Approved by God (Galatians 1:10-24)

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This sermon is part of a series on Galatians titled “Justified.”

Big Idea: Our desire to please God ought to be born out of a deep awareness of our indebtedness to His grace.

Everyone has gone through an approval process; it’s part of life. From the time you stood against the chain-linked fence at the ball diamond waiting to be selected by one team or another, to the job interview in which you were one of a dozen, we have all experienced the disappointment of not being chosen, not making the cut, not being approved by somebody. It’s a painful but sometimes necessary process. 

In Galatians, we find that the Apostle Paul was also experiencing rejection. His work was being undermined, and people were turning away from the Gospel of Christ. Much of the deception taking place in Galatia had to do with Paul personally—he was not “bona fide.” 

Our passage begins with a transition verse marked by a question, a question he asks not once, but twice: Who am I trying to please, God or man?

The rest of the passage is Paul’s defense against the accusation that he is teaching a false gospel. This is just the first of multiple defenses in the letter. Here and elsewhere, Paul is not only defending himself, but also the core of the Gospel. The accusation against him is that he is trying to please the Gentiles by allowing them to ignore Jewish law. There’s a lot of irony here: calling Paul a people-pleaser is like calling Samson a sissy. It’s an absurd accusation, but one taken seriously enough by Paul that he responds. Yet, let’s be clear: Pau’s defense is primarily of the Gospel, not himself.

People-Pleasing

The Bible has much to say about people-pleasing. Paul’s most people-pleasing moment comes in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God, but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

But is Paul doing this to make people think highly? 1 Corinthians 4:3-4 gives the answer: 

3 With me it is but a small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.

Paul’s vision is clear: he is not concerned how people will judge him personally or criticize his methods for he has one goal in mind — “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.”

A proper understanding of who God is as our Judge will propel us above an unhealthy fear of what people think of us.

How does this apply to us? 

  1. A proper understanding of who God is as our Judge will propel us above an unhealthy fear of what people think of us.
  2. A consistent focus on our eternal destiny will motivate us to rise above the fear of what people think. People who hinder the work of God out of fear of what people think have lost sight of eternity. 

Here are three common factors in losing our vision of eternity:

  • We haven’t spent time earnestly praying for God’s guidance;
  • We haven’t spent time earnestly seeking God’s will from His Word; and
  • The loudest voices in our ears are our critics. The most important voice is not always the loudest, but it should be the most distinct—the voice of the Holy Spirit.

When these three factors are true, we almost always become people-pleasers. 

So how did Paul overcome the impulse to be a people-pleaser rather than a God-pleaser? He viewed himself as a slave to Christ. A slave has only one person to please—the Master. That is why Paul concludes the 1:10 with these words, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Whose slave would you rather be? God’s or someone else’s? Thank God He is my Master and not you. And thank God He is your Master and not me.

Paul’s Revelation

This section begins the most significant biographical summary in the Bible of Paul’s early years as a Christian. It ends in 2:24. Its importance is clear for Paul’s message to the Galatians because it occupies a whopping one-fifth of the entire letter. Let’s take a look at Paul’s life.

Paul was likely converted late in the year 34 (cf. Acts 9), or about a year after the death and resurrection of Christ. A chronology might look something like this:

  • April 5, 33: Resurrection of Christ
  • May 14, 33: Ascension of Christ
  • May 24, 33: Pentecost
  • Fall 33: Peter and John arrested
  • Spring 34: Stephen martyred
  • Summer 34: Philip’s ministry in Samaria
  • Fall 34: Conversion of Saul
  • Late Fall, 34: Paul preaches in Damascus
  • 34-37: Paul preaches in Arabia
  • Early 37: Paul returns to Damascus
  • Early 37: Paul’s visit to Jerusalem
  • 37-46: Paul’s ministry in Tarsus
  • 46: Barnabas invites Paul to Antioch

Paul’s purpose in 1:11-2:24 is to assure the Galatians that the Gospel they received from him is the true one. In order for them to trust this, they must be convinced that Paul himself is a true messenger.

Paul’s conversion was radical in so many ways. The way that matters most in Galatians is that it radically changed his idea about the law of God. Prior to his conversion he had a typical Jewish understanding, that is, that one is saved by their adherence to the law. But following his conversion, he discovered the Gospel; that is, despite his inability to earn his salvation through law-keeping, he can be received into the kingdom of God through the grace of Christ. This is a Christian understanding of law and grace.

Remember how at the beginning of the letter, Paul described his calling as an Apostle? He said he was an apostle from God Himself. Here he describes the Gospel which he preaches also to be from God Himself. It was Jesus who revealed it to him, not the disciples or any other person; only Jesus. This means the Gospel he is preaching has not been tainted by humans.

This has real implications for us today. The purity of the Gospel is only preserved in one place—the Bible. And, furthermore, it is only purely understood by the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11-14). Now this doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t learn anything from other people, particularly the other disciples. To the contrary, he will tell us in the next chapter that he compared notes with the apostles in Jerusalem. This means that they shared information, all of which formed a coherent picture of the Gospel.

Following his conversion, Paul turned from Judaism. Paul’s notoriety as a persecutor of the Church was so great that he would not be surprised if people all the way up in Galatia had heard of him. The one who had once attempted to destroy Christianity at its roots in Jerusalem was himself rooted out by Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus.

In 1:13, Paul describes himself as a persecutor of “the church of God” (tein ekklesian tou Theo). Now there is some irony here too because this exact term—ekklēsia—is used in the Old Testament to describe the “assembly of Israel.” In other words, the stalwart soldier of Judaism thought he was fighting against the enemies of God’s people while, in truth, he was persecuting God’s people. It wasn’t until Jesus stopped him in his tracks on the way to Damascus that Paul’s blind eyes were opened to what he had really been doing. Later in Galatians, Paul gave his post-conversion view of the Church as the “Israel of God” (6:16); that is, the church is “the true Israel, the true people of God, and the fulfillment of what God intended with Israel.” 

God has one people—those who live in faith in His Son Jesus Christ. All of the promises to ethnic Israel (such as inhabiting the land of Israel peacefully) will be fulfilled with Christ-following Jews.

God has one people—those who live in faith in His Son Jesus Christ. All of the promises to ethnic Israel (such as inhabiting the land of Israel peacefully) will be fulfilled with Christ-following Jews.

After his conversion and his turn away from Judaism, Paul began preaching to the Gentiles. Paul compares his calling by God to the calling of the prophets Isaiah (49:1) and Jeremiah (1:5) who were called while still in their mother’s womb. 

God gives both a general call and a specific call. The general call is to all believers in Matthew 28:18-20, to make disciples in all the world. Occasionally God specifies where and how He wants us to make disciples.

  • As we read in verse 16, Paul’s calling was so clear he didn’t need to ask anyone to explain it to him. He didn’t need to make an appointment in Jerusalem to determine whether Christ had really called him any more than the blind man of John 9 needed to make an appointment with an optometrist. They both clearly saw what God showed them. 
  • Paul immediately went to “Arabia” (1:17), probably the kingdom of the Nabataeans near Damascus. In 2 Corinthians 11:32 and following, Paul hints that he had taken the Gospel to the Nabataeans because after he returned to Damascus, there was a warrant out for his arrest. 

Before we move on, there’s an example here to follow. Several times in Acts we see Paul’s method of evangelism. It’s real simple: he tells his story of coming to Christ. All that is needed to obey the call of God to share the Gospel is your own personal testimony. That’s all the blind man had in John 9 and many people were saved; and that’s what Paul had when he first began sharing the truth of Christ.

But there’s another point of application to make here. Zeal or passion itself is not enough for us to be instruments of God. Paul thought he was doing the will of God when he was persecuting Christians. But the revelation of Christ gave him the knowledge and the testimony that he needed to spread the truth. 

And, finally, a third point of application is simply this: God works with hard cases. If there was ever a hard case, it was Saul, persecutor of the church of God.

Paul’s Return

After his conversion and time in Arabia, Paul returned to Jerusalem. There are three points to Paul’s chronology in 1:18-24,

  1. He only consulted with Peter and James (1:18-19); 
  2. He traveled to Syria and Cilicia to preach the Gospel before he ever became acquainted with any of the other believers in Judea (1:20-22) ; and
  3. He became known as the Persecutor-turned-Preacher (1:23-24).

Summary of Applications

Although the passage of study is primarily biographical, many truths can be learned from it that have specific application to our lives. Here is a summary:

  1. Only a clear understanding of who God is and an unwavering focus on eternity will give us the ability to rise above fear of what people think.
  2. The purity of the Gospel is only preserved in one place—the Bible. And it is only purely understood by the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11-14).
  3. God has one people—those who live in faith in His Son Jesus Christ. All of the promises to ethnic Israel (such as inhabiting the land of Israel peacefully) will be fulfilled with Christ-following Jews.
  4. God gives both a general call and a specific call. The general call is to all believers in Matthew 28:18-20, to make disciples in all the world. Occasionally God specifies where and how He wants us to make disciples.
  5. All that is needed to obey the call of God to share the Gospel is your own personal testimony.
  6. Zeal or passion itself is not enough for us to be instruments of God.
  7. God works with hard cases.
  8. Association is useful and sometimes necessary. None of us should be lone mavericks.
  9. Guilt by association is still a logical fallacy.
  10. There is good wisdom in making life adjustments in deference to the context in which you are ministering.
  11. Sometimes good intentions can be subversive to the Gospel when they are not biblically informed.
  12. The agitators required something for justification that God simply does not require.
David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).