Normally when we’re studying one of the New Testament letters, we have to go at a fairly slow pace. We normally study only a few verses at a time, because the writers pack so much in to each verse; and every sentence is filled with things we need to know. For instance, we’ve spent two Sundays on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and we’ve only cover ten verses so far. In fact, I could have spent even longer on those ten verses; and there are some preachers who might spend a week on each verse, because each verse contains so much for us to learn.
Today, though, I want to take in one go a fairly lengthy passage. I want us to consider in one go the whole of the passage we read a moment ago from verse 11 of chapter 1 to verse 21 of chapter 2. And the reason I want to take it in one go is because this whole passage belongs together. These verses contain a narrative. In other words, Paul is telling us a story. In fact, it’s the story of three events.
The first event — which we find in verses 11 to 24 of chapter 1 — is the story of the time when the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Of course, at that time, Paul was known as Saul. And at that time, he wasn’t a believer; just the opposite, in fact, because at that time Paul persecuted the church. But the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus appeared to him and changed him. That’s the first part of this narrative.
Then — in verses 1 to 10 of chapter 2 — he tells the story of the time when he went up to Jerusalem and met some of the apostles. And they welcomed him and extended to him the right hand of fellowship.
And the third part of the narrative is in verses 11 to 21 of chapter 2; and in those verses Paul tells the story of the time when he rebuked Peter, because Peter was behaving in a way which contradicted the truth of the gospel. And Paul records for us some of the things he said to Peter at that time.
So, this whole passage is a narrative, Paul is telling the story of the time he met the Risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus; and the time he met the apostles in Jerusalem; and the time he rebuked Peter in Antioch. And perhaps we can summarise the three stories by saying that the first story is about how Paul received the gospel from God; the second story is about how the leaders of the church in Jerusalem agreed with Paul’s gospel; and the third story is about how Paul defended the gospel before Peter.
And, of course, what we read in this passage is connected to what we’ve already read. In verses 6 to 10 of chapter 1 Paul expressed his astonishment that the believers in the Galatian churches had so quickly turned away from Paul’s gospel to a different gospel, which was really no gospel at all. Paul’s gospel is that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in Jesus Christ alone. God pardons and accepts whoever believes in Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world. But now some false teachers were saying to the Galatians that faith in Christ is not enough. Faith in Christ is not enough. They were saying that in order to be justified — pardoned and accepted by God — you need to add something more, something extra, to your faith. They were saying that sinners are justified through faith and through works of the law. God will only accept you if you obey the law. That’s what they were saying.
And Paul was writing to the Galatians to persuade them that what these false teachers were saying is not the gospel. It’s not the gospel. The true gospel is the one which Paul preached. And in today’s passage Paul makes clear that he received this gospel from God; and when he went to see the apostles, they agreed with the gospel he preached.
So, let’s turn to this passage to study it today.
And, as I’ve said, in verses 11 to 24 of chapter 1, Paul tells the story of how the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
Paul begins by saying to his readers that he wants them to know that the gospel he preached to them was not something man made up. Think about all the different religions and philosophies and the ideas in the world, which different people have devised. Someone has come up with some idea and made it known. And this person’s idea has caught on in the world and it’s been accepted by many others. Think of something simple like a diet. Someone has an idea about a new diet and they publish it in a book. And people read the book and are persuaded by it; and hundreds and thousands of people adopt this new diet. Where did this diet come from? Well, someone made it up. Someone devised it. It might be a good idea. It might be a bad idea. But it was an idea which someone made up and made known.
But Paul’s gospel was not like that. Paul’s gospel is in an entirely different category than that. It’s not something Paul himself came up with; and it’s not something which another person came up with. Paul says in verse 12 that he did not receive the gospel from any man, nor was he taught it. No one took him aside and educated him in this gospel. No, he received the gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Once Paul did not believe the gospel. In fact, he reminds his readers how he used to persecute the church and he wanted to destroy it. Once he was full of zeal for Judaism, which emphasised the importance of keeping God’s law. Once Paul did not believe the gospel. But — he then adds in verse 15 — God then revealed his Son to him. And the reason God revealed his Son to him on the road to Damascus was because God had set Paul apart from birth to be an apostle; and on the road to Damascus God called him to preach the good news about Jesus Christ among the Gentiles.
No one taught him this gospel about Jesus Christ. But God revealed it to him. And afterwards, he didn’t consult with any man. Do you see that at the end of verse 16? Nor did he go up to Jerusalem immediately to consult with the apostles. You see, he didn’t need to consult with them or ask them about the gospel, because the Lord God had revealed the gospel to him in this extraordinary way when he was on the road to Damascus.
Now, we need people to teach us. We’re like the Ethiopian eunuch whom we read about in Acts 8 who was reading the Old Testament about the suffering servant; and he was scratching his head, because he didn’t understand what was he was reading; and he needed someone to explain it to him. That’s what we’re like; we need people to teach us the gospel and to explain it to us. And God ordinarily makes the gospel known through other people who teach it to us. But God acted in an extra-ordinary way in Paul’s life so that he received it by revelation.
And so, Paul tells his readers how he went away to Arabia and only later returned to Damascus. And when he did eventually go up to Jerusalem three years later, he met only a few apostles and only briefly. Really, he kept himself to himself and was not widely known at that time. And the point of all this is that no one taught him the gospel; and he didn’t need to sit at anyone’s feet to learn the gospel. He wasn’t going from church to church at that time to learn about the gospel. He didn’t do that, because he had received the gospel directly from God.
In verses 1 to 10 of chapter 2, Paul tells the story of the time when he went to Jerusalem and met the apostles.
‘Fourteen years later’, he says in verse 1. Presumably he means fourteen years after he met the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus. So, fourteen years after that, he went up to Jerusalem again. This time he went with Barnabas and Titus. And he tells his readers that he went up to Jerusalem in response to a revelation. It’s not entirely clear, but it’s possible he’s referring to what we read in Acts 11:27–30, where we read that a prophet named Agabus came to Antioch and predicted that a severe famine would spread through the entire Roman world. The disciples in Antioch therefore decided to provide help to their needy brothers and sisters in Judea; and Paul and Barnabas were appointed to take their gift to the elders in Jerusalem. And so, Paul might be referring to that visit here in Galatians 2.
In any case, he went up to Jerusalem and set before the leaders of the church the gospel he had been preaching. He tells us that he did this privately, ‘for fear that he was running or had run his race in vain.’ That might seem to us that Paul had some doubts about whether he had got the gospel right. However, I don’t think that’s the case. It’s more likely that he means he needed to get the leaders on his side, because his ministry would be hindered if the apostles and leaders of the church in Jerusalem had their doubts about him. He wanted their backing and support.
And he got it, because it’s clear that they agreed with Paul and his understanding of the gospel. Even though some false brothers had managed to sneak in and were now saying that Titus ought to obey the law and be circumcised, the leaders of the church did not agree with those false brothers. The leaders of the church understood that circumcision is not necessary for salvation, because the only thing that counts is faith in Christ.
And look at the end of verse 7: the church leaders in Jerusalem did not add to Paul’s message in any way. And according to verse 7 they recognised that God had entrusted Paul with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Jews. In other words, they recognised that Paul had been called by God to preach the gospel. And since they were satisfied with the gospel message he preached, and since they were satisfied that he had been called by God, the leaders of the church gave Paul the right hand of fellowship. They accepted him as a brother in the Lord and a fellow preacher of the gospel, because they recognised that God had graciously called him. The only extra point they raised was that Paul and his companions should continue to remember the poor, but Paul himself was eager to do that.
So, there you are. Paul had received the gospel from God whenever the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. And the apostles and leaders of the church agreed with the gospel he preached.
Before moving on, it’s perhaps worth saying a word about the way Paul refers in these verses to the leaders in Jerusalem. In a way, he seems a bit dismissive of them, doesn’t he? In verse 2 he refers to them as those who seemed to be leaders. In verse 6 he refers to them as those who seemed to be important, but whatever they were made no difference to him. In verse 9 he refers to those who were reputed to be pillars of the church. He seems reluctant to recognise their authority, doesn’t he?
However, several of the commentators are careful to explain that Paul did recognise their authority. After all, he appeared before them and was pleased that they gave him the right hand of fellowship. Christians must not have a rebellious or stubborn streak that refuses to submit to leaders in the church, because the authorities that exist both in the world and in the church have been established by God. Nevertheless Paul was trying to make clear to his readers in Galatia that he did not rely on any mere man or woman for his understanding of the gospel. The gospel he preached was not something that man made up. And he didn’t receive it from any man, not even an apostle or one of the leaders in Jerusalem. Yes, those apostles and leaders are worthy of respect. But Paul did not get the gospel from them, but from God himself.
And so, we come to the third part of this narrative when Paul tells the story of the time he had to rebuke Peter. He tells us of how Peter came to Antioch; and for a time he was happy to eat with the Gentile believers. Eating with the Gentile believers was a way of showing that he accepted them as fellow believers. Sure, they hadn’t been circumcised. Nor did they follow all the Old Testament laws about what to eat. Nor did they follow all the traditions which had been developed over time. Nevertheless, they were trusting in Christ for salvation; and that’s all that matters. All of those Old Testament laws about circumcision and food were fine for Israel in the days of the Old Testament. But they had become unimportant, now that Christ had come and had died for sinners.
However, once certain men came from James in Jerusalem, Peter began to draw back and to separate himself from those Gentile believers. It was as if he no longer accepted them as fellow believers, because they hadn’t been circumcised.
Paul explains in verse 12 that Peter was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. Now, we don’t really know who the circumcision group were and why exactly Peter was afraid of them. However, it’s more important for us to note that because of what Peter did, the other Jewish believers in Antioch — even Barnabas — followed his example and separated themselves from the Gentile believers.
When Paul saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, he rebuked Peter. The problem Paul had with Peter is this: since God had accepted these Gentiles believers, it was necessary for Peter to accept them too and not to make any further demands on them. God had accepted them because they trusted in Christ. And since God had accepted them, Peter should accept them as well, without insisting that they should also be circumcised.
And in the verses which follow, Paul recalls what he said to Peter. And by doing so, he makes the gospel clear. Look at verses 15 and 16 where Paul really makes three points.
He says, firstly, that we know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ. So, sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — not by obeying the law, but by trusting in Christ the Saviour.
Next Paul says that he and Peter have therefore put their faith in Christ Jesus, so that they may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law. Instead of relying on the law and on their own ability to keep the law, they are now relying, trusting, in Christ Jesus and on what he has done for sinners.
And the third thing he says is at the end of verse 16: by observing the law, no one will be justified. No one will be justified — pardoned and accepted by God — by observing the law. No one. And, of course, no one will be justified by observing the law, because none of us is able to observe the law perfectly. All of us are lawbreakers. Some of us have broken it a lot. Some of us have broken it only a little. But all of us have broken the law.
You see, none of us has done all that God has commanded in his law, because not only did God command the Jews to be circumcised and to follow certain rules and regulations about what to eat and drink, but he also commands all people everywhere to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength all of the time. And none of us has done that. And God has also commanded all people everywhere to love our neighbour as ourselves all the time. And none of us has done that.
None of us has done what God has commanded in his law. All of us are lawbreakers. So, no one will be justified by keeping the law, because the law only condemns us. It reveals our shortcomings and our sins and our guilt. It reveals to us that we deserve to be condemned by God as lawbreakers. That’s what the law reveals to us. But the gospel reveals to us that the way to be saved, the way to be justified — pardoned and accepted by God — is by trusting in the Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Jump down to verse 20 now, because in this verse, Paul makes clear that while we’re not justified by keeping the law, nevertheless the person who is justified by faith in Christ becomes obedient to God. Paul says in verse 20:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
What he means is this: whenever Paul first believed in Christ — who died for sinners — the person he once was, and the life he once lived, died. The person he once was was under God’s condemnation as a lawbreaker. Despite all his efforts to keep the law, Paul was still a lawbreaker. And since he was a lawbreaker, he was under God’s condemnation. But that person died whenever he trusted in Christ for salvation.
And then, when he first believed in Christ — who was raised from the dead — Paul too was raised from the dead to live a new kind of life. And it’s a new kind of life because Christ lives in his believing people by his Spirit. And so, it’s a new kind of life, because whoever believes has the help of the Holy Spirit to obey the Lord. And what Paul says about himself is true for whoever believes, because whenever we believe in Christ, our old life of sin and shame dies and we’re raised with Christ to live a new life of obedience.
The law says to us: ‘Do this.’ But the law can’t help us to do what God requires. And the law only condemns us, because it makes clear that we’re lawbreakers and sinners. But when we believe in the Lord Jesus, we’re pardoned by God so that there’s now no condemnation for those who trust in Christ. And more than that, when we believe in the Lord Jesus, he comes and lives in us by his Spirit; and he helps us to do God’s will and to obey his commands like never before.
By observing the law, no one will be justified. Or as Paul puts it in verse 21, righteousness — being right with God — cannot be gained through the law. But whoever trusts in Christ — who died to pay for our sins — is justified before God.
People sometimes say to me that they’re not sure whether they’re good enough for God. But none of us is good enough. There is only one person who was good enough; and that one person is the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s the only person who has obeyed God’s law perfectly.
But the good news of the gospel — which you’re to believe — is that Christ laid down his life as the ransom price to set you free from the condemnation you deserve for your sins. He shed his blood to cleanse you from your guilt.
And so, instead of trusting in yourself and in your own goodness, instead of trying to climb up to God by your good deeds, trust in the Lord Jesus, so that you will be justified by faith in Christ, because whoever believes in Christ is pardoned and accepted by God.
It seems too good to be true. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Is that all we have to do? How can we know this is true? How can we know Paul wasn’t mistaken? We know it’s true, because the gospel which Paul preached is the gospel he received directly from the Lord. And so, we know it’s true and we know that whoever trusts in Christ receives the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life.