United in the Truth of the Gospel

Galatians: Continuing in Grace  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  26:24
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Continuing in Grace. United in the truth of the Gospel. Galatians 2:11-16

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Big Idea: the truth of the gospel unites us
Intro me
This morning we’re going to talk about boundaries - about who’s in and who’s out and how we draw the line. But before we get there, let me back up a little. We’re working through a letter in the bible called Galatians - written, unsurprisingly, to a group of people called the Galatians, a set of churches started by the letter’s author, Paul. He’s writing because there’s trouble in Galatia: they’re “turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all” we read a few weeks back. They’re in danger of losing the message Paul brought them, the good news which saw those churches started.
So Paul writes to defend the truth of his message and to defend himself as a trustworthy messenger. He’s told us how he, who was once a persecutor of this gospel message, turned into the one preaching it! How he received the message from Jesus himself, and how, when he checked in with the bigwig leaders in Jerusalem years later, they added nothing to his message - instead they gave him the seal of approval.
So far so good - but in the next passage, the one we’re looking at this week, he tells us how things started to go wrong. Just like we’ve found each week as we look closely at what God has to say to us through the Bible, this morning we’ll see again that it’s not just irrelevant chatter about two thousand year old stuff. We’re challenged by what we read, and we learn timeless lessons about God and about ourselves from it too. So let’s read together about what happened next.
Laura’s going to read for us this morning, and we’re in the little book of Galatians, chapter 2, starting at verse 11. It’ll be handy for you to have the passage in front of you as we explore it together but it’s not always easy to find the right bit - so if you have one of these blue bibles, we’re on page 1169. Look for the little number 11 half way down the page. Galatians chapter 2, starting at verse 11. Page 1169.
And just so you know before we read, the name Cephas which shows up here is just Peter in another language.
Galatians 2:11–16 NIV
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, 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. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are 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? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Thanks Laura.
So what’s going on here? Paul’s a feisty chap, make no mistake - but to go head to head with Peter (Cephas is Peter in Aramaic), to go toe-to-toe with one of the twelve, with the Apostle Peter, with the “on this rock I will build my church” Peter, with the big cheese? That’s quite something. Especially after he just shook your hand! So there has to be something pretty mega going on, right?
But how could the event we read about be that big a deal? Jewish Peter is sharing meals with Gentiles - that’s non-Jews - and then he stops. Can we just get, uh, get a grip please, Paul? It’s just dinner, right? Why does that matter so much? Bit of background you need here: back then, good Jews didn’t eat with Gentiles. It was a red line. Part of the deal being Jewish was keeping yourself separate, and lots of special rules about eating meant that was one of the key places they ended up separate
Now Peter’s had a big lecture from God on this very topic - including visions and all sorts. He’s been told in no uncertain terms that he should chill and be cool with it. You can read about this in Acts 10 where Peter says
Acts 10:28 (NIV)
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.
So we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find here, as the curtain rises, Jewish Peter is happily eating with Gentiles - even though it was a big Jewish no-no. But at the same time we can understand when these other guys who show up, these “certain men … from James”, that things change. Deeply embedded patterns don’t die easy.
If you know Peter’s story from Acts 10, you’ll know he didn’t find this an easy sell himself so it’s not surprising that others who didn’t see all the visions and signs that he did are finding it hard to let go of patterns of everyday life which have defined them as a people group for generations, sort of like treasured family traditions.
So perhaps Peter’s just being gentle with them, figuring they might take some time, but they’ll come around in the end? Yeah maybe.. but there is more here.
Notice in verse 12 we’re told why Peter changes his tune. “he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” - that’s these traditionalists, the ones holding on to the patterns of life that defined Jews as a people. He was afraid of them.
But here’s the thing: Peter doesn’t actually think it’s a problem to eat with the Gentiles - notice separating from the gentiles is described in v13 as hypocrisy. That word was drawn from the world of the theatre. It meant pretending, play acting. Peter’s just acting like he shouldn’t eat with Gentiles, he doesn’t really believe that - he’s just putting on a show.
Galatians 2:13 (NIV)
The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Paul’s big problem is what Peter’s play acting is saying and doing to others. People “read” what we do whether we like it or not. “Actions speak louder than words,” we say. Paul wants Peter to stop and think about what it’s doing to the Gentile Christians at Antioch when he withdraws from their meal-table.
And what it’s doing is set out for us in v14: it’s forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs. How come? Well, if they want to eat with Peter, the main man, they’re going to have to take the plunge and go full Jewish. Share a meal? Share the deal. And, something I hadn’t really thought about before studying this passage, it wasn’t just meals that were off the table. It was communion, that practice Jesus started for his disciples around the meal table at the Last Supper - where he taught them to remember his body given and his blood poured out at the cross, to remember that using bread and wine.
See, we’re pretty certain when people in these days shared communion, they did it in homes (‘cause they didn’t have church buildings), and they did it as a part of a meal. Peter’s withdraw means there’s no communion unless you go full-Jewish. Peter’s just ex-communicated every Gentile in the church - at least he’s creating two churches, a Jewish one and a Gentile one if they can’t share a table.
Yeah so that’s pretty big, right? It’s not just whether Jews and the Gentiles in that Antioch church shared a meal, it’s whether they’re really a part of the same church at all. The problem, as Paul puts it, is Peter’s “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel”. Peter’s just play-acting - but his acting is in danger of undermining the truth of the gospel, this key message of God’s grace in Jesus. So he has to be confronted.
You’re forcing these Gentiles to follow Jewish customs, Peter - but we know they don’t really matter, says Paul: Gal 2:15-16
Galatians 2:15–16 NIV
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
This is the “truth of the gospel”, as Paul puts it, the heart of the good news of Jesus. It’s about how we are justified. But that word has a bit of a different sense to how we use it today so let me take a moment to unpack it.
Today most of the time “justified” means there’s a good enough excuse to do something which is normally wrong - like speeding to the hospital because your wife’s in labour. “I was justified in speeding,” I was justified in falling asleep during today’s talk because it was boring. I was justified in hitting my sister because she was being really annoying, right?
That’s not what the word means here - that we’re in the wrong but we have a good excuse. Here’s how the bible uses this word: imagine a suspect accused of something in court. There are only two ways it can end: On the one hand, the judge can bang his hammer down and say “guilty” - you’re found to be in the wrong, you’re condemned, or on the other hand he can bang his hammer down and say “innocent”, you’re found to be in the right, or you’re justified. It’s the opposite to “guilty”, to “condemned”.
That’s what this is all about: when the curtain goes down, the bucket’s kicked, and the show’s over; when we find ourselves standing before God as our judge, evaluating our lives, weighing us up, there are only two ways it’s going to go. He’s either going to say we don’t measure up - we’ve failed, we stand condemned - or He’s going to declare we’re justified - we’re in the right with him.
The gospel is all about how that verdict can be ours, how we can be declared in the right. And the good news is we’re not justified by things we do - Gal 2:16
Galatians 2:16 (NIV)
a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ
“works of the law” here means the Jewish rules and regulations telling them how to be holy, or set apart. No-one will be justified by that, Paul says - and there are any number of other things we put in the law’s place, and act like we have to do to be justified: pray every day; help old ladies across the road; be a generally decent bloke. But works don’t work - that’s never going to see God rule in our favour on the last day.
Instead the only way we’re going to be justified in the end is by faith in Jesus Christ. By believing he is who he says he is, that he did what he said he did. That he died in our place so we don’t have to, that he rose to new life so we can be renewed too. That’s what will see us justified, what puts us in the right with God, not anything we’ve done or we might do. Luther, famous reformer from the 1500s says this is the message we need to “beat into our heads continually” - because it’s so easy to start looking back to what we do for our justification instead of looking to Jesus.
So let’s press pause for a moment and ask ourselves the question: do we actually believe this? Imagine it, imagine that last day, imagine you’re standing there before God and you’re being weighed up. What would you be thinking? What’s going to come out in the courtroom against you? How are you going to clear your name? What evidence will you be presenting that you’re in the right, innocent? Which witnesses are you planning on calling to make your case?
The Gospel tells us our only hope of justification on that last day is faith in Jesus Christ. If you have that, it’s all you need. Case closed. If you don’t have that, you’ve got nothing. You have zero reason for hope - your case is only going to go one way because “by the works of the law, no-one will be justified” - there’s no work, nothing you could do, to be justified.
Think about that scene, being weighed up. Where’s your hope? If you’ve never done it before, make today the day you put your hope and trust in Jesus Christ, in what he’s done, not what you’ve done or trying to do better. You can do that right now - here’s a super-short prayer you could use. A moment to look it through and then I’ll pray and if you’re ready, you can pray silently along with me:
Jesus, I haven’t lived right and I know I can’t fix it myself.
I want to put my faith and trust in what you have done instead.
As best as I know how, I give you my life.
Please justify me: forgive me for my wrongs.
Please renew me: come and live within me.
If you prayed that prayer from your heart, you will be justified in Christ. Tell someone. If you’re on the livestream, click the button that’s popped up and let people know. Then, if you want, you’ll have the chance to connect with someone. If you’re with us in-person, tell someone you know - or tell me. Let us help you keep pressing into this new life that is now yours.
This is the truth of the Gospel. This is what Paul’s fighting for. This is why there’s hope in Hope City: Gal 2:16
Galatians 2:16 (NIV)
a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ
Here’s the crazy thing about today’s passage, though: Paul knows this is true … and so does Peter who he’s arguing with! See how these verses are all “We”? Gal 2:15-16
Galatians 2:15–16 NIV
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Peter and Paul both get this, both agree on this, both know that all this eating with, or not eating with, stuff will never work. The big problem is the way Peter is acting: separating himself from the Gentiles. His actions are speaking, telling another story. He’s undermining the truth of the gospel which he believes because he’s afraid of people - the respectable, educated, powerful people of the circumcision group.
This isn’t just something from the distant past, something that happened once upon a time with no relevance to us today. Let me show you where we find this in our world, let me show you what it’s like today:
If you’ve been around churches, you’ll know we have different ways of doing things, different views on issues. Some churches only sing upbeat modern-sounding stuff, others only sing ancient hymns. Some churches expect the supernatural every week others would be shocked by any departure from routine. Some churches baptise babies, others don’t.
How do we treat churches with different ideas to us? How do we treat believers with different ideas to us? If it’s “I’m right you’re wrong”, if it’s “my way or the highway” then we’re immediately in danger of acting like this circumcision group, like there’s something other than faith in Jesus Christ that’s really required to be right with God, to be justified.
Now sure, I have my opinions - you do too. I’ve thought hard about a bunch of these things and I hope you have too. As a church we have things we do differently to others ‘cause we think it lines up with what we see in the bible more, or because we think it might work better. We can and should think about and talk about these things. But the moment we start declaring others out when we’re in, wrong with God when we’re right, we’re on that same path as this circumcision party. We’re saying there’s more than just faith in Jesus Christ required to be justified: there’s other boxes you’ve got to tick. We’re not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.
Perhaps you could say with confidence that you’ve never declared someone else “offside” like that? Good job you - but you still might “do a Peter”! It’s so easy to feel pressure from others and put on an act - and Paul’s point here is how we act matters as well as what we believe - because people are watching.
Ever had someone around you who makes you more critical of others’ actions and words? More likely to call others “offside” with God or act like they’re dodgy so you need to keep your distance? I know this happens to me. I feel the pressure. I think in my heart that generosity is still there but I act and speak judgement over things where it’s not the heart the gospel at stake.
I’m not saying there’s no right or wrong, no better or worse with any of these things - just that they don’t undermine the truth of the gospel. People with different positions on them aren’t offside with God. “a person is not justified by the works of the law” - or by their theological positions; or by the way they do church. We’re all alike justified by faith in Jesus Christ. That’s what unites us.
This is why what we call “theological generosity” is so important to us as a church. We truly want to keep all these secondary things as secondary for the sake of the Gospel. To be able to work together well as a diverse church here at Hope City, not looking down on one another or judging one another. To be able to work together well with other churches from diverse streams. We don’t call any of these secondary things primary, a must-do, must-have, must-believe. That’s the culture we’re looking for. We’re all justified by faith in Jesus Christ - plus nothing. So we choose to act like that.
Let me pray...
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