If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Galatians chapter 1, verses 6 through 12:
I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news about the Messiah. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! 9 As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him!
10 For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ.
11 Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not based on human thought. 12 For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation from Jesus Christ.
There is an interesting story in second Kings chapter 2 that, uh, I would like to read to you. It says “The Prophet Elisha went up to Bethel.” That was a “high place,” and it was where a lot of the folks in the rural parts of Israel went to worship after King Jeroboam took over and reinstituted pagan worship throughout the kingdom. The story says, “As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him, saying ‘Get out of here, baldy!’ He turned around, looked at them, and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord.”
When Elisha “calls down a curse” on the crowd, he’s not just yelling the F-word at them – which is what we mean when we say “cursing.” He might have said some pretty harsh words as well, I don’t know, but he was imploring God to curse them. And in the last line of the story in Second Kings, we see that God does exactly what Elisha asks: It says, “Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled the boys,” so the story sounds like something that would come out of a 1970s horror movie that you’d sneak out past curfew to go see at the drive-in, right?
If you’ve ever had an argument with a fourteen-year-old atheist, you’ve probably heard about this story. I don’t have enough fingers to count the times that someone has thrown out some variation of “How Could You Worship A God Who Would Send Bears To Kill A Bunch Of Children For Making Fun Of A Guy For Being Bald.” That’s fair. I’m not gonna argue with that sentiment.
But the problem is that the language used in this passage doesn’t actually say anything about “a bunch of kids.” The Hebrew scholars tell me that the term used for “boys” here is na’ar. (spell)
Sometimes, the term na’ar refers to a “young man,” anywhere from, like, four to twenty-four. So, very helpful as far as narrowing down the age. Depending on which a linguist you ask, the age range can be a little wider or a little narrower, but it never straightforwardly means “kid.” Often, the term refers to an “Official” – like, a temple official, an official at the palace, a religious official, and so forth. So if there are any kids present during “The Bear Incident,” we don’t know about it. The pagan kings have converted Bethel into a place where God’s people can come and make sacrifices to the pagan god Ba’al. So the altars at Bethel would have been stocked with “officials” who would oversee the sacrifices.
And as Elisha makes his way to the altars at Bethel, suddenly a bunch of na’ars, a bunch of “officials,” come out and start mocking him, saying “Get out of here, Baldy.” The officials overseeing the pagan altars at Bethel immediately recognize that they are looking at one of Yahweh’s servants, so they try to chase him away. These aren’t “little kids” making fun of an “insecure bald guy.” These are priests of Ba’al trying to drive God’s servant Elisha away from the premises so he can’t challenge the position of power that they’ve carved out for themselves.
It does not go well for them: Elisha calls down a curse on them, and we see exactly what Hosea chapter 13 talks about when Yahweh says, and I quote, “As a bear robbed of her cubs I will pounce on my enemies and tear the flesh around their hearts, / the dogs shall eat their flesh, and wild beasts tear them to pieces.” God says, “I will tear apart” the false prophets “who devour my people.” I will treat these false prophets like poachers out to “kidnap my cubs.” Elisha calls down a curse, and God quite literally “pounces on them like a mother bear defending her cubs.”
That’s all very shocking, but something like this lays underneath what Paul is telling us in today’s passage. We don’t know exactly what the situation is because Paul never describes it in detail and Acts doesn’t cover it like it does with some of the other letters that Paul writes. But we see in verse 10 is that Paul has been accused of “trying to please people by compromising the gospel.”
So Paul defends himself by pointing out in verse 11 that the gospel that he preached to the Galatians “did not come from human thought” – instead, he says in verse 12 that his gospel “came by a revelation from Jesus Christ.” Now, if the gospel that the Galatians have heard from Paul came “by a revelation from Jesus Christ,” that means, like he points out in verse 7, that there is no other gospel.
Like, if you hear two gospels, and one of them came from me and the other one came from Jesus, then you’ve only heard one gospel. Whatever the thing you heard from me was, if it’s not consistent with the thing you heard from Jesus, it’s either “false teaching” or it’s “mistaken.” In either case, you should go with the thing that Jesus said.
And since there is no other gospel, Paul points out in verse 6 that “turning away” from the gospel Paul preached amounts to “turning away from the one who called us by the grace of Christ.” Abandoning the gospel that Paul preached to us isn’t just “changing from one ideology to another ideology,” it’s turning away from Jesus himself. It’s “turning away from the one who called us by the grace of Christ.”
That means a few things: It means that we should be extremely suspicious of anyone who preaches a gospel to us that is radically different than what Paul preaches. Now, that does not mean that we should expect everyone who preaches to us to literally just “parrot” Paul. That’s basically what I do, and that gets boring after a while, right? But there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. There is nothing wrong with communicating the Gospel of Jesus in a way that “preaches” to a certain group more effectively than it preaches to a different group. You will preach differently in Dallas, Texas, because that entire part of the country is just one giant Chick-fil-A – it’s just one giant Hobby Lobby. Everyone there thinks and acts and talks a certain way and so you’ve gotta preach a certain way to really communicate effectively there.
But that’s going to be significantly different than the way that you might preach in, like, Togo, West Africa. You’re preaching in a different language, obviously, but the people there think, talk, reason differently than people in Dallas, Texas. Not worse, just differently. So naturally you’ll have to preach differently. Faithful preaching might be different in Dallas and Togo, but they will be complementary to each other. They’ll go hand-in-hand. You might use very different imagery, very different metaphors, but you will preach the same message, you’ll preach the same gospel. And that’s what Paul has in mind here.
I preach very differently than my friend Tyler, but we are preaching the same gospel. In all likelihood, each of the pastors that you have had and will have in the future of Mount Zion have preached with a different style, but hopefully each of these pastors have preached the same gospel – and part of my job, and part of every Pastor you’ll ever have here’s job is to build you up in such a way that if a future pastor turns out to be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” you’ll have the necessary foundation to be able to recognize and deal with that problem. That’s what Paul has in mind here.
So he says in verse 9, none of us should believe anyone who presents a gospel that is fundamentally opposed to the gospel that Paul preached to us. And in the situation of the Galatians, that is urgently important. Because the same people who have accused Paul of “trying to please people by compromising the gospel” are now trying to convince the Galatians to believe a different gospel entirely.
But Paul says in verse 8 that “anyone who preaches a contrary gospel is cursed.” Now, that’ll rattle you. Paul has a reputation for being really quick-tempered and really abrasive, but if you spent the month reading through each of his letters once a week or so, and you read through the book of Acts during that month as well, you come out the other side with a very different idea about Paul than you would get otherwise.
Throughout Paul’s letters, and throughout the Book of Acts, we see Paul compromising constantly. Paul gives the lie to the idea that “compromise” is a bad thing. His letters are filled with exhortations not to “compromise the gospel,” but every word on planet Earth means a handful of things, so the word “compromise” can mean “Find a good solution when two people have fundamentally differing goals,” – right? – or it can mean “Changing your message to something that sits easier with your audience as a way of benefiting yourself.” You know what I’m talking about?
That first kind of “compromise” is good. We see Paul doing that all the time. We see Paul going to whatever lengths he can reasonably go to to meet other people where they are and minister to them effectively. We see Paul going to whatever lengths he can reasonably go to in order to make others comfortable, to serve them, to “outdo them in showing honor,” as Romans chapter 12 says.
What we don’t see is Paul changing the gospel in order to please his audience. So much so that by the end of his life, by all indications, Paul was physically deformed from getting beaten to a bloody pulp so often. In the book of Acts, we see Paul getting lashed by the authorities, we see him beat down by neanderthal priests; at one point he gets taken outside of the city and stoned to death – that means that all the kids got sent to go find the heaviest rocks they could and bring them to their parents, all the men gather around and lob them at you until you no longer had the strength to get back up onto your feet, and then one of the most respected members of the village would come, pick up the heaviest rock, and smash your skull with it. Literally, that happened to Paul.
For some reason, a couple hours later, he gets back up, goes back into the city, preaches exactly the same obnoxious gospel, to exactly the same people – and when the guy you just stoned shows back up and preaches the same message, you hear it differently, you take it more seriously. You know what I’m talking about?
So Paul was all about good, healthy, godly compromise, but he gave absolutely no room to the kind of compromise that whitewashes the gospel in order to make it more appealing to your audience. So much so that he tells us that anyone who preaches a gospel that is fundamentally contrary to the gospel that he has preached to us is “cursed” like the priests of Baal at the altars in Bethel were “cursed.” Whoever preaches a different gospel is “Get Torn Apart By She-Bears At God’s Command”-level “cursed.”
Because there is exactly one gospel, and it’s been preached to us by Paul, it’s been preached to us by John, it’s been preached to us by James, it’s been preached to us by Peter, it’s been preached to us by Jude, it’s been preached to us by Mark, and Luke, and Matthew, and whoever wrote Hebrews. There is one gospel, and it’s been handed down to us for 2000 years.
It’s not a denominational thing. The gospel is not “Baptist,” it’s not even “Protestant,” Paul wasn’t throwing down with “the Methodists,” here, right? Paul is defending a gospel that every orthodox Christian throughout all of time and across all of the world has confessed since the death and resurrection of Jesus – that Jesus is Lord, and because Jesus is Lord, we can be reconciled to God.
And because we can be reconciled to God, we can be confident that, like John tells us in the Book of Revelation, everything – the whole universe, or multiverse, whatever, I’m not up to date on quantum physics – the whole creation will be reconciled to the God that we abandoned in the garden and restored to exactly what we were created to be.
Not only can we be reconciled to God through the Lord Jesus Christ, but – verse 6 – we are “called by the grace of Christ” to do exactly that. We are “called by the grace of Christ” to throw ourselves on his mercy, to be forgiven for our sin, to be made new, to be healed of every bit of crookedness that still haunts us.
We’ve been “called by the grace of Christ” to surrender to the God of the universe, to lay down our guns, to abandon our idols; Elisha would’ve said “Stop visiting the altars at Bethel,” Paul would say “Stay away from the temples to such-and-such Galatian idol, it could be any number of things today. We are “called by the grace of Christ” to abandon the idols that have taken hold over us and rest in the mercy of Jesus Christ.
That’s the whole thing. That is the gospel that Paul preached to us. That’s the gospel that his friend Peter preached to us in Acts chapter 2, when he told the crowd who had gathered for Pentecost, and I quote, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
It’s the same thing that Paul says 40 years later in 2nd Timothy, when he says in Chapter 2, and I quote, “God has saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Jesus Christ before the ages began.”
This is the gospel that’s been handed down to us. And it means we can rest.
There’s a very over-used quote by St. Augustine, and you’ve probably seen it on a coffee cup or a welcome mat: He says, “You have created us for yourself, O God, and my heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” And it’s overused, like I said, but it’s overused for a reason. It’s overused because it’s true. We exist to find our rest in the God who created us, and the restlessness that we feel 90% of the time is meant to shepherd us on towards that. So you can rest. You were created to.
If you’re like me and most of the folks I’ve ever met, that’s probably the most difficult thing I can tell you. There is something in me that refuses to allow me to rest. I tell people that they are “saved by the mercy of Jesus Christ” for a living and I spend nearly every moment of every day trying to justify myself before God by being hard-working enough or self-sufficient enough or morally upright enough or generous enough or smart enough or cool enough because there is something in us that absolutely refuses to rest.
There’s something in us that refuses to believe the gospel that Paul has preached to us, because believing the gospel that Paul has preached to us would mean resting in the mercy that God has shown us in Jesus Christ. It would mean resting in the reality that we are known by God. That God knows the worst of you, and he still wants to know you. That God is fully aware of how jacked up you are. He knows the most repulsive corners of your psyche. You know that stuff that you’ve thought and then immediately recoiled and picked up the phone and Googled “Therapists Near Me,” right? God knows the absolute worst things about you. He knows all of it. He knows you more intimately than you know you, and not one of those things has made him love you any less.
I have a tendency to turn everything into a call to “get over yourself.” When I read back through the sermons that I’ve preached here, they read more like “Calls To Action” than announcements of good news. So you might have the wrong idea, because I might have given you the wrong idea. Nothing I’ve told you has been false or misleading, but I’m not sure that I’ve been clear enough or loud enough or repetitive enough about the reality that you exist for one thing, and that is to rest in the mercy of God. You exist to know God, not as the “harsh taskmaster” who hangs over you with impossible demands, but as the one who enables you to rest.
So much so that in Hosea chapter 6, verse 6, God tells his people, “I desire the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” I don’t want what you can give me. I want you.
You are intimately loved by God with a love that your most passionate and tender care for other people can’t even come close to measuring up to. God loves you deeply, period. And because of the great love that God has for you in Jesus Christ, you can rest.
So as we’re worshipping the Lord through song, I’ll be at the front. There is nothing magic about the altar, but I’d love to pray with you, or talk you through what it would mean to “rest in the mercy of God.” Or, if you don’t want to come down the aisle, you can flag me down after church, or email me at the email that’s listed in the bulletin, and we can set a date and time, meet up, and talk about whatever’s on your heart.