One of the most revolutionary pieces of scripture available to us is Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia. When I say revolutionary, I mean in the sense of who said it and what was said.
First, a piece of background.
The astounding fact of the resurrection and its implications for the Jewish religion posed a fascinating conundrum for the earliest Jesus followers. It confirmed that not only was Jesus the promised Messiah, he was God himself in human form. Following that first Easter Sunday there was overwhelming evidence that Jesus was alive, active and powerful and was who he said he was. This was no sleight of hand or mass delusion. Too many people in diverse situations interacted with the risen Savior for this to be some made up story to cover up the stealing and hiding of his body. He gave his most ardent followers a mission:
‘ Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” ‘ Mark 16:14-15 NIV
If you read on in that passage, you will note that right after giving this mission statement Jesus ascended to his Father. And the disciples enthusiastically went and did as they were told, preaching everywhere.
So far, so good! But now arose a difficulty. Jesus left no instructions for organizing his church! What to do?
As is typical of human nature, those earliest followers fell back to what they were familiar with. They appointed a committee! The committee decided that those who had followed Jesus most closely should be in charge of marketing! Jesus had originally chosen twelve men to travel with him in his three years of ministry. These were the folks who most vividly remembered all that Jesus said and did and were best qualified to act as witnesses. Judas was a bust, though, having betrayed the Lord and then committed suicide, so they had an elaborate scheme to pick a worthy replacement. It was all well thought out and logical and I encourage you to read their criteria in Acts 1:21,22. Also, they were all Jewish (as was Jesus), so all the teaching should be based on the Jewish faith. And the essence of the Jewish faith was the Law.
Enter the revolutionary — Pharisaic Rabbi, Saul of Tarsus.
After his astounding conversion and name change on the road to Damascus, Paul was claiming to be an Apostle, but obviously he did not fulfill the qualifications laid down by the committee. Paul answers that difficulty in the very first verse of Galatians:
“Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” Galatians 1:1 NIV
Obviously Paul thinks that the committee hasn’t taken into account the bigger picture of who gets to be appointed as an Apostle!
The other problem with the strategizing of the committee was that they were putting the Gospel in the box of Judaism with all its rites, rituals and restrictions. It was revealed by God to Paul personally that the “box” of Judaism, its Law and His dealings with the Jewish people were just an illustration of the concept which was to blow the lid off religion forever.
That concept was “grace” and it was Paul’s job to spread that message far beyond the boundaries of the Jews. He points out to the churches in Galatia, that the committee in Jerusalem had agreed to stick to what they knew best — recounting the stories about Jesus before his resurrection and identifying Him as the promised Messiah, but he had their backing in proclaiming the larger gospel of grace to the rest of the world:
“As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, [non Jews] just as Peter had been to the circumcised. [Jews] For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas [Peter] and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” Galatians 2:6-10 NIV [Jim’s notes]
So, there you have the revolution that totally blindsided the first apostles.
God wanted the Gospel to be so much bigger than just the experience of those who had physically walked with Jesus for three years, as valuable as that was. He wanted the world to know that you couldn’t be in relationship with Him by just keeping the rules — that was doomed to failure — but you could by claiming that Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice qualified you to be a child of God and inherit His goodness and Glory. That’s what grace was all about — astoundingly, it was a gift, even though it was undeserved!
What’s more, He was ready to use the most unlikely person possible — a pharisaic rabbi and zealous persecutor of Jesus followers — and completely change his name and his outlook, and have him travel most of the known world to explain about grace!
I encourage you to read that letter to the Galatian churches (it’s not very long!) with this in mind, and give God honor, praise and glory for expanding the vision of the “committee” beyond what they could possibly imagine. Let’s make sure we don’t fall into the trap of trying to contain the vision of the Church to the box of our own understanding.
Oh — and watch out for committees!
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black