April 23, 2022 - Galatians

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Today we’re going to take a look at the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Galatians was my favorite book of the Bible when I was a teenager. Galatians appears to be Paul’s earliest letter. It was written around 49 AD to the first churches that Paul ever planted, on his first mission to central Turkey (you can read about it in Acts 13-15).

When Paul comes through central Turkey, he finds synagogues there with lots of non-Jewish people who attend out of curiosity. They are attracted to the Jewish God, but most of them are not ready to become Jews. It’s not just the knife of circumcision that holds them back. Judaism had so many laws. How could a person promise to keep them all?

When Paul comes to the synagogues of central Turkey, Paul brings these non-Jewish folks some wonderful Good News. Now they could be saved, not by how well they can obey God’s law, but by the saving death of Jesus, God’s Messiah.

The non-Jewish people in the synagogues are thrilled to hear this news. A lot of Jews and non-Jews place their faith in Jesus. Paul starts 4 new churches in that area.

But now that Paul has returned to home base, he suddenly hears some news from Galatia that gets him so steamed that he fires off his very first epistle. Paul hears that some folks in his new churches are abandoning the Good News that saved them, and are getting talked into another “gospel” that is not good news at all.

Somebody is convincing the Galatians that they’ve gotta become Jews first and obey the Jewish law before they can be saved. Paul is astonished. Why would anyone choose Law instead of the Good News of God’s grace?

So Paul kicks off this letter with some strong words: “If anyone tries to sell you any other Gospel than the one I preached to you, even if it’s an angel from heaven, let them be accursed.” Paul is so upset that he skips his usual kind words of greeting and goes straight to the point.

Why is Paul picking on angels? Since Paul first wrote these words, two of the world’s most important religions have been started by visions from angels. One of those religions is based right here in Utah. The other religion is Islam: Mohammed claims that it was the angel Gabriel who revealed the Quran to him. Angels don’t carry ID cards. With angels, you’ve gotta watch for identity theft. Any claim about a message from an angel must be measured by whether it squares with the Gospel delivered by Paul to the early church.

Paul is alarmed because he knows the Galatian believers don’t know what they’re bargaining for. They have no idea what they stand to lose by following this alternative gospel. Paul doesn’t want to see these precious new believers get roped into a system of law that’s going to saddle them with guilt, a law no one can ever measure up to.

That’s why Paul issues such a stern warning about this new teaching they’ve been listening to. It is another gospel. It is counterfeit. It is false. It doesn’t even deserve to be called a “gospel”, because it is not good news, unless you happen to be sinless.

As a teenager, I was as passionate as Paul about the issue in the book of Galatians. For me, the Gospel according to Galatians was the best news I’d ever heard. (It still is.) Without the Good News as Paul spells it out in this letter, I could never have peace with God. And like Paul, as a teenager, I was ready to lock horns with anyone who would try to add law or performance as a requirement to reach God. Salvation is either free, or it’s not. And if it’s not free, then nobody can afford the price, because no one is good enough.

To claim that we can earn our way to God by any law of do’s and don’ts, to claim that we can reach God by being good, is “another gospel”, says Paul our Messianic rabbi. “Trust me. I know the Jewish law, and there’s no way you can keep it all. There’s no way you can save yourself that way.” (We’ll talk more about that in a few moments.)

Here, Paul talks about “another gospel.” In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul complains about not only “another gospel” but also “another Jesus.” If we follow another gospel, we will end up with another Jesus, a false Jesus, one who cannot save us.

The scandal about the real Jesus (back in his day) was that Jesus forgave people who didn’t have a chance when measured by God’s law. Jesus was an unprecedented dispenser of God’s mercy. Jesus was radically inclusive. Jesus earned such an inclusive reputation that today, the surprise about Jesus is that (by our standards) he was also exclusive. We’ve forgotten that. (Jesus only excludes those who exclude themselves.)

Lots of folks worship a Jesus who always affirms, never condemns, and never offends. But that’s not the real Jesus. (We talk about this in my book, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.) Such a picture of Jesus is misleading because of what it leaves out. We forget about the Jesus who says, “I never knew you,” the Jesus who says to people in his town, “It shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Sodom than for you,” the Jesus who says it’s better to tie a huge rock around your head and be drowned in the sea than to lead one of God’s little ones astray into sin.

Neither the permissive Jesus, nor Jesus the Cosmic Killjoy in sandals, fits the Gospel according to Paul the Messianic rabbi. The Jesus of Law being preached by the false teachers in Galatia, was not the Jesus we know from the Gospels, the Jesus who practiced unprecedented forgiveness of sinners.

Jesus taught an uncompromising Law. No one can seriously claim that we can get right with God by following Jesus’ teaching (it’s too tough). But Jesus practiced unprecedented forgiveness to sinners who threw themselves on God’s mercy. Jesus preached a law that was sky high. He practiced grace – mercy that no one can earn. Jesus’ Gospel presumes repentance. But Jesus never demands us to get our act together 100% before we can know the joy of God’s forgiveness.

The Gospel that Paul first shared with the Galatians avoids both of these pitfalls. In his first Gospel message to the Galatians in their synagogue (in Acts 13), Paul says, “Through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses.” The Law can never set us free from our guilt. Only Jesus can.

No other Gospel out there can give us solid peace of mind. Any other brand of peace on the market is a false peace at best, a peace that comes at the price of self-deception. If our peace is based on the notion that God is too loving and inclusive to send anyone to hell, or “I’m good enough if I only try a little harder,” we are fooling ourselves. We are only fooling ourselves, if we look for peace with God that way.

There are 2 ways to God: the way of law, and the way of grace. Every other way to God on the market is based on being good, on the way of law. Some ways are totally illegitimate, like “worship this statue” or “say this magic formula”, or “forget about rules – God doesn’t care”. Other ways are based on the same ethical teachings we find in Scripture, the same do’s and don’ts (Judaism, Islam, others). But none of us can reach God by following these teachings, because none of us can claim to always be good.

The only alternative to the way of law is the way of grace. Jesus pays a debt we could never pay, so that we might receive mercy we could never earn. All we can do is open our hearts and receive it in faith. Paul warns, “If anyone out there (even an angel from heaven) tries to sell you any other gospel, let them be accursed.” Don’t be fooled by another gospel, by another Jesus. Paul is dead serious about the grace of God.

Trying to reach God by the way of law will get us nowhere. Paul says later on that trying to reach God by obedience will cut us off from the mercy of Christ that we so desperately need. Jesus’ radical teaching proves to us how much we need a Savior. Jesus’ life shows us that he is the only One qualified to save us. Jesus’ story shows us that he is the One who will welcome any sinner who will throw themselves on his mercy.

The stakes are life and death. Paul writes, Don’t let anyone talk you into another gospel, or another Jesus. The wrong Jesus is going to take us to the wrong place. Not the way of law, but only the way of grace will take sinners like us to the place we want to go.

Paul refutes any notion of a performance-based relationship with God. He writes to the Galatians (2:16), “By works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” Let me put that in plain English: “No one can be put right with God by obeying God’s law.” Paul gets even more blunt in 5:4: “You are cut off from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace.” If you try to earn your way to God, Paul says, God’s gonna say, “OK, if you don’t want my free, undeserved mercy, have it your way! Good luck trying to save yourself! You can’t have it both ways.”

Salvation is either free, or it’s not. Either God is going to pay every penny of our debt, or God’s going to leave us to pay every penny ourselves.

Arguing like a rabbi would, Paul teaches his readers that all who rely on their obedience to God’s law as their ticket to heaven are under a curse. That curse is found in the Law itself, in Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the Law.” Ouch! That sounds like all of us have brought this curse upon ourselves, if we’re counting on the Law to save us.

The Good News, Paul says, is that Christ has freed us from this curse by taking it upon himself, on the cross: “Cursed be everyone who hangs upon a tree.” Christ has set us free from the curse of a Law we couldn’t obey, a Law we can never measure up to. Christ wants to set us free from any kind of performance-based relationship with God. If we firmly believe that Christ has made us holy in God’s sight, not by our own merit, not by anything good we’ve ever done, not by how well we’re performing at the moment, but because of God’s free mercy, then we no longer have to walk on eggshells around God.

If there were any way we could reach God by human goodness, then that way would have become the way to reach God. There would be no need for any other way. The problem is that God’s law is designed to make it impossible for anyone to avoid the charge of sin. God’s law is designed to convince us that we are sinners. Every other system of law that is consistent with God’s law runs into that same problem.

Paul writes in the last line of Galatians 2, “If getting right with God comes by law [of any kind], then Christ died for nothing.” If any other religion had a way that can truly take away our sin and reconcile us to God, then what Jesus did on the cross was totally unnecessary. It was tragic, senseless, and useless. The fact that Jesus had to endure the cross is proof that there was no other way to reach God by being good.

If God’s law can’t save us, what is it good for, then? Paul uses the image of a “custodian,” a person charged with legal custody of a child (the word Paul uses is paidagōgos). In Paul’s day, the duty of a legal custodian (the paidagōgos) was to take the child by the hand to school and back, train the child in good manners, and make sure the child did his lessons, until the child became a legal adult (at age 14, under Roman law). After that, the child was free.

Paul teaches that the Law is our paidagōgos, our custodian, whose purpose is to bring us to Christ. Before God’s Law came along, we had no idea we needed a Savior. We would have said, “Sin? What’s sin? And why is sin a problem? Can’t I be good enough for God the way I am?” The Law gives us a thousand reasons why not. The Law couldn’t fix our problem of sin, the Law couldn’t save us, but like a mirror, the Law could show us what was wrong. Once the Law has convinced us that we need a Savior and has brought us to Christ, the Law has done its job. The Law can no longer bring us any closer to God. We are now free from the Law, free to live a life of joyful gratitude.

Paul wants his audience to learn from the Law. But he doesn’t want to see them get dragged into using the Law as a way to get right with God. It will never work. There is no way we can reach God by any system of do’s and don’ts. Any system we try to create will either be false, or impossible to keep.

The message of Paul’s letter to the Galatians comes through loud and clear: Christ has come to set us free! Paul wants to make sure his readers stay free. And so Paul warns them against 2 threats to their freedom. The first threat is the temptation to go back to the heavy, smothering hand of the Law. The other threat is the mistaken notion that freedom means yielding to every desire and impulse. It looks like freedom, but it’s not.

The Galatians were caught between the Judaizers (who wanted to lay down the Law), and the libertines (who wanted to throw out the Law). The one group wanted to make them into Jews. The other group wanted to use Paul’s idea of freedom from the Law as a wide-open license to sin. Today, we can see ourselves in the same position as the new Christians in central Turkey: caught between folks who want to lay down the Law on us, and folks who want to throw it out entirely.

Paul takes 2/3 of his letter to combat the threat of those who wanted to lay down the Law and make them into Jews. Paul warns his readers that if they accept the symbol of conversion to Judaism on their flesh, they have locked themselves into an obligation to obey the entire Law. We can’t pick and choose. We can’t just follow a few Jewish customs and blow off the rest. If we want law, God’s gonna make us obey them all.

Those who try to earn their way to God by obeying a system of laws, says Paul, have cut themselves off from Christ (Galatians 5:4). Salvation is either free, or it isn’t. If we say it’s not free, if we insist on earning it by obedience, God will leave us to pay the whole price, without Christ. We are either going to place our faith in our own goodness (which is the way of law), or we’re going to place our faith in Christ (which is the way of free, undeserved mercy).

Paul writes in Galatians 5:13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers/sisters. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another.” The term “opportunity” here is used for a military base of operations, a launching pad or starting point. Paul urges us not to let our freedom from the Law become a launching pad for sin in our lives. God wants us to stay free – free from appetites and desires that can never be satisfied – free from pleasures that do great harm to our bodies and souls – free from our own worst enemy (ourselves) – free to have a healthy relationship with God.

God really means it. We are free. We are no longer slaves to the fear of judgment. Christ has taken away the threat of hell for those who have placed their faith in his saving death on the cross. All that holds us back from sin right now are love for God and fear of getting burned by the earthly consequences of sin.

Starting next time, we’re going to be doing a series on Latter-day Prophecy. What does the Bible say about the last days (including details on Christ’s return)? Join us for our series on Latter-day Prophecy, starting next time here on Biblical Words and World!