Galatians 3:15-29 (click to display NIV text)
Sept. 9, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Nicodemus was a man of the law, a Pharisee, who in John chapter 3 came to Jesus looking for some wisdom, some insight into the law that would lead him to life. He saw who Jesus was and he wanted to find out from him what was missing in his life. The answer Jesus gave was not what he was expecting. Jesus did not point to keeping the law as the way to life, to the Kingdom of God. His focus was rather on the work of the Spirit in a person, the experience of what God gives through faith, new birth in Christ.
That is what Paul is saying in Galatians. The way to God is through promise and not law. The promise was given to Abraham and is received by faith. The promise never gets set aside, but comes to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The promise comes alive when Jesus Christ lives in us. The cleansing experience of receiving the Spirit through Christ saves and heals and renews. It leads us to the word and gives us understanding. It leads us to repentance and fills us with love. It leads us to pray and to receive answers to prayer. It leads us to serve and to hear God’s call in our lives.
Katrina is celebrating one year of living in Faith House, a place for women to live after they have been released from a county jail. Katrina writes her story in a recent newsletter from the ministry. Notice her language as she talks about the changes in her life:
“My life before was depressing and lonely. I had a huge empty space in my heart. Something was missing in my life that I could not fill. I was in this place of sadness and really lost. I’ve been angry most of my life. It got worse and worse as the years went by. I could not deal with all that was in my head. I had racing thoughts all the time.” (Then she tells of coming to faith in Christ and her year at Faith House.) She concludes, “I am different. This has totally changed my life. Anger is gone. I’m at peace now. I’ve learned to trust again. I see myself going to college to get an actual career instead of just a job. But I also see myself dedicating my life to service. I love people. I want everyone to know how happy you can be. I have a huge heart for people and I want them to know how good God is, and how he can change your life!”
Born again means being met by the salvation of God, so the deep sin and the deep fear and the persistent anger goes away. This is what the law cannot do. So Paul writes to the Galatians about the sufficiency of Christ, and about the life that Christ gives. His issue with them is not that they have rules. Scot McKnight writes in his commentary on Galatians, “Rules can be good for spiritual development, but Paul’s issue with them is for questioning the sufficiency of Christ.” Practices that detract from the sufficiency of Christ must be opposed, and practices that build walls between believers in Christ must be torn down.
McKnight feels that the heart of Galatians is Paul teaching the church how to read scripture. They were being taught to read it through the eyes of Moses as interpreted by the priests and Pharisees. That is to say, to read scripture by placing the law first. But Paul wants them to read it through the eyes of Abraham, so that the promise comes first and faith defines the story. When you start with Abraham you see the universal plan of God, a plan for all the nations to be blessed. It is not a nationalistic promise, but one fulfilled in Christ for all peoples. When you start with Abraham you establish the priority of faith, and obedience takes its place after the experience of grace.
The teachers from Jerusalem came to Galatia and said that you have to keep the law before you can be a follower of Christ. They were not talking about laws against adultery or murder or bearing false witness. They were talking specifically about two laws of identity and holiness. The first was the law to be circumcised, so that one would carry the identity of belonging to the people of God. The second was about holiness, to keep the food regulations including regulations of table fellowship – you do not eat with Gentiles. Paul says their identity is to be “in Christ” and their holiness is to come from living for Christ.
What is the primary influence that shapes your identity? How do you put Christ first in your identity? In this election year with all its high anxiety and tensions, is your identity more obviously shaped by a political party, or is it clear to others that you are first of all a person who is in Christ? In your political convictions, is it clear that the Kingdom of God is for you the highest priority?
When we go out with furniture or starter kits for Love INC., we are helping people, we are doing social service work, community service work, yes; but Love INC. tells us that we are there first to minister to people. Don’t just drop off furniture; pray for them, give them a Bible, offer a listing of churches in their community, talk to them about their lives and needs. These are small things, but they have to do with identity. Is my identity in Christ, or is it really shaped more by my culture or by the world?
The other issue in Galatians has to do with holiness. In the Old Testament, Israel fell time after time when they imitated the patterns of their idol-worshipping neighbors. Finally they learned to be separate. They did not inter-marry or eat with people who sacrificed meat on pagan altars. But now Jew and Greek were coming to faith in Christ. Should believers eat separate meals at separate tables? Doesn’t that deny what Christ did on the cross?
Holiness does not come from the safety of always being separate, always being with people just like us. Holiness comes from the Holy Spirit. It comes from intentionally going “Deeper in Christ.” If you only are with like-minded people, you will develop blind spots and weak areas. You will not experience the richness of the Gospel. A wealthy Christian can benefit greatly by forming a friendship with a believer of modest means. From the poor we learn faith, humility, and contentment. We learn what it means to give.
If we reach out to believers from a different culture or ethnic background we are encouraged. The story of faith told by someone from a different culture can deeply move us, sometimes convict us and renew us in faith. We come to realize in a deep way that we need each other.
The first missions trip I went on was to an orphanage in Ensenada, Mexico. Our group was deeply moved by the energetic and inspiring worship we encountered there. All week we saw our young people praising God in loud voice, raising their hands, clapping, expressing love for the children and for one another. We left on Saturday and spent the night at the home of someone we knew in Los Angeles. The next morning I was eager to go to worship at one of the famous churches in L.A. But the group overruled me. They wanted to have their own worship. They wanted to continue to experience that closeness and energy from the week. So we tried, but it fell flat. All of a sudden the group was quiet, self-conscious, unwilling to sing, silent in testimony. We could not do it without our new friends in Mexico. We discovered that we needed each other to worship.
Sometimes we do not realize how much we need table fellowship with believers from different cultures. We forget what it is to share what is most valuable to us with one of another culture for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and then to receive what is in their hearts and to be blessed together. To reach a multi-cultural country we need a multi-cultural church. We need to put our highest priority on the Kingdom of God. That includes being honest about what the Kingdom looks like. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The deeper issue for Paul was one of faith. He was afraid that the church might divide into a Jewish Christian and a Gentile Christian church, and he fought to keep the church together. But he was more afraid that the people would lose their faith relationship with God. The heart of the issue for Paul is that a person’s justification is by faith and not by works of the law. McKnight writes, “The law was never given to make someone righteous. The law will not bring salvation.” I think we often replace “works of the law” with being a good person or being nice. But you are not saved by being good and you do not receive the Holy Spirit by being nice. God gives his Spirit to those who surrender to Christ and who trust fully in him. We are to live by faith, and put faith into practice. We are to pray deeper in Christ. We are to walk further in mission. We are to do that by faith. Faith is always the foundation of our relationship with God. Like Abraham let us believe the promise of God, let us walk in his ways, and let us trust our lives to his will.