A History Making Decision
Preached by Pastor Jason Abbott
During his public life, George Washington willingly gave up power not once but twice. First, he voluntarily resigned his commission as the military commander of the Continental Army. Next, he stepped away from the American presidency, after his second term, though he was being strongly urged to run again.
Consider, for just a moment, how incredibly different our nation would look, if Washington, like many before and after him (e.g. Caesar, Napoleon, Lenin, etc.), had attempted to seize power and then use that power for his own selfish purposes. Imagine how freedom might have been replaced by servitude!
Well, in a similar fashion (though many of us at first glance may not see it) this type of momentous, history-changing decision is being highlighted for us here. When Paul and these apostles agree rather than disagree concerning God’s gospel, the history of the church was ultimately to be about freedom rather than servitude; or, as Paul will later urge and argue in this very letter:
[It is for]…freedom [that] Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1).
In order to see what this might mean for us today, let’s first read the passage and, then, pray that God would teach us about his gospel freedom from it.
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. 3 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. 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.
In order to chart our course through this passage, we need to set our sights on two destinations: (1) we want to see and understand how the gospel unites us, and (2) we want to see and understand how the gospel divides us.
1. The gospel unites (vv. 1-3, 6-10).
Maybe, as you read through chapter two here, you have trouble seeing how this passage is really all about gospel unity, but it is. Let me show you:
- (v. 1) Paul continues to tell the Galatian churches his dramatic backstory. He continues to tell them how he was set apart by God as an apostle. And, here, he says something amazing that we can easily pass over—“…after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.”
- How should this verse amaze us by its demonstration of gospel unity? Well, it should amaze us when we consider those who are together here. In the group, we have two Jews (Paul and Barnabas) and a Greek (Titus). And, this is an odd trio to say the least!
- Look Jews and Gentiles didn’t speak to one another (if they could help it) let alone work and travel together as they are here. What is this like? Well, suppose you were on a flight someplace and got the middle seat. (You know which one I’m talking about, the one with no personal space!) And, imagine the seats on either side are taken by two business partners. One is a 60 year-old white man from a small rural area of Mississippi while the other is a 25 year-old black man from inner-city Philadelphia. No doubt, you’d be surprised by the match. Well, it’s like Paul and Titus. But for the gospel, they have nothing in common. The gospel unites!
- Well, Paul’s not saying he went to make sure his gospel was right.1 Instead, he’s saying he went to make sure his ministry would bear fruit. You see, these false teachers in Galatia were undermining the good news by attacking Paul’s claim to be an apostle like Peter or James or John. Consequently, to defend the authenticity of the gospel he’d preached, Paul went as a demonstration that he and they preached the same gospel. Thus, he explains—“…they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the [same] gospel to the circumcised” (v. 7). The same gospel unites them!
I could continue to belabor this theme of gospel unity in today’s passage; but, instead, I’ll briefly highlight how Paul keeps pounding his gospel unity drum. Here are some quick hitters:
- They didn’t force Titus to be circumcised (v. 3)…gospel unity!
- They added nothing to my message (v. 6)…gospel unity!
- God worked in Peter and worked in me (v. 8)…gospel unity!
- They gave me the right hand of fellowship (v. 9)…gospel unity!
Hopefully we’re all beginning to see how much this passage is about unity. The gospel (the good news Paul preaches and the same good news Peter preaches) is the message of unity that obliterates the barriers that human sin sets up to divide. When we allow our sinfulness to divide us on the grounds of socio-economic status or on the grounds of race or on the grounds of age or on the grounds of anything, it’s the gospel (and the gospel alone!) which can truly bring unity!
Now at this point you should be asking: How can this be so?
And to your very good question (which I’m so glad you asked) I would say: It must be so because bringing unity where there was once division is the essence of the gospel message. If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, if you’re a Christian, it’s because Jesus created unity between you and God where there was division between you and God.
Moreover, it’s called gospel (good news!) since, by our own effort and work, we could’ve never bridged the alienating gap our sin created between us and God. The gospel is the message of our unmerited union with the God of all creation! Therefore, if the gospel is all about God’s gracious work in Jesus Christ to bridge that most profound of all divides for us then how can we tolerate and perpetuate the sinful human barriers that often characterize the church?
We must not! Yet, nonetheless, we continue to.
At the church I served for nine years before being called to Pennsylvania, there was a situation in which a man, who had been a Christian for many years, was offended by a leadership decision about the direction of children’s ministry. His response was to fire off a letter highlighting the disagreement he had with them and alerting the whole congregation that he would be resigning his volunteer post in that ministry and leaving the church.
The leadership’s response was to immediately contact this man and attempt to begin a process of reconciliation. There were public and private apologies made by the leaders. There was a lot of prayer given to the situation among the elders. But, in the end, the man would not return to fellowship.
I recall him saying to me: There’s too much water under the bridge for that. I wanted to respond to him (but didn’t): I’m so glad that wasn’t Jesus Christ’s view of the Father’s plan of reconciliation!
The gospel must unite Christians. There is no divide between believers which the gospel cannot or should not bridge.
Well, after all this discussion from this passage about how the gospel unites, it seems incredibly ironic that my second and final point is that the gospel divides. Yet, that is precisely the case. So, let’s consider how:
2. The gospel divides (vv. 4-5).
In this text, there’s a clear sense that there’s division because of the gospel. Consider a couple verses that are smackdab in the middle of this passage:
- (v. 4) Paul speaks of “false brothers” sneaking in to spy and enslave us.
- (v. 5) Paul explains that to such “false brothers” we didn’t submit at all because we wanted to protect the “truth of the gospel…for you.”
Now, what this should teach us is that there are true and false believers. What this should show us is that there is a true gospel and false gospels as well. What we must learn here is that the good news isn’t primarily a message that unites but a message that is true. In fact, if the gospel isn’t primarily a message that is true then it cannot be a message that unites.
What do I mean?
Well, I mean that unless the gospel—that Jesus was really God incarnate, who really walked the earth on a mission of reconciliation from God the Father, really died on a cross to pay the price for our sins against our holy Triune God, really rose three days later as proof that God’s wrath had (in him) been satisfied, really ascended into heaven, really sits at the Father’s right-hand, and, one day, will really return to judge in perfect justice—unless this message is really true, then peace and unity with one another is just a game we play at.
The truth of the message really matters!
And, because of this:
The truth of the message really divides!
See, if this gospel is really true—what Francis Schaeffer called true truth—then all competing gospels—anything that is contrary to Jesus Christ—is not true. So the gospel, on the basis of its true truth, must divide.
This is precisely what (I believe) Christ Jesus was teaching his followers when, in Matthew’s gospel story, he remarked so vividly about what he had come to earth to do. He explains:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:34-39).
I am not certain that Jesus could have put the matter any more forcefully. Jesus takes the most closely knit, loving relationships that human life has to offer, and he says: The truth that is me (and all that I’m doing) must become more important than these relationships to you. He says: The truth of me will divide.
Allow me to close, by asking some really difficult questions.
How has the true truth separated you from the competing gospels in life? How has it created healthy and right division in your life?
- Has it separated you from the false gospels that instruct you to find your identity in your possessions?
- Has it separated you from the false gospels that teach you to find purpose and identity by gratifying your sexual desires?
On the other hand, how has the true truth of the gospel bridged divides? How, in your life, have you been willing to sacrifice so as to glorify God through reconciliation and unity?
- Have you been willing to humbly apologize to someone you’ve hurt because of the true blessing of the gospel in your own life?
- Do you joyfully participate in ministry (even when it’s not being done as you’d like it to be done) for the sake of the gospel?