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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Faith or Law

Today’s reading is Galatians 3:1-14Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Rob.

You’ll remember from earlier weeks, that the overall context for the letter to the Galatians is Paul responding to false teachers, trying to get the Galatian gentiles to get circumcised, and follow the ‘works of the law’.

This is Paul’s response, reminding them of the gospel of grace, and imploring them to stay faithful to his message.

In many ways, Paul could have finished the letter to the Galatians at the end of chapter 2. He has made his point, the Galatians would understand his argument, he could move on.

However, he chooses to return the charge for a second time, and this time it’s personal. You will remember from Richard and Ian’s double act last Sunday, that Paul’s argument was more about theory, and focusing on his disagreement with Peter, but in chapter three he addresses the Galatians directly, and instead of arguing his point from his personal spiritual experience, he turns to scripture.

This could be because it was a normal Rabbinic technique, to prove a point from scripture or it could be that the false teachers he was teaching against also used scripture to make their arguments, and Paul therefore wanted to take them on at their own game.

Today we will look at the passage in three parts:

  1. The role of the spirit
  2. The blessing on faith, initiated by Abraham
  3. The curse of the law

Just before we look at the spirit, I would like to draw attention to how Paul’s entire argument revolves around Christ, and him crucified. In the last verse of chapter 2, we read ‘I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.’

In the first verse of chapter 3, we read ‘It was before your eyes that Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!’, and in verse 13 we read ‘cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—for Paul, his argument rests on Christ crucified, without which the debate is meaningless.

The Role of the Spirit:

Paul begins the chapter by questioning them ‘You foolish Galatians, who bewitched you?!’ —note that he doesn’t call their actions sinful, but he does call them foolish, or stupid, that a lack of logical reasoning has allowed them to accept this theological inconsistency.

And why would they be foolish to accept the false teaching?

Because of the work of the spirit.

The scholar, David DeSilva writes, ‘the indisputable sign for Paul of the efficacy of Jesus’ work is the Galatians’ reception of the Holy Spirit.’ He goes on: ‘This should have been enough to show that God had approved them as part of God’s family.’

I don’t know whether you have been involved with an Alpha course, we are running a couple here at St Matthew’s at the moment. My experience is that it is when we ask the Holy Spirit to move on the weekend away that the teaching seems to make sense, as though a lightbulb comes on. When the Holy Spirit moves, He affirms the teaching from the weeks before, about who Jesus is and what he did on the cross.

So I would like to ask a question—How much should we expect the movement of the Holy Spirit and accompanying miracles to be a mark in our lives, proving what Jesus did for us on the cross?

The Blessing of Faith

This is where Paul really starts to build his argument from scripture, and to do so, Paul goes right back to Abraham, in Genesis 15Open Link in New Window, where God promised that he would be the father of a great nation.

Paul is showing here, how his message to the gentiles isn’t a new fad, but it was what God intended all along. How?

Firstly, in verse 6, Abraham believed God and was therefore reckoned righteousness. As a direct result, Paul tells the Galatians that those who believe, now, are also descendants of Abraham. The promise given to him, also included gentiles—we read that in verse 8—‘forseeeing that God would justify the gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you’.

This goes back to Genesis chapter 12, where God said that all the nations would be blessed by Israel. Paul therefore connects these together, making the powerful argument that God’s intentions hadn’t changed. That through Jesus, this has been fulfilled, the gentiles, the Galatians, we—are already included in the promise, we have been adopted into the family of Abraham, by the grace of God, and faith in him.

The Curse of the Law

Paul now pits this gospel of grace through faith, against the law, and using emotive language slams those who follow ‘the works of the law’ as cursed. What does this mean?

It is possible that Paul is using the arguments of the false teachers and turning it against them. He is after-all quoting Deuteronomy, and using the curse section, warning Israel against disobeying the agreement between them and God, as the reason why the ‘works of the law’ should not apply to the gentiles. But what is actually going on here, how does this fit with the rest of the passage?

Lets take a step back, and imagine that you are on a long journey, but you’re stuck in a huge traffic jam. The seconds turn into minutes, which turn into what seem like hours with no end in sight—until suddenly, the traffic starts to move and you’re able to proceed with your journey. A couple of miles later you see the accident which caused the traffic jam, or road block which has now been cleared to the side of the motorway.

The nation of Israel would have been well known for the various rules that they followed, they kept the sabbath, they refused to eat certain types of food, male children were circumcised etc. This law marked Israel as being different, and what Paul is saying, is that this law has become a roadblock for God’s original intention we see earlier in the passage, that like Abraham, the whole worlds would be blessed by the Jewish nation, and ultimately saved by grace through faith.

The law itself isn’t the problem, but humanity is. We are unable to keep the law, and because of that, we are cursed, because we are unable to keep the rules of the covenant relationship.

Paul now brings the entire argument back to the cross, showing the Galatians (and us), how by being crucified, Jesus became a curse for us, defeating the power of sin and death, fulfilling the law, and ending the requirement for there to be a dividing wall of hostilities between the Jews and the gentiles.

The Galatians are accepted, the gentiles are accepted, we are accepted, by grace, through faith.

As we end, I would like us to reflect on these couple of questions—

  1. What roadblocks are there in the way of God’s blessing reaching the world today?
  2. How can the fact of the cross and the gift of the spirit be applied to them?

There will be a video version of the service.

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Paul & Peter

Today’s reading is Galatians 2:11-21Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Richard & Ian.

Have you ever been told off in public Ian?

I guess for most of us the public telling off stopped when we left school.

When I read this passage it brought back a slightly shameful episode from years back to mind. Laura and I were playing badminton at Kingsdown Sports centre with our very good friends Mitch and his wife Chris. Mitch and Laura were one side and me and Chris on the other. I had placed a shot right on the line but Laura called it out and I disputed it but the others deemed it to be out. I am highly competitive and got very annoyed and every shot that came my way I smashed it straight at Laura. This happened for a few shots when suddenly Mitch said in a very loud voice ‘Richard why don’t you just grow up?’ The entire place went silent and everyone looked in my direction. I nearly died of embarrassment.

So I feel for Peter, publicly being told off by Paul.

So why was Peter castigated by Paul, Richard?

You will remember from Acts 10Open Link in New Window Peter had a vision about clean and unclean animals under Jewish law. In the vision God instructs Peter to kill and eat the unclean animals. Peter protests but in the end God says to him. The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter then received a message to meet Cornelius a God fearing Roman centurion who had received a visit from an angel. The Angel instructed Cornelius to invite Peter to his home to hear what he had to say. At that time Jews would not have anything to do with Gentiles.

When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s home, there was quite a crowd and verse 28 paints the picture well:

Peter said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Peter realises that God has called him to treat Gentiles the same as his Jewish Christian brothers and sisters which he indeed does.

From then on Peter saw no distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians until a circumcision group allegedly from the Apostle James arrived in Anticoch. I say allegedly because it is pretty certain James did not send them but they clearly put pressure on Peter to distance himself from non circumcised Gentiles. Peter caves in and stops sitting with Gentiles in accordance with the Jewish laws.

Peter is therefore guilty of three things:

  1. of hypocrisy by his own standards having declared publicly to Cornelius that God had showed him that everyone was equal in God’s sight. Peter was not walking the talk.
  2. he was also disobedient to God who had told him that he must not call anyone unclean.
  3. He had led others including Barnabas astray

Like me and my badminton game, Peter needed to be corrected!

Of course Paul did not do this to embarrass Peter but to deal with this insidious behaviour in the church straight away before it got out of control. Paul was clear that you could not have two classes of Christian—Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, that is a recipe for endless division and rancour. Last week Lucy spoke of Paul’s message of unity within the church and this is another example of Paul ensuring the church was of one mind under God.

So Ian, following this unity, that’s why this bust up between Paul and Peter is a bit of a surprise, isn’t it?

Yes, indeed. But it’s also so very human—and just like us. We all often struggle with a tension and temptation sometimes between what we believe or following the crowd. We know the dispute was resolved, as Acts tells us. But Paul has to very publicly rebut this, not to save his personal reputation, but because the truth of the Gospel was at stake, and if what Paul was saying was being publicly rubbished, he had to publicly refute it to protect the truth.

Paul could have left it here but he doesn’t—How does he elaborate Ian?

In his passion for the truth, having publicly stood up to hypocritical conduct, there follows in these last verses, 15–21, a very important word. It’s a word which is central to this letter, central to the gospel preached by Paul, and central to Christianity. The word is ‘JUSTIFIED’.

It sounds like a complicated word, doesn’t it?

Yes. It comes up 5 times as verb and noun in these few verses—‘Justified’ and ‘justification’. As Paul continues his response to Peter’s conduct, he introduces us to the central doctrine of the Christian church, the doctrine of Justification by faith.

In the face of opposition and backsliding, it’s vital for Paul to make this clear—otherwise, what does the grace of God mean, and why did Jesus Christ die on the cross for you and me?

In verse 15, Paul says of himself, and Peter, ‘We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentiles… yet we know that a person is not justified by the words of the law (circumcision and all the rest of the law etc) but through faith in Christ.’

I encourage you all to read this carefully again. This is the heart of our Christian faith.
So, what does this word mean?

‘Justification’ is a legal word, and is the exact opposite to ‘condemnation’. If someone is condemned in a trial, they are declared guilty. If someone is ‘justified’, they are declared not guilty, or innocent. Things are made right again. We are ‘righteous’.

This can sound complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Our consciences (certainly mine does!), tell us that sometimes we are not righteous—in our thoughts, words and deeds. There is only one person who is righteous, and that is God. When those two things come together—God’s righteousness and our unrighteousness, we see clearly the things that separate us from a pure and holy God.

I believe that it’s a basic human need to be in harmony, in union with God, to be in a whole relationship with him—that everyone has, in that familiar phrase, ‘a God shaped hole’ inside them waiting to be filled.

God in his love, grace and mercy, took the steps himself, to put things right between us all, to see that justice was done—by sending Jesus to show us the way, the truth and the life, and paying the price for us, by his death and resurrection on the cross.

Being ‘justified by faith’ means making the choice, taking the personal step, to believe in the truth of Jesus Christ, to follow him and his way, all the days of our life. When we do, we are ‘Justified’—made right with God, declared not guilty—because Jesus has borne the cost on the cross, and cleared the ways for us to be back in a whole relationship with God. Our old lives die on that cross too, and we are raised/resurrected too, to new life with and in Christ.

And no hoops to jump through, no ‘works’ to do?

Absolutely not—and this is why Paul was so passionate. It’s a delusion; it’s a lie of the devil, to think that we can somehow earn our way to heaven. If we do this or that, if we try a bit harder, if we fly a bit higher… It also flatters our own egos to think that we can control things.

The great theologian John Stott put it this way. ‘Nobody has ever been justified by the law, for the simple reason nobody has ever perfectly kept the law… strict adherence to its demands are beyond us.’

The passage shows us that Paul’s detractors tried to then somehow blame Christ if we still make wrong choices. Paul dismisses this, and reminds us that when we take that step of faith and commit our lives to Jesus, not only are we justified (made right with God), Christ lives in us and with us, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We may fail sometimes, but we know and recognise this, and want to change and grow. This is because Christ is in you and with you. ‘I am a new creation, no more in condemnation, here in the grace of God I stand.’ We are justified by faith in Jesus alone. This is the truth that Paul so passionately and courageously stood firm on. And we shall be thinking more faith or observing the law next week.

Someone helped me to remember what ‘justified’ means, by suggesting I think of the word as meaning ‘Just as if it had never happened.’

What can we bring out of this for our daily lives

  1. Sometimes loving correction is necessary within church communities. We have all got to be able to give and take loving advice. This is not easy but sometimes it is necessary.

    Many years ago a friend of mine was asked to step down from a church ministry for a period by the minister because of something they had done. He returned to that ministry when he had participated in the annual act of commitment where everyone was invited to renew their baptism vows.

    Q: Sometimes loving correction is necessary, as well as standing firm to the truth of our faith.

    When do you find it difficult to ‘stand’, and perhaps easier to go with the crowd?

  2. That we should be careful not to judge other Christian brothers and sisters or other Christian denominations or practices—we are all one under Jesus Christ.

    I was brought up in quite a rigid and sectarian way—in fact in our house Anglicans were pretty well written off as nominal Christians, which means that they weren’t Christians at all, they just went to church—apart from my saintly Grandmother that is! In turn I vowed I would never darken the door of a free church or a Baptist church ever again when I left church at 15—God in his graciousness dealt with my bias as over the years I have preached quite a lot in free churches and Baptist churches. It was a joy to spend time with my brothers and sisters from other denominations.

    Q: What can bring us together as Christian communities, and what ‘works’ may needlessly separate us?

    Q: Do you sometimes spend too much time ‘striving to succeed’, rather than resting in and trusting our faith in Jesus Christ?

There will be a video version of the service.

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