If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 4, verses 12 through 20.
I beg you, brothers: Become like me, for I also became like you. You have not wronged me; 13 you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a physical illness. 14 You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you. On the contrary, you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.
15 What happened to this sense of being blessed you had? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?17 They are enthusiastic about you, but not for any good. Instead, they want to isolate you so you will be enthusiastic about them. 18 Now it is always good to be enthusiastic about good—and not just when I am with you. 19 My children, I am again suffering labor pains for you until Christ is formed in you. 20 I would like to be with you right now and change my tone of voice, because I don’t know what to do about you.
Today there’s kind of a weird thing where churches mostly focus on planting churches, like, nine states away among people they don’t know at all – like, a while back, I learned about a church in Raleigh, which I will not name, that was planted by a group of believers from Seattle, Washington. They moved to North Carolina from Seattle, Washington, they moved from the heart of secular America deep into the buckle of the Bible Belt and planted yet another church in a town like Raleigh that has nearly as many churches as it has humans. I have nothing bad to say about them, they might be doing great work, but it’s an odd strategy, right?
In fact, it’s the opposite of Paul’s strategy.
As far as we know, Paul spent most of his time traveling throughout the Roman empire, evangelizing in port cities and elsewhere. He would plant churches in large cities that were ideal for planting more churches in smaller cities in the surrounding area. He would plant the seed in the population centers, and as the years went on, they could expand their operations out into increasingly remote areas.
It would be a bit like planting a church in Wake Forest, and then after a few years, helping the folks from the churches in Wake Forest plant another church in Rolesville, or Youngsville, and then helping the folks in the church in Youngsville plant a church in Franklinton, and then after a few years helping the church in Franklinton plant a church in Louisburg. Paul would guide the process as, kind of, a “Spiritual father,” like he says in 2 Timothy, but the bulk of the work of evangelizing the region was on the Christians who already lived there. Paul is demonstrating with his life, what the old, dead Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon used to tell his congregation every week: “Every Christian is a missionary or an imposter.”
And as Paul was carrying out his missionary work, Acts 16 says something very strange – it says that “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia and were prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in Asia.” Luke doesn’t spell out what that means, but Paul tells us in today’s passage that he initially preached to the Galatians because of a physical illness, or ailment. It could mean he got sick, or it could mean he got injured, or it could mean that he temporarily lost his sight again.
One of the things we see throughout the letters of Paul is that he had a major issue with his eyes. He never spells it out, but there is a reason that most of Paul’s letters are co-written with somebody else. He’s usually writing alongside Timothy or Silas, or Luke, or somebody else because he can barely see what he’s writing most of the time, and when that’s not the case, he’s usually in prison for preaching illegally. But whatever the case, Paul was prevented by some major physical ailment from being able to move on into Asia at that point, so he settled down in Galatia for a while and preached the gospel to them.
And Paul says in verse 14 that they responded eagerly to the gospel that he preached to them. In fact, they were so eager to receive and be transformed by the gospel that Paul was preaching that they welcomed him into their fold even though Paul’s physical ailment meant that welcoming him into their community meant bringing on an additional dependent. You know what I’m talking about?
We live in an anti-dependence age. Everywhere you look, on television, on the nightly news, in dumb op-eds written in the local newspaper, you see people shaming anyone who has needs. If you have some unique emotional need as a result of past abuse, or some unique physical need as a result of some previous injury, or even if you have some unique need as a result of a developmental disorder, there are vultures waiting to shame you for it, and there are hordes of otherwise decent folks who are extremely susceptible to their rhetoric, right? The world serves a cult-of-self-reliance, and so if somebody like Paul showed up at our door-step we’d probably brush aside his gospel because we didn’t want to deal with his disability. Right?
But Paul says that the Galatians – so, a bunch of pagans from a rather horrifying group of religions that revolved primarily around bizarre sacrifices and weird sex stuff – these Galatians welcomed Paul into their fold in spite of his disability, in spite of the fact that bringing him in would be burdensome by most of our definitions, because they were eager to hear and accept and be transformed by his gospel.
That shouldn’t surprise us, because that’s how the gospel works.
Think back to your own conversion: I’m sure plenty of you were essentially Christian-from-the-cradle, and that’s a wonderful testimony to have, but for those who weren’t – consider how weird your conversion was; it’s weird that you didn’t care about the things of God, and then you did. That’s not normal. I was 16 and I didn’t want much of anything to do with my grandma’s religion, and then, for no reason, I wanted everything to do with my grandmother’s religion. That’s weird.
Because, as a general rule, “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and our hearts do not care about God’s glory, and we do not respond to his call to redemption, and we do not gravitate toward that desire he’s placed in us to be reconciled with him and restored in relationship until something happens that we really can’t explain – the Holy Spirit grips us somehow and draws us to our Father in heaven through the Son who gave himself for us and out of absolutely nowhere we can’t not care. Out of nowhere we can’t not come to the foot of the cross and lay ourselves down in submission to the Jesus who called us.
And when that happens, when our relationship with God is turned right-side up, our relationship with others begins to capsize and turn right-side up again, as well.
So, when I was a teenager, I was what sociologists refer to as a “misogynist dirtbag.” I was a straightforwardly bad person, and if I was dating your daughter, your daughter had a problem. I treated the women in my life horribly because that’s just who I was, and then, out of nowhere, I got gripped by the gospel, drawn out of my sin and into reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ, and I began to develop new desires. I began to grow a conscience in a way that I did not and could not beforehand.
And it changed the way I treated the people around me because Christ will not tolerate co-existing with your misogyny. Christ will not co-exist with your cruelty. Christ will not co-exist with any of the pet-sins that you nurse in secret or in the open, because Christ isn’t simply calling you to stop not believing and start believing, he is calling you to submit yourself to his Lordship, to pull yourself out of the shape you’ve come to take as a resident of this present, evil age, like Paul says in the opening of the letter, and instead allow the Holy Spirit to shape you into the image of Jesus.
He’s calling you to submit yourself to the Spirit’s work to make you every bit as kind and compassionate and holy and gentle and honest and welcoming and sober-minded as the Jesus who created you in the beginning and redeemed you in the cross. Like Paul says in verse 19, Christ’s mission is “that Christ would be formed in you.” And as a result of that, the Galatians respond very differently to Paul’s disability than you’d expect.
They brush aside the cult-of-self-reliance at work in both their culture and ours, and they say, “We want this man in our midst no matter what adjustments we have to make to our own lifestyles to support him.” “We want to integrate this man into our community and welcome him completely, no matter what we have to do to make our community accessible to him.” They welcome him with open arms rather than turning him away as a burden because the gospel has already begun its work in them, very much like it will do its work with us.
So they received him, verse 14, as though he were Christ himself, and they received his gospel as though it came directly from Christ.
There’s a good principle in that. Because notice what Paul does not say: Paul does not say that they accepted his words as “God’s words.” Ever heard somebody get up in a pulpit and say something along the lines of, “Listen up, God’s speaking to you!” That’s usually well-intentioned, but it’s not quite accurate.
The Galatians received Paul’s gospel as though it were from Christ himself, and that’s exactly how we should “receive” teaching. You hear from God by hearing the gospel. Not by hearing my views and opinions. You hear from God by hearing from the Bible. That’s the way God speaks to us, and it’s almost accurate to say that it’s the only way God speaks to us.
That means that anybody who occupies this pulpit has two jobs, the first is to proclaim the gospel, and the second is to exposit, or explain, the passage that we’re walking through. But it also means that anybody sitting in these pews has a job of their own: You need to measure anything that I, and any preacher ever, says according to how well it matches up with the scriptures.
Because I might explain the passage wrong, because I might read the passage wrong, because I am human and fallible, because although the Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures also indwells us and guides us into all truth, he does that over the course of a lifetime and beyond. There’s no upgrade we can purchase from heaven that we just plug into the USB port in our brains that uploads, kind of, exhaustive knowledge of the scriptures into our mainframe, right? That’s not how it works.
Even a seminary degree doesn’t guard you from all errors, or even most errors. There’s no panacea for doctrinal error, so it’s important to recognize that Paul is not commending the Galatians for accepting his words uncritically as God’s words, because they didn’t accept his words as God’s words. What they did was recognize that the gospel that Paul preached didn’t come from Paul.
Paul wasn’t preaching himself. He wasn’t selling a brand. He wasn’t selling Paul. He was preaching Christ Crucified, he was preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, to reconcile you to God for eternity starting now, and they recognized that this was not a product of Paul’s creativity, it was simply Paul’s response to having encountered the risen Jesus in Damascus and then reading the scriptures backwards and recognizing the fingerprints of Jesus there from the beginning.
They accepted Paul’s gospel as though it came from Christ himself, and that’s exactly how you should approach anything that comes out of this pulpit. My opinions are not from Christ himself. My interpretation of the Bible is not from Christ itself. My style of delivery and mannerisms and personality are not from Christ himself, but the gospel is. And that means that if you haven’t heard the gospel on a given morning you’ve heard nothing from God in the sermon.
If the person preaching to you hasn’t reminded you of the good news of God’s gracious gift of redemption – if the person in the pulpit hasn’t preached that to you on a given Sunday morning, all they’ve given you is their homework. They’ve shown their work, line by line, but they’re not giving you anything that you can receive as though it were from Christ himself.
It might encourage you, but what it will not do is “form Christ in you.” “7 Steps to having a healthier marriage” might seriously benefit you, but if those 7 steps to having a healthier marriage don’t make their way to Ephesians 5, that our marriages are a symbol of the gospel – that our marriages to each other are shadows of our mutual marriage to the Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us to reconcile us to God and raise us from our deadness in sin – then they’re not giving you anything that you can receive as though it were from Christ himself.
Because what we desperately need is not simply an action plan that’ll “get us from point A to point B,” “into greener pastures.” We need the gospel that Paul has preached to us. We need “the faith once delivered.” I don’t just need to taught how to “do better.” I need to be reminded constantly and fervently of how I went from being deader than dead to being alive in Christ. I don’t just need to be encouraged toward the finished line, I need to be woken up and carried to the starting line. I need to hear the gospel every single day and receive it as though it were from Christ himself, because it is. Anything else is like giving me saline water when I’m desperately thirsty.
And yet, as we see in Galatians, there is something in us that reaches out for poor substitutes to the gospel. Paul says in verse 16 that after the “circumcision party” showed up and started, kind of, counter-evangelizing them, the Galatians started to turn their back on Paul and the gospel that he’d preached to them. So much so that Paul becomes exasperated and says, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?”
They began treating Paul like an enemy for pushing back against the false gospel that the folks from the circumcision party were peddling, because there is something in us that revolts against the good news of Christ crucified for us, right? There’s something in us that presses back against the good rest that God offers us in Jesus Christ and instead reaches out for things that are exhausting but enticing.
Like, think about your own experience. How often do threats to your faith actually come from the outside? I know that the Christian Broadcasting Company and Christian radio and so on and so forth have built an entire cottage industry on making us feel perpetually persecuted but when you step back and take stock, the actual threats you face in your walk with Christ come from you. You know what I’m talking about?
When I waver in my faith it’s rarely out of fear of what non-Christians are going to think of me, it’s almost always because I’ve swan-dived into a weird stupor where I reach for counterfeit gospels that are enticing but exhausting. I’ll read a new book by some popular author and it’ll be filled with dumbfoundingly specific prescriptions for how to have a Great Christian WalkTM. You know what I’m talking about? How to have a Great Spiritual Life. How to be Happy In Jesus. How to Pass Your Faith On To Your Children.
And the list goes on, and on, and on, and you read the newest hip, Christian book and instead of coming away edified and encouraged in your relationship with Jesus you’re downcast because you’ve just spent a few hundred pages getting waterboarded about “Why You Aren’t Happier and Why You Aren’t More Spiritual and Why You Don’t Feel The Right Emotions When You Pray And Read Your Bible And Sing In Church from throwaway books written by people who look like they went to a plastic surgeon and got a horrifyingly large smile permanently branded into their face. You feel me?
The draw towards “Do More” “Be Better” is enticing and it makes you feel like you’re doing something, but it’s exhausting, and, in some cases it’s a counterfeit gospel.
But counterfeit gospels are addictive, right?
Once Paula White has convinced you that God will miraculously heal your illness if your faith is pure enough and your tithe check is thick enough, the good news of Christ crucified for your sin and raised up to reconcile you to God will never satisfy your appetite for novelty. Once you’ve got it in your head that you can “Do More” “Be Better” if you’ll just follow this or that set of rigidly delineated spiritual practices then the rest that God offers you in Jesus Christ becomes “old hat,” it feels dry and arid and unconnected to your immediate emotional needs. Counterfeit gospels are addictive.
But they will not “form Christ in us,” verse 19.
That’s what Paul comes back to constantly, so it’s what we will come back to constantly. Nothing but the gospel will form Christ in us. Yelling at you week in and week out about why you’re not better or why you’re not more spiritual or why you’re not nicer or wiser or cooler makes you feel like you’ve heard something “deep” and “challenging” but it does absolutely nothing to make you holier. It does absolutely nothing to change your heart.
That’s why Paul has zero interest in making us feel bad about ourselves by whipping us for our insufficiency: Because absolutely nothing I can tell you will form Christ in you except the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for your sin.
And that’s counterintuitive. That is completely counter to what you hear on Doctor Phil or what you you read in pop psychology books that you buy at the airport, right? When Paul says that the message of Christ crucified is foolishness to the folks who don’t believe it, he’s not kidding. It sounds like foolishness. Because in what universe does telling someone that they are fully, and freely forgiven for everything they’ve ever done and everything they’ll ever do get them to do anything for you?
Conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to hold things over people and motivate them with rewards and punishments and so on and so forth, you know what I’m talking about? If you ever been into a coffee shop or a Bojangles, you’ve probably heard a handful of older men complain about how kids are so bad today cuz they don’t have to go “pick their switch” and get beat when they act up against their parents. And yet this is very much like that but on a cosmic scale. The gospel sounds like foolishness, but Paul is convinced that it’s the only thing that isn’t foolishness.
Because threatening you with “hellfire” might temporarily change your behavior, but it will not change your heart. I might scare you into being a little less rebellious than you would have been, but it cannot make you want to love your neighbor. It cannot make you love the Lord and want to obey him out of that love, because bribing you with the thought of going to heaven or scaring you with the thought of going to hell cannot make you a new person. It cannot make you a new creation. Only the gospel can.
But it will. The gospel will change you. The gospel will turn you into something very different than you were. The gospel will melt you down into absolutely nothing and then form you into something that looks like the Jesus that we read about in the Bible. The gospel will form Christ in you. Over against everything you’ve heard about how to change yourself, or how to change your kids, or how to change your friends or change your spouse or change your anybody, the gospel changes you by clearing away every last bit of debt and every last bit of punishment and every last bit of fear and trading it for God’s unconditional love and acceptance and safety.
The gospel reassures you that you are already perfectly loved in Jesus Christ. You are already wholy accepted in Jesus Christ. You don’t have to earn your way into God’s good graces because God’s good graces are already on you. God has fully embraced you in Jesus Christ and there is absolutely nothing you can do to overthrow that.
And as God embraces you, it changes you. Sitting at God’s table, enveloped in his unconditional love, you become a new creation. The old you, with all your bitterness and all your hate and all your self-pity and your stubbornness melt away and the you that God replaces it with looks very much like Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. That is our great hope.