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February 22 - Galatians 2:11-21 "Living in Line with the Gospel"

MPC 22th February 2009.

Phil Campbell


Religious infighting is always so awkward, isn't it? Especially when it goes public.

Like St Mary's Catholic church at South Brisbane that's been in the news almost every day. Where the Catholic Archbishop has sacked the rebel priest in charge of the biggest congregation in the diocese. And if you saw the details in yesterday's paper, it's perplexing. It's hard to know which side to take. Because in a way you want to say to Peter Kennedy, good on you for the way you care for the poor and you stand up for the underdog, and you're involved in social justice. But on the other hand you want to say, well, it's fair enough that if you don't actually believe in the basic doctrines of the catholic church or even the basic doctrines of any church that it's fair enough for the Archbishop to step in. And say, maybe you should go somewhere else and do social justice work with the Buddhists or the bowling club maybe.

In the end, it's just perplexing. Because the guy who seems most right is ultimately I suspect most wrong; and the guy with the power who's kind of right is going to be seen by most people to be doing what's incredibly wrong. It's hard to figure out.

There's a church dispute of even bigger proportions in our passage this morning. With bigger players than a small time Brisbane Priest and a Bishop. But ultimately, this time it's much clearer where the boundaries like. There's a dispute between the Apostle Peter. And the Apostle Paul. You can see it there in chapter 2 verse 11.

We're at Paul's home church in Antioch, a Gentile city about 500 kilometres North East of Jerusalem. Antioch was a city of half a million people, the third largest in the Roman empire. And this is where Paul based himself for his mission trips to the non Jewish world. So look what happens when Peter comes to visit. "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong."

I mean, this must have been embarrassing. Paul says down in verse 14, he tells Peter off in front of everyone. Straight to his face. Which I guess in many ways is a refreshingly honest way to have a disagreement rather than behind one another's backs.

Disagreements like this are embarrassing. But in this case fundamentally important. Because Peter had it so wrong.

Have a look at this issue. Because while it might not seem all that relevant to you and me today, as we look at the next few verses I want you to have in your mind the fact that you and I are the kind of Gentiles he's talking about. By definition a Gentile is a non-Jew, and although I haven't checked your birth certificates or your passports this morning, I suspect that most of us are in fact Gentile.

Do You Have to Become Jewish to be Christian?

So here's the question at stake. Here's the issue that Paul is so passionate about that he opposes Peter to his face. The question is, do you have to become Jewish to be a Christian?

Because Peter, you see, wants to have it a bit each way. Peter wants to answer it one way in theory... but live it another way. Peter, in Paul's words, is being a hypocrite.

See if you can pick up the issues in verses 12 and 13. James leads the church in Jerusalem. And as we saw last week, there's a faction of the Jewish Church in Jerusalem pushing for the idea that if non-Jews want to sign on with the Jewish Messiah, they need to be circumcised and become obedient to Jewish Old Testament law before they'll be welcome. Because Gentiles and their food and their lifestyle and their habits just aren't kosher.

So have a look what's happens. Verse 12. Before certain men came from James, Peter, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, these men from James in Jerusalem, Peter changes his tune. He began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

Look, this is no small thing. This is you and me Peter won't eat with any more. Worse than that, there's a wedge forming. Even with Paul's best mate Barnabas. There's a wedge forming right down the middle of Paul's church. Paul's brought together Gentiles and Jews as one big family who share fellowship meals together as one united group. And now Peter's saying, excuse me from the table. He says, I can't sit with you unclean Gentiles any longer. It's upsetting my Jewish friends from Jerusalem. And soon there are gaps all round the dining hall as the other Jews in the church who were happily mixing before start clustering together in one corner. Coagulating in to one big Jewish lump. Even Barnabas.

Peter's meant to be a leader. But here he is - afraid of those who belong to the circumcision group. And dragging the others down with him.

Well, Paul's not going to be intimidated. Paul's going to stand up for his church and he's going to stand up for the gospel. No matter who he's got to stand up to. Look at his words. Verse 14. And imagine you were there. This is one of those dinner party moments where you could have heard a pin drop. Because he knows from Peter's track record that at least in theory, Peter agrees with him. Here's how it plays out:

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all... "You're a Jew... yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it then that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs."

More literally in the Greek it reads "How is it then that you force Gentiles to Judaize?" Why are you saying to the Gentiles they've to do it our way or they're out?

Now that's fascinating. As well as I'm sure embarrassing. Because it turns out Peter himself isn't even following all the Jewish rules anymore. And Paul's exposes him in front of everyone, including the hard line faction that Peter's so afraid of. How come you've stopped living like a proper Jew yourself... and yet you're forcing the Gentiles to Judaize themselves? How is it that you want other people to start doing something you've stopped doing yourself?

It's a very good question. Why would you do that? I mean, we know why. Because Peter's afraid of what other people think. But in Paul's words, it's not acting in line with the truth of the gospel. And in verses 15 to 21, in fact, for the rest of the letter, he goes on to explain why it's not.

Why You Don't Have to Become Jewish to be Christian (v15-21)

So if you're following on the outline, here's why you don't have to become Jewish to be Christian. And particularly if you're a male Christian, you'll have every reason to be grateful that you don't. Some people reckon the regulations for church membership are tough these days when you just have to write a letter of request to the elders. Well, imagine you had to be circumcised to be accepted. The membership queue would be a very short one I suspect.

Paul starts spelling out the logic on why you don't have to become a Jew before you can be a Christian in verse 15. With a statement that he knows both he and Peter have agreed with. You've got your Jews. Like us. And you've got those terrible Gentile sinners. Well, he says, we Jews from bitter experience, even we know that a man's not justified by observing the law... but by faith in Jesus Christ.

I mean, if there's anything the Jews should have learned from the story of the Old Testament, it had to be that. Because all the law ever did was condemn them. Over and over again, all they ever did was fail to keep it. And so their prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel had said, one day God's going to step in and cancel our debts and change our hearts. So we'll not only be forgiven. But we'll want to do what's right from the heart. And now at last God's Messiah has come. And the job's done. And Peter knows that full well.

This is verse 15 and 16. Read what he says.

We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know ... that a man is not justified, is not made righteous by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. so we too, we Jews, have put our faith in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law... because by observing the law... no-one will be justified.

All the law ever did was show the Jews how wrong they were. Over and over and over again. I sometimes think, what if they set up a speed camera down the road beside Brookside with the 20 kilometres an hour speed limit. I mean, I've never seen anyone slow down to 20ks along there. Set up a speed camera and it's going to catch everyone. Which is how it was with Israel's law.

Nobody was ever justified by the law. And nobody will be. So the point is, why force the Gentiles to Judaize? Paul says why make them become like us Jews... when we've finally figured out that observing the law didn't help us. We've put our faith in Christ Jesus for our righteousness. Which is exactly what the Gentiles need to do too. And nothing more. Which means we're all on exactly the same footing before God. All of us sinners. All of us needing to be justified by faith in Christ Jesus. All of us sharing the same table.

Because the theory, the theology, has got to flow through into all kinds of practical issues in the life of a church. Questions of who you'll eat with. Who you'll share fellowship with. Who you'll count as your brother and your sister. Living in line with the truth of the gospel is going to mean all boundaries are down. Because in God's eyes, we're all sinners the same way and we're all justified the same way. Which means we're one family.

Maybe you've sensed that sometimes, when you're in a different place or a different culture and you meet Christians there. It's a good reason to make sure when you're not here on a Sunday, even if you're on the other side of the world, to find a church. Last year Lou and I were in Japan. A church in the suburbs of Osaka, a group of Christians in a culture so very different. And yet the warmth of the way they invited us to join them for their church lunch, the sense that we had that we were with brothers and sisters -see, at this point in the story the Apostle Peter wouldn't have joined us. And nor would Barnabas. Only Paul.

Living in line with the gospel means living united across all kinds of boundaries, united not by a set of laws or customs or food rules or table manners or even denominational distinctives like being a Presbyterian. But by faith in Christ Jesus.

And for Paul it was going to mean eating and drinking with Gentiles no matter how much they might be considered unclean, no matter how much it gets up the noses of the men from Jerusalem who want everyone to toe the Jewish line. And for Peter it should have meant that as well if he's going to live in line with the truth of the gospel.

But of course, people like that are going to object. People like the men from Jerusalem that Peter's running scared of are going to say, it's just not right to hang round with unclean types like the Gentiles who'll corrupt all our customs and change the way we do things. They'll say Paul is acting like a sinner.

Which is the point Paul's addressing in verse 17. When the reality is, it's the ones rebuilding the law who are going to increase the sin count. Look what he says; "If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, if it starts to look like we're just like the Gentiles, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Not at all." But the thing that will promote sin, Paul says, is if you rebuild the law again. And just prove that the Gentiles are lawbreakers like we are. Verse 17, "If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker." See, what's it going to do if we reinstate the Jewish law, if we force the Gentiles to Judaize? There'll just be more laws broken.

Living In Line with the Gospel

Now I want you to spare a thought for Peter and the rest of the Jews. Because on the outside, this has got to be perplexing. Because you'd kind of think when at the end of hundreds of years of expectations the Jewish messiah comes, you'd get more and more people turning Jewish. Whereas it looks like Paul is pushing the opposite. Seems like more and more people are turning Gentile. And you've got Paul saying don't tell them to follow our food laws, and don't make them get circumcised, and don't ask them to take on our Jewish laws and rituals. Because that era is gone.

So the fundamental question has got to be, what's the Christian life actually meant to look like? We saw last week at the start of chapter 2 Paul says these guys from Jerusalem are spying on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. But what's that freedom going to look like? I mean, are Christians just lawless people who do what they like?

And Paul's answer is, yes. Except that when you become a Christian, what you like suddenly gets turned upside down. So that there's nothing you like more than doing what pleases Jesus.

Verse 19, Paul says, "For though the law, I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live... but Christ lives in me." He's not living by law any more. But living out the character of Christ. With an attitude that's been radically changed.

There was a great episode of Compass last Sunday night marking the 50th Anniversary of the Billy Graham crusades in Sydney and Melbourne. And on a religion show that's usually kind of cynical, the last word went to Dianne Boyd, who on that day 50 years ago, got up from her seat and went forward at Billy Graham's appeal to commit her life to Christ. And here, 50 years later, is what she says. "I feel that everything Billy Graham preached to me that day, I can truly say that I live every day in my life. And it's given me courage to face the things that I perhaps could not have faced during my lifetime.  But it has also given me comfort and love and I feel truly blessed that I made that decision 50 years ago."

Billy Graham didn't come preaching a new set of rules. He came preaching Christ. And Dianne Boyd responded in faith. And says she's lived that every day of her life. And she could say those words of Paul in verse 20.

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I life in the body I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Which is very different to saying the life I live in the body I live by following the law and not eating pork or crayfish or any animal without a cloven hoof and I wash ceremonially seven times if I ever bump into a Gentile.

Can you see, friends, this is very fundamental to what our day to day understanding of Christian living is going to look like. It's either going to look like a rule book. Or it's going to look like a new set of attitudes in the heart.

They might even be good rules. Which the Old Testament Jewish rules certainly are. They were rules that set the boundaries for Israel's righteousness. But never made them righteous.

Whereas faith in Jesus does.

What's the Christian life look like for you? Day by day, decision by decision? The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

I wonder if tomorrow you say that to yourself a few times, and remind yourself, what it might do to your lifestyle. To your attitudes. To your frustration in the traffic on your way to work. By faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. Which means of course you'll be the one who'll graciously let the guy merge in front of you even when you're quite entitled to road rage. The way you'll deal with the incompetent shop assistant or the order that's misplaced that's going to delay your project; the way maybe you'll stand up and take the rap for your workgroup something goes wrong instead of passing on the blame. There won't be rules for this stuff. But at every point you'll be living by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you. You'll know what to do, won't you? The next time you see something at church that you know you can help with but you're not sure you want to spare the time. Remember you're living by faith in the son of God... who love you and gave himself for you. And then figure out how much you're going to give of yourself. The next time you're inclusive of someone new after church instead of just clustering with your comfortable clique. The next time you've got the opportunity to reach a hand out to someone who's culturally different... you'll remember how far the Son of God reached out for you. Friends, that's what it's going to look like to live a life in line with the truth of the gospel.

Something Paul was convinced was worth taking a stand for. You know, disputes between Christians are always unfortunate. And sometimes perplexing. But sometimes it's absolutely clear. And sometimes it's worth it. Even when it came to standing up to Peter the chief apostle in front of everyone else and saying brother, you've got it badly wrong. Even when it came to standing up to the Judaizers from Jerusalem who are so intent on pushing the law as the way to be righteous before God. The point is, if they've got it right and you can justify yourself just by trying a bit hard to keep all the rules, then what was the cross all about?

Did you think of that? Those of you who are religious and well meaning and think you can probably get there on your own. If that's the case, Paul says you're setting aside God's generosity. You're ignoring God's gift. You're suggesting if you can do it yourself, that Christ laid down his life for nothing.

You can see his words in verse 21. He says "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing."

Do you get that? Living in line with the gospel is going to mean taking a firm hold on God's grace. Means being a person totally and constantly depending on God's generosity while you show that same generosity to everyone else. Living by faith in the one who loved you, and gave himself for you. Let's not set it aside.