On Belonging to God

  Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21  

Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians sometime around the middle of the first century. He had been the first to share the gospel with the Galatians and had founded the church there. Soon after he left, others came along and suggested to the Galatians that Paul hadn’t told them everything they needed to know. This group of conservative Jewish believers told the largely gentile believers in Galatia that in order to belong to the church they must first become Jews and follow the Jewish laws (including circumcision for the males).

The Galatians apparently swallow this hook, line and sinker and when Paul hears about it he is angry. You can tell he is angry by the tone of some of his rhetoric; ex. 1:6-9:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 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! 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!

Or, 3:1-3:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

Or, 5:12:

12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Pretty strong language!

Paul is angry because there is so much at stake. The question is – Who belongs to God? Who is in and who is out? Is Christ only for Jews? How about everybody else? Are they condemned to second-class citizenship in the kingdom of God?

And, how do you know you belong? What are the identifying marks? Observing the law of Moses? It makes sense, after all, Jesus was Jewish. His earliest disciples identified him as the Messiah, a uniquely Jewish concept. So, if a gentile wanted to be a Christian, must he become a Jew first?

In Acts 15 we learn that there was a sizable “circumcision party” in the early church made up of believers from the party of the Pharisees. Their line was: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). They believed that keeping the law is how you belong. It is how other people know that you belong. They looked backward to boundaries drawn by centuries of Jewish traditions to give shape to the community.

But Paul imagined belonging differently. Christ is the source of belonging for both the Jew and Gentile. Therefore, all are equal in Christ. So when . . .

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

Paul went on the offensive. He went to Jerusalem and met with the leaders there. They discussed the issue of the gentiles becoming Christians and Paul was able to carry his point. Barnabas, Peter and James agreed with him and a letter was drafted to the new gentile believers. The salient line is . . .

28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things (Acts 15:28-29).

And that should have been that. Except it wasn’t. Members of the circumcision party continued to preach their gospel “which is really no gospel at all” prompting Paul to write this letter.

Who belongs to God? How do you know you belong?

The key verse in this passage, in fact, the key verse to the entire epistle is 2:16

. . . a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

In our passage for this morning, Paul approaches this issue in three ways. He begins with . . .

Demonstration (1:13-17)

Paul reflects on his own life of faith. He shares his testimony and he uses his experience to demonstrate his point.

Paul says, If anyone could be saved by keeping the law, it was me. I loved the law more than just about anyone. In fact, I loved the law so much that I persecuted the followers of Jesus because I believed they posed a danger to the law (vs. 13-14).

But when God “revealed his Son in me” all that changed (vs. 15-17)

Paul received a changed perspective— “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace” (v. 15). Where before he would have bragged about his obedience, now he talks about God’s grace. He saw that salvation was not a matter of keeping the Jewish law, but of the pure grace of God.

And he was given a changed purpose – “so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (v. 16). Paul goes from being a persecutor of the church to a preacher of the gospel. His focus from that point onward would be bringing the good news of God to the gentiles.

And it’s his changed perspective and purpose that lead to the second point.

Confrontation (2:11-16)

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned (v. 11).

Here’s the story. Sometime after the meeting in Jerusalem in Acts 15, Peter (Cephas) visited Antioch. Antioch was a mixed congregation of Jews and gentiles. It was the home church of Paul and Barnabas and had sent them out on their first mission to the gentile lands.

When Peter first arrived there, he entered fully into the fellowship, sharing meals with the gentile believers. But then, some people came up from Jerusalem. They belonged to the “circumcision party”—those who believed that gentiles must become Jews before they could become Christians. And Peter withdrew from fellowship with the gentile believers.

Maybe he feared conflict. He just didn’t want a fight and it was easier just to avoid the whole problem by not pushing the issue.

Maybe he was unsure of his convictions. He might have been thinking, maybe the “circumcision party” is right. Maybe eating with Gentiles is wrong. Of all people, Peter should have known better. He was the one, back in Acts 10, whom God had picked to preach the gospel to the gentile, Cornelius. He had said at that time, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).

Perhaps he feared being identified with Paul. Paul was the rebel, the one who wanted to change tradition. He wasn’t the most popular person among conservative Jewish believers. “Well sure,” they’d say, “back home in Jerusalem you’re an observant Jew. But, once you get out in gentile territory you fall right in line with that compromiser, Paul!”

We don’t know what Peter was thinking, but whatever it was, he changed his behavior—he backed away from fellowship with the gentile believers in Antioch. Peter’s problem was not that he feared contamination from the gentiles. Rather, he feared the reaction of the “circumcision party” (v. 12).

How often do we compromise our convictions just to “get along”? Have you ever not done or said something that you know was right because you were afraid how some of your friends might respond?

To Paul this was nothing less than hypocrisy. Peter’s behavior was sending mixed messages. Were gentiles full participants in the gospel? Or were they to always be considered second-class citizens in the kingdom of God?

The principle was so important to Paul that he confronted Peter “in front of them all” (v. 14). His rebuke to Peter essentially is, “Peter, we’re Jews; we love the law, but even we know that no one is saved by keeping the law! So how can you, a Jew who lives like a gentile, expect gentiles to live like Jews?” (vs. 15-16)

The next step in Paul’s campaign to prove is point is . . .

Argumentation (2:17-21)

There is some disagreement as to where Paul’s words to Peter end and he begins to address the Galatians directly. Some would end Paul’s speech to Peter at v. 14 and some at the end of v. 16. The NIV plays it safe by placing the entire passage (vs. 15-21) in quotes. I’m not sure where to close the quotation, but I do think that Paul transitions from his rebuke directed at Peter to his argument directed at the Galatians somewhere between vs. 14 and v. 17.

In his argument, Paul contrasts the “works of the law” with “faith in Christ” (v. 16). That phrase “faith in Christ” can also be translated “the faith of Christ”. So, which is it? Is it about us and how we find salvation or is it about Christ and how he saves us? I tend to favor the latter. Salvation is mostly about what Christ has done for us in his obedience to the Father by his death on the cross.  

One thing we can know is that belonging to God is not a matter of “law keeping” but of faith which connects us to Christ (v. 16).

Paul sees the difference as so great that he expresses it in terms of death and resurrection:

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The live I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (vs. 19-20).

It’s not about following the rules; of checking of a list of dos and don’ts; it’s about the transformation that happens when your life is exchanged for the life of Christ. It’s about Christ living his life through you.

Let me close with a couple of thoughts:

Either all of us are saved by God’s grace or none of us are; and if we are all saved by grace, then none of us have the right to see ourselves as superior.

Who is “Gentile” to my “Jew” and can we accept that when we accept Jesus we are called to accept all those that Jesus accepts?

What are the barriers we have put up to full acceptance of our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Are we sending mixed messages about what it means to belong to Christ?