The pure gospel


Read Galatians 1:11-24

Where did Paul receive this good news (gospel) that he so carefully preached and so zealously guarded? He is at pains to tell us that he didn’t dream it up or write it himself. On the contrary, he received it directly from Jesus Christ Himself. (Galatians 1:11-13)

There is only one God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and He is the Lord of all. God’s "name" is the name above all other names. "Yet it was because of this that God raised Him up to the heights of heaven and gave Him a name which is above every other name that, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:9-11) Every person, every religious leader, king or god, must bow the knee to Jesus. We shall be overjoyed to bow to Jesus Christ if we have Him as our Lord and Saviour.

Paul has seen this from both sides. Previously, when he had been a "pharisee", he had led an entirely different way of life. Most people would have heard of his previous life: how he had, as Saul, zealously persecuted the church. His aim had been to destroy God’s church, to obliterate it from the face of the earth. Of course, he was not operating as a free agent in this respect. He was being used by (and was involved with) the religious leaders of the day. At the back of it all was Satan himself, who thought that, when Jesus had died on the cross, he (Satan) would be free to continue his rule of terror unimpeded. How wrong he was!

Saul had risen in the religious circles of his day and was on his way to the top - something equivalent to a chief executive in terms of modern-day organisations and enterprises. He had outperformed those of his own age and wanted to keep the Jewish traditions alive and pure – until he met Jesus. (Galatians 1:14) Luke, who wrote the "Acts of the Apostles", tells us that Paul was on his way to Damascus when this encounter took place. You can read about it in Acts 9:1-9. (This is such a wonderful encouragement if we have any friends or relatives who are far away from bowing the knee to Jesus. The Holy Spirit has power to draw anyone to Jesus.)

Following the revelation to Saul on the road to Damascus, Jesus then appeared in a dream to a believer named Ananias, who already lived in Damascus. He was told to go to a certain house, look for a man called Saul and to "lay hands on him" as a sign of God's blessing on the man. The Lord gave Ananias very clear instructions, explaining that He had already prepared Saul for the visit from Ananias with a promise of miraculous blessing. Ananias was well aware that Saul had come to Damascus with authority from the Jewish religious authorities to clamp down on all those who were starting to follow Jesus. At first, Ananias tried to argue with Jesus and the Lord had to explain to him that Saul was His chosen instrument to spread the good news in the coming years. Possibly against his better judgment, Ananias agreed to do what Jesus asked and the detailed instructions proved true to the letter. Are we hearing God clearly ourselves, so that we can obey any instructions that He gives us? (Acts 9:10-19)

God chose Saul from birth. Saul himself was in no doubt about this. Of course, when he was born he knew nothing of it and when he was later persecuting believers, he still knew nothing of it. But, after he had met the risen Lord Jesus, he was absolutely certain of it. When we become believers today, we might initially think that it was just chance that we heard the good news (gospel) or met the people who introduced us to Jesus, but we need to understand that we were chosen from before the foundation of the world and that our lives were set apart from birth, just as in Paul's case. (Galatians 1:15)

So, when a person becomes a believer, it is no accident. Yes, that person made a decision, but God, who is outside of time and, therefore, knows the end from the beginning, knew exactly when that decision would be made and had already planned for it. This is true for all of us. It is no accident that we are living where we are or that we know the people that we do. We were born for exactly this time in history. We need to understand the potential and purpose that God sees for us right now. When He calls us to begin this journey, our head may tell us that we are not able or suitable (for any number of reasons) to respond to His call, but we need to know that we can depend on Him every stage of the journey that He's planned for us. Yes, we may have things to learn, just as Paul did, but all that is part of the purpose for which we were called. God wants us to enter into the fullness of life for which He created us. (John 10:10)

Other religions

What Paul taught is entirely different from any other religion. All the major (and minor) religions (including Buddhism, Islam, Shintoism, animism or any other "ism" you can think of, originated with human beings in some way. They were either designed by people themselves or were given it by some evil influence working for Satan himself. Many are the product of deep, committed thinking, sometimes over centuries, but they can all be traced back ultimately to some human source. For some, they are like drugs that drive people to addiction or they have become so embedded in historical culture that people find it hard to break away. People can even feel like that about going to to a Christian church. They focus on the religious trappings, without finding a true relationship with the living God. Rituals cannot fill the "God-shaped hole" in our hearts. Let us really pray for any we know who are involved in other religions, keeping our own hearts humble. Often such people are sincerely searching for truth. Often the best prayer for them to say is simply: "God, if You are real, please show Yourself to me."

Victory at Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost must have been shocking to Satan. He was no longer dealing with just a few disciples hiding away in a locked room for fear of the Jewish authorities. On the contrary, these poor defeated and fearful disciples burst out of hiding and declared themselves for what they were – new creations in Christ! And worse was to come: Peter preached his first sermon in the open air and three thousand of those who heard became believers. Now he didn’t just have to keep a few demons employed on the job of containing and monitoring the believers. The news was all over the city in a flash and the Christian Church had been born. Worse yet, it was growing fast, even multiplying and, very soon, the one person Satan thought he could rely on - Saul - had switched allegiance. Paul’s conversion proved to be a game-changing moment as he became such an important factor in the establishment of the new church, providing (through his preaching and written letters) a solid bedrock of Christian teaching that has lasted through to the present day. Thus, this attack on the believers at Galatia, aimed at trying to water down their belief, trust and reliance upon salvation in Jesus alone, was very much part of the satanic plan.

We too must be careful not to get side-tracked by the temptation to apathy that Satan lays at our door. It can become all too easy to develop a "siege mentality", staying in our homes or "safe" Christian spaces, instead of going out and breaking new ground by talking to someone about what Jesus has done for us in the last few days. If we start with prayer, seeking God's guidance and direction, then step out in faith, we shall find that people are interested in what we have to say. Human beings have been created "in God's image" and this means that there is a "God-shaped hole" in everyone’s life - just like there once was in ours.

Growing in relationship with Jesus

God deals with every one of us in unique and exciting ways. No two stories about people becoming Christians are ever exactly the same. Similarly, God works in unique and specific, personal ways to reveal His grace and power in us, so that we can complete the work for which He has set us apart and called us. It is important that we KNOW (to the depths of our soul) that we are saved by grace - not by works. In other words, nothing we can do or not do will stop God from loving us. Jesus died for us and the Holy Spirit continually draws us. This is G-R-A-C-E: "God's Riches At Christ's Expense". The book of Galatians is a warning to us of the danger that exists if we allow ourselves to be drawn away from the truth and persuaded that faith in Christ is not sufficient and we must somehow earn our salvation. No! We need to know our bibles for ourselves. We need to read and ask the Holy Spirit for insight, being very careful about who we are listening to. Paul was able to offer his own experience as an example to the believers at Galatia: the man who had set out to persecute believers and throw them in prison or have them stoned, discovered God's grace and it changed his life completely. We, too, can change, if we only hold to this key understanding of being saved by grace - not by works.

This change comes about as we develop our own relationship with Jesus. Again, it happens through grace, not works. Jesus is the one in whom we first put our faith but, as we fix our eyes on Him - the pioneer and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) - He promises that, through the use of this faith that He has given us, we will do even greater things than He did. (John 14:12) We can ask anything "in his name" and He will do it. (Matthew 7:7-8) Now we can either believe that or not. Personally, because Jesus said it, I will trust it, cling to it and rely on it - and that settles it!

Preparation for service

Paul’s immediate response to all that happened to him, during and after his conversion, was to seek time alone with God. He later explains that he did not consult any human being. He knew that this new relationship was something that had to be worked out between Him and God alone. He took himself off to a place that was far removed from all that was going on in and around Jerusalem and set himself to listen to God. We don't know precisely how long this lasted, but the general consensus is that it was probably for a period of up to three years (and possibly even longer). That’s a long time to spend in quiet contemplation, prayer and study - just one individual and God. But, when he returned, Paul was focused and single-minded. Never would he doubt his calling. Instead, he worked tirelessly to ensure that men and women everywhere would hear the beautiful news: that they could have a personal and continuous relationship with God, their Creator, through His Son, who exchanged his life for theirs. Millions of people through the ages have read what Paul subsequently wrote in letters that now take their place in what we call the "New Testament".

How does this apply for us? For example, If God calls us to do a job, who do we go running to (or pick up the phone to talk to)? Who knows best about how we should carry it out? Might it not be Jesus? He is, after all, the one who is calling us to enter a partnership with Him. If we choose to do it "our way" or seek to recruit somebody else to join us, how can we complete the job He has asked us to do? How can we expect a successful outcome to our efforts? At the same time, of course, this shouldn't preclude us from talking about what we believe is Jesus' commission for us, or praying about it with other people. We may even need to gather a team around us, to help us complete the task ahead. I know I have allowed the excitement of a new project to get me running ahead, in my own strength, only to fall flat on my face!

In Paul's case, after three years (or however long it was), he went to Jerusalem for a fortnight to get acquainted with Peter and to see James, who was Jesus’ step-brother. (Jesus had brothers and sisters.) Paul would eventually finish up working with Peter and he later sought confirmation on matters of doctrine from James at different times during his ministry. It is important for us to have people close to us whom we can trust – people to whom we can refer problems and people who will not be afraid to tell us when we are wrong. Over a lifetime, we build up these relationships. Perhaps the Lord will put people alongside us from the very early days in our Christian lives, or perhaps we will see them come alongside us at intervals, just when we need the advice most. Of course, in each case, we need to check with the Lord that these are the people He has selected for us. John's gospel, chapter ten, speaks about sheep and shepherds. Sheep have a responsibility in any relationship with a shepherd. In this chapter, Jesus is talking to the pharisees – religious leaders of their day. (John 10:1-5)

The shepherd and His sheep

According to the teaching of Jesus, the characteristics of a shepherd are:

  • That he enters the sheepfold by the gate. (Jesus described Himself as the gate). During my own lifetime, others have set themselves up as "gates" to the "sheepfold". They may do so by popular acclaim, by being "charismatic characters" or by authoritarian rule. The discredited "shepherding movement" of the Seventies and Eighties was one such example. It scattered the sheep. It did not feed them or build them up, but was happy to receive money - often by deception. Regrettably, similar movements still emerge today in various guises.
  • He knows his sheep by name. (He knows them intimately and lovingly, as a friend who cares and helps.)
  • The sheep listen to his voice. (They always listen for him, because they know he only has their good at heart.)
  • He leads his sheep out. He goes ahead of them. (He never drives them, so that, when danger comes, he confronts it first. Sheep are not predators. If they are attacked, they will always come off worst. That is why the shepherd watches over his sheep with tender, loving care and defends them against all enemies.)

The whole passage is a beautiful picture of Jesus as "The Good Shepherd".

But the responsibilities of the "sheep" are as follows:

  • They will never follow a stranger. (A "stranger" is one who preaches doubtful or unbiblical doctrine. No matter what he preaches, the "sheep" should always check out what is being taught against God's word.)
  • They should always feel free to challenge what the shepherd has said then pray before making any judgement. (If not in a position to challenge such a shepherd, it is vital that the "sheep" do not turn round and judge them. Rather, they should pray for them from a heart of love.)
  • They should always stay away from a shepherd who is not pointing them towards Jesus Christ.

Where do we stand? To whom are we listening? Are we blindly following some weird and wonderful doctrine or teaching, when we should be acting as responsible sheep and running away? Our spiritual lives may very well depend upon it!

Read Galatians 1:21-24

Imagine how excited the followers of "The Way" must have been when they heard that, the one who had taken it upon himself to destroy them had "himself started to preach the faith he tried to destroy".

When the Lord calls us, we should only do what He wants us to do. Going where He has not called us to go, or doing what He has not called us to do, will only result in harm to both us and to those with whom we associate. Paul is very specific here about where he went and what he did. People will hear about what you are doing very quickly under two circumstances:

• If we are persecuting the church and are acting against it to attempt to destroy it or,

• If we are doing exactly what the Lord has commissioned us to do. In this case, some people will persecute us and try to destroy the things that we do in the name of Jesus. They may say all manner of evil things against us, but Jesus Himself warned us that this could happen and told us how we should respond if it did: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven. For, in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:11-12)

What are we doing? Where are we going? What are we saying and is it all in line with what God has asked us to do and say? (If it isn’t, will we change our actions and direction?)

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