The Authenticity of Paul’s Gospel
We are often prone to be too defensive, but there is an appropriate, and even necessary place for self-defense. Paul engages in it here for the sake of preserving the gospel.
Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Tom Schreiner
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
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Nobody really likes people who are overly defensive, right? You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them and that they’re just really concerned with themselves. But there are times where defending yourself is actually necessary to doing your job and serving others. Imagine a victim of a gunshot wound is rushed to the hospital, but when he goes to see the doctor, someone else creeps in in scrubs of their own, and says, “That doctor’s not a real doctor. Don’t let her operate on you!” What’s the doctor to do? She knows she really did go to medical school, she really did pass her boards, and she really is the attending physician on duty that night. She also recognizes that this other guy in scrubs is a counterfeit. Would it be loving of her to say, “Well, I’m not one to defend myself”? No! For the sake of doing her job, fulfilling her oath, and caring for that patient, she needs to say, “Yes I am a real doctor. Now let me operate on this victim.” Last week we began a series on the book of Galatians, and the issue facing the churches of Galatia, the issue that prompted this letter, is a bunch of false teachers in scrubs if I may extend the analogy, who are saying of the apostle Paul, the author of the letter, that he isn’t a real apostle, and therefore the gospel he proclaims can’t save them. But Paul is a real apostle, so for the sake of his duty to the Christ who commissioned him, out of love for the Galatians, and for our sake today, who, like a gunshot victim, have a real problem, and therefore need to know whether we can trust his gospel to save, Paul defends himself. From his defense we learn that Paul’s gospel is Jesus’ gospel, and he provides three reasons in support of that claim: He was a servant of Jesus, not man; he got it from Jesus, not man; and other leading servants of Jesus agree.
He was a servant of Jesus, not man
Our passage begins in verse 10 with a rhetorical question: Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Here he’s referring back to verses 8-9, which we looked at last week, where he has some pretty strong words for anyone preaching a gospel contrary to the one he preached: He says if anyone does that, they are accursed. In other words, they will face eternal conscious torment under the judgment of God, and should be treated as one under the curse of God by the churches of Galatia. Now that’s not the kind of thing that a people-pleaser typically says, because people pleasers know that if they pronounce curses on others, those people won’t be pleased with them, nor will the followers of those false teachers be pleased with them. People pleasers say things like, “I may not agree with them on every point, but in the end, we’re all trying our best, and we’re basically saying the same things. So who am I to judge?” Like literally, people say things like that all the time today because to avoid evoking the hostility of others. But the problem with that approach is that it’s not true. Like if someone thinks racism doesn’t exist against black people in America, and in fact says that our problem is racism against white Americans, it may create a certain level of peace to say, “Well we’re all basically saying the same thing,” but it’s not true. Such people aren’t saying basically the same thing as those who believe racism does exist against black people in America; they’re saying opposite thing, and if racism matters, then it matters that we tell the truth about it. Similarly, the false teachers creeping into the churches of Galatia were not saying the same thing Paul was. We’ll see this more in future weeks, but Paul taught that everything necessary for our salvation is found in Christ, and that we receive Christ by faith alone. The false teachers in Galatia were teaching that in addition to faith in Christ, we must be circumcised and observe the Jewish law for salvation. And if God matters, if you matter, then that difference matters, and the most loving thing Paul can do, the most loving thing we can do in our day with teaching that is contrary to the gospel, is tell the truth about it, even though it will, on some level, bring the disapproval of man, in a way that pretending we’re all saying the same thing probably won’t.
But, ultimately, Paul doesn’t just pronounce a curse on the false teachers out of love for the churches of Galatia, though it was a loving thing toward them. Ultimately he pronounces it because, as he says in verse 10, he is a “servant of Christ.” The word there could be more literally translated “slave,” though because of the unique evils of the American slave trade, most modern English translations don’t translate it that way. But the essence of it was there: Paul belonged to Jesus. His life was not his own. So he was not “free” to respond to false teachers in whatever way he wanted. He had a responsibility as a servant of Christ to say about the false teachers what Christ says about the false teachers. As a church, the way we pronounce a curse on false teachers is through church discipline, in hope that they will repent and receive God’s blessing. I spoke last week about how you need to be willing to do that even toward me if I should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one Paul preached. But pretty much every time you go to practice church discipline in our cultural moment, you find plenty of reasons not to do it: Not everyone agrees with it, the person being disciplined is going to feel hurt by it, you think they’re going to resent the church, and that it might even hurt their relationship with God. And there’s a surface-level plausibility to such concerns, but when you peel them back, don’t they come down to this? Church discipline doesn’t please people. People won’t like it. That’s true. But Citylight, we aren’t here to please people. We are servants of Christ, and we have a responsibility to say what he says, whether man approves of it or not.
For, as Paul goes on to say in verse 10, if he were still trying to please man, he would not be a servant of Christ. In other words, if your goal in life is to get people to think well of you, you definitely should not become a Christian. To become a Christian makes you a slave of Christ, and guess what? People didn’t like him. So when you sign up to follow him, you resign from seeking the approval of people. You can’t work both jobs: Seeking the approval of man, serving Christ. Sometimes we live under the illusion that we can: You maybe even see Christians who seem to be faithfully serving Christ but also seem quite popular. In the age of the internet, we even have “celebrity pastors.” Well, it can happen that you serve Christ and people appreciate it; certainly plenty of people did appreciate Paul’s ministry, and we’re still taking about him favorably today. But that’s not promised, and there will also be plenty who oppose it. Paul ends up stoned, in prison, and ultimately killed for his proclamation of Christ. God knows how much opposition or acceptance he’s assigned you; the key question is: What are you seeking? Are you seeking the approval of man; is that what drives your decisions? Or you seeking to serve Christ, come what may? That’s an either/or question, not a both/and. Isn’t that our problem in evangelism? We’re trying to make it a both/and. How do I say what Christ says to this person, while also making sure they approve of me? You can’t seek both. They may approve, they may not, but if you try to control that, you won’t say what Christ wants to say to that person. It’s an either/or question.
Either you will be a slave of Christ, or you’ll be a slave to what people think of you. You say, “Not me; I do what I want. I don’t care what people think of me.” Really? If everyone in your life thought you were terrible, that’d be fine with you? We have a word for people like that: Sociopaths. Be honest with yourself: There is at least someone, or some group of people, whose approval you crave. And for most of us today, living in a time where communities are far less stable, there often isn’t just one community whose approval we crave; rather, we crave everyone’s approval. That’s why there is this craze today to get everyone to affirm whatever my choices are; as long as there’s anyone out there who disapproves, I feel existentially threatened. What does that prove? It proves you’re a slave to the approval of people, and man, that’s a harsh master. Submit to Jesus as your master, and you’ll be free from slavery to the approval of man. That’s what Paul did. That’s why he could pronounce a curse on false teachers, and that’s why he preached Jesus’ gospel, not man’s gospel. That’s where he goes next.
It came from Jesus, not men
In verse 11 he says that the gospel he preaches is not man’s gospel, and he explains why in verse 12: He did not receive it from any man, nor was he taught it, but he received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Here Paul is referring to his conversion experience and calling to be an apostle: Jesus was literally, visibly, revealed to him by God, and Jesus both personally taught Paul and personally commissioned him to take the gospel to non-Jewish people groups. He tells a bit of that story here in Galatians. He persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. He was advancing in Judaism well beyond his peers, and was extremely zealous for the tradition of his fathers. In other words, if he just wanted the approval of people, he was already getting it, and was well on his way to getting more of it. If he wanted to preach a message he was taught by men, he already had it: He was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers. He was handing down the message passed down to him from ages past.
But God, or as Paul calls him here, “he who set me apart before I was born and called me by his grace” revealed his Son to Paul. The traditions of men seem less important when God has revealed to you His Son. And in fact, the reason Paul says God revealed his Son to Paul was so that Paul might proclaim Him among the Gentiles. Notice what Paul was commissioned to preach: It was Him. God didn’t send Paul to the Gentiles to preach Judaism, to make them Jewish. He sent him to the Gentiles to preach Christ, the Christ who appeared to him when he was on his way to kill Christians. So Paul says that’s what he did. He didn’t immediately go consult with people, nor did he go to Jerusalem, but he went to Arabia, and then to Damascus. We don’t know what he was doing in Arabia, but the book of Acts, which records the history of Paul’s conversion, teaches clearly that he proceeded to preach Christ in Damascus. Then only three years later did he go meet with Peter, and even then he only stayed for a little bit of time, and met only one other apostle, James. He had limited contact with the churches of Judea. Many of them never even saw him in person. Instead, their contact with him was simply hearing his story, and glorifying God because of him, as he says in verse 24.
So if the false teachers were claiming he got the gospel he proclaims from men, and especially from those in Jerusalem, the truth is not on their side. Instead, he got it directly from God, when God revealed Jesus to him, he preached Christ for 3 years before going and seeing anyone in Jerusalem, and even then, he only saw Peter and one other apostle for a brief period of time, and wasn’t even known in person to the churches. So Paul’s gospel is not man’s gospel; it’s Jesus’ gospel. He saw the risen Christ, and he was commissioned by the risen Christ to preach the risen Christ to the Gentiles. And this is important for us to recognize today, because there are still many others claiming to teach the truth about God who distort the gospel that Paul proclaimed and that we find written down for us in his letters. We talked last week about some of them: There’s Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Black Hebrew Israelites, Roman Catholicism; there’s the prosperity gospel, the therapeutic gospel, the theologically liberal gospel, Christian Nationalism, and so forth. And what’s the common modern response to these, “How can we really know who’s right, after all?” Why privilege Paul’s gospel, the one we see revealed in scripture?
Because Paul’s gospel didn’t come from men; it came from a revelation from God of Jesus Christ himself. Of course, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, also claimed to have gotten a revelation from God, and many false teachers make similar claims. But it’s not like Joseph Smith had dedicated his life to destroying Mormonism, and then suddenly became a Mormon. Instead he was raised in western New York in the 1800s when people were reporting all kinds of religious visions, and what do you know? He had one, that led to him becoming the founder of a new religion and a pretty powerful guy. We can kind see why, psychologically, he would go that path without having received a genuine revelation from God, right?
But what about Paul? People generally want to be well regarded by others, and he was well regarded by others with Judaism, and on the rise! People generally want power, and he had power in Judaism, enough power to order the execution of his enemies! His safety wasn’t in danger as a leader in Judaism; Christians didn’t kill their enemies. And he had no qualms of conscience about it; he thought he was serving God! But then suddenly he becomes a Christian. Then suddenly, as verse 23 puts it, he who used to persecute Christians is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. And for doing that, he got beaten, ostracized from his native community, and imprisoned. Why would he do that? Could it be that God really did reveal Jesus to him, and Jesus personally commissioned him to go preach Christ to the Gentiles? That is what happened, and therefore Paul’s gospel is Christ’s gospel. Hold on to it. People will urge all kinds of arguments against it: They’ll argue their tradition against it, they’ll try to argue Jesus or James against it, they’ll argue whatever the morals of their day are against it, but we have it, written down for us in scripture, and it is not man’s gospel; it is Jesus’ gospel.
Paul’s story not only serves as supporting evidence that his gospel is Jesus’ gospel; it illustrates it. He was trying to be justified by the law: He was an excellent Jew who not only observed the law, but sought to teach it to others, and excelled in doing so! Exercising violence on who they would have thought of as the enemies of God was considered praiseworthy at that time. Yet he was not saved by that. In verse 15 he says that happened when God, who set him apart from his mother’s womb, called him by his grace. There the focus is on Paul’s calling to be an apostle; the language of being set apart from before birth, from his mother’s womb, alludes to the calling of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah who were also said to be set apart from their mother’s womb. But for Paul, his call to Christ and his call to apostleship coincided in time, and God was the author of both. That’s what it means that this calling was by grace: Grace is unmerited favor, and Paul had clearly not merited the office of apostle. Instead, Paul opposed Jesus. Yet by grace, because he had chosen Paul before he was born, though Paul was a violent enemy of Jesus, God made him an apostle of Jesus, a servant of Jesus, instead of giving him the punishment he deserved. And the result of this, verse 24, was the very design of the gospel: Paul was not glorified; God was glorified because of Paul. If Paul had said, “You know; I’ve realized this life of killing Christians is empty. I’m instead going to become one and preach this faith,” Paul would have been glorified. People would have said, “Wow; he really came to his senses.” But instead, God was glorified, because clearly it was God who saved Paul by grace.
Are there people you think God could never save? How many Christians in Paul’s day must have felt that way about him? If God has chosen them before their birth, they may look like they’re too far gone to be saved, but none are too far gone for the arm of God to reach them. And as God sent Paul when he called him to salvation, so God sends us when he calls us to salvation. None of us are commissioned as apostles; that’s reserved for those who saw the risen Christ. But all of us must be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect, and we can learn some things from Paul here about how to do that. First, he does share the story of his conversion, what Christians today commonly call their “testimony,” and this is a helpful tool to have at your disposal as you seek to tell others about Christ. Your testimony tells people how the grace of God operated in your life; it gives them an illustration of it, and some may be willing to hear it before they’ll listen to the gospel. But consider how you share it: From Paul’s telling of his own story, it’s clear that he was a sinner, that God saved him by grace, and that it brought about a change in his life. When Christians hear his story, they glorify God, not Paul. Is that how people respond to your story? If you tell your story like “Hey I’ve really always been a Christian and that’s that,” where’s the good news in that? How would anyone know you were a sinner saved by grace? Why would anyone glorify God for it? Or if your story is, “I realized the life I was living was empty so I decided to surrender to Christ,” where again is the message of salvation by grace? That makes it sound like you did it.
So as you think about how to share your story in a way that glorifies God, consider this: What evidence was there in your life that you were a sinner? Looking back on your life, you should be able to even see ways your 3-year-old self was a sinner. In Augustine’s Confessions, he confesses slapping his mom as a baby and stealing a piece of fruit as a kid. He was right to do so, because he recognized his sin was an offense against a holy God, even though the world would just call it kids being kids. Consider, how did God make you aware that you were a sinner? How did God reveal Jesus to you? How did you hear the gospel, why did you receive and rest upon Jesus alone for forgiveness? What change has that brought about in your life? It may take some work to identify these things, but doing the work will help your witness to others, and will help you and others give God the glory for your story. And when you tell the story, make God the subject of the verbs: God showed me I didn’t really love him, God used a friend to preach the gospel to me, God showed me that Jesus died for my sins, etc., like Paul did here.
But don’t stop with your story. Remember that Paul wasn’t sent to the Gentiles to proclaim his story. Verse 16 says God revealed his Son to Paul in order that Paul might preach Him. Your story may open a door for the gospel, but your story isn’t the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ became man, obeyed God’s law in our place, suffered its penalty for our sins, and then rose from the dead to eternal life so that whoever believes in him would be forgiven of their sins and receive the gift of eternal life in him. That’s the answer for the hope that is in you. That’s the gospel Paul received from Jesus when he saw the proof of it: The risen Jesus himself. So Paul’s gospel is not man’s gospel; it’s Jesus’ gospel, and finally we see that in that other leading servants of Jesus agree with it.
Other leading servants of Jesus agree
So in chapter 2, after 14 years, Paul says he did go up to Jerusalem to spend more time there because of a revelation. As an apostle he received direct revelation from Jesus, and this time Jesus revealed to him that he was to go to Jerusalem. So he went and met privately before those who seemed influential, taking with him Barnabas and Titus, and he says in verse 2 this was to set the gospel before those who seemed influential, in order to make sure he wasn’t laboring in vain. It’s hard to know exactly what Paul means by that. Perhaps he was concerned for those who were converted through his ministry, but were now being infected with this false teaching that claimed to have Jerusalem’s backing. So he went to Jerusalem to see if this really was coming out of there, so that if it wasn’t, he could make that clear to his converts and protect them further from the false teaching. I’m inclined to think, however, that after 14 years of preaching this gospel, though he’d received it directly from a revelation of the risen Jesus himself, he’d heard a lot of people now claiming it was inconsistent with the gospel proclaimed in Jerusalem. So he wanted confirmation that the gospel he was proclaiming was consistent with what other servants of Jesus were proclaiming, to confirm that he wasn’t crazy.
Whatever running in vain may mean here, the result is what’s important: Titus, who was a Greek, that is, a non-Jew, and therefore not circumcised, was not required to be circumcised. There were some false brothers who tried to force that on him, but Paul says they did not yield to them for a moment. And those who seemed to be influential took his side in that! In other words, the Jerusalem apostles, those who had been with the risen Jesus while on earth, who were the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, are not in agreement with those who require circumcision! Rather, Paul says in verse 9 that they perceived the grace that was given to him, and gave him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship! So they agreed with Paul on the gospel, they agreed with him that it didn’t require circumcision, and they agreed that he was commissioned to preach that very gospel to the Gentiles!
Now, did that make Paul’s gospel Jesus’ gospel? No. It either was or it wasn’t already. Did it make Paul’s gospel true? No. It either was or it wasn’t already. But it did serve as helpful evidence that Paul’s gospel was Jesus’ gospel. Because Paul knows he received it from a revelation of Jesus Christ, but how do the churches of Galatia know that? How do we? Certainly the story of his conversion is helpful evidence, but it would have been pretty strange if the gospel he claims to have received from Jesus was contrary to the gospel Peter, James, and John, who were with Jesus for 3 years on earth and who also saw the risen Christ, proclaimed. Then we’d know someone was lying. But the fact that they all agreed serves as secondary evidence for the sake of the churches of Galatia and for our sake that Paul’s gospel was Jesus’ gospel.
And it’s also a way we can helpfully recognize that Joseph Smith’s gospel, or Muhammad’s gospel, or any other false gospel, whatever its claims to revelation are, is contrary to Jesus’ gospel. Both Joseph Smith and Muhammad claimed that God revealed to them that Jesus was not truly God, but the apostles said otherwise, and we have their writings in the Bible, writings which were given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and which agree with one another, even amid differing human authors. We have books written by each of these apostles: John, James, Peter, and Paul, along with recorded speeches of theirs in Acts, and we find in them substantially the same gospel: God the Father sent God the Son to die for our sins and rise from the dead so that whoever believes in him would be forgiven of their sins and receive eternal life. We can, then, in a sense, do what Paul did here with other claims to revelation. We can take them “up to the apostles” by comparing them to Scripture, and when we do that with Joseph Smith and Muhammad’s claims to revelation, we find that they are not preaching the same gospel, that the apostles do not give them the right hand of fellowship, and therefore that they were, in fact, running in vain.
We can also learn something from this, then, about the proper place of church authority: Paul started preaching immediately upon receiving a revelation of Jesus Christ, and even though Paul did, he did eventually go compare notes as it were with the other apostles. How much more then, should those of us who have not received a direct revelation of Jesus Christ, be comparing notes with church leaders. First, of course, as just talked about, we should compare notes with the apostles, whose writings we have in Scripture. With any idea you’re getting ready to run with, examine the scriptures to make sure you don’t start running in vain. But don’t examine the scriptures alone, either. We have the blessing of 2000 years of Christian history to interact with. If you find something in the Bible that no one else in that 2000 years found, guess who’s probably wrong? And God has especially given pastors to local churches to help them in this. When you see a YouTube video, a TikTok, a Tweet, hear something from even a Christian counselor, or read a book published by someone claiming to be a teacher of Christianity, you should stop and ask, “Has any true church affirmed this person’s ability to teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it?” What church or church leaders have given them the right hand of fellowship? If that’s not clear, you’re free to disregard them, and you’re better off doing so 9/10.
Nonetheless, church authority can’t make something true that’s false, or make something false that’s true. Paul’s gospel was Jesus’ gospel before James, John, and Peter affirmed it, and he truly was commissioned by Jesus before James, John, and Peter recognized it, and gave him the right hand of fellowship. Church leaders sometimes err, and church tradition is sometimes built up on that error for even long periods of time. There’s a reason the Protestant reformation was necessary for example, though even there, many other leading servants of Christ agreed with Luther once he began raising the issues he raised. The point is this, though: Paul’s ultimate fidelity was to Christ, and so must ours be. He’s the one who was willingly despised by men on our behalf. He’s not just the one who received a revelation; he is the revelation, and it is Him who Paul proclaimed, not himself. It is he who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, it is he who rose again, and it is he who James, Peter, John, and Paul saw. So, as Paul said last week, if even he or an angel should come to you preaching another gospel, let him be accursed. Don’t be enslaved to the approval of people; live as a slave of Christ. Share your story, but more importantly, share Christ. Follow your leaders insofar as they follow Christ, but more importantly, follow Christ. Hold on to Paul’s gospel, not because it’s Paul’s, but because it’s Christ’s. Hold on to Christ.