Choosing the inconvenient truth

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Do you ever get that fuzzy ambiguous feeling when two people that you respect have a debate  across you (while you lean back with a cup of tea looking fuddled), and you find yourself agreeing with each of them in turn as they speak?

In Proverbs 18:17 it says:“In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.”

Something of this is going on in Galatians On the one side there is Paul, who has planted the churches and proclaimed the Gospel. On the other there’s a group who’ve come from Jerusalem with a slightly different edge on things, as we’ll see.

And there’s a debate raging on two related issues:the apostleship of Paul and the Gospel that he has preached. Eugene Peterson catches the vigour of Paul’s reply:

“Do you think I speak this strongly in order to manipulate crowds? Or curry favor with God? Or get popular applause? If my goal was popularity, I wouldn’t bother being Christ’s slave. Know this—I am most emphatic here, friends—this great Message I delivered to you is not mere human optimism. I didn’t receive it through the traditions, and I wasn’t taught it in some school. I got it straight from God, received the Message directly from Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-24)

It’s interesting to compare this with the opening verse

“Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead .”

Do you see the connection?  For Paul the truth of his apostleship and the truth of his message stand or fall together. If Paul wasn’t an apostle, then his claim to authority collapses. Likewise, if his gospel proves to be a human concoction, then he forfeits the right to be called an apostle.

So where did the debate spring from? Why is Paul on the defensive? The answer is in verse 7: “There are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel.” But in order to change the gospel, they had to discredit Paul’s gospel, who had founded these churches and taught them the gospel in the first place.

And so they hammered against the validity of Paul’s claim to be an apostle. Their own perspective on the Gospel was to emphasize circumcision (Gal 5:2) and the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament (Gal 4:10). Clearly, they were hyper-Jewish Christians, and so scholars tend to call them “Judaizers.” They had arrived  from Jerusalem (like the men in Gal 2:12) and  claimed to have James and Peter and John (the “pillars” of Gal  2:9) as their authority.

So who was this Paul character, in the face of all that?

Their mission was to put things straight:Paul’s gospel is second-hand, they said,  and he’s got things wrong.  The letter to the Galatians is Paul’s reply to these charges.So he begins i Gal 1:1, stating that, “I am an apostle, just as much as Peter, because I have seen the risen Christ, and it is he, not any mere man, who sent me to preach in his name.” In Gal 1:12, he insists: “My gospel is true, just as true as Peter’s, because I did not learn it from any mere man secondhand, but received it as much from Jesus as the first apostles did.”

“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel (or: is not according to man). For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

That is to say, the Gospel that Paul preached was  not made up by him, or cobbled together from ideas picked up from the apostles in Jerusalem. The context (Gal 1: 11-24) stresses that Paul barely knew them. It wasn’t “according to man.”  It didn’t come out of Paul’s head; it came out of God’s heart.

That phrase “According to man” probably means a little more than this. I think he’s implying also that his gospel doesn’t square with natural human desires. Peterson puts it well:” Do you think I speak this strongly in order to manipulate crowds? Or curry favor with God? Or get popular applause? If my goal was popularity, I wouldn’t bother being Christ’s slave.” The implication is that the Judaizers have adjusted the gospel to make it fit better with their own proud inclinations.

Gal 6:12 explains: “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” In other words, their version of the gospel was very much “according to man,” by catering to the self-centred yearnings of their own flesh.

That is to say, they were making it fit with what they themselves wanted.

Truth Matters

There’s something vital here concerning those two issues of authority and truth. There are only two possible answers, and (according to verses 8 and 9), heaven and hell are at stake. Only one of these gospels is true.

It’s important to underline this because our culture has sold out to the opposite perspective. Facebook (to name just one media outlet) is crowded with varying opinions about every issue imaginable. Or take a look at the magazine shelves in your local supermarket and you’ll see a society overwhelmed with good advice about what constitutes the good life.  Almost everybody has some “gospel” to share.

But how often do you hear a solid statement about the basis of those opinions? Does not this barrage of unfounded opinions communicate that truth does not really matter? That one opinion is as good as the next? When was the last time you heard someone make an effort to clarify and defend his foundational understanding of reality which might make his convictions plausible? Most people probably regard this concern for well-founded truth as a stage in later adolescence that you get over after a few philosophy classes and perhaps some sleepless nights. Real adult daily life doesn’t have much to do with questions of solid truth; and so most people aren’t driven crazy by the thousands of unsupported opinions that pass for gospel in the media.

Let it not be so among the people of God. At least for us the question of truth must matter terribly. It must not sit well with us when people give their opinions with no concern to show that they are true because they conform to ultimate reality.

You are the light of the world because you care about truth in all areas of life. You are the salt of the earth. And the flavour of your seasoning is a life based on the rock of truth and not the sands of opinion.

Don’t be alarmed that all this sounds a tad intellectual.It’s not that you have to get every answer sewn up in your head before you speak, but that it’s quite probable that you are in a better position than you think. We have let the world intimidate us too long. You see, the world knows that we Christians believe we are in touch with ultimate truth. That is very offensive. So as soon as we begin to make claims about truth (no matter how humbly), they start doing something that they almost never do with their own philosophy of life—they start asking us critical questions. Now that’s okay. We ought to try to answer them.

But make sure that if they probe your view of reality, return the compliment!. And if they ask you how you know your view is true, you ask how they know their view is true. What you will find, I think, is that as a Christian you have a grasp of reality that is more comprehensive and more coherent than theirs is. Most unbelievers (except in a tiny intellectual subculture) have never thought through the ultimate questions of life and formulated a comprehensive view of reality that governs their thought and action. And not only that, but you will find that those who have an integrating philosophy of life cannot give the kind of objective evidences for its truth that they so boldly demand from us Christians.

What I’m saying is this: just make sure that your non-Christian friend plays fair with you. It is not fair to take pot shots at life commitments from the grandstand of agnosticism and indifference. Let them come down onto the field and state their commitments (O, yes, they have commitments!) and state their underlying world view and then give the evidences.

Then you will see that what you thought were only your difficulties are shared by everyone who is serious about the question of truth.

In fact, you will confirm that the best reason for being a Christian is that we have fewer difficulties making sense out of all reality than those who do not believe in God.

 

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