One of my Bible’s is a red-letter edition. A red-letter edition of the Bible is one that puts the spoken words of Jesus in red-letters. Not only are there red letter editions of the Bible, there is now a movement called the ‘Red Letter Christians.’
Red Letter Christians want us to put more emphasis on the spoken teaching of Jesus. They suggest that Jesus majored on compassion and caring for the poor, and so should we. That’s good, but incomplete. They tend to ignore the fact that Jesus warned about hell and taught salvation through grace. They also ignore the fact that Jesus endorsed the Old Testament as the word of God and entrusted his teaching to the apostles.
Red Letter Christians seem to have a particular problem with the teaching of Paul. This is nothing new. It was a problem in the early church, and it is a problem today. I remember listening to a Bible teacher saying that he had grown up hearing about Paul, but he was now more interested in the teachings of Jesus. He believed Jesus and Paul taught things that were incompatible with each other. But to set up a disagreement between Jesus and Paul is to start a fight that neither would consent to.
In this morning’s passage Paul claims that his gospel is Jesus’ gospel.
Paul received his gospel by revelation
Tolerance is believed to be one of the great virtues our society. Yet the Apostle Paul comes across as being less than fully tolerant. He is writing to the church in Galatia (an area that is now in southern Turkey)—to churches that he had planted. He is furious because they are being confused by people who are preaching a gospel that is different to his. This does not bother Paul because his pride is being hurt but because the message matters. He doesn’t say ‘I respect your opinion—that is an interesting take on the message of Jesus’, but rather ‘If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.’
For Paul there is only one true version of the Gospel. Those who distort his message are not preaching the gospel. His gospel centres on the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:23), it concerns the good news that Jesus has done all that is needed to save a guilty world (Rom. 3:26), and teaches that it is by grace that we are saved (Eph. 2:8). This gospel is not to be tampered with, for God’s glory and people’s eternal destiny are at stake.
But why should we believe that Paul’s gospel is the right message? How can we be sure that the teachers who opposed Paul were not right? Paul declares, ‘the gospel I preached to you is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. By grace Paul was called and commissioned (verses 13-16a).
Paul is a wonderful example of the gospel he preaches
Paul’s conversion and commission provide a wonderful illustration of the gospel he preaches. He was one of the least likely people you could imagine coming to faith. He was a religious zealot who hated this new sect that centred on Jesus. He intensely persecuted Christians and tried to destroy the church. ‘Yet God was pleased to reveal his Son in me.’ God had set him apart from birth, called him by his grace and revealed Jesus to him that he might preach Christ to those who weren’t Jews.
What had Paul done to deserve God’s favour? Nothing! Did he earn God’s mercy? No—after all he demonstrated the reality of his rebellious heart by trying to smother God’s truth and defeat God’s people. He didn’t even initiate his encounter with God. Yet Paul was saved by the free, undeserved and unearned favour of God.
As an apostle, Paul may have unique authority. However, as a Christian his conversion is much the same as ours. If you are born again it has been God’s pleasure to save you. Your heart was at enmity against God (Romans 8:7). You did not start to seek him before he caused you to realise your emptiness. His Holy Spirit convicted you of sin. He drew you to himself and adopted you as a beloved child. He has privileged you with works that he has prepared in advance for you to do.
Is this the gospel we teach our children and friends? Please don’t teach your children to be good and proper; show them how to be forgiven and grateful. I would hate for them to have a clean record and a cold heart. The worst sinners in the New Testament were amongst the most respectable in their society. Those who have been forgiven little love little. Those who know they have been forgiven much overflow with love.
An eight year old was been baptised in a church up north and declared before the congregation, ‘I have been saved from a life a debauchery and sin.’ I doubt that he had been all that wild. He reveals a slight misunderstanding the gospel. You see the sin that we are saved from does not simply consist in the actions we commit. You don’t have to have been guilty of debauchery to be a terrible sinner saved by amazing grace. We are saved from the fact that we have been born with a rebellious heart that is bent towards self, and often this displays its wickedness in self-righteousness. But while that young fellow may have not fully understood the gospel, he grasped it a whole lot more than the people who had a young boy sing, ‘Amazing Grace how sweat the sound that saved a “boy” like me’ (it seemed wrong to them to have a young lad declare himself to be a “wretch”).
Paul’s gospel was received directly from Jesus
From verse 16 to the end of the chapter Paul clearly wants to show that he did not receive the gospel from the apostles in Jerusalem. Perhaps the distorting teachers were saying that Paul was only a delegate of the other apostles and that he had even distorted the message they had given him. Paul makes clear that this could not have been the case.
After his conversion on the Damascus road he went to Arabia—in the opposite direction to Jerusalem. There he would have studied the Old Testament Scriptures, and through the Holy Spirit God revealed to him the fullness of the Gospel of Christ.
It was three years before went to meet the apostles in Jerusalem. By this time he was established in the truth. In Jerusalem he met only two of the apostles. The purpose of his journey was merely to get acquainted with Peter, not to get a seal of approval. He only stayed fifteen days—not long enough to be taught all the details of the faith. He had received the gospel independently of them. ‘I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie. Later 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.’
They praised God because of what he had done in Paul’s life. They didn’t praise Paul for his conversion saying ‘well done for realising the truth and coming to faith’—they praised God! When we realise what God has done for us, when we see him adding people to his kingdom, when we watch him turn people to him and save them we should praise God! Indeed, when we see how he turned us around; how he sought us before we sought him; how he made us anxious for him; how he showed us the sense of the cross; how he drew us to himself; and how is now doing a work in our lives, then we should praise God for his grace in our own lives.
I think that one of the biggest barriers to people accepting the gospel today is its demand that we submit our opinions to the teaching of Scripture. The reformer Martin Luther wrote to his opponent Erasmus declaring that’ the difference between you and me is that you stand above the Word and judge it, but I stand beneath the Word and let it judge me.’
We live in a country where rebellion is a part of our cultural narrative. We live in a constitutional democracy where are asked to decide issues like what constitutes marriage and if it is ever acceptable to terminate life. We live amongst people who believe their church was a malignant authority. We live in a post-modern world that tolerates anything but absolutes, and doesn’t mind what you believe so long as you are sincere. Paul’s claim of absolute authority and divinely revealed truth don’t come easily to us.
Why should I think that I must find it easy to agree with everything taught in this book? I might have written it differently! But I am a man tainted by sin and limited in understanding. God’s ways are not always my ways, but they must become my truth and guide. Loving God with my entire mind involves letting him reshape my thinking. One day we will see all things as He sees them and know that He knew better than us. Some of my opinions may be idols that need to be demolished. May God enable us to submit to a truth that does not originate in the mind of any mere man, but comes from the mind of God!