False Teachers and True Shepherds – Galatians 4:12-20
How do we as pastors come to our flocks, and how do we as sheep receive the pasture that God gives us? These are the 2 related questions that St. Paul raises for us today.
First, for those of you who are pastors of some kind, among whom I include ordained clergy, Sunday school teachers, mentors, and, of course, parents: how do you come to the sheep that God has entrusted to you? Do we come like St. Paul or do we come like the false teachers Paul describes?
The false teachers are first, of course, false. There are many kinds of false teachers and false teachings, and I suppose that sometimes false teachers aren’t aware that what they are teaching is false. The false teaching Paul is especially concerned with, here in Galatians and elsewhere, is the teaching that our righteousness comes from the Law. But there are other kinds of false teachings: the self-help gospel; the health and wealth gospel; the gospel of antimonianism or lawlessness; the all religions are the same gospel; the I’m a good person gospel; the “I can’t believe in a God who would _____” gospel; the demand the miracle of the day gospel; the gospel of experientialism: I know it’s good if it feels right; the “I’m a good person” gospel; the intellectual gospel (in which I believe the right truths but don’t live them out); the America first gospel; the “but everyone’s doing it” gospel; the gospel of creeping materialism; the “minimum I can get by with” gospel; the “don’t be too different than the culture” gospel; the gospel of leisure; the “that’s too radical” gospel; and so on.
What these false teachings have in common is that they are propagated by false teachers, and often we are our own false teachers. The motive of the false teacher, of whatever kind, is to deny something God has taught or to even escape God Himself.
But Paul comes to the Galatians with love. Paul comes to the Galatians through infirmities and trials (verses 12-14). Paul comes as a loving father to his children, always praying, hoping, and working for the best for his children. He is almost like a mother in labor, waiting to give birth to them: that is the kind of love and labor he has for His beloved Galatians. He is also zealous, passionately seeking out all the good he can do (that is, all the love he can do) for them.
As their spiritual father, Paul is not only willing to come in love when they are obedient and faithful but is also willing to come in love as their father when they are going astray. Though he would rather change his tone to one of encouragement and affirmation, he is willing to love enough to also come with discipline and rebuke when necessary. Either way, he has their good in mind; either way, he is acting as a loving parent.
Is this the way we come as pastors to the sheep in our lives?
Paul also gives us 2 examples of sheep: interestingly enough, the Galatians themselves are the example of both kinds of sheep. As good sheep, they had Jesus Christ clearly portrayed among them as crucified (3:1). They began in the Spirit and willingly suffered for Christ’s sake (3:2-4). If possible, they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to Paul! (verse 15).
This is the way we should come before the pastors and teachers God sends us: with zeal and passion, hungry for the pure Word of God; devoted to those pastors; and willingly suffering for Christ and His gospel. How did the Galatians receive Paul, the pastor God sent them? They received him as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus! When the Galatians first received Jesus Christ, they received Him through St. Paul, and they clearly saw that Paul was an instrument of the grace of Jesus Christ. So clearly did they see Christ in Paul that they saw Paul as Christ.
Beloved, this is the way we should see the pastors and teachers in our lives, when they are faithful pastors and teachers. This is the way godly children perceive their parents. They know that the parents are not Christ Himself, but they see Jesus Christ in and through their parents.
This requires the humility and zeal and hunger that the Galatians must first have had. And this is the position we, as sheep, should always seek to be found in so that Jesus the Good Shepherd may lead us to our daily bread, which is Him.
But even good sheep may go astray, especially if led astray by false teachers. Even the Galatians, who started so wonderfully, are in danger of falling away. Paul believes that they are “bewitched” (3:1), and he has his doubts about them (4:20). What a sobering, terrible pronouncement by one’s spiritual father: that he has his doubts about you! Such words would cut me to the quick; they would cause me to weep and grieve; they would devastate me. And yet others will hear such words and only harden their hearts more.
Again, I’m reminded that in an age when we believe every individual has the right to interpret the Bible for himself and has the right to trump the teaching of any leader and in an age when we believe that each of us has our own personal pipeline to Jesus, we ourselves are often the false teachers that we follow. Unwilling to humbly submit to another, we lead ourselves astray.
The true test, when we as sheep go astray, is not whether or not we have gone astray through false teaching: it is whether or not we come back. At one time or another, to different degrees, we have all gone astray. The question isn’t one of perfection or of keeping the Law, or else we would all be permanently lost. The question is whether or not we hear our Master’s voice when He calls through His earthly shepherds. The question is how easily do we come back (repent), and do we come back at all or keep insisting on going our own way?
Whether pastors or sheep or both this morning, the parental love of Paul, that is, of Jesus Christ Himself, calls to you this morning.
Prayer: Father, preserve us from false teachers in the Church. Jesus, Shepherd of my soul, help me to hear Your voice and obediently follow that I may find food, shelter, and Your blessing all the days of my life. Help me to follow as a little child in Your kingdom that I never stray. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
Where are you in terms of the life of the Galatians? Are you responding with zeal and faith and joy to Jesus Christ and His gospel; are you being led away by false teaching or wandering aimlessly; is it possible that you’ve been bewitched in any way? Honestly assess where you are. Pay special attention to the shepherds God has put in your life and to what they say.
Resolution: I resolve to consider one way in which I have been led astray by false teaching and to come back to Jesus immediately today when I hear Him call.