To Deliver Us from the Present Evil Age

Paul an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Today we begin a series of messages that will take us through Paul's letter to the Galatians. The reason I have chosen to preach from Galatians over the next several months is that more than any other New Testament letter, this one is alive. I mean that in Galatians Paul is at his most vigorous. The sheer emotional force of the book has captured me again and again over the years. You can't read the first ten verses without feeling that something utterly important is at stake. You can't read Galatians and think, "Well this is an interesting piece of religious reflection"—any more than you can examine a live coal with your bare hands. Galatians is a virile statement of the central truths of Christianity. If we as a people can make these truths and this vigor a part of our thinking and our willing, the bones of our faith will be strong and not brittle, and the emotional force of our life in Christ will not be lukewarm but ardent and intense and undivided.

The Scottish minister, P.T. Forsythe, said, "The secret of the Lord is with those who have been broken by his cross and healed by his Spirit." Galatians exalts these two things: the cross of Christ as the only way a person can get right with God, and the Spirit of Christ as the only way a person can obey God. Anything that diminishes the beauty and all-sufficiency of what happened on the cross of Christ is anathema to Paul. Anything that puts our willing or running where the Holy Spirit belongs is witchery to Paul. And the reason we sense a kind of compassionate rage running beneath this letter is that someone had bewitched the Galatians to put themselves where the Spirit belonged and the works of law where faith in the cross belonged.

My hope is that you will study this great book with me. That you will marry it and that "the two will become one." There is nothing that I would rather be over the next several months than a spiritual cupid to help you fall in love afresh with the magnificent Christ of Galatians.

Paul's Salutation and the Heart of His Message

Let's begin today with 1:1–5. First, I will sum up the whole and then come back and look at the parts with you in more detail. In verse 1 Paul lays claim to the unique authority of an apostle which is not dependent at all on other people, but comes from Christ and God the Father. In verse 2 Paul says that all the brothers with him stand behind his letter. Though Paul's authority does not come from his brothers, but indeed sets him off from them as an apostle (v. 1), nevertheless, the message which God has given him as an apostle unites him with his brothers, and together they declare to the Galatians: This letter is the true gospel, and there is no other.

The content of verses 3–5 may be summed up like this: Grace may now come to you (1:3), glory may now go to God (1:5), for Christ has died for our sins and freed us from the present evil age (1:4). Verse 3 is the offer of grace and peace to the Galatians, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Verse 5 is the ascription of glory to God, "To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." And sandwiched between grace and glory in verse 4 is their foundation: The death of Christ for our sin and our new freedom from the present evil age.

Therefore, even though 1:1–5 is formally a salutation or a greeting, Paul has already gotten down to the main business at hand: verses 1 and 2 claim authority for his message; verses 3–5 give a summary of that message. So the greeting of the letter itself is a preview of the whole letter. Paul takes these two things (the authority and content of his message) and unfolds them in that order (cf. 1:6–2:10; 2:11–6:18).

What It Means to Be an Apostle

Let's go back now and look more closely at what he says. In verse 1 Paul calls himself an "apostle." The word means "one who is sent." This is most obvious in John 13:16 where Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, neither is an apostle greater than the one who sent him." In the New Testament the word "apostle" had a general and particular usage. In the general sense it was used, for example, for representatives sent out by a church on a mission. In Philippians 2:25 Paul calls Epaphroditus "your apostle and minister for my need." He had been sent by the Philippian church on a mission to give Paul their gifts. And in 2 Corinthians 8:23 the men who were appointed by the churches of Macedonia to help Paul take money to the poor in Jerusalem are called the "apostles of the churches," that is, men appointed by the churches to represent them in this mission. In this sense we could call Tom Varno our apostle when we send him out to Uganda in a few weeks.

But in Galatians 1:1 Paul explicitly denies that he is an apostle merely in this general sense: "Paul an apostle, not from men or through men." Do not class me with those who come with letters of recommendation from men. I was not made an apostle by any council or church. Rather, as verse 1 continues, "through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead." The one who sent Paul on his mission is Christ. So Paul is "an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God" (2 Corinthians 1: 1).

That meant for Paul that he was something very different than a congregational representative from Antioch. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:1. "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" And in 1 Corinthians 15:8–9 he says, "Last of all, as to one untimely born, Jesus appeared also to me. For I am least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, for I persecuted the church of God." From these two texts we can see that "apostle" in the more particular sense means one who had seen the risen Christ, and not only had seen him, but as the word implies, had been sent or commissioned by him (Acts 26:16–17; Galatians 1:16). This meant for Paul that he was among that unrepeatable band of apostles who together with the prophets of old were the foundation of the church. Ephesians 2:20 says that the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone." Paul's apostleship was virtually the same as Peter's, for Galatians 2:8 says, "He who worked through Peter for the apostleship to the circumcision, worked through me also for the Gentiles."

Therefore, we conclude that the risen Christ, who is at the right hand of God, supreme over all creation, and head of the church, had appeared to Paul on the Damascus road; and he had sent him to preach and teach and do wonders with the same authority that Christ had once given to the Twelve. Jesus had said to the twelve apostles in Matthew 10:40, "He who receives you receive me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me" (cf. Luke 10:16; John 13:20). Paul knew that he had a unique place in redemptive history. God had given him an authority that would not be passed on in a person but only in a book, the New Testament. Paul was keenly aware that as an apostle he carried an authority to govern and teach the churches of Christ. He says, for example, in 2 Corinthians 13:10, "I write this while I am away from you, in order that when I come, I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down." This authority rests on his apostleship: He has seen the risen Christ; Christ has commissioned him as his representative to preach and teach with authority; and (as 1 Corinthians 2:13 says) the Spirit of Christ worked in him to guide his words in truth.

Christ's Authority in Paul's Words

We should stop and absorb for a moment the implications this should have for us. In three weeks we will talk about how Paul argues for his authority (in 1:11ff.). Today I will assume that we accept his claim. But what an assumption! Do you see what it means? It means that when you read Galatians, you are hearing Christ. An apostle speaks with authority the message of the one who sent him. Galatians is the very word of the King of kings. O how many of us are tempted to cry out to Jesus for some message, some revelation, some dream or vision, but make almost no serious effort to understand the deep things of Scripture, the very Word of Christ. How many times have Christians come to me in search of counsel for some problem, but when I ask if they have searched the Scriptures relating to the issue, they get nervous and begin to make excuses. There really isn't a lot of disciplined submission to the apostles' Word in the contemporary church. We treat the Bible mainly as a kind of spiritual hypo to boost our emotions. But the practice of submitting all our ideas and attitudes and habits day by day to the scrutiny and absolute authority of the apostles is very rare.

For some of you the ongoing attitudes and habits of relating to each other at home is clearly contradicted by the apostles' teaching. A few of you go on as you do because Christ is not the glorious Master of your lives, and so the instructions of his apostles are of no great weight. But for others the problem is different. You want Jesus to be the Master of your life, but over the years there has developed a relationship between you and Scripture in which Scripture is just a blur of hazy notions. There is no real, life-changing encounter between the lucid and vivid conceptions of Scripture and your own thoughts, because you have inherited habits of reading which simply spread a fog across the crisp, angular skyline of the biblical teaching.

And it's not all your fault. Too many teachers and preachers today have never been shown anything better, and so they continue to cultivate in their classes and congregations an approach to Scripture which says it is authoritative, but which sees in it only vague, imprecise generalizations that can't refine our theology or transform behavior. They use a kind of massage technique on the Bible. They give the text a dreamy and blurry massage until a feeling or notion arises and then they talk for a while about that feeling or notion (normally quite separated from the grammar of the text) as though they were interpreting Scripture. You would be surprised if you knew how many pastors, when they get together and discuss an issue, rarely, if ever, take out their Bibles and argue their case from the words and phrases and flow of the text. Why? Because the massage technique doesn't yield anything precise enough to bring another thought into judgment.

And do you see where that leaves the church? In bondage to tradition, with no chance of biblical renewal and reformation. It is no coincidence that reformation and renewal came to the church in the 16th century because John Calvin and Martin Luther returned to the grammar and syntax of Scripture. When preachers began to deal with the text, and laymen began to read the text, with attention to its words and phrases and logical connections and thread of thought and immediate context, the Bible broke loose from its bondage to fog and changed the world.

I know that I have a long way to go before I become the preacher I want to be. But I do have a goal: that the preachers and Sunday School teachers at Bethlehem Baptist Church not only say we believe the Bible is authoritative, but also submit our minds and hearts to it by reading with precision and care and disciplined attention to the meaning of words in context, and intended relationships among sequences of statements, and the coherent thread of thought through whole paragraphs. This is not optional. It is not an esoteric game for scholars. It is a matter of humility and submissiveness to the Word of God. It is the only way to own up to the implications of Galatians 1:1, "Paul an apostle, not from men or through man but through Jesus Christ." This letter is the Word of the living Christ through his authoritative representative. If we believe that and count Jesus as Lord, we will not be satisfied with a text massage or with imprecise, hazy notions about the meaning of texts. We will study, and analyze, and define, and sketch, and write, and research, and ponder, and meditate, and muse, and stare, and make connections, and synthesize until the mind of the apostle is lucid, sharp, clear, and unavoidable. And then we will bow down and exchange our thoughts for his, and we will gain the mind of Christ.

Verse 2 makes two additions to the claim of authority in verse 1. First, Paul says that all the brothers with him endorse his message. His authority distinguishes him from other men; his message binds him to them. Paul does not boast in being the odd man out. He is glad when his teaching is shared by others. We'll see this again in 2:1–10. The other point of verse 2 is that the intended readers of this letter are the churches of Galatia. Galatia was a Roman province that stretched from Pontus on the Black Sea to Pamphylia on the Mediterranean. It cut through the middle of Asia Minor, or what today is Turkey. So "the churches of Galatia" could be the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, which Paul started on his first missionary journey in southern Galatia. Or they could be unknown churches farther north which he started later on. Keep in mind at least that the letter is for more than one congregation. The false teaching Paul opposes here was fairly widespread.

Grace to You and Glory to God

Now let's look at verses 3–5 briefly and then relate them back to the focus on authority in verse 1. I can symbolize these three verses by how I stand here and position my hands. My right hand lifted slightly above my head and extended outward and open represents the offer of grace and peace to sinful Galatians; sinful people like me and you. Supporting that free offer of grace and peace from God is my body with its bowed head representing Christ's giving himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age according to the will of God our Father (v. 4). Only because Jesus died to bear the penalty of my sins can Paul extend to me the offer of God's love and favor and peace. The cross supports the gospel. And since that great sacrifice and the deliverance it achieved was all according to God's will and plan, Paul breaks forth (in v. 5) into a doxology of praise to God, "to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

I almost named this message "Grace to You and Glory to God." The center and foundation of all gospel (the right hand extended) and all worship (the left hand lifted) is Christ crucified for our deliverance according to God's will (the body). Galatians gives grace to man and glory to God because it preaches Christ crucified for our deliverance from the present evil age.

What does it mean to be delivered from the present evil age? Jesus prayed for us in John 17:15, "Father don't take them out of the world, but keep them from evil." The present age is an evil age because sin has such a grip on our lives and on the institutions of our society, and because Satan is allowed so much power. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul says, "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (cf. Luke 4:6).

But for those who trust Christ, a liberation has begun to take place. Colossians 1:13 says, "God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son."

The reason we are no longer enslaved to the fear and guilt and anger and pessimism and selfishness and greed and pride of the present evil age is that "we have tasted the powers of the age to come " (Hebrews 6:5), or as Jesus said, "the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). The new age, with new powers and new ways, has broken into this evil age to deliver us from the present evil age.

The experience of deliverance from the present evil age enables us to bear witness with our lives that we belong to another King and another kingdom and another age. And it begins with a changed heart and a changed mind. Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:10, "Demas has deserted me in love with this present age." Deliverance means a change of heart so that we love a new age, we get our kicks in new and higher ways than this age can offer. And Paul said in Romans 12:2, "Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." Deliverance from the present evil age means freedom not to think like this age. Freedom to be appalled at the mindset behind the lead editorial in yesterday's Tribune ("Roe v. Wade a Decade Later").

Freedom! "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). Jesus Christ died to deliver you from the curse of the law—glorious forgiveness!—and he died to deliver you from the conceptions of our age—glorious freedom and independence of mind!

So the message today is one of those wonderful biblical paradoxes. Verse 1: I, Paul, am an apostle, not with mere human authority, but with the very authority of Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead: Subject yourselves to this Word, submit to this authority. Verse 4: Christ gave himself to deliver you from the present evil age: Loose yourselves from the world, don't feel or think like this age thinks and feels, be free! Verse 1: Be subject! Verse 4: Be free! Is that a contradiction? No. Because the freest people of all are those who submit most fully to the authority of Christ in Scripture.

So my appeal to you today is this: Remember that Christ died to cover all your sins so that a holy God could come upon you with gracious power and free you from the evil of this age. Live every moment by faith in him, and you will not think or feel the way the world does. And remember that this Jesus rose from the dead, and appeared to Paul on the Damascus road, and commissioned him as an apostle, and today speaks to us through his letter to the Galatians. He died to free us from a mindset that leads to destruction; and he rose and authorized the writing of this book to fill us with a mindset that leads to eternal life. Trust him. Study him. It will be grace to you and glory to God!