Very few movies can begin in the middle of the story, but Star Wars did just that. I was in High School when the “Jedi knights” were first heard of on our planet. The words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..” entered vernacular speech in a new series of movies that has seemingly refused to die. What was really curious was the idea of starting on Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, and then working forward for a few years in the storyline. After a hiatus, the film makers came back to the series decades later and offered a new set of prequels (a word I had never heard before these films), ending in the now proposed final installment in 2015. The galaxy is big, but this story has really taken a LONG TIME to tell… Many of the movie goers to the last episode weren’t even born when the first episode came out!!
I didn’t come to criticize the Sci-fi film series. Rather, I want you to think about a real message from far, far away. From the edge of space, far beyond our galaxy a message has come. It is real, reliable, exciting and an unbelievably helpful message. It isn’t the stuff of science fiction – but a communication that will make more difference to you than an announcement that we have found sentient life on Mars, and they’d like to meet us for coffee. The message I am speaking of arrived two thousand years ago, and though many in the world have desperately tried to silence it, mar its credibility and indict its authenticity – but it is a message that has changed literally billions of lives. It is the message of the Gospel, and it is a message alive and moving out, shattering darkness with its light. It is piercing the armor of the rebellious men with the arrows of truth – and it is a threat to them. For that reason, it is also a message under attack. It is a message that must be held at the center of the church and recited by each generation of Christians. It is a message easily burdened with mythology, and only carefully cleansed by re-examination of the ancient texts that revealed its truth to us.
That is what this series is designed to do. We will look, line by line, at one of the most complex arguments about God’s acceptance that has ever been penned. It will take time, and it will cover some things very familiar – but it MUST be re-examined. Some of it may even surprise you! As we start out examination, let’s begin with a definition of the Gospel derived from the Bible, and use it as our key principle.
Key Principle: The Gospel is God’s good news. It is the story of how God broke into history and offers a restored relationship between God and man based solely on trust in the full payment for sin in Jesus Christ – a payment effective to reconcile the world to God and each other.
Because of the importance of the message, we need to be sure we have not allowed the message to be stained with modern popular mythology. We need to answer some specific myths that some have tried to stick to the message as far back as the first century – and some are trying even today. What is surprising is how little has changed in the attack of false ideas over the last twenty-one centuries! Let’s filter out mythological stains and see the Gospel as it was intended to be!
Myth #1: Afterlife Insurance- It’s all about Heaven! The Gospel isn’t about this world, but the next.
We have all heard the saying: “So Heavenly minded they are no earthly good.” Often that saying was offered on behalf of one that seemed disengaged. Now we may say it but mean something different – saying those who DISENGAGE GOD’S WILL from daily life, and emphasize the Gospel’s provision of “afterlife insurance”. Many mistakenly emphasize the afterlife in relation to the Gospel, but that is understandable. After all, it is no small thing to have one’s eternal destiny changed by means of accepting Christ. At the same time, an over emphasis on the afterlife can lead to a Gospel that is ineffective this side of Heaven. Listen to the letter in Galatians 1:
1:1 Paul, an apostle (not [sent] from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom [be] the glory forevermore. Amen.
Before we can explore his presentation of truth of the Gospel, we need to meet the author and review his expertise. Without a ‘book jacket” the Biblical author could only introduce himself inside the letter, and then launch into the burden of his heart for the recipients. Paul opened the letter with a different twist than his normal self-introduction. There was a purpose behind each statement in the opening, and in this letter he made clear that he was three things:
• An ambassador of God (apostello, cp. 1:1). Paul wasn’t writing simply because he was disappointed in the state of affairs among the believers in Galatia – though he was. He wrote on behalf of another – God Himself. If that wasn’t so, nothing in the letter truly matters. Truth of Scripture is God’s truth dispensed through the human quill. These aren’t the collections of Paul’s sage advice, or management tips based on his experience. These are words of one of the “holy men moved of God’s Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21) to offer direction from God’s Spirit.
This understanding is critical for the presentation of everything we will examine over the next six studies in this letter. Either these are God’s carefully exposed truths, or they are the words of a man who gave “his best shot” at explaining truth as he saw it. Churches divide exactly on this issue. We believe and teach without apology that Paul was what he claimed to be – an Apostle, an ambassador. When he wrote things that challenge our culture, we cannot simply dismiss them as “bad ideas” as some who claim Jesus today readily do. Paul claims to be speaking for God in the way an ambassador of our country speaks for our President. In that way, Paul’s words are God’s Words.
• Appointed without human agency directly by Jesus and the Father (1:1). Paul claimed in the letter that he was not “voted in” to his position by a council or a committee. He was appointed by God, and specifically engaged by the risen Jesus Himself. These words are also chosen carefully, because the message of this letter is going to challenge assumptions. At some point in the reading of the letter, any first century reader was going to be challenged by the direct tone and unshakeable presentation of Paul. The writer wanted to make one thing clear: He was speaking from the highest authority, utterly certain of the Savior’s true wish in regards to the issues plaguing the group of believing recipients.
• In harmony with his brothers (1:2a). Paul emphasized that he was not writing from a faction that stood in opposition to all others. He was not some subversive dissident; he was standing with the main stream. The fact that many agreed with him and that he walked in harmony was not the proving factor to Paul – his relationship with Jesus and commission from Him was. Why mention it then? Because it is important sometimes to show that when you are challenging assumptions you are doing it from a body of wise counsel, and not taking shots on your own. The phrase: “all the brethren who are with me” implied that Paul was writing with the knowledge of others, and in harmony with their view as well.
Let’s also be clear about the recipients of the original letter, because it will answer some queries as to why he chose to say certain things the way he did. Paul was clearly writing to BELIEVERS. This letter isn’t designed to simply expose the way to FIND GOD for those who do not know Him, it is a careful explanation of how they found Him already, and why their pull from the Gospel is a pull from the truth (1:2b-3). They are IN the churches of Galatia, not in the fields to be reached – but even they were struggling to see the truth of what the Gospel means.
Here is the point: Even the church can struggle to truly grasp the truths they have already proclaimed. False teachers abound – some proclaiming thoughts in ignorance and causing confusion, and others deliberately enticing people into compromise, empowered by God’s enemy. Because someone claims to be a Christian doesn’t mean they are. Because someone claims to be telling the truth doesn’t mean they are. Because someone mentions Bible verses in their message doesn’t mean they are speaking from the truth of those passages. Paul largely addressed this writing to people who knew him. He wrote to people who followed his career well enough to know his honesty, integrity, authenticity and sacrifice for the truth.
By verse four (1:4), Paul arrives at the first truth concerning the Gospel that many of us observe has been mishandled, creating a mythology about salvation. Paul wrote: “4 who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father…” With those words, Paul makes clear that those who respond in faith to the Gospel have more than received a change in their eternal destiny, they have allowed the Spirit of God to change their lives in their present earth walk. The Gospel doesn’t engage us at physical death, it is the device that replaces our spiritual death.
In the Bible, the word “death” is used of different things. Its primary meaning is the cutting off of the flow of spiritual life – the severing of the umbilical cord with God – that happened at “The Fall” in the Garden of Eden. The Bible tells the story of our progenitor, Adam, and his wife, Eve, and their rebellion. In the earliest chapters of the Genesis (2 and 3) we read of the sentence of “death” that passed immediately upon them when they rebelled. That spiritual disconnection is used of “death”, and the physical death that we recall at a graveside is a reflection of that spiritual one. To the Ephesians (in the beginning of chapter two), Paul made clear that believers in Christ “Were dead, but are now made alive.” In that sense, the Bible’s primary use of death (in the theological sense) is not about the body, but about the spirit.
Let me say it another way: Before you asked Jesus to enter your life in a deliberate act of surrender, the Bible says you were “dead” in relationship to God. That doesn’t mean that you didn’t believe that God existed – it means that His existence had little to do with how you lived your life, made your choices or declared your personal values. You knew God like I know celebrities from the movies. We KNOW they exist, but we don’t have a relationship with them that changes how we do what we do. The Bible calls a man or woman that may have a vague notion of a God in Heaven but has not entered a deliberate relationship with Him “dead” to God. They walk and talk in this life, but they are spiritually “dead”. The interesting thing is that Biblically, this kind of “death” precedes “life”. The decision to surrender one’s heart to Jesus brings LIFE, the choice to live life on one’s own is “death”.
In the opening of the letter, Paul made clear that NEW SPIRITUAL LIFE BEGINS NOW, as our walk with Jesus was to “rescue us” from this age. You may not know it, but the Bible says that you are in peril right now. The current of this age is strongly pulling you in a direction toward destruction. The self-made men and women of our day, who are proudly attempting to create a morality without God are filling your ears with anti-surrender, anti-God rhetoric. They may not be shouting “We HATE God” (though some certainly are, but they are making clear they neither NEED HIM nor DESIRE THE MORAL CONSTRAINTS that come from a relationship with One Who created us, and will hold us to account of His directions.
The Gospel is a deliberate surrender to the One Who made us. It is NOT simply a “get out of Hell free” card – it is the response to God’s goodness in receiving the gift of the Savior’s full payment for salvation and beginning a deliberate and conscious relationship with God in Christ. The Gospel changes my decision making process NOW, not just my eternal destiny THEN. It is a Gospel that changes what I laugh at, how I maintain my body, what priority I give to knowing His Word, and how I engage people. It is a Gospel to rescue me from the drowning currents of self will and arrogance all around me. It is clutching the hand of a God that grabbed me when I wasn’t even sure I was drowning in this life. The Gospel isn’t just “AFTERLIFE INSURANCE”; it is the CHANGE AGENT of my life now, rescuing me from godless thinking and selfish decision making.
Myth #2: Fuzzy- The message is very subjective! You can’t really tell if people are preaching it properly.
Another myth bandied about in circles that claim to be Christian is that the Gospel is a fuzzy body of information – that you cannot tell if someone is truly preaching and teaching it or not. Paul wrote:
1:6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is [really] not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! 10 For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.
Paul’s statement is straightforward – I preached a Gospel that you MUST NOT exchange, amend, alter or confuse. It was truth then, and it is truth NOW. You cannot weave new requirements INTO THE GOSPEL nor can you extract components of it. The stature of the one who would oppose it doesn’t matter – you must stick to what you were told. Some men will adjust the message to make it more palatable, but they serve men and not Christ. They don’t want to take a stand on the truth, so they ease off the specifics.
When Paul explained the Gospel, he specified what he was talking about.
The term gospel is found ninety-nine times in the NASB and is normally the translation of the Greek noun euangelion (which occurs 76 times), the others are simply translated “good news”. The verb form of the word is used another 54 times as euangelizo, which means “to announce good news.” These words grow from the noun angelos, or “a messenger.” The point is that such extensive use of the word reminds us that the main message of the church is not sinfulness, nor condemnation, but GOOD NEWS of reconciliation made possible.
A careful study of the Gospel will yield some of its chief components that were repeated many times in Scripture. The gospel is the message of good news that God has provided a way of salvation for men through the gift of Jesus’ payment to the world. Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin, overcame death and walked out of the tomb, and now offers reconciliation to God to all who will accept the payment He made on their behalf. It is by grace – an undeserved gift of God, and it is through faith – energized by belief that what God says is true is true. It cannot be attained by any form of penance or work of self-improvement. It opens the door to a permanently reconciled relationship to God, and offers an eventual restoration of man to all Creation.
The Apostle offer Ten Facts concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) that caused the formation of a body of “believers”.
1 Corinthians 15:1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. 11 Whether then [it was] I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Look closely at the specifics from the verses above:
1. It was brought to them in content and ANNOUNCED (euangellion – cp.1). It is found in a good message that can be verbally communicated. The Gospel isn’t a harsh message that brings condemnation – but a liberating message of full payment. We aren’t sharing RULES with people – we are declaring their bondage ended!
2. The hearer had to CHOOSE to “take it along with them” (receive is the term “paralambano” – 1b). It was an active reception. The Gospel requires response and grasping. It is an active and deliberate process – not a passive one. No one gets to Heaven by accident, stumbling in the pearly gate. They must decide to receive the message.
3. The choice caused the recipient to “take their stand” or “FIX THEIR HOLD” on it (stand is the term “histemi” – 1b). It changed the recipient in future action. Having decided on the veracity of the message, they must cling to that message. The life perspective changed, they are not fickle – but cling to the Cross.
4. The choice to receive the announcement and fix hold on it SAVES the recipient (save is “sozo” – from to rescue or cure – v.2a). If sin is the sickness, the Gospel is the cure. One must understand that without the Gospel a man or woman is not simply “impaired” but LOST. In John 14:6 – “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” The issue of SAVED and LOST is technically separation from the Father in Heaven.
5. The salvific effect occurs only for those who POSSESS the Gospel (the terms “hold fast” are a translation of “katecho” – to firmly bind to). This is not a casual acceptance of the concept – but a binding to the life of the recipient. A second emphasis of the BINDING nature of the recipient (after #3 above) should help to clarify that it must be a serious and real choice to be effective.
6. The Gospel was the HIGHEST PRIORITY message for the Apostle to bring to the Corinthian people (the term “protos” is translated “of first importance” – 3a). He taught them much over the one and one half years he was with them – but nothing was of higher importance in the public ministry.
7. Paul POSSESSED the Gospel before he shared it with them (the term “received” is again the term from verse one – “paralambano” – or choose). Though this isn’t essential, it shows that it was intentional on his part. The Gospel, because of its importance in HIS LIFE, was a burning message in the face of lost men and women.
8. The message includes DEFINED HISTORICAL FACTS: the substitutional atoning literal death of Jesus for SIN (not politics), the fact of His physical burial in a tomb and the literal understanding of the physical body’s Resurrection from the dead (15:5,6). A message without the components is a different message.
9. The facts were PROPHESIED from the Scriptures – the very Word of God (15:5). The narrative of Jesus’ ministry was drawn from the Prophets of old – and not some contrived story. In fact, without an understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, one could not grasp the judicial terms of sin’s separation, and a sacrifice’s atoning nature.
10. The facts of the case were VERIFIED by many in the early community, and in Paul’s personal experience (15:8-11). Peter offered (2 Peter 1: “16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Without predictive prophecy, the Gospel is just a story made by men. Because God made promises, and God keeps His promises, and the Bible contains His promises – we can see that Jesus fulfilled God’s promises. No Bible – no salvation.
The message is spelled out in the Word, and is not fuzzy. People who preach the facts of the history with the call to surrender are offering the Gospel. People who don’t – aren’t. There is still one more myth I want to explore in the rest of the first chapter…
Myth #3: Political- Men put the whole thing together! The message of Jesus was a contrived political control.
Dan Brown asserted the Bible was put together by men for political control. Many a professor today will accept and teach a version of that notion – that the Church gave us the Bible, and the Apostles contrived it. Others place the message later in the hands of Church Councils. What is the testimony of Paul?
11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but [I received it] through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. 15 But when God, who had set me apart [even] from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. 18 Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 (Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was [still] unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ; 23 but only, they kept hearing, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they were glorifying God because of me.
Paul said that he didn’t GET the Gospel from a man, nor COLLABORATE with another man or committee to put the message together. He got the message when Jesus gave it to him. People can accept that as truth, or they can reject it – but that was his claim. He said he sought to destroy the work in ignorance, and God grabbed his heart and showed His Son to Paul. Rather than send him to a school to learn of Jesus, God offered him a unique discipleship sitting in the desert at the feet of the Risen Jesus. Three years passed, and Paul still didn’t “check in” – he simply learned from Christ. When that time was over, Paul visited Peter and stayed in Jerusalem for fifteen days. He spoke to Peter and was encouraged by James, but the others didn’t meet him. He kept a low profile until God called him out of a prayer meeting as a missionary to the Gentiles.
The myth that the Gospel message was contrived by men is at the heart of the message of non-believers. If the message didn’t come from God, as they claim, then we offer nothing in the church by way of a true path of reconciliation to God, if there even is one. Let me say it another way: If men made up the story of God sending His Son to earth to die for the sins of man, then we are all lost. We have given ourselves to a well-crafted lie. The changes you have seen happen in your life aren’t real. That healed marriage – that was just your imagination. That imprisoned criminal that is now out and serving God in his community – no, he is a fake. That moment when you heard God speak into your heart with the assurance of love and felt His touch as He pulled you to repentance – that was all a farce. You and I are just lost and hopeless. Good news is a myth. Nothing awaits us after this life but an end, period.
Let’s be as clear as possible: Either there is a God or there is not. If there is NOT than we are observing a highly ordered universe that emerged without plan or purpose from chaos, organizing itself on the basis of random principles that gathered by happenstance to bring all things together. Star dust from an unknown source delved into an accidental “big bang” – with dust that eventually came together and made planets, lakes, fish, monkeys and man. The thousands of molecular systems of one human body just developed as genes sorted themselves out by no particular plan. You and I are a cosmic accident, a joke going nowhere. We live today, and die tomorrow, and none of it has any meaning whatsoever. Love, joy, art, progress – these words have little meaning beyond the pitiful one hundred years we walk on the planet. Those who went before are forever GONE and all we have are the memories and shreds of material work they left, until we ourselves fall to the earth. What does all that sound like? To me, it sounds like the depression of Solomon spilled out in Ecclesiastes.
He kept seeing no purpose, no meaning, no end, no justice, no light at the end of the tunnel. He said it many times in many ways – that life “under the sun” was vain, empty and useless. He was absolutely right…it is! If we seek truth “under the sun”, inside the heliosphere of our solar system, life will not offer us sufficient truth to find meaning – because life’s meaning is found in our Creator, and His purpose for us! The good news is there is GOOD NEWS!