John McCutcheon has a song that tells a wonderful story.
One morning while reading the paper, in search of a new set of wheels, the classifieds had a most curious ad in their listing of automobiles. I read in suspicious amusement what seemed like a wild stroke of luck. “Corvette sting-ray,” it said, “low mileage, bright red, 83 model, 65 bucks.”
Now I was used to my newspapers typos, still I called up that number straight away. About that 83 vet, have you sold that thing yet? She said, “No, you’re my first call today.” I said, “There’s been some mistake in the paper. They’ve printed the price wrong somehow.” “Oh no,” replied she, “they got that from me.” I said, “Don’t sell that car. I’m leaving now.”
Her address was in a part of the city where I’d ventured just one time or two. Where doctors, bank presidents and lawyers are residents and houses are massive and new. As I turned up the half-mile driveway, there in the heat of the day, in the sunlight it gleamed, the car of my dreams, just $65 away.
Now the interior was done in white leather. it had a 587 V-8, gull wingspan doors, first four on the floor and the eight-channel tape deck was great. There was chrome on the chrome on the fenders, an aerodynamic design. A bar, a TV it was boggling to me that for 65 bucks this was mine.
I expected this woman was crazy to sell off this car at that price. But as we walked down the lane, she seemed perfectly sane. She was charming, really quite nice. And she smiled with such great satisfaction as she handed me title and keys. I said, “I’ve just gotta know why you let this thing go. What’s wrong with this car, tell me please.
Now this is quite a story. What a stroke of luck. But what is missing is the context of the story. We know what happened but we don’t know why it happened. Why was the car being sold so inexpensively?
Reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians without knowing the historical context and theological shift that was taking place at the time is a bit like hearing the lyrics of this song but leaving off the last verse that puts it all into context.
I won’t keep you hanging through the sermon so let’s listen to the last verse and the rest of the song will make sense and then we will set the context for Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
I said, “I’ve just gotta know why you let this thing go. What’s wrong with this car, tell me please.
Said she, “I’ll be sixty come Tuesday. I’ve lived here with my husband Earl. But after thirty years wed and without a word said, he left me for a young teenage girl. But with his credit cards left here behind him, I knew that he couldn’t get far. Last night from Florida he, sent a wire to me. Said, “I need money dear, sell the car.”
This will be a half-sermon today because Phil and Kelly are going to share a bit with us. But in this introduction to Galatians I want us to be prepared to read Galatians with the background it takes to understand why Paul writes what he does. There are just two things I want to leave with you today in preparation for reading Galatians.
The first piece of information we need in order to understand Galatians is the theological shift – or more appropriately, theological earthquake – that was taking place.
It is difficult for us to understand how difficult it was for religious Jews to follow Jesus. We, at least me, tend to read the Gospels and marvel at the blindness of the Pharisees to Jesus’ message. How could they be so slow to pick up on the truth Jesus taught?
What we fail to understand is the intensity of their devotion to Torah. Torah originally included the first five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The understanding of Torah later grew to include the rest of what we call the Old Testament and after the return from exile in Babylon, the 613 precepts that gave further clarification of the law. Torah was more than a collection of books, it was a way of life. It was the entire understanding of Jewish life in this world.
Walter Wangerin has written a novel of the life of Paul, titled appropriately Paul, a novel. In this novel, he records a letter Saul sent to the synagogues in Damascus, after they requested that the high priest send someone to help deal with the troublemakers who called themselves followers of The Way – followers of Jesus. I want to read a section of this letter. Listen to the arguments against this new development in Judaism.
“I refute the teachings of these!” Saul wrote. “Anathema esto!” he wrote. “For if any man should preach – even but once! – that the washing of some baptism is a substitute for circumcision, that man despises the entire Law of God. And why? Because the Law is one. It is the Word of the God who is One! Therefore, to revoke a single statue like circumcision is to dismiss the whole covenant and the entire Law. Now, salvation comes only through the Law, for the Law is the good and perfect will of God, the savior of Israel; and obedience unto that Law makes the will of God a manifest, visible thing on earth. If circumcision can be superceded; if the name of a dead man can take the place of living Torah, making Jews and Gentiles equal before God, then salvation is lost, because the walls are coming down! And that is the greatest horror. Behold how the holiness of the people of God – their necessary separation from the rest of the world – is being destroyed. The walls of Abraham, his covenant with God, and the walls of Moses, our covenant with God, are cracking and collapsing! Oh, and I have fallen into a mighty zeal to destroy these destroyers of Israel. Therefore, I shall come to you.”
Do you hear in this letter the deep devotion to Torah that drove Paul to become zealous in his opposition to those who would destroy it? I think the best way for us to understand this is to look at an analogous situation, the challenge to a Muslim when considering the claims of Christianity.
Let’s say you present the way Jesus and Mohammed treated a woman caught in adultery. You tell the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery that is recorded in John 8 and point out that Jesus forgave her. Then you tell the story of Mohammed and the woman that was brought to him who had committed adultery. It was discovered she was pregnant so Mohammed provided for her until the baby was born. Then he had her buried in the sand up to her neck and stoned to death.
Now you say, “Who was more loving, Jesus or Mohammed?” The difficulty for a Muslim is that by definition, whatever Mohammed did defines love. So of course his stoning of the woman was an act of love. This sounds preposterous to our ears, but not to the ears of one who has been raised and educated as a Muslim.
Even Muslims who have converted to Christianity have a difficult time saying that something Mohammed did was a bad thing.
The roots of Islam go so far down that moving away from its teachings and beliefs is terribly difficult.
This was also the case for religious Jews who were faced with those who challenged their understandings with the teachings of Jesus.
As a consequence, even the Jews who became followers of Jesus maintained their Jewish identity. After Peter’s experience with Cornelius, they let down one wall and began to allow Gentiles to partake with them in their life with Christ. But a significant part of the early church insisted that while it was OK for Gentiles to enter into the church, they first needed to convert to Judaism. They needed to be circumcised and learn the way of Torah. They needed to become Jewish and then they could take the next step and become followers of Jesus.
That Paul was able to make this theological jump so completely is extraordinary. Paul who was trained as a Pharisee was immersed in Torah. You heard the letter Wangerin has him write. Perhaps the reason Paul had such a dramatic conversion is that he was called to make such a dramatic theological jump. It is a sign of Paul’s great intelligence that he was able to see clearly the direction a risen Christ made in the theology of the new church.
The second piece of information we need to understand Galatians is the historical context of the letter. Why was Paul so upset when he wrote to the Galatians?
About fourteen years after Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, Barnabas came to him and invited him to come help with the Gentile converts in Antioch (modern day Syria). It was out of their fellowship in Antioch that he and Barnabas were directed by the Holy Spirit to set off on a missionary journey to the Roman provinces in what is today southern Turkey. They sailed first to the island of Cyprus (which was the home of Barnabas). On Cyprus, the Roman pro-counsel requested an audience with them and he was converted. This was a turning point for Paul, a sign that God meant for him to take his message to the Gentiles and from then on, in the book of Acts, he is called by his Greek name, Paul, rather than his Jewish name, Saul.
Paul preached and established churches in Perga, Antioch (not the Antioch of Syria), Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and Atalla. This was a journey with great highs and horrible lows. Paul experienced rejection and opposition at virtually every place he preached. He was beaten and at Lystra, was stoned and left for dead. Don’t pass over this too lightly. To be stoned and left for dead is to say that it is a miracle he was able to survive and keep on preaching and walking.
But also at Lystra, one of the converts was Timothy who later joined Paul on further missionary journeys and to whom two letters were written that are part of our Scriptures.
God’s power was revealed through Paul in miraculous healings and churches were started. It was an extraordinary trip that lasted between one and two years.
Several months after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, they received news that Judaizers, some of those from the church in Jerusalem who insisted that Gentiles had to convert first to Judaism and be circumcised before they could become followers of Jesus, had come to the churches Paul had planted and were corrupting his message. They were teaching that the Gentiles needed to convert first to Judaism, become Jewish, before becoming Christians.
Imagine that you’ve spent hours and hours working in the back yard of your house to plant a flower garden. You carried in load after load of dirt and manure. You took a hoe and tilled the soil, raking out all the rocks and weeds. You mixed the new dirt and manure and spread it out over the yard. Then you planted little seeds and watered and nurtured the tiny shoots that came up out of the soil. You put in stakes for the flowers that needed support. You created a beautiful garden.
Then you have to leave for another part of the world for a year. After some months, you receive news that the local kids have begun to make the yard where you planted your flower garden the place for their football matches.
Can you imagine your anger and frustration at the people who are allowing this to happen? Can you imagine what kind of letter you might send to put an end to the destruction of what you had so hard worked for?
This is a bit of what Paul experienced. Paul preached, boldly faced opposition, suffered physical abuse even being left for dead after being stoned but he returned rejoicing because of what God had done. Churches had been planted. And now they were being led astray.
This is the context for Galatians. Galatians is part of the explosion that was taking place in the early church with Paul leading the way to freedom and throwing off the constraints of Torah.
Galatians is one of three books in the New Testament in which the theology of the church is laid out most completely, the other two being Romans and Corinthians. This will be an exciting study.
In preparation for our sermons over the next three months, read the letter to the Galatians with this background in mind. Become very familiar with Galatians. Pray that God will speak to us through it. We are setting out on a wonderful exploration of the freedom we have in Christ that is central to Paul’s argument in this letter and which was under attack by those who wanted to maintain obedience to the Law.