In my preparation to teach in Belize, I spent some time again with the book of Galatians. I had done some work on it while at Ruthie’s in May and had studied it thru once about 10 years ago. It is a huge undertaking – so much in such a short book (six chapters). I think I have more questions than ever! Hopefully those poor BSN students to whom I taught it are not more confused than before!

 Some of the most difficult to understand passages Paul ever writes are found in Galatians, e.g., Gal. 3:10-14. Over the last couple decades there has been serious scholarly debate about Paul’s letters given the historical situation of first century Judaism; obviously an important context for Paul’s writings, especially Galatians. The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) has challenged some of the prevailing notions about how 1st century Jews saw themselves, especially in reference to the OT law, the “Torah.” Obviously this shapes what issues Paul is addressing in his epistles. I have found their perspective helpful to better understand the Torah and especially the relationship between the OT and NT picture of the law.

The issue of Galatians, for all of the book’s difficulties, is really quite simple. After Paul had founded the churches in the Galatian region, some Jewish-Christians had followed him and said something like this to these new believers, “Paul is a great guy and all, and he told you the truth as far as it goes, but he didn’t give you the ‘whole’ gospel. The truth is that if you are going to be a child of God and one of God’s own people, you’ve got to do what every other person has always done who became part of God’s people – get circumcised and keep the Jewish law (Torah).”

Now, of course, this seems a little foreign to us who see ourselves as good Evangelicals – we know how to live by faith and grace; we know how silly such a notion of becoming “legalistic” really is and would never fall into that old trap. Or would we?

We need to get this. These false teachers were not trying to talk these Galatian believers into doing some kind of legalistic stuff to get right with God – everyone knew that these Galatians were already Christians. And I don’t think it was primarily about trying to get them to “earn their salvation through good works,” though legalism is always a danger.

What they advocated was far more dangerous. They told these new followers that they were not yet really quite “complete” in their life with Jesus. What they needed to become “complete” Christians was to add-on to what the already had, they needed a little “addition” to Jesus: “Jesus plus.” Jesus was fine as far as He goes (though they never would have been so crass) – but Jesus needs a little help. These false teachers were convinced that the things they insisted these Galatian believers do were absolutely necessary to make their life with Jesus complete – and they had good, Biblical reasons why it must be so.[1]

Let’s translate all this into our time and our terms. Is it possible that we might just be susceptible to a little “Jesus plus” ourselves? Maybe it sounds something like this, depending on your particular situation or personal preferences.

Maybe for you it’s hymns or pews or wearing certain clothes to church. May it’s the way your denomination or church has always done it and you don’t want any of that to change. Or maybe you’re on the other end of the spectrum – you’re convinced you need to get away from all that tradition and change everything, because everyone knows the old ways are always wrong. “What we need is to go back to singing hymns” OR “we need to sing less hymns, we need some really ‘cutting edge worship’ around here!”

Maybe it’s the latest Bible study or cutting edge church growth program or having a better Sunday School (or not having one) or small groups or the newest discipleship program or if my pastor “fed” me or if people were friendly or whatever, you fill in the blank.

We think need something more, something new (or maybe something old), something else – then my church, my Christian life, will really take off and I can grow like I should into that really truly “fully devoted follower” everyone talks about.

In fact, we may become convinced that without those extras, we cannot really be the kind of Jesus’ follower we know we should be and even want to be. We have succumbed to “Jesus plus.” Jesus all by Himself, made real by the Spirit, isn’t quite enough. The great danger of Jesus plus is that those extras could (and do) quickly become substitutes for Him.

There is no “Jesus plus” anything. There is no substitute for Who He is, Who He is to us, what He has done for us, how much we mean to Him and how much He wants to mean to us.

What the Galatians were offered was a cheap (but apparently attractive) substitute for the real thing – and realize this – they were already living in a rich place of relationship and experience with God – and yet they were tempted to substitute.

Gal. 3:2-5 is a particularly powerful passage – it strikes to the core what it means to be a Jesus follower by introducing the Holy Spirit (surprisingly for some people) as absolutely essential and central to life as a Jesus follower. Now, not the Holy Spirit as a nice idea or a theological truth, not a quiet controllable Spirit,[2] but the Spirit as a powerful, real, experienced reality.

3:2The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you experience so much for nothing? – if it really was for nothing. 5 Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? NRS

Paul begins his argument against the false teachers by pointing the Galatians to their very real, powerful and concrete, experience with the Holy Spirit. What a place to start! Some might find such a beginning point surprising – why not grace or faith or right beliefs or whatever – but experiences with the Spirit? Had Paul become a flaming Pentecostal?![3]

So present was the Spirit, so comprehensive and total was His relationship with these believers that Paul talks about how God was giving them a continuous “supply” of the Spirit and that the Spirit continually worked miracles among them (3:5).

For the Galatians, this is what it meant to know Jesus – this powerful, experiential life with Jesus and the Spirit was the only kind of Christian life they knew.[4] And it was to be more than enough!

Are you substituting something for Him? How can you know?

  • Is your experience of Him (by the Holy Spirit) real, alive, dynamic, fresh? Maybe our lack of real experience with the Spirit makes us susceptible to cheap substitutes and “pluses.”
  • Are you content with doing externals; with going thru the motions? Do you ever simply cry out in desperation that you’re done with religious stuff and you just want Him?
  • Do you ever just wonder if there is more to know than what you’ve known of Him thus far? And when you think of that, what do you do about it? How desperate are you to really know Him? (Phil. 3)
  • Would Jesus, just Jesus alone, be enough? Or do you need something “plus” to make your Christian life full, meaningful, complete?

What will it be for us; some cheap religious trinket or a desperate, passionate powerful, ever deepening hunger for Him and experience with Him? How desperate are we, really?

Copyright by Mike Huckins July 2013.

[1] Without getting in the weeds on this, here is the idea. God gave circumcision and the Torah (OT law) to His people to keep as a way of expressing their devotion and loyalty to Him. He loved them and chose them to be His people and their responsibility was to keep the requirements of the law which He gave. By the way, there is no indication in the OT that God thought they couldn’t keep them – He fully intended that they could; Deut.30:11-20 is perfectly clear on this. These Torah requirements had been what made them God’s special set apart people for nearly two thousand years. You think your church has some great traditions – well not quite yet!  😐 How could they just let go of all that it meant to be God’s people for so long? Now, the issue at Galatia is that these Jewish Christians were trying to impose the Torah on the Gentile believers as requirements added on to Jesus and as needed to relate rightly and intimately with God. I am beginning to smell religion, how about you?

[2] We would never say it like that, but often that is what we really want. We want God’s blessing and presence, but we want it our own way, like Burger King, “have it your way.” The NT doesn’t allow for a smorgasbord of our own choosing when it comes to the Spirit, “I’ll take some fruit, but the gifts upset my stomach.” The NT expectation is that we walk in the fullness of the whole NT experience: fruit, gifts, power, holiness, etc.

[3] Well of course he was. The whole NT is “Pentecostal.” The coming of the Spirit on individuals and groups was the evidential indicator and absolutely necessary condition of the Christian life. Paul’s personal pentecost was so important to God that God had Ananias pray for Paul to be filled with the Spirit very first thing (Acts 9).

[4] How do we decide what is normal or abnormal when it comes to the experiential side of our Christian life? I would suggest that the only place one can go to see what it should be like, what we should expect, is the New Testament: and it is highly experiential.

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