The Danger of Disbelief.

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way after they had come out of Egypt. Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord; the Lord swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way.

When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day. Joshua 5:2-9 ESV

For this passage to make any sense, it requires an understanding of the rite of circumcision, as practiced by the people of Israel. Circumcision was not a cultural rite of passage, created by men, but a divinely mandated sign of their covenant relationship with God. It had been instituted by God and given by Him to Abraham centuries earlier, long before there were any Israelites.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” – Genesis 17:9-14 ESV

For generations, the Israelites had kept God’s command to circumcise their infant sons, even during the dark days of their captivity in Egypt. Circumcision was a physical sign and tangible reminder to the Jews of their having been set apart by God. They belonged to Him. And it was tied to the covenant God had made with Abraham, promising to make of him a great nation.

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:4-8 ESV

God had kept His promise to Abraham. From one man, who was old in age and married to a barren wife, God produced the nation of Israel. But now, as they stood on the western bank of the Jordan, preparing to possess the land God had promised to Abraham, they faced a problem. The men of Israel were uncircumcised. They were missing the sign of the covenant, the mark of their ownership by God. The generation that had been released from captivity in Egypt had been circumcised, but because of their refusal to enter the promised land 40 years earlier, God had forbidden them from ever entering the land. They all died in the wilderness. And during those days of wandering in the wilderness, a new generation was born. But for whatever reason, outright disobedience or simple neglect, the people of Israel had failed to circumcise their male children. So, by the time Joshua and the nation made it to the land of Canaan, an entire generation of Israelite men were in violation of their covenant commitment to God. Their parents had failed to set them apart through the practice of the God-ordained rite of circumcision. And from the passage, it would appear that not a single male within the Israelite camp bore the mark of circumcision. The rite had been totally abandoned by the people of Israel during the 40 years they had spent wandering in the wilderness.

There is far more going on here than the neglect of a religious rite. The failure of the people of God to keep the command of God reveals the sad state of their relationship with Him. The author of Hebrews provides us with an insightful understanding of what was really going on. He warns his readers to avoid making the same mistake the people of Israel did, when they rebelled against God and refused to enter the promised land.

16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. – Hebrews 3:16-19 ESV

Notice that he blames their ban from entering the land on their unbelief. They had failed to trust God, listening instead to the dire reports of the spies who told them of giants in the land. That generation disbelieved the promises of God. They doubted His word. And after having been barred from entering the land, they continued their rebellion and disbelief, choosing to ignore His command to circumcise their sons. And a whole new generation of men made it to adulthood without bearing the sign of the covenant with God. But God was not going to allow them to take another step until they had rectified the problem. So, He commanded Joshua to order the immediate circumcision of each and every male in the camp. It is interesting to note that God had provided them with entrance into the land by making a way for them to cross over the Jordan River on dry ground, and all while they were in their uncircumcised states. He had not required their circumcision before allowing them to cross. God had kept His part of the covenant commitment in spite of their failure to keep theirs. He had allowed them to enter the land uncircumcised, but He would not allow them to remain that way. They would be required to commit themselves to the covenant by keeping God’s covenant sign.

And one of the fascinating aspects of this entire scene is that it clearly illustrates an obedience to and reliance upon God by the people of God. Here they were, standing in the land of promise, surrounded by potential enemies, and the very first thing God has them do is circumcise all their males. This procedure would have left their entire fighting force incapacitated for days as they recovered. They would have been sitting ducks, easy prey to the Amorites and Canaanites who occupied the land. To obey God’s command to circumcise all the men in their camp was going to require trust in God. He would have to protect them while they were in this vulnerable state. But their obedience was more important than any risk to their well-being. God had done His part, now it was their turn.

When the people had stepped out in faith and had circumcised all the males in their camp, God spoke the following words: “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (Joshua 5:9 ESV). The exact meaning of this statement is unclear. It could be that God is simply stating that their willingness to keep His command to circumcise their males was the final phase in their deliverance from Egypt. With that one neglected task now taken care of, the process of possessing the land could proceed unabated. But there is also the possibility that this remark by God was a reference to a fear that Moses had expressed on several different occasions. During their days in the wilderness, when the people had made the golden calf, God had determined to wipe out their generation, but Moses had intervened.

12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” – Exodus 32:12-13 ESV

When the original generation had refused to the enter the promised land, God had threatened to wipe them all out with a plague, but Moses had intervened yet again.

13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ – Numbers 14:13-16 ESV

So, it could be that “the reproach” to which God referred had to do with any future possibility of Egypt or any other nation accusing God of failing to keep His word. Not only were the people in the land, but they were covered by the sign of His ownership. No one could question God’s integrity or impugn His ability to care for His own.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

What God Had Done.

12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,

16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
     and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
    and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
     says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’

19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Acts 15:12-21 ESV

After Peter had addressed the council in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were given an opportunity to describe all that God had done among the Gentiles during their most recent road trip. The crowd sat in rapt silence as these two men share what “God had done through them.” This is important. Barnabas and Paul were not bragging about their own personal exploits or trying to pad their resumes by highlighting the irreplaceable role they had played in the evangelism of the Gentiles. No, they told of what God had done through them. They had merely been the conduits through whom His grace and mercy flowed. Their contribution had been to share the gospel. Everything else that had taken place had been God’s doing. And they qualify that what God had done had been done among the Gentiles. This had all been His doing and, obviously, His decision. The receptivity of the Gentiles among whom Barnabas and Saul had ministered, had been the result of God’s Spirit moving among them. He had prepared their hearts to hear what Barnabas and Paul had to share. There were three essential ingredients that had made the journey of Barnabas and Paul a success. First, they had been willing to go. They had submitted to the will of the leadership of the church in Antioch and left the safe and secure confines of their local congregation, all so they could take the message of the gospel to those who had not yet heard. And that brings up the second non-negotiable ingredient that made their trip spiritually successful: They took the gospel. Everywhere they had gone, they preached the good news regarding Jesus Christ. And God’s Spirit provided the third essential ingredient: Power. The most willing of witnesses, eagerly sharing the message of good news, will accomplish nothing apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is a work of God. And no one believed that more than Paul. But he also believed that there was an essential role that he and others had to play. He would later write in his letter to the church in Rome:

13 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

16 But not everyone welcomes the Good News… – Romans 10:13-16 NLT

You see, Paul knew that, as beautiful as the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was, it was useless without messengers. It was a message that could bring life to those who heard it, but they couldn’t believe in a message they had never heard. And for those whose job it was to take the message, it was necessary that they had a strong sense of calling and commission. Otherwise, they would be tempted to quit when the going got tough or the message seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Paul seemed to understand that not everyone who would hear would believe. Not all who heard the good news would welcome or accept it. That’s where the Spirit comes in. He is the trump card in the conversion process. Without His regenerating role, no one can or will come to faith. In a conversation He had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, Jesus said:

5 “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life – John 3:5-6 NLT

What Paul and Barnabas had seen happen in Iconium, Lystra, Derby and Pisidian Antioch was the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, opening spiritually blind eyes and softening hearts hardened by sin. They had witnesses the Spirit bring life to those who had been dead in their trespasses and sins. Paul would describe this wonderful, Spirit-empowered process in his letter to Titus.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:3-7 ESV

The pattern of salvation is always the same. Those who were foolish, disobedient, led astray and slaves to various passions and pleasures are, somehow, suddenly transformed and made right with God. At one point, they were completely separated from and enemies of God, because of their sin. They they suddenly find themselves friends of God, fully righteous in His sight. Why? Because someone was sent with the message of the gospel, they shared it, and the Spirit prepared the hearts of those who heard it. The end result: They believed. You see, the Bible makes it clear that the things of God are spiritually discerned.

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 ESV

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. – 1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV

What Paul and Barnabas had witnessed had been the unquestionable work of the Spirit of God. And James, the half-brother of Jesus and a recognized leader in the Jerusalem church, came to their defense, fully agreeing with and confirming their assessment. He reminds those in his audience that Peter (Simeon) had already given ample proof that God was at work among the Gentiles, after he had returned from Caesarea and shared of the conversions of Cornellius and his household.

“Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.” – Acts 15:14 ESV

Notice his emphasis: It was God who had first visited the Gentiles. He doesn’t give Peter the credit. It was god who had chosen to take from among the Gentiles a people for His name. And it had taken a vision from God to get Peter on board and fully convinced that this mission had God’s full blessing. God had sent Peter. Peter had gone. The gospel had been declared and the Spirit had moved. Bottom line? Gentiles were saved.

And James further confirms that divine nature of the mission of Paul and Barnabas by citing a passage from the Old Testament book of Amos.

16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
     and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
    and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
     says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’” – Acts 15:16-18 ESV

According to James, the prophets had predicted the very thing Paul and Barnabas had described. Amos spoke of the “remnant of mankind”, not the remnant of Israel. He specifically mentioned “all the Gentiles who are called by my name.” And nowhere does he include a requirement that this remnant of Gentiles must first become full-fledged, card-carrying Jews, having submitted to the rite of circumcision and agreed to keep the Mosaic law in its entirety. And that was the real crux of the matter. The whole reason this council had been convened was to deal with the demands of the Judaizers that all Gentile converts to Christianity become Jewish proselytes first. By citing the passage from Amos, James was turning the focus away from a matter regarding Jewish ethnicity and a kingdom that mirrored that of David and Solomon. This was about a future Messianic Kingdom that would be ruled over by Christ Himself and made up of people from every tribe, nation and tongue. It is not to say that God does not have a place for the people of Israel in His eschatological plans. He does. But for those Jews in the audience that day in Jerusalem, they were thinking in a purely ethnic and Jewish-centric manner. For them, the Messiah was a Jew, and His Kingdom would be a Jewish Kingdom. Therefore, any Gentiles who wished to be a part of that Kingdom, must first become Jews themselves.

But Paul, Barnabas, Peter and, now, James, would strongly and vehemently disagree. So much so, that James would flatly state, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19 ESV). By “trouble” he meant require them to submit to circumcision and adhere to the Mosaic law. In other words, demand that they become Jewish proselytes. The decision was made. The die had been cast. The only thing James suggested was that a letter be written and sent to all the Christians in the places where Paul and Barnabas had ministered, encouraging these Gentile believers to “abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20 NLT). And James qualifies his words by saying that these very things were commonly taught in every synagogue and had been since the times of Moses. For Gentiles to remain ignorant of these typical Jewish prohibitions and to then violate them in ignorance, would have made the gospel onerous and repulsive to the unbelieving Jewish community. And the apostle Paul would later describe that he lived his own life with the very same attitude that James was prescribing in mind.

20 When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. 21 When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 NLT

The objective? That as many as possible might come to Christ. James was not willing to allow circumcision or the Mosaic law to become a stumbling block to belief. Paul was not willing to let his freedom from the law to act as a deterrent to his fellow Jews receiving the gospel. He was also not willing to let his own personal love for the law of God to turn Gentiles away from the love of God found in the gospel.

 

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Sound Doctrine. Sound Faith.

For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. – Titus 1:10-16 ESV

Like Timothy, Titus was one of Paul’s protégés. He was a Greek Gentile whom Paul had evidently led to Christ. This young man had actually accompanied Paul on several of his missionary journeys and had gained the great apostle’s trust, so that Paul was confident in sending him out on his own on numerous occasions as his representative. In fact, Paul had sent him to the island of Crete in order to help establish some sense of order within the churches there, including appointing elders to help him lead. “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 NLT). As in the case of Timothy, Paul provided Titus with advice on how to deal with false teachers who had become a real problem within the fledgling churches on Crete.

Titus found himself ministering in a place where the reputation of the inhabitants was far from stellar. Paul even quoted Epimenides, a 6th Century BC philosopher and religious prophet who happened to be a Cretan himself. He said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12 ESV). Paul went out of his way to paint a less-than-flattering picture of the people of Crete. He described them as  “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10 ESV). Evidently, not only were the false teachers considered men of poor repute, so were some of the members of the local churches on Crete. So, Paul spent a great deal of time in his letter talking about good works. He wanted Titus to understand just how important good character and moral behavior should be in the life of every believer. Paul commanded Titus to deal harshly and firmly with those whose lives were marked by laziness and lying. He didn’t want his young disciple to tolerate the disorder and chaos these kinds of people were bringing into the church. He told Titus to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13 ESV). Rebuking and restoration were both to be a part of Titus’ ministry on Crete.

Paul’s objective was to make these individuals “sound in the faith”. There was a real problem with false and deceptive ideas regarding the faith taking place on Crete. The faith refers to salvation as expressed through belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. The false teachers were confusing and even contradicting what Paul, Titus and others had taught regarding what it means to have faith in Christ and enjoy forgiveness of sins and a restored relationship with God. Rather than faith alone in Christ alone, new and confusing gospel messages were being taught, and the result was weakness in faith among the people. They didn’t know what to believe anymore. One of the qualifications for elders that Paul gave Titus was: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9 ESV). These men were to be knowledgeable of the truth so that they might refute falsehood and rebuke those who taught it. As far as Paul was concerned, sound faith was totally dependent upon sound doctrine.

But these false teachers were teaching “what they ought not to teach” and all “for shameful gain” (Titus 1:11 ESV). Paul refers to them as being from the circumcision party. This is a reference to Jews who had expressed faith in Christ, but who held to the idea that Gentiles who became believers in Christ must also keep the Law of Moses and undergo the rite of circumcision in order to be truly saved. Paul fought this heresy with every fiber of his being. And Paul’s fear was that, based on the reputation of the Cretans, they would easily accept this false teaching, and end up “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14 ESV). The Cretans were easily swayed by the “commands” or teachings of these people, readily accepting what they had to say about circumcision, abstinence from certain foods, the keeping of Jewish feasts and festivals and adherence to the Mosaic law. But Paul warns Titus that these false teachers “claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16 ESV). Paul makes it clear that the real problem with these false teachers was their hearts. He says, “Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure. But nothing is pure to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, because their minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15 NLT). They were obsessed with the externals: keeping of laws and commands,  and adherence to rituals and religious rules.

There was an occasion when Jesus was approached by a group of Pharisees and religious leaders, who wanted to know why His disciples didn’t follow their man=made tradition of ceremonial hand-cleaning before they ate. Jesus responded to them:

“And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:3-9 NLT

 

Jesus went on to say: “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11 NLT). The Pharisees had missed the point. They were so busy keeping external rules that they missed the real problem: The condition of their hearts. And Paul knew that the false teachers who were so negatively impacting the churches on Crete had the same problem. Their minds and consciences were defiled. Their hearts were hardened to the truth regarding faith in Christ. They were convinced that there had to be more to salvation. Faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. Works of self-righteousness were necessary. But Paul describes them as defiled and unbelieving. They were wrong and they were dangerous. So Paul tells Titus to rebuke them sharply. He was to deal harshly with the false teachers, and he was to rebuke the Cretans who were so easily buying into their lies. Sound doctrine and sound faith go hand in hand. The Word of God is not open to our interpretation. We are not free to add to the gospel or alter the truth in any way. And we are not to tolerate those who attempt to mislead by misinterpreting what God has said. Again, that is why Paul told Titus an elder must “have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong” (Titus 1:9 NLT).

Paul had also written to Timothy, telling him that the purpose for his letter was that “you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NLT). The church and its leaders must adhere to and uphold the truth of God, especially as it relates to the message and means of salvation. There is no other gospel except the one we have been given: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Salvation By Grace Alone.

See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. – Galatians 6:11-18 ESV

The fear of man. It has always been a real-life, everyday problem for believers and non-believers alike. Everyone fears being rejected, disliked, misunderstood or mistreated for their views. Our deep-seated desire for attention and affection sometimes drives us to do and say things that go against what we believe. We don’t want to be the odd man out. Peer pressure is a powerful force in every person’s life, and Paul knew that. He was fully aware that following Christ put a target on the back of every believer. Bearing the cross of Christ was a costly endeavor that often brought His followers rejection and ridicule. Paul had experienced this first-hand. But as he closed out his letter to the Galatian believers, he pointed out that the party of the circumcision, those individuals who were demanding that all Gentile converts undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision in order to validate their salvation, were doing so out of the fear of man. These Judaizers, Jews who confessed to be followers of Christ, were preaching their message out of fear of rejection by their fellow Jews. They also feared being persecuted and ridiculed for putting all their hope and faith in the cross of Christ alone. To do so would require them to reject their dependence upon the law and their reliance upon their own self-effort to justify themselves before God.

But Paul pointed out the absurdity of their logic. “Those who are trying to force you to be circumcised want to look good to others. They don’t want to be persecuted for teaching that the cross of Christ alone can save. And even those who advocate circumcision don’t keep the whole law themselves. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast about it and claim you as their disciples.” (Galatians 6:12-13 NLT). They cared more about what others thought of them than they did what God would think about their actions. This was man-pleasing at its ugliest. Paul knew that their message had a deadly side-effect that would lead people away from the saving knowledge of faith in Christ alone. For Paul, the message of salvation was found in Christ alone by faith alone. It had nothing to do with works or human effort. It could not be earned. It was a grace gift provided by God Almighty Himself. Which is why Paul appended to the end of his letter, in his own weak and scrawling hand, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14 ESV). Paul wasn’t going to boast about his Hebrew heritage; his resumé as a Pharisee; his education under Gamaliel, the great Hebrew rabbi; or even his missionary exploits. At one point he confessed, “But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me – and not without results” (1 Corinthians 15:10 NLT).  Paul had been transformed by the saving work of Jesus Christ. His efforts on behalf of the gospel were the result of the Spirit within him, not himself.

The primary issue threatening the Galatians believers was that of circumcision. But Paul said, “It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:15 NLT). This rule or principle, regarding the efficacy of the gospel, was one that would bring peace and mercy to all who lived by it. Giving in to the false message of the Judaizers would result in guilt, shame, and a never-ending attempt to win favor with God through self-effort. Paul found that choice appalling. He also wanted his readers to know that he was anything but a man-pleaser. He had suffered greatly in his effort to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. He had the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He closed his letter with the words, “I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus” (Galatians 6:17 NLT).

The message of faith in Christ is a difficult one for people to understand and even harder to accept. It sounds absurd. The story of God taking on human flesh, dying on a cross and being raised from the dead sounds crazy to most who hear it. Yet for Paul, it was the truth. He had seen it transform his life and the lives of thousands of others. The gospel was not just a message, but a powerful force for change in the world in which he lived. He believed in it wholeheartedly and preached it unapologetically. As he told the believers in Rome, living under the persecution of the Roman government, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because he believed in the power of the gospel. He was willing to suffer ridicule and rejection at the hands of men because he had placed his hope and trust in the promises of God. And he wanted every believer in Christ to know the joy of living with their faith placed firmly in the saving work of Jesus Christ and the future redemption promised to them by God. Their hope was never to waver from the simple message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

No Other View.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! – Galatians 5:7-12 ESV

Paul took this issue very seriously. As far as he was concerned, it had little to do with the rite of circumcision itself, but it had everything to do with the integrity of the gospel. God had sent His Son as the one and only means for mankind’s salvation. His sacrificial death on the cross was God’s sole solution to man’s sin problem. God had never intended the law to save men, but to condemn them of their sins. The law revealed the holiness and righteousness that God demanded in a non-negotiable, hand-written form. It left no grey areas or anything up to man’s imagination. But man, in his sinful condition, was totally incapable of keeping the law, and this was no surprise to God. His plan all along had been for His Son to take on human flesh, in order that He might keep the law perfectly, and become the sinless substitute and unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, died on behalf of sinful men, and His death provided the only means by which men might be restored to a right relationship with God. Paul wrote to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25 ESV).

Anything and anyone that interfered with that message was considered an enemy by Paul. He didn’t suffer false teachers lightly. He would not tolerate those who preached a different version of God’s gospel. That is why he started out this letter to the Galatians with very strong words concerning those who were amending the gospel of God.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

In today’s passage, Paul commends his readers for running the race well, but then accuses them of allowing others to knock them off course. They had accepted Christ by faith and were living the Christian life in faith, but had run into an obstacle along the way. The Greek word Paul used was ἀνακόπτω (anakoptō) and it refers to something having its progress hindered, held back or checked in some way. The Judaizers, who were demanding that the Gentile converts in Galatia be circumcised, were actually hindering them from obeying the truth as found in the gospel. They were adding unnecessary requirements. And Paul made it clear that these new rules were not from God. “This persuasion is not from him who calls you” (Galatians 5:8 ESV). And the real danger of this kind of teaching was that it would soon permeate every aspect of their faith, causing them to walk away from the grace offered by God and back into the legalism of the law. Which is what Paul seems to be saying when he writes, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” This kind of false teaching would become like an uncontrolled cancer spreading through the church in Galatia and robbing them of the freedom they had found in Christ.

But Paul expressed his confidence that the Galatian believers would reject this false teaching and remain faithful to the life of faith.And he assured them that, regardless of what others might have said, he was not a proponent of circumcision. Yes, he had encouraged Timothy to be circumcised, but that was a different case altogether. Timothy, a young disciple of Paul’s, had a Jewish mother who had become a believer, but his father was Greek. In the book of Acts we read, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3 ESV). It had nothing to do with Timothy’s salvation, but with his ministry to the Jews. Paul knew that they would never listen to an uncircumcised Gentile, so he encouraged Timothy to undergo circumcision to make him acceptable to the Jews and provide him a platform to share the gospel with them.

Evidently, the false teachers in Galatia had been saying that Paul was also a proponent of circumcision, most likely using the story of Timothy as evidence. But Paul denies that charge and asks why he is still being persecuted by the Judaizers if they are all on the same page. No, Paul was adamantly opposed to these men and he made his position clear. For Paul, the very nature of the cross was an offense to the legalists. Jesus’ death had removed any vestige of self-righteousness or the possibility of justification by works. The cross symbolized Jesus’ once-for-all-time payment for the sins of mankind. Nothing more was necessary. But for the legalists, this party of the circumcision, the cross was not enough, so Paul had some harsh words for them. He compared them to the pagan priests who practiced ritual castration as part of their worship, and he wished that they would do the same to themselves. Paul was not necessarily wishing physical harm on these individuals, but was merely expressing his desire that they be cut off from the local fellowship of believers. He saw them as a real danger to the spiritual health of the church. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul had similarly harsh words regarding these types of individuals:

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. – Philippians 3:2-3 ESV

In our desire to be tolerant, we sometimes run the risk of allowing dangerously false doctrines to infiltrate the church. But when it came to the doctrine of salvation, Paul was anything but accommodating. He would not accept alternative views. He would not abide by those who offered a different version of the gospel. For Paul, there was only one means of salvation and it was by faith alone in Christ alone. And if anyone preached a different gospel, Paul called them out. And we should do the same. It is NOT true that all roads lead to the top of the mountain. It is false to believe that there are other ways for men to be made right with God. Jesus Himself said,  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Those who would add to or take away from the simple message of faith in Christ alone are not to be tolerated. Their false messages are not to be winked at or taken lightly. Our view is to be that there is no other view. There is no other gospel. There is no other means by which men might be restored to a right relationship with God. There is one hope for mankind: The simple, soul-saving, sin-slaying, justifying, sanctifying gospel of faith in Christ alone.

The Self-Delusion of Self-Effort.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. – Galatians 4:8-11 ESV

There is a common belief, even among evangelical Christians, that all people are seeking after God. But the Bible seems to paint a distinctively different picture of mankind. Ever since the fall, humanity has been on a trajectory away from God, not toward Him. Men have not been seeking after God, but for anything and everything but Him. They have sought to make their own gods. Adam and Eve knew God intimately and personally. They had a daily and uninterrupted relationship with Him. But after the fall, they found themselves cast out of His presence. And the further mankind got from Eden, the more distant their recollection of God became. Paul paints a vivid picture of this fading knowledge of God in his letter to the Romans:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:21-23 ESV

God’s character was visible through His creation. Paul writes, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20 ESV). But as time passed, men began to lose their perception of God and their ability to recognize His attributes in the world He had made. They lost their knowledge of the one true God and began to create gods that reflected the qualities and characteristics they deemed necessary for deity. Paul says they worshiped the creation rather than the creator. They even worshiped other men.

But Paul reminds the Galatians that they have had their knowledge of God restored, and it was not something they had achieved. It was not as a result of their own searching or seeking. He emphasizes the fact that they have come to be known by God. It was God who had sought them out and not the other way around. He had chosen to know them and have a relationship with them. He had determined to make Himself known to them through His Son. As the apostle John put it, “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (1 John 1:18 NLT). As a result of placing their faith in Jesus Christ, they had come to truly know God for the very first time. Up until that point, they had been “enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8 ESV). They had been worshiping false gods. They had been limited in their spiritual understanding and were stuck worshiping the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9 ESV). Their spirituality was of this world and not of heaven. While thinking they were seeking and coming to know God, they were actually moving away from Him.

But God had chosen to seek them out. He had called them to Himself and opened their eyes so that they could see the truth found in His Son’s death, burial and resurrection. For the first time they had been able to see the depth of their own sin, the hopelessness of their condition, and their need for a Savior. Rather than attempting to earn their way into God’s good graces, they relied on the grace of God as expressed in the finished work of Christ. But Paul was concerned that these very same people, who had discovered the secret of justification by faith in Christ alone, were allowing themselves to become enslaved again. They were listening to the false teachers who were preaching justification by works. Suddenly, grace was not enough. The death and resurrection of Christ was insufficient. More was required. Human effort was necessary. But Paul completely disagreed.

There were those who were trying to convince the Gentile converts in Galatia that they were not truly saved unless they became circumcised and began to keep all the Jewish rituals, feasts and festivals. That is what Paul means when he refers to observing days and months and seasons and years. These outsiders were convincing the Gentile believers that their salvation was incomplete. They needed to do more. Their faith in Christ was insufficient. And it was this false teaching, a form of legalism, that Paul stood against so strongly. He would not tolerate it or allow it to take root among the churches in Galatia. Earlier in his letter to the Galatians, Paul had stated his amazement at how quickly and easily the believers there had turned their back on justification by faith alone.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. – Galatians 1:6-7 ESV

There was no other gospel. There were no other requirements. The salvation offered by God was not based on human effort, but on faith in Christ alone. The works of men had never made God known to them. Self-righteousness had never earned anyone access to God. The righteousness God required was only available through faith in Christ. As Paul told the Romans:

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16-17 NLT

We don’t seek God. He seeks us. We can’t earn God’s favor. He must willingly extend it to us through His Son. When it comes to our justification before God, self-effort is self-delusional. We would do well to remember the personal testimony of Paul to the believers in Philippi: “I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9 NLT).

An Apostolic Smackdown.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” – Galatians 2:11-14 ESV

When Paul had left Jerusalem, he had done so on good terms, having received “the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9 ESV) from his fellow apostles: Peter, James and John. But when Peter came to Antioch to get a first-hand look at Paul’s ministry, it didn’t take long before a confrontation took place between the two men. Upon his arrival, Peter was interfacing and even eating with the Gentile believers in the church in Antioch. But when a group of believing Jews arrived from Jerusalem who were of the opinion that Gentiles must be circumcised before they were truly Christians, Peter succumbed to peer pressure. Paul accused him of hypocrisy, because he drew back and separated himself from the Gentiles. The Greek word Paul uses carries a powerful punch. It is same word used by Luke when writing of an incident in Ephesus when Paul had been preaching in the synagogue there. He had been doing so for three months and had seen many come to Christ. The Luke records, “But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him” (Acts 19:9 ESV). He separated himself from them because of their unbelief. It seems that Paul is accusing Peter of treating the Gentile Christians as unbelievers because of the pressure he felt from the Judaizers. His behavior had radically changed when the Jews from Jerusalem had arrived in town. And his actions had negatively influence the Jewish Christians in Antioch to follow his lead. Even Barnabas, Paul’s companion in ministry there, had been led astray by Peter’s actions. Suddenly, there was an unhealthy and uncalled for division in the church. And Paul would not tolerate it.

Paul made a very condemning assessment, saying, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14 ESV). Their decision to separate themselves from the Gentiles Christians because they had not been circumcised was unwarranted and not in keeping with the message of the gospel. There was no requirement of circumcision tied to the message of the good news. There was no missing “next step” that had to be taken in order for these Gentiles to be fully saved or deemed legitimate Christians. And the idea that there were somehow Jewish Christians and Gentile (incomplete) Christians was in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. Rather than unity, the message of the Judaizers was causing division.

A little later on in this same letter, Paul writes of the unifying nature of the gospel.

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:24-29 ESV

Peter’s actions were divisive. Whether he meant to or not, he gave the impression that the Gentile Christians were somehow deficient in their justification before God. His decision to distance himself from them was based on the teachings of men, not the law of Moses. In fact, in the book of Acts, Luke records the encounter between Peter and Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who was “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2 ESV). God had spoken to Peter in a vision and commanded him to go to Cornelius. In his vision, Peter had seen “the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat’” (Acts 10:11-13 ESV). Appalled at the very thought, Peter had refused. But God commanded him a second time to eat, and then said, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15 ESV). When Peter woke up from the vision, he obeyed God and went to see Cornelius and said to him:

“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” – Acts 10:28-29 ESV

It is interesting to note that the unlawfulness to which Peter referred had nothing to do with the law of Moses. According to the Benson Commentary, the term, “anyone of another nation” refers to “A stranger, and an uncircumcised Gentile. This was not made unlawful by the law of God, but by the precepts of their wise men, which they looked upon to be no less obliging. They did not indeed forbid them to converse with Gentiles, in the way of traffic or worldly business, but to eat with them. With such scorn did the Jews look upon the Gentiles” (Benson Commentary on the Old and New Testaments).

Peter’s aversion to the Gentiles was based on man-made rules and regulations. And it is important to remember that Jesus, a practicing Jew and keeper of the law of Moses, ate with tax collectors and sinners, a practice for which He was derided by the Pharisees. In doing so, He was breaking their laws, not the law of God. And so, when Peter allowed the pressure from the Judaizers to cause him to pull away from the Gentile believers in Antioch, he was violating the very message God had given him in his vision: “I should not call any person common or unclean.”

Peter was wrong and he deserved to be confronted for his behavior. Paul, never one to pull any punches, was more than willing to call his brother on the carpet and demand that he rethink his actions. The gospel was too important. The unity of the church, too vital.

 

No Other Gospel.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. – Galatians 2:1-10 ESV

As we read this autobiographical section of Paul’s letter, we must not lose sight of his main point of emphasis. He is still addressing the issue of a “different” gospel being preached to the people in Galatia. So Paul’s point in recounting his own conversion experience was first, to make it quite clear that the message he preached was from God, not man. And just in case anyone might question the validity of Paul’s conversion and commissioning, he tells of his initial interactions with Peter, James, John and the other apostles in Jerusalem. It had been 14 years since his conversion on the road to Damascus when Paul returned to Jerusalem and met with the church leaders there. He shared with them the content of the gospel that he was preaching among the Gentiles, and it was confirmed by them as the one true gospel. The only difference was that Paul had a divine directive to share the gospel with the Gentiles, while Peter and the other apostles were focusing their efforts among the Jews. Paul recounts the outcome of his visit to Jerusalem:

“when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” – Galatians 2:9 ESV

But one important distinction that Paul makes in this section is regarding circumcision. He refers to Titus, his traveling companion, who was a Greek convert to Christianity. Paul, in somewhat of an aside, indicated that Titus “was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (Galatians 2:3 ESV). While this may appear to be an unimportant parenthetical statement, it is actually quite revealing. One of the big issues Paul had with the Judaizers who seemed to follow him wherever he went and contradict his message and ministry, was their insistence that Gentile converts be circumcised and adhere to the law of Moses for their conversion to be complete. 

Luke records in the book of Acts that there Judean believers who had followed behind Paul, teaching the need for circumcision in order for Gentile conversions to be valid. “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1 ESV). Paul and Barnabas had what Luke described as “no small debate” with them over this matter. And eventually Paul, Barnabas and others were sent to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles. Luke records, “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:4-5 ESV). 

Addressing the council, Paul stated, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:10-11 ESV). For Paul, this was the crux of the matter. Justification with God was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Circumcision and the keeping of the law were not required. This in no way invalidated either circumcision or the law. Both were holy, righteous, and God-ordained. But with the coming of Christ, God had ordained a better way. Just a few verses later Paul will point out: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).

When Paul and Barnabas had traveled to Antioch on their way to Jerusalem, they stopped in the synagogue, and addressing the crowd there, Paul stated, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39 ESV). Then Paul warned them, using a passage from the Old Testament book of Habakuk.

Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” – Habakuk 1:5 ESV

Paul utilizes these words of the prophet Habakuk to warn his Jewish audience not to be like their ancestors and refuse to see and acknowledge the work that was doing. This was a new day and God was justifying His people in a new way. The law, while not done away with, was no longer a necessary requirement for being made right with God.

The result of Paul’s meeting with the apostles was their full support of his gospel message and ministry to the Gentiles. He walked away with their blessing. And while he makes it clear that he did not need their support, because of his having received his commission directly from Jesus, he was grateful and relieved to see that they were all on the same page. There was no other gospel. Nothing more was required to be made right with God other than faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

An Unpopular, Yet Unwavering Message.

See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. – Galatians 6:11-18 ESV

The fear of man. It has always been a real-life, everyday problem for believers and non-believers alike. Everyone fears being rejected, disliked, misunderstood or mistreated for their views. Our deep-seated desire for attention and affection sometimes drives us to do and say things that go against what we believe. We don’t want to be the odd man out. Peer pressure is a powerful force in every person’s life, and Paul knew that. He was fully aware that following Christ put a target on the back of every believer. Bearing the cross of Christ was a costly endeavor that often brings His followers rejection and ridicule. Paul had experienced this first-hand. But as he closed out his letter to the Galatian believers, he pointed out that the party of the circumcision, those individual who were demanding that all Gentile converts undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision in order to validate their salvation, were doing so out of fear of man. These Judaizers, Jews who confessed to be followers of Christ, were preaching their message out of fear of rejection by their fellow Jews. They also feared being persecuted and ridiculed for putting all their hope and faith in the cross of Christ alone. To do so would require them to reject their dependence upon the law and their reliance upon their own self-effort to justify themselves before God.

But Paul pointed out the absurdity of their logic. “Those who are trying to force you to be circumcised want to look good to others. They don’t want to be persecuted for teaching that the cross of Christ alone can save. And even those who advocate circumcision don’t keep the whole law themselves. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast about it and claim you as their disciples.” (Galatians 6:12-13 NLT). They cared more about what others thought of them than they did what God would think about their actions. This was man-pleasing at its ugliest. Paul knew that their message had a deadly side-effect to it that would lead people away from the saving knowledge of faith in Christ alone. For Paul, the message of salvation was found in Christ alone by faith alone. It had nothing to do with works or human effort. It could not be earned. It was a grace gift provided by God Almighty Himself. Which is why Paul appended to the end of his letter, in his own weak and scrawling hand, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14 ESV). Paul wasn’t going to boast about his Hebrew heritage; his resume as a Pharisee; his education under Gamaliel, the great Hebrew rabbi; or even his missionary exploits. At one point he confessed, “But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me – and not without results” (1 Corinthians 15:10 NLT).  Paul had been transformed by the saving work of Jesus Christ. His efforts on behalf of the gospel were the result of the Spirit within him, not himself.

The primary issue threatening the Galatians believers was that of circumcision. But Paul said, “It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:15 NLT). This rule or principle, regarding the efficacy of the gospel, was one that would bring peace and mercy to all who lived by it. Giving in to the false message of the Judaizers would result in guilt, shame, and a never-ending attempt to win favor with God through self-effort. Paul found that choice appalling. He also wanted his readers to know that he was anything but a man-pleaser. He had suffered greatly in his effort to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. He had the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He closed his letter with the words, “I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus” (Galatians 6:17 NLT).

The message of faith in Christ is a difficult one for people to understand and even harder to accept. It sounds absurd. The story of God taking on human flesh, dying on a cross and being raised from the dead sound crazy to most who hear it. Yet for Paul, it was the truth because he had seen it transform his life and the lives of thousands of others. The gospel was not just a message, but a powerful force for change in the world in which he lived. He believed in it wholeheartedly and preached it unapologetically. As he told the believers in Rome, living under the persecution of the Roman government, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because he believed in the power of the gospel. He was willing to suffer ridicule and rejection at the hands of men because he had placed his hope and trust in the promises of God. And he wanted every believer in Christ to know the joy of living with their faith placed firmly in the saving work of Jesus Christ and the future redemption promised to them by God. Their hope was never to waver from the simple message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

 

Losing Our Grip On Grace.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. – Galatians 5:1-6 ESV

In these verses, Paul makes it clear that the rite of circumcision was one of the big issues facing the Gentile believers to whom he wrote. They were being pressured by the Judaizers into believing that their salvation was incomplete unless they agreed to be circumcised. In essence, they were being told that they needed to become Jews before they could become believers. But Paul warns them that there is not end to this slippery slope down which they are about to slide. If they give in to the demand of circumcision, then they will be required to keep the whole law. By accepting the idea that obedience to the law is necessary for their salvation, they are placing themselves back under the full weight of the law. As we saw in an earlier blog post, the apostle James made this point painfully clear: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10 ESV).

The issue for Paul is that of freedom in Christ. He says that it is “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). Most of us, when we think of our freedom in Christ, focus on our freedom from sin and death. And yet, Paul speaks of another freedom we enjoy because of our relationship with Christ. “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:5-6 ESV). Does our release from the law mean that the law was somehow evil? Paul answers that question rather emphatically. “By no means!the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:7, 12 ESV). What Paul is telling his readers is that the law is no longer to be viewed as a mandatory code of conduct or as a set of rules that must be obeyed to gain a right standing with God. We have been freed from that pointless pursuit. Paul spent his lifetime preaching the believer’s newfound freedom in Christ. That freedom includes our release from having to pursue justification through adherence to the law.

Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.” – Galatians 3:11-12 NLT

Paul did not want the Galatians to fall back into slavery. At one time they were slaves to sin and under the control of Satan himself. They had no other choice. But when they had accepted Christ as their Savior, they had been released from their captivity. But now they were risking falling back into slavery – slavery to the law. If they turned their backs on the grace offered through Christ and the justification that He alone could provide, they would be willingly allowing themselves to live according to their own self-reliance and their ability to keep God happy through rule-keeping. To do so would be to fall away from grace, and Paul was not willing to sit back and watch them do that. It is not that Paul believed they would run the risk of losing their salvation. That is not what falling away from grace means. He is simply saying that they will be walking away from God’s sole method of salvation and justification: His undeserved and unearned grace as offered through His Son by means of faith. In Paul’s theology, faith in God’s grace gift of His Son would result in good works and a willing adherence to His commands. In the minds of the legalists, it was the exact opposite. Man’s adherence to God’s law would earn him a right standing before God and was, if anything, as important as faith in Christ.

Paul gives us the key difference between a life that is grace-focused and one that is law-based. “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5 ESV. It is by the Spirit’s power that we are to live, not our own. And it is He who provides us with the faith necessary to eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. We don’t manufacture faith. It is a gift provided to us by God. It is with the Spirit’s help that we have “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). That was the author of Hebrews description of faith. God’s indwelling Spirit provides us with the supernatural ability to believe in things that have not yet happened and to trust in those things we can’t even see. It is by faith that we believe we will be sanctified by God. We can’t see the end result. We can’t even see our sanctification taking place in real time. But we believe that God is doing what He has promised to do. Paul wanted believers to have a certainty and an abiding assurance that God had not only saved them by faith, but He was busy perfecting them by faith. And one day He was going to finish what He began by glorifying them by faith. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

God doesn’t need our help to make us holy. He simply asks for our complete reliance upon Him and our willing obedience to what He calls us to do, even when it doesn’t make sense.