There’s an old saying, that “The nail that sticks out farthest gets hammered the hardest.”
Well, there’s no doubt that Paul put himself out there, calm and confident that God would see him through. He paid the price for such assurance, but he also received the prize. This is the gutsy go-for-it faith that we see in his letter to the Galatians.
I have a lot of time for that little letter. I read that it may well be the first bit of the New Testament to have got written. That gives it a particular clout in my book, like the opening speech of a debate that identifies the Main Point and hammers it hard.
So what is that Main Point?
It’s the principle of faith.
Someone described Galatians as “spiritual dynamite” and so it certainly is. It was while carefully studying the Greek text of Galatians that the penny dropped for Martin Luther. The just shall live by faith! I don’t have to perform any more. It’s by faith alone that I am saved! And the excitement of this discovery rippled out from him in his writings, his preaching and his whole career, changing the world forever.
And a couple of centuries later, a young Anglican clergyman heard Luther’s writings on Galatians being read, and another explosion of that spiritual dynamite set John Wesley on fire for God. “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
Think of the massive consequences of those two lives.
So if it had such effect, and if it was the opening salvo of our New Testament, it’s worth a listen. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the opening section of Chapter 1:
“Paul, and my companions in faith here, send greetings to the Galatian churches. My authority for writing to you does not come from any popular vote of the people, nor does it come through the appointment of some human higher-up. It comes directly from Jesus the Messiah and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. I’m God-commissioned. So I greet you with the great words, grace and peace! We know the meaning of those words because Jesus Christ rescued us from this evil world we’re in by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins. God’s plan is that we all experience that rescue. Glory to God forever!”
The question Paul raises is one of authority. He is defending his right to speak, and demanding that they hear what he has to say. Now obviously, he is not conscious of writing a section of ”the Bible,” (so to speak), so on what authority is he making these claims? “My authority for writing to you does not come from any popular vote of the people.” He is not some spokesman of the masses, an Oliver Twist sent to demand soup. And neither does ”My authority for writing to you … come through the appointment of some human higher-up.” He has no line-manager, no CEO pushing for production or sales quota.
Where then? “My authority… comes directly from Jesus the Messiah and God the Father.” For Paul the source of his authority is Christ (and God – in deliberate tandem).
Clearly, his right to speak was being questioned. His answer was that the question itself was half-baked. All the “apostles” had come through the same route. None were voted in, all had met Jesus and been changed by that encounter.
Both Jesus and John the Baptist were asked by what authority they spoke. Both answered (implicitly or explicitly) that it was by the authority of God. It found its proof and validation in the working of God through them.
And this is exactly how Paul understood it too. The proof and validation of his ministry was found in the operation of the Holy Spirit working alongside and the fruit of changed lives.
But who made you an Apostle? That was the problem, and that was how he’d introduced himself in this letter, after all, as someone with the same authority as the Twelve (or rather, the Eleven). The word means something like Ambassador or “Emissary Extraordinary.”
Someone under authority.
It’s a strange paradox but when the Sanhedrin sent Saul to Damascus to round up “Christians” for trial, the word “Apostle” describes exactly what he was. He was “under authority” from Jerusalem. But when he met with God on the road, the authority structure in his life changed forever. He had received a commission from Jesus Christ; a commission that did “not come from any popular vote of the people, nor did it come through the appointment of some human higher-up.”
But the point -the crucial point- for Pau,l is that the word “apostle” is not a role but a description.
It’s a point that anyone -myself included- should ponder, before allowing words like evangelist, minister, bishop, reverend, father, apostle and deacon to take on a capital letter, and to precede their names as they go into ministry.
“Apostle” was not who Paul was, but what he did.
And this perspective has two important component factors that made Paul completely unstoppable.
And wherever the Gospel really takes a hold of someone’s brain and heart and nerves and guts and passion, these two factors work themselves into that same unstoppable force. You see it in Luther and Wesley and many others throughout the long generations of Christian men and women. Augustine once said, as a principle of his life: “To myself I will show a heart of steel, to my fellow man a heart of love, and to my God a heart of flame.”
It’s the paradox of the cross, openly displaying both the weakness of man and the power of God; and vice versa too, if we could but understand it. This was the heart of Paul’s faith: the greatness and power of God and the passion of His summons, meeting the humility and obedience of the one called, the slave of Christ. I don’t boast in myself, but I will boast in Christ. He is my Lord. And in that recognition of total lordship, I am totally free, unashamed, uncondemned, unabashed.
And if that is you… if God has called you and cleansed you, empowered you and is guiding you, then God says these words over you: “I have broken the bar of your yoke, and enabled you to walk with head held high” (Leviticus 26:13)
You are unstoppable.