“Herein lies the principal point of the matter, which amounts to the true confutation of Paul’s adversaries and the unassailable defence of his teaching… that he was given the Gospel directly by Jesus Christ”.
Jerusalem, Antioch and standing for the Gospel
As Paul affirms his message has been given by God (1:11 &12), so he now shows that it’s confirmation is heaven-sent. As he goes out and preaches salvation by grace alone to the nations, the Holy Spirit is pleased to empower this giving of Christ (Antioch - Acts 11:25-30), and the people are drawn and saved by the truth. God is at work amongst us when we also seek to proclaim this same Jesus – as with Paul, nothing can be added to that message (Jerusalem - Vs 9), but the Gospel itself condemns any seeking to cripple or remove its power to make us free by binding us to rules which are imposed by traditions or beliefs made to be important by men, especially when these seek to gain authority in the church (Antioch - Vs 11-14).
The struggle is always between the things we feel we must do (or should be doing), and what IS done for us – what really makes us right with God. We all want to be like the rich young man, coming to get the ‘secret’ of being righteous from a good teacher, when Jesus shows us however high we place that mark of what we think is holy, what we think will do, it will never be high enough, and all that awaits us in that way of thinking is futility or, as with the religious people of those times, total delusion.
The power of this error is like gravity – it keeps seeking to pull us back into a confidence in something other than Jesus – look at how Peter and Barnabas become ensnared into it (Vs11-14). That is the turmoil of this life. Because we are fallen creatures, our old nature longs for something to adorn it that it can parade as a virtue, so it can boast that some good comes from its behaviour, but it is this very nature that exiles us from God and seeks to eclipse God’s work in His Son by offering us confidence in something that denies the Fall of our race and the cost to redeem us from that horror through the death of Jesus at the Cross.
The labour of the church is always to be to one end – to bring and keep us in the wonderful freedom Christ alone brings by His work. In the opening section of this chapter, Paul relates just how this has been the imperative in his ministry.
The true work of grace always includes those who were ‘outside’ and excluded by external values of righteousness. Titus, a gentle, not only became a believer as a direct result of the gospel, but, even though he in no manner adhered to what would have been the rules of Jewish religious culture, he became a leader in the church (Vs 1 & 3. Titus 1).
Working with Jews and Gentiles, then, to bring life to the pagan world, Paul visits Jerusalem (Vs 2), and, it would appear, whilst there, he notices the beginnings of this trouble (Vs 4). This imposition of legalism would continue until it was countered by the whole church (Acts 15). Paul’s concern was to remove any voice given to those who wish to bring Christians back into a slavery to anything which alienates them from the deliverance made ours by God in Christ. Not a single moment should be given to such folly (Vs 5).
It is only when we are apprehended by the rich and sweet redemption the Father bestows upon us in His only Son, made ours freely and totally by His love, that we find true adoption and acceptance – true peace – with God, for only here is there forgiveness and life, flowing from Christ to us in His death and resurrection. How foolish, how tragic, then, it would be to seek to exchange this marvel for the leaky, tottering and failing shambles of our own piety before a God, who, outside of the life given to us in Christ, must exact the full weight and requirements of the law upon our rebellious estate – what a foolhardy error, what a terrifying choice! That is why Paul so strongly rejects and condemns this.
In that first visit to Jerusalem, Paul shows those who wish to conform our faith to something less than it really is that they are already confounded in their attempts – that the Gospel is already bringing new life to those they considered ‘outside’ of the truth (those who did not keep the law). This should have been more than enough to clarify the true nature of God’s activity amongst us – that in Christ, the walls of partition between Jew and Gentile are gone – but rather than heed the clear evidence of this, the Judaizers chose to cling to their cultural religious identity and begin to plot and then to work against this wonder – that is why they are totally condemned.
We can raise all manner of things to prominence - a particular heritage, perhaps, a personal manner of devotion or goodness, even a code we think that we or others must abide by – but as with the seduced Galatians, we are effectively placing ourselves in real danger when these self-devised methods became as important to us, or even more important, than God’s work in His Son.
In Christ, we are made anew, made to be a realm of priests and kings to God, made to be conformed to the beauty of the nature and person of Jesus, that the world may see a faith that is caused and matured by love. Outside of Christ, we are cruel and selfish creatures, in which all that is good is twisted and bent to serve what has become corrupt and sinful and therefore can in no manner please God or truly help others or us. Enthusiasms, devotions, good works, even Apostleship, are of no value whatsoever if they take us from the Gospel.
Correctly handling the Word
Paul’s conversion and message had come directly from Christ (1:12,15&16). It was because of this that when he visited Jerusalem, the Apostles had nothing to add to what He had been given (Vs 6). Here, again, we see the importance of this Gospel – the very men who had known Jesus as His disciples recognise that in Paul’s calling and ministry, God is clearly at work in a manner which is marvellous to behold. So splendid is this, that all they can do is re-affirm what God has already done (Vs 9) – that Paul is indeed the Apostle to the gentiles (Vs 7-8), so the entire argument against him is totally without foundation.
It was because of the authority of His calling, which he has shown us, stands or falls in relation to faithfulness to the message of Christ, that Paul refutes and condemns the error of the Judaizers when this makes its first real appearance amongst the gentiles at Antioch (Vs 11). Peter’s actions (Vs 12), siding with such behaviour, undermines and discredits the weight and validity of the Gospel itself, because they convey that methods devised by men regarding abstinence and non-essential division are actually to be valued as more important than the freedom and fellowship given to us in the saving death of Jesus. It is not, said Jesus, what we take into us - the things we eat, drink, wear and the like - which are evil, but what comes from our own hearts – what characterizes us outside of God’s care - that is truly wicked and condemning (Matthew 15:11 & 18).
Peter’s fall teaches us how easy it is for anyone to loose their footing in the faith, to begin to major in minors, become critical and judgemental of the life of others, and not see our own slipping, not into worldliness, but the censoriousness of a supposedly superior judgement or manner of behaviour or a spirit of fear that comes from a heart and life becoming disconnected from Christ.
It can be very costly to stand for the truth (Vs 13). Men had come from James and Jerusalem with this bondage. Peter stood with them, and even Barnabas, Paul’s companion, was persuaded by their error, so Paul could have also caved in and gone with them rather than stand alone – imagine what would have happened if he had… where would we see the church today?
There would have been no gospel!
Paul profoundly knew where these men were coming from – he had spent his life schooled in such religion, but he knew it was nothing but dung before the excellence of the work of God in Jesus Christ – that is why he so vehemently rejects and ejects it from the church – it has no place.
We live in a world where all manner of religious powers and authorities seek to place us back under the tyranny of subjection to law to achieve righteousness, but it is all in vain, for none of these powers can break the hold of sin and death upon us – only Christ makes us free.
God has provided a better way, which truly rescues us, and through Paul in this incident, Christ tares down the deceit which would ensnare His people, and ensures that our safe haven, only found in Jesus, is kept before us.
It is in his discerning of this matter (Vs 14) that the Apostle shows us how we can truly remain within the faith and thereby grow as we need to as God’s children. Rather than succumbing to deceit and error paraded as something which is benevolent or harmless (the false always dresses itself as something good and holy), we must become those who can distinguish between the sweet and living waters of Christ and the poisoned mire of rules and obligations devised only to cripple and control. If we learn to make and understand this vital distinction, then we will learn something that as at the core of what is necessary as a Christian – the means whereby we test or prove (weigh up) all things which would seek to require our attention as they deem themselves of spiritual value – to test these, and to then adhere only to what is good. It will correct us well, and prevent us from seeking to impose on others things that are totally indifferent in regards to the work of the Gospel, which was the error evidenced at Antioch (Vs 15).
Having placed this trouble in its context, Paul will now re-open for us the glorious message that saves us from these follies.
The truth at the heart of the issue is now reached (Vs 16). Men will seek to justify themselves by all manner of programmes that they believe makes their behaviour or character of value, but actual rightness before the Father of all can only come when we rest entirely in the person and saving work of His Son. The law, as shown by Paul himself (Romans 1 & 2), defines one great truth for us – that we are all concluded as a race in the terrible state of sin and death, and would be totally without hope, divorced from God, without rescue (Romans 3:19& 20); that is why the Gospel is such good news. It truly sets us free.
And that is why the events which unfold, first in Antioch and then in Galatia are so tragic, for they essentially seek to replace Christ by the law, and in so doing, appear to make the Gospel no more than an instrument for miss-placed confidence in false means (Vs 17).
The Judaizers claimed that they had something ‘superior’ to other men in their keeping of certain traditions and rules, and that these were necessary for true godliness, but Paul refutes their blindness because to maintain such a belief is to entirely demean and seek to replace the free gift of God – salvation by His grace – with something menial and ineffective (Vs 18). By holding onto the law, they had lost Christ, and turned the gospel into nothing more than a false hope, but Paul will have none of it.
Christ alone does what the Law cannot and could never do – it replaces our hopeless attempts at reaching God with the one who has come from heaven to reach us. Through Christ, notes Paul, I have not only been given new life within this being so bent by corruption, but I am also, because the law can only kill, dead to any obligation to the Law (Vs 19). What matters before the Father is the nature and work of His Son, and this is what grace gives to us (Vs 20).
In conclusion, Paul contends that there is only one life, one manner of goodness, one righteousness which is of any true value in heaven and earth. If we seek to subjugate that wonderful gift to other ways of being right with God, however noble they may appear, then we nullify the power of God’s work (Vs 21), and this truly leaves us without hope. The boast of the church is a life lived by faith in the person and work of Jesus, no more, no less, and that is where Paul will seek to lead his way-laid brothers in Galatia next.