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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Test All Things

The last two messages that I have posted have been about the new covenant. We have briefly considered some things from Hebrews 9, where the new covenant is likened to a last will and testament that people make before they die, so that their inheritance is received by those that they want to receive it. When Jesus died, he gave an inheritance to his people. They became beneficiaries of his riches.

What if I had a close relative who was going to leave me everything they owned when they died? I might observe their life and consider the things that they purchased. Say that I lived in a run down bedsit. This bedsit is absolutely rotten. There is damp and dry-rot and it's badly insulated. In the summer I swelter. In the winter I freeze. My health suffers. I see my relative purchase a large plot of land and build a mansion.. I might think, 'one day that will be mine'. My life will be transformed. I will go from being poor to being rich.

This is like the gospel. Jesus has purchased something. When he died it became ours. By his 'will' there was a transfer of ownership. Jesus didn't purchase an earthly house to improve my earthly life. He purchased something that is far better. My life before I came to Jesus for rescue, was totally rotten. It was beyond repair. The apostle Paul describes it in Romans 3: 10-18. He quotes from a series of old testament passages to detail my ruin. Paul tells me that I am not alone. All mankind is in the same boat and that boat is sinking. One of the things he says is, “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.

What happens to houses that are beyond repair? Eventually, somebody in authority will demand that a notice is fixed to that property. The notice will contain the word 'condemned'. Notice is served that this house is to be pulled down in the near future. The bible is like a big notice. It is God's notice. He says, '...the wages of sin is death' (Romans 6: 23). The bible is teaching us that our lives are going to be pulled down, like a condemned building, at some point in the future. We cannot escape death.

This allegory of our lives being like condemned houses isn't mine. The apostle Paul uses a similar illustration. Actually, he likens our earthly life to a tent. Tents are much easier to take down than houses. They aren't really designed to be lived in for extended periods. In 2 Corinthians 5: 1 (NLT), Paul is talking about what will happen to believers in Jesus Christ when they die. He says, 'For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.'

Death is going to be the end of my condemned earthly house, or body. But, as a believer in Jesus, that condemnation ends there. I'm going to receive a replacement and it is an 'eternal' replacement. This new body has been 'made for (me) by God' and it will never decay. It will last me forever and ever and ever. It is everlasting. It is part of the 'everlasting covenant' that the prophet Jeremiah spoke of (Jeremiah 32: 40 and 50: 4-5). This is the new covenant that we have been considering recently. Jesus has purchased eternal life for me and I inherited it in his new covenant will, when he died (Hebrews 9 17).

The apostle Paul goes to great lengths in his writings to explain how this comes about. How is it that you or I can get into a position where this inheritance is ours? Many among the Jews got this terribly wrong. Initially, Paul himself got it terribly wrong.

After Jesus died and rose again and appeared to his followers, he ascended into heaven. Before he left, he commanded his followers to go out into the world and spread the message about him. He commanded his people to be Jesus' witnesses (Acts 1: 8) and that is what they did. The followers of Jesus Christ went about spreading the message of Jesus and the wonderful truth that is found in him, and in him only. As Peter told his audience of assembled elders and rulers of the Jews in Acts 4: 12, 'Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ Jesus died on the cross for every person that would believe that he is the Saviour. Every person who truly believes that Jesus is their Saviour will be saved. They will be saved by virtue of that belief.

Many of the Jews, and particularly the Jewish elite, hated this message. They believed that a person could only be made right with God by obedience to God's commands. This new message seemed to be the opposite of what they had learned. Paul was one of those that was horrified when he heard this new teaching. He thought that it was blasphemy. He thought that it undermined God himself. He made it his mission to eradicate this teaching. In Galatians 1: 13 we have Paul's record of his own awful behaviour, 'how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.'

But then a change took place. It was an almighty change. It was the Almighty... who changed Paul. In Galatians 1: 15-16, Paul tells us that 'God... was pleased to reveal his Son in me'. Finally, Paul understood. He understood that trying to keep God's commands was futile. He could never keep them to a standard that was worthy of God. But Jesus had kept the standard that God demanded. And Paul now wholeheartedly embraced the truth of salvation that is found in Jesus and embarked on a new mission. When we consider the missionary journeys of Paul, that are listed in the bible, and number them, we should never forget his origins. His first 'mission' with regard to Christ's Church was a mission of destruction. This originated from his own faulty understanding of God's word. His second mission was better. This mission was based on the revelation of Jesus Christ, given by God himself. Paul had a new 'mission statement'. It was Jesus Christ, and the publishing of his saving name. And how the Church rejoiced. Paul says that he embarked on a mission to 'preach him (Jesus) among the Gentiles' (Galatians 1: 16), or non-Jewish peoples. He says (Galatians 1 22-24), '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.'

Paul really did preach 'the faith'. This former Jewish zealot's thinking was totally transformed by conversion to Christ. Before, Paul believed that to get right with God you had to obey the rules of the old covenant given by God through his servant Moses. You had to do things to be accepted by God. Paul calls this 'works'. You had to do, or you had to 'work' at being right. Now, Paul had dispensed with this old way of thinking. Paul believed that to get right with God was by belief alone. He says it is 'through faith'. In his letter to the Ephesian Church he says, 'it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast' (Ephesians 2: 8-9).

Paul was preaching the gospel, which means 'good news'. It was the good news of a new and far better agreement between God and man, as we looked at last time. It was 'believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved' (Acts 16: 31). It was so much better than the old, works based agreement, that the old agreement, or covenant, was consigned to the rubbish heap. There was no room for it. There was no need for it. There was no point retaining it. Not as a whole. Not in part. It was replaced. It was replaced by something better (Hebrews 7: 22).

But, just as Paul himself had once opposed these wonderful truths before he came to true faith in the Lord, so the Church continued to face opposition. Paul, who had once been a destroyer, was now, by God's grace, a defender of the faith. This is the reason he was writing to the Church in Galatia. Error had crept in and error had been embraced all too easily. Paul says to them, 'I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel' (Galatians 1: 6). He doesn't tell them, 'you are adding a system of rules to your faith that will possibly have a negative effect on you spiritually'. No. He, in effect, tells them that what they are starting to believe is totally different to the essence of true faith. It is 'a different gospel'. Those that had introduced this teaching were, in Paul's mind, 'trying to pervert the gospel of Christ' (v.7). It was a perversion. It was distorted and corrupt. To Paul, this 'false teaching' (Galatians 5: 9 (NLT)) was unacceptable. And, it was downright dangerous.

So, what was the error? What was this perverse teaching? It was this, that in order to be truly right with God, faith wasn't enough. You also needed to adhere to parts of the old covenant rules. This teaching said that male believers needed to be circumcised, like the Jewish boys were in the laws given to Israel by Moses. If they weren't circumcised, so this corrupt teaching went, then they couldn't be right with God. Paul asks those in Galatia this question, 'did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?' (Galatians 3: 2-3).

To bring home Paul's argument, he gives the Church an example from his own experience. It is this example that really struck me when reading Galatians 2. It was relevant when Paul wrote it. It is just as relevant now. Paul tells them about an incident that had happened. It was a confrontation between Paul and Peter, who is called 'Cephas' here in the NIV, which is the Aramaic rendering of 'Peter'. It is really important for us to consider who Peter was. Peter was no less than an apostle. He wrote two of the books of the bible.

In Tim's message last week he concentrated upon an incident in Peter's life when Jesus was on earth. It was the miraculous catch of fish. Tim gave the supporting text to his message as John 21. In this chapter we are taught several things about Peter, and about his important future role in Christ's Church. Jesus tells Peter that he will die for his faith. He will be a martyr. He will end his life glorifying the Lord (v.19). Jesus also recognises Peter's deep love of Jesus himself. And he commissions Peter to 'Take care of my sheep' and to 'feed my lambs' (v.15-17). However, in the incident that Paul details in Galatians 2, Peter had begun to feed Christ's sheep with poison. He was endangering their 'faith'.

What can this teach us? There are many lessons in this example, but one thing that stands out is this. Error can come from anywhere. If there is a danger of error creeping into the thinking of the church from Peter, then error can come from anywhere. Peter was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. He was an apostle in the New Testament Church. He had books of the bible that bore his signature. He was confirmed by Jesus as one who would end his life in faithfulness to the Lord and glorify him in his death. If error could be brought into the church by Peter, then it can be brought into the church by anyone. And we must be on our guard. The devil seeks to find a way in at every opportunity to corrupt the thinking of the Lord's people. We are commanded this, 'Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.' We must, 'resist him, standing firm in the faith'. Who tells us this? Peter does (1 Peter 5: 8-9).

But in Galatians 2, the devil found a way in through Peter's fear. Paul tells us that Peter 'was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.' Before this, Peter had been quite happy to sit down to eat and enjoy fellowship with the gentile believers. Peter fully understood the universal nature of the gospel. We see this clearly in the accounts in Acts 10 and 11, which tell us of the vision that Peter was given by the Spirit, that conclusively taught him, that 'God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him...' (Acts 10: 34-35). Now Peter feared. In the Galatians account, it wasn't God that Peter was fearing, but men. Peter changed his behaviour because of the demands of others. His practices were altered. And it had an impact that was significant. Paul says, 'the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray' (Galatians 2:13). It was evident from Peter's previous testimony, and it was evident from Peter's previous behaviour, that he didn't believe the things that his words and actions now suggested. He did it through fear. And Paul calls it 'hypocrisy'.

Peter's example is like Elijah's example. He was 'as human as we are' (James 5: 17 (NLT)). As the quote, often attributed to J C Ryle says, 'The best of men are men at best.' But Paul faithfully warns the Church in this letter. What they must stick to, what we must stick to, is the truth unchanged, unchanging. Paul says, in Galatians 1: 8-9, 'But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!'

The Church must exercise caution in what it hears and receives. We must take everything to the word of God. Everything. Perhaps you may have been benefited by some of the messages that I have posted recently. Perhaps, in the beginning, you were sceptical. You looked up the verses that I quoted to see if what I said was true. But after a while I 'passed the test'. What I was saying seemed to be based upon scripture and so you no longer needed to check. Perhaps you thought, 'I'll just accept what Paul has written and as it's been alright before.' This will not do. Luke tells us a wonderful thing in Acts 17, where he gives the account of the apostle Paul preaching the message of Christ to the Jews in a place called Berea. In verse 11, Luke commends them in this way, 'for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.' And what was the result? Verse 12 tells us. 'As a result, many of them believed.'

To believe requires the hearing of the word of God (Romans 10: 14). and once we believe we must stay rooted in that word. Rooted in faith. Faith in Christ alone. I will finish with the words of Jesus Christ himself, from John 15: 3-5. 'You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.'


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