We human beings sometimes fail to recognise danger even when it is imminent. Three years after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, a researcher in disaster psychology, KAWAMOTO Hiroko, conducted an interview survey of people affected by the disaster to investigate people’s psychology and behaviour when a major tsunami hit. The following examples were then revealed in that survey. After the earthquake, a man went to check on the sea and saw a tsunami approaching from offshore, and rushed inland on his bicycle, saying: “Tsunami is coming! Run now!” He shouted at the top of his lungs, “Tsunami is coming!” However, many residents did not listen to him, and some even shouted back, “Shut up!” KAWAMOTO Hiroko explains that this kind of reaction is an example of the “normalcy bias” in the human mind.
“Normalcy bias” refers to the way the human mind works when it encounters an unexpected situation, in which it automatically perceives things as being within normal limits due to preconceived notions of what is “impossible.” Reacting to every occurrence is mentally exhausting, so the human “brain” naturally works to avoid such stress and to protect the peace of “mind.” However, in cases such as the tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake, the “normalcy bias” prevented people from recognising that they were in an emergency situation and had to leave the area as soon as possible, resulting in a situation that put their lives in danger.
Even in faith in God, there are times when great dangers are imminent, but we fail to recognise them as dangers. In other words, there are cases where a dangerous teaching is being given, but a person accepts it because he/she thinks it will be okay. If the person doing the teaching has good credentials and references, then the preconceived notion that they would not say anything wrong comes into play. And while natural disasters are visible, dangerous teachings are not visible. For example, Christian teaching encourages people to live according to God’s commandments. But this is not because one must live according to God’s commandments to be saved. Those who are saved by Christ do so to express their thanks to God. On the surface, the two ways of life – keeping the commandments to be saved and keeping the commandments to express thanks for being saved – are very similar. At first glance, people who live both ways of life seem to be living the same way. However, they are actually quite different. This is because the way of life of keeping the commandments in order to be saved is based on the assumption that one can keep the commandments, while the way of life of keeping the commandments in order to express thanks for being saved is based on the assumption that one cannot keep the commandments completely. And the idea that a person can keep God’s commandments perfectly is a very dangerous idea that renders salvation through Christ meaningless.
The Galatian churches in what is now Turkey were churches founded by Paul’s mission. Paul began his first missionary journey in 47AD, when he and Barnabas preached the gospel of Christ on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and in what is now Turkey. This is described in the Acts of the Apostles from chapter 13 verse 4 to the end of chapter 14. In particular, the evangelisation of various parts of Turkey is described in detail, with the establishment of believing congregations in Antioch, Pisidia, Iconium and Lystra. Chapter 14 verse 23 shows that elders were appointed in these congregations and that churches were formed as communities of faith. However, after Paul and Barnabas left, other evangelists entered these churches. These evangelists taught the congregations differently from Paul. They taught that Christians must not only believe in Christ, but also keep the Old Testament law. The evangelists particularly emphasised the need to undergo the ritual of circumcision, which is commanded in the Old Testament law.
Circumcision is a ritual in which the skin surrounding the male penis is cut off as a sign that the Jewish people are God’s people. It was usually performed on the eighth day after birth, according to the Old Testament provisions of Genesis 17:12 and Leviticus 12:3. It was also performed on the Gentiles converting to Judaism, even adults. It must have been very painful. Then there were Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile Christians must not only believe in Christ but also undergo the ritual of circumcision. Their argument is recorded in Acts 15:1 and 2 as follows.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
This was an incident that occurred in the church in Antioch in the province of Syria, from which Paul and Barnabas were sent on a mission trip. And similar incidents occurred in the churches in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra in the province of Pisidia, which Paul and Barnabas had evangelised and established. The “churches in Galatia” where this letter to the Galatians would have been circulated and read out refer to these churches. Paul wrote this letter in order to bring about a solution to the problems surrounding circumcision that had arisen in the “churches of Galatia.”
In verse 6 of today’s passages, Paul writes: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” In many of Paul’s letters, the initial greeting “grace and peace to you” is followed by words of thanksgiving to God. For example, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes in chapter 1 verse 3, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then in chapter 1 verse 4, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.” The Corinthian church was a church with many problems, including internal factional strife, idolatry and licentiousness. But before Paul gets into those issues, he first expresses his thanks to God. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he does not express his thanks to God, but instead writes frankly, “I am astonished.” The problems in the Galatian churches were so serious that they needed to be urgently addressed.
So what did make Paul to say, “I am astonished”? It is “that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” “He who who called you in the grace of Christ” refers to God. And “a different gospel” is, as I mentioned earlier, the teaching that Christians must not only believe in Christ but also keep the Old Testament law. And the evangelists who came into the Galatian churches after Paul, particularly stressed the need to undergo the ritual of circumcision, which is commanded in the Old Testament law. The Galatian congregations were therefore trying to switch to “a different gospel” that Christians must keep the Old Testament law, especially the law of circumcision. Paul preached the gospel that a person could be saved by believing in Christ. Through Paul’s evangelism, God invited the believers in the Galatian churches to receive the grace of Christ. And they certainly believed the gospel preached by Paul at one time. However, the Galatian congregations were surprisingly quick to turn away from the true gospel and switch to “a different gospel.”
In the following verse 7, Paul writes: “Not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” In Paul’s view, “a different gospel” was in fact only an attempt “to distort the gospel of Christ.” But from the perspective of the evangelists who proclaimed it, the claim seems to have been that “there is another gospel.” And it seems that the crafty way in which they argued this was the reason why they attracted the congregations of the Galatian churches. In other words, the evangelists who preached “a different gospel” may have evaluated Paul’s teaching to a point and then preached their own, saying, “There is another gospel that you should accept.” In other words, their way of arguing that, as Paul says, one can be saved by believing in Christ, but by that alone one cannot receive full salvation, and that one must keep the Old Testament law, especially the law of circumcision. If these evangelists had said that Paul’s teaching was wrong, denying the gospel preached by Paul, and preached “a different gospel,” the Galatian congregations would probably have been alarmed and would not have accepted their teaching. However, it is likely that the Galatian congregations would have been easily deceived by the fact that they had evaluated Paul’s teaching and then claimed that there was “a different gospel” to complement it.
It is not clear in this letter where the evangelists who proclaimed the “a different gospel” came from. However, as we read in Acts 15:1, quoted earlier, that “some men came down from Judea,” these evangelists who came to the Galatian churches must also have come from Judea, i.e., the church in Jerusalem, the first Christian church in the world. Also, in chapter 2 verses 11-13 of this letter, the following remarkable incident that took place in Antioch in the Syrian province is described.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
“Cephas” refers to Peter, the most zealous of Christ’s twelve apostles. And “James” refers to “James the Lord’s brother,” who was one of leaders of the Jerusalem church. Therefore, “before certain men came from James” means “before certain men come from the church in Jerusalem.” In other words, the problem arose when Peter, who used to eat with the Gentile Christians before certain people from the church in Jerusalem came, stopped eating with them, and even Barnabas, Paul’s fellow worker, went along with it. This meant that Peter and Barnabas refused to have brotherly fellowship with Gentile Christians who had not received the ritual of circumcision. It is likely that these “certain men” with such a strong influence would have been the same evangelists who were misleading the congregations of the Galatian churches. In other words, the Galatian congregations could not help thinking that these men from the church in Jerusalem were right.
Paul’s curse on the evangelists who preached “a different gospel” is very severe in today’s passage, chapter 1, verses 8 and 9:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Some may be puzzled by these harsh words of curse in the first part of the letter. Why did Paul write such harsh words? It is because “a different gospel” that seems to complement the gospel Paul preached is in fact “a gospel contrary to” the teaching Paul first preached to the Galatian congregations. This is because the teaching that Christians must keep the Old Testament law, especially the law of circumcision, is not a teaching that leads one to salvation, but a teaching that leads one to perdition. So why is such a teaching leading men to perdition, and what is the true gospel that Paul proclaimed? Paul writes about them in detail from chapter 2 verse 15 and followings of this letter, and we will study them later. For today’s part, I ask you to remember that the two ways of life I spoke of at the beginning of this sermon, keeping the commandments in order to be saved and keeping the commandments in order to express thanks for being saved, may seem the same but are in fact two very different things.
In the Confession of Faith of our denomination, the Church of Christ in Japan, it is confessed that the first duty of the Christian Church is to “rightly proclaim the word of God.” But what does it mean to “rightly proclaim the word of God?” Who can say whether or not one “rightly proclaims the word of God?” If people are moved by a sermon and want to come back to church, is that good enough, whether it is right or not? No, it never is. To “rightly proclaim the word of God” means to unpack the biblical word according to its own context, placing it within the framework of the confession of faith of the church, and in such a way that it clearly points to Jesus Christ. Even today, a great deal of information about the Bible and Christianity flows through books and websites. However, there are many “different gospels” out there that endanger the souls of those who believe in them. Those who preach in churches have a responsibility to be aware of the dangers of false “different gospels” and to preach the gospel rightly.