clear Paul was in a broken down bodily or physical condition when he was ministering in Galatia. And tradition is that he had a poor physical appearance. And Paul was in no way a "men pleaser". He would speak the truth, whether people liked it or not. And the Galatians did not always like it. Look at verse 16:

"Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?"

By contrast, these false teachers where saying pleasing things to the Galatians and were flattering them. Look at verse 17:

"they make much of you, but for no good purpose."

For their purpose was self-aggrandizement – see the last part of verse 17:

"that you may make much of them."

So Paul majored on his broken down state because these false teachers were probably all fit and healthy as well as sweet talking, and that added to their appeal. All this meant the Galatian leaders (and probably their people) made wrong judgments. Tragically this still happens among Christian people. There are those teachers and theologians who sound good but it is not seen that their pleasant personality hides the fact that they are people who add to the Apostolic message, like these false teachers in Galatia, or take away from it, like many are doing today. Well, something like that was going on here in Galatia. So be warned of "persuasive speakers" who speak lies.

At this time of celebrating VE Day in 1945, it is worth remembering Hitler and how people were duped by him and other Fascists. I learnt how that happens in a dramatic way as a student in the early 1960s. That was when I heard Oswald Mosley, the British pre-War Fascist leader and supporter of Hitler. It was at our student Union debating society. And he was "electric" and so persuasive, but totally wrong. I then understood how people like Hitler sway crowds.

Over the years that memory has helped me reject some plausible church false teachers who sadly many follow. For personality and presentation can hide what is evil, And certainly this is going on today inside and outside the church in matters relating to sex, marriage and life issues. So the answer to "how did all this happen in Galatia?" is that besides the devil being as Jesus said, "the father of lies", it was because there were false teachers. And there were false teachers because of weak spiritual judgment.

So, my third heading, WHAT IS NEEDED?

Again three things can be said. First, Paul wants the Galatians to acknowledge his Apostolic authority and so follow his teaching. Look at verse 13 where Paul says:

"I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus."

Paul is not being fanatical. He self-consciously recognizes his Apostolic authority because the Apostles of Christ were Christ's personal delegates and messengers. In Mathew 10, where Jesus teaches about his Apostles, he says in verse 40:

"whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me."

So Paul wanted the Galatians to acknowledge his authority not because he was clever or fluent but because he was speaking what Christ wanted said. And that, of course, is why today we need to study and follow the Bible for that is where you have Apostolic teaching – hence our studies in this letter to the Galatians.

Then secondly, verse 14 says the Galatians are to remember "the blessing you felt". They are to remember how good it all was, when Paul was with them, that earlier time.

Who is going through some difficult time at the moment when perhaps you are in danger of drifting like these Galatians? Well, start to do some remembering. Remember when God was very real to you in the past, and remember his past blessings; and remember God's past blessing in history and supremely through the death and resurrection of Christ. Certainly that is what the Psalmist was doing in our Psalm this morning, Psalm 42 v 4:

"These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise."

But, thirdly, and what the Galatians needed, says Paul, is "Christ … formed in you". Look at verse 19 where Paul writes:

"my little children, … I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you."

Paul is wanting evidence of Christ in their lives. The whole reason why Paul has been teaching justification by grace through faith is not just for the Galatians to be able to say, "I know I'm saved". It is also that they can be living a new life because the life of Christ is being formed in them and they can show the fruit of the Spirit he will talk about in the next chapter. And this is so fundamental.

The issue is this: God's law cannot give a new or changed life. Paul had said in Gal 3.21:

"if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law."

But no law could or can. Faith, however, in Christ and identification with him does give life. So the Christian believer, including these Galatians, should be able to say with Paul as he writes earlier in Gal 2.20:

"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

And that is all possible because of the resurrection of Christ, the second half of Paul's gospel. Nor is this new life something passive. Elsewhere (Romans 6 verse 4) Paul says that we are identified with Christ's death …

"… in order that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."

And walking is something we do. It is an active state, with you taking initiatives in Christ's power as the Holy Spirit strengthens you. So you ask that person to come to church or an event, or you take a stand for Christ in a hostile environment, knowing that Christ is risen and with you. But, of course, this Christ-life needs to be nurtured, as Paul was nurturing these Galatians, not least by God's word and prayer.

I must conclude. I do so by saying two things.

One, if you have never yet started to have the life of Christ formed in you, why not? Jesus himself spoke of starting in that life as "being born again" in John chapter 3. And he, too, says in John 3.16 that it starts simply with faith in him:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

And eternal life starts now and continues into eternity. So can I urge you to believe in Jesus. And if you are still asking questions, why not join Christianity Explored that starts this Thursday?

And, two, for all those in whom Christ is being formed, in this age of confusion can I urge you to learn from the mistakes of the Christians in Galatia? One great New Testament scholar, Professor F F Bruce, translates those "weak and worthless elementary principles of the world" as "the current climate of opinion."

So beware of following "the current climate of opinion" to be credible in the modern world. Rather remind yourself and (as you can) share with others that true freedom comes from knowing God and that Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day.

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