Monday, June 28, 2010

Free To Be Slaves

Galatians is Paul's greatest argument for Christian freedom.  Paul has argued throughout this letter that the Galatians are free, or more precisely, that they have been freed because the faithfulness of Christ has set them free.  They are now free from the curse of the Law, free from its obligations, free from the power of sin, free to be a part of the people of God because of what Christ has done.

But now Paul turns the notion of freedom on its head.  He says in 5:13
 "For you were called to freedom brethern; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another."
Did you notice what Paul did there?  He has essentially said "You've been freed.  Now become slaves again."  Most translations soften Paul's rhetoric by saying "serve one another" but the verb here comes from the same root as the word for slave.  Paul is urging his churches in Galatia, who have been set free in Christ, to use their new found freedom to become slaves to one another in love.

This is a substantially different concept of freedom than we normally have.  Usually, freedom is to be free from any restraint, it is to be allowed to do whatever we want, to fulfill all our own desires.  But that is not the kind of freedom Paul believes the Galatians have been granted through Jesus Christ.  In fact, Paul says it is the constant need to seek gratification of all our own selfish desires which is the real slavery.  Therefore, true freedom is to no longer be enslaved to our own self-centeredness and as a result to be able to serve others in love.

In fact, Paul almost personifies these selfish desires, which Paul refers to as "the flesh", and the work of the Spirit as two parties warring again each other.  In v.17, he says:
"For the flesh sets its desires against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please."  
Paul describes human beings as being incapable of complete autonomy; we will either be led by the Spirit or the Flesh.  There is no middle ground.  That is why Paul warned the Galatians in v. 16 not to allow their freedom to become an "opportunity" for the flesh.  The word translated opportunity, aphormen, literally refers to a military base of operations.  Paul does not want the Galatians freedom from the Law to become a forward operating base for their own selfish desires to run rampant in their lives which would lead to all the vices Paul lists in v. 19-21.  Instead, the Galatians must walk by the Spirit and as a result bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It is no accident that I am preaching from this passage on the day we celebrate our nation's independence and freedom.  I count it a great privilege and blessing to have been born in America and it is hard to imagine living anywhere else.  I also have respect for the men and women who give their lives to defend the political freedoms that we have as a nation.  Anyone willing to give up their life for a cause bigger than themselves is worthy of respect.  Yet I also know that the freedom we celebrate on the 4th of July is not the freedom which Christ died to bring us.  In fact, while our political freedoms are important and good, they often become precisely the kind of operating base for our sinful desires which Paul describes.  Without the work of the Spirit in us, our freedom to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" quickly becomes slavery to "my needs, my rights, and my greed".

While the language of rights and liberty might be the foundation of our nation's democracy, it is responsibility, submission, and Christ-like service to one another which make up the grammar of the Church's life together.  The freedom Christ grants us as members of his body is not about what we like or don't like, its not about our plans, preferences, agenda, or desires.  It is about allowing the Spirit to work in us so that we might be freed from precisely those things and then be able to put others ahead of ourselves just as Christ did.  To be free in Christ is to be free to become a slave of Christ-like love to all.  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The 91st Minute

I don’t usually watch a lot of soccer but I’ve really enjoyed watching some of the games in the World Cup over the last few weeks.  Soccer (I know, I know, "futbol") may not have the raw strength of American football or the strategy of baseball or the high flying excitement of basketball but it has its own admirable characteristics.  For one, it is truly global game in a way that no other sport is.  In that way, the World Cup has an Olympic-like appeal to it as it athletes gather from all over the world to compete but in this instance they are all playing the same game. 

However, if there is one thing I have come to appreciate about soccer more than anything else it is perseverance.  Soccer involves running up and down a field larger than an American football field for over an hour and a half.  Of course, if you’ve ever watched a soccer match you also know that these are not usually high scoring affairs; a zero-zero tie or one to nothing game is not uncommon.  So not only do you have to run nearly non-stop for 90 minutes, you often do so without the thrill and adrenaline of scoring to keep you going: perseverance. 

Today, the U.S. team played a game they had to win in order to advance.  If they lost or tied, they would be eliminated and would go home seriously disappointed.  The game remained tied at zero through most of the game even though the U.S. had a lot of good shots at scoring.  They even scored a goal at one point but the referee waved it off because the U.S. player was off-sides.  As the game went on, you could feel the pressure begin to mount; it seemed inevitable that the U.S. would be eliminated with so little time left in the game.  It must have been tempting for the players on the U.S. team to become desperate, to give up on their game plan and to just start taking crazy shots at the goal hoping to get lucky.  The 90th minute expired and the game went in to stoppage time, the time added on to compensate for parts of the game where played had stopped but the clock continued to run.  After 91 minutes of scoreless soccer, the U.S. made a quality team play that lead to the game winning goal which allowed them to win their group and advance to the next round: perseverance. 

Ministry often feels like that.  Sometimes we feel like we’ve been pouring all the energy we’ve got into this for a very long time and we have very little to show for it.  We wonder why God hasn’t rewarded our faithful service with more tangible results.  We wonder what we are doing wrong.  Perhaps there is even fear that the clock is ticking on our future.  In times like that, it is tempting to give up on the things that make us who we are; things like honoring God in all that we do and discipling and serving those around us.  It may even be tempting to just give up altogether when all our best shots seem to come to nothing. 

But our God calls us to perseverance.  Our God calls us to remain faithful to the identity and mission that He has given us and to trust that He will take care of the results.  Our God calls us to place our trust in Him even as things seem dark and hopeless.  We are a people who give our all until the final whistle because we serve the One who can work miracles in the 91st minute.  

Why the Law?

Up to this point in Galatians, Paul has said some pretty harsh things about the Law in order to convince the Galatians that works of the Law are not a necessary part of their salvation.  All of these negative comments about the Law might lead one to wonder why God gave the Law in the first place.  If the Law couldn't bring life and righteousness, then why did God even bother with the Law in the first place?  Or was the Law even God given?

Paul answers these questions in Galatians 3:19-29.  He says that the Law was given through angels by a mediator thereby distancing the giving of the Law from God himself.  However, Paul says the Law was not contrary to God's purposes.  Instead, God allowed the Law to act as a custodian in the time between Moses and Christ.  Specifically, Paul says that Law was a paidogogos, that is, a slave who was in charge of making sure that a child made it safely to and from school everyday.  When the child was no longer school-age, the service of the paidogogos was no longer needed.  Paul says the function of the Law was similar; it's purpose was to keep God's people safely on the right path until the faithfulness of Christ was revealed.  Now that righteousness by faith/faithfulness has been revealed, the services of the Law are no longer needed.

This brings Paul back to his main point that he has been making all along; the Galatians are already children of God by virtue of their faithful living in Christ Jesus and therefore have no need of works of the Law.  The Galatians were clothed with Christ when they were baptized just as the Jewish Christians teachers were.  That means there is no difference between them.

Interestingly, Paul doesn't leave it at that.  Paul has been trying to erase the boundary between Jew and Gentile for the entire letter so his first in the list of pairings that appears in v. 28 comes as no surprise.  However, Paul goes on to say that there is also no difference between slave and free, male and female for they are all one in Christ Jesus and therefore Abraham's descendants and heirs according to the promise.

With this, we get a glimpse into Paul's larger understanding of the Church.  The new creation inaugurated in Christ and lived out in the Church doesn't only erase the boundary between Jew and Gentile but all kinds of other boundaries that divide our world as well.  While socio-economic and gender divisions may still exist in our world, Paul says that they have no place in the Church.  The gathering of Christ's followers is to be a place where the rules of the old world no longer apply.  Instead, those who gather around the body of Christ are brothers and sisters, members of one body, and to be treated with love and equality regardless of their position or status outside of the Church.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A New Option. The Only Real Option.

 In the final verses of Galatians 2, Paul made the argument that everyone involved in this controversy in Galatia (himself, the teachers who oppose him, Peter and the Jerusalem council whose authority has probably been invoked by the teachers) knows that no one is made righteous by works of the Law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  Paul says that since this is true it would be absurd to force the Galatians to observe these works of the Law which the teachers are telling them they must observe.  In fact, to do so would be to nullify the grace of God which came through the faithfulness of Jesus.  This is the main point of Paul's letter to the Galatians.  In 3:1-14, Paul begins to make his supporting arguments for this main point.

Paul's first supporting argument begins with the experience of the Galatians themselves.  He says in v.2 "This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by the message of (Christ's) faithfulness?"  Like a good lawyer, Paul only asks questions for which he knows the answer.  Paul's whole argument here rests on the Galatians agreeing that they received the Spirit when they heard about the faithfulness of Christ, long before these teachers ever showed up to tell them about works of the Law.  (This is an interesting point in itself since the Galatians' reception of the Spirit must have been such an obvious and demonstrable thing that no one would have debated whether or not they had indeed received it.  It is such a sure and unquestionable experience that Paul could build his argument on it.  Perhaps we are to imagine something happened in Galatia similar to the story of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10?)  For Paul, this alone should be enough to settle the matter.  If the Galatians received the Spirit before being taught about works of the Law, then clearly God has already accepted them and began to make them righteous and these works of the Law are an unnecessary addendum to what God is already doing in them.

Paul drives this point home further with an argument from Scripture.  Paul says it was the same way with Abraham as it is with the Galatians.  Abraham placed his trust in God by faithfully following God's calling for him and God said that Abraham was righteous for doing so long before God ever commanded Abraham to be circumcised.  Like the Galatians, Abraham was counted as righteous by God before "works of the Law" were even a part of the picture.  Therefore, Abraham exemplifies Paul's argument that it is those who live faithfully whom God makes righteous, not those who seek to find life in circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance.  Paul says that the Scripture even anticipates the inclusion of the Gentiles in this righteous living through faithfulness when it told Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him; not just Jews but Gentiles as well.

Having made his parallel between Abraham and the Galatians, Paul now turns his argument to demonstrating why works of the Law are not a part of the righteousness which comes through faith/faithfulness (and in doing so writes four of the most theologically dense and widely debated verses in the New Testament).  Paul begins this point by saying that everyone who is of the works of the Law are under a curse and he quotes Deuteronomy to support this point; "cursed is everyone who does not keep everything written in the book of the Law to do them."  Some take these words to mean that everyone who tries to follow the Law is cursed because following the Law is impossible but this is not at all what Paul is saying.  Jews did not find the Law impossible to follow.  Paul declared himself blameless as to the Law (Phil 3:5).  Paul is simply saying that anyone who chooses to derive their identity from the works of the Law stands under the threat of a curse; they may not actually be cursed if they keep the whole Law but the threat is always there.  (If you read in some of Paul's writing in Romans at this point, then you can obverse that in Paul's mind, this is all the Law can really do: pronounce curses.  It was supposed to be a life giving blessing that would protect Israel from sin.  Instead, it was powerless to prevent sin and itself became a tool of sin.  Therefore, all the Law could do was threaten, it could not make one alive, make one righteous.)

In contrast to the "Law option" in which everyone stands under the threat of a curse, Paul argues that there is now another option: that of faith/faithfulness; and, in fact, this faith/faithfulness option is the only true option for being made righteous.  In v.11, Paul says "since it is evident that no one is made righteous before God by the Law, the righteous will live by faith/faithfulness."  It is evident that no one is made righteous by the Law because of Israel's history.  Israel had followed the Law for hundreds of years but it had never made Israel truly righteous and Israel knew it.  Israel's own prophets described their longing for the day when God would pour out his Spirit to truly make them righteous in a way that the Law had not.  Since the Law failed to make Israel righteous, Paul argues there must be another option for righteousness and that option is the faith/faithfulness in which the Galatians were already living before these teachers showed up telling them that they must follow the works of the Law.

In v.12, Paul says these "works of the Law are not of faith but those who do them will live by them."  In other words, life by works of the law and life by faith/faithfulness can not coexist, they are incompatible.  This is because they both represent an ultimate orientation in life.  That is the point Paul is making by quoting Leviticus 18:5: "those who do these things live by them"; that is, those who follow these works of the Law live their whole life by them.  The problem with works of the Law is not the works themselves.  The problem is orienting one's whole life around them, expecting to find life in them, attempting to be made righteous by them when instead one should be seeking life and righteousness in the faithfulness of Christ and orienting one's life around faith in him.

After all, it is not these works of the Law which redeemed us from the curse of the Law.  It is Christ who did that by becoming a curse for us.  Christ became a curse by being crucified.  Without the resurrection, crucifixion was a certain and public sign that Jesus was not the messiah he had claimed to be.  Furthermore, Paul points out in quoting Deuteronomy 27:26 that anyone whose dead body was left hanging for public displayed was considered cursed by the standards of the Law.  However, Christ willingly took that curse upon himself so that we would no longer have to stand under the threat of the Law's curse.

In v.14, Paul says that Christ became a curse for us "in order that the promise of Abraham might come to the gentiles through Christ Jesus in order that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith/faithfulness".  That is, it is Christ's death which opens the blessing of Abraham and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit to gentiles as well as Jews and that is essentially what it means to be redeemed from the curse of the Law.  We have been redeemed, bought back, freed from the slavery of the threat of the Law's curse because there is now another option for righteousness besides living under the Law and its threat; the option of living in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  And, of course, Paul would say this new option is the only real option since the old option of living under the Law was really powerless to protect again sin and make one righteous anyway.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Paul's Gospel

Last week I talked a little bit about the background behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Paul has planted these churches in the province of Galatia.  He preached the gospel to them and taught them how they should live in response to this good news and then he moved on to plant other churches elsewhere.  However, it seems that some time after Paul left, some other teachers, Jewish Christians like Paul himself, came and began to preach to the churches of Galatia.  As it turns out, these preachers were not preaching quite the same message that Paul had.  In fact, they said that Paul’s gospel was incomplete; that Paul had left some things out. 

It seems that from what Paul writes in Galatians the things that Paul was being accused of “leaving out” of his gospel were adherence to circumcision and food laws, what Paul refers to as “works of the Law”.  It is important to recognize here that these are not just any “good works” as we sometimes use that phrase as the antinomy of faith.  These are specific works which set Jews apart from Gentiles.  Circumcision and the practice of not eating certain “unclean” foods and not eating with “unclean” people (Gentiles) is what made Israel distinct and separate from the rest of the world.  In other words, this is not so much about “faith vs. works”.  Both Paul and the other teachers would have agreed that salvation included both faith and works.  (In fact, they probably would not have even separated the two.  Both are captured in the same Greek word (pistis) which is often translated faith but can also mean faithfulness.  Faith, at least the way it is spoken of in the New Testament, should not be limited to an inner disposition while works is something outward and separate from faith.  Faith is both elements: the inner disposition and the works; without either faith does not exist.)

No, this is more a debate about the kind of works that are necessary to be a part of the people of God.  For Jews, circumcision and food laws (and Sabbath observance, though that doesn’t seem to come up in Galatians) were always a part of that equation and therefore it was natural for these Jewish Christians to expect Gentiles who wanted to be a part of God’s people to have to do the same thing.  But Paul says that forcing Gentiles to follow these works of the Law is a gospel other than what he preached which is really no gospel at all.  This leads Paul to articulate in summary form his understanding of the gospel in Galatians 2:15-21. 

There he begins by appealing to what he and the teachers who oppose him agree upon.  He says “We are Jews by nature…knowing that a man is made righteous not by works of the Law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”  In other words, even the opposing teachers know that it is not these works of the Law which make a person righteous; it is the faithfulness of Jesus.  No Jew thought that they had to earn God’s salvation by following the Law.  Every Jew knew that they were made righteous only by God’s faithfulness to Israel.  Therefore, it was no different for Jews who came to believe in Jesus.  They knew that it was God’s faithfulness through Jesus which had made them righteous, not the Law.  If this is the case, Paul argues, then how can these teachers require Paul’s Gentile converts to do these works of the Law when Paul and the teachers themselves already know that even as Jews it is not these works of the Law which make them righteous?  Paul says that would be like rebuilding a wall or barrier which has already been torn down.  It is putting up an obstacle to salvation which Christ gave his life to abolish. 

Paul then gives the alternative to following these “works of the Law.” After all, as has already been said, Paul is not advocating faith instead of works.  Paul does not preach a lawless gospel.  He simply says it is not these works of the Jewish Law which Christians are to follow.  Instead, Christ himself has become the law for his followers, that is, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are now the guidelines for how to live righteously.  Our lives, our stories, are to imitate the faithfulness of Christ.  That is what Paul is saying in v. 19-20 when he says that he died to the Law so that he might live for God and that he has been crucified with Christ so that Christ now lives in him.  Paul is saying that the story of Christ has become his story.  Paul’s rule for life is no longer the Jewish Law but the law of Christ. 

However, the law of Christ is not something that Paul follows by force of will.  It is not that Paul simply wills himself to be more like Jesus.  The good news that is the gospel is that Christ’s death and resurrection is not only something for us to imitate; they make our own death and resurrection possible.  Paul believed that the death and resurrection of God’s Son inaugurated a completely new age in history which in turn meant that our old, sinful nature could be crucified, put to death, so that Christ’s Spirit might truly live in us and therefore we might truly live for God. 

The error of the teachers who opposed Paul was that they failed to grasp the full significance of Jesus’ world changing, epoch dividing, creation renewing cross and resurrection.  As a result, they failed to distinguish between the essentials and non-essentials of the gospel.  They felt circumcision and food laws were essential to the new good news just because they had been an important part of what God had done in the old age.  Instead, Christ’s death had rendered these things as unnecessary obstacles to salvation. 

The Church today must be careful not to make the same mistake.  We tend to add extra hoops that people must jump though in order to meet our criteria for what it means to be Christian.  Too often, it is not enough for us that someone simply be Christ-like.  It is also necessary for them to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, and maybe even vote a certain way.  We may not be too concerned about circumcision or what a person eats but we still have a tendency to use specific actions or practices as a litmus test of someone else’s Christianity.  Paul’s words are a reminder to us that the gospel is nothing other than the faithfulness of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our righteousness is found solely in that good news.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


What is the gospel? 

That is the question that lies at the heart of Paul's letter to the Galatians.  Of course, one could argue that this is always the question when interpreting scripture.  However, it especially the case with Galatians.  Paul had preached to Gentiles that they could be followers of Jesus and therefore a part of the true Israel without being circumcised and without maintaining Jewish food laws.  It seems that some other preachers came to Paul's churches in the province of Galatia after he had left and said that he didn't quite have it right, that Paul was misrepresenting the gospel, leaving it incomplete.  These preachers said that these gentiles did indeed have to be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish law if they were to be a part of the people of God. 

To this Paul says "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all."  Paul will go on to argue in the letter that for these gentiles to be circumcised is nothing short of forsaking the gospel which they recieved by grace.  If these gentiles must follow the Jewish law then there is really no good news in the gospel because it means things have not changed, a new era has not begun in Jesus Christ.  For these gentiles to follow the rules of old era is to deny the victory that Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. 

While circumcision and food laws may not be the most pressing issues facing Christians today, the question remains; what is the gospel?  And what does it mean for the way we live life?  Like Paul, we must begin with the world changing event of the cross and work everything else out from there.  The Christian life is not so much about a spiritual checklist of rules and disciplines.  It is about evaluating every aspect of life in the shadow of Jesus' cross and the light of his resurrection.