Galatians (2) — Pleasing God or Men?

Last week, we began a study of the book of Galatians and I told you that one of the key themes in this book is the freedom we have in Christ.  In fact, I think Galatians 5:1 is a good summary of the entire book.  Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

I also mentioned that Galatians has sometimes been referred to as “the gospel of grace” because the subject of God’s grace is another key theme in this book.  In Galatians 1:6, Paul says we were “called in the grace of Christ”, and in chapter 5, he says that if we insist on being saving by the works that we do, we have “fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4)

But there were some false teachers in the Galatian churches, known as Judaizers, who said, “Those of you who are Gentiles can come into the church, but if you want to do that, you’re going to have to be circumcised, and then you’re going to have to keep the Law of Moses.  And then you can be Christians and you can be saved.”

Which was a message that was very different from the message that Paul had preached to these people.  When Paul came to Galatia, he preached the gospel of Christ, teaching “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).  And he was very adamant that no one has a right to change that message.

In fact, he said, “If anyone preaches to you anything other than that gospel, let him be accursed!  Let him be condemned to hell.” (Galatians 1:8-9).  He said, “I don’t care if an angel from heaven comes down.  If anyone preaches anything other than that gospel, let him be accursed!”

But, these false teachers were teaching something different.  And they were not only attacking Paul’s message of grace and faith, but they were also attacking Paul personally.

Keep in mind that reading any of the New Testament letters is a lot like listening in on one side of a phone conversation.  Whenever you overhear someone talking on their phone, you only get to hear half the story.  But, by the things that you hear, you can sometimes get a pretty good idea of what the other person is saying, too.

Well, Paul’s letters are a lot like that.  In this letter to the Galatians, we can only hear what Paul is saying to the Galatians, and especially what he has to say to these false teachers.  We can’t hear what they were saying to him, but we can get a pretty good idea from what Paul had to say in response.

For example, in the very first verse, Paul makes a strong statement about his apostleship.  He says this letter is from “Paul, an apostle — not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” (Galatians 1:1). 

And that tells us that apparently there were some Christians who were denying that Paul really was an apostle.  Maybe they said something like, “This guy wasn’t one of the original twelve.  In fact, he wasn’t even a follower of Jesus back then.  Who does he think he is?  Who gives him the right to call himself an apostle?”  And so, Paul says in response, “I was made an apostle by Jesus Christ and I speak with the full authority of an apostle.”

Now, as we move into our text this morning, starting with Galatians 1:10, we’re going to be able to figure out some of the other accusations that those false teachers were making against Paul.

But, before we get to that passage, let me share with you a story about a man and his grandson who were traveling down the road, walking and leading a donkey.  They met a man who said, “How foolish for you to be walking.  One of you should be riding the donkey.”  So the old man put his grandson on the animal.

The next traveler they met frowned and said, “How dreadful for a strong boy to be riding while a feeble old man walks.”  So the boy climbed off the donkey and his grandfather climbed on.

The next person they met said, “I can’t believe a grown man would ride and make a little boy walk like that.”  So the man pulled the boy up and they rode the donkey together.

Until they met another man who said, “I never saw anything so cruel in all my life — two human beings riding on one poor defenseless donkey!”

Down the road a ways, they met a couple of men.  After they passed, one of the men turned to the other and said, “Have you ever before see two fools carrying a donkey?”

The point of the story is:  You can’t please everyone!  It can be frustrating to even try, because it’s impossible.  And, the truth of the matter is, even if we could please everyone, we shouldn’t.  In fact, trying to please others will often distract us from the one we should be pleasing, if we’re not careful.

But, if we’re being honest with ourselves (and I hope we are), we do spend a lot of time and effort trying to do things in a way that will please other people.  Perhaps some of you here this morning chose the clothes you’re wearing right now based on what you thought people would think about you.  Maybe you picked out one outfit to wear, but then you thought, “No, I wore one that last Sunday.”  Well, what difference does that make?  “What would people think if I wore the same clothes two weeks in a row?”  Probably nothing at all.  But it bothers us just the same.  And we constantly ask ourselves the question, what will people think?

Now, when it comes to the clothes that we’re wearing, that’s not such a bad thing.  But, if we start preaching a message about God, and we’re worried about what people might think, and so that causes us to change our message to make other people happy, that’s a much bigger concern.  And that’s exactly what these false teachers were accusing Paul of.

Remember that these Judaizers were telling everybody that they needed to be circumcised and they had to follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved.  And here was Paul saying, “No, you don’t need to do all those works of the law.  All you need is faith in Jesus Christ.”  Their response was to say, “Paul, the only reason you’re preaching that is because it’s easy, and because you know everybody will like you because you’re making it easy for them to become a Christian.  You’re just a people-pleaser.  Your message is motivated by a desire to keep people happy.”

So, beginning in verse 10, Paul said, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

The truth is, anybody who took two seconds to think about it would realize how foolish it was to make that kind of an accusation against Paul.  At the end of this letter, Paul will remind his readers, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).  Some of those marks he had received in Galatia where he was left for dead after being stoned in Lystra because he had the boldness to stand up and say something that wasn’t popular with the Jewish leaders.

Suffering at the hands of people who didn’t like what he had to say was a common occurrence for Paul and it was the price he paid for being faithful to God.  But Paul had learned long ago that you can’t live to please men; you have to please God.

But it’s interesting how Paul responds to this accusation.  First of all, he makes it clear where he got his message.  Verse 11, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.  For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12).

Now, this statement may have been a bit of a jab against those Judaizers, because they received their religious instruction primarily from the rabbis, their version of preacher training school.  Rather than studying the scriptures directly, most Jews looked to human interpretation of scripture — their traditions — as their religious authority.

Their beliefs, their moral standards and their ceremonies certainly had roots in the Old Testament, but God’s Word had been so diluted and distorted by their traditions that the Judaism of New Testament times was, for the most part, taught by men.  The religious ideas they took most seriously and tried to live by were the man-made traditions that had accumulated over the previous several hundred years.

But Paul’s preaching and teaching had no such human basis.  What he believed and preached was not received from man at all, nor was it taught to him by man.  Paul’s message came directly from God.

In the next section, Paul starts talking about his past.  Now, to understand why he would do that, we need to back up to verse 10.  When Paul was accused of trying to please men, he said, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  Paul says, “I’m not trying to please men by preaching a gospel of grace.  But, there was a time when I was trying to please men.”  It was before he became a Christian, back when he was a Jew. when he was a Pharisee.  He says, “Back then, I cared a lot about what people thought about me.”

And, he insinuates that it was these false teachers, these Judaizers, who were the real people pleasers.  They were the ones who living in a way so as to please their fellow Jews.  As Paul will describe it in chapter 6, “Those who are trying to force you to be circumcised want to look good to others. They don’t want to be persecuted for teaching that the cross of Christ alone can save.” (Galatians 6:12, NLT). 

And Paul says here, “I used to be like that, too.”  Verse 13, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.  And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

These false teachers were saying that it used to be that Paul tried to please God, but now he only wants to please men.  And Paul says, “No, no, no.  You’ve got it all backwards.  Back when I was a Jew, that’s when I was trying to please men.  I did whatever the Jewish leaders told me to do, even to the point of persecuting Christians.  That’s what they told me to do, and I wanted to make them happy.  And I was zealous, not for God, but I was zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”

Because that’s where legalism ends up.  Last week, I introduced the subject of legalism and I said that legalism is the idea that you become right with God by keeping all the laws perfectly.  And legalism tends to focus on the external things, the things that everybody can see.

So we put those things on sort of a checklist – don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t smoke, don’t drink, go to church every time the doors are opened.  And all of those things have one thing in common – they are all things that people can see us doing.  Our list usually doesn’t have things like – show mercy, love people, don’t have a prideful spirit, don’t envy, don’t have a judgmental spirit — because those things are in the heart.   And so, legalism becomes very focused on doing certain things (or not doing them) because those are the things that people can see, and we want people to think we’re righteous.

Jesus had a lot to say about this in regard to the Pharisees.  That’s why they prayed in public and they gave in public, and they fasted in public.  Because they were more concerned with what people thought about them than they were with what God thought about them.  And Paul says, “That’s what I used to be like.  I used to be a people-pleaser, back when I was a Jew.  But now, I’m only concerned about one thing, and that’s pleasing God.”

In verse 15, “When he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” (Galatians 1:15-16).

Paul says, “I didn’t change because that’s what men wanted me to do.  I changed because that’s what God told me to do.”

It wasn’t until Christ confronted Paul on the road to Damascus that Paul responded to the truth of the gospel, that Jesus Christ, the one who had been put to death and buried, was now raised from the dead.  And so, Paul put his faith in Christ, and he was baptized into Christ, making the commitment to give his life to Christ.  There is absolutely no human explanation or influence that could account for the 180-degree turnaround in Paul’s life.

And I would suggest that the same thing is true of anyone whose life is ungodly and immoral.  I don’t have the power to change their life.  But God does.  The gospel is “the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16).  And there are many of you here this morning who are evidence of that truth.

Paul makes it clear that his conversion wasn’t his doing; it was God’s doing.  He had been set apart by God even from his mother’s womb.  Paul was chosen to be an apostle before he was even born.

And Paul’s conversion didn’t come by the power of men; it came by the power of God.  And I think it’s important for us to remember that.  Because I think it’s possible for us to teach someone the steps of salvation and get a response out of them just because they have faith in us.  And someone may go through all the right steps including being baptized, but he’s doing it, not because he trusts Jesus Christ, but because he trusts what we’re telling him.

And, obviously, God uses people to bring others to him.  It’s our responsibility to teach others, and I would imagine that almost everyone here in this room who has obeyed the gospel did so because of the influence that some Christian man or woman had in your life.  But we’ve got to make sure that people respond to God and not to us.  I don’t have the power to change your life.  I don’t have the power to wash away your sins.  All I have the ability to do is to point you in the direction of the one who does have the power — God himself.

So Paul says, “I was converted because of the gospel that God shared with me through Jesus Christ.  And even after my conversion, I wasn’t influenced by men.”

Picking up in verse 16, Paul says, “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.  Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.  They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’” (Galatians 1:16-24)

Paul’s point in all of this is that he didn’t get indoctrinated by the apostles or anybody else for that matter.  After his conversion, he spent some time somewhere in Arabia, off to himself.  He spent some time in Damascus.  It was three years before he saw any of the apostles, and even then, it was only Peter and James, the Lord’s brother.  And that was for only fifteen days, hardly enough time to get indoctrinated in a different system of theology than what he had grown up in.

After that, Paul went back to Tarsus, his hometown.  And, after several years of relative obscurity, Paul was invited by Barnabas to come and assist him in the work of Antioch in Syria.  Paul says, “I was a nobody to the churches in Judea.”  At this time, all they knew about him was that he used to persecute Christians, and now he is one.

I think what Paul is trying to say in all of this is, “I didn’t get the gospel from the church in Jerusalem or from the churches of Judea.  I wasn’t even around them.  It wasn’t even from influential men like the apostles.  I got it from God.”

Paul’s point over and over is to emphasize what he said back in verses 11 and 12, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12).


So, what’s the point in all of this for us?  I think it’s important for all of us to constantly ask ourselves the question, “Who am I really trying to please?”  Because if we preach a message of grace, a message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, there will be some who will accuse us of being people-pleasers, preaching a message just because it’s what people want to hear.  And we need to constantly evaluate what we believe and what we teach and ask ourselves the question, “Do I believe this because it’s what God wants me to believe, or do I believe it because it’s what my friends or my family or other people at church expect me to believe?”

Several of us saw some struggle with this a few years ago, after we studied the topic of women’s role and there were some people who said, “I can see that what you’re saying is right there in the scriptures.  But I don’t want to have to deal with family members who are going to get upset because that’s not how they understand it.”  And, in the end, for some, it was more important to keep the people around them happy than it was to do what would please God.

And I think there is a special warning here to those of us who are preachers.  I think we need to constantly ask ourselves the question, “Are we seeking to please God or to please men?”  If we’re really honest with ourselves, which do we actually do most of the time? How important to us is our popularity with the congregation?  How many of our sermons are actually designed to impress certain people rather than please God?  How many subjects do we not preach on because it might offend some of the more powerful, influential church members?

For others of you, perhaps you experience this struggle in the workplace or at school.  You’re careful not to say anything that might cause someone to find out that you’re a Christian because of how they might react or how they might treat you.  Like those in John 12:42, “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue.”

Like Paul, we all need to examine ourselves to see if there are any areas of our life where we are “seeking to gain the approval of men”.   And it may not be an exaggeration to say that there is no aspect of our Christian lives that is more difficult than this – determining whose approval we’re most concerned about.

And I think it needs to be said that having approval from your friends, or your spouse, or others is not a bad thing.  But there’s a fine line between having the approval of others and having such approval as our motivation.  Our motivation must always be to please God and him alone.  If we do that and others disapprove, so be it.

In Proverbs 29:25 (NIV) Solomon wrote, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare [or a trap], but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”  We live with a fear of man — what will he do to me?  What will she say to me?  What will they think?  What’s their opinion of me?  “Fear of man will prove to be a snare.”

James Frey said something similar.  He said, “If you care about what other people think, you will always be their prisoner.”

I would say that our longing for the approval of others may well be one of the greatest limiting factors in our spiritual lives.  And I am convinced that if we could ever stop worrying about what other people think, we could accomplish so much more for the Lord.

Because, if you truly want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, if you want to live out the radical life that he has called us to live, you cannot be consumed with what people think about you.  Because you cannot simultaneously live for the approval of people and the approval of God.  Becoming obsessed with what people think about you is the fastest way to forget what God thinks.  “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord will be kept safe.”

And, like Paul, it’s important that we know where our faith comes from. Where do we get our understanding about Jesus Christ, about our relationship with him?  Paul says, “It has to come from God.”  Now, don’t misunderstand me.  God uses men.  But we need to reach the point where we can say, “I became a child of God as a result of being called by God through his gospel.  I didn’t get it from my background, I didn’t get it from what any man had to say, I didn’t get it from growing up in the church.  I got it from God.”

There’s a saying that “God has children, but no grandchildren.”  What that means is that you can’t come to God through someone else.  You can’t inherit your parents’ faith.  You can’t have a secondhand religion.  You have to personally make the decision to come to God through Jesus Christ.



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