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Do you find it easy to get distracted? I do.
I go to clean the garage so I can actually walk around in there, and at the end of the day, it’s still not done. First I had to organize my tools. Then I paused to fix some things that had been waiting on the workbench. Then I had to take a trip to dispose of all that old oil. On the way back I remembered that I still needed a couple things for supper. After battling with grocery store amnesia, I ended up filling a cart. It was all stuff we needed, but it was also stuff I had to put away when I got home. By then my wife needed to run out to an appointment, and the kids needed supper. At the end of the day, the garage is still a mess.
Maybe it isn’t cleaning the garage for you. Maybe it’s some other task that eludes you because of the distractions that push and pull at your time. The little rabbit trails you allow yourself to follow. Sometimes we struggle to put first things first.
Today we’re going to start a sermon series based on Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians. We’re going to call this series, “First Things First”.
Talking about Galatians, one Bible scholar has said,
“Together with the epistle to the Romans, Galatians ranks first in doctrinal importance, because in both letters Paul discusses the fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith” (Book of Books, p.250).
This fundamental doctrine is the Gospel.
Now, the reason why Paul focuses this letter on the Gospel is because the Gospel was being altered in Galatia.
Paul was the missionary that first brought the Gospel to the people in the Roman province named Galatia. But recently he was told that there were new teachers springing up in the congregations there. And these new teachers were adding things to the message.
Paul had grown up believing that God can’t stand sin. The teachers of his youth had instructed him that the way to get your sins forgiven was to obey God’s laws better. If you really kept the Ten Commandments, and brought the right sacrifices to the Temple, and observed the right religious ceremonies, then you could work your way back onto God’s good side.
The religion which defined Paul’s early years was a work-righteous religion. Any religion that teaches that you have to do something to work your way to heaven is a work-righteous religion. Paul took the work-righteous religion of Judaism fully into his heart. He was so convince that Judaism was the way to God that when Christianity sprung up in Jerusalem, Paul tried to crush it.
You see, the Christians weren’t following all the religious ceremonies that Paul felt were crucial to reaching God. And they were teaching more and more people that real religion meant trusting that God had sent a Savior to take everyone’s sins away. They said that Jesus of Nazareth was really God’s Son, and that through His suffering and death the penalty for our sin had been erased. Paul didn’t buy it. Paul saw Christianity as a sect that was stealing people away from the true religion. And so, Paul began to hunt Christians.
He would try to get them to say something bad about God, so that there would be reason to stone them. When this didn’t happen, Paul had Christians arrested and put on trial for their beliefs.
But one day when Paul was traveling to city in order to find the Christians there and arrest them, the risen Jesus suddenly appeared to him. And through the things that Jesus told him, Paul realized that he had been tragically wrong. Jesus explained to Paul that what the Christians were saying, was absolutely true, and that even Paul’s sins had been paid for. He was free from the treadmill of work-righteousness. Though he didn’t deserve the tiniest bit of God’s mercy, even through he had been actively hunting God’s people, Paul was forgiven all, through the suffering and death of God’s Son.
Paul was baptized, and went on to be one of the greatest ambassadors for Christ that the world has ever seen.
Now, because of Paul’s history, he could smell work-righteousness a mile away. And because of the astonishing forgiveness that Paul had received, he would have nothing to do with work-righteousness anymore.
Paul understood that the Good News of forgiveness is a gift. It cannot be earned or deserved. Like a delicate machine part that has been crafted by precision instruments, any addition or alteration to the Gospel of Christ renders it incapable of doing what it’s supposed to do.
In our reading for today, Paul sets forth a number of reasons why the Gospel of Christ is precious, and must remain pure and unchanged my man.
Galatians 1:1-10 (NIV)
1 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—2 and all the brothers and sisters with me,
To the churches in Galatia:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
6 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—7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!
10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
First of all, Paul says that the Gospel message must remain unchanged, because it come from God.
When Paul went out to persecute Christians, he was following his own, human counsel. But when Paul later went out to tell people about God’s gift of forgiveness, then he was following God’s orders. The truth of Jesus’ message was verified most clearly to Paul when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in person. Only God can raise the dead, and He doesn’t raise false prophets back to life.
If Christianity were some organic religion that had grown out of a collection of human ideas, then sure, we could go ahead and change it however we want. But if the Gospel comes from God, than we dare not alter its substance. What Jesus taught, we should also teach and believe.
Second, Paul says the Gospel must remain unchanged, because of its immense value. In verse 4 Paul says that Jesus Christ,
“…gave himself for our sins…” (Galatians 1:4 NIV).
Just how valuable is the Gospel? How much did it cost for God to make it available? Well, the Son of God had to take on human flesh and blood. He had to be tempted in every way, but not sin. He had to suffer horrible physical and spiritual torture. He had to die. How valuable is the lifeblood of God’s divine Son? When we try to calculate the value of what the Son of God was willing to do it ends up sounding like people who talk about billions and trillions of dollars—what does it even mean? It’s too much for my mind to grasp.
C.S. Lewis once tried to described the incarnation of Christ like this…
“One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanishing rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover” (Miracles, chpt. 14, by C.S. Lewis).
We are that thing.
If we can grasp just a tiny bit of how difficult this was for the Son of God to do, then we might just begin to understand how it must insult God when preachers claim part of our salvation hinges on what we do. “Yes, God’s So did this, but we must also do something to help Him save us. We must add our own efforts and thus help pay for our sins”. God forbid that we ever think this way. The praise for our salvation belongs to God alone, for He has done it by Himself. We cannot lay any claim to earning that which is a gift.
The third reason Paul states for leaving the Gospel unaltered, is the practicality the Gospel. Someone might ask, what does the Gospel really do for me? The answer to this question tells us how practical the Gospel is.
Because God’s Son suffered hell in our place, we won’t have to spend eternity apart from God. Because God’s Son gave Himself for us, we can stop trying to earn God’s love.
Maybe you noticed as we read through this first section in Galatians that there are NO ASSIGNMENTS here. There’s only a list of things that God has done FOR us. There isn’t any work-righteousness here because Christ’s Gospel isn’t about working our way to God. It’s about how God cleansed us for eternity with Him. He did the work!
But just as it’s easy to get distracted in our daily activities, it’s also easy to get distracted in spiritual things. But when it’s the Gospel that we’re being distracted from, that’s a danger to our souls. If our faith were to be severed, we would lose everything Christ came to give us. That’s why Paul got so upset when he heard what was happening in Galatia. People were accepting the idea that our forgiveness hinges on something other than what Christ did on the cross? NO! The Gospel must not be corrupted. This is a matter of life and death.
When I was training to become a pastor, we were taught that in all our preaching the Gospel must predominate.
To predominate means to be the stronger or leading force. To have numerical superiority or advantage. To surpass other things in authority or influence. To exert controlling power. To appear more noticeable or imposing than something else.
Thinks about it like this. When you go to buy something, what attracts you to a particular product? Sometimes it’s where it came from. “Made in Taiwan” may not draw you in. But if you’re buying a decorative rug, “Made in Persia” might.
Sometimes the draw comes from the markdown. It was originally selling for $500 but now it’s going for $50? I’ll take it.
And even if we don’t know where it came from, or how much the original price was, sometimes we are drawn to things because we have a need, and we know that what’s on the shelf is exactly the right thing.
So, where’s the Gospel from? Well, it was planned out in the eternal counsels of God before the creation of the world.
So, how much is it worth? Well, the sinless and divine Son of God had to suffer and die in order for it to happen.
Okay, what does it do for me? Well, it takes all your sins, past, present, and future and washes them off the board, thus ushering you into a Father-child relationship with the only true God. Oh, and this relationship will last past your earthly death and into eternity.
This is why the Gospel must predominate in a preacher’s sermons—it is from God, it is more valuable than anything in the universe, and it gives forgiveness and eternal life to sinners who receive it.
But the Gospel deserves center stage in more than just our Sunday meditation. The Gospel deserves to surpass every authority or influence in our everyday lives.
In stead of REDEFINING THE GOSPEL like the false teachers did in Galatia, we must instead be REDEFINED BY THE GOSPEL. As sinners reclaimed by God we must begin to look at everything through the lens of the Gospel.
We can begin to see everyone around us as people God wants to reach. Precious people that God’s Son died to save.
Parents can begin to bring the Gospel into their discipline. At the close of each correction we can remind our children that we forgive them, because Christ forgave them first.
We can begin to see our own sins and failures through the lens of the Gospel too. Not excusing our bad behavior, but also not allowing guilt to gnaw at our peace. All we have to do is look at our sins through the lens of the Gospel to see that they’re not there anymore. They’ve been forgiven.
And we can also begin to forgive others like God forgave us. Completely. Freely.
On the grand scale, or on the small scale, God’s Gospel is thoroughly practical.
Speaking about the Gospel, Jesus once said…
“44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’” (Matthew 13:44-45 NIV).
Obviously, Jesus’ point isn’t that we buy the Gospel. His comparison is this, when you find something this precious, you do everything you can to hold onto it.
Dear Christians, don’t be distracted. In your hearts and in your lives, in the way you think and in the decisions you make, let the precious, soul saving, life giving Gospel—predominate.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.