God on the Move: “The Syrup Principle” – The Epistle of Galatians

uphill_both_ways_in_snow_actionHave you ever tried to push something uphill that couldn’t get traction and rolled back on you? Years ago a heavy snow storm hit Jerusalem, and I had the wonderful privilege of driving up the slope of the west side of Mount Zion toward the Bishop Gobat school property to attend a meeting that I couldn’t seem to arrive at, because the road was unplowed and barely passable. What made matters even worse was the fact that the large boulders that normally marked the side of the road were hidden under the snow drifts, and navigating the road was made even more hazardous by objects that were designed originally as a “safety feature”. I tried to make my way upward, but on several occasions ended up slipping back down the slope, as my tires found no traction on the ice. I hate the feeling that I am putting massive effort into something and slipping backward, don’t you? It reminds me of the frustrating times as a youth when I attempted to rake and back the leaves around my parent’s home, but the wind covered the lawn with newly deposited leaves as fast as I removed and bagged the old leaves. Ugh! How frustrating to work hard at something, and have that sinking feeling – like the faster you bail the boat, the bigger the hole in the bottom becomes.

Bailing was something the Apostle Paul knew – he would easily recognize the sinking feeling I am talking about. Paul was an Apostle charged with overseeing the spread of the Christian message by Jesus. He fought the world for a hearing for his message. He fought Jewish leaders who felt that he had no right to open up a small sub-group of Jews – these so-called “Nazarene people of the Way” – to practices that were not under the oversight and in the veto power of the Chief Priest and Courts of the Rabbinate of Israel. He fought wayward Christians who wanted their salvation to be a statement of both grace for eternity and license for their current desires. On every turn, he fought – and that was no doubt frustrating, tiring and at times, exasperating. He pressed to get the Gospel to new places, but equally pressed to keep the small bands of followers of Jesus on track and following their Savior by the power of the Spirit. He explained how the message of Jesus fit into the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, even as he was carefully scrutinized for his every word and action. There was little that looked peaceful from outside the room where Paul was dwelling. This was a hard month in a hard year on a hard journey.

From the west, the Roman believers needed to be exhorted to place themselves in a position of Divine inspection – so Paul wrote to them to get ready to make that decision. From the southwest, Corinth was acting like their misguided notion of “love” for sinners justified a “tolerance” of sin that led to a “sex fest” that would make even modern believers blush – so Paul opened a line of correspondence to them. In the east, Galatian believers were slipping away from the message of justification backward toward an expansion of the Temple’s authority over the church – and losing Gentiles in the process (who felt the message was misrepresented to them). It is on this last group we want to focus in this lesson – in the letter to the Galatian believers. It was written under fire, and Paul was responding to an attack on the Gospel by lost me without and confused men within the group. Paul had something he wanted to say to them – but God said something even bigger in the example of the letter…

Key Principle: When the core message of the church is under attack, there is a consistent and godly way to respond.

Travel back in time for a few minutes to join Paul’s mission team in Ephesus, during the third mission journey, and note how anxious he seems to be to get moving west toward Macedonia, then Corinth in Achaia, and finally to Rome. He couldn’t leave – because the churches were being attacked by “spiritual sharks” that were tearing away at everything his first two mission journeys had produced (from a human perspective). He was sharing the message of the Gospel, and it was both shattering darkness with its light and drawing the bugs that always show up to a flame in a dark place. It was piercing the armor of rebellious men with the arrows of truth – and that was a threat to them. Paul’s message was being challenged in some places, but in Galatia it was being burdened with mythology, and laden with misunderstanding.

Introducing the Syrup Method

syrup1I really like maple syrup, but a few years ago I had the opportunity to taste maple sap… and I was very disappointed. It wasn’t very “maple-ee” and it wasn’t very sweet. In fact, it tasted a little like sassafras root with the dirt still on it – something I remember from Cub Scout campouts as a kid. What I found out was this: to really get the flavor, you have to distill the maple sap and get rid of the water to get it down to the viscous syrup form – that is where the flavor is. I am not suggesting for a moment that God wastes words in the Bible. At the same time, I want to readily admit that an epistle is like a closing argument delivered to a jury – seeking the conviction of the heart and the commitment to godliness. Every word God used is important, but it is possible to get the distilled argument of the text in fewer words. That is what I want to try to do with you in this lesson if we can: get to the heart of the six chapters of Galatians by boiling the argument down to essential elements.

Step One: Collecting the sap; gathering truth in a bucket.

To do this, I want to pick out key sentences and phrases. This isn’t random – it is based on a very systematic and careful study of each line. We are distilling, but we are also in need of the essential “bones” of structure of Paul’s argument. Let’s see if we can do this is a few minutes together…

Chapter One

Paul and his team opened with words about who they were, and who the letter was addressed to – those who had given their heart to Jesus and were living in Galatia. Verse four offered an important word about the purpose of the work of Jesus that will be addressed later in the letter – that He came to rescue us from this evil age. The fact Paul pointed to was this: commitment to Jesus isn’t just about afterlife – but about how we live now. We are not to be victims of the crashing waves of evil in this life.

The next paragraph (1:6-9) set up the argument with Paul’s emotional reaction to what he has heard about the believers in their region: Paul was shocked at how quickly they were being drawn away from the message of justification before God entirely based on the work of Jesus. He hammered the word “Gospel” in verse 6, again in 7, again in 8 and again in 9. He made the point that the Good News had come to them – and there was nothing better to expect. He wouldn’t back down, even if it would take pressure off of him and make him more widely popular (1:10).

He wanted them to recognize that the Gospel he preached to them was not from men, but rather “through a revelation of Jesus” (1:12). Paul’s background in Judaism didn’t create it, but God met him, called him and taught him (1:13-17). He was three years a follower of Jesus before he ever met the leadership in Jerusalem (1:18-24).

Chapter one, then offered three points to Paul’s statement of truth to the Galatians:

• The Gospel affects now – not just when we die.

• The message of the Gospel was specific and measurable content – and departure from it could be reckoned. It wasn’t so experiential that one could not identify its truths as well as stand opposed to what varied from that message.

• The message source was from God – not men. It wasn’t put together by a committee, and could not be disassembled by one without departing the truth and ending in error.

In essence, the first chapter was about the definition, source and demand of the Gospel. It held specific content, it came from God and it wasn’t limited to things that start at death.

Chapter Two

Continuing his argument in the second chapter, Paul reminded the readers that he “went up fourteen years after coming to Jesus” (to the Jerusalem Council in 50 CE- Acts 15), and had the Gospel he was preaching thoroughly evaluated. He was joined by Barnabas and Titus (2:1-2). When men saw that Titus was born of a Gentile family, they didn’t expect him to be circumcised or to play at being like a Jew – though some false brothers tried to press the case (2:3-4). The “truth of the Gospel” was at stake – and we didn’t let them gain any standing at all (2:5-6). The other leaders saw God was at work in this, and they agreed with me and shook my hand publicly (2:7-10).

“It wasn’t all easy,” Paul wrote. He explained that Peter was adding rabbinic standards of separation to his life when Jewish men came from Judea, and that confused the Gospel message – because they had been teaching that Gentiles who came to Jesus were fully accepted in spite of the fact that they didn’t keep the regulations given to Jews (2:11-14). Paul even detailed some of the argument he made with Peter. He told him, according to Paul’s record – since the diaspora (dispersion of Jews) it has become nearly impossible for us to make it to the Temple three times a year (as commanded in Deuteronomy 16:16) and we were born Jews. Why in the world are you trying to make these who were not born under these regulations join us in this nearly impossible task! (2:15-7). Temple worship and atonement law offered nothing to one who died with Christ and was justified totally through Him (2:18-21).

Chapter two, then, offered two additional point:

• Paul’s message thoroughly checked and publicly endorsed by the leadership of the church. They acknowledged Gentiles didn’t needed to join the atonement system or markers of the Jewish people.

• He made clear that some leaders confused the message and he confronted them to clarify the teaching: full acceptance by God because of faith in the completed work of Jesus was all that was required – and any breach of that was a breach in the Gospel message.

The bottom line of the second chapter was this: Paul’s message was endorsed and any teaching to the contrary was corrected when leaders discovered it.

Chapter Three

As chapter three opened, Paul left his walk down memory lane and went back to his argument concerning the faith of the Galatians. He asked them if the “got the Spirit by the works of the Law” or if their acceptance of the Gospel message was sufficient (3:1-5). He pressed the truth that before atonement law, God already established a simple pattern – believe me and that is what I will count (3:6-10). Paul made clear that nothing in the atonement law could offer salvation now – because the justification work of Jesus was complete (3:6-13). God was working in his time to bless the Gentile world with direct access to God apart from the atonement system – because of Jesus’ completed work (3:14-18). The atonement law set a pattern, but the Promised One completed the whole work (3:19-25). Sons of God now had direct access by belief in Jesus – nothing more was necessary (3:26-29).

Paul reminded them of their reception of the Spirit based solely on belief in the justification message alone.

In essence, Paul made clear that there was nothing MORE than full acceptance – and nothing greater to be received if one participated in the atonement system now that direct access to God had been provided apart from the Temple and Jewish people.

Chapter Four

Chapter four reminded that they “…were in bondage (4:3) …but God sent forth His Son” (4:4-5). They became sons in the Spirit, and they should not be anxious to go backward into the atonement laws that included killing animals and making sacrifices (4:6-9). He was concerned… they were learning how to meticulously practice all the things that were replaced in the atonement law and that was going to truly hurt their understanding of the Gospel (4:10-20). He challenged them: “If you want to be under all that is involved in the atonement laws, do you TRULY know them?” (4:21).

He argued: “If you look at Abraham’s life, you can see a dramatic rendering of the way of fleshly answers to a problem and the way of the Spirit’s answer. In Hagar and Ishmael, you see human effort expended. In Isaac you find God at work without man’s help – and that is what the Good News of Jesus is all about (4:22-28). “Besides”, he argued, “flesh always persecutes Spirit, so you should cast out those who want to take you back into that world.” (4:29-31).

The Apostle added two more lines to his reasoned speech:

• He reminded the people they were in darkness before Jesus, but were set free in Him – and the practices of the atonement system would only distract them from recognizing the access through faith.

• He warned them that flesh participation had distracted his ancestors –because many missed the role faith played and substituted “actions” for “heart belief”. Now some argued against faith – because in acceptance by God – the flesh has always opposed the spirit.

In essence, when men do anything to participate in the process of becoming acceptable to God, they begin to believe it is their participation, and not God’s grace alone, that makes healing the breach possible – but that isn’t true. It is always by grace (unmerited favor), through faith (acceptance that what God says is true – is true indeed).

Chapter Five

In chapter five Paul commanded them to remain firmly rooted in the “Gospel of Justification” by grace through faith in the work of Jesus alone – and not allow anyone to drag them back into the atonement laws and their sacrificial solutions (5:1-6). “Who is making you go back?” Paul again asked (5:7-8). He told them he “had confidence” they would remain (5:10) and that the taste of freedom held a danger they must also be aware of – the danger of allowing justification to authorize license in their behaviors (5:13). The answer was not a new list of rules, but rather allowing the Spirit of God to work in them (5:16) to help them navigate life. The Spirit was opposed to the flesh, and the atonement laws – which required the participation of the flesh- would only confuse them (5:17-18). He enumerated the traits that showed licentiousness of the flesh (5:19-21) and contrasted them with the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-26).

The Apostle told them two more important things:

• He made clear they should stick to the message and not divert to the older atonement system – acceptance by God has already been secured.

• He warned that emphasis on the flesh would lead to powerful waves of fleshly activity in their midst, while emphasis on the Spirit would yield great freedoms and unity.

In essence, Paul made clear his point – don’t change – and then made clear the consequences of teaching the participation of the flesh in the message of the acceptance of God. It won’t end well – but be swamped by sin and darkness. Emphasizing the Spirit led to freedom and unity.

Chapter Six

In the final part of the letter, Paul called upon believers to help each other with their struggle to walk with God (6:1-4) while taking responsibility for their own issues (6:5). They were to be careful to receive from those who carefully studied God’s word, and recognize that there was a coming consequence to ignoring truth (6:5-8). They were to stay at the task and not become weary doing right (6:9-10). He closed the letter reminding them it was truly from his hand (6:11) and that there were those who would try to pry them from the truth – but he placed all his hope and trust in the finished work of Jesus at the Cross (6:12-15). He wanted peace, particularly with the Jewish believers in Jesus that were confused and confusing them – he wanted this discussion to end (6:16-18).

The final words of Paul’s argument were these:

• Show the Spirit at work as you work together, each taking responsibility for yourselves and yet helping each other.

• Listen to the Word and stay at the work of doing right – they mustn’t let anyone pry them away from the full acceptance of God through faith.

• He wanted peace, especially with Jewish believers, but truly wanted this discussion to be laid to rest in Galatia.

In essence, it was time to make the choice to set aside this distraction. Peace was desired, but not at the expense of walking in truth.

Step Two: Put the Sap on the Stove; reducing sap to syrup

Look yet one more time at the whole of Paul’s argument – this time with an eye toward what Paul DID to defend the central truth under attack in the faith:

In chapter one: He defined the Gospel, its source and the fact that is places demands on the living – not just the dead.

Here, Paul defined the problem. In this case, the issue was the definition and content of the message as to how a man or woman becomes acceptable to God. The issue was clear – God is holy and we are not. What to do? God made full acceptance and direct access to Him via the completed payment of Jesus at Calvary – but some wanted to go back to the older atonement system because it made them feel they were allowed to participate in the process, and gave the Jewish leadership at the Temple some continued control over the process. Paul made clear the message that was under attack

In chapter two: Paul addressed the charge that his message was rogue.

The second step Paul used was to look backward to those in whom God had given earlier direction. In his case, it was church leaders in Jerusalem. In our case, it would be the men and women recorded in the Scripture. When a core message of our faith is under attack, we should become thoroughly versed in the Scripture, and point people to how what we are saying is a continuation of that message. They may reject that message, but we should strive to show that we are KEEPING the committed charge of the Scriptures – and not altering them.

In chapter three: Paul laid to rest that the truth needed to be amended – or even could be.

The Apostle made clear that there was nothing MORE than full acceptance. He pressed that no one had the right to add to the ideas that God made clear were the completed truth. When a core message is under attack, we must make clear that “adjusting” God’s prescribed truth is nothing less than leaving the truth of the Creator.

In chapter four: Paul connected the dangers of consequences if they pursued the way of thinking that led them away from the message they received from him.

He made clear that in the case of judging between the atonement system and justification by faith alone there was a clear danger. When men do anything to participate in the process of becoming acceptable to God, they begin to believe it is their participation, and not God’s grace alone, and they end up in the wrong place. Instead of gratefulness, arrogance becomes easy. When a core message component comes under attack – it is essential that leaders make clear the damaging consequences of embracing a lie in place of the truth.

In chapter five: Paul called the people to “stick to their guns”.

He pressed them to stand for the truth and further warned of allowing the “flesh message” (regressive participation in the atonement system) in the message of the acceptance of God. He offered the negative of the flesh’s grab on their hearts, and contrasted the freedom of the Spirit’s work in an through them. When there is an attack on the core principles of the Scriptures among us, leaders should openly and unapologetically call people to stand with the truth. We cannot shrink back and hope for the best.

In chapter six: Paul told them he wanted peace, but not at the expense of truth.

As he told them it was time to make the choice, he assured them that peace was desired, but not by acquiescing to lies. When a core principle or truth of our faith is under attack, peace is NOT more important than standing for the truth of the Scriptures. They are God’s Word – and we have no right to “adjust them” to make people more comfortable. Jesus came to give us direct access to a relationship with the Father in Heaven – but no other earthly relationship can become as important to us as that one – or we are not His disciple at all.

Behold the Syrup!

There is our method of defense of God’s truth, as modeled by Paul in the first century:

  • Define God’s message and the problem of the challenge.
  • Make clear that you are sticking to the Scriptures and not departing from them.
  • Make clear that no one has the right to amend the Scriptural teaching (not even you).
  • Connect the dots to some of the dangers if the wrong line is followed.
  • Don’t back down because God’s teaching is unpopular; rather recognize the Spirit will be present to help you make things clear through words and lifestyle.
  • Don’t make peace your primary goal, but clarity about what God said in His Word.

Step Three: Pouring Syrup; how we “cover” the issues of our day

First, we need to be careful about the separation of issues of conviction (things the Bible addressed indirectly through principle) and core message (things the Bible specifically teaches).

You may be a Republican or a Democrat. You may drink alcohol on occasion or believe that one should completely abstain because of the potential damage it can cause your life. You may believe in gun control or an absolute right to have a rifle hanging in your shed. You may think people shouldn’t date but rather have their parents arrange their marriage. You may like Breyer’s ice cream or you may think the generic is just as good. You may like rainy days, or you may loathe them… these aren’t issues that are directly ascribed in the text of the Bible – no matter how clear they are in your mind. They are indirectly addressed by principles. They aren’t unimportant, but they aren’t the core of our message. Don’t make them some kind of litmus test on Christianity, and don’t proclaim them with the force of the Bible. Peter thought the rabbinic laws about “who to eat with” were equal to the Biblical rules for the Jewish people as to what to eat – and he was corrected. His dilution of the message of the Gospel affected people’s reception of Jesus – and some were turned away from the Gospel.

Let me say it clearly: make a separation in every public forum (personal discussions to Facebook posts) between what your informed view has come to be because of an indirect (even if in depth) teaching of the Scripture’s principles and the defense of the core message the Bible teaches. This is important. Don’t represent your view of issues as God’s view, unless the text offers specific and direct teaching on that issue. If you believe there are principles from God’s Word, then apply them as that – principles. For instance, it wouldn’t be wrong to say:

“This position of this particular political party doesn’t seem to me to square with the principle in God’s Word that I got when I was studying these verses. I cannot put them together, and so I am not a part of that group.”

Is that getting “wishy-washy” on the truth as we need to stand on it today? Not at all! Let me illustrate:

Many modern issues are re-worked attacks against core truths of Scripture from long ago:

The attempt to re-define marriage isn’t new – just the approach that people are using. The actual battle isn’t over the definition – but WHAT FOUNDATION our modern country should use to define its most precious concepts and identity issues. Christians want to keep a Judeo-Christian foundation for the definitions, while others would like any reference to that system to be expunged from the history of the nation and re-frame the issue as a secularist and values neutral group making small adaptations to their understanding of family definition. The Bible DOES say how a family came into being, what it is and what it is not. We have direct, specific teaching of what a marriage is and what it pictures. It isn’t an opinion – it is the defense of what the text actually argues.

The attempt to separate sexual identity and gender behaviors is also a direct teaching from the text of Scripture. When David told Solomon to “act like a man” there were direct and measurable ways in which that could be perceived. The purposes of human sexuality are not left in the background of a shadowy text – they are addressed directly and forcefully in many places. We aren’t offering opinion, we are defending the literal statements of the text.

When even the most educated in our society seem unable to identify simple issues like “What is evil?” and “What is a terrorist?” we have recourse. The Bible is neither silent on the issue of evil, nor is it unclear where it came from and how to see it in daily life. When we call it evil, we aren’t being intolerant – we are defending the black letters of the page of Scripture. Individuals acting to kill or imperil non-combatants to offer protest to authority is wrong –always. They may be right in the point they are making, but the Bible specifically and carefully shows ways to make change that don’t include imperiling innocent parties. Even in war, God weighed in with specific rules – we can and should be vocal about things that violate these direct principles from the Word.

When people try to obscure the purpose of the Gospel, teaching that it has as a primary purpose the gaining of riches in this present world – we should take a clear and vocal stand against the corruption of Scripture. It doesn’t matter if the proclamation is from a stadium or a glass cathedral that cost millions – the Scripture directly addressed what the Gospel is: direct access to God through full trust in the completed work of Jesus alone. It is not a direct access to material wealth – and never has been. That is a corruption, and that is not an opinion – it is a defense of the text.

When someone attempts to enshrine selfishness as a virtue and argues that the unborn are not “people” and do not have any “right to life” – the Bible directly weighs in. God held the unborn as worthy of defense in the Law. He revealed that He chose people before they were born for various specific tasks. He made clear that His image stamp on them is what gave them value. He called killing the unborn a crime worthy of death… we aren’t being political, we are defending the Book as we should. We need to love those who have made that choice in their past – because they cannot undue it. Yet, we cannot make the choice one that God approved. It was wrong, and it requires repentance and payment by the blood of Jesus at Calvary.

Finally, before we POUR THE SYRUP of the Galatian truths on issues, we must be clear and Biblically sound in our approach to what the church of Jesus Christ actually IS and IS NOT. The church isn’t primarily a daycare facility designed to teach morals to working people’s children. It isn’t primarily a counseling center designed to offer self-help Scripture to help people navigate life better in the midst of growing darkness. It isn’t a place for religious people to get together and measure how we are doing on “keeping the rules” of our faith – some busybody’s paradise. The church is primarily a place where transformation occurs over time by constant exposure to the Word of God. We become a family, we nurture people that hurt in a healing place, we join together to meet God together in worship, and we gather in a place to meet people like ourselves, to belong – but that isn’t WHAT WE ARE. We are people who were SINGLE who are in an engagement period to learn to become a spotless Bride for our coming Savior. Every function we have is subject to that Biblically explained core reason for existence. We are a BRIDAL TRAINING school awaiting the coming of our Bridegroom.

The church offers the Gospel to lost men, women and children – but that is a function of our obedience – and not our primary identity. We help the struggling in obedience. We serve Jesus by serving others… but those aren’t the primary functions of the church. Worship, instruction, fellowship and evangelism are directed toward transformation by the Spirit through the Word – in order that we might become a prepared bride.

When the core message of the church is under attack, there is a consistent and godly way to respond – and we must use it.