The Galatians were constantly struggling to know what to believe and who to follow. For some reason, they were easily swayed this way and that by various “teachers” that came through the area. Paul indicates as much in the opening verses of this letter to the church. In the very first chapter, he writes—
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all! Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.Galatians 1:5,7
In the third chapter, Paul admonishes them again—You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? (Galatians 3:1)
Oh, those struggling Galatians…
Maybe it was the “melting pot” nature of Greece bringing traders and travelers from every part of the Roman Empire through their small nation that made them gullible. Perhaps, because they were a more educated populace, they were always “searching” for the “next best thing”. Living in such a cross-cultural climate, they wanted to know that they were following the true “path of enlightenment”.
The Galatians had openly embraced the message of Christ that Paul brought—but they were equally open to the Jewish contingent of Christian disciples that were encouraging them to be circumcised in order to be FULLY following Christ. Knowing that Paul was a Jew by birth, the Greeks probably quickly assumed that these “other teachers” were members of Paul’s missionary contingent.
Paul chastised them for their readiness to abandon the “freedom” of the good news of Christ and spends the better part of the book of Galatians informing them of the difference between “slavery to the Law” and the “freedom” to be found in following Christ. And in this fifth chapter of his epistle, he was quick to remind them that they needed to make sure to follow the right guide. In this morning’s key verse, Paul says since we live by the spirit, let us keep in step with the spirit. And noticing how the variant teachings were provoking division in the church, Paul then reprimanded them—let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another.
We all know, from history and perhaps personal experience, how easy it is to get distracted from doing the right thing—how easily people can be swayed from “the truth of Christ”. Someone with a charismatic personality—with an impressive contingent of followers—with a faithful band of co-teachers—can quickly lead a group of hungry seekers astray. Remember the “Peoples Temple” that became synonymous with the “Jonestown Massacre” (1978)?
The group started out as a gathering of Christian believers that practiced and promoted racial harmony during the heavily-segregated mid-1950s. The leader of the group, Jim Jones, had no formal theological training—but he knew his Bible and eventually was able to affiliate his group with a well-known Christian denomination. But, as the group grew, so did the leader’s ego—he began to equate himself with God. His people began to worship him instead of the true God…they began to follow his teachings rather than the commandments of Jesus Christ…they started to view the world (and eternity) through “the gospel according to Jim Jones”.
Like the Galatians, they were BEWITCHED…TURNING TO A DIFFERENT GOSPEL—one that ultimately led to the deaths of nearly a thousand followers—a third of them under the age of 17.
Other leaders and groups have been just as beguiling—drawing in the lost, the lonely, the confused by promising love, guidance, a sense of “family”. Various “sects” have appeared—their followers falling deeper and deeper into the slavery and often twisted theology of the leaders.
So how do we know when we are on God’s path for our lives? What steps do we take to follow the right guide? How do we know when we are “keeping step with the Spirit” as Paul advised the Galatians in this morning’s reminder?
Find and Follow Jesus
The first step is to meet and KNOW the Guide we will be following.
My Dad once spent three weeks in the Alaskan back country. He didn’t just fly to Alaska and find some guy’s number pinned on a bulletin board. To follow the right guide, he needed someone he knew that had been living “off grid” for years on the 40 Mile River. Brad told him what to pack…how to prepare…what to expect on his three-week separation from society. He spoke of the beauty and the isolation of being “cut off” from civilization. And he promised to lead Dad every step of the way.
In a similar manner, if we want to be followers of Jesus Christ we need to KNOW our Guide. Like the first-century disciples, we need to be willing to respond to Jesus’ invitation—whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
We must be willing to set aside our own agenda, our own way of doing things, our own version of “the truth” and be willing to spend time with the Master. Peter, John, James and the others walked away from their fishing nets, their tax tables, their person-al revolutions, their old lives to begin a whole new chapter.
They didn’t get there overnight! They listened to His instruction…His stories… His parables. They watched what Jesus did—how He prayed, dealt with the lost and sinful, interacted with the so-called “religious” leaders while leading each group to the truth of God. Through spending TIME with Jesus, they listened, watched, learned. When Jesus ultimately left them and sent the Holy Spirit to infill them, they were READY—ready to preach and to heal and to bring hope and to lead people into God’s best.
Be Led By the Spirit
As we spend time with Jesus, delve into God’s Word and invite His Spirit into our lives, we begin to garner an understanding of how God works—and how He wants us to do His work in this world. As we submit ourselves to the Spirit’s leadership and begin to follow the right guide, we become more sensitive to the holy “nudges” that steer us in the right direction. Paul referred to it as “keeping IN STEP WITH THE SPIRIT” in this morning’s verse from Galatians.
Even the Old Testament prophets had a sense of how to be led by God’s Spirit. They told God’s people to pay attention to that still small voice within when they faced difficult decisions—when they weren’t sure which way they should go.
Jeremiah put it this way to his listeners—
This is what the Lord says: “stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.(Jeremiah 6:16)
Isaiah gave the same message to those hearing his prophetic voice. In the thirtieth chapter of his book, he recorded–whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “this is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21)
We’ve all been there—at a crossroad—not certain which way was the RIGHT way to go…which decision was in keeping with God’s will for our lives. The message of the prophets—the message of all of God’s Word is simple—
It’s the same advice my Dad got when he planned his “big adventure” to the 40 Mile River–the same advice our tour guides have given us on every trip we’ve ever been on—from Alaska…to the Holy Land…from Yellowstone to Australia.
If you don’t know what to do…where to be…how to act…what to pack…what’s expected—ASK. Stay close to the guide…keep your eyes open…ask questions…
And LISTEN. Take notes (mental or otherwise)…pay attention (your Guide has been here before)…don’t run ahead—don’t lag behind. That way you won’t get turned around…you won’t get lost…you won’t be left behind. The Guide knows the best route …the most scenic vistas…the most unique restaurants. He knows the “ins and outs” of the area—where the potholes are…where the problems lie.
In the same way, as we attempt to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, we need to lean heavily on the leading of His Holy Spirit. Strip away the distractions…turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to those things…those individuals…those teachings that would encourage us to go down a questionable path or engage in a less-than-above-board activity.
The Old Testament prophet Micah put it this way–He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
In the 1990’s, many individuals sported t-shirts, ball caps, book covers and bracelets bearing the initials– WWJD? The acronym stood for WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?—a reminder to find a more deliberate way to live out their faith in an increasingly unfaithful world. Few people at the time realized that the concept was based on a late 1800s book by Charles Sheldon entitled In His Steps—a tale of a pastor who was challenged by a homeless man to take seriously what it means to imitate Christ. In Sheldon’s book, the homeless man says to Rev. Henry Maxwell—
I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night" All for Jesus, all for Jesus, All my being's ransomed powers, All my thoughts, and all my doings, All my days, and all my hours." and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside just what they meant by it. It seems to me there's an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn't exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out.”
The statement burned a hole in Pastor Maxwell’s conscience, and he challenged some of his congregants to join him in living their lives by daily asking “What would Jesus do?” in every situation that required a carefully thought out decision. The book bears testimony to their “divine experiment” to follow the right Guide and KEEP IN STEP WITH THE SPIRIT.
Our daily task
In the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul gets very specific about the actions we can take that will show we are keeping IN STEP WITH THE SPIRIT. I challenge you to make yourself a note today to read Romans, chapter 12—beginning with verse 9 to the end of the chapter and take notes on how you should act—how you will know—if you are following the right Guide in your life.
Like the early Christians, like the participants in Sheldon’s book and those who asked themselves just two decades ago “What would Jesus do?”, we need to find the right Guide by spending time with and getting to know who Jesus is, what He is calling us to do, where He wants us to go, and then submit ourselves to the leading of God’s Spirit. We might be helped with this by remembering what our benediction recalls each week—
that we “go nowhere by accident… that wherever we go, God is sending us… that wherever we are, God has put us there.”
Follow the right Guide, KEEP IN STEP WITH THE SPIRIT, and ask ourselves daily “What would Jesus do?” What would He have US do?