Today’s sermon easily could have been two sermons but the relationship between the two points is so close I though it best to group them together. The two points are points of contrast. The first in verses 8-11 is a contrast between Gospel Religion and Worldly Religion and the other point, in verses 12-20, is a contrast between Gospel Ministry and Worldly Ministry.
It’s important to be able to identify the contrasts in religion and ministry, essential even. If we can’t tell the difference between what is based upon the gospel and what is worldly then, as Paul says, there’s good reason to be “fearful for you.”
1. Gospel Religion and Worldly Religion
In verse 8 Paul says…
8 But in the past, since you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things that by nature are not gods.
Remember who Paul is writing to. These Galatians were not Jews for the most part. They had been idol worshipers. They lived immoral lifestyles, by Jewish standards. Before becoming Christians they had been enslaved to a worldly religion.
Then Paul warns…
9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elements? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? 10 You are observing special days, months, seasons, and years. 11 I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted.
Don’t turn back. The temptation is for us to think that Paul is warning them about the worldly religion they came out of before becoming Christians. But this interpretation fails to take into account Paul’s main point of the whole book.
The false teachers that were leading them to turn back had been telling the Galatians to keep the law, the OT law contained in the Torah, and that the by keeping the law they would be justified.
The false teachers hadn’t been encouraging a return to paganism but a return to slavery of a different sort, a slavery to relying upon the Jewish law for salvation.
I feel I need to belabor the point a little to show that when Paul says “special days, months, seasons and years” he doesn’t have pagan rituals in mind.
I made a list of 14 verses from Galatians I could read to make this point but I’ll only share a few. You’ll get the idea.
19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God.
21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, Everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law is cursed.
11 Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith.
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.
17 My point is this: The law, which came 430 years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously established by God and thus cancel the promise.
18 For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise; but God has graciously given it to Abraham through the promise.
19 Why then was the law given? It was added for the sake of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come…
23 Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed.
So, I think you get the point that Paul has been taking about the law, a lot. And he has the whole law in mind not just the ceremonial or sacrificial law. It wouldn’t make any sense for Paul to argue that salvation is by grace alone… except for the moral law. His whole point is that salvation is based upon belief in a promise without any conditions.
So, it seems obvious what Paul has in mind when he talks about “special days, months, seasons and years.” He’s talking about the OT holy days, the sabbath, and sabbaths, etc. The false teachers were trying to convince the Galatians to keep them because they were a part of the law.
Paul’s whole argument is against Judaism so it makes no sense that he would switch his meaning at this time to mean pagan festivals.
Don’t turn back to worldly religion, which is religion based upon earning, working for salvation, It’s worldly religion even if the laws you’re trusting in are in the Bible. True religion is not about works, but faith.
The “weak and worthless elements” or principles Paul is talking about in verse 9 include all things idolatrous, not just selective things. Idolatry is trusting in your sacrifices to the weather God just as must as trusting in your commandment keeping. The religious person is just as enslaved and lost as the pagan person because both are relying upon their own efforts.
What you are really relying upon is what you put your greatest hope in. And what you put your greatest hope in will control you. If you put your greatest hope in gaining wealth then gaining wealth is what will control you. All your decisions will be made with the basic elemental principle of acquiring money. If you don’t have enough you’ll be depressed. And even when you have plenty you’ll always seek more.
Money is just one example of idolatry. Approval of people, physical health, serving our family, morality, achievement, Bible reading, even going to church can all become substitutes for true gospel religion.
We are either under the gospel or under the slavery of idols. If our happiness is based upon anything other than Jesus then we are practicing worldly religion, not gospel religion.
Consider the well-known story of the prodigal son. There were two brothers. One was immoral and the other was very righteous but neither one of them wanted the father. They wanted his wealth but they didn’t want him. The younger immoral brother took off and spent all of his inheritance before repenting and coming back home. He didn’t care about the money anymore. All he wanted was the father. The older, morally righteous, older brother had it all. He was in close proximity to the father. He kept all the rules. He hadn’t run off and blown his inheritance but at the end of the story he’s the one who stood outside at a distance fuming.
So, you see, the greater danger is for the morally righteous person who thinks he’s pretty good and is trusting in his own goodness. The morally un-righteous person knows he’s far away from God but the the morally righteous person thinks he has what matters but really doesn’t.
This is why Paul is so “afraid” for them. This is why he pleads with them not to turn back to a worldly religion of works.
He wants them to embrace Gospel religion and relying upon being known by God. Verse 9 says…
9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elements?
Paul acknowledges that they know God and he’s not just talking about an intellectual knowledge, but an intimate relationship. He’s talking to Christians who have “put on Christ” and know God, or even more importantly are known by God.
The deciding factor for a Christian isn’t really how much we know Him but whether or not He knows us. If we are known by God then all is well.
Trusting in being known by God is the opposite of idolatry. You could even say it is the antidote for idolatry. An idolatrous person seeks to justify themselves by works. They feel insecure about their relationship with God so they try to encourage themselves with all they do for him, how much they know about him, etc. A Christian, on the other hand, is known by God and that’s enough. For example, 1 Corinthians 4:3-4 says…
3 It is of little importance to me that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I don’t even judge myself. 4 For I am not conscious of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this. It is the Lord who judges me.
Gospel religion trusts in God’s judgement. And what is God’s judgement? That, in Christ, we are clean and acceptable to God.
2. Gospel Ministry and Worldly Ministry
We’ve looked at what gospel religion is and what worldly religion is. Now, Paul wants to relate this with ministry. If you you have gospel religion you will have gospel ministry. But if your religion is based upon worldly principles so will your ministry.
The text makes several points about the contrast between gospel ministry and worldly ministry.
The first point is that gospel ministry is transparent.
12 I beg you, brothers and sisters: Become like me, for I also became like you…
There’s no way Paul could invite the Galatians to “become like me” unless they knew what Paul was like. Words are good, essential even, but we must go deeper in our ministry and become transparent. People must see how we wrestle with issues. They need to see how we deal with disappointments. In other words, they need to see Jesus at work in our lives.
Transparency isn’t arrogance. An arrogant person will leave out Christ and only share the good or bad things they do. But a transparent person will point to Christ and the joy they are able to have even in the midst of trouble and trials.
Gospel ministry is also culturally flexible.
Paul doesn’t just want them to become like him, he also seeks to become like them. Everything that isn’t specifically tied to the gospel should be flexible. It’s OK to live among other cultures, even adopt their ways, and truly love them. Remember, the Galatians were primarily a Gentile church and Paul was Jewish yet he sought to be like them.
Legalistic churches aren’t flexible. They insist on a certain standard of dress and speech and that their way of doing things is best. Christ, didn’t compromise with the gospel, but he did make the effort to get to know people, to meet them where they were, to eat with them, to live among them.
Gospel ministry looks for opportunities in hardships.
13 you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a weakness of the flesh. 14 You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you. On the contrary, you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus himself.
Paul had some sort of disability that he isn’t specific about, but he cites this “weakness of the flesh” as the reason he shared the gospel with them. Perhaps, he was so sick he had to make a detour from his scheduled plans and ended up in Galatia. Paul saw his physical condition as an opportunity for ministry.
Don’t waste your hardships. They are opportunities to express the joy you have in Christ.
Worldly Ministry rejects these points, it’s an enemy to them.
15 Where, then, is your blessing? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 So then, have I become your enemy because I told you the truth?
The Galatians had once embraced the truth Paul was telling them but something changed. There was a time when they would have made the greatest of sacrifices but not any more.
Because they were rejecting gospel ministry they were also losing their joy and blessing. When we try to hide our faults to make ourselves look good we lose real joy in the deception.
Worldly ministry is inflexible. It says do it my way or not at all and we miss out on the blessing of serving others.
Worldly ministry also tries to avoid hardships at any cost and when they do happen hardships are used as opportunities to complain, not as opportunities to give glory to God.
The goal of worldly ministry is the pursuit of people and giving people glory, not God.
17 They court you eagerly, but not for good. They want to exclude you from me, so that you would pursue them. 18 But it is always good to be pursued in a good manner—and not just when I am with you.
The goal of the false teachers was to make much of the Galatians so they would make much of them. They used all kinds of flattery and told them what them wanted to hear. They pursued them not in a biblical manner but in a way that would make everyone feel good about themselves.
Worldly ministry tells people what they want to hear. Worldly ministry leaders gain fans so they can feel good about themselves. They make all kinds of accommodations, even to the gospel, in order to please people.
The question I dread most is “How many people do you have in your church?” I hate this question because it’s usually just an opportunity for the asker to brag about how many they have as if the number of people you have is the goal.
The goal of gospel ministry is Christ.
19 My children, I am again suffering labor pains for you until Christ is formed in you.
Paul’s goal is for people to become like him not so they will “like him” but so they will become like Christ. And this kind of ministry is hard work. It’s like a mother giving birth to a child. It’s labor, but the goal is to give birth to the child so the child can be independent and live on his own. It’s worth it.
You may not want to hear this kind of teaching, but it’s the truth and Paul is more concerned abut telling the truth than hurting our feelings. The gospel set us free to tell the truth to people we love. People need to know what is best for them even if it is difficult to hear.
Sometimes this approach doesn’t work but only telling people what they want to hear never works. We need to be willing to risk the relationship for change to happen. This doesn’t mean we go around needlessly offending people all the time. We speak the truth, but with love. Ephesians 4:15 says “…speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ.”
Gospel ministry speaks the truth.
20 I would like to be with you right now and change my tone of voice, because I don’t know what to do about you.
Paul would like to change his tone, but he can’t because he must speak the truth. He hopes some will listen but he knows not everyone will.
In all honesty, some of the people who left our fellowship left because they didn’t listen. The truth was spoken, as lovingly as possible, but they didn’t want to hear it.
They didn’t want to accept that gospel ministry embraces transparency, flexibility, and even suffering. Gospel ministry is hard but the rewards are great.
There is a big difference between worldly religion and gospel religion. There is also a big difference between gospel ministry and worldly ministry. Do you see the difference? Paul is pleading with us to wake up and live according to the gospel.
He was afraid they were losing the gospel and not living it out. Don’t turn back again to the weak and worthless elements, to the way of trying to earn your salvation through idolatrous people pleasing. Seek to be like Christ who is being formed in you.