Sermon: Holding Fast to the Gospel

Goede morgen en groetjes van onze familie van Nederland. Bedankt voor het vakantie

Good morning and greetings from our family in the Netherlands. Thank you for the vacation.

It is truly good to be among you again. You have been missed and prayed for. I’d like to invite you this morning to turn with me to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. Galatians 1, beginning in verse 1. If you don’t have a Bible with you this morning, please feel free to grab one from the pew in front of you and leave it open as we read and study God’s word together. Galatians is in the New Testament – past 1-2 Corinthians, but before Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.

This summer, we will be soaking in the book of Galatians. Like all plants need water to grow, we are going to let our time together this summer be like warm spring rain upon the soil of our souls. For in Galatians, Paul passionately presents the message of the Gospel of Christ and how it might change our lives forever. May the Holy Spirit, the author of Scripture, shower grace upon our hearts as we study God’s word together. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Christ our single concern. Amen

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

Paul, an apostle – sent not from men, nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

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

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people have thrown you into confusing and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now we say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse.

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origins. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

For you have heard about my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. The only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Opening up the book of Galatians is a bit like reading someone else’s mail. We’ve jumped in mid-conversation, a lot has already happened. Paul, the apostle, already has a relationship with these people and something has happened that caused him to write this letter. Prompted, Guided, Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul writes this letter.

And because of the work of the Holy Spirit, this letter was not just for them, way back then, but for us today, God’s address to us this very morning. But we are still jumping in midway through the conversation, even though we started at verse one. We might benefit from a little background. Here’s some of what we can gather about what was going on from what Paul says here in Galatians and elsewhere.

Paul was a Pharisee, part of the strict group of Judaism that sought to prepare for the coming of the Messiah by encouraging all of Israel to strict observance of the Law in the Old Testament as well as all their accompanying traditions to help make sure you didn’t break the law. Paul himself, known as Saul then, studied under one of the most prominent rabbis of that time, Gamaliel. Saul was smarter, better, and more passionate than almost anyone for the cause of God. So, when a group of Jews began proclaiming that the Messiah had come and his name was Jesus, Saul put his zeal to work in stamping out this disruptive and divisive group. He put Christians in prison and stood by holding people’s cloaks when they stoned Stephen to death. One day, warrants in hand for the arrest of a group of Christians, Saul set out on the road to Damascus, But then God showed up in a vision of blinding light. Before Saul stood Jesus Christ himself. Stunned, Paul fell to the ground and was rebuked by Jesus for persecuting him. Paul, blinded by this experience, arrived in Damascus. After the scales were miraculously removed from Paul’s eyes, he set out on a new mission. The zeal he had once channeled to persecute Jesus and his followers, Paul would now use to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jew and Gentile alike.

And by the grace of God, Paul work was successful. On multiple missionary journeys, he planted churches all across the Roman world, including in the region of Galatia, a large region in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. This collection of churches was made up of Jews and Gentiles. In preaching to the Gentiles, Paul told them that they did not need to convert to Judaism before following Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit. This meant that they did not need to follow the food laws and other ceremonial and sacrificial laws of the Old Testament, including things like circumcision.

Paul’s preaching was highly controversial in the early church. In Acts 15, we learn of a council of the apostles and elders who met to debate and discern this very issue: Did you need to follow the Law in order to be a Christian? Did you need to be a Jew, be circumcized in order to be part of the people of God, to participate in the salvation accomplished by Jesus? Ultimately, the Spirit led the church to side with Paul – No, you did not need to be circumcized and follow the law in order to be a Christian. If only that had settled things.

All of that is background to what we hear in this opening chapter of Galatians. Some time after Paul left Galatia, some new teachers moved in and challenged his teaching. They claimed that being Christians meant following all of the Law, including circumcision. They also attacked Paul’s authority – both the source of his teaching and his relationship to the other apostles. This caused such an uproar and was so damaging to the ministry of the gospel that Paul felt compelled to respond.

With this background in mind, we can understand why Paul spends so much time emphasizing that he was sent by Jesus Christ. This is the ground for his authority as an apostle – he was sent by Jesus Christ and God the Father. Sent to proclaim the gospel.

And we have a summary of this gospel in the opening few verses of Galatians. Let the good news soak in.

Paul opens his letter in this way:

Paul, an apostle – sent not from men, nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

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

the Lord Jesus Christ,

who gave himself for our sins

to rescue us from the present evil age,

according to the will of our God and Father,

This is Paul’s initial summary of the gospel – tucked into his opening blessing to the churches. Starting at the end of verse 3: the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

The Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for our sins. He died for us – that is what is contained in the phrase ‘gave himself.’ Jesus gave himself even to the point of death on the cross for us. But it does not just say that he died, but that he gave himself – he did it freely, intentionally, and wholeheartedly. The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins. And he ‘gave himself.’ Nothing we did could earn grace, it is a gift from God. It is something we receive from Jesus Christ himself.

And he gave himself ‘for our sins.’ In the mystery and wisdom of God, Jesus Christ’s death did away with everything that is wicked and twisted in us, everything that serves as a barrier between us and God, has been done away with. As Herman Bavinck puts it,

“Christianity regards sin not as ignorance, which can easily be overcome by some enlightenment, but as an appalling power, which produces its effects throughout the cosmos; and over against this power it brings reconciliation and redemption in the deepest and broadest sense of those words. It brings redemption from the guilt and the stain, from all the consequences of sin, from the errors of the intellect and the impurity of the heart, from the death of the soul and body. It brings redemption not only to the individual, but also, organically, to the family and generations of families, to people and society, to humanity and the world.” (I.595)

The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins.

The New Testament never seems to run out of words to describe what was accomplished when Jesus died on the cross, when he gave himself for our sins. But here, we are told this: Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.

‘to rescue us from the present evil age’ If you were part of the Disciples Groups during Lent, you might be hearing echoes of Exodus language here. And that’s right. Jesus’ death for our sins rescued us from the present evil age. God pronounced judgment on the God’s of Egypt through the plagues and with his mighty rescued his people from the clutches of Pharaoh. The death of Jesus creates a New Exodus, this time not just from the physical bondage of Pharaoh, but from every twisted power of this present time. Every thing that is wicked in us and everything that is wicked in the world is undone by the mighty act of God on the cross. This ‘present evil age’ is not evil because God is not at work, but because it is an age where sin and Satan still actively resist God’s will for creation.

Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. Instead of belonging to the here and now, we are rescued and brought into the age to come. In some sense, those who have been forgiven in Jesus Christ belong to the future. They belong to the age that is coming, when Jesus will reign uncontested. We live leaning into that future, now freed to walk according to God’s ways. Yet, we still live in this present time, but we have been rescued from it. We are no longer slaves to it, no longer bound to it, but free to live for Jesus Christ.

This is freedom. This is the good news. Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins, rescuing us from the present evil age. And he does all of this according to the will of our God and Father. It was not on a whim that Jesus gave himself for us. It wasn’t Jesus’ idea and the Father decided to go along with it. It was the one will of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – to save, to redeem, to rescue.

This gospel of freedom flies in the face of every false gospel. Anyone who tells you that you need to be enough in order for God to love you and be gracious to you, let them be under God’s curse. If anybody comes and says you need to be good enough, sorry enough, Jewish enough, German enough, put together enough to receive God’s grace, then let that person be under God’s curse. Any one who comes to you with a gospel that says you need to do more, work harder, or live better before you can receive God’s grace, then let that person be under God’s curse. Any one who comes saying that the gospel promises health and wealth in this age, who promises an easy life, if only you have enough faith, then let that person be under God’s curse.

If anybody comes to you, proclaiming a gospel other than the one we receive here in the very Word of God, we are told that they fall under God’s curse. We need to soak in these words here in Galatians, because there are still those out there who are working to pervert the gospel of Christ. In the name of integrity and holiness, some create all kinds of conditions for grace, the modern day equivalents of circumcision, the many excessive hoops one needs to jump through for God to love you. Let them be cursed. In the name of freedom, others give license for Christians to walk in blatant disobedience to God, as if God doesn’t care how he is worshipped. Let them be cursed.

The Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.

This is the good news. Christ died for us, rescued us from sin and the devil to live in the new age, the age to come, to live freely in obedience to God as the best life, even when it is not the easiest.

We will spend the coming weeks listening as the Spirit unfolds the realities of this gospel through the writing of Paul, but let us not miss this at the beginning.

The gospel is a matter of life and death, freedom or bondage, life with God or slavery and death without him.

Just as Paul encountered those who would seek to pervert the gospel, to twist it into something else, something less, something ‘that is really no gospel at all,’ we too are faced with false teachers, many of which leads communities that claim to be churches.

We, too, like the church in Galatia, are called not to turn to the left or to the right, but to hold fast to the only true gospel.

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

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