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Way of Grace Church

Gospel-Centered Unity


Gospel-Centered Unity
Galatians 2:1-10
(One Body: You Shall Be My People)
May 13th, 2012

 

 

I. What Unites Us?

 

Listen to the following quote from a Washington Post article from late last year:

 

“It seems almost impossible to imagine in today’s overheated, hyperpartisan environment. But there was a brief time in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 , 2001, when congressional leaders of the two parties regarded one another not only as trustworthy allies but also as indispensable partners.”

 

It was the kind of spirit that then president George W. Bush, quoting Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, would go on to call “the warm courage of national unity”.

 

You might remember that sense in the country in the wake of “9-11”. But this morning, what I'd like to point out is that that reality was a good example of what happens when we look at what distinguishes us through the lens of what unites us. (2x) During that time we were not first Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or Easterners, Southerners, and Westerners, or  white, black, or brown. We were first, and above all, Americans standing against a common foe.

 

This morning we are continuing our study in Paul's letter to the Galatians. So turn if you have not already done so to Galatians 2. We're going to 'dive in' to verses 1-10 this morning.

 

 

II. The Passage: “The Right Hand of Fellowship” (2:1-10)

 

If you were here last week then you might recall that beginning in verse 11 of chapter 1, the Apostle Paul felt it was absolutely critical that he defend the validity of his calling as an apostle of Jesus. And as we talked about, the reason Paul was driven to defend himself as a messenger was ultimately in order to defend the message he had proclaimed among them.

 

You see, the churches of Galatia were young churches that were established after Paul and Barnabas had brought the message of Jesus Christ, also known as the “gospel” (lit. the 'good news'), to these predominantly non-Jewish people. Verse 7 of chapter 1 makes it clear that certain false teachers had infiltrated these churches and were troubling the faith of these Christians by distorting the gospel Paul had brought to them.

 

So as we look at verse 1 of chapter 2, we find ourselves in the second half of Paul's defense. And as we talked about previously, one of the issues Paul is trying to correct is the false notion of these false teachers that Paul was orginially trained by and commissioned by the church in Jerusalem.

 

These teachers, who had most likely themselves come from the Jerusalem Church, seem to have been telling the Galatians that Paul had “gone rogue”; that he was straying from his original commission by the original apostles in Jerusalem, and announcing a watered-down, easy -to-swallow gospel to non-Jewish, or Gentile, audiences.

 

 

A. Unity and Diversity (2:1, 2, 6-10)

 

So in chapter 1, Paul has already talked about both his former life as a persecutor of the church AND how Jesus Christ gave him a supernatural 'wake up call' while on the road to Damascus. He has also begun to explain, in 1:18, the reality of his 'relationship' to the Jerusalem church. Let's take a look at the continuation of that explanation in 2:1...

 

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. [2] I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain[now skip down to verse 6 with me]... [6] And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. [7] On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised [8] (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), [9] and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. [10] Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

 

So back in chapter 1, Paul made it clear that the only time he was in Jerusalem was three years after his conversion from being a persecutor of Christ, to being an apostle of Christ. And on that visit he only stayed 15 days, and only saw Peter (aka Cephas) and James, the half-brother of Jesus. But here Paul tells the Galatians about a second trip he made to Jerusalem this time fourteen years after his conversion to Christ.

 

What we are told in verse 2 is that Paul went up to to Jerusalem, probably from Antioch in the north, Paul went up because of a revelation; either something God revealed to him directly or through one of the prophets who were active in the early church. However the message came, Paul knew he had to go to Jerusalem and see the other apostles. His mission was simple: share with them the message that was given to him by Jesus and make sure they had not somehow buried the true gospel under layers of Jewish practice.

 

That's what he means here when he writes, “to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain”. As chapter 1 makes clear, Paul had no doubts about the gospel he was proclaiming. But he was concerned about certain Jews from the church in Jerusalem who were coming to Antioch, certain Jews who might undermine the work Paul and Barnabas were doing among the non-Jewish people there.

 

So, no, Paul was trained and commissioned by the Jerusalem Church. As a fellow apostle commissioned by Jesus himself, Paul was not under their authority. But God (remember the “revelation?) did want him to go and recognize and affirm his unity with the other Apostles.

You see, God loves to see his people walk in the unity that was forged by the work of Jesus Christ. Remember how Jesus prayed in John 17:20-23...

 

“I do not ask for these only [the original followers], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. [22] The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

Paul would later write to Christians in Ephesus saying, “I...urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, [2] with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, [3] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3) Our unity is from the Spirit. It is not something we make. It is something we “maintain”.

 

Brothers and sisters, are we united as a church family? The answers is definitely “yes” and maybe “no”. What does that mean? It means, “yes”, any who truly belong to Christ by faith are united by His Spirit. But at the same, we might not be maintaining that unity. So what does this passage teach us about maintaining the “unity of the Spirit”?

 

 

1. Unity in the Gospel (vs. 2, 7, 10)

 

Well, notice first that our unity is a unity in the gospel.

 

The gospel, the message of hope in Jesus Christ, this gospel is what Paul sets before the other apostles in verse 2. Again in verse 7, the other apostles recognize that Paul has been entrusted by God with “the gospel”, AND they recognize this gospel is the same gospel Peter was also proclaiming. It is “the gospel” set before the Jerusalem apostles that allows them to “perceive the grace that was given to” Paul (v. 9), and therefore, it is “the gospel” that calls them to extend “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul and Barnabas.

 

Way of Grace church, is it the gospel that unites us? Is our unity a gospel-centered unity? Or...are we united around something else? Maybe our unity is centered on the kind of music we sing. Or maybe our unity is centered on the way we “do” church. Maybe we feel united because we have made friends with like interests, or because our location is convenient, or because we like the children's classes.

 

There are so many reasons a person can want to be united with a church and feel united to a church: friendliness, music, traditions, a support system, a favorite pastor, a favorite program, a casual atmosphere, a hip atmosphere, simplicity, liturgy, family, consistency... “because there are people like me there”. Take those things away, and this kind of person feels lost, disconnected; they are discontent, and begin looking elsewhere.

 

But what God is reminding us of in this passage is that the gospel is the 'tie that binds us'. Paul and the other apostles were not united because they were all Jews. They were not united because they all liked studying theology. They were not united because they thought Jerusalem was a really swell city.

No, their fellowship was forged by the gospel. They knew they stood together because Jesus had 'stood in' for all of them on the cross. Their connection was through His crucifixion. They were forgiven because He was forsaken. Their bond was His blood. They had been redeemed by the same Savior. By His grace, they were all serving the same Master. While the rest of the world  was asleep in sin, they were all awake because of the gospel.

 

Brothers and sisters, are we united as a church family because we have embraced the gospel, because we see the gospel at work among us, because we want go grow in the gospel, because we are reminded and want to remind others of the gospel, because we are united around the belief that the gospel of Jesus is the only hope for our community?

 

Our unity in the Spirit was made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus. And only when we maintin that message in our hearts and relationships and ministry, will we maintain our unity.

 

 

2. Unity without Partiality (vs. 2, 6, 9)

 

But notice something else this passage tells us about our gospel-centered unity. We see in verses 2, 6, and 9 that this unity is a unity without partiality.

 

When Paul talks about the other apostles, he talks about those who “seemed influential” (vs. 2, 6), those who “seemed to be pillars” (v. 9). Clearly Paul is trying to counter the picture painted by his critics in Galatia. He is trying to counter the idea that these apostles somehow had authority over him. Paul knows that if he simply talks about those who were “influential” and those who were “pillars”, he will paint himself into a corner.

 

But it is the gospel that drives Paul to declare in verse 6, what they [the other apostles] were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality. It is the gospel that reminds us we are all guilty because of sin. It is the gospel that reminds us everyone who is saved is saved only by God's grace. It is the gospel that prepares our hearts for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, who can boast?

 

God does not play favorites. No one will lord it over Paul, because there is only one Lord. Therefore, among God's people, none of us should believe we are God's favorite, OR that someone else is God's favorite. None of us should rank and classify ourselves or others. We are all sinners saved by grace. We are all sons and daughters of God, because the Son of God gave His life for us. We are all co-heirs of salvation. Therefore, as we see in verse 10, all of us should have a heart for brothers and sisters who are struggling in poverty. Are we standing together with them on the level ground in front of Jesus's cross?

 

Our unity is a unity without partiality.

 

 

3. Unity with Diversity (vs. 7-9)

 

But notice one more thing we learn here about our unity in the gospel. Look again at verses 7-9. Notice how Paul talks in those verses about he was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised  (v. 7)

And because of this distinction, James and Peter and John affirmed that Paul and Barnabas should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (v. 9)

 

You see, our unity is not absolute uniformity. Within our unity, there is diversity. Paul was called to focus on the non-Jewish nations. Peter was called to focus on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (cf. Matthew 10:6; 15:24). Today in the church, some may have a passion for reaching children, others may focus on the poor and unemployed. Some may want to be more direct. Some may want to build slowly. Some have lots of ideas. Others want to keep it simple. Some want to lift our eyes to far off shores. Others want to show us the unreached corners of our own community.

 

We won't all plan, package, and proceed in the exact same way, but we should all be united around the same gospel. You see, we should all look at what distinguishes us through the lens of what unites us. And sometimes it’s that very impulse that helps us reach out and hold on to one another, even when differences tempt us to stay where it’s comfortable. May God keep us from allowing our differences to overshadow our bond in the gospel. That will always be the temptation, and we need to guard against it.

 

 

B. Disunity and Divergence (2:3-5)

 

But when we talk about unity and diversity, we need to qualify that conversation with a clear statement about disunity and divergence. That's exactly what Paul does in verses 3-5. Look at those with me:

 

But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. [4] Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—[5] to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

 

Now you can tell, even from the English translation, that Paul's syntax is pretty bumpy here. I think this indicates (along with 6:11) that Paul was dictating the letter, and was getting caught up in the intensity of what he was talking about. And what exactly was Paul talking about?

 

Paul is talking about, for the first time explicitly in this letter, he is talking about the distorted gospel that had the Galatians under its spell. It was a gospel that made the Jewish ritual of circumcision a must, even for non-Jewish people. And as we will see later in the letter, it was a gospel that made all of the Jewish laws a must for the Gentiles.

 

But as Paul makes abundantly clear in verse 4, those requirements are directly opposed to the freedom of the gospel.  Therefore, when there was some pressure from a group of “false brothers” in Jerusalem, pressure to have Titus, a Greek, circumcised, Paul assures the Galatians that he and Barnabas “did not yield in submission even for a moment” (v. 5). And they were unwavering with this Gentile in order to preserve the truth of the gospel for every Gentile.

 

You see, when we talk about unity and diversity among God's people, we have to qualify that by stating explicitly and emphatically that diversity in regard to the content of the gospel is completely incompatible with true unity.

 

There can be and will be and even should be differences among us. But there cannot be differences when it comes to the gospel. We can never sacrifice the truth of the gospel in order to maintain what we perceive to be unity. If it is not the gospel that unites us, the gospel announced and applied, there is no real unity.

 

And so, like Paul, and like the nation in the wake of 9-11, we need to be vigilant. The Apostle presents a disturbing idea here: there are, in fact, “false brothers” out there. And in different ways, to different degrees, these “false brothers” are used by our Enemy the devil to “be secretly brought in”, to slip in, to spy on us, to ultimately bring us into slavery. Wouldn’t it be disturbing to find out there were people out there who were trying to pass themselves off as members of your family, as your brother or sister by blood? That would make you vigilant!

 

We need to be vigilant in terms of our own understanding of the gospel, and we need to be vigilant in terms of the ideas and actions of others. God has not called us to be judgmental, but He has called us to be discerning.

 

 

III. Living in Unity

 

This morning, part 2 of Paul’s defense here has reminded us that in spite of our differences, we are united by the gospel. In conclusion, we might ask the question, “What are some practical ways that we can live in this kind of unity?”

 

Well, let me give you four simple ideas that come right out of the passage here: 1) like Paul’s revelation in verse 2, we need to be sensitive to God’s word to us. God want us to hear from Him each day, through the Bible. He wants us to be deeply rooted in the wonderful truths of the gospel. 2) Just as Paul did in Jerusalem, we need to set the gospel before one another on a regular basis. Do we have these kinds of relationships with one another, one’s in which we can set the truth before others, and have the truth set before us in love? That’s the very thing we want to more faithfully nurture here at Way of Grace. 3) Just as we saw in verse 9, we need to perceive the grace that God has given to others in this church family.  We need to rejoice because of and be encouraged by what God has done and is doing in each other’s life. That goes an incredibly long way in maintaining the unity of the Spirit. And finally, 4) we need to spur one another on to faithful service by affirming our solidarity with each other. The apostles in Jerusalem extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas, not so they could enjoy a potluck together, but to affirm them in their mission. Are we doing the same with one another, through encouragement and prayer?

 

Brothers and sisters, God has called to walk together in a gospel-centered unity. I love this blessing Paul gave to the church in Rome. Listen to what it tells us about unity:

 

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, [6] that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. [7] Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:5-7). Amen.

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