Silencing the Critics
Last week we began our study in Galatians, and as you may remember, the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia to encourage them and to remind them of the true gospel. These churches were under attack from false teachers called the Judaizers. These false teachers were attacking Paul and his teachings, declaring that in order for a person to become a Christian they needed to keep all of the Jewish laws, including being circumcised. This was (and is) a false gospel, and Paul wrote Galatians to reaffirm the truth that we are not saved by being good enough or by keeping a certain set of rules; we are saved by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ.
The false teachers in Galatia tried to discredit Paul in an attempt to undermine what he had taught. In our passage this morning we see how Paul defended himself (and more importantly, the gospel) against these critics. We can learn a great deal from Paul’s story and his response to those who were attacking him.
In order for us to fully understand what Paul is saying in these verses, we need to look at a bit of his history. Paul was a young Jewish man who was originally known as Saul. He had been raised in the Jewish faith and at an early age began studying with a well-respected rabbi named Gamaliel. The young Saul knew the scriptures very well and became very zealous for the Jewish faith. He defended the faith against anyone who might distort it and he sought to live his own life not only by the laws in the Old Testament, but also by the numerous additional teachings rabbis had passed down through the years.
After the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples became emboldened and began to fervently proclaim that salvation was found not in following the Jewish laws but in trusting in Jesus Christ. Paul’s entire life focused on following the Jewish laws and so he viewed the Christians as attacking him and everything he believed to be true. Paul took it upon himself to defend traditional Jewish beliefs against the Christians, and he did so with great zeal.
Paul was present when Stephen was stoned to death for preaching the gospel, and he gave approval to all that happened there. He later took it upon himself to actively seek to rid the world of Christians and went on a mission to find, interrogate, and arrest the early Christian believers. Acts 8:3 describes Paul’s attitude like this:
But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.
Paul was relentless in his persecution of Christians. Eventually he left Jerusalem and headed toward Damascus with letters that gave him the right to question people in the synagogue and to arrest any Christians he found. He was a man on a mission. But on his way to Damascus God grabbed hold of Paul and didn’t let go. The Lord appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and told him he was fighting for the wrong side and needed to change. God took away Paul’s sight and he spent three days blind in Damascus until the Lord sent a man named Ananias to come and restore his sight. Paul realized the error of his ways and devoted his life to following the risen Christ and turned his back on his former way of life. He experienced a drastic turnaround. He went from being self-assured because of his own good deeds to recognizing that every human being is sinful and deserves punishment. He came to recognize that salvation and forgiveness was found only in Jesus Christ.
Paul went on to become a great missionary throughout much of the ancient world, boldly proclaiming the message that a person can only be saved by trusting in Jesus. He preached this message wherever he went, regardless of the opposition he faced. And Paul faced a great deal of opposition. Many viewed Paul as an enemy now, and they opposed him just as fiercely as he had opposed the early Christians. They imprisoned him, tried to kill him, and followed behind him trying to undermine everything he taught.
We must keep this background in mind as we read Galatians. Paul had likely already been to these churches in Galatia and had moved on in his missionary journeys. After he left, the Judaizers moved in and sought to undermine everything he had taught. They urged the people to follow a salvation of works instead of the salvation of grace that Paul had preached. In verses 11-16 we see how Paul began to answer the arguments of the Judaizers.
11 Dear brothers and sisters, I want you to understand that the gospel message I preach is not based on mere human reasoning. 12 I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ.*
13 You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. 14 I was far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors.
15 But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him 16 to reveal his Son to me* so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. (Galatians 1:11-16a, NLT)
One of the arguments the Judaizers may have made against Paul was that the gospel he preached was something of his own invention. More than likely they were trying to discredit Paul by saying that what he was teaching was something new, something that was inconsistent with the scriptures—something he had come up with on his own.
Paul’s response was to tell his story. He said he had received his message by direct revelation from God. These people were surely familiar with the story of Paul’s conversion. They knew that the Lord had appeared to him on the road to Damascus and had changed his life. He goes so far as to say that God had planned this path for him before he was even born! He pointed to the drastic change in his life to remind them that the kind of complete change he experienced could only come from God. The changes in his life didn’t come by human means, they came from God working in him. And the drastic change in his message also didn’t come from men, it came from God.
The truth is no one comes to trust in Jesus apart from God working in their hearts. You may not have had as drastic a turnaround as Paul, but if you are a believer today it is because God has called you to this point as well. Like Paul, God has a plan for you.
This is actually a wonderful reminder for us as Christians. It reminds us that we are not saved because of anything good in us, but we are only saved because of what God has done. That truth should affect the way we view others. We should recognize that no one is too far gone for their lives to be changed, because it is God who changes lives. No matter what is in your past or what you see in the lives of others, God can change it. God can soften the hardest of hearts and change a life in an instant. You want evidence of God’s power? Look at Paul. Look at me. Look at many in this room. It is only by God’s grace we are saved.
Knowing that should embolden us as we share with others. We should not be afraid to share the message of the gospel with even the staunchest critic of Christianity. You may think you could never convince someone to believe—and you’d be right! Fortunately our responsibility is to clearly proclaim the truth and to trust God to change hearts. When we find ourselves afraid to speak up for the gospel, we should remember that God can change even the hardest of hearts.
Paul’s Second Defense
The Judaizers were relentless in their attacks on Paul. They not only claimed that he had invented his teachings, but they also claimed that Paul was simply parroting the message of the “real” apostles in Jerusalem. Their argument was that Paul had no more authority than they had, and that they were far more trustworthy than Paul. “Paul got confused, but we’ll explain the right way to you,” they argued. But listen to Paul’s response.
When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being.* 17 Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.
18 Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter,* and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19 The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie.
21 After that visit I went north into the provinces of Syria and Cilicia. (Galatians 1:16b-21, NLT)
Paul explained what happened immediately after his experience on the Damascus road. He didn’t do what the Judaizers claimed he had done. He didn’t run back to Jerusalem to find out more from the apostles, instead he went away to Arabia. He didn’t return to Jerusalem until 3 years later! The scriptures don’t tell us a great deal about what Paul did during that time, but I think Paul took this time in Arabia to study the scriptures for himself.
Remember, Paul was an expert in the Old Testament. He had studied it for most of his life. But now he realized that he had misunderstood everything the Bible was teaching. I believe that Paul took these 3 years to study the scriptures again with fresh eyes.
It is interesting to read the Old Testament in light of the gospel message. Everything in the Old Testament actually points to Jesus. For Paul, it would have been like reading the Bible again for the very first time. I imagine him reading the prophets and the law and having many “eureka!” moments, realizing how these things finally all made sense in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul spent those three years in Arabia seeking to truly understand the Bible.
Once he understood what the Bible was teaching, he began to teach others. He returned to Damascus and started preaching that people are saved not by rigorous adherence to the law, but rather by the gracious acceptance of salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Paul didn’t get this information from the apostles or anyone else; he got it directly from the Scriptures—from God himself.
He pointed out that it wasn’t until after this three year period that he finally returned to Jerusalem. When he went back it wasn’t to receive formal recognition from the apostles there (he didn’t need it). And it wasn’t to go and find out what the gospel message was all about (he already knew). It was to get acquainted with Peter. He spent 15 days in Jerusalem with Peter. The time frame is important, because the would not have been long enough for Peter to teach Paul everything he needed to know…but it was enough time for them to realize that God had revealed the same message to both of them. Both were teaching that salvation is only found through faith in Jesus Christ, both for the Jews and for the Gentiles.
Paul’s point was this: he didn’t get his information from Peter or any of the other apostles in Jerusalem. He had met with Peter (and also got acquainted with Jesus’ brother James), but that was it. He was only in Jerusalem for those 15 days, and then he set back out to preach again. The Judaizers’ argument didn’t hold water.
So what can we learn from this account of Paul? This passage is more than Paul just telling his story. This passage even does more than simply relaying Paul’s defense against the attacks of the Judaizers. This passage teaches us some great truths that we should cling to and apply to our own lives.
The first is one that we’ve already talked about—no one will trust in the message of the gospel without God graciously working in their hearts. This should encourage us as it takes some of the pressure off of our shoulders, but it should also embolden us as we realize that we are not dependent upon our own strengths and abilities to convince people of their need to follow Jesus. We don’t have to worry that we aren’t smart enough to convince people to change…we aren’t. We don’t have to worry that we don’t have all the answers…we don’t. All we need to do is explain what it means to be saved and trust God to change people’s hearts.
The second lesson we learn is that our source of truth must be the word of God alone. Paul did not believe the gospel because Peter or James or anyone else had convinced him it was true. He became convinced that we are saved by grace because he had seen that was what the Bible taught. Paul looked to the Bible alone as his source of truth. We should do the same.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot learn from other believers, from Bible teachers, or from books that others have written, but it does mean that these things should not be our primary source of information. We should study the Bible for ourselves. Sadly if you were to ask many in the church why they believe something they would say, “Because my pastor said so” or “this well-respected teacher said so” or “because I read it on Facebook!” Many people in our churches today do not study the Scriptures for themselves; they simply repeat what others tell them. Here’s the problem, how do you know whether someone is telling you the truth unless you read it for yourself?!?
We must be students of the Bible, not students of human teachers. It is important to sit under good teaching, as a good teacher will challenge us and help us to see things we might otherwise miss. It is important to learn from other believers, as their experiences and insights into the Scriptures can help us to understand them more fully; but neither of these things are a substitute for studying God’s Word for ourselves. No matter how solid you believe a teacher to be, you must constantly look back to the Bible to ensure that what they are saying is true. Paul even commended those who checked his preaching against God’s Word! In Acts 17, Paul preached to the people in Berea, and every night they went home and searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul was saying was true. They didn’t just take Paul’s word on what the Bible said, they checked the Bible for themselves. Paul wasn’t offended by this, he was pleased by it! Any good Bible teacher would encourage you to do the same. Don’t simply take my or anyone else’s word for what the Bible says—study it for yourself!
The third lesson is that the greatest way to silence critics is with consistent living. Listen to what Paul said at the end of this passage.
And still the churches in Christ that are in Judea didn’t know me personally. 23 All they knew was that people were saying, “The one who used to persecute us is now preaching the very faith he tried to destroy!” 24 And they praised God because of me. (Galatians 1:22-24, NLT)
The people in these churches didn’t know Paul personally, but they knew his reputation. They knew he was someone who had formerly persecuted the church, but now was its greatest ally. There were surely a lot of people who feared Paul. I would bet that many initially thought that Paul was posing as a Christian as a way of getting close to them and gaining intel on them. Many of them probably thought Paul was engaging in some sort of elaborate trap. But over time they saw that the change in his life was real. They saw he really was a changed man. They saw evidence of his faith through the consistency of his life.
Notice what he said at the end, “They praised God because of me.” This should be the effect our lives have on those around us. People should praise God because of the change they see in us.
Let me be honest with you, I think the greatest ally and the greatest opponent of Christianity is the same: Christians themselves. Commentator Todd Wilson states it better than I can:
The single best argument for or against Christianity has always been the same: Christians. A superficial, hypocritical life is a strong case against the claim that the gospel saves. But a transformed life, lived to the glory of God, is powerful proof of the truth of the gospel. We are our best argument. May we, therefore, so experience the grace of God in the gospel that others might see our transformed lives and glorify God because of us!
So here’s the question we must ask ourselves: are we living superficial, hypocritical lives or are we living lives transformed by the gospel? Are we living what we say we believe? Are people drawn to Christ because of us or are they pushed away? Are we silencing the critics of the gospel message or are we giving them ammunition? How do the things we do reflect upon Christianity? We must be consistent in the way we live; we must treat others with love, even when they are unloving towards us. We must show respect to others, even when we feel they don’t deserve it. And we must never give up on others, because we believe that no one is too far for God to reach them. If we live like this, then like Paul, others (even non-believers) will praise God because of us.
Paul faced some harsh critics, though his concern wasn’t what they said about him, it was how what they said impacted the message of the gospel. Paul knew what was at stake, and he knew he needed to silence these critics or the Galatians would be led astray. The way Paul silenced the Judaizers is the same way we should silence those who are critical of the Christian faith today: with lives that are faithful to the Lord. When we live for Him we not only bring a smile to the Lord’s face, but we help give credibility to the gospel message that we cling to and the world so desperately needs.
 Wilson, Todd. Galatians: Gospel-Rooted Living. Edited by R. Kent Hughes. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.