Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Gospel in the Old Testament (Galatians 3.7-14)

Most people who know anything about the Bible are aware that it has two parts — the Old Testament and the New Testament. They may know that the Old Testament (at least for non-Catholic Churches) is simply a translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Bible of the Jewish people. They may also know that the New Testament is ‘newer’ in time at least and it contains the story of the life of Jesus Christ and his first followers.

Beyond these few facts, it seems that the majority of people are not clear on the what the relationship is between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

It seems to be commonly thought that the Old Testament tells of an angry, vengeful God while the New Testament speaks of a loving, gracious God. As pervasive as that idea is, it isn’t upheld by the Bible’s content — Jesus spoke about hell more than all of the Old Testament combined.

It also seems to be a commonly idea that Old Testament taught people are saved by their obedience while the New Testament teaches that we are saved by grace, not by obedience. But read carefully, this one also is proven to be false — both testaments have a lot to say about faith and obedience.

And it seems that many have the idea that, for Christians, only the New Testament is really important — the Old Testament provides some interesting but mostly non-essential background information.

None of those ideas are correct.

This book of Galatians that we are looking at is about the distinctive message of the gospel that is technically called ‘justification through faith.’ As I noted two weeks ago and Devin underlined last week, this is the basic teaching of the Christian faith. In fact, the last five weeks it has been referred to every week. You might think, ‘Okay, so you’ve said it and made it clear; let’s move on. There has to be something else in that book to talk about!’

Well, there’s more about this topic we need to know. The passage this morning sets out that this distinct teaching — so different from the common understanding of religion — is not something the apostle Paul made up when he became the true founder of Christianity (which is commonly taught in universities). It isn’t even simply a message that Jesus made up and taught the apostles. It is the message of the Old Testament completed and made clear.

Before we consider that, let’s think for a moment why that even matters. Why did Paul find it so important to seek to prove that his message was in line with the clear teaching of the Hebrew Bible on which he had been raised? Why should it matter to you that this is the message of the whole Bible, not just of the New Testament?

Too many people today have this tendency to only read those parts of the Bible that they like, or that they find easy to accept.

‘I like Jesus’s teaching about loving my neighbor’ people say. ‘That’s beautiful. But I don’t like his sayings about forgiving our enemies, even those who harm us. That just doesn’t seem right; I could never forgive someone who killed my child.’

‘I love the Bible — except for the parts about sexual morals. I don’t think they make any sense in a modern world.’

That approach leads to a truncated kind of Christianity, a faith that is misshapen and incomplete. 

When you take those parts you like, reject the rest, and construct a way of thinking and living that fits you and your needs, you end up with a Frankenstein like Christianity that is concocted from different sources.

But the Christian faith, revealed in the Bible and taught by Jesus, and is a complete, robust, fully-satisfying way of thinking and living. It is comprehensive and embraces all of life; it is a complete worldview. If key ideas are put to one side, it is incomplete. That means that true Christian faith will challenge each one of us at some point. The New Testament tells us:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Any teaching must conform to the message of the whole Bible, not just to some favorite passage in the New Testament that is easily understood.
What that means is that, when we’re talking about justification through faith, we are talking about the message of the Bible on which our eternal destiny depends. This is the key doctrine of the Christian faith — this book makes it clear that those who are justified by faith are accepted eternally by God, forgiven of their sins, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live for God. Those who reject this message, or confuse it for another message, are lost eternally.
 So, don’t give up on this one too early. Be sure you understand and experience this teaching in every way possible!

The gospel in the Old Testament. It’s important to start by saying that the Old Testament is often called by a shorthand word, ‘the Law or Torah.’ While the majority of the Old Testament does represent the time period of the covenant made with Israel, a more nuanced understanding shows that the law itself — the covenant instruction that was given to Israel — doesn’t really appear until Exodus chapter twenty. All of the book of Genesis and nineteen chapters of Exodus occur before the law.

So, the Old Testament divides into two parts — the time before the giving of the law and the time after the giving of the law.

The point of the section read this morning is about both of those time periods. And the burden is to demonstrate that both parts of the Old Testament story underline the concept of acceptance with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

The Bible opens with eleven very important chapters of what we would call ‘pre-history.’ They record events that occurred before history as we know it began to be written. But in chapter twelve, Abraham appears; this is the first event we can date with some certainty to about 2166 BC, and the unfolding story of redemption begins. The book of Genesis is about Abraham, his son, and his grandson and his family. The second book, Exodus, opens 400 years later when that family has become a great multitude. In the book of Exodus, the family is formed into a nation and given the law. So, you have two periods — before the law and after the law.

First, before the law was given, in the life of Abraham himself, the gospel was first revealed in the promise that was given to Abraham. Look at Genesis 12.1 (page 8) but keep your finger on Galatians 3:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This promise is like a jewel with at least seven facets but the last is the one to notice here: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

This sevenfold promise is what the Bible unfolds — the families, later 'nations,' of the earth will be restored to God’s blessing through Abraham. This is the promise that the covenants of the Bible will unfold.

And this is what Paul refers to in his careful reading of the Old Testament. Long before the law, Abraham received a free promise of God. Later (Genesis 15; page 10), Abraham has the promise repeated, especially the promise of a multitude of descendants through which the blessing of the nations will come. God leads him out of his tent to look at the stars and says, “So shall your offspring be.”

Then Genesis 15.6:
“And he (Abraham) believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Righteousness, that is right standing with God, acceptance by God, was credited to Abraham by faith in the promise of God. This is what Paul refers to in Galatians 3:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3.7–9)
Here’s the first point: The promise to Abraham reveals the gospel that blesses us with salvation by faith in the gracious promise of God. Abraham didn’t obey the law — there was no law in place to obey! Abraham received the free promise of God; he believed it, and God credited righteousness to him on the basis of faith. And that promise to Abraham is the Old Testament revelation of the gospel message of salvation by faith in the gracious promise of God.

So, Abraham is the first example of a sinful person being accepted by God on the basis of faith; he then becomes the spiritual father of any person who hears God’s promised blessing of the world through Abraham and believes it.  
“So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (v 9). 
Why is it called a “blessing?” Why not say, ‘saved,’ or ‘accepted?’ Because the promise to Abraham was the blessing of the nations—all the families of the earth—through Abraham and his offspring. It tells us the message is about more than individual salvation — it is about the blessing of people from all over the earth, the restoration of the earth itself.

Now, the whole Old Testament isn’t about Abraham — his story is at the beginning and is foundational. But many years later, God took his physical descendants and formed them into a great nation. The covenant of the law was a part, a stage, in the unfolding of the promise. At that point, he gave them the law as a standard of life.

So, what about after the law was given? If before the law, Abraham was justified by faith, what about people after the law was given? Well, the law offers blessing as well — but it offers its blessings only to those who obey it. For those who break it, it offers only a curse. In fact, in Deuteronomy 27, there is a long statement of the curses of the law. They end with this sentence:
“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the law, and do them” (Deut 27.25).
If before the law, Abraham receives the free promise of God and is accepted by faith in that, after the law, the law reveals our sin, curses us for our failure, and points us back to the promise. The law only blesses those of perfect and complete obedience — “all things written in the law” must be done.
Move on to the next step in the argument in Galatians 3. Verse 11:
“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.”
How is it evident? Well, he says, let’s lay two Old Testament passages side by side and see:

“The righteous shall live by faith.”
This is a quotation from Habakkuk chapter two (2.4). If you note at the bottom of the page, there is an alternate way of translating this sentence — I go with the alternate: “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.” A clear statement of justification through faith from the prophets. Even the prophets, Paul says, knew what Abraham experienced. This was clear in the Old Testament — righteousness, acceptance with God, justification and acquittal of sin, is by faith in the promise of God.
“But,” he says (v 12), “the law is not of faith.”
In other words, the law isn’t about believing; it’s about doing. It says (in Leviticus 18.5):
“The one who does them shall live by them.”
He’s simply comparing two verses — the prophets tell us that justification is by faith, believing the promise of God. The law, Torah, tells us that life is given to those who obey; only the one who keeps the law will have life by the law.

That’s because the law was a preparation for the gospel, and the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. So, he goes on:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (verses 13–14)
The law brings a curse by demanding perfect obedience. If you wish to be accepted on the basis of the law, you must obey perfectly; any disobedience results in rejection, curse. The law can’t justify because it demands doing rather than believing. The bad news is, you can’t do it perfectly. But the good news is that it is right at that point that the gospel comes in. Jesus Christ took the curse in our place when he was hung on the wood of the cross. He literally fulfilled a curse stated in the law. Deuteronomy 21.23:
“Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
In Deuteronomy, this refers to capital punishment — a person who suffers the ultimate penalty of public death whose body is hung up for all to see is one who is under the curse of God. He has broken God’s law and, under that law, society has carried out the sentence of his punishment. This was done with Jesus Christ — he was hung up before a watching world in the agony of death. But he was guiltless, having no sin of his own to die for. He kept the law perfectly as even his detractors admitted.

But in Christ was found the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham — “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” He was the offspring of Abraham who fulfilled the promise. Jesus Christ, took the place of guilty sinners and paid the penalty in their place so that God could open his arms wide and welcome them into his blessing. And, the extent of God’s grace will call people from every tribe, and language, and people, and nation to the blessings of the whole earth.
Christ redeemed us by taking the curse for us, in our place, so that God’s blessings might be given to us.

The whole Old Testament underscores the gospel message of acceptance with God on the basis of faith in Christ. Abraham, before the law, was accepted by faith in the free promise of God. This promise was meant from its very beginning to extend to the Gentiles, indeed all the nations, God’s blessings.

The law, on the other hand, was given to underline the curse that falls on lawbreakers. To show us our need and our inability to obey perfectly on our own.

The gospel is the fulfillment both of the promise to Abraham and of the curse of the law. Therefore, both Abraham and the law underscore the blessings of the gospel. Both the period before the law and after the law point to the gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone.

Now, what does this mean? Why does this matter?

Well, first: The gospel tells us that we are accepted by God — forgiven, blessed, cleansed, empowered — solely on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done. Don’t confuse faith as having some power in itself to accomplish something. Only Christ can save.

I say this because sometimes I hear people talk about faith — ‘I have a lot of faith’ they might say — as though their faith is the reason for their hope. But when I listen carefully, I’m not sure what their faith is in. It is the object of our faith that accomplishes salvation, not the quality of our faith, how strong it is. Your faith must be in Christ. In a cold Michigan winter, you can crawl out fearfully on the ice when it is a foot thick, and it will hold you up. But if the ice is only a thin skim on the surface of the lake, you can run out confidently onto it, but you'll get very cold and very wet very quickly. It is the content of your faith, the object of your faith, that matters, not the quality of your faith. 

Second, our faith is ultimately in the promise of God, just as Abraham’s was — the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. Faith is not relying our obedience or our good intentions or our feelings. Faith is trusting Jesus Christ to save and cleanse us. Faith is trusting Christ and, on the other hand, the forsaking of all other sources of trust. This includes ourselves and our obedience. Faith rests on Christ alone.

And, a faith that is rooted in the promise of God can withstand any onslaught in life. The promise remains true no matter what else happens in life — nations will rise and fall, people will die or fail us, wealth will come or leave, life will bring both joy and sorrow. But at the end of any day, no matter what that day may bring, the promise of God in Christ will never change until it is fulfilled.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The True Gospel (Galatians 2.11-21)

Way back before the flood, when I was a student at Michigan State University, I came to faith in Christ. One of the things we used to do to engage people in conversation about Christian faith was a “Religious Survey.” We would talk to a student in the dormitories or the Student Union and ask them if they wanted to take a survey about their religious beliefs — there would be a series of questions about who God is and their thoughts about relationship with God. There was no bait-and-switch involved because we actually would periodically compile the surveys for the campus newspaper to talk about religious views on campus.

One of the questions was, “On what basis do you think that God will accept or reject you?” And I can tell you that, in the early 1970’s one answer stood out above all others: “I keep the ten commandments.” Most people, at that time, were aware that there was a list of rules that God himself had given on Mount Sinai; they expressed the most important things he expected of people, and those rules would obviously be the basis on which God would determine someone’s acceptability.

Now, nearly fifty years later, the situation has changed — attitudes about God and life are very different. If the same question were asked, fewer people would refer to the ten commandments; most people can’t even name more than one or two of them. Today, most likely people would say, “I’m a good person.” But though the answer has changed, I think they mean the same thing: “I follow a moral code,” people say. “I think my treatment of others will determine what God thinks of me.”

Why do people use some kind of moral code to think of acceptability to God?
  • Well, horizontally it works — as we go through life, much of how we live and the opportunities we are given depend on our behavior, so our hearts tell us we are responsible.
  • And, if we know anything about the Bible, we may know that God gave rules for life and so our assumption is that it is on that basis that we will be acceptable to God.

That is the backdrop of the letter to the Galatians. Paul, a Jewish man, was firmly convinced from his youth that the Jewish people had an advantage over everyone else in the world: God himself had spoken to them on Mount Sinai and given them his law, his moral law summarized in the ten commandments. Everyone else who didn’t have the law (the Gentiles) were ‘sinners.’ That sounds harsh but it isn’t really; it’s simply descriptive of a person who doesn’t have any divine direction about how to live.

But Paul was confronted by Jesus Christ on his travels and he came to a radically different understanding that, in this passage he calls, “Justification through faith.” This is what he was preaching: faith in Christ instead of law-keeping as the basis of acceptance with God.

Now, there were (and are today) two arguments against Paul’s teaching.

The first objection has to do with the law: The law was given by God himself; it is “holy and righteous and good” (to use Paul’s own words). How can you do away with it? That is the subject of chapters three and four of this book. How can you say that God does not accept people on the basis of their behavior, or ‘works?’

The second objection is this: If you do away with the law, people will use the gospel as a license for sin. People will use justification through faith as a free-pass to live however they want. That is answered in chapter five so we’ll set it aside for now.

Now, the first part of the passage (vv 11–14) is the completion of Paul’s defense of himself: His opponents had said that he was just a toady of the apostles in Jerusalem — he got his message from them and he was dependent on them. We looked at that the last two weeks and the careful way he responds to that by reviewing his life after his conversion. But his final point is, “Listen, I stood up to Peter — the apostle Peter! — to his face when I saw him not living out the implications of the gospel message. How could I be dependent on the apostles? Jesus gave me this message and commissioned me to this ministry; the apostles acknowledged that my gospel was the same as theirs; and that message is so important that I opposed Peter at one point when his behavior was not “in step with the truth of the gospel!”

He quotes exactly what he said to Peter in v 14: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Now, in your Bibles that we have here in the auditorium, the quotation ends there, but in some other translations, the quotation continues. I think that’s right: Paul continues to quote what he said to Peter about the nature and implications of the gospel message.
Verse 15: We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Now, let’s try to wrap our minds around Paul’s teaching here. He describes the biblical message of salvation in this way:
Sinful human beings are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ… alone.
You might way, “Well, I don’t see the word ‘alone’ in this passage and that is true. But in order to be faithful to what he is saying, we have to add that word. His opponents were saying, ‘Sinful human beings are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ plus obedience to the law.’ Whether it’s the law of God or any moral code that someone adheres to, the result is the same: Faith plus obedience results in justification. Paul is saying, Faith plus nothing. Jesus Christ alone.

This means that his message can be defined this way:
Sinful human beings are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ… alone.
In other words: Faith results in Justification which leads to Obedience.
Now in order to make this clear, let me use a contemporary illustration. Many of us, as I mentioned last week, were born into Roman Catholic homes or married into Catholic families. We may often be in discussions at family gatherings about why we go to a non-denominational church. And this is, in terms of the teaching, the primary difference.

Let me note one thing in addition to what I said last week… and then I promise that I won’t compare the two every week after this! You must always remember that there is sometimes a distinction between what the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches and what individual Roman Catholics believe. While I understand what the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is, and I think I can explain it in a way that a committed and knowledgeable Roman Catholic would agree to, not all Catholics are clear on what the church teaches. And lest you think that is only true of them, that’s true of all churches — never assume that everyone sitting in any church necessarily understands or agrees with what is taught from the front!

Having said that, here is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church:
Sinful human beings are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, plus the works of love that faith produces.
Now, I want you to note this sounds close to the biblical faith position, so you might think, “Wow, Tom, you’re just splitting hairs. And, after all, didn’t you say that justification results in some kind of life-change?” But let me show you the difference:
Sinful human beings are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, plus the works of love that faith produces.
In other words: Faith plus Obedience results in Justification.
So, here are the two positions compared: 
Biblical Faith Position: Faith results in Justification which leads to Obedience.
Roman Catholic Church: Faith plus Obedience results in Justification.
In the first one, it is only when you know that you are accepted by God — solely because of Jesus Christ — that you can obey him with freedom. In the second one (even though the same three key words are used), the different order tells you that you could never know if you will be justified until you come to the judgment and find out whether or not you have produced enough of the ‘works of love that faith produces’ to be justified. They are completely different.

Now we come to the implications:

Those who opposed Paul’s message were saying, “It’s a good thing for the Gentiles to believe in Jesus Christ but they need to go on an adopt a law-based lifestyle — the one God gave us at Mount Sinai — in order to complete their acceptance with God."

Now, we know that Peter and James and Barnabas didn’t believe that — they were convinced that it was only on the basis of faith that Gentiles or Jews were saved. That brought them to Christ. But, on the question of fellowship between believing Jews and believing Gentiles, they seem to have taken the position that the Gentiles would need to conform to the Jewish lifestyle. From the position of a Jewish believer, nothing in the gospel required them to put aside a traditional, torah-based lifestyle and one of the things such a lifestyle demanded was a separation from Gentiles who didn’t keep the dietary and ritual laws.

So, when Peter came to Antioch, the birthplace of a mixed fellowship of Jews and Gentiles, he at first ate with the Gentiles and mixed with them freely. But, under the pressure of stricter Jewish Christians, Peter slowly began to withdraw from table-fellowship with Gentiles. Paul viewed this as an unwillingness to live by the central tenet of the gospel which is justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. Peter’s act signals that Gentiles are not fully cleansed from sin. Rather they remain morally stained and in need of the cleansing that law-keeping would provide.”

One thing we gather from this is that in God’s world, every human being is on the same level. The way God sees things, every person in the world is on the same level.

The Jews had the law which gave them a distinct moral advantage. But they figured that gave them an ‘in’ with God. The Gentiles didn’t have it and that put them in a different category, “Gentile Sinners.” The Jewish people were, therefore, closer to God because of their privilege.

But the gospel of justification through faith does not mean simply that Gentiles should be included, with Jews, in the people of God. It means, rather, that Jews should be included, with Gentiles, in the mass of ordinary humanity. Jews are ‘sinners’ just like Gentiles, with the radical implication that follows: no amount of obedience can put them right with God. Only total reliance on Christ, by faith, can do so.

Here’s what that means: If your daddy was a preacher, and your mother started taking you to church nine months before you were born, and you were born straight out on to the communion table on Sunday morning and knocked over the cup, baptizing yourself with communion juice, and, if up to this point you’ve been faithful, read your Bible and prayed and only seen PG movies (but not Disney ones!), then when it comes to your justification, your acceptance with God, you are no better off than the man who had no idea who his father was, whose drunken mother delivered him out onto a bar and as he skidded down the bar he knocked over a bottle Captain Morgan baptizing himself in the contents, and he’s grown up with drunken debauchery and immorality and didn’t really know any better… he is no worse off than you because you both need a Savior. Neither of you have the ability to save yourself by your behavior even if you add that to the work of Christ.

Now, I’m talking strictly within the limits of justification this morning — acceptance with God. This is an implication: Everyone is on the same level because immorality and self-righteousness are both sin. There are great advantages to growing up in a loving Christian home… they just aren’t justifying. They aren’t advantages that equal salvation.

That’s the first implication: Everyone is in the same position before God.

And the second implication of this passage has to do with the purpose of the law. Why is it that God gave us his law? Why is it that no amount of law-keeping can make anyone acceptable to God?
Verses 17–18:  But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.
This answers the question, “What happens if I set aside the law as the standard of acceptability with God? Won’t I then be a ‘sinner’ like the Gentiles? No, Paul says, in fact, the opposite is true: Adding the law to Christ as a means to be accepted by God is what truly makes you a sinner. The reason is that the law shows us our sin.

This is the radical thing Paul came to see as he learned the gospel from Jesus and he reflected on how he had thought about life. Like many people, he had thought of God’s law — his instruction as to how we ought to live — as a way to get to heaven. This is the simple idea that God has told us what to do so that we would do it and, in the end, gain acceptability. If that were true, he says, there would have been no reason for Christ to come.

What he learned is that the law is a prescription, not a cure. The law shows us our sinfulness and our need for a Savior but it doesn’t tell us how to get saved. The law is a thermometer not a Motrin tablet — the law gives us a clear standard that reveals to us that we actually are sick but it can’t, in and of itself, cure our sickness.

This is a point made over and over in the New Testament: The law condemns us. This isn’t because there is something wrong with the law; it’s because there is something wrong with us. So, Jesus didn’t come with some more law because that would bring us more condemnation and death. He didn’t say, “Before, I gave ten commandments. But maybe those were too many and too hard so let me give you just one: Love God and love your neighbor; just do that.” In that case, Jesus would be "a minister of sin" (v 17), because we wouldn't be able to keep that one! 

Rather, Paul says, verse 19:
"For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God."
When the law did its work, I realized how really unacceptable I am to God, in and of myself, in my natural person apart from Jesus Christ. I was dead, spiritually dead. Then Jesus meant something to me when he said, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (John 5.21). Life must come from God. 

So, this passage ends,
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (v 21)
Any time a person answers the question, “On what basis do you think God will accept or reject you?” and they leave Jesus out of the answer, they are on the wrong track. Christ is the whole purpose of the law, he’s where you wind up when you take the law seriously. So, Paul says:
Verse 20: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Paul said that the gospel takes the law, and the self, and our good intentions and desires to do and be right and replaces them with Christ. It leads to a reorientation of values so radical that all becomes transformed.

We see that our sins, all of them, past present and future, are taken care of in Jesus Christ so that all accusations can be removed. “No way this man deserves heaven. He deserves hell. He deserves damnation for turning from God.” And the response from heaven: “Absolutely, he does. Yes, she does. See Jesus.

“Look she’s stumbled and fallen again. She turned her back to God again in what she did today. Are you going to continue to love her?” Absolutely, because Jesus paid for it, every bit, I’m going to continue my work in her life.

Paul says that it’s all because of our union with Christ — “Christ lives in me” — that we who trust him have this. We are dead in ourselves, but because we are joined to Christ, we live for God.

You have to get your eyes off you and get them on Christ.

In yourself, sinful, guilty and lost. Condemned by God’s law. Unable to disentangle yourself from the threads of sin that bind you.

In Christ, forgiven, cleansed, and free. Set free, and able when you stumble to pick yourself back up, and cling to Christ, and walk with him. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Confirmed Gospel (Galatians 2.1-10)

It is well known that Americans are very wary of authoritative leadership.
  • We value personal freedom and autonomy above anything else in life.
  • Our national representative is the cowboy, who roams the western plains alone caring for his flock with no one to tell him what to do.
  • We call our Presidents by their first names or, even worse, by their last names as though they were members of our softball team.

This true when it comes to our experience of the Christian faith — we are very cautious of anyone with authority or who exerts authority.

I remember once using an illustration about a church in Korea; this was twenty or more years ago. At that time, the largest church in the world was in Seoul, South Korea — it had over 500,000 members. The church had ten services on Sundays and several others every day of the week. People were assigned what service to go to. Members were divided into groups of ten who met every week. Once, the church needed to purchase a building in the vicinity of their main meeting place and the cost of $1 million. The pastor got up in the services and said, “I have called our ten wealthiest families and told them to each give $100,000 for this need.” Told, not asked.

Now my point was the in different parts of the world, extremely authoritarian leadership is often expected and desired; but that is not true in our country.

Unfortunately, a person who was newer to the church stopped coming. His friend who had brought him told me that he said he didn’t want to go to a church with that kind of leadership. Well, neither would I! And my only comfort was that no one else understood me to be saying that. But people are very wary of authoritarian leadership.

But this morning, I want to ask, ‘Where does authority come from? Who authorizes people to minister? This morning, what authority should you grant to my words? Is it the way I dress, the persuasiveness of my words, the fact that I’ve been here a long time, that I seem to be a nice enough sort of chap? If you’re newer to the church and you’re looking around for a church, what should inform you about whether you should root yourself in this church family?

In a few years, this church is going to choose a new lead pastor. I’m not bringing that up because it’s impending, simply as an obvious reality that even though I’ve been here for thirty-three years, I won’t last forever. What criteria will you use to determine the right person to take this work?

This passage answers that question.

Let’s simply put it in context.

As Paul Cronenwett pointed out last week, the previous paragraph, beginning chapter 1, verse 11 is the start of an extended, well, argument, or extended reasoning. And the issue is stated right up front:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Paul was accused of getting his gospel message and his authority to preach it from someone else, particularly from the original apostles of Jesus in Jerusalem. He asserts right up front, ‘Jesus Christ is the source of my message; no human being authorized me to do this—it didn’t have a human origin and it doesn’t depend on human authority. His conversion was unique, instantaneous and direct from Jesus.

He then follows up with an extended review of his lifestyle since that time
  • First, he says, after my miraculous conversion, my immediate post-conversion lifestyle shows that there was no human intervention — I went away to ‘Arabia’, probably the deserted region of Nabatea next to Syria where he was converted.
  • Then, it was only three years later that I even went to Jerusalem (v 18). There only leader I met was the apostle Peter and I was only there fifteen days — hardly long enough to receive any real instruction in the gospel.
  • Then (picking up in chapter two), it was only fourteen years after my conversion that I was in Jerusalem a second time.

Now let’s note the important point he makes in our reading for today:
  • First, I went up (v 2) ‘because of a revelation.’ Most likely, he is referring to his call to missionary activity by the Holy Spirit in Acts 13.1. This apostolic ministry of evangelism and church planting was revealed to him.
  • v 3: Even Titus was not forced to be circumcised. Why does he mention this? If, as those who were preaching a different gospel were claiming, you had to add law-keeping to faith, certainly the apostles would have required Titus to be circumcised… but they didn’t. This raises a question for interpreters. In Acts 16, Paul wants to take a young man with him on his second missionary journey named Timothy. His father was a Greek (Gentile = non-Jew) and his mother was a Jew — Paul has Timothy circumcised ‘because of the Jews’ it says. But here is a man whose mother was a Greek and his father was a Jew and he doesn’t require him to be circumcised. Why? Some interpreters have agonized over this as though it were an insoluble contradiction in the New Testament but the answer is clear and simple: To be counted as a Jewish person (in the New Testament and today!) you must have a Jewish mother; if you don’t, like Titus, you are a Gentile. The Jewish people simply viewed Timothy as a Jewish man so they would be offended if he did not have the covenant sign, so Paul had him circumcised. But Titus was a Gentile (Gal 2.3) and it didn’t apply.
  • Third, we read v 5: Those who were demanding his circumcision were trying to change the message and add law-keeping to the gospel; they were claiming the approval of the Jerusalem apostles.
  • Then he pointedly says, v 6: ‘they added nothing to me.’ They laid no other requirement on me — they accepted the gospel message that I proclaimed as Jesus taught me on the Damascus road and in the years following. They confirmed my gospel.
  • And, finally v 9: ‘they gave me to right hand of fellowship’ = acknowledged that my gospel was the same as theirs and accepted my ministry to the Gentiles.

Now this answers the question of where authority comes from in the Christian faith — it comes from Jesus Christ and the gospel. Now those two things have to go together — Jesus is the source and the gospel, contained in Scripture, is the only authentic record about Jesus.

So, the only authority comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Note how this is brought out in the passage:
Verse 2: I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.
What did he lay before them? “The gospel that I proclaim” — that was the only issue. Am I preaching the same gospel that you received from Jesus when you walked with him in the days of his flesh — the gospel of free acceptance with God by faith in Jesus Christ alone. That’s the key issue, everything else is secondary because the only authority I have lies in the gospel, he says.
Then verse 5: “to them (those adding law-keeping to faith) we did not yield for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

What was he concerned for? His reputation? His success as a preacher? No, he was concerned that the truth of the gospel is what must be preserved whole and intact. The only source of true authority lies in the gospel message so for Paul, or for anyone, to preach with authority means that he or she must be presenting the true gospel.

Herein lies one of the distinctions between Roman Catholicism and biblical faith. Before I say this I want to note two things. First, it is difficult not to speak about this at a few points in the book of Galatians because it is the book that reveals the key distinctions between the two. Many in this rooms grew up in the Roman Catholic Church or married into Catholic families and sometimes in your family gatherings, these questions come to the fore. And, second, I’m not saying this because I have some beef with Roman Catholicism — my devout Roman Catholic father-in-law was one of the people who sparked my interest in Christian faith and I took in instruction in the Catholic faith in order to join, but then never joined.

Here is a clear difference: In the Roman Catholic church, authority lies in the Scripture, in holy tradition, and in the teaching magisterium of the Church. In biblical faith, only the first one matters; the only authority lies in scripture, which is simply the gospel in full.

We could talk of that for hours but the point is this: This passage seems to underscore the biblical faith position: The leaders never authorized Paul’s ministry — the passage is careful to note that — they only confirmed the integrity of his message. It’s clarity, accuracy, and power to convert people to Jesus when accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s effective call. And, in the end, they shook hands with him and said, “Go and do what God has called you to do. Out spheres of labor are different — Jew and Gentile — but our message is the same. Some of our strategies may be different but the integrity of the law-free, saving gospel is what matters.

This means that the most important thing for you as an individual to to understand and experience the gospel. This is the whole point of worship services, small groups, individual discipleship — the understand and to experience the gospel. This is why the table is laid so regularly in our church on the first Sunday of every month — the portray in visible symbol the gospel and to give the opportunity to more deeply experience it.

The good news, the euaggelion, the gospel is that you and I have fallen short. We have worshipped things that aren't God. We have depreciated God in our thoughts and we have scorned God with either our minds, our mouths, or our lives, and God's response to that has been to make a way for us to be reconciled to God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And our reconciliation is brought about by God in a two-fold movement that Christ takes upon himself our rebellion and sinfulness and God gives to us Christ's righteousness. So, when God then looks at us, he sees Christ and deems us as perfect and spotless and blameless.

The most important thing for Christian people to understand and to experience is the gospel. When you understand the gospel of the free, sovereign, transforming grace of God, then your hearts are on fire with a desire to live for him lives that reflect his character and your minds are captured by him and thinking of how to serve him… then you are in a position to serve him effectively.

You may be person for whom this is a new message, or at least, a newly clear message this morning. Christian faith is not about changing your life to be a better person. It’s not about learning the Bible to show God how serious you are. The message doesn’t simply say, ‘God accepts you, now accept yourself.’ The message is about sin and grace — God’s majestic significance eternal authority that you have spurned by your failure to acknowledge him and allow him to be all that he is in your life. And God’s giving of his Son in the place of sinful people to pay what we could not to set us free. And God invites you this morning to trust in Jesus Christ the one who bore your sins so that he might give to you Christ’s righteousness in that two-fold transaction. I invite you, the table invites you, the Spirit invites you — trust in Christ.

But for those who come this morning knowing Christ in this way, let me remind you — while the gospel can be expressed in brief, the whole Bible is God’s explanation of the gospel. The why, the what, and the implications of the gospel are what we wrestle out in the Christian life. The table before us is one of the ways we bring our heart experience to God and ask him to teach and guide us.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Unique Gospel (Galatians 1.6-10)

Reading the letter to the Galatians is a little like entering into the middle of a conversation. You know what that’s like: two or more people are talking and you walk up and listen; you don’t know what they’re talking about and it takes a few moments to get your bearings as to what the subject is and why the things are being said.

Galatians is like that because it is completely unlike other letters written by Paul. He starts his other letter, after a greeting, with what is called a ‘prayer-wish;’ not technically a prayer, but rather a description for his readers as to what and how he is praying for them. ‘Here’s what I am asking God to do in and for and through you.’ But, in this letter, he launches right into a rebuke: ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel….’

What is the problem? Why is he addressing them that way? Fortunately, the letter itself gives a pretty good indication of the problem. And through the centuries, interpreters have done a lot of spadework to put the problem in the context of the whole New Testament.

I need to begin by asking you for five minutes to explain the context.

Jesus died, most interpreters acknowledge today, on April 3, 33 AD in Jerusalem. The apostle Paul was converted to Christ in a miraculous encounter later that year as he traveled to Damascus, Syria. Paul was born in Tarsus — here. He grew up there and then, at some early age, went to Jerusalem where he studied to be a Rabbi under the famous Gamaliel.

In Galatians chapters one and two, Paul records his two trips to the city of Jerusalem after his conversion — first three years after his conversion for a meeting with Peter and a second time fourteen years after his conversion for a meeting with the leaders of the Jerusalem church. He was only there twice before this letter was written and both of those visits are recorded in the book of Acts.

Sometime in the 40’s AD, Paul made the church in Antioch (Antioch on the Orontes) his home church and from there he and Barnabas were commended to the church planting ministry. It is difficult to estimate the immense importance of the church in Antioch for the first one hundred years of the Christian movement. You see, Jerusalem was in the midst of serious political difficulties in the Roman Empire and, in 70 AD the temple was destroyed and the Jews scattered in an attempt to break up the Jewish people. Antioch was a key city, and the church there was made up of both Jews and Gentiles, so unlike the church in Jerusalem it represented what the movement was to become.
In 47 AD, Paul and Barnabas were called by God to plant churches in what is now Turkey (on the map, this is the Anatolian peninsula — the Mediterranean below, the Black Sea above). This call was recognized by the leaders of the church in Antioch, and according to Acts 13, they were commended to a church-planting ministry. We read of the first missionary journey in Acts 13 and 14.

The first missionary journey is recorded in Acts 13 and 14. Paul and Barnabas sailed from Antioch to the island of Cyprus, preached their way across the island, and sailed from Salamis to Perga in southern Turkey. They then traveled by foot from Perga to Antioch (Pisidian Antioch) and from there to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. All of this is recorded in Acts 13 & 14. Here’s what we read at the conclusion of that journey: Acts 14.21–28
21When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
24Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28And they remained no little time with the disciples.
Now, the book of Galatians opens during the furlough described in that verse, verse 28 — while they were back in their home fellowship. Something happened back in these fledging churches in the province of Galatia. Each of these churches had started out of the Jewish synagogue and had gathered both Jewish and Gentile believers.

The next verse in Acts reads this — Acts 15.1:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers [and sisters], “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Now turn to Galatians 1.7:
…there are some who trouble you (present tense, they are troubling you) and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
That’s the problem he is dealing with. The point of this introductory paragraph is to say that there is only one true, unique gospel message and everything else is counterfeit. There is only one unique, God-revealed good news, called 'the gospel of Jesus Christ':
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (vv 6–7)
In English, we use the word another, but we use it in two ways, though we rarely think about it. The hostess gives you an apple and you eat it. You might say, ‘I would like another fruit.’ You mean another apple. But if she asks you, ‘Would you like some more,’ and you say, ‘No, I would like another fruit,’ you mean something different, not an apple.

In Greek, there are two words for that — allos means another of the same kind, and heteros means another of a different kind. They are both used here: ‘I am astonished that…you are turning to another gospel, another of a different kind (heteros) — not that there is another, another of the same kind (allos), but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

The point is, there is only one gospel. It is completely unique, nothing else is like it. Everything else is ‘not-gospel,’ not good news from God.

It is commonly thought today that Christianity is not inclusive enough, we are not tolerant enough. This is based on the idea that Christian faith is just one of the great religions of the world — they all teach how to have a relationship with God. They differ in the details of their teaching but they are all alike being a pathway to God. Many people today in the western world who consider themselves Christians have that basic conviction: We are not really so different. We are a belief system that arose out of Western culture and has dominated the European nations. But other belief systems arose in other parts of the world. We should recognize ourselves as simply one way out of many and not accentuate the differences.

That is not the perspective of the apostle Paul… or of Moses, or David, or Daniel and the prophets, nor of Jesus and the apostles.

For one thing, neither Paul nor anyone referred to in this letter are from the ‘Western, European nations’ — at this point, Europe was made up of warring, primitive tribes of Goths and Franks. There were no Western nations and no Western viewpoint. And, secondly, the Christian movement was distinctly Eastern — it started and spread first in what is now Northern Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Turkey. Those who adhered to it were darker skinned than most of us in this room and did not hold to ‘western values’ as we now think of them.

But more importantly, the message was unique, completely distinct from any kind of ‘religion.’ It is God’s own revealed way of restoring people to himself.

Here is the message:
We are brought into a relationship with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
This means that God himself reached out to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The second person of the Trinity, God the Son, stepped out of heaven and into time; he took on a human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary. He was born as a Jewish baby, raised in Galilee. In his adulthood, he was acknowledged to be the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. In fulfillment of prophecy in the final words of our Old Testament, he was pointed out by John the Baptist, and he was baptized to identify himself with his people and their sin, though he had no sin of his own.

He taught the twelve apostles for at least three years. Then, he died on the cross at the instigation of the religious leaders and by the action of the Roman government. He was buried in the tomb of a rich man as Isaiah predicted seven hundred years before. The third day after that, he was raised from the dead. He was seen by his followers and forty days later was taken up into heaven where he reigns at the right hand of God awaiting the fulfillment of his kingdom.

His followers went out and preached that in all these things he fulfilled what God has predicted the Messiah would do — especially the meaning of his death, that it was in the words of Isaiah 53.4–6, he atoned for the sins of his people. Now all who trust in him have the forgiveness of sins and a restored relationship with God solely because of his shed blood.

That’s the gospel — We are brought into a relationship with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

That final word, ‘alone,’ is the key word. It is there to distinguish it from other understandings of the gospel that, ultimately simply make it another one of the great religions and not the God-revealed gospel. They might be worded in this way:
We are brought into a relationship with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, plus…something.
Those who were troubling the young Galatian churches, those who were distorting the gospel of Christ were adding something to faith — in their case, it was obedience to the law of Moses, identified in circumcision, keeping the dietary laws, maintain their distance from unbelievers, and observing the festivals. Those things are all mentioned in the letter.

But at heart, it was the intent to add some requirement to faith in Christ. When you add some requirement to faith, some kind of obedience, you change the whole meaning of the gospel and you turn it into a religion. When you subtract the little word ‘alone’ and you put in its place anything else you turn salvation into some kind of transaction between God and us. You make salvation dependent on some cooperation in which he does his part (Jesus) and we add our part (our response) and when you put God’s contribution and our contribution together you get salvation.

And scripture tells us in this book that any attempt to do that makes Christian faith one of the great religions of the world. It is no longer unique; it is just another way of reaching God.

Paul is quite intolerant in this passage, and in fact, in this whole letter. It is in some ways unlike his other writings which came later. He could be very magnanimous and considerate on many issues.
He knew, for example, that many Jewish people would be reluctant to stop observing the dietary laws of the Old Testament — after all, it was part of their heritage and their whole lifestyle. Though the gospel frees them from observing the Jewish rituals in order to be accepted by God, he didn’t demand that they give them up. Paul himself voluntarily observed some of them in the gospels.

But that’s different from demanding that people must add something to Christ to complete their gospel experience — that undermined the uniqueness of the gospel as the God ordained message.

Paul was intolerant of anything that would add to that gospel. That was worth standing up for. And it’s worth our standing up for today. Too many Christians are not clear on the gospel message. We don’t understand the uniqueness of the gospel and in today’s charged atmosphere we’re afraid to stand for it because we risk being called ‘intolerant’ or ‘narrow-minded.’

But this is what we revel in. It’s what we sing about. It’s the reason we know we are free to obey God without fear and guilt — because we know that our acceptance is wrapped up solely in what God has done for us in Christ. Our response, faith, is itself a gift of God. In the gospel, God has promised to call us by his Spirit and to enable us to meet the requirements so that we have complete assurance that in Christ we are free.

Let’s rejoice in that today.