False Teachers, faithless Christians: Galatians 1:1-10
Last Sunday evening I did something I’ve never done before. One half of me really didn’t want to do it. The other half of me couldn’t wait. It caused me a lot of anxiety during the week but I believed it was the right thing to do. What was it? For the first ten minutes of my sermon last Sunday evening, I deliberately and intentionally led most of the congregation astray. I said that Daniel’s prophecy in chapter 7 about four empires portrayed as beasts rising from the seas referred to Britain, America, Russia and the United Nations. I predicted that Tony Blair would become the next UN Secretary General and would oversee an increasingly oppressive one world government - just as Daniel predicted. Judging from the nods and groans, the wide eyes and open mouths, many people seemed to be taking me rather too seriously. I felt a bit like Gary Lineker in those TV adverts, stealing crisps from people.
I did it to mimic
the way popular doomsday prophets lead people astray with their imaginative interpretations
of biblical prophecy. They sell millions of copies claiming that the events
happening in the Middle East today were prophesied in the Bible. If you want to
read my sermon or listen to it again, check out the church website or pick up
one of the audio tapes. The feedback after the service was positive. People who
commented said they found it a helpful way to raise the issue once they
realised what I was doing and we got down to analysing what the passage meant
originally. But as I thought about it some more, I was discouraged that only
three people said they were going to challenge me on my interpretation. That
One gentleman had begun to make a list of questions to ask me after the service. A lady said she used to be part of a house group where all her friends believed that sort of thing and she was beginning to regret moving to Christ Church. And another lady said something similar wondering whether she too had made a mistake bringing her family here. Maybe others felt the same but didn’t mention it. But it worried me that some people seemed willing to go along with what ever I said. It made me realise that its really not that hard to become deceived. In the Acts of the Apostles we are told how the Christians in Berea took a more sceptical approach.
“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11)
Please note, the
Bereans were not just the kind of Christians that insist on chapter and verse before
they will believe anything. Luke isn’t denigrating them. He is honouring them.
They wouldn’t even take the word an Apostle on its own. They were eager but
not gullible. They checked out what Paul said against the Hebrew Scriptures to
see if what he said was true. That is our plea for you. Discerning truth from
error is a perennial issue. It was the primary reason Paul wrote to the
Paul had founded the Church in Galatia (modern Turkey) on his first missionary journey with Barnabas. Their adventures are recorded in
Acts 13-14. In Galatia, they found people eager to hear about Jesus but it really
upset the local Jewish community. They were jealous.
So they talked the authorities into throwing the apostles out of the area. Eventually the Apostles returned to their home base of Antioch in Syria for a breather. But news of the controversy got back to Jerusalem. This is how Luke summarises the controversy.
15:1 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 15:2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2)
While Paul and Barnabas made plans to travel to Jerusalem to resolve the issue with the other apostles, news arrived that some of these
legalists had sent their own teachers to the new churches in Galatia and were causing havoc. They claimed that Paul had not shared the whole gospel. He’d
left bits out like circumcision to make it more popular. You sometimes heat the
same criticism leveled at large churches like Willow Creek. “They must be
popular because they are compromising the gospel.” The legalisers accused Paul
of leaving out obedience to the Mosaic law. These new Christians were keen to
please God and were taken in.
These new teachers taught with the authority of an ancient and respected creed. They offered membership of the true people of God. They were being offered something attractive - Judaism +. They were ‘true sons of Abraham’, after all weren’t all the Apostles circumcised Jews? And Jesus as well? They were being offered membership of the historic church of Jerusalem, not some independent outfit led by a former renegade rabbi named Paul. They probably also said that Paul wasn’t a real Apostle. He hadn’t been picked by Jesus. He was just a self appointed leader with no credibility and no credentials.
Pretty convincing argument yes? What was Paul to do?
A great deal was at stake. The entire mission to the Gentiles depended on the outcome. The question was this: Was it necessary for Gentiles to become Jews before they could become real Christians? Paul must have been torn between wanting to go back to Galatia and protect these young Christians but at the same time he know he needed to go and address the issue with the other apostles in Jerusalem. If so, the letter was probably written soon after his return to Antioch around 48-49 AD.
If you take time to read the letter as a whole, you will discover it is very different from his other letters. It contains the coolest greeting and the strongest language. It is the only letter Paul writes without expressing any appreciation. There is no praise or thanks which is most unusual. It indicates how anxious Paul took the issue. Heresy was a vital issue from the very beginning of the Church. And no less so today. Indeed we consider this issue so important we are going to devote the next three months to studying this short letter to the Galatians - on Sunday mornings and in our mid week bible study groups. We want you to ‘Stand Firm”. We want you to experience freedom and truth in a world of slavery and lies.
Four Purposes for the Letter to the Galatians
Overview: Three Main Sections
1. Personal: Grace and the Gospel (Galatians 1-2)
2. Doctrinal : Grace and the Law (Galatians 3-4)
3. Practical: Grace and the Spirit (Galatians 5-6)
After a brief introduction (1:1-5), Paul addresses those who were accepting the Judaizer's perverted gospel (1:6-9). He summarises the controversy, including his personal confrontation with Peter and other church leaders (1:10-2:16). He then demonstrates that salvation is by faith alone by alluding to his conversion (2:17-21), appealing to his readers' own experience of the gospel (3:1-5), and showing how the Old Testament teaches about grace (3:6-20). Next, he explains the purpose of God's laws and the relationship between law, God's promises, and Christ (3:21-4:31). Having laid the foundation, Paul builds his case for Christian liberty. We are saved by faith, not by keeping the law (5:1-12); our freedom means that we are free to love and serve one another, not to do wrong (5:13-26); and Christians should carry each other's burdens and be kind to each other (6:1-10). In 6:11-18, Paul takes the pen into his own hand and shares his final thoughts.
Today, as we begin this series, let us consider the opening sentences of this letter under three headings.
1. Paul Exerts his Authority (1:1-5)
2. Paul Expresses his Anxiety (1:6-7)
3. Paul Exposes his Adversaries (1:8-10)
1. Paul Exerts his Authority (1:1-5)
There are three observations we can make about these opening verses:
1.1 His Ministry: The authority of an apostle (1:1-2)
“Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead -1:2 and all the brothers with me, To the churches in Galatia” (Galatians 1:1-2)
Paul was not self appointed. He was an apostle - that means ‘one who is sent’ - by Jesus the Son and God the Father. His ministry.
1.2 His Message: The authority of the gospel (1:3-4)
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 1:4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” (Galatians 1:3-4)
Paul loses no time in introducing the heart of his message.
The Source of the Gospel - “according to the will of our God and Father”
The Heart of the Gospel - “Jesus gave himself for our sins”
The Purpose of the Gospel - “”to rescue us from the present evil age”
The Fruit of the Gospel - “Grace and peace to you”
His ministry, his message.
1.3 His Motive: The glory of God (1:5)
“to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Galatians 1:5)
motive was the glory of God. Remember that - the hard words and the stinging
rebuke and the scathing anathemas, which follow, were motivated by his passion
for the glory of God. Paul exerts his
authority. His ministry, his message, his motive. Now we see how:
2. Paul Expresses his
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 1:7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
If you compare this letter to Paul’s others you will notice there is no praise, no prayer, no thanksgiving, no commendation. Instead there is a sense of urgency and warning. Why is Paul so anxious?
2.1 The Unfaithfulness of the Galatians
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you” (Galatians 1:6)
The word for “desert” means to transfer your allegiance.
It is a word used to describe a soldier who rebels against his commander, or deserts to the enemy. By adding to the gospel they were turning away from it (Acts 15:1). This is what marks off all the cults and ‘isms’ from authentic Christianity. They say ‘yes’ to Jesus but… then add their own beliefs or additional requirements.
But you cannot add to the finished work of Christ. John Stott says, “The work of Christ is a finished work; and the gospel of Christ is a gospel of free grace. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, without any adding of human works or merit. Our salvation is solely due to God’s gracious call.”
To depart from the gospel is
to desert God. For there is only one gospel. There is only one way back to God.
Only through Jesus’ death in our place. The unfaithfulness of the Galatians.
2.2 The Activity of the False Teachers
“Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:7)
The word ‘pervert’ means to distort or reverse. This is what the false teachers were doing. They were reversing the flow of biblical revelation. They were taking these young believers back to the law of Moses - they were reversing the gospel. They were leading people in the wrong direction away from God. Put the two verses together and we see that perverting the gospel is equated with deserting God. Why? Because in the Scriptures God has revealed himself fully and finally in Jesus Christ. He died in our place.
You can’t add to it without taking away from it. Any message, any sermon, any book or article that adds to the finished work of Jesus is not only a perversion it’s a sign of a desertion. To add is to take away. See how the two are linked. Perverting the message of Jesus is to desert God. The gospel is like the heart. It’s indispensable. Mess with it and the body dies. That is why Paul exerts his authority. That is why Paul expresses his anxiety.
3. Paul Exposes his
If Paul is
astonished at the Galatians church, he is indignant at these false teachers.
3.1 Paul’s Anathema (1:8-9)
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 1:9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8-9)
This, as I said,
some of the strongest language in the Bible. Notice
This is a universal condemnation: There are no exceptions.
It equally applies to human teachers, angelic beings or even the apostle Paul himself.
This is an unmistakable condemnation: This is no emotional outburst.
The condemnation is repeated. John Stott says, “The apostle repeats it to show the Galatians that this was no excessive, exaggerated statement into which passion had hurried him, but his calmly formed and unalterable opinion.”
Why? Let me use an analogy. Think of a canoe. How many ways are there to sink a canoe? You can overfill it or you can punch a hole in it. Either way it will sink. The gospel is like a canoe. Its just sufficient to carry us back to God. Adding to the gospel is just as dangerous as taking away from it. Some churches requite you to be baptized in order to be saved - or require baptism into their membership. Some expect you to go to confession or take the mass or speak in tongues in order to be saved or prove you are a real Christian. Adding to the gospel will sink the Church just as easily as denying Jesus was the Son of God or that he died and rose from the dead. Adding or taking away from the gospel has the same effect. It’s a perversion and deserves the strongest condemnation. Paul’s anathema. Finally,
3.2 Paul’s Motive (1:10)
10 Am I now trying to win the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
1. The glory of Christ is at stake
To add to what
Jesus has done is to denigrate him. To suggest his work for us was incomplete.
That may win people’s approval but it won’t earn God’s.
2. People’s souls are at stake
To pervert the gospel is to corrupt the only way to God. And that is frightening. The issue of false teachers is serious, not just because God warns of eternal condemnation, but because no one is immune, not even an apostle, let alone a house group leader, Sunday club teacher, a vicar, archdeacon, bishop, or even an archbishop.
The threat comes not just from those outside the Church but also from those who may be on the inside. It happened then and it happens today. Let me be controversial as we close. Let me illustrate this from something that happened this week.
This week the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbis from Israel signed an historic agreement to further greater understanding, respect and toleration between our two faiths. The repudiation of anti-Semitism is clearly to be welcomed. This year is significant for Jewish-Christian relations. It marks the 350th Anniversary of the Resettlement of Jews in England, following the expulsion by King Edward I in 1290. In 1656, Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel and a small group of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish families in London, made representations to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Their efforts resulted in permission to reside and practise their religious rites. It was a very English decision. No grand enactment of readmission, but a practical agreement for action. From this quiet beginning, the Jewish community in England grew steadily - in size, achievement and quality of life. The threat of anti-Semitism has however never been far from the surface, and with increasing numbers of Muslims and other faiths in Britain, the importance of religious toleration has never been more important. However, the agreement between the Archbishop and Chief Rabbi’s also contained this sentence:
“Neither evangelism nor conversion has a place amongst the purposes of the dialogue and we emphasise the importance of respect for each other’s faith and of rejecting actions intended to undermine the integrity of the other.”
Now if the Archbishop and Chief Rabbi’s have in mind the narrow purposes of their own personal and ongoing dialogue, to protect Jewish people from anti-semitism, then that is to be commended.
If however, it is an agreement that Christians will no longer tell their Jewish friends about how they can know God through Jesus then it is “another” gospel - just like the one Paul repudiates here.
If people can be made right with God through their faith, or their good works, through circumcision and obeying the mosaic rules, or offering animal sacrifices, or because of their race, then Jesus died for nothing. Contrast this with Paul’s own declared motive in the letter he wrote to the Corinthians.
“We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks… For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 1:23, 2:2)
“Nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In these opening verses, Paul is not over the top. In fact he is not being very original either. He is merely reiterating what Jesus said to the other Apostles. Jesus warned them to take care of those who were vulnerable, whether they were young in the faith or young in age.
“Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 3So watch yourselves.” (Luke 17:1-3)
So “watch yourselves” says Jesus. Watch yourselves because no one is impervious to error. No one is immune from being deceived. Now do you see why this is so serious?
We have seen in this introduction to Galatians how Paul exerts his authority, expresses his anxiety and exposes his adversaries.
He ends with a question “Am I now trying to win the approval of people, or of God?” What about you? Are you trying to win the approval of people, or of God? How can we be better prepared to respond the next time we hear a distorted message about Christ? What important letter to a struggling believer do we need to write this afternoon?
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:3)
With grateful thanks to John Stott, John McArthur and Warren Wersbie for their commentaries on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the introductory notes to Galatians in the NIV Study Bible.