The Authority of the Gospel
© C. O. Bishop 10/10/14 THCF 10/12/14
We sometimes think of the Gospel as “a get home free” ticket, or a “fire-escape clause”, a “lifeboat”, or simply the “bait” with which God draws people to himself. In a way, there is an element of truth to each of these oversimplifications. But the fact is; all of them miss what is surely one of the main points of the message. The Gospel has the authority of God. This is His chosen (and only) means by which he saves humans. He describes it as his power to save sinners who believe (Romans 1:16), and it is the only thing so described in scripture. Furthermore, it is not something humans would have come up with even if they could have—it is a stumbling-block to virtually everyone, at one level or another, simply because it is so not human-centered. It centers upon the Holiness of God, His Goodness, His Wisdom, and His Love. The Gospel is only “good news” to those willing to realize the “bad news”.
This explains Paul’s reaction to Christ, in a way: once Paul had his assignment, you will notice he didn’t mess around trying to “pray about it” or any other procrastinating trick that we might tend to do. He had already been praying—and blinded by God—when Ananias came in and God restored his sight. So, when the Lord Jesus also revealed his assignment, he “immediately conferred not with flesh and blood”. Paul had seen clearly the “bad news”: he had been warring against God. And he was beginning to learn the “good news”—that God could save him, and wanted to use his life; Paul was in prayer (probably lots of confession) and fasting, when Ananias came to see him. He was still physically blind until God restored his sight. He had a new life; restored with a purpose…he was an Apostle. It was not up to other humans to tell him what God had already told him. It was up to Paul to obey. He understood the authority of the Gospel, and is trying, still today, to convey it to his readers.
Faith is an Obedient Response to a Revealed Truth
17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
He had no need to go talk to them…he was doing what he was told to do, and going where he was sent. He believed Jesus was who he said He was, and had received proof in his own life. He had an assignment Ananias was told by Jesus that Paul was to be a chosen vessel for Christ;’ that he would bear the name of Christ before the Gentiles, and kings, as well as to Israel. Jesus said, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my sake.” (Acts 9:15, 16) So Paul was convinced, and was immediately obedient. You may remember other people in the Bible who responded in similar fashion…Abraham, for example. But Paul goes on to say,
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.
20 Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.
This is pretty important in Paul’s mind: he wanted his readers to know that, while the message he preached was completely in agreement with that of the eleven, his message was not dependent upon theirs at all: both came straight from the same source; Jesus Christ. Paul had known the Lord for several years before he ever even met the other apostles. And the first time he met any of them it was only for a brief visit with Peter and James.
So when did Jesus teach Paul? During the three year interval before he saw Peter, evidently. Some time in Arabia, and some time in Damascus. Remember, Damascus was where he was headed when Jesus stopped him (Acts 9), and he had been going there specifically to arrest the Jewish believers living there. (I wonder what their first response was when he showed up as a believer. Probably the news had gotten around, as it was Ananias, a believer from Damascus, who was sent to restore his sight.)
He apparently had a brief time in Arabia, and then went back and spent time preaching in Damascus, and fellowshipping with the Jewish believers there, until the unbelieving Jews tried to kill him, and the believers had to smuggle him out of town. It seems that that was when he first went back to Jerusalem. The believers there were afraid of him, because they had not yet heard of his conversion. Barnabas took him to the apostles but evidently the only two apostles available on that particular trip were Peter and James, (cp. Acts 9:27), and he was introduced to them by Barnabas. Barnabas later became Paul’s partner in the preaching of the Gospel, and was also called an apostle, by Luke, in Acts 14:14.
I don’t really know why anyone would doubt the truth of what Paul shared here, regarding his behavior after having met Jesus. It seems it was common knowledge, by that time. Perhaps he was simply reiterating the fact that his message was not a “spin-off” from that of the eleven, but had been received directly from the risen Jesus Christ. All he can offer to doubters is to call God as his witness, to show that he is not lying. The doubters were not there, when any of these things happened, and he was there. It is an eyewitness account. The Apostles who received him at Jerusalem were still alive and could confirm it, if anyone wanted to ask. Undoubtedly Ananias, of Damascus was still available, too. But God had already borne out the truth of Paul’s testimony in his own life, and in the works of an Apostle that he had done among them there in the province of Galatia. They should have known all this, but Paul brings it all into focus again, in an attempt to present the Gospel he preached as being fully authoritative.
The Authority of the Gospel
The authority of the Gospel is an important point: Either this is just Paul’s opinion, in which case we can take it or leave it; or it really is the Word of God, and we have to take it as having the full backing of God. Peter confirms later that Paul’s writings were scripture. (2nd Peter 3:15, 16) So, while you can still “take it or leave it”, you need to be aware that it is God you are responding to, not just a human author.
Paul continues to share how his life in Christ had begun: he says,
21 Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia;
22 And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ:
23 But they had heard only, that he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.
24 And they glorified God in me.
Paul’s point, continuing through these verses, and beyond, is that his message and his ministry came directly from the risen Christ, not from those who were apostles before him, nor from the organized church, or a body of elders, or any other human source. He didn’t go off to Seminary, or seek Holy Orders, or the blessing of a cardinal or pope. He didn’t even go to the County Seat and get a ministerial license. He simply went right to work.
He never even met the churches in Judea, or the remaining apostles until years later. They’d heard of him, all right, by that time; they heard that the one who had been devastating the church was now building it and edifying it: he was strengthening the believers; and the churches in Judea were excited to hear it. They knew it could only have happened by the power and grace of God; by a supernatural intervention, not by human wisdom or force of argument. This is a pretty important idea…we do not need to concern ourselves with human wisdom, forceful arguments, etc. as they virtually never bring people to Christ. We need to seek supernatural intervention. We do so by prayer …and the preaching of the Gospel.
Proof of the Gospel
By the way, the change in Paul’s life is further proof to us, as well, of the Divine source of the Gospel: it transforms lives. Not just by “invigorating” people who were already of a “religious” bent or that were the “goody-two-shoes” sort; but rather by turning around those who were violently opposed to the message. It perhaps could be argued that Paul was both, as he was deeply involved and committed to the religion of the Jews— Judaism— and was a righteous man by Jewish standards. But he was violently opposed (literally) to the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ, and was in the business of tracking down Jewish believers, arresting them, and hauling them back to Jerusalem to face trial. He was a bounty-hunter, if you will—armed with documents giving him authority for search and seizure, and he was headed for Damascus when Jesus intervened personally. He was a one-man Inquisition. But God stopped him and turned him around. He was transformed by the Holy Spirit.
God is still transforming lives today. In my own case, I was an atheist, and dogmatically so. God gave me the opportunity to watch the lives of new believers changing around me, my last year in High school. I had known several of them before they were believers, and I saw the undeniable change in their lives, after salvation. It brought me to the conviction that there was something real going on, and made me receptive to re-thinking my own condition. I eventually saw that I myself was a lost sinner. I tried to change on my own, and found it was beyond my ability to produce consistent change. (I still find it so, as a matter of fact.) Eventually I threw myself on the mercy of God as a helpless, hopeless sinner, which is exactly what He calls us to do.
We don’t like those three words, though: “helpless”, “hopeless” and “sinner.” “Guilty” is another word we avoid today. But all are facts, and unless you recognize them in your own life you will not find a place for the Gospel in your heart. Jesus only offers to save helpless, hopeless, guilty sinners. Not those who feel guilty: guilt is a fact, not a feeling. I usually experience guilt feelings when I am guilty, however, there is such a thing as false guilt, which is feeling guilty about something that is truly not your fault. You can bring that on yourself through wrong thinking, or someone else can load it on you, through casting blame. It is very destructive, because there is no real release except a change in thinking, which is difficult to achieve. Real guilt can be dealt with at the cross, through confession.
The result of Paul’s salvation was that other believers glorified God in him. In fact, one result of the salvation of any sinner is that other believers glorify God in them—we recognize the hand of God in the salvation of any soul, and we give thanks and Glory back to Him. That is called Worship, and God surely deserves it at every level.
The Wisdom of the Gospel is of God, Not of the World
Over in 1st Corinthians 1:17-25, (read it) Paul is addressing a different group of believers, with the same sort of message: the centrality and authority of the Gospel. He had already run into those who counted themselves too smart for the Gospel, or too good for it. In Athens (Acts 17) he had preached a sermon geared to popular appeal, which is still, today, touted as one of the great examples of fine preaching, and it is frequently used as a “textbook case” in homiletics classes in Bible schools and seminaries. But the actual results of that sermon (results are a good thing, right?) were very lackluster…and, the very next place he went (Corinth), Paul had determined to do things differently.
Paul stated that “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel…” (The context, here, was that the people were already beginning to form schisms in the church based on who their mentors had been: who led them to Christ, who baptized them, etc. “Denominations”, if you will, were beginning right then, and Paul was trying to put a stop to it. He said that the Gospel was the key issue.)
He said he was supposed to preach the Gospel “…not with wisdom of words, lest the Cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” (It is evidently possible to render the Cross powerless, if we drape it in too much human “razzle-dazzle”. We can either use light to reveal truth, or we can use it in such a way that all it breeds is confusion. Consider what light does in the mirrors of a mirrored maze.)
Paul went on to state that the lost world pretty much uniformly sees the preaching of the Cross as foolishness. They are “…too smart for that tripe!” Or, in the case of those deeply entrenched in religions, they may see themselves as “too good” for it. They don’t need a savior—they aren’t sinners! Funny, while Jesus did die for the sins of the whole world…because all of us are sinners… he clearly stated that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. People who don’t see themselves as lost have no felt need for a savior. So they reject the message out of hand…and all the more angrily, as they feel you are suggesting that they are sinners. (Well… yeah, as a matter of fact…!)
But then he points out that God’s wisdom sees that the World’s wisdom will not bring people to Christ…ever. (“After that, in the wisdom of God, the World by wisdom knew not God…”. So, he says, “…it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”
In contrast, God says he will destroy the “wisdom” of the “wise”—that is, the “worldly wise”, because that sort of wisdom always seeks an avenue by which it can deny God, or at least deny the person of Christ.
In Romans 1:21, 22, Paul says, “…because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools…”
Is it possible for a human to be wise? Sure, provided the wisdom comes from God! Human wisdom inevitably leads a person to pride, and the conclusion that he or she does not need God. And even among believers, Human wisdom only leads to contention and self-centeredness. James says that human wisdom that is not from God is “…earthly, sensuous, and devilish”. Those sorts of things do not lead a person to Christ. Human wisdom that comes from God is “…first pure, then peaceable, and easy to be entreated…” That is a whole different outlook.
We can take Paul as our example: We can choose to have his priorities, and mimic his response to God. In fact, Paul suggests that we do just that: He says “be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1st Corinthians 11:1)
So, as we continue to read through the Epistle to the Churches of the Galatian province, be on the lookout to see things from Paul’s example that you can emulate to one degree or another. Remember; if you are a believer, then the letter is to you, too.
As you read, remember the Divine authority of the Gospel…God is not begging, trying to get you to change your own life—it can’t be done. He is gently commanding you to allow Him to transform you, as he did Paul, and as He has transformed every believer in history, when they stopped rebelling and allowed Him to do His work.
The way He intends to do it is through the written Word and the indwelling Holy Spirit. You can’t hope to have God change your life if you ignore His Word. You can’t hope to have Him change you if you ignore the Holy Spirit, either—and the two always work together. The Spirit will never lead you where the Written Word does not also (implicitly or explicitly) direct you.
It takes effort…you can’t just wait around hoping that God will jump on you and change your heart. If you think it seems hard, remember all the things Paul endured.
Paul told the Church at Philippi, “Unto you it has been given, in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe in His name but also to suffer for his sake!”
Guess what? That letter is to us, as well.