Being the Best Possible Witness For Christ
[Ephesians 1, verses 13-24]
This week we’ll be finishing up the first chapter of Galatians. There is some very weighty stuff in here, which is why I divided this chapter into two parts. The apostle Paul is continuing his train of thought regarding preaching the true Gospel, and his criticism of those who had strayed from the Way (as it was known back then), who were evidently preaching the Gospel with their own ulterior motives, which were usually financial. To use 21st century vernacular, these people were teaching sensationalist messages that warped and twisted the true Gospel for the primary purpose of maximizing the collection of tithes and offerings. The proverbial money changers had reentered the Temple, having not learned their lesson when Christ threw them out the first time (see Mark 11: 15-18). Unfortunately these types of “churches” (Religion Inc., as I call them) continue to proliferate even to this day, much to the discredit of Christianity overall. I find myself dismayed that there are not more Christians like me, people who are unafraid to stand up for truth and against false doctrines, who are willing to make a stand against the corruption and lawlessness that currently exists in the main-stream church. On that note, lets take up where we left off last week beginning at verse 13.
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Jerusalem, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were Apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1, verses 13-17, NIV)
The “previous life in Jerusalem” that Paul mentions here has to do with his organized persecution of Christians in the first century up to the point of his conversion on the road to Damascus (see Acts chapter 9). For info on this topic, I need to mention a few verses from the book of Acts in the New Testament. Prior to his conversion, Paul – who up until his conversion was known as ‘Saul’ – actively persecuted Christians. It is documented in Chapter 7 of the book of Acts that Paul was not only present, but took an active part in the execution of St. Stephen. Stephen’s capture is written in chapter 6 beginning at verse 8, but for now I will focus on his execution because that is where Paul is documented to have been present. I will begin in chapter 7, verse 54, and I quote:
“When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look’, he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’. At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’. When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” (Acts 7, verses 54-60, NIV)
Remember at the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus taught us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5: 43-48)? Stephen followed this commandment to the letter when he openly and audibly forgave those who were in the process of killing him. It is one of the finest examples of maintaining our Christian integrity even unto death that I know of, not counting the supreme sacrifice of Christ himself. I highly recommend reading the story of St. Stephen in chapters 6 and 7 of the book of Acts, it is most inspiring! But for now, you no doubt noted Saul’s (later Paul’s) presence at this historically documented event in early Church history.
Paul continues to make his point with the Galatian church by contrasting his own higher calling with that of Stephen without mentioning him by name. The likely reason for this is that he didn’t need to – St. Stephen at that point was and remains one the most well-known martyrs and most beloved saints of all Christianity. Paul acknowledges his guilt before the entire church, but then explains his redemption and call to the ministry when he wrote, “God, who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” One must understand the gravity of the apostle Paul’s statement here regarding his preaching among the Gentiles, or non-Jews. He has already documented his zeal for Judaism, and for the persecution of the early Church. In those days it is much the same as today, with the majority of Jewish people having nothing to do with any non-Jews, and clearly Paul was no different prior to his conversion. So it is noteworthy that he was called to preach to the Gentiles, a people that he normally would have nothing to do with (racial, religious, and sectarian prejudice existed in abundance in those days, an issue that mankind continues to deal with to this day). And yet, as he wrote, once his calling was clear and sure, he began his ministry – and his apostleship – without hesitation, something I wish more of us would do each day for the betterment of His kingdom. Like the apostle Paul, we too are called as Christians by the grace of God to be ministers of Christ. That doesn’t mean we all have to be pastors, or teachers, ushers or musicians. It also doesn’t mean we all have to speak in tongues, as one certain denomination – who I will decline to name – continues to erroneously teach. But we are all servants, just as Christ taught, “Let he who wants to be the greatest among you become the greatest servant”. Let’s now continue at verse 18.
“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’. And they praised God because of me.” (Galatians 1, verses 18-24, NIV)
Evidently some of the ‘profitable churches’ that I mentioned in the beginning of today’s study were claiming that the apostle Paul had been to places where he actually had not – namely, theirs. I can think of no other reason he would make the statement he made in verse 19, that he had never met any of the other apostles, living or otherwise. But what strikes me the most in this last part of chapter one is Paul’s description of the reputation he had built over time, which he sums up as he writes, “God, who set me apart from birth and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me that I might preach him among the Gentiles”. No longer is Paul the traditional Jew Saul, he has quite literally been “born again”. The is exactly what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus (John’s gospel, chapter three) when he said we must “be born again of the water and of the Spirit” [John 3:6-7]. I’m not going to discuss the different definitions of baptism taught by the denominational churches of today. I can only write that this is what the Bible says, and it is beneficial for all who believe to claim their dual baptism in Christ for the strengthening of our faith. Like Paul, we must live our lives as if we had been set apart from birth, as all Christians have. We need to live our lives so that others “will praise God because of me”. We are to be different from the rest of the world and all its foolishness, we remain separate from it, and we as Christians will thrive on that. And that’s always a good thing. Next week, we’ll move on to chapter two.