Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing (Galatians 2:1-10)

Fourteen years after that first visit, Barnabas and I went up to Jerusalem and took Titus with us. I went to clarify with them what had been revealed to me. At that time I placed before them exactly what I was preaching to the non-Jews. I did this in private with the leaders, those held in esteem by the church, so that our concern would not become a controversial public issue, marred by ethnic tensions, exposing my years of work to denigration and endangering my present ministry.

Significantly, Titus, non-Jewish though he was, was not required to be circumcised. While we were in conference we were infiltrated by spies pretending to be Christians, who slipped in to find out just how free true Christians are. Their ulterior motive was to reduce us to their brand of servitude. We didn’t give them the time of day. We were determined to preserve the truth of the Message for you.

As for those who were considered important in the church, their reputation doesn’t concern me. God isn’t impressed with mere appearances, and neither am I. And of course these leaders were able to add nothing to the message I had been preaching. It was soon evident that God had entrusted me with the same message to the non-Jews as Peter had been preaching to the Jews.

Recognizing that my calling had been given by God, James, Peter, and John—the pillars of the church—shook hands with me and Barnabas, assigning us to a ministry to the non-Jews, while they continued to be responsible for reaching out to the Jews. The only additional thing they asked was that we remember the poor, and I was already eager to do that. (The Message)

The former devout Jew, Saul, had become the Christian apostle and missionary, Paul. His ministry was as radical and dramatic as his conversion to Christianity was.

The Struggle

Keep in mind that the earliest church was predominantly made up of Jewish Christians. They had to struggle with the relationship between their historic Judaism and their newfound Christianity. For many of them, Paul was doing the unthinkable; he not only purposely sought to reach Gentiles (non-Jewish people) with the message of Jesus Christ, but he also did not require them to be circumcised. For Paul, one did not have to first become Jewish before becoming Christian.

Paul doggedly sought to preserve the core essence and spirit of Christ’s message, that is, to proclaim the good news of forgiveness and new life through the person and work of Jesus – and not by means of retaining Jewish customs or laws, including circumcision.

The Main Thing

Christianity is more than set of beliefs and practices; it’s a way of life which can be summed up in three important words: faith, hope, and love. 

Both new believers in Jesus and veterans in the faith know from experience how difficult it can be to live the Christian life. One reason for this difficulty, even when we want to please the Lord, is due to the confusion that occurs between our inner feelings and our outer actions.

The Confusion

The confusion starts with the creation and fall of humanity. In the beginning, God created humans as persons with a divine/human relationship as central to daily life. (Genesis 1:26; 2:16-25) 

What’s more, God created people with the capacity to receive divine revelation through our ability to think and reason. (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10) 

Before disobedience entered the world, in the original state before humanity’s fall, all human functions were under complete control with an inner experience of unity and harmony with one another and God. (Genesis 1:31; 2:7, 16-25) 

It is imperative for us to recognize the distinction between our personal being and our personal functions. (Romans 1:21-32; 6:16-22; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Ephesians 4:21-32)

If we don’t grasp how cataclysmic the fall of humanity was, we are going to have big struggles with living the Christian life – illustrated in the way that Paul needed to fend off a bunch of professing Christians who still seemed spiritually stuck. 

The Disobedience

In Adam and Eve’s original disobedience to God, the authority for life was transferred from God to us so that our sinful bent is to call our own shots without God. The source of authority also got whacky, transferred from a holistic and synergistic approach of body, mind, emotions, and spirit to a one-dimensional approach of simply how we feel at any given moment.

If we fail to understand this dynamic, we will be continually frustrated with people because they do irrational things. For example, many church pastors are flabbergasted that parishioners do not simply take what they teach them and go and do it. Yet, if it were that simple, there would be no place for the Holy Spirit!

Unfortunately, there’s more. In humanity’s fall, we lost control of our capacity to function well. We are all now vulnerable to manipulation, too easily swayed by the surrounding culture, and, of course, Satan. (Ephesians 2:2-3; Galatians 5:16-21) 

As a result, our inner conscience has become confused. We are not always certain of right and wrong. We misunderstand what life is really supposed to be all about. 

We lose sight of the main thing. And, in that state, there’s no way we can keep the main thing the main thing.

Instead, we become obsessed with feeling comfortable and secure; so, we pursue false gods – leaving usdisappointed and with a lack of fulfillment in life.

The Good News

However, the good news is that through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, new life emerges; the bondage of sin is broken in our lives, and we are legally reinstated in a relationship with God in which the Lord is central in our daily life and the final authority. 

In this new relationship we can again receive truth through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. We regain control of our functions. 

Yet, unless we learn the Scriptures and growin a daily walk with Jesus, the practical experience of this relationship with all its freedom, joy, assurance,  power, and fruitfulness may be greatly limited. (Romans 7:14-25; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

Even though we have redemption and faith, it is still possible to regress and give in to our old ways of functioning. This is a big reason why Christians can experience conflict, doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and confusion.

To live keeping the main thing the main thing means to grow in the experience and application Christ’s centrality and authority in our lives. 

The Awareness

We must, therefore, make daily decisions of faith, hope, and love based in who we are in Christ and recognize his authority in our lives. The following seven recognitions and awareness may be helpful for you in experiencing Christian freedom and unity:

  1. You are a person with the ability to function in faith, hope, and love as God’s beloved child in Christ (2 Corinthians 7:1; Romans 8:14-17)
  2. There is a difference between who you are and what you do (or don’t do).  Evil thoughts and emotions do not make you evil, anymore than fantasizing about being a unicorn makes you a unicorn.
  3. You can take charge of your actions and your life (Galatians 5:22-23)
  4. The key is the use of your will through living in harmony with revealed biblical truth. In other words, you really can make choices of faith, hope, and love, no matter the situation. (Romans 4:17-21; Psalm 56:3; Psalm 43:5-11)  
  5. Reject whatever is contrary to Scripture, reason, and conscience. Listen to your whole self. Unhealthy patterns of acting and speaking must be broken in Jesus’ name. (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:5-9; Titus 2:11-12)
  6. Choose to obey the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. Learn to think and act on the basis of truth. (Acts 27:25)
  7. Practicing the truth results in freedom, a re-patterning of thinking and functions, as well as the fruit of the Spirit. (John 8:32; Titus 2:11-14; Philippians 2:12-16)

The church is intended to be a supportive community of fellow redeemed people who worship and love Jesus together. 

Without sharing our collective learning of the Scriptures and daily struggles of faith, hope, and love, believers will inevitably be spiritually immature over the long haul. Instead, talk about your shared experiences of worship, Scripture reading, and Christian living. 

In doing so, God is glorified, the church is strengthened, and the cranky circumcisers are seen as the legalistic lunkheads they really are.

A Changed Life (Galatians 1:11-24)

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me. (New International Version)

I didn’t ask God for this

Saul wasn’t looking to change anything – except maybe to keep those confounded Christians, the group known as “The Way,” out of his beloved religion. He didn’t wake up one morning, sit on the edge of his bed and say, “Well, now, gee-whillikers, I think I’ll become the Apostle Paul, follow Jesus, and rankle a bunch of my fellow Jews with establishing churches all over the place.”

The only well-thought out plan Saul had was to ensure that Christians stayed away by any means possible. He had quite the turn around by actually joining the Christian movement. (Acts 9:1-19)

From the very get-go of his conversion, the new Paul faced skepticism, doubts, and opposition from both church and synagogue. Christians knew how Saul breathed all kinds of threats against them; so, understandably, they were reticent to receive him, perhaps wondering if it were some sort of ruse to topple the church. If it were not for the insight and encouragement of Barnabas, Paul may not have ever entered the ranks of the church. (Acts 9:26-27)

Paul’s fellow devout Jews were so upset with him for becoming a turncoat that they sought to kill him – which became a theme of Paul’s life – getting rocks thrown at him, whipped, beaten, and left for dead more than once. (Acts 9:23-24; 2 Corinthians 11:24-29)

Although Paul never asked for a dramatic conversion to Christianity, a missionary life, and continual suffering at the hands of others, he nevertheless embraced it with all the gusto of faith God gave him.

So, the gospel that the Apostle Paul proclaimed wasn’t something he sought; it was given to him. God graciously revealed the good news to Paul. For three years, he received it. Considering Paul’s background and former life, we can see why it might not be a good idea for him to hang out in Jerusalem and learn about Jesus.

Arabia is a desert. That is precisely where Paul needed to be in his early life as a Christian. Eventually, the churches and believers came around to seeing the authenticity of Paul’s faith and embraced him as a disciple. Paul is considered an Apostle because he had direct contact with Jesus himself in the Arabian desert.

God called me through the grace of Jesus

That phrase is Paul’s spiritual autobiography in a nutshell. It represents his dramatic transformation — from persecutor to preacher — and gives evidence of the hand of God at work in his life.

The fundamental conviction of being called by God, anchors Paul’s faith story. He tells that story in order to remind the Galatian Church of their own experience of being called by God’s grace.

Paul wrote his letter to the Church to help keep them on the track of grace; they were saved by grace, so therefore, they needed to also be sanctified by grace (and not law). He feared they were being led astray by believers who twisted the gospel for their own ends in order to avoid suffering. (Galatians 6:12)

The question Paul tackled head on was: Do the Gentiles have to become Jewish in order to be Christians? “Absolutely not!” Paul insisted. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)

I connected with God, and you can, too

Paul was arguably the most influential Christian who ever lived. He shared his faith story in order to encourage the Galatians to examine their own experiences for signs of God’s call.

How has God called you?

It matters little whether it’s a dramatic call, like Paul’s, or whether it seems mundane, as if you don’t remember a time that you didn’t believe. And everything in between.

The important point is that we all need moments, events, and experiences of life transformation; and God’s grace must be the defining center of our personal and collective narratives.

Grace makes all the difference and is what leads to a changed life.

Once you were separated from God. The evil things you did showed your hostile attitude. But now Christ has brought you back to God by dying in his physical body. He did this so that you could come into God’s presence without sin, fault, or blame. (Colossians 1:21-22, GW)

Almighty God, transform us – not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the world. Do your work in changing us to be the new creation you have called us to be in Jesus Christ.  

Holy Spirit of God, do your sanctifying work in the church and help us to be the Body of Christ – engaged in mission, testifying to our faith, and bearing witness to the presence of our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Lord Jesus, enable us to surrender the church back to you. It is yours, not ours. Help us lay aside our personal agendas and preferences so we can be fully committed to your calling for us. 

Blessed Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – the God whom we serve: Do your work in our world and give to us a vision of transformed lives, renewed neighborhoods, and restored communities – bringing blessings and redemption for the glory of God. Amen.

The Church Playground (Galatians 1:6-12)

I’m surprised that you’re so quickly deserting Christ, who called you in his kindness, to follow a different kind of good news. But what some people are calling good news is not really good news at all. They are confusing you. They want to distort the Good News about Christ. Whoever tells you good news that is different from the Good News we gave you should be condemned to hell, even if he is one of us or an angel from heaven. I’m now telling you again what we’ve told you in the past: If anyone tells you good news that is different from the Good News you received, that person should be condemned to hell.

Am I saying this now to win the approval of people or God? Am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be Christ’s servant.

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Good News I have spread is not a human message. I didn’t receive it from any person. I wasn’t taught it, but Jesus Christ revealed it to me. (God’s Word Translation)

At first glance, driving by any school at recess, the whole thing looks like a bunch of random kids descending into chaos bordered by a fence to keep it all from spilling out into the streets. But there’s more going on than the quick peek tells you. There are all kinds of petty little groups that make up the playground. 

It kind of reminds me of church.

The Presbyterians head outside to recess and cannot believe the lack of order going on. They try their darnedest to get some organized games happening.

But the Baptists aren’t having it. They’re too far separated from all the other kids to care about playing with any of them. Besides, nobody is playing by the rules and if there’s one thing Baptists can’t stand, it’s a lack of legalism. 

The Pentecostals all seem completely oblivious to anything that’s going on. They’re just having too much fun going as fast as they can on the merry-go-round to see that the Catholics are totally aghast at their lack of guilt feelings over hogging the equipment.

The little group of Episcopalians are lost in some morbid inferiority complex and retreat into their liturgical games.

Meanwhile the popular kids, the Non-denominational group, break out singing Chris Tomlin songs so loud that the Methodists go scrambling for their Book of Discipline to see what to do about it. 

The Lutheran kids are so busy fighting each other about who is the true Lutheran that they don’t hear any of the kids anyway. 

And the Reformed are those annoying kids who keep acting like the teacher instead of just enjoying being a kid on the playground.

The Church playground includes:

  • Groups of kids who don’t seem to play very well together; they all think they’re better than the other group.
  • Cliques who believe they’re the only playground in town; they don’t realize there are other playgrounds with all kinds of other kids.

How we interact with others in the world is going to determine if the school gets shut down, with no more playground. After all, what parent wants to send their kid to the school where nobody gets along with each other?

How we interact with each other on the playground of Christianity says a lot about our view of God. For many, God is the high and lofty Principal who’s only seen when something goes wrong, not realizing that God is really the encouraging teacher who’s daily in the classroom offering kind words and self-sacrifice that changes your life forever.

Instead of lamenting that Christendom has vanished from its grand position in society and that the moral fabric of our country is down the toilet along with the janitor’s cigarette butt, maybe we should stop giving the other kid a swirlie long enough to see that our bullying and belligerent ways are anything but the words and ways of Jesus to a world who needs spiritual care, not spiritual abuse.

I’d suggest we use our detention time to think about what we’ve done. And the Apostle Paul is here to help us do just that.

Paul was willing to tolerate a lot, but when it came to taking good news and twisting it into bad news, he was downright beside himself with shock and anger about the entire situation.

The Apostle had absolutely no tolerance for a bunch of honyocks who take spiritual deliverance and turn it back into spiritual bondage. It’s as if a group of immigrant refugees have been rescued from their terrible plight of homelessness and poverty to another gracious country; and then are deceitfully convinced to return to that previous state and leave the good confines of their new home.

It’s so appalling to Paul that he pronounced a severe curse upon them for doing such a thing. To emphasize his point, he belches out the curse a second time.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that there is forgiveness and deliverance from sin, death, and hell. It’s a gospel of grace that mercifully gives to us – a spiritual amnesty declaring us new citizens of God’s benevolent country of love.

Yet, many people are deceived with the legalist’s bargain from the devil: Take a nice handy list of do’s and don’ts and you will become godly. he false teacher is quite glad to provide the list so that there’s no guessing about what to do. And, for some reason, it seems it’s that teacher who always has playground duty at recess.

The list is presented as either principles to change your life; or rules to follow; or particular prayers to pray; or an approved list of things to give your money to. In other words, check off the items on the list and all will be well.

In reality, however, it’s a highway to the grave. And those who lead the way to death with their accursed legalistic ways will find themselves condemned by their own words and actions. In the end, the teacher will be dismissed to a very different school.

There is a need to repent of religious lists, political agendas, and teachings which ignore and demean the gracious good news of Christ’s person and work.

One telltale sign of holding to a conjured list is not being honest with one another about our struggles. The bald fact of list-living is that we cannot fulfill it. So, when we know we are not measuring up to the list, the temptation is to keep up appearances as if we are.

List-living eschews showing any weakness or imperfection and creates unholy disconnections between people:

  • I cannot admit my sin to anyone because the list pronounces me a failure if I do. 
  • I cannot enter a deep and prolonged grief over my loss because the list says I need to stay strong. 
  • I cannot profess my doubts about God because the list says if I doubt, I am not a real Christian.

The Apostle Paul’s (and mine, too!) response to the legalistic list-living is this: To hell with the list! 

Instead, give praise to Jesus Christ who has given us the way of freedom and peace! It’s grace which transforms hearts, turns lives around, and provides genuine joy and satisfaction. If grace is not the answer, we aren’t asking the right question.

I’ll take Jesus the Teacher any day over the list-loving false teacher.

Law and Gospel (Galatians 3:6-14)

Nativity by He Qi

The Scriptures say that God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith. And so, you should understand that everyone who has faith is a child of Abraham. Long ago the Scriptures said God would accept the Gentiles because of their faith. This is why God told Abraham the good news that all nations would be blessed because of him. This means everyone who has faith will share in the blessings given to Abraham because of his faith.

Anyone who tries to please God by obeying the Law is under a curse. The Scriptures say, “Everyone who doesn’t obey everything in the Law is under a curse.” No one can please God by obeying the Law. The Scriptures also say, “The people God accepts because of their faith will live.”

The Law isn’t based on faith. It promises life only to people who obey its commands. But Christ rescued us from the Law’s curse, when he became a curse in our place. This is because the Scriptures say that anyone who is nailed to a tree is under a curse. And because of what Jesus Christ has done, the blessing promised to Abraham was taken to the Gentiles. This happened so that by faith we would be given the promised Holy Spirit. (Contemporary English Version)

We are just a day away from the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Eve, the night Christians everywhere observe the birth of Christ.

And just two days from now Christians throughout the world will have a grand celebration of Christ’s incarnation – God breaking into this old fallen world to be with us and redeem us.

Many will be show up at a church worship service on that day, perhaps especially because Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, in the year of 2022. All might be in the same place; yet they’re there for different reasons.

Some come to the worship service because that’s what they have done every Sunday throughout the year – and they wouldn’t think of being anywhere else.

Others choose to be a part of the gathering because they enjoy the specialness of the day, the beauty of the celebration, and the traditions which surround it all.

There are also those who show up because the season has been hard; while others may bask in the joy of Christmas, they’re just looking for something positive to get them through for a while.

Ethiopian Orthodox icon of the Nativity of the Lord

And then there are those who enter the day for none of the previous mentioned reasons. No, they simply show up because they feel it is their duty to do so, or at the least, because they might receive some special spiritual Brownie points from God. In other words, they gather with the rest with the sheer motivation of Law.

Such an approach illustrates the “curse” of the Law. The Law itself is not bad. But if the rest of the equation isn’t factored into life, Law becomes a hard taskmaster and keeps the law-keeper in a terrible bondage without any delight to go with the duty.

People also need Gospel, the good news which fulfills all the requirements and demands of Law. Law is good, but by itself, apart from Gospel, it becomes an insidious tool of evil.

Whereas Law focuses solely on what we do, Gospel homes in on why we do it.

Law bosses us around and tells us what to do. Gospel frees us to embrace the spirit of Law to love God and neighbor.

It doesn’t take faith to obey the rules and regulations of Law. Gospel, however, can only be realized, internalized, and lived by faith.

It takes faith to receive grace and forgiveness – and to give it. Faith requires an acceptance of spiritual realities. It is the key to tapping into the power of love in the universe.

By faith, people throughout history, like Abraham, have listened with spiritual ears to the God of all. They step out, not merely because of Law, but because they rely on divine promises. Such faith enables them to wait patiently for the coming of eternal forces to take permanent residence on earth. Law can’t do that; only Gospel can.

Faith in the Bible is a complete trust in God, in who God is and what God has done. Because God has demonstrated faithfulness through steadfast love, people are gifted with faith to know the Lord and exhibit love through good works. 

God Is with Us by Hanna Varghese

In Christianity, the height of faith is to place one’s life completely in God’s hands, believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.” (Matthew 17:20, CEV)

The size of faith isn’t the issue – it’s in whom that faith is placed. The littlest of faith in Jesus can have massive results, whereas the biggest of faith in someone who cannot get you to where you need to go, is useless.

Outward rituals and observance of Law have their place; but they don’t deliver anyone from sin, death, or hell. Only faith can do that.

If you are a follower of Christ Jesus, it makes no difference whether you are circumcised or not. All that matters is your faith that makes you love others. (Galatians 5:6, CEV)

It’s one thing to be kind and love others during a holiday season; it’s quite another thing to have that be your default character throughout the entire year. Love for a season comes merely from Law. But Love for a lifetime grows from the rich soil of the Gospel.

And it’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ which we celebrate and give thanks.

Gracious God, we thank you for sending your Son. Even before we loved you, you loved us and gave us the gift of faith. Help us to love one another and to see all people in the same way you do – to love them even when they don’t love us back. Enable us by your Spirit to show continual love throughout the entire year, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.