After 14 years of preaching the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone and planting many churches in the Galatia area, Paul went up to Jerusalem (because God directed him –v. 2) to confirm with the church leaders that they were preaching the same gospel he was. (See Acts 15) The Judaizers had been coming behind Paul and telling Gentile Christians in Galatia that they had to be circumcised and follow Jewish ceremonial laws to be right with God. And Paul brought Titus with him, an uncircumcised Gentile, as Exhibit A to make his point.
Peter, James and John, the Jewish church leaders, all concurred with Paul and gave them the “right hand of fellowship” to continue his good work among the Gentiles. If they had disagreed with Paul there could have been both a major church split and worse “another gospel” being preached than the message God had given Paul and all the apostles. Praise God for his clear revelation to all the apostles and their humility and obedience to make this radical change from Judaism to pure Christianity based on the gospel.
The gospel both sets us free from cultural rules and traditions and gives freedom to live the Christian life unique to our culture. Russian or South American Christians don’t need to be Americanized or Galatian Gentiles don’t need to be Judaized. It also sets us free from the treadmill of guilt and insecurity of losing our salvation if we don’t keep the rules. Yes we are called to obey God’s moral law (the Scriptures) but not as a means of salvation. We obey as Christians because we now have a new desire to obey and please God (see Romans 7:22) out of gratitude and love and because God’s truth and way of life brings ultimate freedom from the bondage of sin. “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to (obey) my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36)
Yet today and throughout church history there have been legalists who have tried to add law and works to the gospel. The gospel plus baptism in their denomination, or denying the Lord’s Supper to those outside their denomination, or dress codes and do’s and don’ts, or emphasizing certain denominational distinctives; all these and more can divide God’s people which is one of Satan’s main goals.
“In the essentials, unity. In the non-essentials, liberty. And in all things, charity.” (Philipp Melanchthon, February 16, 1497 – April 19, 1560 ) The need for unity in the gospel: “The fellowship is broken. The power of darkness grows. All will be sacrificed. All will be lost unless we unite against evil.” (From the Lord of the Rings – the Two Towers) “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23) Relational unity across all dividing lines of race, status and doctrinal distinctives reveals Christ to those outside the faith.
The parable of the two sons (or the prodigal son) clearly illustrates what the gospel is and what it isn’t. (See Luke 15:1-3, 11-32) This was a shocking revelation of the gospel to the legalistic Pharisees and scribes represented by the older son. In this parable we see two kinds of lostness: 1) the lostness of the younger son (prodigal) who represents the rebel who hates rules, believes he is “basically a good person” and because God loves us he will just wink at our sins. “My God wants me to be happy” is a statement he thinks and says to the “religious types”; 2) the older brother is the rule keeper, the religious type who goes to church every time the doors open and feels he can earn God’s salvation. He puts God in his due by saying, “I have been slaving for You and never disobeyed Your orders and I deserve salvation and Your best treatment.” It is a spirit of entitlement. But notice which son was saved. The younger son came to his senses, came back home and begged for mercy and the Father forgave him (but only through the death of Jesus) and welcomed him as a son, not a hired servant. The older son would not come into the house (salvation) because he didn’t really want relationship with his Father. He wanted to control his Father by doing good works and making the Father his debtor. He needed to repent of his self-righteousness. Initially both sons were lost and both believed they didn’t need a Savior. If so, then Christ died needlessly as Paul says later. “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21) Jesus is the true older brother who did keep the law and deserves all the inheritance but instead died in our place and shares his rightful inheritance with us. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:16-17)
Questions for reflection and application:
After 14 years of preaching the gospel as an apostle set apart by God and not by man (i.e., the church leaders in Jerusalem), why did Paul then go to Jerusalem to confirm the message of the gospel? What implications does this have for today?
What things have you seen or heard about that divide God’s church today? How can you be a peacemaker and bring unity to God’s people?
Where have you been like the younger brother in your thinking and living, both as an unbeliever and now as a believer? Note some of his thinking and things he might say in the teaching above.
Where have you been like the older brother in your thinking and living, both as an unbeliever and now as a believer? Note some of his thinking and things he might say in the teaching above.
Can you clearly articulate the core of the gospel or what Philipp Melanchthon meant by the “essentials” of the faith? (See quote above)
Scripture memory verse: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21)
Until He comes,
Len and Kristen
We are grateful for your prayers and financial support for this Faith Mission /501c3/non-profit. For on-line giving go to www.KenBoa.org and click on Reflections/donations and scroll to Len Sykes. Thank you.