53 years ago yesterday, Martin Luther King Jr wrote an open letter while he was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter was a response to some negative comments that had been published about his campaign of non-violent protest. MLK used the letter to explain why continued protest was necessary to ensure that black Americans were provided with the same rights as whites. The letter became an important text in the American Civil Rights Movement.
Roughly 1910 years earlier (exact date unknown), the apostle Paul wrote an even more important letter to the churches in Galatia. Like Martin Luther King, Paul was responding to personal criticism. But the issue that Paul addressed was of even greater significance. We’re going to be looking at the letter over the coming Sundays, to see why this letter is so important and what it says for us two millennia later.
Paul’s letter starts off much like any other Greek letter - he sets out who he is, and who he is writing to. He is Paul, the apostle of Jesus. He is writing to the churches in Galatia - groups of Christians living in what is now southern Turkey. These are churches that Paul himself had founded during his missionary journey there a few years earlier, that you can read about in the book of Acts chapters 13 and 14.
But this isn’t the usual sort of letter that you might send to some friends that you have not seen for a little while. Paul is not asking for news of how they have been, what they have been up to. No - very quickly, Paul skips the formalities and gets straight to the point. He has something very important to tell them. In verse 6 he launches in with a stinging rebuke: “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 - which is really no Gospel at all.”
Paul wants these churches in Galatia to know that there is only one Gospel. Word has come to Paul that the churches are turning away from the gospel he taught them, and turning to something else instead. And Paul tells them that this is not a matter for free choice, as if they can choose from the many different gospels available. No - there is only one gospel.
To understand why this is such a crucial point for Paul, we need to know what he means by the word ‘gospel’. We’re used to thinking about the ‘gospels’ of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here - the letter to the Galatians is one of the earliest books of the New Testament, written in about AD50, whereas the first of the books we call the ‘gospels’ was probably not written until the late 60s. Rather, the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’ – particularly the sort of life-changing good news that everyone needs to know about. Specifically, it’s the good news about Jesus that we can read about in the gospel accounts, but also find in the rest of the Bible. And it’s the good news about Jesus that Paul presented to the churches in Galatia when he saw them, and which they are now deserting.
Paul sets out this gospel message in verses 3 and 4 of our passage. Let me read it again, because it is absolutely essential for us: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
This is the heart of the Christian faith - it’s like the mission statement of the Christian church. I’m sure you’re familiar with the ideas of a mission statement from the world of business. For example, Pepsi, the American drinks and snack company, has this mission statement: “Our mission is to provide consumers around the world with delicious, affordable, convenient and complementary foods and beverages from wholesome breakfasts to healthy and fun daytime snacks and beverages to evening treats.”
A mission statement achieves two things: firstly, it tells anyone looking at the company what they do. Secondly, it helps the company to keep focussed on their core values, and ensures that they don’t get distracted by other activities. And so the heart of the Christian faith, the good news, the gospel, is that Jesus gave himself to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of God the Father. It’s all about a rescue. A *Christian* is someone who has been *rescued* by Jesus.
Rescue is about being taken from a place of peril, a place of danger, to a place of safety. Both elements – the initial danger, and then the safety – are necessary. If you were on holiday at the beach, paddling at the edge of the sea, you’d be pretty annoyed if the lifeguard came and dragged you up the beach. You don’t need rescuing if the waves are barely covering your toes. But suppose you were on a cruise, and the boat sank. Luckily the coastguard turns up. But all they do is point towards the nearest land, 5 miles away, and tell you to get swimming. That’s no rescue at all!
So, you can’t be rescued unless there is something that you need to be rescued from. In the case of the gospel, the danger is the judgement that we face for our sins. This is one of the reasons why we have a prayer of confession in our Sunday services each week. If there was no danger of judgement, then the ‘rescue’ that Christ brings would be meaningless.
And you’ve not been rescued unless the rescuer brings you to a place of safety. It is not good enough just to set you off on the right path – that is not a rescue. But according to the Gospel, Christians *have* been rescued, so there is nothing more for us to do. We are going to see, as we look at this letter to the Galatians, that this really is the big issue that Paul had to address. Some people were telling the Christians that Jesus is not enough to be saved, that they need to do something extra. That’s just not true, says Paul. The Christian Gospel *is* the story of a rescue. There is nothing more to be done.
And the gospel is that we have been rescued by Jesus giving himself for our sins. It’s the language of substitution, and it’s a reference to the cross. Jesus died on a cross, giving up his life in our place. We have been rescued because the death that our sins deserve has been taken off us, and has been transferred to Jesus instead.
This should be both a great comfort to us. The Christian Gospel is not some vague promise of a rescue sometime in the future, if we play our cards right now. It is a reminder of a rescue that has already taken place, at a real historical time and place, in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.
Thirdly, we see that the Gospel is for those living in the “present evil age”. This is not referring to a particular year, decade, or even a century, but to the whole span of human history, from the first sin in Genesis chapter 3 to Jesus’ return in judgement. It is an evil age because it is the timespan when evil is found in the world. Before Genesis 3, God looked on his creation and saw that it was perfect. And after Jesus’ return, we look forward to a re-Creation when there will be no more evil, and hence no more pain, suffering or death. For now, though, we only need to switch on the TV news to be reminded that we live in an age where evil is present. Things may not be as bad as they could be, but they are certainly not as good as they need to be. No-one is immune to that evil. And so the Gospel really is good news for everyone. Not just for those in the first century, but also for the twenty-first. Not just for those in a war zone, but also for those in peaceful Gidea Park.
Paul’s letter begins, then, with this great Christian gospel, this “good news”. Jesus Christ has given himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. But what should we do with that information? I think that the letter gives us three commands.
Firstly, and most importantly, we are to believe the Gospel. We see in verse 6, Paul’s dismay that the Galatian churches seem to be deserting the Gospel for other teachings. It is clear that Paul wants them, and us, to stick with the Gospel message.
The Gospel is about the rescue that Jesus has already performed for us. It is something that we cannot *do* ourselves – it has already been *done* by Jesus. But it *is* something that we need to accept for ourselves.
It can be useful to think in terms of another sort of rescue, that we are familiar with. Suppose that you are very ill, with some life-threatening condition. Then, in the paper one day, you read about a new treatment that has been developed by a doctor at the Queen’s Hospital in Romford. It is a treatment for that specific condition you have, and it has a 100% success rate. Marvelous! Wonderful! The situation, which seemed so bleak and helpless, has just been completely turned around – but *only* if you go and see that doctor and get the treatment from her. It’s no good simply sitting at home and saying “I’ll be alright – I’ve heard about this fantastic new treatment”, unless you actually allow the doctor to treat you.
And if you do go and get treated, it’s no good giving up half way through the course, or trying to change the treatment yourself. If the doctor says that you need to take one red pill and one blue pill each morning, it would be foolish to decide to take 5 red pills each day and ignore the blue pill altogether, and still hope to get better.
But that is what Paul accuses the Galatians of doing with the rescue that Jesus has provided. Instead of saying to themselves “Jesus has done everything to rescue me”, they were saying “Jesus has done a bit, and I have done the rest” At first glance they looked like they were still following Jesus, but in reality they were rejecting the rescue he provided and substituting it with their own.
Paul is quite clear that any change to the Gospel is no gospel at all. It cannot save us. We would still be stuck, facing judgement for our sins. But, since there is a Gospel that can save us, we must believe it. We must accept that Jesus has done everything necessary to rescue us, and that he needs no help from us. We must turn to him in gratitude, and simply accept the rescue that he provides.
Secondly, we must insist on the Gospel. The problem in the Galatian churches had arisen because of some teachers who had arrived and were bringing a different message from the Gospel that Paul had taught. In verse 7, Paul says that these teachers are “throwing the Galatians into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” And we must take care as a church that we do not allow this to happen to us.
To continue our medical analogy, suppose your GP refused to refer you for this wonderful treatment (without any good cause), and simply prescribed paracetamol instead. It would be outrageous! There’s a treatment that could cure you, but instead you are being palmed off with something else. And so it is with what the Bible calls false teachers. Instead of the life-giving Gospel, our lives are put at risk with false messages.
My family and I are relative newcomers to St. Michael’s, having been here about 18 months. One of the reasons that we came here was because we were persuaded, from talking to Phil and from the reports of others who know him, that he would teach the Gospel message of the Bible. Let me make clear that it is my intention, as an Authorised Local Preacher, to do the same! But please hold us to account. If you hear something being taught here which suggests that Jesus’ rescue is not enough, or that it is not really needed, please have a quiet word with the speaker afterwards, and just ask them, “But what about the Gospel? How does that fit with Jesus’ rescue plan?”
If you read books, listen to music, go the cinema or watch TV, then ask yourself the same questions. Does this book, or this music or whatever, help me to follow the Gospel? Perhaps you are here today as a visitor, and you are considering finding a church to make your home. Or perhaps you may move house in the future and find yourself looking for a new church. Can I please encourage you in the strongest possible terms to make sure that the church teaches the true Gospel? We are blessed in this country to have all sorts of churches available. There are big ones, small ones, modern ones, traditional ones, with very formal or very relaxed services. Whichever your preference, the most important thing is that the Gospel is taught. We must insist on it.
Thirdly and finally, we must fight for the Gospel. Now, that’s a phrase which could be easily misunderstood. I’m *not* for a moment suggesting that we get big sticks and go out to beat up anyone who is not a Christian – that is not how Jesus’ rescue plan works. The fighting is all within ourselves, our own will – in the same way that you would fight to stay awake in a boring meeting (or a boring sermon for that matter). We need to fight because there are competing desires at work.
In verse 10 of our passage, Paul says that the desire to please men stands in opposition to the Gospel. He says that we cannot have our main aim being to please other people, and at the same time be a servant of Jesus. Or to put it another way: the Gospel is not politically-correct!
The Gospel says that we need to be rescued. The Gospel says that we cannot do it on our own. The Gospel says that we need Jesus, and that he has provided a rescue for us. And Paul warns us that many will find these things offensive.
I suspect that most people, if you asked them, would say that they are “basically a good person” – I’ve certainly heard that expressed to me. If we insist that Jesus is a rescuer, to someone who has no interest in being rescued, it will sooner or later lead to conflict. And so we will face a choice between trying to help our friends by showing them the wonderful rescue that Jesus has provided, or backing down and changing what we say so as not to cause offence.
It’s a fight we may face as a church. You may know that a significant proportion of our funding as a church comes from the outside community, particularly those who hire our halls. What if a group were to withdraw their booking, because they didn’t like a talk that they heard on our website, or a poster that was displayed in one of our buildings? Would we be willing to stand for the Gospel, even if meant that we had to give more money to make up the shortfall? Or would we risk it all just for human approval?
This is a huge issue – our very salvation is at stake. We need to believe the Gospel message – that Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. We need to insist on the Gospel from those who teach us. And we need to fight for the Gospel rather than human approval. It’s going to take God’s help to do this – let’s pray that he does so.