Sunday 14 October 2012

Losing my religion (Galatians 1:11-24)

1. The centre of Christianity

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.
Galatians 1:11

I got back from a trip to Rome last night. And yes, I did see the sights; I had the pizza and the gelato. Yes, I visited the Colosseum and the Vatican and had a fantastic time walking about the city.

A few friends have assumed that the reason why I visited Rome is because it is the centre of Christianity. Vatican City is residence to the Pope, who is head of the Roman Catholic Church with one billion members worldwide. About four million people visit the Vatican every year. Some make it a sort of pilgrimage; to gaze upon the relics and perhaps even to catch a glimpse of the Pope. Many go as tourists to snap photos of the artwork and architecture (and get neckaches in the process), such as Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Today I want us to look at the real centre of Christianity. It’s not a place but it’s here in the pages of your bibles. The centre of Christianity is something called the gospel.

Everything else flows out of this centre - worship, ministry, even the church. Now stop and think about that for a while. The gospel is the centre which defines our worship - the songs we just sung; our ministry - what it means to serve God; and especially the church - what it means to come together on a Sunday like this.

The reason why Paul wrote this letter was not because the Christians in Galatia hadn’t heard the gospel before (notice verse 11, “the gospel I preached,” meaning Paul had already preached the gospel to them) but because these Christians no longer saw the gospel as the centre.

Meaning, the question for us here today is, “What is our centre here as the Chinese Church?” If someone were to visit us for the first time - that might be some of you here today - looking around us today, hearing the songs we’ve just sung, noticing the way in which we talk to one another, what would an outsider say is the centre of the Chinese Church?

Is it the building? Is it the fact that we’re Chinese; that we always have Chinese food at our gatherings? Is it prayer and worship? None of these are bad things, of course, they are all good things (even the food). But we are asking: What is the most important thing?

The answer Paul gives us is: the gospel.

Look at what he says in verse 11. “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.” That verse is going to frustrate some of you today, because here is Paul saying to us, “What I want you know,” “What I really need to you to understand - about this gospel, about this centre of our Christian faith is....” and he tells us, “What it is not.” Not what it is, but what it’s not.

Paul, why don’t you just tell us the gospel! Well, he does. Quite simply, he says at the end of verse 12, it’s all about Jesus. But before he gets there, Paul clarifies a very important point. Verse 12, “I did not receive it from any man nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

In order to clarify what the gospel is we always have to clarify what the gospel isn’t. In our passage today, Paul gives us two things we often mistake for the gospel but two things which actually have nothing to do with the gospel.

The first is religion and the second is affirmation. Religion is about what we do; affirmation is about who we know. Or in Cantonese, religion is Pai San; affirmation is Pei Min.

As we go through these two points, I wonder if it is worth asking ourselves, “Is this what we think is and what we have mistaken for the gospel?”

2. The gospel is not religion

The first thing to look at is religion. Look with me to verse 13.

For you have heard of 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 Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
Galatians 1:13-14

Often times at baptisms, Christians stand up and give their testimonies. Some of you have done that here at the Chinese Church. Usually what you give as part of your testimony is a before and after story. Before: I used to live life my own way. Before: I attended church but I didn’t know Jesus. Before: I was this naughty kid in Sunday School who made life difficult for Miss Iris and Mrs Yvonne.

Then, After: I heard about Jesus, his death on the cross. After: I turned to Jesus and trust in him for forgiveness and new life. After: Now I teach Sunday School and know what it feels like to be despised and bullied by the kids!

I want you to look at Paul’s before and after story. Paul begins by confessing how bad he was - by persecuting the church, by trying to destroy the church (verse 13). But then he tells us how good he was. Verse 14, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age... I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
The thing to notice is, Paul is still talking about the before. Both his badness and his goodness are part of who he was before he became a Christian. In fact, the reason why he was so bad was because he was trying to be so good.

You see, if you met Paul before he was a Christian, you might have been tempted to ask him to help teach Sunday School. Why? Paul was the top student in Theology, “advancing beyond many Jews my own age,” meaning he had a PhD in Old Testament. Meaning: You could ask him to preach on any book of the bible, on any topic in scripture and he could give you the Greek and Hebrew meaning behind every text.

More than that, it says in verse 14 that Paul was “extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers,” meaning this guy was consistent: What he said he put into practice. Paul was the kind of guy you could trust with a big project like Mid-Autumn Festival because he would make sure that everything ran on time; he would make sure there was enough food for every guest. Why? Tradition was important for Paul. Anything he did, he did it the right way; he did it the traditional way. (“We must have Mid-Autumn Celebrations because... we’ve always had Mid-Autumn Celebrations!” he would say.)

And we sometimes forget that this was Paul before he became a Christian. The Paul who tried to destroy the church was the same Paul who tried to honour God by going to the temple, reading his bible and living a holy life (That’s what it meant for Paul to be a Pharisee, which literally meant “separate” or “set apart”). What’s going on? Paul is showing us why some of us don’t take sin seriously. Because we look at our goodness and think it cancels out the bad.

“Oh, I know I shouldn’t go on holiday alone with my girlfriend, but we’ll make sure we do bible study.” “Oh, I know I shouldn’t have skipped church but I’m preparing for Rock this week.” We cancel out our badness with our goodness.

It’s like the Mafia hitman who says, “Oh I know I shouldn’t kill people, but I’m nice to my mother.” We do something we know is bad, then we justify it by doing something else that is good.

What’s that? Friends, that’s the bible’s definition for religion. You see, some of us thought religion is about going to the temple and offering joss-sticks. In part, it is. What is it that you’re doing when you offer up the joss-sticks? You are doing something for God. Similarly, when you fast, pray, give money, obey your parents - Religion teaches that you are earning God’s blessing by doing something that is good, by doing something that will earn his favour.

The common thread running through all religions is what we need to do in order to get to God but the gospel tell us what God has done for us. That’s why Paul began in verse 11 by saying, “I want you to know brothers, that the gospel is not from man or about man.” What’s he saying? The gospel is not what you have to do but what God has done for you.

For Paul, what God did for him was reveal Jesus Christ. Look at verse 15.

But when God who set me apart from birth and called my by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man.
Galatians 1:15-16

What did Paul do to become a Christian? Answer: Nothing! God had already “set him apart” to be a Christian before he was born. God called Paul by his grace - and grace means not in view of all the goodness that was in Paul, but inspite of all the badness that was in Paul - God graciously called him to be a Christian.

Most importantly, what God did for Paul was reveal Jesus to him and here is where the gospel comes in, because Paul says in verse 16, “so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”

In Acts 26, Paul tells the story of how this happened. Reading from verse 12 (page 790):

On one of my journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O King, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

Then I asked, “Who are you Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord replied. “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.”
Acts 26:12-16

The word that Paul uses to describe this encounter is “revelation.” God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (verse 16). The thing that many of us want to know is: Should I expect this experience for myself? Later on today, while I’m driving home, will there be a sudden bright light forcing me off the road, with a voice from heaven saying, “John, John, why haven’t you come for Rock Fellowship for so long?”

Look again at verse 16. God revealed Jesus to Paul for a reason: so that he might preach him - or literally, gospel him - among the Gentiles. The revelation wasn’t just the encounter with Jesus (I’m not saying that can’t happen), but more so through the gospel that was given to Paul to preach. In the gospel, God reveals his Son.

That’s what God is doing even now. That’s a pretty bold thing for me to say - you might even think, that’s a pretty boastful thing for me to say! And if this were my words, and my thoughts alone, it would be!

But Paul says right from the beginning, “the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.” Inasmuch as I am faithful to God’s word and stand under its authority - not over it - God promises to reveal Jesus to us in the preaching of the gospel, even through my words right now. This is why it is so important to make the gospel the centre of everything we do (practically speaking it means keeping our bibles open) because we want Jesus to be at the centre, don’t we?

But Paul also warns us, what often gets in the way of revelation is religion. When we are just going through the motions of standing up and sitting down during the songs; just organising one church event after another. Some of us can’t tell the difference between and revelation and religion.

In fact, I wonder if it is because some of us prefer it that way. You see, revelation means direct access. No cover-up. Revelation means when you come to church, what you’ll hear about is Jesus. Our prayer meetings, it’s all about Jesus. Our fellowship time, it’s always about Jesus.

The reason why we might prefer religion is because then we get to make church all about ourselves - whether it’s our problems, our achievements, our ministry, our church. Paul is saying to us: That’s not the gospel. The gospel tells us what God has done not what we have to do. The gospel gives all glory to God, not to man.

That’s our first point. The gospel is not religion, but the revelation of Jesus Christ.

3. The gospel is not affirmation

The second thing we see is that the gospel is not affirmation - meaning, it’s not about approval. It’s not about being in the right club.

Look with me to verse 18:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter 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 to you is no lie.
Galatians 1:18-20

The background to Galatians (in case you weren’t here last week) is that Paul is being attacked for being a second-class pastor, that he wasn’t an apostle is the genuine sense. After all, Paul was not one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, he used to hunt down and kill Christians.

But most of all, Paul’s apostleship was being criticised as being second-class and second-rate, because his gospel was seen as being too simplified.

False teachers had come into the church saying it wasn’t enough trusting in Jesus alone. You needed to follow the whole bible: meaning, you had to be Jewish, you had to be circumcised, you had to do this and that and obey a whole list of regulations and rules.

Paul’s answer is that the whole bible points to Jesus. Every part of the bible points to what he has done for us, not what we need to do for him. That’s the gospel.

But another charge that the false teachers made against Paul was that he was simply trying to act big by copying the real apostles. This is where this last bit in today’s passage comes in. They were, in effect, saying, “Hmm, Paul’s last sermon sounds a bit like an MP3 I downloaded last week from Peter’s website (You know, I think Paul didn’t actually receive the gospel from Jesus, rather, he just copied it from one of the other ‘real’ apostles. Apostles like Peter, John and James.”

Which is why you get this strange account from verse 18 onwards, where Paul says, “Hey, I only met the guy three years after I started preaching.” In fact, what happened was, he spent two weeks with Peter, he saw none of the other Twelve apostles except for James. And then Paul adds in verse 20, “I swear before God, I’m not bluffing you.” After that, Paul disappeared for an eleven-year mission trip before ever stepping foot back into Jerusalem.

Now why does he say this? Because Paul wants us to be 100% sure that the gospel is self-authenticating. It does not depend on how fancy your church is or how famous your pastor is. The gospel that he preached was 100% the true gospel of Jesus Christ, even without the stamp of approval from the official Jerusalem church. Why? Because it had God’s approval. Verse 11 again, “the gospel is not something man made up... it was received by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

A side-point to note is that Paul’s preaching probably sounded remarkably similar to Peter’s even though the two had never met until much later. When you preach the gospel, you are preaching Jesus. You are calling people to repent from sin. You are calling people to trust in Jesus alone. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s in English, Cantonese or Mandarin, or whether it’s in England or Hong Kong, if you are preaching the gospel, you will hear about sin, repentance, faith, trust, salvation all pointing to Jesus Christ crucified on the cross.

Conversely, what Paul is warning us against is confusing the gospel of God with the approval of man. Assuming that just because the guy standing up front is a big-named pastor, or because he graduated from Cambridge or is dressed in black robes like Batman that what comes out of his mouth is necessarily the gospel.

Look at verse 18, where Paul says he went to Jerusalem in order to get “acquainted” with Peter; the word there means “to interview.” Paul was checking Peter out, not the other way around. You see, Paul was confident that the gospel he had was the real gospel simply because it was about Jesus, simply because he had received it from Jesus. But he didn’t assume that just because Peter was Jesus’ disciple, he too, was preaching the gospel. Paul went to Jerusalem, not to Pei Min, not to get Peter’s autograph, but actually to investigate the content of his gospel.

If anything, Acts 9 tells us that Paul spent most of his time in Jerusalem doing the same thing he did everywhere else: preaching the gospel. What happened was he ended up debating with some Grecian Jews who then tried to kill him which was why he had to head back to Tarsus. (Acts 9:28-30)

Look with me to verse 22:

I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They 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.
Galatians 1:22-24

Paul was a nobody in Jerusalem. No one knew him. Everyone was afraid of him. And yet despite all of this, the gospel was preached and God was praised.

Some of us think that we need to be a somebody before God can use us for his kingdom. It has even come to the point that some Christians will only go into ministry if it means they will be get to preach to big crowds, write books, pastor megachurches - all to the glory of Jesus, of course.

Paul was a nobody telling everybody about the real somebody: Jesus Christ. And because of that God was praised. Is that enough for you? That no one hears about you, no one praises you for the work that you did, but just refers to you as “that weird guy or girl whom God is using”... if at all?

Paul had the gospel and that was reason enough to open his mouth and tell people about Jesus. He didn’t need accolades or affirmations. He had Jesus and that was enough.

4. Is Jesus enough?

And it really just comes down to that: Is Jesus enough for us?

The Chinese Church has always been a small church, and especially so, here in the English Ministry. Might God grow our church this year? Maybe. Will we suddenly purchase a new building and start new ministries around the city? Maybe.

But do you remember what the master says to the servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents? “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21) The question for us as a small church is: Are we faithful with the few things?

More importantly, are with faithful with the one thing God has given us: the gospel. Despite our small size, I think God has been gracious with us bringing us back to the gospel again and again, and in this sense, we lack no good thing. He has given us Jesus, the one thing we need, the one thing we most certainly have.

True, some other churches have more vibrant music, better preaching, more staff, more ministry opportunities, bigger buildings. And I praise God for these churches and I pray for the leaders in these churches by name.

And yet, just because you are in a smaller church like the Chinese Church, it doesn’t mean you lack any good thing. By that, I’m not even talking about the advantages of having smaller groups and better accountability (actually, I really admire how some of the big churches do a great job at keeping their members connected to one another).

No, I want you to stay and invest your lives here in the Chinese Church because of the gospel. That should be the question you’re asking of any church - big or small - Is that church proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ? I say this for your consideration as members but also for our commitment here as leaders in the Chinese Church. Will we commit to preaching Jesus Christ in anything and everything we do? To ensure that our number one priority in every event, bible study, gathering is that people hear about Jesus?

Will we place our confidence in the revelation of God and not in the religion of man, fearing God above our tendencies to fear our fellow man?

The gospel is the centre of who we are and everything we do as followers of Jesus Christ. It declares that he alone is Lord and he alone deserves all glory, honour and praise.

And what we need to do with his gospel is to proclaim it boldly and clearly; to give our lives to it in faith and repentance. And to keep the gospel central in our focus as God’s people gathering around God’s word.

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his saints,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
Psalm 34:8-10

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