This Is Not Man's Gospel
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, "He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me.
The first thing to notice today is the similarity between verse 1 and verse 12 of Galatians 1. In verse 1 Paul defends his apostleship: "Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead." In verse 12 he defends his gospel: "I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Paul's apostleship is not from man, and his gospel is not from man. On the contrary, the risen Christ—who is much more (though not less) than a man—had commissioned Paul as an apostle and had revealed to him the gospel.
The two verses are similar because for Paul the truth of his apostleship and the truth of his message stand or fall together. If Paul was no apostle, then his claim to authority and truth collapses. Likewise, if his gospel proves to be a human concoction, then he forfeits the right to be called an apostle.
Paul's Defense of His Apostleship and His Gospel
Why is Paul on the defensive like this? Because, according to 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. It doesn't take too much reading between the lines to see that the people in verse 7 were calling into question Paul's apostleship. Since they basically were emphasizing circumcision (5:2) and the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament (4:10), they were probably Jewish Christians (in the loose sense) who had come from Jerusalem (like the men in 2:12) and who claimed to have James and Peter and John (the pillars of 2:9) as their authority. For them Paul was just a Johnny-come-lately to the apostolic band. He had not been with Jesus in his earthly ministry; and now here he was starting churches in the name of the Messiah but telling Gentiles they don't have to be circumcised or keep the feasts.
So these people (whom we will call Judaizers now) have gone out to set the Galatian churches straight. Paul may claim to be an apostle, but he is not really one; he may claim to preach the true gospel, but he only has it secondhand from the true apostles, and his version is seriously flawed. That is the situation that seems to make sense out of Paul's double defense in chapter 1: verse 1, 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. Verse 12, my gospel is true, as true as Peter's, because I did not learn it from any mere man secondhand, but received it just as much from Jesus as the first apostles did.
Now notice that verse 12 is an argument for verse 11. "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." Paul is arguing in verse 12 for the truth of his preaching. His gospel is not a human concoction. It is not his own private version of something he picked up secondhand from the Jerusalem apostles. It is not, verse 11 says, "according to man." That probably means, first, that it didn't originate with man but with God. It didn't come out of Paul's head; it came out of God's heart.
In Romans 1:1 Paul identifies himself and his gospel like this: "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God." Paul's gospel is from God not from man. But when verse 11 says Paul's gospel is not "according to man," it probably also means that his gospel doesn't square with natural human desires. The implication is that the Judaizers have adjusted the gospel to make it fit better with their own proud inclinations. Galatians 6:12 says, "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." It catered to the self-assertive and self-defendant yearnings of their flesh.
Now pause a moment and let what's happening here sink in. Authority and truth are the central issues here. Two messages are vying for our allegiance: Paul's and the Judaizer's. According to verses 8 and 9, heaven and hell are at stake. Only one of these gospels is true. Believing the true one is the most important thing in the world for every one of us. Paul is forcing upon us the issue of truth.
So there's a lesson for us already. We should be the kind of people for whom truth matters. I stress this because I think our culture communicates just the opposite. Everywhere you turn in the media or in your personal life people are expressing opinions. Almost everybody has some gospel to share. It may be "sex over sixty" or "the joy of jogging" or "the delight of organic dieting" or "the power of intimidation and self-assertion" or a hundred other things that people get interviewed about on the radio. The world is rife with opinions about the good life.
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 bananas 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 tang of your seasoning is a life based on the rock of truth and not the sands of opinion.
I know that this sounds threatening, because it sounds intellectual. It sounds as if you are going to have to be able to answer every question someone asks you about your faith. But I want to encourage you 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 here's a suggestion to keep you from feeling like they've got it all together intellectually while you are full of uncertainties. Make sure that if they probe your view of reality, you probe their view of reality. 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 does the unbeliever. So be the light of the world. Raise the question of truth when the piling up of opinions starts to darken an issue.
Paul's Former Manner of Life
Now in our text the big question is: Will Paul just fling his authority against that of the Judaizers and let the Galatians shoot in the dark about which is true? Or will he give evidence and make his case? It's clear, I think, that verses 13–24 are Paul's argument for the truth of his apostleship and his gospel. I want to spend the rest of our time looking at how he makes his case. I think you will find it relevant to your situation.
Verse 12 has said that the gospel had come to Paul by a revelation of Christ. He stakes the truth of his gospel on the fact that the risen Christ appeared to him and commissioned him personally to preach the gospel. He begins his argument in verses 13 and 14 by recounting how unremittingly anti-Christian he was before his conversion. "For you have heard of my former life in Judaism [NOTE: THIS IS COMMON GROUND; ANYONE COULD CHECK OUT WHAT HE WAS ABOUT TO SAY], how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers." Negatively, Paul ravaged the church ("breathing out threats and murder," says Acts 9:1, throwing men and women into prison). Positively, he was one of the most rigorous Pharisees of his day. Behind both achievements was the unsurpassed zeal for the Pharisaic traditions inherited from the fathers. Christianity offered salvation by faith in Christ and so relativised the ordinances that Paul was devoting his life to. For example, circumcision was optional. The very meaning of his existence was at stake. So he lashed out with all his might.
Now why does he tell this to the Galatians here? What's the point of this little piece of ugly biography? Notice verse 13 begins with "for." This account in verses 13 and 14 is an argument that his gospel came from Christ, not man. How does the argument work? There is a clue in verses 22–24, "I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, 'He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they glorified God because of me." Paul closes the unit by pointing out how complete and astonishing his conversion was. From persecutor, to preacher. From one ready to kill Christians, to one ready to be killed as a Christian. From one who heard in the Christian message a threat to everything he stood for, to one who now had a vision of the gospel that blew his Pharisaism to smithereens. What happened? How do we account for such an astonishing reversal? Or to be more precise, as Paul put the question, was the grasp of the gospel that revolutionized Paul's life a work of man or a work of God? Did Paul somehow in those days of persecution get attracted to the apostles in Jerusalem and then go off on his own and botch their message? Or did Jesus Christ, alive from the dead, meet Paul on the Damascus road, manifest to him the truth of the gospel, and call him into service as an apostle?
The reason Paul describes his pre-conversion life is to show how utterly improbable it is that he could ever have been allured into the ranks of the apostles by any human effort. The apostles were his arch-enemies. Paul argues that there is only one adequate explanation of how he came to devote his life to the Christ he hated and how he came to preach a gospel that overturned his whole life of Pharisaic pride: verse 15, "When he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles . . . " Paul's explanation is that Christ appeared to him. "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:4). "Rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and to bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God" (Acts 26:16–18).
Every effect in the world must have an adequate cause. And Paul argues that to try to explain the change from his pre-conversion persecution to his post-conversion passion for the gospel merely by the work of men is to grasp at a straw. He knew that he had seen the risen Christ and had been commissioned to preach; and the only way he could verify that experience for others is to point to its effects. They are remarkable, indeed. In fact, all things considered, the argument should persuade the Galatians and us that Paul's gospel did come by revelation and is not "according to man" (v. 11).
Paul Did Not Confer with Flesh and Blood
But to tighten the case further, Paul sketches in verse 16ff. what he did after his encounter with Christ. No one should get the idea that the vision of Christ simply said: "Go study with the apostles." Paul says he did not confer with flesh and blood or go up to study with the apostles. He went to Arabia! Then he returned to Damascus. Then, only after three years, after his gospel had probably taken definitive shape, Paul went up to Jerusalem to get to know Peter. During his fifteen-day stay in Jerusalem he did not see the other apostles except James, the Lord's brother. Paul's point is that three years of meditation and ministry on his own immediately after his revelation from Christ, followed by a mere fifteen-day visit to Peter cannot possibly support the Judaizers' apparent contention that he was a secondhand disciple of the Jerusalem apostles. The point is that he was an independent witness.
Even more, in verse 22 Paul says that the churches in Judea do not know him personally. The point here is: If Paul had been an understudy of the apostles in Jerusalem, these are precisely the churches where he would have worked. But they don't even know him. Therefore, the whole attempt of the Judaizers to discredit Paul's independent apostleship is a failure. On the basis of evidence which the Galatians could check out, Paul makes a compelling case that his amazing 180° turn from persecutor to apostle can only be explained by a revelation and commission from Jesus Christ. Therefore, his apostleship is "not from men or through man" (as verse 1 says), and his gospel (as verse 12 says) "he did not receive from man, nor was he taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Therefore, the point of verse 11 is well established: "This is not man's gospel." It is God's gospel: good news that comes from God and accords with his great heart of holiness and love.
I close with a story from Jesus' life (Matthew 21:23–27). In the last week of his life in Jerusalem the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and asked, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" And Jesus answered, "I will ask you a question, and if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John—was it from heaven or from men?" This morning Jesus puts it like this: "The gospel Paul preaches—is it from heaven or is it from men?" Jesus is asking you that question as personally as though it were just him and you in this room.
The chief priests and elders said to themselves, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we are afraid of the multitude, because they think John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."
Some of you do not come to Christ because you have a question for God he must answer first. But God will not be badgered from the grandstand of agnosticism and indifference. This morning he says, Come down on the field and get serious with me. I have a question for you. Tell me the answer to my question, and I will answer yours. The gospel which Paul preaches—salvation by grace through faith in Christ to the glory of God—is it from heaven or from men?
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