Not Man's Gospel
Scripture: Galatians 1:10-24
I’m aware of the fact that many of the people who grew up around Christianity now consider themselves to be non-religious. And most of them have left the church because what’s the point? And the Bible agrees! If Jesus did not really rise from the dead, then, in my opinion, the Christian faith is just another human mythology, and this is an absolute waste of your time.
However, there are now churches full of people who no longer believe what the Bible teaches, but they still gather because they value the community, or the music, or the culture. For some people, it has become a folk religion. And to be honest, it really bothers me. It makes me angry.
I’m one of the crazy people who still believes Jesus was actually born of a virgin, that He lived a perfect life, that He died as a substitutionary atonement for sins, and that He literally rose from the dead. I believe every Word the Bible teaches. And I’m not alone.
There are people on every continent worshipping Jesus today in thousands of languages. Christianity is not a folk religion, or a mythology reserved for a specific culture, ethnic group, or moment in history. Christianity is the only Truth. It’s the only Way that leads to God. And it is an all or nothing proposition.
That sounds exclusive and intolerant to modern ears, but in reality, Christianity is the most inclusive religion in the history of the world. There is only One Way, but the Way is open to anyone – regardless of their social status, ethnicity, or language. No other religion in this world has the footprint of Christianity, and for me that’s proof enough that the Bible is worth our attention.
I’m going to be reading from Galatians chapter 1 this morning. Galatians is a letter in the New Testament. It was written after the resurrection of Jesus by the Apostle Paul.
Paul was a missionary church planter. He started the churches in Galatia very early in his ministry, probably during his first missionary journey. So, this letter was written to some of the first non-Jewish Christians in the world.
Understand, Christianity began as a Jewish Messianic movement. The followers of Jesus believed He was the Promised Messiah, that He was crucified for their sins, and that three days later He rose from the dead.
But in the very beginning, most of the people who believed this were ethnically Jewish. It wasn’t until after the dramatic conversion of Paul and his missionary journeys that a lot of non-Jewish people started believing in Jesus.
And that caused a big debate in the early church. The Jewish Christians didn’t know what to do with the non-Jewish Christians. Many of them believed that these Gentiles (that’s what they called them) needed to become Jewish in order to be real Christians, but Paul argued that the message of the Gospel would be destroyed if that happened.
By adding requirements to simple faith in Jesus, these teachers were distorting the Gospel. We talked about that last week. And now we come to verse 10 of Galatians 1. Please give your attention to the reading of God’s Word:
10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Seeking the approval of men – this was the central issue… The Jewish Christians wanted the new believers to become Jewish. And if that happened, Christianity would have died in the first century. Paul knew that… but more importantly, God knew it and God protected the message of the Gospel. He protected these new Christians.
God did not care about the Gentile Christians becoming Jewish… humans did. And Paul did not care about gaining the approval of his own people… He cared about God, not men.
And that is exactly what I want us to focus on this morning. This faith, the Christian faith, is by God, for God, and about God. It is not a human invention. It is not a folk religion. It is not a mythology. This is about God, not men.
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.
12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.
14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
This is one of the reasons I believe the Bible is true. Paul’s conversion makes no sense without divine intervention. Why would a man known for persecuting Christians so quickly switch sides? He was the most unlikely convert!
Paul, formerly known as Saul, already believed he was doing the work of God! And he was further motivated by the opinions of his peers. Converting to Christianity meant abandoning his status, his culture, everything… no man at that time, in that culture, would ever do this without a significant and compelling motivation. But look at how Paul explains it.
15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles,
We’re going to look very closely at this part of the story.
He says God “set me apart”. God is the subject. Paul was the object. God initiated this conversion. God instigated it. God acted and Paul was acted upon. But notice when this happened…
“Before I was born,” Paul says. It says in Greek, “From my mother’s womb…” In other words, God set Paul’s conversion in motion before Paul was born, meaning before Paul could contribute anything to his own conversion.
Being a baby in the womb is the most passive human experience we have. We do nothing. We are kept alive by a passive connection to our mother. And we have no choice in the matter. We don’t choose to be conceived. We don’t choose our parents. We don’t choose our birthday. We don’t choose the circumstances of our birth.
And yet, Paul says that God set him apart before birth – at a time when Paul clearly had nothing to do with it… no choice in the matter, at all. And the passive language continues:
He “called me”. God is the subject. Paul is the object.
“By His grace” – remember what the word grace means? It means undeserved or unearned blessing. It means receiving a reward when you deserve punishment. Paul says, God called me – me! Even though I did nothing to be set apart… I did nothing to deserve a call. On the contrary, Paul was a complete enemy of God.
And yet, God was “pleased to reveal His Son to me.”
I want to pause here and read the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:
1 Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.
4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.
8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Jesus appeared to Paul on the road. Paul was not on his way to learn about Jesus. Paul was not seeking after Jesus. Paul’s heart was not “soft to the message of the Gospel”. Paul didn’t give in the “opiate of the masses.” Paul was on his way to persecute more Christians.
Jesus had died a few years earlier and Paul knew what the Christians believed – that Jesus had rose from the dead. And Paul had probably spoken to eyewitnesses, but he rejected their testimony. His intention was to eliminate this Messianic cult.
Jesus was the only Person in the universe who could realistically convince Paul to convert to Christianity. And here’s the point… that’s always true. For everyone… no one is seeking after God. No one. You’re not here today because you’re looking for God. God wanted you here. That’s why you’re here.
Conversion is the business of God, not men. If you start following Jesus today, it is because God set you apart before you were born. It is because God called you. It is because God revealed His Son to you. God chooses to work through the preaching of His Word, but I’m not convincing anyone to believe. It’s His Word. His gospel. His power.
But the story continues:
I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.
19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)
This is important testimony. Paul includes this information to show that the Gospel message was not a human invention. There was no conspiracy or plot to start a new religion. Paul was not a strategic convert, employed by the early church to legitimize the faith.
In fact, the Christians were afraid of Paul. They didn’t trust him for years. And the Jews wanted to kill him. All of this reinforces the origin of the Gospel message. Paul did not reason his way to belief in Jesus. He wasn’t discipled by the Apostles.
What explanation does this leave? How does a deeply religious man, well respected and admired in his own context, abandon his religion and culture so quickly to join the movement he spent years trying to kill? Is it possible that God actually did what Paul claims?
21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.
23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
Who did they glorify? GOD. Not Paul. Not the apostles. God.
And why does God get the glory? Because God did this – beginning to end. Not men.
Paul references his personal testimony in almost every letter. He tells the story three times in the book of Acts. It was always an important part of his presentation of the Gospel. And it never makes Paul sound like a good guy. It required Paul to share the most embarrassing, shameful thing about his past.
But every time it made God sound awesome – because of grace.
And grace is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion. I’m very confident in that statement because I’ve looked for it. You won’t find it anywhere else. Grace, as the Bible defines it, is a completely unique concept. No other religion has a similar concept.
The idea has been borrowed by works of fiction. In fact, many of the best-selling novels of all time feature plots based on the concept of grace. The world loves the idea of it, but it’s clearly not a concept we invented.
Grace is the masterpiece of God. It must be because it defies human understanding. And in every circumstance, it points us to God.
I’ll give just one example – but there are many. Katherine Koonce was one of the victims at Covenant Nashville a few weeks ago. I want to read some of the words spoken by her husband at her funeral:
“Katherine would be embarrassed if our admiration of her distracted us from other wounded households… She was a champion for others, and among the first to recognize when someone is isolated and lacking support, burdened by shame, therefore honoring Katherine compels us to remember a 7th family, equally wounded in the loss of someone dear to them. We count on the Lord and our community to support them generously, extravagantly, and to offer them the hope that sustains. We are trusting in the strong and loving embrace of a strong and loving God to take each of the 7 that died and heal their wounds and their souls.”
That, brothers and sisters, is what grace looks like – and I would argue that such words are impossible… incomprehensible… apart from the hand of God.
God invented grace. It’s how a man who lost his wife can ask his community to love the family of the person who took her life. It’s how God turned a persecutor of the church into a leader in the church. It’s why the perfect Son of God died in the place of sinners like me and you. It’s how He invites us into the family of God.
Grace brings God immense glory. And there is no other Way… it’s not a folk religion. He is risen.