Have You Been Scammed?

Galatians 3

1Oh, foolish Galatians! What magician has cast an evil spell on you? For you used to see the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death as clearly as though I had shown you a signboard with a picture of Christ dying on the cross. 2Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the law? Of course not, for the Holy Spirit came upon you only after you believed the message you heard about Christ. 3Have you lost your senses? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? 4You have suffered so much for the Good News. Surely it was not in vain, was it? Are you now going to just throw it all away?

5I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law of Moses? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ.

6In the same way, “Abraham believed God, so God declared him righteous because of his faith.”  7The real children of Abraham, then, are all those who put their faith in God.

8What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would accept the Gentiles, too, on the basis of their faith. God promised this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9And so it is: All who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith.

10But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all these commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.” 11Consequently, it is clear that no one can ever be right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” 12How different from this way of faith is the way of law, which says, “If you wish to find life by obeying the law, you must obey all of its commands.”  13But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14Through the work of Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, and we Christians receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:1-14, NLT)


The Daily DAVEotional

The letter to the Galatians, like many New Testament letters, was written as a response to an issue that had cropped up within the early church. In this case, the church in Galatia had been infiltrated by false teachers who were teaching a “different” gospel. This “different” gospel is still being taught today and therefore, Paul’s words are particularly appropriate in our current culture.

The nature of the false teaching had to do with the law. The false teachers were labeled “Judaizers” because of their strict adherence to the Old Testament rules and rituals. These teachers were advocating that belief in the Jewish Messiah was just the first step in the process of salvation. It was necessary, according to these teachers, to continue to observe all of the Old Testament laws and rituals, including circumcision, after accepting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

The issue of what is necessary to be saved was quite controversial in the early church, especially when Gentiles (non-Jews) began responding to the gospel. Some within the church, particularly those who had been Pharisees before conversion, continued to advocate for strict adherence to Old Testament laws and rituals, which meant that Gentiles would have to adopt all Jewish cultural rites, including circumcision. But Paul and Barnabas disagreed and did not require new Gentile converts to become “Jewish” culturally in order to gain admittance into the church.

This issue became so contentious that the church convened a special session to discuss the matter. The details of this Jerusalem Council are recorded in Acts 15 and I wrote about it previously here.

Paul’s words to the Galatians are strong. He calls them “foolish” and asks them “what magician has cast an evil spell on you?” Most translations use the word “bewitched” to describe the response to this false teaching. The idea Paul is communicating is that they’ve been duped or scammed. One version uses the word “hypnotized”.

Why would Paul say they were “bewitched”? Exactly what was so bad about this teaching and how were they being “tricked”?

To answer that question, let’s first explain what Paul had taught and compare it with the false teaching the Galatians had begun to follow.

Paul’s gospel says that EVERYONE is a sinner and NOBODY is righteous enough to earn their way into God’s presence. Trying to follow all of the Old Testament laws is futile. It cannot be done because we are sinners and we are going to fall short. Therefore, any system that requires adherence to a religious code in order to gain favor with God is doomed to failure.

Jesus offers a different way and this is what makes it good news. According to verse 13, Jesus died in our place, paying for our sin so that we could escape the penalty the law required. We are thus saved, not by our own good works, but by Jesus’ shed blood on the cross.

The false teachers said that once a person places their faith in Jesus, they must maintain their right standing before God by the things they do, namely by following all of the commands of the law. Paul argues that if one has to follow the law to maintain their right standing before God then they are no longer trusting in Jesus alone to provide the righteousness that is needed to enter God’s presence.

Hence, if you are going to follow the law as a means of maintaining your salvation, then you must follow the law completely in order to secure it in the first place.

The differences between Paul’s gospel and the false teaching can be clearly seen in how each system views a person gaining the righteousness required to enter into God’s presence. Paul’s gospel says that Jesus gives us His own righteousness (which is perfectly holy) when we place our faith in Him. This righteousness cannot be lost because it is based on Jesus’ complete work of atonement on the cross.

The Judaizers taught that righteousness is maintained by our adherence to Jewish laws and rituals. Hence, the source of righteousness is the individual’s own good works and personal efforts.

Though these teachers acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, their doctrine was really a back-door method for maintaining a works-based system of salvation.

We do the same thing today in our Christian circles. We invite people to accept Jesus by faith and then inevitably, we think, and even teach, that being a good Christian means following a set of rules. It’s not likely that circumcision is on our list of what makes a good Christian, but you probably can come up with your own list of “sins” to avoid and “activities” that are required, or “strongly encouraged” in order to maintain your Christian “witness.”

We teach people that salvation is a “free gift” but then subtly give the impression that staying saved is more like a privilege that can be forfeited if we don’t toe the line.

Paul calls this kind of gospel and this line of thinking foolish and those who fall into this trap as being bewitched.

It turns out that this theological trickery is the oldest scam in the book. And yet, people are still falling for it today.

Reflection

How do you think you can tell if someone has been bewitched? Or, to put it another way, how would you determine if a person was following a false, rules-based gospel instead of the true gospel that Paul preached?

What are some religious activities that you may be tempted to elevate to “required” status in order to evaluate a person’s eligibility for salvation?

What are some of the “sins” that Christians have used in the past as evidence of someone not being a “true” Christian?

Why do you think people of every generation and culture tend towards rules-based religious systems as a means of appeasing God and gaining His favor?

 

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

A Pivotal Council in the Early Church

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians: “Unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  2Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.  3The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them—much to everyone’s joy—that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.  4When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported on what God had been doing through their ministry.  5But then some of the men who had been Pharisees before their conversion stood up and declared that all Gentile converts must be circumcised and be required to follow the law of Moses.  6So the apostles and church elders got together to decide this question.  7At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe.  8God, who knows people’s hearts, confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he gave him to us.  9He made no distinction between us and them, for he also cleansed their hearts through faith.  10Why are you now questioning God’s way by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?  11We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the special favor of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 15:1-11, NLT)


Acts 15 is perhaps the most important chapter in the entire book of Acts because it highlights an important dispute that arose in the early church.

The issue wasn’t just about the rite of circumcision. At issue was what was necessary to be saved. The dispute seemed to be led by some Pharisees who had been converted (see verse 5). These men believed that salvation was for the Jews and therefore, they believed that the only way a Gentile could become saved was to convert to Judaism. This meant adopting Jewish customs, including observance of the law.

Circumcision was really an outward representation that a person had converted to Judaism. So when these men from Judea began teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, what they were really asserting was that Gentiles needed to become culturally Jewish before they could accept the Jewish Messiah.

So the question became: can Jesus save non-Jews, or do Gentiles need to adopt Jewish culture and become Jews before they can be saved by the Messiah?

Paul and Barnabas argued that Gentiles didn’t need to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision, but only needed to receive Jesus by faith in order to be saved.

Peter also advocated for this position as he recalled his experience with Cornelius, the Roman centurion in Acts 10. Peter noted that Cornelius and his family, all Gentiles, had received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had, on the basis of faith alone.

All of the church leaders agreed. The issue was settled, and from that point on, it was clear that the Jewish Messiah was not just for Jews but for all the peoples of the world. And more importantly, it was clear that the only requirement to receive the Jewish Messiah was faith. It was not necessary to become culturally Jewish.

There are important implications for us today as we seek to share Jesus with a dying world. The principle here is that we are to present Jesus to people and not our culture. Sometimes, it’s easy to conflate the two. People need Jesus. They don’t need my culturalized version of Jesus.

Reflection

In what ways has your culture influenced your view and understanding of Jesus? 

How can you ensure that when you share Jesus with others you are not taking a Pharisaical approach – injecting cultural requirements into the gospel message?