Sunday 28 October 2012

For the sake of the gospel (Galatians 2:1-10)

Second-class Christian

Is there such a thing as a second-class Christian? Have you ever been made to feel second-class in your own church?

That is the issue in today’s passage. Previously in Galatians Chapter 1, Paul was defending charges against himself and against the gospel. Outsiders had come into the church accusing him of being a second-rate pastor peddling a second-hand gospel. Paul was not Jerusalem-approved, they said. His sermons were copied off the Internet, they implied.

But here in Galatians Chapter 2, we see the knock-on effect of those claims. If their pastor was second-rate and if their gospel was second-hand, what they were really saying was their church was second-class.

Of course, the visitors had not arrived empty-handed. Having come from a first-class church in Jerusalem, they brought with them a first-class solution - the law of Moses. If the Galatians wanted to be real Christians, according to these visitors, all they needed to do was add a little something to their faith; just a few rules, all of which are found in the bible. Do this, they said, and their church would be a first-class church.

It is pretty obvious from Paul’s words here in Galatians 2 that he is upset with the situation. You get a sense of how frustrated he is, not just with these outsiders, but also with his own church for listening to these outsiders. And yet we will see today that what he does in response to the outsiders is truly wise. Paul doesn’t burn bridges. He doesn’t write a blog condemning the leaders in Jerusalem. What he does is identify the real issue at stake, which is the gospel. He makes the issue what it really is about - not himself, not their culture, not even their church. What is at stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We will see three things from today’s passage - three reasons why Paul steps into this situation of conflict. It’s not for himself. Rather, he does this:

1. For the sake of the Christians in his church
2. For the sake of the Christians in other churches, especially their leaders.
3. For the sake of the gospel itself

1. For the sake of the Christians in his church

This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain in you.
Galatians 2:4-5

Paul refers to these outsiders in four different ways (looking just at verse 4). As (1) false brothers, (2) as infiltrators (meaning, they snuck in through the back door), (3) as spies and (4) as enslavers.

So on the one hand, they were sneaky. They turned up one night at Rock Fellowship, joined in our bible study discussion and said, “Amen,” at the end of every prayer. Paul calls them “false brothers,” meaning at first glance they looked and sounded just like any one of us.

On the other hand, these visitors had a destructive agenda. Their intention was to enslave Christians to the law. From their perspective, the second-generation Christians in Galatia had too much freedom. From their perspective, these Christians needed to be taught some rules, you know, just to make sure they weren’t getting out of line.

Bible scholars often refer to these outsiders from Jerusalem as Judaizers (a word taken from Galatians 2:14). Judaizers are members of a movement that tried to force Christians to adopt Jewish cultural practices. They tried to force Christians to become Jews. The issue had partly to do with race, culture, tradition and moral uprightness. The Judaizers claimed that to be a Christian inwardly you also had to be a Jew outwardly. After all, Jesus was a Jew. His chosen apostles were all Jews (including Paul himself). Not only that, the Old Testament law contained rules on how to live like a Jew. Shouldn’t we take the Old Testament seriously as Christians?

Now I doubt that many of us in the Chinese Church will be pressured anytime soon to live like a Jew. You would have to give up eating Char Siu Paus. There would be no more badminton sessions with Uncle and Auntie Ho after church on Sundays. And all the men will have to go for a very sensitive and painful operation called circumcision. Ouch!

But imagine that one day a visitor from the Mandarin congregation joined in our English service and said to you, “This is a Chinese Church. Why are you singing English songs and reading English bibles?” How would you respond?

Some of us might point out that many here are BBC’s (British-born Chinese). We might gently remind them this isn’t China! But if we said those things, we would be acting just like the Judaizers. We would be putting our culture above Christ.

The truth is it’s easy to think of instances when we have been victimised; when we have been made to feel second-class; when others have pressured us to conform. Yet when that happens, our instinct is to turn the tables; to make our accusers feel small; to make our cause, our traditions and our culture out to be more important than theirs.

For Paul, the main issue was not culture at all – Greek or Jewish, or for the matter, Asian versus British – but the gospel. Look at what he says in verse 5. “We did not give in to them for a moment so that the truth of the gospel might remain in you.” What is Paul saying? I am fighting this fight for you. I am standing up to these Judaizers for the sake of your faith and the assurance of your salvation in Jesus Christ.

The damage that the Judaizers were inflicting on the Gentile church was not such that Gentiles were beginning to think their non-Jewish culture was bad. No, the result was such that Gentiles believers were starting to think that their gospel was bad. They were starting to think that it wasn’t enough to trust in Jesus alone for their acceptance before God; that they needed to add something extra to the gospel.

What Paul was saying to them in verse 5 is, “You guys are the real thing. You have the full gospel.” But in order to make that point, Paul had to do one thing: He had to fight for the gospel.

To Jerusalem

And Chapter 2 begins with Paul bringing the fight all the way to Jerusalem. Look with me to verse 1.

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel I that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.
Galatians 2:1-3

Paul pursued this matter all the way to Jerusalem. Now, Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. It was the location of the temple of God. It was the historic city of King David’s throne. But Jerusalem was also ground zero for the gospel. It was there in Jerusalem that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place which sparked off the mission of the gospel to the nations.

Paul wanted to trace the issue back to its roots. For us it would be as extreme as driving up to COCM Headquarters, knocking on the front door and saying to the leaders, “We need to sit down and talk about this issue because it’s serious!”

The last time Paul had been to Jerusalem was eleven years ago (Galatians 1:18, whereby the fourteen years mentioned in Galatians 2:1 is measured from the time of Paul’s conversion). This time, Paul says, he didn’t go alone but brought with him two significant individuals from his church – Barnabas and Titus.

Bringing Barnabas made sense. Barnabas was the guy who introduced Paul to the apostles in the first place (we see this in Acts 9:27). His name means “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36) which implies that this was the kind of guy whom everyone could get along with. Barnabas is the guy who comes into a disagreement and all the parties go, “Yup, I’ll listen to what he has to say.”

Titus, however, was an interesting addition. Unlike Barnabas, Titus was Greek which meant that Paul was bringing a non-Jew into the capital city of Jerusalem. It was a controversial move, much like inviting a vegetarian over for dinner at Rock Fellowship (“Chicken, chicken and more chicken.”)

Why did Paul do this? If all Paul wanted to do was to argue his case, he could have gone alone. Bringing Barnabas made sense but why Titus? No one knew him. He was a Greek! No one had anything in common with him.

But, you see, that is precisely why Paul brought Titus along. The people in Jerusalem needed to see Titus, who was a genuine believer in Christ. As a Greek, Titus was representing all the non-Jewish converts back in Galatia and Paul wanted the apostles to look at Titus, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, and call him, “Brother.”

Hence, verse 2, “I… set before the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.” “Here’s a Gentile,” Paul would have said, “who has received the same gospel, the same Jesus, the same salvation that we received. He is our brother.”

But there is another reason Paul tells us that he brought Titus to Jerusalem. Verse 3, says, “Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.” Now why make a big deal about something Titus didn’t do? It is Paul’s way of saying that Titus stood his ground under great pressure. Verse 4, “We did not give into them even for a moment.” If the church in Galatia was being pressured to take on the Law of Moses from a few visiting Jews in their midst, then imagine the pressure that Titus felt walking the streets of Jerusalem.

The Jews in Jerusalem would have looked at Paul hanging out with his non-Jewish friend and said, “What’s he doing with that outsider?” Or, “I wonder if Paul has broken our sacred law by bringing this outsider into the temple.” The easiest thing to deal with such gossip was simply to circumcise Titus (well, perhaps not so easy for Titus), but Paul tells us that Titus wasn’t compelled to do so. Why didn’t Titus give in to the pressure to conform? Wouldn’t it have made it easier for Paul to talk with the Jerusalem leaders, without all this speculation hanging over their heads?

Titus was 100% confident in the gospel. He knew that in Jesus Christ he was 100% acceptable before God. Paul reflect on this incident in order to say to his friends in Galatia, “What about the pressures that you are struggling with? If Titus was confident of his standing in the gospel while walking in the streets of Jerusalem, why are you doubting your freedom in the gospel in your own church?”

Friends, do you have this freedom that comes from trusting in Jesus? The religious outsiders came into the Galatian church, took one look at the Christians there and went, “These guys have too much freedom. They are just going to abuse it. They don’t deserve to be so joyful. There must be some hidden sin in their lives.” As a Christian, if someone says that to you, you should respond, “Of course, I am a sinner! I don’t deserve this freedom! But Jesus Christ has freed me from all my sin – he has taken all that weight, all that shame, all that pride off my shoulders. He bore my sin on his shoulders when he died on the cross.”

If you are a Christian, there are always going to be people around you who will be scandalised by your confidence; who are going to be offended by your freedom in the in gospel. But instead of caving in to that pressure to prove yourself, what should you do? You should point to Jesus, not try to prove that you deserve of this freedom, but that you received it by grace through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Paul wanted his church to have this freedom – this rock solid assurance – that comes from the gospel. “We did not give in to them for a moment,” he says in verse 5, “so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.”

2. For the sake of the Christians in other churches, especially their leaders

So, the first reason Paul was fighting was for his own church, his own brothers and sisters. But secondly, he was also concerned for other Christians, specifically, the leaders in Jerusalem. They, too, needed to recognise that their identity was rooted not in their culture or good works, but solely on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the message of the gospel.

As for those who seemed to be important – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance – those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Galatians 2:6-8

Where he says, “God does not judge by external appearance,” it literally translates as “God does not receive man’s face.” What is Paul saying? He didn’t Pei Min to the apostles just because they were apostles. If anything, the way in which Paul refers to Peter, James and John – dare I say it? - borders almost on the disrespectful. Almost!

Verse 2: But I did this privately with those who seemed to be leaders.
Verse 6: As for those who seemed to be important – whatever they were makes no difference to me…
Verse 9: James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars…

I don’t think that Paul means to cheapen or demean the apostles’ status as pillars and leaders within the Christian church, but what he is doing, for the sake of his readers, is setting their position as leaders rightly within the context of the gospel. Their position as leaders is one of stewardship. These men have been entrusted with the gospel; and it is the gospel which gives them their authority; it is the gospel which defines for them their responsibilities as leaders within the Christian community.

This is important because when Paul went to Jerusalem, it wasn’t to compare who had the bigger church, who had the best preaching, who had the best leadership style or who had the most influential culture to win people over to Christ. Paul didn’t make the trip to Jerusalem to talk strategy.

Instead, Paul had one clear agenda. He repeats it again and again, every single time he refers to his meeting with the apostles. Did you notice that? He had but one item on his agenda: The gospel. “I… set before them the gospel,” verse 2; “those men added nothing to my message,” verse 6; “they saw I had been entrusted with… the gospel,” verse 7.

We have already seen that Paul went all the way to Jerusalem, bringing Barnabas and Titus with him, to represent his church back in Galatia. But here we see another reason why we went to Jerusalem: Paul was concerned for them. Notice how he expresses this concern back in verse 2, “for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.” Some people might read that to mean Paul was unsure whether he had got the gospel right. The Judaizers had turned up in his church one day saying, “That’s not how we do it in Jerusalem,” and this must have got Paul thinking, “Did I miss something? Do I need to have my sermons checked out by Peter and John and James to ensure that I haven’t left out some key doctrine about the law?”

That is, some people read this and think that Paul was doubting himself as an apostle; he was doubting his work as a pastor. I disagree. In fact, I think it is the other way around. Paul was worried that the leaders in Jerusalem might have got the gospel recipe wrong.  That’s why he made the trip there. He was concerned that artificial preservatives were being added to gospel message and that these preservatives were coming from Jerusalem itself; that the false gospel of Jesus plus the works of the law was being preached from the pulpits of the Jerusalem church

What made him fearful – that made Paul think he was running this race in vain - was the prospect of a split church: Jew and Gentile churches going their separate ways because of this misunderstanding in the gospel. Because of these artificial preservatives being added to the gospel.

The one and only agenda

Despite his concerns, Paul approached the matter with some degree of care. In verse 2, he makes it a point to tell us that he arranged a private meeting with the apostles. He didn’t start a campaign on Twitter. There weren’t rallies outside Peter’s house with protesters chanting, “Don’t give face, Mo Pei Min!” What Paul had to say, he said behind closed doors. He confronted the apostles but he also wanted to win them over. Barnabas was there, Titus was there. Everyone at the table was heng tai. “We are going to talk frankly, openly, lovingly. We are going to talk about the gospel.”

During this meeting, Paul tells us that he “set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.” That cannot mean that he gave his sermon outline to Peter to approve because in verse 6, Paul states quite strongly, “those men added nothing to my message.”

So what did Paul do in that meeting? To put it very simply, he preached the gospel. Sounds like a very unlikely thing to do at a Christian meeting, doesn’t it? In a gathering of church leaders, of pastors and preachers, you might expect to discuss all manner of things – the declining numbers in church attendance, poverty, persecution, financial matters, the Christmas event coming up at the end of the year - but Paul did something quite extraordinary and unexpected. He preached the gospel to these Christians leaders.

But it shouldn’t be unexpected. Christians need the gospel. And I suggest to you: Christian leaders need the gospel even more.

Get this: Here was a situation in which Paul was concerned that most well-known leaders of the Christian world had got the message of salvation in Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone – wrong! I mean, how dare he! Who does he think he is?

I don’t know who you consider as your heroes in the faith. Personally, I admire pastors like Don Carson, John Piper and Tim Keller who have taught me much through their public ministry of preaching the bible faithfully and clearly through the years. To me, what Paul did in presenting his gospel to the apostles in Jerusalem would be something like my going up to someone I admire as a model –take Don Carson, for example – and saying to him, “Don, I’m concerned about what you have been preaching lately. Here is my text from last Sunday’s sermon. I want you to read it carefully and if you have any problems with it, I suggest to you that it’s not because there’s something lacking in my preaching of the gospel; it’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with your understanding of the gospel!” Who am I say such an outrageous thing? He’s the Don! In Chinese we would say: He has eaten more salt that I have eaten rice!

And yet… and yet, we should never elevate anyone’s authority over the gospel, no matter who they are. The fact that Paul arranged this meeting privately with the apostles tells me that he was concerned on their behalf. It took a revelation from God, the beginning of verse 2 tells us, to get him to make this important step.

Stop and think about this for moment: What was it that was so serious about this issue? I mean, what’s the big deal? So a few overzealous guys are trying to get Christians to take the law more seriously, what’s so bad about that? All this was happening at a time when Christians were being killed for their faith. There was serious famine that was about to envelope the whole Roman world (Acts 11:28). Weren’t there bigger issues for Paul to be concerned with – not least sin? Why focus so much attention on a few overly keen religious wierdos who are teaching stuff that’s in the bible anyways?

For Paul, this was the number one issue. It was so serious that if unresolved it meant everything he did was for nothing. You see, Paul did not dare to assume the gospel.

It’s not that there aren’t big issues to deal with as Christians. Acts 11 tells us  that Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was part of a response team to bring aid and relief to the believers in Jerusalem who were suffering, which is why in verse 10, when the apostles asked that they continue to remember the poor, he says, “That’s the very thing I’m eager to do.” And it’s not that issues with sin and morality aren’t important to Paul; he gives a pretty comprehensive outline of sinfulness – fifteen in all – in chapter 5, calling us as Christians to crucify our sinful passions with its passions and desires.

But the one thing Paul wants to make absolutely clear before he approaches any of those subjects is the gospel – the message of God’s free grace through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. He does not dare, for one moment, to presume that just because the people he is speaking with share his concern for the poor, or that they share his passion for lost, that they share his understanding of the gospel.

Just because the person sitting across the table has a nametag that says “Pastor”; just because you’ve gone on a mission trip together; just because you are serving together on a church committee – does not mean that you should assume the gospel. I wonder if that isn’t the reason why the gospel is so absent in our meetings as leaders? The higher up you go in terms of responsibility, in terms of ministry, the more Pai Seh we are to ask the people around us, “So, what does it mean for Jesus Christ to die on the cross for your sins.”

Friends, it’s not prayer. It’s not ministry. It’s not evangelism. It’s the gospel. When was the last time the gospel was the number one agenda in your meetings; the only agenda in your meetings? Are we assuming the gospel? That’s not love. It’s not respect. It’s fear and shame of the gospel.

If we don’t have the gospel, then ministry is meaningless. You are serving in Children’s church, you are serving in Rock, you are song-leading on Sundays – but without the gospel, how does your ministry bring glory to Jesus? Without the gospel, aren’t you making ministry about yourself?

If we don’t have the gospel, evangelism is a waste of time. People come because of the food. They come because of their friends. They come to have a good time. But for all intents and purposes, a church without the gospel is a community centre – and probably not a very good one at that.

If we don’t have the gospel, we don’t really love one another. You are praying for that sick friend, you are counselling that brother about his problem, you are helping that couple through a crisis – but you don’t dare talk about what it means trust in Jesus. You just give good advice; you’ve not once given the good news. Why? Because you are afraid they will be offended. Because you think it won’t help. You don’t love your friends, not enough.

Paul cared enough for his own church to make a stand for the gospel. But Paul also cared enough for his friends to tell them the gospel. He didn’t assume it. He preached it even to these pastors, even to these leaders, even to these Christians brothers, because he loved them.

3. For the sake of the gospel itself

James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Galatians 2:9-10

When we use the word “fellowship,” as Christians, what we often say is, “Come to my fellowship, we hang out every week to do bible study and eat a lot of food!” Fellowship sounds fun. Actually to our non-Christian friends, it must sound weird, almost like a cult group. It’s not a meeting, it’s not a club, it’s not a society – it’s a fellowship!

When Paul says that James, Peter and John gave him and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship,” it doesn’t mean that they had hot pot together and sang Christians songs afterwards. What it means is partnership. That night, the apostles agreed to form a partnership in the gospel. They were saying to Paul and Barnabas, “We are going to work together on this.”

What is so strange about this partnership is that the moment it was formed, they went their separate ways! Paul went to the Gentiles; Peter and the rest stayed with the Jews. What is this saying? The basis of Christian fellowship is not how nice the food is. It’s not even the fact that we meet under the same roof. The one and only basis of fellowship is the gospel. Isn’t that what it is saying?

This is to the extent, that Paul would add in verse 10, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor.” Even something that is as important as meeting the needs of the poor – as essential as caring for the poor (remembering that the context here from Acts 11 is that Paul was bringing relief aid to the poor Christians in Jerusalem who were being persecuted), even that, is secondary to the gospel.

At the end of the day, what was achieved in that meeting? Why did Paul go all the way to Jerusalem? If all Paul wanted to do was deal with the Judaizers he could have stayed home and dealt with them there and then. What was the point of meeting up with the apostles?

The point was the gospel. It is saying that the gospel is bigger than my church and your church. The gospel is bigger than my problems and your problems. The reason we do what we do is the gospel.

Making the point to get the gospel right with our ministry partners here in Cambridge is more important that holding events together, inviting speakers to come preach on Sundays (especially, I hope, not as a form of Pei Min), or referring counselling cases to one another. It means looking at each other, eyeball-to-eyeball and saying, “Have we got this straight? Are we on message with the gospel? If so, you might be doing this in Hong Kong, we might be here in Cambridge – but we are partners. I’ve got your back. I know you’ve got mine.”

That’s fellowship. The Greek word koinonia means “sharing something we have in common.” More than food, more than our Chinese-ness, more than our love for the same kind of movies – the one thing we have in common as Christians is the grace we have received from Jesus Christ. It’s the gospel. Paul says, “They recognised the grace given to me.” He wasn’t just referring to his salvation. It was the privilege of preaching the message of Jesus Christ.

Is that our partnership here in the Chinese Church? Are we seeing eye-to-eye on the gospel such that whether you turn up in the Mandarin section or the English, whether you turn up for Joshua or Rock, whether you are teaching Sunday School or playing music – you will not only know the gospel, you will actually hear the gospel proclaimed boldly, clearly, unashamedly.

The only solution

I began by asking the question: Have you ever felt second-class? As a Christian in your own church? As a Chinese person living here in the UK? It’s a horrible feeling. At the heart of it, the question is: Have you ever been rejected not simply because of what you did but purely because of who you are?

It’s easy to point the finger at others, but for the moment, I want to look at what we are doing here in the Chinese Church. Even more specifically what we do here in the English Ministry. Are there things that we do here that would make some of us say, “I don’t feel welcome here. These guys think they are better than me.”

How do we deal with that? One way would be to remove the offence. Take out anything that is smacks of pride or boastfulness – whether it’s something in the way that we dress, or the way that we talk, or the songs that we sing – and at least incorporate everyone into our meetings. That’s worth doing. It’s challenging because it means having to change things constantly, picking up on what is helpful, what isn’t, making things clear and accessible. Still, we need to keep doing this – to keep removing obstacles to the gospel.

Another way would be to keep reminding one another of our worth and value. To be able to look at another human being and recognise that this person was made in the image of God. I want to know this person. I want God to show me what part of himself he has put into this brother and sister.

Also we should pay special attention to the newcomer. “You are welcome here. I know you’re only here because your friend dragged you to church. You can’t wait to dash out of the door the moment the service ends. But I need you to know, that you are welcome, even your problems with what we are doing here as Christians are welcome, and please feel free to tell us what you think they are.”

But at the end of the day, you can only do so much to minimise the external influences that threaten undermine our self-worth and identity in Christ. You can kick out the Judaizers. You can meet with the leaders to come up with a plan. You can elect leaders like Barnabas to keep the peace. But what you can’t do through any measure of programmes, personalities and people is deal with the reality of sin and death.

What do you say to someone who is racked with guilt and unworthiness over their sin? What if a person who is suffering from cancer turns to you and asks, “Is God punishing me?” How do you counsel someone who has been repeatedly told all his life that he is good for nothing?

Friends, the only real solution is the gospel. The gospel is good news for bad people. The gospel exposes the real cause for our unworthiness – our sin before God, both personal and collective – and shows us what it means find true freedom from sin, pride and expectation. It means Jesus had to die. You suffering didn’t just vanish into nothingness. It went somewhere. Jesus took it on your behalf when he was nailed to the cross. Jesus took your rejection and unworthiness upon himself when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

And the gospel says, he gives you his righteousness and loveliness. He gives it to you. You didn’t earn it. He gives it to you.

That’s grace. That’s the gospel. And in Jesus Christ, that’s what we have received through his death on the cross on our behalf – full forgiveness, full restoration, and fullness of joy.

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