The Law and the Promise of God

Today’s reading is Galatians 3:15-29Open Link in New Window & Galatians 4:1-7Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Sam

If you can, keep the text open because we’ll look at various bits. Or if you haven’t, maybe Google the text, it’s Galatians 3Open Link in New Window, from verse 15 into chapter 4.

And it’s complicated, right? It’s ok if this feels a little dense and complicated, it’s not the kind of passage that you’d ask a Sunday school to memorise. It’s a bit of Paul’s treatise on the law and honestly I’ve been reading it for the last few weeks trying to get my head around all the moving parts so absolutely don’t feel bad if it doesn’t make sense but bear with us because there is some gold in there.

This is why it’s good to go through a whole book, because this is for sure one of the bits I’d skim read if we weren’t doing it like this.

When Paul writes a letter, he usually has something specific in mind to say to that culture. So when he writes to the church in Ephesus, he’s speaks of what love should look like, because they’re not very good at loving people, or in part of his writings to Corinth, he discusses how to take communion because they’ve been messing it up and giving it first to the rich people and letting the poor go hungry.

Galatians, as we’ve heard in other weeks, is a letter to the people of Galatia and in it you’ve got a church in a city of largely non Jewish people who have come to faith in Jesus. They’re being called ‘followers of the way,’ and they’re trying to work out how to be Christian in their culture, do they take all the laws of the Jews and transplant them directly? Or do they do something different?

Well as with everything it ends up being a bit of both. But Paul wants to make sure they know which bits are most important.

And so far in the letter they’ve covered how there is only one gospel message, Paul’s credentials for preaching, how he disagrees with some previous teachers and how you can’t be made right before God just by doing good things, we need Jesus who died to take away all that was between us and God.

So then this passage tackles what to make of that law that we find throughout the Old Testament, the way by which the Jewish people did, and still do, seek to maintain their purity by following these commands.

First we’ll look at what the text says and then whether it relates to us.

In this passage, we’ll see two terms repeated, the law and the promise. The law is this great manifesto for spiritual and personal growth, its a bunch of stuff to do but more than that, it dictates how to relate to other people and God in a way that ensures that everyone flourishes.

The promise, is a commitment by God to us that he will always be with us and we can always be with him, yes that means heaven when we die but more than that, it means his love and presence with us right here and now. That the person who made the universe and everything good invites us into a relationship with him.

As we start, let’s look at verses 15-18, in which Paul establishes God’s love for us doesn’t depend on what we do.

Paul starts in verse 15 by likening the law to someone’s dying will. In that it’s fixed and left by someone who is no longer here as a guide to what they’d like us to do with what they have left us.

But then he says in verses 17 and 18 that this law came over 400 years after God’s initial promise to the people of God, to give them all that they need. We find that in Genesis 12Open Link in New Window and the law doesn’t come in until the middle of exodus. And so because the promise made to the people of God has existed before the law, it doesn’t depend on it. We have this promise independent of our commitment to the law.

You’ll notice I skipped over verse 16, that’s because it’s tricky to explain and I wanted to establish that point first, that God’s love for us does not depend on what we do.

Ok, verse 16 and this one is kinda confusing so bear with:

Here Paul explains that this promise is not just for Jewish people any more. He explains the promise was made to Abraham, father of the Jews, to his descendent (singular): Jesus. And then through faith in Jesus, we are all invited into this promise. If it was made just to Abraham’s descendants, the Jewish people then the Galatians wouldn’t count and neither would we. But because Jesus opens this to all peoples, the non-Jewish people are invited in, including us.

So then if God’s love doesn’t depend on what we do, does the law matter at all?

Well yes it does, as Paul says in verse 19, because we all need help to live the best we can. Though, verse 21, the law, isn’t the thing that saves us and faith in Jesus is the only thing that can redeem us.

Then after this Paul pivots to show, look that was the old way of thinking, but what is the reality we now live in.

The rest of the passage that we’ve read is building to this one point, that we get to be called children of God!

He starts by talking about how we are accepted into the family, through baptism, a ritual symbol of us choosing to be included in the family, either for ourselves or on behalf of our children. And once we are part of this family, he declares that there is no hierarchy to us, there is diversity, we are all still different but no one is better than any other. This links back to the old way of thinking, that those who kept the law were better than those who didn’t, now our status is entirely independent of our actions.

Then in Chapter 4, he begins by explaining some of the mechanics behind how Jesus was qualified to decide who to welcome into the family of God.

And finally, in chapter 4 verse 5, we get one of my favourite promises in the Bible, that we are all welcomed and adopted as children and heirs of God. This beautiful promise that no matter what we do, no matter who we are, God will love us like his very own child. And he as a perfect father will never leave us or do us any harm.

How incredible is that?!

So what does this mean for us?

I’ve got three things that I think it says to us, and I’ll build in order of importance:

With regards to our relationship to all the laws and all the things we feel like we have to do, we are freed from all condemnation, all feelings of comparison or inadequacy. Not so that we can get away with whatever we want, but so that we can allow God to work on us in his timing. Steinbeck, in East of Eden, has that famous line: Now that you don’t have to be perfect, now you can be good. And I think that’s a little like it is here. Now that we don’t fear condemnation, we can practice these good works, continually daily becoming more like the people God is calling us to be. My whole attitude towards exercise changed the day I realised that it wasn’t about picking up the heaviest weights I can, it’s about perfecting the movements. And as you do that you naturally get stronger as you move more and you can carry heavier and heavier weights, but the point is not to always be at your limit or you’ll pass out and fall over every time you do it.

Second, we are to become like God by spending time with him. This doesn’t work without the Holy Spirit. As we get to know God more and more, we get to understand his character and we get to know what he’s like. In the recording, I showed a quick clip of an interview with actor Anthony Mackie, talking about what he’s learnt from raising his children.

He makes a great point that not only do children learn actions from their parents but they learn attitudes and they learn the heart behind them. His boys respect women, not only because they have been told to but because they see why they should, because they hold that core belief that women and men are equal.

So now that we are freed from examining the minutiae of the law, we can concentrate on getting to know what God is like and imitating that and bringing that into our lives and our families and how we relate to other people.

Point one, we are free from the punishment of the law so we can learn to be better. Point two, God is our example of what it means to be better, we need to spend time with him to understand that.

The main and biggest takeaway is that this all hinges on is the amazing truth that we are children of God! Take some time for yourself to dwell on that this week, how does it make you feel? What does it mean to you? Do you see yourself differently because of it?

Let’s end with some time waiting on the Holy Spirit, because none of this is possible without him and he is the only one who can turn this from something we intellectually know to something we believe in our hearts.

There will be a video version of the service.

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