Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 1: 11-24 Freedom from the past

One of the games we used to play at Youth group was a game called Telephone. You might know it better as Chinese Whispers. The young people sat in a line, and a message was given to the first person. They then had to whisper it to the next person, and so on, down the line, until the last person would reveal what they had been told. If it worked, you’d hear the same message, but most times it didn’t, and you’d get something entirely different! So you’d trace back to see where the message came from, and who said what.

The more grown-up version is when you hear some piece of news (or is it gossip?), and you ask them, where did you get that from? Who told you that? This is the question that Paul addresses in this next section of Galatians. Last week we began the letter by hearing that Paul is God’s man with God’s message, so don’t turn away from the gospel of grace. And Paul was quite insistent that his gospel is the real thing, the genuine article - whereas any other gospel is no gospel at all.

The Galatians may well be asking, well, how can we be sure that you’re right? Could Paul have been at the end of the Telephone game and got it wrong? Had he missed out on something that the false teachers said was true?

To help us understand all this, we need to know a wee bit about the false teaching. It was insisting that in order to be a real Christian, you also had to be a Jew, by submitting to the whole Old Testament law, and especially by being circumcised. Paul was saying that you didn’t have to be circumcised, or obey the law to be saved - you just had to believe. So which is right? Had Paul misheard the real gospel? Was he lacking some important element of it? So the question is, Paul, where did you get your gospel from?

He tells us in verse 11-12. And in these verses, he tells us where he didn’t get it from, first of all: ‘I want you to know brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.’ This isn’t something that Paul invented one day; he didn’t make it up; this isn’t just a wee story. Ok, so, maybe he heard it from someone else?

‘I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it.’ So he’s clear that he hasn’t misheard when someone else told him the gospel, that he hasn’t missed out or added to it. So where did he get it from? ‘rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.’

There were no middle men, no bits added or missing, Paul received the gospel directly from Jesus, by revelation. We can be sure that Paul has the real thing, the genuine article. And Paul shows it by pointing to two things from his story - his testimony, and his travels.

First up, Paul reminds them his testimony. A testimony is a story of how you came to faith - and also how God is continuing to grow you. At it’s most basic, it’s divided in the same way that time is - BC and AD - Before Christ, and Anno Domini (the year of our Lord, or after Christ). Paul’s BC is there in verse 13-14. ‘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 beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.’ Before Christ, Paul was a persecutor. He was intense, he tried to destroy the church.

Move on to verse 16, ‘so that I might preach him (Jesus) among the Gentiles...’ The persecutor became the preacher. What a turn around! From one extreme to the other. And how did this happen? What was it that brought about the change? We see it in verse 15:

‘But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles...’

Three things happened to Paul. It wasn’t that Paul woke up and decided to change. It wasn’t that he decided to retrain as a preacher. It wasn’t that he so completely followed the traditions of his fathers that then impressed God enough to save him. Paul didn’t DO anything. It was all of God - the three things that happened to Paul, to turn his life around - they’re the same things that happened to us when we believed (or will happen when you do believe):

1 God set me apart from birth - or as the footnote puts it, from my mother’s womb. That’s an echo of the call of Jeremiah, but it’s the truth for all God’s people. God sets us apart, before we can do or say anything, he has chosen us.

2 God... called me by his grace. Paul definitely didn’t deserve to be saved. He was persecuting Christians, trying to destroy the church! But God’s call of grace is always undeserved. He just calls us.

3 God... was pleased to reveal his Son in me. Paul may have known something about Jesus, but it took this revelation, this turning on of the light, this moment when he saw Jesus, and everything changed. We may not get a visible revelation of Jesus, but we suddenly see him revealed to us in God’s word.

Paul knew all about the gospel of grace, because he had experienced it for himself. His own testimony showed that his gospel had come by revelation from Jesus. His life was flipped turned upside down - from persecutor to preacher, all and only by grace.

What’s your story? Have you got a testimony to share? How life was before - you may not have been a persecutor beforehand, your story may not be as extreme as Paul’s, but there will have been a change (and there’ll still be changes happening...). Have you experienced this grace in your own life? Have you received all that God does for us in the gospel - setting us apart by his sovereign choice; calling us by his grace; revealing his Son to us - have you experienced these things for yourself?

Paul’s testimony shows that he has the real gospel. But then he goes on to talk about his travels. Now when you hear that travels word, you might think - time for a snooze. Is this going to be like having to sit through someone’s holiday photos? Or listening to someone go on and on about every detail of where they went on holiday, and where all they’ve ever been?

It’s not, I promise you. You see, Paul has a purpose for mentioning this. He’s showing us again that he didn’t get his gospel from other people - and definitely not from the Judaisers (as they’re known - the people wanting to add to the gospel the principles of Judaism, like circumcision). And he shows us this by telling us about his movements.

We see this sort of thing all the time in detective series - when the policeman asks, where were you on the evening of the 20th March? Will the suspect have an alibi, making sure that they weren’t at the scene? That’s what Paul is doing here. It starts back in verse 15 again. ‘But when God... was pleased to reveal his Son in me... I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.’

So when Paul became a Christian, he wasn’t taught by others, he didn’t go to Jerusalem. He was far away, in Arabia and Damascus. He then did go to Jerusalem - three years later - to get to know Peter, but it was only a short visit, fifteen days. He only saw Peter and James (the rest of the apostles were afraid of him - Acts 9:26). Then he went away again, to Syria and Cilicia.

Do you see what he’s saying? He wasn’t depending on being told the gospel in Jersualem, he already had it from Jesus. And he was only with them a short time. And as for the churches in Judea - the place where the false gospel of the Judaisers may have come from - he didn’t know them, and they didn’t know him.

‘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.’

Paul’s travels show that he didn’t receive the gospel from anyone else, and so didn’t mess it up. He received it directly from Jesus. We can believe it, and receive the gospel of grace that was evident in Paul’s testimony.

That grace of God shown to Paul led to God’s praise. As the churches of Judea heard how God’s grace had changed Paul from persecutor to preacher, they praised God. And God’s grace continues to lead to God’s praise.

Just think how amazing it would be if those who are currently persecuting Christians became Christians themselves. Those involved in the North Korean regime; or any of the other countries on the Open Doors world watch list. If God’s grace called them, and revealed Christ to them - what praise there would be. So pray for it!

Or the celebrity atheists - Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Fry, or some of the others you see on TV or read in the paper. Could God save even them? Yes, by his grace, and by revealing his Son to them. Pray for it to happen!

Or what about you? Could God save you? It happens as God calls us by grace, and reveals his Son to us. As we respond, it brings about a big change in our life, but even more praise to God.

One man would have been considered too bad for God to save. He tried to desert his Royal Navy ship. He was transferred to a slave ship, and became a slaver captain; a particularly cruel one at that. But one day, he cried out to God in a storm off the north coast of Ireland, and in St Columb’s cathedral, discovered the wonderful grace of God - or as he (John Newton) puts it in his hymn, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.’

Is this your testimony? I pray it will be so. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th September 2017.

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