Eye On the Prize

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:12-21 ESV

Paul has just expressed the motivating factor behind his life: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection…” (Philippians 3:11 ESV). For Paul, this knowledge of Christ was to include a personal and tangible experience of the divine power that raised Jesus from the dead. This remarkable resource came in the form of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. As Paul told the believers in Rome, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you” (Romans 8:11 NLT). The power made available by the Spirit of God within him was producing spiritual fruit in Paul’s life: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). These qualities were the direct result of the Spirit’s presence and power, not Paul’s own self-effort.

But Paul knew that the resurrection power made available by the Holy Spirit had an even more significant aspect to it that he longed to experience: His own physical resurrection from the dead. Paul had a long-term or eternal perspective. He knew that there was much more to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ than what we experience in this earthly life. Yes, Paul was fully aware that the resurrection power he longed to experience would have short-term, in-this-lifetime ramifications. It would produce spiritual fruit and provide the power we need to live new lives in Christ.

For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. – Romans 6:4 NLT

But Paul also knew that there was more. And he longed to experience the full scope of that resurrection power in his life.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. – Romans 6:5 NLT

And in his letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul explained what it will mean to be raised to life as Jesus was.

Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. – 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 NLT

And the apostle John explains that, while we cannot fully comprehend the nature of our final resurrected state, it is something for which we should eagerly long.

…we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

So, Paul was striving to live in the power of the Spirit in this life, but longing to experience the transformative power of the Spirit that comes in death. He maintained a delicate balance between his thoughts on the here-and-now and the hereafter.

And now, Paul confesses to the Philippian believers that he is far from perfect. In other words, he had not yet attained all that he longed for. He was a work in process. But he had an unflinching desire to pursue and experience all that Christ had died to make available to him.

But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. – Philippians 3:12 NLT

He uses the Greek word, diōkō, which has a range of meanings. It carries the idea of physical exertion and effort. It is not a passive word. It could mean “to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing.” It would also refer to someone running in a race who used all their available energy to reach the finish line. Paul wasn’t sitting back and waiting for heaven. But he also wasn’t waiting for the Holy Spirit to do all the work. He knew he had a part to play in the process of his spiritual transformation.

Paul had a singular focus in life: To become like Christ. He wanted to “possess that perfection” that Christ had in mind for him. He wanted to experience all that his new life in Christ had to offer.  Which is why he says, “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:14 NLT). Notice where his attention is fixed: On the prize, the finish line. Paul is not insinuating that our glorification is somehow tied to our self-effort in this life. He is not teaching that we have to somehow earn our way into heaven. He is simply emphasizing that he wanted what God wanted. He understood that God had an eternal reward in store for him, and he would not be satisfied with anything less. He would not allow himself to be distracted by the things of this earth.

And Paul urged the Philippians to follow his example.

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. – Philippians 3:17 NLT

Paul wasn’t bragging. He wasn’t holding himself up as some icon of spiritual virtue. He was simply encouraging them to live with the same focus on the finish line that he had. And he warns them that there were plenty of other examples they could follow that would only leave them disappointed and defeated in their spiritual lives.

…there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. – Philippians 3:18-19 NLT

Notice his emphasis on conduct. As followers of Christ, we cannot attempt to separate our behavior from our belief. The two go hand in hand. They are to be inseparable. And yet, Paul warns that there are those within the Philippian church whose conduct, if followed will end up in destruction. The Greek word Paul uses is apōleia, and while it can refer to damnation or eternal destruction, it can also be translated as “waste” or “ruin.” Keep in mind the metaphor of running a race that Paul has utilized. These are individuals who fail to finish the race well. They find themselves distracted along the way and, rather than victory, they experience defeat. Is this a reference to a loss of their salvation?  Highly unlikely, since Paul believed that salvation was the work of Jesus Christ. As he told the believers in Ephesus: “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And Jesus Himself promised, “And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39 NLT).

What Paul seems to be referring to are those within the Philippian church who were living lives of licentiousness. They were what became known as antinomians, which simply means anti-law. They held a view that was diametrically opposed to the Judaizers. One group were legalists, putting far too much weight on keeping the law. The other side simply said the law no longer mattered and taught that we could live however we wanted to live. This mindset had serious ramifications and Paul points the danger behind this anything-goes mentality.

Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

Jude had some strong words for this group as well.

But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. – Jude 1:10 NLT

Paul pulls no punches when he states that their “conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18 NLT). Their conduct did not match their confession. Their behavior didn’t line up with their expressed belief. They lived for the here-and-now, failing to focus their energies and attentions on the long-term goal God had in mind.

And Paul leaves his audience with little doubt as to his point in all of this. He wants them to live with purpose. He wants them to conduct their lives according to their newfound status as citizens of heaven. That is their home. That is their destiny.

…we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. – Philippians 3:20 NLT

Paul is not suggesting that they be so heavenly minded that they end up being of no earthly good. He is not calling them to live with the heads in the sky. But he is calling them to live with their eyes firmly fixed on the finish line. They are running a race that will require that they maintain their focus. They will have to strain and strive in this life. They will have to fight off exhaustion and ignore the pain and suffering that comes along the way. And Paul brings it all full-circle, reminding his brothers and sisters in Christ that the point of it all is the day when we will all experience the power of the resurrection.

He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:21 NLT

That’s the goal. That’s the prize. And that should be the very thing that keeps us running the race to win.

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

Advertisements

False Confidence

4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4b-11 ESV

What does Paul mean by “confidence in the flesh?” Remember the context. He has just warned the believers in Philippi to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). This was a direct broadside delivered against the Judaizers, a group made up of Jewish converts to Christianity who were attempting to bring the legalism associated with the Mosaic Law into the church. They were demanding that Gentile believers first be circumcised and then agree to keep the Jewish laws, religious festivals, and sacrificial requirements. In other words, they had to become Jews before they could be considered truly saved.

So, when Paul mentions having confidence in the flesh, he is stressing the teachings of this group. They believed that their human efforts, those things done in their own strength, somehow earned them favor with God. As Jews, they put a high priority and value on the rite of circumcision. It was an outward sign of their unique relationship as God’s chosen people. And they were of the strong opinion that circumcision was necessary for any and all who would hope to enjoy the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. But for Paul, this was nothing short of another gospel. It was a false gospel. And it was to be exposed for what it was: a dangerous heresy.

The Greek word Paul used for “flesh” is sarx and, while it was often used to refer to the actual physical body, it could also be used in a metaphorical sense, to refer to human nature. The Judaizers put a lot of stock in human nature and their own human abilities, believing that they were able to keep the laws of God and live up to the holy standards of God. But Paul rejects that mindset, stating that believers were to “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3 ESV). Salvation was based on the work of Christ, not the works of men.

But Paul decides to take their argument and use it against them. He somewhat sarcastically paints a picture of what the kind of credentials that might earn someone favor with God would look like. And he uses himself as an example. Paul boldly states:

“If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more…” – Philippians 3:4 NLT

It is as if Paul is saying, “So, you think you can earn a right standing with God based on your accomplishments and status? Well, check this out!”

What follows is a laundry list of Paul’s off-the-chart credentials.

  • He was a card-carrying member of the nation of Israel
  • He was from the tribe of Benjamin
  • He had been circumcised according to the Mosaic Law
  • He was a Hebrew of Hebrews (a hard-core traditionalist)
  • He had been a member of the Pharisees, an elite religious group
  • He had been a passionate and zealous persecutor of the church
  • He had been painstakingly dedicated to keeping the law

Look at that list and then consider who he was comparing himself with. He was placing himself in direct competition with the Judaizers. If they thought they were somehow better than everybody else because of their Jewish heritage and law-keeping ability, they had nothing on Paul. His resume made them look like third-string players trying to win a spot on the varsity squad.

But notice what Paul says next. He takes his list of accomplishments and credentials and describes them “as liabilities because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7 NLT). His relationship with Christ, based solely on faith in the work of Christ done on his behalf, made any of his so-called assets amount to nothing. They earned him no credibility with God and bought him no favor from God. Paul understood that his righteous deeds were of no value when it comes to his salvation. He firmly believed what the text in Isaiah clearly states:

We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

Paul’s lofty list of accomplishments and personal assets were worthless. Which is why he could say, “I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8 NLT). Rather than placing any stock in human nature or his ability to produce righteous-looking deeds, Paul saw those things as hindrances to his spiritual walk. They were liabilities. Because they were all tainted by sin. So, Paul had given them all up. He had decided to treat them like what they were: Liabilities, not assets. All so he could know Christ. And Paul gets a bit graphic in trying to describe his new relationship with those things he once held near and dear. They were like dung to him now, to be tossed aside and treated for what they were: worthless and detestable.

The bottom line for Paul was righteousness. A holy and righteous God demanded that His people live holy, righteous lives. But man’s sin nature made that impossible. And no amount of law-keeping, ritual-observing, or efforts at God-pleasing were going to make a difference. Paul states, “I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness” (Philippians 3:9 NLT). In other words, Paul’s righteousness was not based on self-effort, but on Christ’s faithfulness. Jesus died a sinner’s death to satisfy the just demands of a holy and righteous God. As Paul explained to the Corinthian believers:

For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

And as Paul stated earlier in this letter, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). His faithfulness to do the will of His Father resulted in righteousness for us.

The Judaizers were not right before God because they had been circumcised. They were not right before God because they were Jews. They could not claim a right standing before God because they kept the law. In fact, Paul vaporized that idea in his letter to the Galatians.

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.” – Galatians 3:11 NLT

He said the same thing to the believers in Rome.

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 3:20 NLT

We have no reason to boast. We have no ground on which to stand and from which to proclaim our own self-righteousness. Our righteousness is actually Christ’s righteousness imparted to us when we place our faith in Him. When Christ died on the cross, He paid in full the debt that was owed for sins of mankind. He died in our place, bearing the penalty we deserved. And that act justified us before God. He now sees us as righteous and just, not sinful and worthy of death. We have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. And with that thought in mind, Paul refocuses the attention of his readers on that which is really important. Not effort and earning, but the pursuit of an ongoing and always growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NLT

Paul is not talking about cognitive knowledge. He’s not suggesting a purely academic understanding of who Jesus was and is. He is describing a deep and intimate relationship that features an ever-intensifying awareness of all that Jesus Christ has done and will do for him. In the immediate context, Paul wanted to experience all the power that Christ’s resurrection had made available to him. Jesus had been raised back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and each and every believer has that power living within them.

But Paul knew that the resurrection power he so desired to see is most often revealed in the context of suffering. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die before He could experience the resurrection, we will find ourselves suffering so that we might experience the resurrection power of God’s Spirit in our lives. Just as Jesus experienced humiliation before His glorification, so will we. And then, Paul reminds us, it will all end in death. The ultimate form of suffering we all face is our own physical deaths. But Paul wants us to remember that there is a resurrection of the dead. Death is not the end. It is really the beginning of something greater. And Paul told the believers in Corinth what they could expect when death finally came.

For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” – I Corinthians 15:53-55 NLT

Why put confidence in the flesh? It’s of no value and will ultimately be left behind. And why put stock in our own worthiness before God? Without Christ, we have no righteousness of our own. As Paul told the Colossian believers, it all boils down to this: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27 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

Righteousness From God Through Faith in Christ

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

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— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. – Philippians 3:1-4a ESV

Here, Paul drives home a message that was common to virtually all of his letters – that of true righteousness. And his reason for bringing it up seems to be due to the fact that the Philippian believers were undergoing intense opposition, either from within or without, regarding the issue of circumcision. As a Roman colony, Philippi would have had a large Gentile population and, therefore, the church in Philippi was most likely made up predominately of Gentiles who had converted to Christianity from paganism. In A.D. 50, when Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy had arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey, there would have been few Jewish residents in the city. But by the time Paul wrote this letter some 10-12 years later, the Jewish population could have grown and there may have been Jewish converts to Christianity within the congregation at Philippi. The presence of Jews outside the church and Jewish converts within the church had evidently raised an issue that had become a point of contention for Paul: Circumcision.

Paul opens this section with a reminder to rejoice, even in the face of opposition. This is in keeping with his message to them earlier in the letter:

“…it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” – Philippians 1:29 ESV

And Paul had used his own life as an example of joy in the midst of suffering. After all, he was writing to them from house arrest in Rome, facing a trial before Nero and uncertainty as to his fate. But he had been able to tell them:

“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” – Philippians 2:17-18 ESV

So, even though they were facing opposition, they had every reason to rejoice because they were privileged to suffer for the sake of the gospel.

But it doesn’t take long for Paul’s tone to turn much more serious and sarcastic. He warns them to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). Now, while this statement is clearly intended to paint the opposition in an unflattering light, there is more going on here than meets our modern, western eyes. 

Paul, writing in Greek, uses a play on words in describing those who were of the pro-circumcision camp. He refers to them as “those who mutilate the flesh.” But that is a translation of a single Greek word, katatomē, which means to cut up or mutilate. In Leviticus 21:5, the priests of God were forbidden to “make any cuts on their body.” In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, the word katatomē was used to describe this forbidden practice.

Here is where Paul’s cleverness and open hostility can be seen. The Greek word normally used when speaking of the Jewish practice of circumcision was peritomē and Paul uses it in verse 3.  You can see what Paul is doing here: katatomē vs peritomē. He is comparing the Jewish ritual of circumcision with the forbidden act of self-mutilation. But it’s important to remember the context. Paul is addressing a predominately Gentile congregation. These would have been pagans who had placed their faith in Christ, but now there were being told that their faith was incomplete and insufficient. There were those who were telling them that they must be circumcised and keep all the Jewish laws and religious rituals in order to be truly saved. This message was common in the 1st Century and was propagated by a group that came to be known as the Judaizers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Paul thought about these people. He calls them dogs and evildoers. And his intense anger for them was due to the fact that they were adding to the gospel message he preached. His feelings about this matter are made perfectly clear in his letter to the believers in Galatia.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 NLT

And Paul had strong words for the church in Corinth because they were being led away from the simple message of the gospel and buying into a false narrative that essentially claimed true righteousness was based the false formula of Jesus + something = salvation.

As far as Paul was concerned, the Judaizers were the enemy. Although they claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ, they were demanding that everyone become as they were. Their demand was that all the male members of the church in Philippi be circumcised and, essentially, convert to Judsaism before they .could be considered truly saved. And this left Paul in a state of rage, especially because he was unable to do anything about it while under house arrest in Rome. Which explains the strong nature of his rhetoric.

And he completely invalidates the message of the Judaizers, instead offering the Gentile converts to Christianity as the true circumcision.

“For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…” – Philippians 3:3 NLT

This verse summarizes Paul’s view on the matter. To him, circumcision was nothing more than a work, an outward act that left the one circumcised with a false sense of spiritual well-being. For the Jews, it had become a symbol of their unique status as God’s chosen people. But in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul exposed the flaw behind the Jewish thinking regarding circucision.

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. – Romans 2:25 NLT

In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it. – Romans 2:27 NLT

The problem lies in the dangerous misperception being perpetrated by the Judaizers. In their way of thinking the rite of circumcision was the non-negotiable doorway all must enter on their way to justification before God. But this teaching stood in direct opposition to the gospel message of salvation made possible by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There was no other step needed. To add circumcision to the gospel message was to distort the good news and to make it another gospel altogether. Rather than basing salvation on the grace-gift of God’s Son, the Judaizers were introducing a form of works-based salvation. They were making justification a matter of rule-keeping and self-effort. But Paul reminds the Philippian believers, “We put no confidence in human effort.”

And then he goes on to expose the absurdity of the Judaizers’ argument. If they were going to make it all about human effort and rule-keeping, Paul could have been the poster-boy for self-justification. And he will go on to describe his relative merit as a good Jew who had all the criteria to make him a candidate for justification before God through works. But for Paul, this way of thinking was ridiculous and dangerous. It stood in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. And in a direct attack against the pride-filled Judaizers, Paul sarcastically states: “I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more!” (Philippians 3:4a NLT). And he will go on to describe his so-called credentials for justification before God. But he knew that his curriculum vitae had nothing to do with his right standing before God. His salvation was not based on anything he had done or any worth he brought to the table. It was all the result of the finished work of Christ on the cross. And Paul drove home that point in his letter to the Galatians.

“…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

For Paul, the formula was quite simple and concise. Righteousness was made available by God through man’s faith in the finished work of Christ. No more. No less. Circumcision becomes nothing more than self-mutilation when used to earn favor with God. Law-keeping becomes disobedience to God when used as an attempt to justify oneself before God. For as Paul stated, no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.

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

A Delicate Balancing Act.

17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. Acts 21:17-26 ESV

In this next section of Luke’s account, he is going to provide a precise record of Paul’s return to Jerusalem and the interactions that took place between Paul and the leadership of the church there. Upon arrival back in Jerusalem, Paul appeared before James and the rest of the leadership of the church, including the other apostles. He reported the details of his latest mission trip among the Gentiles, explaining all that God was doing to bring those outside of Judaism to faith in Christ. His third missionary journey had been similar to the previous two, further confirming that the gospel message was bearing much fruit, in spite of increasing opposition from Jews who were dispersed abroad and from the Gentiles who found Christianity to be a threat to their own pagan religions.

One of the striking features of Paul’s report was the way he gave all the credit to God. Luke reports that Paul “related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” (Acts 21:19 ESV). Yes, Paul had played a vital and indispensable role, but he knew that nothing worthy would have taken place without the sovereign hand of God. No one would have come to faith in Christ if God had not called them and the Holy Spirit had not regenerated their hearts. Paul knew his place. He was no more than a messenger, a herald of the truth, communicating the good news concerning Jesus Christ to those who had never heard it. Any converts produced were the result of God’s handiwork, not Paul’s. In fact, he admitted as much in his first letter to the believers in Corinth.

I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:3-5 NLT

And in that same letter, Paul made it clear that his role had been simple and somewhat one-dimensional.

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. – 1 Corinthians 1:17 ESV

Because Paul had been quick to give all the credit to God, the apostles were able to direct their praise to God and not to Paul. At no point did Paul attempt to rob God of glory by allowing himself to receive unwarranted praise. He was more than content in the knowledge that his efforts on behalf of God, done in the power of God, had accomplished the will of God.

But James and the other apostles, while grateful for all that God had done, were forced to bring up a potential conflict that loomed as a result of Paul’s report. While Paul had been away, the Spirit of God had been at work in Jerusalem as well, resulting in the conversions of thousands of faithful, law-abiding Jews. These individuals, while having put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and Savior, still held tenaciously to their Hebrew heritage and the ways of their ancestors. They maintained their allegiance to the Mosaic law and the religious rites and rituals of Judaism. Obedience to the law of Moses was still a non-negotiable, non-optional requirement for them. Earlier in his book, Luke had recorded the findings of the Jerusalem council, when they had been forced to deal with the demands of certain Jewish believers that all Gentile converts be required to live according to the law of Moses just as they did. James and the apostles had determined that this was unnecessary because it was not a requirement that God had placed on the Gentile believers. That dispute had been settled. But now, James was bringing up a different issue altogether. It seems that the latest rumor circulating among the Jewish believers in Jerusalem was that Paul had been trying to convince Jews living among the Gentiles where he ministered, to abandon their allegiance to the Mosaic law. They were falsely reporting that Paul was teaching Jews not to circumcise their children or to follow other Jewish customs and laws.

Part of what was going here was a misunderstanding of Paul’s outlook on the law. He outlines his perspective regarding the Mosaic law in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

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

When living among his fellow Jews, Paul chose to keep the law, just as they did. But when he found himself living among Gentiles, he chose not to follow the Jewish law, because he did not want it to be a stumbling block for them. It was important to him that they not see him living in obedience to the law and wrongly assume that this represented an added requirement for coming to faith in Christ. In no way did Paul ever diminish or demean the law of Moses. But he made it clear that he saw himself and all other Jews, as no longer subject to the law. The law had served its God-appointed purpose. In his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul had clearly stated that the law had been given by God “to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). The child had come. Jesus had been born, had lived a sinless life, having kept the law perfectly, and had died on behalf of sinners as the sinless sacrifice. “God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT).

In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul explained that the Jewish nation had failed to understand that the law could not make anyone righteous. Attempting to live up to God’s holy standard in their own strength, striving to seek a righteousness of their own making, had left them weary and defeated. But when Jesus had appeared and offered Himself as the only means of being made right with God, the Jews had rejected Him.

For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:3-4 ESV

And while Paul was proud of his Jewish heritage and understood the value of the law, he also understood that the law had never been intended to make anyone right with God. It could only reveal man’s sinfulness, not produce righteousness. And nowhere does Paul make that point more clear than in his letter to the Galatian believers.

15 “You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles. 16 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.”

17 But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! 18 Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down. 19 For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. – Galatians 2:15-19 NLT

And yet, Paul had been misunderstood by the Jews. They saw him as anti-law. But Paul himself said, “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT). The problem was not with the law, but with man’s failure to understand that adherence to the law could never save anyone, because man’s sin nature made it impossible.

But the problem was real. James knew that when those Jews who were “zealous for the law” got wind that Paul was in town, they were going to be upset. And the rumors would fly. So, James suggested a plan to alleviate any potential for conflict or unnecessary tension. He recommended that Paul join four other men who had recently made vows to God and were preparing to complete their vows by having themselves ceremonially cleansed at the temple. Paul was encouraged to join them and to underwrite any costs associated with the sacrifices they would need to make. In doing so, Paul would show that he had not abandoned the rites and rituals of Judaism. His actions would go a long way in convincing others that he was still a faithful Jew and not anti-law.

James made it clear that nothing had changed regarding their previous decision to place no undue or unnecessary burden on the Gentiles. The Jerusalem council had already determined that Gentile converts were not required to be circumcised or to keep the Mosaic law. It was enough that they “abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality”, out of deference for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.

The early church was equal parts melting pot and powder keg. The unique and unlikely blending of so many ethnic, social and religious perspectives had created a potentially toxic cocktail. Part of the responsibility of the leadership was to manage this sensitive and volatile environment with wisdom and diplomacy. The church was growing rapidly and each day brought with it new issues and potential conflicts that required careful and prayerful administration. The diverse constituency of the church demanded that the elders, apostles and other leaders manage all the competing expectations and conflicting perspectives with godly grace and brotherly love. It is no wonder that one of Jesus’ primary requests in His high priestly prayer on the night He was betrayed, was for unity among those who would be His followers. Paul could have easily rejected the suggestion of James, demanding that it was well within his rights to do so. But he cared more about the gospel than he did about his rights. He was always willing to sacrifice his rights for the cause of Christ. He was ready, willing and able to die to self in order that others might discover what it means to live for Christ. He summed up his outlook quite succinctly in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

31 So if you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything to honor God. 32 Do nothing that would make trouble for a Greek or for a Jew or for the church of God. 33 I want to please everyone in all that I do. I am not thinking of myself. I want to do what is best for them so they may be saved from the punishment of sin. – 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 NT

 

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

The 800-Pound Gorilla In the Room.

1 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.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 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.”

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:1-11 ESV

Paul and Barnabas eventually arrived back in Antioch in Syria, reuniting with those in the church who had commissioned them and sent them on their first missionary journey. While they were there, “they reported all the things God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27 NLT). But their good news concerning the Gentiles was soon met with strong opposition, fueled by a contingent of Jewish Christians who had come from Judea with the expressed purpose of clearing up what they believed to be false and misguided teaching regarding these so-called Gentile converts. These individuals, while believers in Jesus, still held fast to their Hebrew heritage and viewed Christianity as an extension of Judaism. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and a rabbi. He had lived His life according to the Mosaic law, having kept it to perfection. He had attended synagogue and had been a student of the Hebrew Scriptures. And all of His disciples had been Jews, as well as the rest of those who had received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. So, in their minds, it was essential that any Gentile who wished to be saved, must first become a Jewish proselyte. In other words, they must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law in order for their salvation to be complete and acceptable. So, all of those Gentiles who had come to faith on the island of Cyprus, and in Iconium, Lystra, Derby and Pisidian Antioch, as a result of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, were not really save at all. The men from Judea had made their case known, loud and clear. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1 ESV). And Luke, who can at time come across as the king of understatement, simply says, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2 ESV). We can only imagine how incensed these two men were at the suggestion that their work had been in vain. It’s not that the opposition was denying that Gentiles could be saved, but they were clearly stating what they believed to be the mandatory requirements concerning their salvation. And this so-called “debate” was going to become a major dividing point within the early church, as these believing Jews, sometimes referred to with the collective term of Judaizers, continued to propagate their particular salvation mandate.

It was determined that this matter must be taken to the church leadership in Jerusalem, so, Paul and Barnabas were sent along with others to present their opinions on the matter before Peter and the rest of the apostles. After having arrived in Jerusalem, they provided the apostles with a detailed accounting of all that had happened on their trip. They told of all those who had come to faith in Christ and how God had clearly been validating their efforts among the Gentiles. But the opposition was also present and they stated their case in all-too-clear terms: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5 ESV). They weren’t questioning the veracity of these Gentiles’ salvation experiences, but they were denying their validity. They were only partially saved. There was something missing. They had to become Jews, with all the males submitting to the rite of circumcision, and every man, woman and child agreeing to keep the Mosaic law. According to these men, the salvation of each and every Gentile was is a sort of spiritual limbo until these conditions were met.

Luke indicates that this matter produced a great deal of debate. And one can only imagine how vehemently Paul and Barnabas argued their side of the case. Their whole ministry was in question and the salvation of every Gentile convert they had witnessed was in jeopardy. And at the heart of the debate was the argument over what was required for someone to be saved. Had Jesus taught that circumcision and adherence to the law was required? Was that what He had commissioned the disciples to take to the nations? Had Jesus intended for all who come to faith in Him to first become card-carrying, law-abiding Jews?

It was Peter, the recognized leader among the apostles, who eventually stood up and addressed those gathered. And the first thing he did was remind all those in the audience how God had sent Him to the Gentiles.

7 “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith.” – Acts 15:7-9 NLT

Notice what Peter says: “he [God] made no distinction between them and us.” The Greek word, diakrinō, means “to separate, make a distinction, discriminate, to prefer.” God had not treated the Gentiles any differently than He had treated the Jews who had been gathered in that upper room on the day of Pentecost. The Gentiles received the outpouring of the Spirit of God just as the Jews had. In other words, the Gentiles were not denied this experience because they were uncircumcised and violators of the Mosaic law. They had been full-fledged non-Jews, but that had not made an ounce of difference to God. So, Peter asks an obvious and highly compelling question: “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10 ESV). He accuses the Judaizers of putting God to the test. He asserts that they are demanding of these Gentile converts something God never required of them. And the truly unfathomable thing about this to Peter was that these Jews were placing a  “yoke” or burden on the neck of the Gentiles that no Jew had ever been able to bear. They were demanding the impossible of these Gentile converts. There wasn’t a Jew alive who had been able to keep the law. In fact, Paul would later address this issue to the church in Rome.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT

The law was unable to save man. So, then why had God given it? Paul would answer that very question in his letter to the church in Galatia.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

And in that very same letter, Paul would juxtapose the law with the grace of God, exposing the law’s incapacity to save anyone.

I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And Peter brought up this important issue of grace to those gathered in Jerusalem. He wanted them to know that there was nothing to be done by men that would add to or complete the salvation that God had graciously made available to them through Christ.

“…we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” – Acts 15:11 NLT

Salvation is the work of God, not men. There is nothing men can bring to the table that makes their salvation more acceptable to God than their simple faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The offer of salvation is a gracious gift from God. No one deserves it – neither Jew or Gentile. No one can earn it. And there is no yoke or burden we are required to bear in order to receive the salvation offered to us by God through faith in Christ. Salvation is not based on anything we do, but is based solely on what Christ has done. And again, Paul would make that point over and over again in his letters to the churches.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

The 800-pound gorilla of works-salvation is still present within the church today. It hasn’t gone away and it continues to divide the church and deceive those who think there is more required for salvation than simple faith. The spirit of the Judaizers is alive and well. Their mantra of faith-plus-something still permeates and pollutes the gospel message. We struggle with the idea of getting something for nothing. There must be more that we have to do. The gift of eternal life can’t come without strings attached. But Peter was making it perfectly clear, from the very beginning, that “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” – nothing more, nothing less.

 

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

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.

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.

Not Man’s Gospel.

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. – Galatians 1:9-24 ESV

Paul pulled no punches when it came to his feelings about those who were preaching another gospel. These individuals were altering the nature of the gospel by adding conditions or extra requirements to it. And Paul would have none of it. In fact, he said, “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” (Galatians 1:8 ESV). Whatever authority these individuals claimed, Paul rejected. He deemed them anathema or under the judgment of God. This was serious business to Paul.The gospel was God’s message and not man’s. No one had the authority or right to alter the message of the gospel in any way. Adding to it, detracting from it, or preaching a different version of it were all equally dangerous in Paul’s mind. And this wasn’t about getting the approval of men. Paul wasn’t out to please anyone. He wasn’t in this to win friends and influence enemies. He was out to transform lives with the truth of the gospel of God as revealed in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And he had received his commission from Jesus Christ Himself. First and foremost, he was a servant of Christ, not of men. Paul often referred to himself as a slave of Christ. He did exactly what Christ had called him to do and his faithfulness to that calling often left him with more enemies than friends. His commission to carry the gospel to the Gentiles had cost him dearly. At one point, he gave a detailed description of his sufferings to the believers in Corinth:

I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. – 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 NLT

Paul wasn’t in this for popularity. He wasn’t out to win the approval of men. And the gospel he preached wasn’t something he learned from the lips of men. He had received it as a direct revelation from Christ. And to emphasize his God-given authority to preach the gospel in its original, unaltered form, he relayed the details of his conversion and commission. “I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12 NLT). The remarkable thing about Paul’s conversion was the radical redirection it gave his life. At one point, his mission in life had been to destroy the followers of Christ, discrediting their “Messiah” and exposing their good news as nothing but a pipe dream. But God had had other plans for Paul. “But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16 NLT).

His encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus had given his life new meaning and purpose. His life goals had been irrevocably altered and his mission had gone from persecution to proclamation. He was transformed from mercenary to missionary. And his reputation spread throughout the church, even reaching the apostles in Jerusalem. Even before they had met Paul, they had heard about him. “All they knew was that people were saying, ‘The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!’ And they praised God because of me” (Galatians 1:23-24 NLT).

What’s Paul’s point? What is he trying to prove? The issue has to do with the message, its messenger and the authority behind both. Those who were preaching a different gospel were claiming to have authority to do so. But Paul trumped their authority, by stating that his message came directly from the risen Christ. His commission was God-given. Long before he had met the apostles, he had been preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. He had been sent by God, not the church in Jerusalem. There was no middle man, no human court of commissioning. What Paul preached had come directly from the lips of Jesus Himself. And no one could claim a higher authority or argue that their message had more validity than Paul’s. The gospel message is not up to interpretation. It needs no alteration or improvement. It requires no human intervention or clever repackaging. It doesn’t need to be softened, added to, rewritten, glitzed up, or glossed over – “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). It is the gospel of God, not man. And that is what makes it life-altering, sin-forgiving, righteousness-giving and holiness-producing.