Title: God Gave You A Brain! June 8/9, 2013
Galatians 1:11-24 (NIV)
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23 they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
Galatians 1:11-24 (The Message)
13-16 I’m sure that you’ve heard the story of my earlier life when I lived in the Jewish way. In those days I went all out in persecuting God’s church. I was systematically destroying it. I was so enthusiastic about the traditions of my ancestors that I advanced head and shoulders above my peers in my career. Even then God had designs on me. Why, when I was still in my mother’s womb he chose and called me out of sheer generosity! Now he has intervened and revealed his Son to me so that I might joyfully tell non-Jews about him.
16-20 Immediately after my calling—without consulting anyone around me and without going up to Jerusalem to confer with those who were apostles long before I was—I got away to Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus, but it was three years before I went up to Jerusalem to compare stories with Peter. I was there only fifteen days—but what days they were! Except for our Master’s brother James, I saw no other apostles. (I’m telling you the absolute truth in this.)
21-24 Then I began my ministry in the regions of Syria and Cilicia. After all that time and activity I was still unknown by face among the Christian churches in Judea. There was only this report: “That man who once persecuted us is now preaching the very message he used to try to destroy.” Their response was to recognize and worship God because of me!
Well it is that time of year that is like Thanksgiving time for youth pastors! Why you ask? Because one fourth of your teenagers have graduation parties that I get invited to! Every weekend, for about 3-4 weekends in a row, it’s a Thanksgiving feast celebration for one graduate after another. Of course, this is the way we youth pastors pack on the carbs and extra baggage to make it through mission trip season.
I remember, as a student, always looking forward to being done with finals. That nice long sigh of relief that I have survived another semester of classes, projects, tests and finals was always a great feeling. Of course, when it came to turning on the radio I could always expect 2 songs in particular to put a big, giant grin on my face. Do any of you have a guess about which songs I might be referring to?
Well the first was more of a rebellion towards my teachers by listening to Pink Floyd wail out that “We Don’t Need No Education”. We don’t need no thought control. Of course I never fully lived into this song. I knew deep, down inside that an education was a good thing. But I sure did I love jamming to this song once I finished with a semester.
But the ultimate song that is so much fun to crank up as you are driving away from your school after finishing your last test is the classic Alice Cooper song “School’s Out”! Some of you get to sing loudly that “School’s out for Summer!” Others of us get to sing even louder the lyric that says “School’s out For Ever!”
If you were here last week you know that we just began a new series. Doug kicked us off as we began picking apart the letter of Galatians. Doug explained to us that this is Paul’s angriest letter to one of his church communities because they were trying to impose additions to God’s salvation received through grace alone. There were those who believed that Paul’s explanation of salvation through grace was just too simple and easy. It made more sense to some of those in Galatia to add on some extras to make salvation more worthy of attaining. In order to be an exceptional Christian and stand out from the others you needed to jump through certain hoops to turn you into a super-Christian!
Now based on what we learned last week we know that Paul used very strong and angry sounding language to oppose this line of thinking. But as we look at the rest of this chapter I find it interesting how Paul helps us to understand how we are to think.
After attacking those who are trying to add to God’s grace, Paul takes a breather and goes back to his past to help understand what happened to him personally that transformed him from a “law-abiding” and “law-promoting” Pharisee to a grace-filled Christ follower.
Paul explains that he was one of the best of the best when it came to receiving his religious education. He was so passionate about his beliefs that he would vigorously attack and persecute Christians. But then something dramatic happened. And it is important that we understand the difference between what Paul knew then in contrast to what he knows now. All of a sudden, Paul received knowledge of God’s grace through the work of Jesus Christ.
What I want us to wrestle with is what does this do to the knowledge Paul received prior to becoming a Christ follower? This is why it is important for us to get this. Is Paul advocating an anti-knowledge agenda here? Does education help us or harm us? There are some in the 21st century who have tried to attach the label of ignorance when it comes to Christians. Some even say we are anti-science. Is there truth to this claim?
Let’s consider Paul here. I do not believe that Paul is rejecting his formal education. Instead he is promoting a new way of interpreting the body of knowledge that he has been brought up under. He has the education that he received in the past but now it has been transformed through his relationship with Christ! The old grid of Judaism has been replaced by a new mental grid in which the work of Jesus reinterprets all that he has come to understand. So it is not a repudiation of knowledge more than it is a process of transforming knowledge through a new grid.
And Paul makes it very, very clear that he did not run off to a different school and sit under other teachers to come up with this new way of interpreting life. His formal education in the past was under some of the great teachers of his time. But Paul makes this point, that this transformation that happened to him was specifically NOT a result of a new book or teaching that hit the stores. Instead, it was an act of God that took everything he already had and reinterpreted it through a new and transformed way of understanding.
There is no way that we would have the depth of wisdom and theology in all of Paul’s letters if it were not for his intense education in Judaism. Just a quick reading of the letter to the Romans one will conclude that the writer is extremely knowledgeable and highly educated. Granted, I do believe that the writings of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit but that inspiration could have equally been involved in the intense training and education Paul received beforehand as well as in the moments he sat down to write out his letters.
There are 2 things I want us to capture in this passage that Paul concludes with. The first thought that Paul leaves us with in this passage is that the transformation of his thinking had a dramatic effect on transforming his actions! “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” The knowledge that inspired persecution has now been transformed to knowledge that inspires the proclamation of the faith!
Now, why does this matter? We are gathered together on this weekend to celebrate our graduates. Many of you are also celebrating the end of a school year and the beginning of your Summer break. But as we look to the near future, many of you are heading off to colleges and universities to specialize in a degree through intensive learning in a particular field of study. Receiving knowledge and applying that knowledge to life is not necessarily a bad thing. But how we process the knowledge we receive and then apply it to our context could potentially be good or bad though.
Let me demonstrate. When I first got out of seminary and got my first job as a youth pastor I was so excited to use the education that I received and start applying it to my first major ministry. Now, in the field of youth ministry, back in the early 90’s, only a few colleges recognized youth ministry as a field worthy of study. Many in youth ministry were people who just loved teenagers but had no formal education in youth ministry.
This one and only time in my youth ministry career I was convinced to do a mission trip to the city of Pittsburgh. As a Cleveland fan I have always known that there were a lot of pagans in Pittsburgh, but to go there and save them!?!?! My immediate plan was to jump in a boat and travel north up the Cuyahoga River to escape that fate only to have a large fish swallow me up, then swim over to the Ohio River and spit me up at the three rivers crossroads that is the heart of Pittsburgh. But God did not have to do that because I went willingly!
As I was there I had one of my adult leaders acting up a lot. He would drink several energy drinks and then be bouncing off the wall. In my highly-educated way I tried to have an adult conversation with him expounding on my vast knowledge of adolescents and how he needs to act more like an adult rather than a Junior Higher (no offense Junior Highers). In this conversation, I could tell he sensed that I was pulling out the “education card” on him because his defensive response to me was “Do you think you are better than me because you went to college?” And I can say with all honesty that deep down in my gut I wanted to yell back with much emotion, “Yes! That is EXACTLY what I am saying! I am much better than you in understanding youth and mission trips because I got an education and YOU DID NOT!”
There were also times in which I sensed some strange vibes from my adult leaders as I tried to lead them with the vast resources of wisdom that I had in adolescent development and ministry to teenagers. They sometimes seemed to act smugly towards me because they actually were in the process of raising teenagers in their own households, whereas, I had perfectly adorable little children that all the teenagers wanted to babysit and play with. I could see these adults’ piercing glares and their judgmental attitudes as I know that they thought “You just wait Russ until YOUR kids are teenagers! Then we will see who thinks they know sooooo much.” But I equally would give those leaders the side glance of skepticism as I would think, “Oh yeah, well I have spent more years studying everything there is to know about teenagers than you have had in just raising them so there! Plus your teenagers think I am cool and you are not!”
Well as some of you seasoned parents know, there is nothing like personal experience being your teacher. You can read all the books you want, but when it comes to raising your own, it is easy to feel completely clueless about how to parent in all the various and interesting situations that arise throughout these years. It is in these years where you see the importance of relying on God and trusting in his promises so that you don’t make a big mistake in parenting and you are able to help your kids grow up in a reasonable healthy way – spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. Books and knowledge can only take you so far. With the wrong attitude towards our ideas of parenting we can add so many unrealistic expectations that our teens end up not doing well. Or we could use all that we know, pass it through the grid of God’s grace and love, and trust that God will use you in the right moments to be an effective parent.
I use this illustration as an example of how we must understand Paul’s approach to his education. At one stage of life, prior to coming to know Jesus, he used his education to judge, divide, and persecute others. He used it to inflate his ego, expand his pride, and make a name for himself among the elite in his field of study. Once he encountered Christ, the grid in which he interpreted all he came to know, changed! Now he reinterprets his education in light of God’s grace, mercy and love! Instead of having a judgmental view of people who did not believe like he did, now, with his new worldview, he is compelled to reach out and include as many people as possible in knowing Christ as their Savior. This is not a repudiation of his education, more than it is a reinterpretation of it.
Students, many of you have just finished another year of school. You have had teachers pour into you all the truths of their particular fields of study. Some of you are going to be taking the next step in your education soon by going off to college. You will encounter some teachers and professors who are believers and you will no doubt have some who are most vocally not. The fact of the matter is this, all truth is God’s truth, no matter what the worldview of the teacher might be. The question becomes how do you interpret these truths? Allow the knowledge that you gain to pass through the grid of God’s love, grace and mercy. Allow God to redeem everything you learn in order to use it all for God’s glory.
And finally, I want you to notice the reaction of the people to Paul in the last statement of this passage. It stated,
“There was only this report: “That man who once persecuted us is now preaching the very message he used to try to destroy.” Their response was to recognize and worship God because of me!
The way in which Paul previously used his education and knowledge produced persecution and fear among people. They knew he was out to destroy them. But now that Paul has been changed through Christ, the people’s response was to recognize and worship God because of him.
May this be true for each and every one of us. As we use the brains that God gave us, may we come to know him more, and be in awe of his vast wisdom and knowledge that he has designed for us to discover all throughout his creation. May the knowledge we gain through formal education or the school of experience, be redeemed through the work of Christ as we become vessels of God’s grace, love and mercy to a world that is suffering and longs to know God.
May it never be said of us that we allowed our education and experience to enslave us into stroking our ego, or building our own mini-empire, or separating and dividing people who are not like us. This is what Paul was attacking in the Galatian church. Instead let us live into the freedom of seeing and experiencing the world through the grid of God grace, mercy and love, knowing that he has empowered us to continue the work of Christ right here and right now. May we be the people of God of whom when others looks at us they are compelled to worship God for all that He is doing in and through us. May we be a blessing to our families, our church and our communities. And finally, May it be said of us that we use our education and experience to glorify God in all we do. Amen.