Sermon 04-15-18: “The B.C. and A.D. of Our Lives”

In today’s highly autobiographical scripture, Paul describes his life before Christ and after Christ. As I say in today’s sermon, if we’re Christians, our lives should be characterized by a B.C. (before Christ) and and A.D. (after Christ) as well. Can other people see the difference?

Sermon Text: Galatians 1:11-24

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The following was written after the fact from my sermon outline, so it will differ somewhat from the recorded sermon. Enjoy!

Believe it or not, I have never watched the show Celebrity Big Brother. Have any of you? But it made headlines recently when one of its contestants, a former White House staffer who was fired last year, had this to say about Vice President Mike Pence: She warned that we need to watch out for him. She said, “I’m Christian, I love Jesus, but he thinks Jesus tells him to say things.” 

This was being discussed on that talk show The View. Joy Behar, one of the co-hosts, upon hearing this, said to her fellow View co-hosts, “It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you!” She went on to say that hearing voices is “mental illness.”

Then the vice president accused her of “attacking Christianity,” and the whole thing got blown out of proportion—as all things political tend to do these days.

Of course, when the vice president said that he hears Jesus speak to him, he meant it the way we mean it when we talk about “hearing” the Lord tell us something: he meant that he sensed that Jesus was guiding or directing or leading him to do something. Not that he heard Jesus speak to him in an audible voice. It’s unlikely that any of us Christians would claim to have heard Jesus speak in an audible voice, even if we’re confident that Jesus has “spoken” to us.

Besides, Jesus doesn’t need to speak to us in an audible voice. Because we have God’s Word… and we believe that Jesus speaks to us in the pages of this book! This is by far the main way that Jesus speaks to us!

But the apostle Paul wants us to know in today’s scripture, by contrast, that when he heard Jesus speak to him, he meant he really heard Jesus speak to him, not merely in an audible voice, but in person—because Jesus appeared to him in his resurrected body on that Damascus road, gave him the gospel he preached, and commissioned him to be the apostle to the Gentiles.

We can see why this matters to Paul when we look at today’s scripture. Let’s begin with 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.” 

Why is this important? Because false teachers from Jerusalem, known as “Judaizers,” had infiltrated Paul’s churches in Galatia and were accusing Paul of being a second-hand apostle. “Don’t listen to him!” they said. “Paul was taught his gospel by Peter, James, and John, and the other apostles in Jerusalem. He studied under them for a few years and then he went out on his own—he went “rogue”—and now he’s preaching a distorted version of their gospel. Let us tell you what the gospel really is.”

Notice Paul emphasizes that he “received” his gospel from Jesus; he wasn’t merely “taught” it. We all know from experience in classrooms that it’s very easy to learn something incorrectly. Because it depends not only on the teacher teaching it properly, but also on how well we take notes and comprehend it. The teacher can misspeak, or we can later misremember or misinterpret what we’ve heard or written down. Receiving a gift, by contrast, isn’t like that: either we receive it entirely or we don’t receive it at all. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not something you only partly possess. That’s what this “revelation” that Paul refers to was like. Paul “received” it; there’s no chance he got it wrong.

Let’s look at verses 13-14: “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.” And what was Paul’s “former life in Judaism” like? We get an idea by looking at Acts 7:58 and 8:1. There, Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church, appeared before the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and presented the gospel. And he became the first Christian martyr: “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul… And Saul approved of his execution.”

There was no separation of church and state back then. Paul had authority from the chief priests to do to others what the Sanhedrin did to Stephen. He would have followers of this weird new cult about Jesus of Nazareth arrested—and likely put to death in some cases—if they didn’t renounce their faith. 

What bothered Paul so much about the testimony of Stephen and others in the early church? Why did he feel so threatened? I think it’s because Paul thought, “If Stephen and these other Christians are right about Jesus, then everything I value in life is worthless.” Paul believed, after all, that we are made justified before God based on our faithfulness to God’s Law. And yet here these Christians are saying that that’s impossible, and that Christ has fulfilled the Law for us—and now we are free from the Law! If that’s the case, Paul must have thought, what good am I?

After all, Paul saw religion in terms of what he was doing. By that metric, he could compare himself to others and believe that he was doing pretty well. Notice he was “advancing” ahead of others! But what’s going on inside his heart? That’s what Jesus cares about.

You may recall, if you’re old enough, that Jimmy Carter nearly lost the election in 1976 because, in an interview with Playboy magazine, he was asked if he ever committed adultery. “No,” he said. Then he corrected himself: “Well, only in my heart.” And this was very controversial for many, although I don’t know why: after all, he was just reflecting the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Don’t even look at a someone lustfully because you’ve committed adultery in your heart.” Jesus was always looking beyond the Law to the conditions of our hearts. It doesn’t matter, for instance, if we follow the letter of the Law if our hearts are all wrong.

Just last week, in a podcast, I heard an interview with Stanley Hauerwas, a pretty famous theologian—as far as theologians go. He retired recently as a theology professor from Duke Divinity School. For better or worse, Hauerwas is infamous for using profanity in his lectures and writings. The interviewer said that he’d heard that Hauerwas had recently given up saying the F-word. And Hauerwas said, “Oh, no, no… I gave up using the F-word many years ago.”

And I wanted to say, “Wait! I want to hear more about that.” Because I am a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips, and I find it very difficult to completely rid that word from my vocabulary—especially when I’m angry. But even if I could, through sheer willpower, stop saying the F-word entirely, would I still think it? And even if I didn’t think it, would that underlying anger, which so often gives rise to it, still be there? Because the anger is the main problem, right? That’s the condition of my heart that needs to change! The Holy Spirit has to work a miracle inside me to make that happen. 

The point is, what matters is the heart, not merely following the letter of the law. We will only be saved if God solves the problem there, first by taking care of our problem with sin! Paul, as the strictest kind of Pharisee, would have had a hard time accepting this truth. So he was threatened by the gospel that Stephen and others preached—and he wanted to put an end to it.

Then we get to verses 15 and 16: “But 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…” Notice the change in tone between verses 13-14 and verses 15-16: In verses 13 and 14, Paul is saying, “I, I, I”—here’s what I was doing—and in verses 15 and 16, he’s like, “But when God…” God set me apart before I was born. God called me by his grace. God was pleased to reveal his Son to me. See the difference? 

By all means, many things happened to Paul that will never happen to us: we will never have a direct encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus on this side of heaven. But… if we are authentically Christian, we should share in common with Paul this fact: Our lives should be characterized by a B.C.—before Christ—and an A.D., after Christ. In other words, we should be able to describe the difference that God has made in our lives because he revealed his Son to us!

In other words, if you’re a Christian, your life story will sound something like this: “Here’s what God has done to me. Here’s how God has worked in my life. Here’s how God has worked upon my life. Here’s how God has used me in these ways, for this purpose.” Whereas, if you’re still in the “B.C.” part of life, your story will sound something like this: “I go to church. I got confirmed. I got baptized. I do all this good work at church or for the church—and people better notice and appreciate all this important work I do! Because that’s how I know I’m a loved and valuable person.”

If you are authentically a Christian, your life, like Paul’s life, will be far less “I”-oriented and far more God-oriented. Christianity isn’t something you take up so much as something that takes you up. It’s not something you get into so much as a power that gets into you. It’s not something you choose so much as Someone who chooses you. It’s not a decision you make, so much as a decision that’s made for you. You don’t find Jesus so much as Jesus finds you! Do you see the difference? If your life has an “A.D.,” you will!

Notice verse 16 says that God “revealed his Son to me.” But there’s a footnote in our Bible that says that in Greek it literally reads “in me”: God revealed his Son in me. Isn’t that strange? We know for sure from Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians that this revelation wasn’t merely an “internal” spiritual experience: No, Paul encountered the resurrected Lord—in the flesh! So what does it mean—“in me”? I like the way the New English Bible translates it. It says that God revealed his Son “to me and through me.” In other words, Christ became so much a part of Paul’s life that other people could see Christ in Paul! Isn’t that awesome? 

Don’t you want Jesus to be such a part of your life—to be so obviously present in your life—that other people can see Jesus in you? If that’s true of Paul, that should be true of us, because we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us! If there’s an A.D. in our lives, people should see the difference that Jesus makes in our lives!

O.K., here something else that’s interesting: Notice in verse 15 that Paul says that God set him apart “before I was born”—even though God knew that Paul’s early life would lead, directly or indirectly, to the deaths of Christians, or at least the grave suffering of Christians—even though God knew all the harm that Paul would cause in his B.C. life! Think about that! Somehow, none of this bad stuff derailed God’s plan for Paul’s life; none of it knocked Paul’s life off course. On the contrary, God used all of these experiences—both good and bad—to make Paul into the person that he became, who would bring the gospel to the Gentiles. God transformed even the bad stuff—even the sin!—into something ultimately good for Paul and the world.

Needless to say, if God can do that for Paul, he can do that for us! 

I know that many of you are suffering right now—in ways that you don’t even feel comfortable talking about with most of your brothers and sisters in Christ at this church. I know many of you are going through difficult trials. I know that some of you are struggling with sin that you’re too ashamed to admit. 

Here’s the good news: There’s nothing you can do, and there’s nothing that can be done to you, that God, by his grace, can’t transform into something good—and make a part of God’s plan for you life. Nothing Paul did disqualified Paul from being a great servant of God, and that’s true for every one of us in here! There’s nothing that we can do that will “surprise” God. You see, when Paul was going to Damascus to persecute some more Christians, in Acts 9, Jesus appeared to him suddenly, and his life changed in an instant. It caught Paul by surprise, but it didn’t catch God by surprise. This was a part of God’s plan before Paul was born—and theologically we can say that it was part of God’s plan for Paul for all eternity… because God knew what he was going to do in Paul’s life forever.

Things happen to us unexpectedly, but they don’t catch God off guard.

So don’t give up on yourself because you think, “Oh my goodness! I’ve sinned so much! I’ve disobeyed God so much!” Or “these terrible things have happened to me, and now my life is ruined!” It’s not ruined! If you’re living and breathing right now, your life is not ruined! Because God can use all of that as God’s redemptive plan for your life and for the world. And we have an example right here in the life of the apostle Paul.

But he’s just one example. There are plenty of other examples! 

Remember Joseph after he gets sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, and after he suffers for decades, he rises in the ranks, until he becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh. And through his wise leadership he saves the lives of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions… from a terrible famine. God planned that for Joseph’s life—even through all the suffering and the sin. And what does Joseph tell his brothers when he’s finally reunited with them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.”[1]

So God used all of Joseph’s misfortunes to accomplish great good… and he can do the same for us! 

So don’t you give up on yourself!

Listen… My wife is not here. She is at Disney with my daughter, so I’m going to talk about her… Lisa loves building jigsaw puzzles. I can’t stand jigsaw puzzles, but I often buy them for Lisa for Christmas or birthdays—1,000-, 2,000-piece puzzles. Difficult ones. Inevitably—and this always happens once or twice while Lisa is building a puzzle—she’ll say, “A piece is missing! A piece has fallen on the floor… It’s gotten lost. It’s been eaten by the dog… or the cat. Or sucked up by the vacuum! Or there was a mix-up at the factory, and that piece wasn’t placed in the box to begin with.”

This always happens. And sometimes even I will help Lisa look for the piece, and sure enough: I can’t find it! It’s like… I can see that the missing piece should have some green, some yellow, and some red in it, but I can’t find it. 

But then suddenly, as more of the picture begins to get filled in—as I see the yellow daisies, and the green meadow, and the red barn—suddenly… guess what? We find that missing piece!

That’s the way God often works in our lives! We can’t often see how this experience in my life—this event in my life—this misfortune in my life—this suffering in my life—fits into God’s plan for our lives. But often, over time, as we look back on where we came from, and how we got here, and who we are now, we begin to see, “Oh, yeah… I can see how God took that event or that time in my life, and transformed it and used it. I can see how this piece fits in with the rest of my life. God has done this for me. God has used it in this way!”

Don’t think for a moment that God’s grace can’t transform whatever mess you’re dealing with right now into something good! Look what he did for Paul! He’ll do the same for you! Just keep trusting in him. Keep believing in him.

1. Genesis 50:20 NLT

7 thoughts on “Sermon 04-15-18: “The B.C. and A.D. of Our Lives””

  1. All the time the Disciples were with Jesus He had to keep saying, “have you been with me for so long and still you don’t understand?”. That was their sin nature.

    With Paul it was different. He was “A Jew among Jews”. Righteous in every way. But,……….he was wrong. Even so God had chosen him before he was born to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. This is one of the great assurances of my life too. That God has a good purpose for my life too. Maybe (most certainly) not as great as Paul’s purpose, but a purpose that God intends for me. And, I can only find and live that purpose by staying close to God.

    Another thing about Paul’s conversion that’s interesting is how he didn’t immediately begin his mission. He went off to Arabia. I like to think that he went to reexamine all of the Scriptures in light of what Jesus had shown him. I believe this because everywhere Paul went, it says that he preached the Gospel from the Scriptures. As we know the Scriptures (Old Testament) all point to Jesus. That is why Christians also should read the OT. It is a mistake to only look to the NT for God’s word.

    Good sermon Brent. Galatians is a great book.

    1. Thanks, Grant. I agree with you about Arabia. In fact, many contemporary scholars wonder if Paul didn’t go to Mount Sinai, like Elijah before him. Regardless, I think he did spend time preparing for his ministry and reflecting on the gospel in light of scripture. No one knows how long he was there, either. Was it three years or just a short trip?

  2. I like this sermon very well. However, as with your wife, at the moment it still appears as though there are “missing pieces”! 🙁 (By the way, my wife loves puzzles as well, and I also hate them! Could this be a “girl/guy” thing?)

    1. Could be. I have a good friend, a guy, who loves them, but he’s the only one I know so far… I have missing pieces, too, but i think I’m learning to live more patiently with them. I feel like Jesus keeps reminding me, “Your life is not about you; it’s about me!”

      1. True enough that the point of history is the glory of God. However, what makes God the happiest? Is it not, as a general matter, when his children are following him? “Have you considered my servant, Job?”

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