Gen 12:1-3; Gen 15:1-6; Ps 32; Gal 3:1-9 Luke 24:44-49
Galatians 3:1-9 is a passage where Paul gets fired up against those false teachers who are trying to persuade Gentile Christians that they need to keep the Jewish law to be saved. He is so impassioned because to encourage people to turn away from the gospel message of justification by faith is a form of spiritual abuse whose consequences are far more damaging than any other form of violation. This is clear, but Paul’s argument turns in a direction which makes this section of the letter very difficult to apply; it is based entirely on his readers’ experience of the Spirit. If you have not had an experience like Paul describes here you will struggle to be impacted by his message. This is why we must urgently seek the help of the Lord in prayer before we go any further….
The gift of the Holy Spirit was central to Paul’s own life and ministry. When we look at the description in Acts of Paul’s church planting ministry in Galatia we read that through his preaching of the gospel “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit”, and that there were “signs and wonders” and healings (13:52; 14:3, 8-10). Because the Holy Spirit was so real in the early church Paul’s argument in Galatians 3 revolves around a simple question; “What were you doing when you received the Spirit?” If I ask the same question today to each of you, “What were you doing when you received the Spirit?”; I might get answers like….., “I was being baptised/confirmed, but I don’t remember any experience of the Spirit. ” or, you might have no idea how to answer at all. Paul is not appealing to some sort of religious acts or how well his hearers knew the bible but to their experience of God. Paul and his hearers both know, because they were all there at the birth of the church in Galatia, that the powerful coming of the Spirit had nothing to do with the keeping of the law. The religious opponents of Paul had absolutely no reply to this practical spiritual test. This is behind why he begins this passage with such emotional intensity:
Verse1. ““O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”
When was the last time anyone called you a “Fool”?…. I can clearly remember mum and dad calling me a fool, repeatedly, and someone on a parish council calling me that when I decided I needed to follow the call of God and head from Victoria to Brisbane with Donna and our 4 little kids, even though I had no job. Is it “Christian” to ever call someone a fool? Jesus did warn us, “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”” (Matt 5:22) but he also said to his disciples on the road to Emmaus, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25). If I get angry with someone about a personal matter and call them a fool this is a sin, but if someone turns away from the truth of the gospel they are a fool in the eyes of God and may need, for their own soul’s sake, to be called so (Rom 1:22). In things as important as the gospel message of eternal life we cannot afford to be restrained by the middle class niceness of political correctness. I once said to a Christian leader about his proposed course of action, “You are mad.”, he did not listen but later said to me in his own words that what followed was “the worse year of my life”.
“Who has bewitched you?” Paul says. The word “bewitch” has the sense of “fascinate”, “cast a spell”, “hypnotise”. In the ancient world pagans were terrified of the curse that came when someone gave them the malevolent glare of “the evil eye”. This fear of enchantments is still real in many places in the world today. When Donna and I were in Turkey a few years ago we were “fascinated” to see there were these symbols of a dark blue centre on a white background on buildings and vehicles everywhere, these were there to fend off the evil eye. Paul felt like that the Galatians had so lost their mind that they must have fallen under some sort of evil power; nothing rational could explain their behaviour in turning to the Jewish law.
He now appeals to the very source of the Galatians’ faith, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified”. The cross was central to the apostolic gospel. Paul reminds the Corinthians; “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified….For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor Cor 2:2; 15:3). This is exactly what was not being preached by the false teachers in Galatians and the same failure to centre on the cross is everywhere in Western Christianity today. Let me use a few illustrations of what I mean.
The first is American. Joel Osteen leads a 43,000 weekly attendance church. One of his more famous books (4m+ copies) is titled, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential; this is a modern “how to live” book. People love “how to’s”, look at the DIY shows on TV, the “how to” become a better….cook, wife, mother, father, gardener, healthier person, have a better body shape, earn more money. I was in a church on Friday and came across a pamphlet with “How to tell your friends about Jesus.” What’s so wrong with all this you may ask? This emphasis on methodology is destructive and cruel because the gospel is not a “how to” message. When I became a Christian no one needed to teach me “how to” share my new life in Christ – nothing could stop me doing it because Jesus was so real to me!
The gospel is not a “how to” message and it was certainly not a message of “how to” be accepted by God through keeping the Jewish Law. The gospel is a statement of what God has done for us that requires one simple response- faith. “How to” messages are inoffensive, but telling people that Jesus needed to die for them and all they can do is respond by faith is offensive because it leaves no room for the pride which comes from human effort (Gal 6:14).
When Paul says “before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” he is describing himself like someone who walks around in a public place carrying a placard with a message on it e.g. The End is Near. Has anyone here ever felt so strongly about an issue that they have done something like that….? Paul’s own life imaged the death and resurrection of Jesus on many levels. It was in the Galatian city of Lystra that he was stoned and left for dead outside the city walls, but the Lord miraculously raised him up by resurrection power and he went back into that city to minister again (Acts 14:19-21 cf. Gal 2:20). One commentator remarks how bold a man Paul was, this misses the point badly, Paul didn’t raise himself up and will himself to go back into the very city where they had just tried to kill him. It was the power of the Spirit of Christ that transformed his life.
He appeals to a similar spiritual experience shared by the Galatians. V. 2 “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” This expression “receive the Spirit” is a dynamic throughout the New Testament. In Acts the Samaritans “receive the Holy Spirit” in a way which was visible, Peter and the other Jewish believers recognised that the first Gentile converts “received the Holy Spirit” because they were “speaking in tongues and praising God”, later some disciples of John the Baptist register what it means to “receive the Spirit” when they all begin “speaking in tongues and prophesying” (8:15-19; 10:46-47; 19:1-7). If you cannot imagine such things in your own spiritual experience this text describes the normal experience of all Christians; “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”” (Rom 8:15). The reception of the Spirit moves us from fear to faith through the revelation of the Fatherhood of God. Forty odd years ago when I was a new Christian life a pastor quoted me this scripture; “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a Spirit of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tim 1:7). The paralysing fear I had of people before I experienced God’s Spirit is gone forever. I cannot deny or forget such things.
In a meeting during the week people were singing an old hymn with this line, “Let me feel thy Spirit”, there are many songs like this e.g. “Let me feel thy Spirit’s power”, “Let me feel thy Spirit near”, “Let me feel thy Spirit’s seal” and so on. The presence of the Spirit which Paul appeals to in the conversion experience of the Galatians is an unmistakeable evidence of God’s gracious favour. Now he reminds them how it happened.
It was not by “works of the law” but by “hearing with faith”. The Galatians were pagans who were used to trying to win the favour of the gods by their own efforts, but when they heard the radical message of God’s grace in Christ the only thing they did was believe in Jesus (James 1:18, 1 Pet1:23). Even faith is not a human effort but a gift, as it says in Romans 10:16, “faith comes from what s heard, and what is heard comes from the preaching of Christ”. I have a friend who, wherever he goes in the world, East Timor, Cambodia, most recently in Iran, he sees people healed, delivered from demonic powers and coming to Jesus. He tells of a major transformation in his life when after years of working at being a Christian he was listening to a man teaching about Christ and he heard God clearly speak to him about one thing, “Believe in my Son”. That is the one adequate response to the gospel, “Believe in my Son.”; nothing more nothing less (Acts 16:31). [Confession of sin and repentance are signs or fruit of such faith.] If it is that simple what went wrong with the Church in Galatia? And what has gone wrong with the churches in Australia??
V.3 “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” I have seen this happen again and again; people begin their Christian lives with marvellous experiences of Christ’s Spirit and try by human effort to complete their lives morally, vocationally, relationally or spiritually. Paul had to remind his converts in Philippi “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ…. it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 1:6; 2:13) You cannot mature as a Christian by personal effort. Religious effort is exactly what Paul says, foolish.
V.4 “Did you experience so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?”
The Holy Spirit was an experience that fell on the Galatians and overwhelmed them apart from their own doing. Paul’s deep pastoral concern is that this had all come to nothing (cf. Gal 4:11). But it is not like they had one initial powerful encounter with Christ then God stopped moving.
- 5 “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith”
God was still working miracles in the Galatian Church through their faith in Christ. The sub text here is that the preachers of the law were not seeing any signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit so how could they, rather than Paul, be true representatives of Jesus (cf. Matt 12:28; Luke 4:14). The Christians in Galatia did not seem to have understood that the gift of the Spirit as a sign that God’s new age has begun, and in this new creation there is no more need for righteousness by human effort to keep God’s law (Gal 6:15). Now Paul intensifies his concentration on faith by referring to the salvation of Abraham.
V.6 “just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?” In quoting from Genesis 15:6 Paul explains that the father of the Jewish race was brought into a saving relationship with God by faith alone, well before he was commanded to be circumcised. God “counted” Abraham’s trust in him as the equivalent of a perfectly righteous life. Contrary to the teaching of the rabbis in Jesus’ day the Bible never says that Abraham was justified because of faith or that Abraham’s faith was so great that it merited a reward from God. Grace counts/reckons faith as righteousness. God’s relationship with Abraham the father of the Jews is a paradigm for his relationship with all people.
- 7 “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Sons bear the character likeness of their father. Because the Galatians had heard God’s word and believed it they were like Abraham. Anyone who believes in the gospel becomes a son of Abraham; Hitler could have become a son of Abraham by faith if he had turned to Christ! If salvation is by faith alone those who preached the need to keep the law to be saved were not true Jews at all (Rom 2:29).
- 8 “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”” The promise of justification by faith is the gospel, and it is through this promise that all nations on earth receive divine blessings.
- 9 “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
If you ever ask yourself these sorts of questions; “How am I doing in my spiritual life?”, “Am I doing the right thing by God?” you are trapped in the “How To” of life from which Jesus died to deliver us. You need to turn from your own efforts and depend only on the Spirit of God. It is time for the Church in Australia, the diocese of Perth and St Mark’s to wake up. If we are not seeing the manifest signs of the Spirit’s power it must be because we are not hearing the gospel by faith.
An old saying sums up the heart of Paul’s message for today; “what the cross cleanses the Spirit fills” x2 (Roy Hession). Faith in Christ crucified opens the human heart to God so that it becomes filled with the Spirit. The Spirit endorsed Paul’s message by coming upon the Galatian converts with miraculous power when they believed the gospel. This is the exact opposite of the “try harder” message which the preachers of the law brought to the Galatians and which is so prevalent today. It is time to give up trying to be a good Christian/ person/husband/wife, son/daughter whatever. Only the Spirit of Christ can complete your life. It is damn foolishness to think you can, “Do something to complete what Jesus has done.” The only thing a Christian can do is to hear the Lord say, “Believe in my Son.” x 2 (John 6:28-29). Anyone who lets go of spiritual self effort and turns to Christ will definitely know the power of the Spirit of God. During the week Mary asked me if I wanted to use The Message version for my Bible readings, I didn’t, but I do want to end by quoting some of the words of Jesus from this translation; ““Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.” (Matt 11:28). If you feel that’s you today, there is only one thing you can do, believe in Jesus. That is the gospel.
Until very early this morning that was the end of the sermon. Then as seems to happen every Sunday I preach here the Lord started to speak to me deeply about a few things. His one desire is that Jesus becomes more real to each of us. He wants each of us to ask of him today that Jesus become more real to us. He will answer that request. Secondly, he wants to give the greatest miracle of all to all who ask today, this miracle, from which all the miracles of the Spirit proceed, is the miracle of faith (Matt 7:11; Mark 9:24). If we dare to ask for a greater faith in Christ today our prayer will be answered and our lives will never be the same again.
Preached at St Marks Perth WA 1.5.16