Saturday 6 October 2012

No other gospel (Galatians 1:1-10)

Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead - and all the brothers with me.
To the churches in Galatia.
Galatians 1:1

“The name is Bond. James Bond.”

Yesterday was apparently, James Bond Day, marking fifty years since the very first 007 movie, Dr No, was screened in theatres. Film producers are celebrating the golden anniversary with a brand new movie (apparently shot in China) and an exclusive a fan auction where you can purchase authentic movie memorabilia, such as Daniel Craig’s swim shorts for just 44,450 pounds.

This reminds me of the page boy at my wedding ten years ago, who was this kid who was feeling nervous about having to walk down the aisle in front of a big crowd. His Mom kept reassuring him, “Don’t be afraid, darling. Smile and try to be confident.”

He was dressed smartly in black suit and bow tie so I thought I would help him out. I said to him, “Be like James Bond. Be cool!”

The plan worked, well, sort of. In every single photo we took with him - I kid you not -  he had his head tilted to one side, his arms were folded and the two fingers of his right hand were sticking out like he was holding a gun. That night, our page boy walked down the aisle, winking at all the ladies, as Bond, James Bond.

We’re looking at the letter of Galatians where Paul begins his letter introducing himself as an apostle. And he makes a really big deal about it. “Paul an apostle - sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.”

“The name is Paul. Apostle Paul.”

What Paul is doing is establishing his credentials - he has to - because, as we see in verse 10, there were people in the Galatian church saying, “Paul’s not the real thing. The stuff that he says, it’s all just empty talk to make us think he’s a bigger deal than he really is.”

Now some of us might be thinking, “So what if we call him Mr Paul or Apostle Paul?”

The name “apostle” means “sent one,” meaning: Paul is representing someone else. To be an apostle is to be an ambassador or representative. What you say or do reflects directly on the person who sent you there in the first place.

The reason why Paul is so concerned that we know that he is the real thing is because he represents the true and living God. “Sent not from men nor by man,” means, “I’ve not been sent here by a church organisation, a government agency or an important dignitary. I have been sent to this church by God.”

Which is why the very first verse, Paul spells out for us who this God is. He is the God “who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.”

If you are new with us here today, I wonder if you know the God whom we are talking about, the God whom we have been singing about. He isn’t simply a great and powerful being. He is more than just the God who created the world. Christians worship the God who revealed himself in history as the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

The purpose of our passage today is about uniqueness and exclusivity of this God. Paul gives us two reasons why the God of the bible is not to be confused with the God of other religions; two reasons which distinguishes Christianity from other faiths and beliefs.

The first reason is grace. And the second reason is the gospel. If you want to know what differentiates Christianity from all other religions, it is these two things: grace and the gospel.

1. Grace alone

Look with me to verse 3:

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 for ever and ever. Amen.
Galatians 1:3-5

A good way to understand grace is to remember the letters, G-R-A-C-E, which stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Grace is the bible’s way of describing how God’s blesses us with all his love, all his blessing, all his goodness, but he does this through Jesus Christ who pays the price of all this blessing by dying on the cross. “Christ Jesus gave himself for our sins.” He paid the price.

This is unique to Christianity. Other religions talk about how we need to give ourselves - to do good works, to try harder, to prayer and meditation. That’s the opposite of grace. Grace means we don’t do anything; we cannot do anything to earn our salvation. Grace means Jesus did everything for us on the cross.

If you go to work; you do your job well and at the end of the week your boss pays you your salary, you have earned it. But if you turn up late every morning and spend the whole day checking Facebook, and at the end of the week, your boss calls you into his office and says, “Here’s a bonus!” That’s grace. You didn’t earn it. In fact, you what you deserved was to be fired. But if that happens, your boss has shown you grace.

Now the interesting thing about Galatians is, grace is not simply a problem for non-Christians, it’s can actually be a problem for those who have been Christians for a long, long time. You see, these Christians in the Galatian church know that Jesus Christ died for them on the cross. When they first placed their trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, they were singing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

But after a while... after you have been a Christian for some time, you have been coming to church week after week, you’ve been to bible studies and retreats, you even take on responsibility by teaching in Sunday School and playing in the music team - after a while, all of us as Christians can start to lose sight of God’s amazing grace.

Why? Because we think, “I owe it to God.” Because we think, “I’ve failed God again, but this time I’ll try harder.” Because we think, “Wow, that guy or that girl is so godly, God must love him more than me.”

Instead of going back to the cross to see God’s grace, we look to ourselves and to our works. The bible has a word to describe such people: Pharisees. When we forget that our salvation is by grace alone, through Christ alone, what do we turn into? Pharisees. Pharisees are religious people, they are good people, who do their best for God and think that’s the reason why God should love them.

Pharisees hate the idea of grace. “How can tell the kids that God loves them even though they have been bad? Don’t you know that you will just produce naughty children? They will take advantage of you. No, you tell them about grace after they have been good. You tell them about grace after they have become Christians.”

Friends, I hope you know the difference between a Pharisee and a Christian. It’s grace. Paul used to be a Pharisee but everything changed the day he met Jesus Christ; the day he understood the meaning of grace: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. This is why Paul keeps reminding the Galatians about grace, grace and grace!

Verse 6: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ...
Verse 15: But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace...
Chapter 2, verse 9: They recognised the grace given to me.
Chapter 2, verse 21: I do not set aside the grace of God.
Chapter 3, verse 18: God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
Chapter 5, verse 3: You who are trying to be justified by law...You have fallen away from grace.
Chapter 6, verse 18: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit...

Why is it that Paul keeps coming back to this word - “grace” - again and again. God has called us by grace; God has saved by grace. Why? Because every time we talk to someone about Jesus Christ and tell them about the cross, they are going to think, “What’s the catch? What do you want me to do?” Salvation by works makes sense. Salvation by grace? That’s hard to accept!

For us here in the Chinese Church, I know that every time I open my mouth to preach, some of you are going to think, “Calvin wants me to come to bible study,” or “Calvin want me to pray more and serve in church.” No matter what I say or what the passage is about, some of you are going to leave here feeling guilty and burdened. Why? Because it is much easier to believe in a God who wants us to work for our salvation.

But that’s not the God of the bible. God saves us by grace - we don’t deserve it. Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins - This was the will of his Father. God planned it all along! And Paul says praise God for his grace! To him be glory for ever and ever, Amen!

“Thank you God for sending your son to die on the cross for me!” That’s the prayer that God wants to hear. That’s the kind of prayer that glorifies God.

So that first thing we see is grace. The second distinctive thing we see about God is the gospel.

2. The gospel

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 - 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

Newspapers reported this week how bees in northern France have begun producing blue honey. Since August, beekeepers in the town of Ribeauville started noticing that the bees were returning to their farms covered in unusual blue-coloured substances. When they harvested the nectar, they found it produced honey that had a rich blue colour. One beekeeper said, “I’m used to seeing orange or deep red honey, even black-coloured honey, but never in my life have I seen bees that produced blue honey!”

As it turns out, the reason is down to an M&M’s chocolate factory located near the region. The bees had apparently found their way into containers of sugary waste from the production of M&Ms and this led to the contaminated batch of honey.

Here we find that Paul says that he is surprised - shocked - that these Christians have turned to a different gospel or, if you like, a contaminated gospel.

The gospel is the announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord. The word is sometimes translated “good news.” When a BBC reporter presents the news on TV, his job is present it clearly and accurately. His job is not add or subtract from the news. His job is to read the news.

Here the bible is telling us that there is only one non-negotiable gospel. Adding to the gospel or leaving out bits from the gospel is a very serious thing, because what you have at the end of the day, is a false gospel.

Guys, do you know the gospel? Can you tell the difference between the real thing and a false gospel? Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ.” In the coming weeks, we will learn how the the issues in Galatia had to do with circumcision and Jewish laws, but here in verse 6 Paul sums it up by saying, “You guys have abandoned God’s grace.”

How can you tell when the gospel has been contaminated in our church? When move away from God’s grace and start talking about our works. When our bible studies are all about what we have to do instead of what Christ has done for us on the cross.

If you are a bible study leader, you need to listen up. If you teach Sunday School, Paul is talking about you right now. Listen to what he says next in verse 8.

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! 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

Preaching a false gospel is damnable. “Let him be eternally condemned!” Even if one day an angel from heaven turns up in church and starts preaching a false gospel, don’t listen to him. Even if the person who led you to Christ, who used to preach Jesus right here in the Chinese Church, but then abandons the central message of Christ crucified for our sins, we need to say to him, “Sorry, you cannot speak here anymore.” Actually, Paul’s words are much stronger than that. “Let him go to Hell.” Isn’t that what it means?

Now let’s get this straight. We’re not talking about a preacher who stands up on Sunday and starts talking about Buddha, Mohammed or Krishna. The false teachers in Galatia were saying, “You believe in Jesus Christ? So do I. But you know what? That’s not enough. You need to be circumcised. You need the law of Moses. You need to do this, and this, and this...” Friends, the gospel tells us that our salvation is by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. No added extras!

This is the second distinctive of Christianity: The gospel. It is talking about what is central and exclusive in our faith. Jesus Christ is Lord.

Being servants of Christ

Finally, Paul says in verse 10:

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, 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

And what Paul is saying is there is no such thing as a popular Christian. Now this is not a reason to be unloving or unconcerned towards your brothers and sisters in Christ (notice, that here Paul is not talking about non-Christians, he is actually talking about the Galatians), but it does mean that if you are standing up for Jesus, eventually you are going to ruffle feathers.

A pastor in Singapore once asked a newcomer the reason why he liked coming to his church. He expected to hear something along the lines of, “My friends come here,” or, “I like your preaching (!)” He was surprised when this newcomer said, “Actually, when I come here I feel very uncomfortable. When the bible is read and I hear God’s word, it troubles me. But you are teaching me the truth and that’s why I come. I want to hear the truth.”

I wonder if that’s the reason you are here today? Not because the music is great (because frankly, it isn’t). Not because the preaching is fantastic (because frankly, it isn’t). But because whenever we gather as God’s people around God’s word each Sunday, we hear the truth of the gospel.

My prayer is that God would be so gracious to us that we might be a grace-filled people, a Christ-centred church and a gospel-proclaiming community here in Cambridge all to the glory of his name. Amen.

No comments: