Wednesday 21 November 2012

Dumb and dumber (Galatians 3:1-14)

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
Galatians 3:1

What is the most idiotic thing you have ever done? Was it something you said, or did, or did not do?

Was it a secret or did someone post up a video of it on Youtube? Was it an accident? Do you think back to it and laugh, or are you too embarrassed even to bring it to mind?

Verse 1 begins with, “You foolish Galatians!” He says it again in verse 3, “Are you so foolish?” Paul was speaking to Christians and these Christians in Galatians were acting in a way that was foolish. They were being stupid.

It’s not always nice when someone tells us how stupid we are and I am sure the Christians in the church of Galatia weren’t at all happy that Paul was saying this to them. But the reason why Paul calls them foolish is because these Christians didn’t realise that they were acting foolishly. This was a wake-up call. “Who has bewitched you?” Paul says, at the end of verse 1. “Hey guys, do you even know what you’re doing?” Paul was snapping his fingers at them, trying to wake them up!

What was it that these Christians did that was so foolish in Paul’s eyes? Simply put, they had forgotten the cross of Jesus Christ.

“Phew! I’m glad that isn’t us!” we might be tempted to say. “It’s a good thing that we, here at the Chinese Church, always remember the cross of Jesus Christ.” Well, let’s just check for a moment, shall we, to be sure that we aren’t being foolish without realising it? You see, Paul asks four questions in the next four verses as a kind of checklist to see if we are indeed remembering the cross of Jesus Christ.

These four questions we will be looking at today speak to those who began in Jesus and those who are continuing on in Jesus; they speak to those are suffering in Jesus and those who are being blessed in Jesus. The new and the old; the bad and the good - these are the four different life situations we are looking at today, and asking ourselves, “Is this me? Am I putting the cross at the centre of my Christian life, or am I being foolish in living my life without Jesus?”

1. The beginning

The first question deals with the beginning of the Christian life: conversion. Look at verse 2.

I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?
Galatians 3:2

The biggest difference between the Christian message and all other religions can be summed up with two letters. Religion says, “D-O” - Do! Do this and you will be saved. Do that and God will accept you. Religion teaches us what we must do and what God wants us to do.

But the bible tells us what God has done. “D-O-N-E”- Done! God gave his Son. Jesus died on the cross. We didn’t do anything; God has done everything on the cross to save us from our sins.

In verse 2, Paul asks the question, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” Was it something you did or was it by trusting in something God has done?

If you are not a Christian, I hope you see that there is a difference. Being religious is not the same thing as being a Christian. In fact, it is the opposite of what it means to be a Christian. The bible tells us we can’t do anything to save ourselves. If we try, all we do is condemn ourselves in our guilt. Look at what it says in verse 10.

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”
Galatians 3:10

If you treat the bible like a rulebook (and some people do in an effort to be religious) then you can’t pick and choose which rules to follow. You have to do everything. What does Paul say? Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law. Not just Sundays. Not just in church. If you leave anything out, Paul says, you’re cursed!

Religion teaches us what we must do; Christianity tells us what God has done. Look at what it says in verse 13.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
Galatians 3:13

The Old Testament law is not about what we have to do, rather, the whole purpose of the Old Testament is to point forward to what Christ has done for us on the cross. He took our curse, that’s what Paul is saying. All our failures, all our sins, all our punishment was put on Jesus when he was hung on a tree - a way of saying, he was hung on a cross. He redeemed us from the curse of the law. Redeem means his death was a kind of payment. A kind of exchange. His death for our life. His curse for our blessing.

You become a Christian by trusting in what Jesus did for you on the cross. Not by doing something for God, by but trusting in what God did for you. If you are a new Christian, I hope that’s what you are doing right now. You are not trusting in your church attendance. You are not trusting in your own goodness (no matter how many times the well-meaning aunties say to you, “Wah! Kam lek ah”). You are looking to Jesus and saying to him, “I trust in you alone.”

2. The end

That’s the beginning of the Christian life, but next we look at the end of the Christian life - what Paul calls, “the goal” of the Christian life. That’s in verse 3.

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
Galatians 3:3

To use two big theological words, we are moving from justification to sanctification. Justification is God saying to us, “You’re in. You trust in Jesus.” God justifies you, meaning, he makes you OK. “You are justified.” But sanctification is about being like Jesus. To be sanctified means God is changing us to be more and more like his Son. We’re already in, we’re already accepted, but at the same time, God is changing us - our attitudes, our behaviour - to know him more and love him more.

So, to be justified is to be OK in Jesus; to be sanctified is to be like Jesus. One talks about how we become Christians. The other talks about how we continue on living as Christians. Got it?

If so, here’s the question that Paul is asking: Is there a difference? In the way to be justified and sanctified - is there a difference? Some people think that after you become a Christian, “Aha! Now it’s time to work. I have to pay God back for saving me.” They are trying to be sanctified through their own sincerity; through their own human effort.

And Paul would say to them, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Those of us who have been Christians for some time need to ask ourselves, “Am I being foolish?”

Now Paul is not talking about being foolish with sin. We looked at that last week, where in Chapter 2, verse 17, he says, “If while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!” That is, some of us might be foolish in thinking that we can get away with sin - that we are free to continue sinning - precisely because we’re Christians. We don’t take sin seriously and we use Jesus as an excuse to minimise our sin, relativise our sin and justify our sin. “Absolutely not!” is what Paul says, and that’s what we need to say towards our sin. No way!

But here, Paul is dealing with another kind of foolishness - a foolishness that can seem very godly. A foolishness that is less an issue with younger Christians, but more a problem amongst older, mature Christians. The foolishness is this: We try to earn our salvation. We try to pay back God for our salvation. We take something good like ministry and turn it into idolatry. We make it out to be about ourselves instead of Jesus.

For those of us who are older as Christians, are we doing this? As Paul puts it: Are we trying to attain our goal through human effort?

If so, the bible is teaching us an important lesson here: We are justified by trusting Jesus alone; but we are sanctified also by trusting Jesus alone. Each and every day we need to look to Jesus for our identity, that’s what it’s saying. Not my ministry, not my good works - it’s Jesus alone who determines who I am and who I will be. His death justifies and his death sanctifies.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be fruitfulness in your life - growing in holiness, love, generosity, kindness, patience, grace, obedience and godliness. But these are the fruit, they are not the object of our faith. We don’t trust in our faithfulness we trust in his. We don’t trust in our goodness, we rely on his grace.

Paul backs this up by saying in verse 11:

“Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.”
Galatians 3:11

And the question to you is: How are you living now? What is your life characterised by now? Is it by work or by faith? If you were to ask a friend to describe what your life looked like to him, would he say, “You’re such a busy guy. You’re always doing this and that. You are involved in all kinds of ministry. I really admire you!” Or would he say, “You look like someone who really trusts God in everything you do. You take risks. You pray through your decisions. Your God looks like he is in charge of your life.”

Paul gives us two ways to live: The person who lives by faith and the person who lives because of his work. Which are you? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not describing the hard-working Christian as opposed to the lazy Christian. Living by faith does not equate to living without commitment, without responsibility. Some people use faith as a reason to put off finding a job, getting serious about marriage, committing to a church community. They say, “I’m living by faith and not by works,” when they’re just being lazy, irresponsible and sponging off the kindness of others.

No, the difference between faith and works is your identity before God. Verse 11, “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law,” and in verse 3, Paul says, “Are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort.” It’s your identity - like a passport you have to produce at the airport before they let you into the country. And the question is: Are you defined by what you do or by what Jesus did for you? Do you say to God, “Hear my prayers because I am an important person in church and I have worked so hard to bring so many people to Christ and preached a fantastic sermon in church today, so you need to help me out here, God.” Or do you say, “I do not deserve to come before you, but because of Jesus, because of his death on the cross for my sake, I know that I am accepted and loved in him.”

We are justified in Christ alone. We are sanctified also in Christ alone. We keep coming back to Jesus - to the cross - to find our true identity before God, as sinners justified through Jesus’ blood.

3. In suffering

That’s important because of the third question Paul asks us: How do we deal with suffering? That’s verse 4:

Have you suffered so much for nothing - if it really was for nothing?
Galatians 3:4

When you are talking to someone who is in pain, who is suffering because of an illness or an injustice, who is dealing with prolonged suffering or emotional suffering, who has recently been bereaved, who is wrestling with depression - when you are speaking into a situation of suffering - often times, you don’t saying anything at all. You cry. Your mourn with those who mourn. You comfort them and you love them.

But after. When the season of suffering has passed, as tempting as it will be for them to want to want forget the pain and put it out of their minds, at some point in time, they will ask you, “Why? Why did that happen?” Even if they don’t, it may be a loving thing for you to ask them to consider the question: Why did God allow that season of pain and difficulty to happen?

The reason we might not ask that question is because the world tells us it already has the answer: There is no reason. Suffering happens. It’s entropy. There is no meaning. Forget about it and move on.

Without the cross of Jesus Christ, there is no meaning to suffering. Either God is capricious or heartless or powerless, if there is no cross. But you see, because Jesus died on the cross, Paul dares say to us, “Have you suffered so much for nothing - if it really was for nothing?” Paul dares to ask us: What does it mean to live as Christians in a world that is suffering where we ourselves will suffer?

Unlike the atheist, Paul dares to say, “It isn’t for nothing.” He says in Romans 8, verse 18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” For Christians, everything in our lives matters to God, everything in our lives is used by God, even our suffering. The only way you can say that is if you have the cross; without the cross, suffering is meaningless, but with the cross, it means God is a God who uses even our suffering to bless us.

Without the cross of Jesus Christ, there is no meaning to suffering. But with the cross, it means we have a Saviour who doesn’t simply save us out of our suffering, he enters into it. Hebrews 5, verse 8, says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Jesus suffered on the cross. He knows what pain feels like. He knows what rejection feels like. God entered into our suffering when Jesus died on the cross.

One day, Jesus will return and bring an end to all suffering, but until then, he uses our suffering as believers to display the sufficiency of the cross. At times when we are tempted to forget how much we need the cross, God allows suffering to happen in our lives to serve as a wake-up call, and to ask, as Paul does here, “Was it for nothing - if indeed it was for nothing?”

For some of us, if it wasn’t for our suffering, we would be proud. For some of us, if it wasn’t for suffering, we would be impatient. For some of us, if it wasn’t for suffering, we would ungrateful.

But for all of us, if it wasn’t for our suffering, the cross would be meaningless. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,” Paul says in verse 13, “by becoming a curse for us.” The way Jesus frees us from suffering is not by turning us away from suffering (by giving us a suffering-free life, for instance) but by taking the curse of suffering upon himself. He became a curse for us.

God uses our suffering to point to our need for Jesus - to wake us up to the reality of sin and the reality of death as God’s punishment for sin. God uses our suffering to point to Jesus who suffered on the cross so that we would not only be free from suffering but free from our sin.

4. In blessing

Finally, after suffering, Paul asks us how we deal with blessing. That’s verse 5.

Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
Galatians 3:5

At this point, it is worth noticing how frequently the Spirit is referred to.

Verse 2: “Did you receive the Spirit...”
Verse 3: “After beginning with the Spirit...”
Verse 5: “Does God give you his Spirit...”

Especially in verse 5, where Paul mentions how God works miracles amongst the believers in Galatia, might make us wonder if we should likewise be looking for similar evidences of the Spirit. Is it the ability to speak in tongues and prophecy? Is it a miraculous intervention in our lives that we can point to and say, “Wow! Look at that, God’s Spirit was really working then.”

The mention of the Spirit flows out of Paul’s statement in verse 1: “Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” Now we need to remember that the Christians in Galatia were second-generation believers. When Paul says “before your very eyes,” it cannot mean that they were all in Jerusalem over Passover and saw Jesus hung on the cross. Quite likely, many of them weren’t even born yet!

The word translated “portrayed as” means placarded, or put up on display; like a big placard or sign you see the guy holding up in Market Square saying, “This way to McDonalds.” Paul is saying that the message of the gospel was spelled out so clearly to them, it was as if, Jesus Christ was crucified right in front of them. In other words, week after week, the main point of every sermon was, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” Bible study after bible study, the main point was “Jesus Christ was crucified.”

Out of that display and out of that portrayal of the cross flows the evidence of the Spirit’s work. The work of the Spirit always goes hand-in-hand with the word of the cross. This is especially clear from verse 2: “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” How did the Christians receive the Holy Spirit in the first place? By believing what they heard in the gospel. The two go hand-in-hand: the preaching of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ. You can’t separate the two. It is the Spirit which enables us to understand the gospel and respond to the gospel in the first place.

Now the essence of the last question on blessing has to do with the temptation to separate the two: to separate the word and the work of the Spirit. Look again at verse 5. Paul says, “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” It’s almost the exact same question back in verse 2, except that now, Paul isn’t referring to their conversion. He isn’t talking about how they became Christians. Now, Paul is dealing with the issue of blessing. How does God bless us as Christians?

This is where Abraham comes in. Verse 6:

Consider Abraham: he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Galatians 3:6-9

The question we’re dealing with is: How does God bless us? And Paul says, “Look at Abraham.” Abraham is at one level, a pretty good example of someone extremely blessed by God. He was rich and powerful. God kept getting him out of trouble even when he didn’t deserve it. But that’s not the reason why Paul tells us to look at Abraham, not as our example.

No, the reason Paul brings up Abraham is because the blessing that was given to Abraham was not for him alone but for his children. He is saying, “The blessing that God gave thousands of years ago, which you read in your Old Testament bibles, was actually God’s promise directly to you!”

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
Galatians 3:14

Abraham didn’t get what was promise to him. You did. That’s a staggering thought but it’s true. You are the children of Abraham (isn’t that what he says in verse 7?) You can be Chinese and be a child of Abraham. You can be Indian and be a child of Abraham. You can be a Jew and be a child of Abraham. Why? Because it is those who trust in God’s promises through Jesus Christ who receive all the blessings of Abraham.

Why is that important? Because Christians who don’t realise this throw it away. They don’t realise they have received all of God’s blessings reserved for them through Jesus Christ, and therefore, they go hunting for more. It’s kind of sad when that happens. They feel second-class. They feel short-changed. And then someone comes along and says, “Hey, you’ve been missing out on your Christian life, but all you have to do is follow these ten steps to success and God will bless you abundantly!” many genuine believers get taken in.

In Galatia, we have seen in previous weeks, it was the case with the Judaizers. The Judaizers said, “It’s good to trust in Jesus, but are you following the law of Moses?” But today, here in Cambridge, we have the same problems. The prosperity gospel says, “Why settle for the mediocre Christian life? God wants you to have that Mercedes! God wants to bless you with that hot wife! All you need to do is pray and trust him!”

Friends, God may or may not give you that Mercedes. But he has given you all the riches of heaven in Jesus Christ. Let me say, that’s a reality that’s harder for a rich person to understand, than someone who is poor (and I consider everyone here who’s carrying a phone that can snap photos, to be in the category of rich). It is harder, for those who have plenty to understand what abundance means because we are often saying to ourselves, “I need more,” and not, “I have too much.” It is harder for a wealthy person to get what true wealth is because we often look at our wealth and say, “I earned this,” not, “I received this by grace.” That is true of material wealth. It can similarly be true of spiritual wealth.

Look again at Paul’s question in verse 5: “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?”

Put it a different way: Why should God bless you in your life? Material blessings aside, why should God give you happiness? Why should God give you a good night’s sleep? Why should God heal your friend of that illness? Why should God help you decide on whether to choose this path in life or that one?

The one and only basis why we can confidently approach God and know that we will be heard, and know that he is good, and know that he is eager to pour upon us grace upon grace is because God has already promised that he would bless us in Jesus Christ. He gave us his word, that’s why.

That was the promise given to Abraham, “All nations will be blessed through you.” Thousands and thousands of years ago, God already said, “I am going to bless WM, Paul, John, Lydia, David, Faye, Iris, Yao, Sarah, Andi, Winnie, Along, Christian, Lisa, Ben, Howai, John, XM, Lang.” He already gave that promise and all we are doing is holding God to his word.

“We believe what we heard.” And what we heard was the gospel. What we received was the Spirit. And what we trust in is the cross. We look to Jesus and know that because of his death for us, God is a promise-keeping God. He said he would save us and he did. He said he would bless us and he has.

I love you: You’re an idiot

I said in the beginning that it’s not pleasant to be called foolish. Especially in our culture as Chinese, it sounds disrespectful, and it is not my intention at all to make fun or belittle any person in particular here in our church. Yet as I read these words written by Paul to his friends in Galatia, I wonder, if you and I know anyone well enough to let them say this to us? It takes a really close friend, whom you respect, whom you have a long history with, to say these words to you, and I think, it’s not such a bad thing to have such friends in our lives. If you have a really close buddy, would you say this to him or her, “Please be a friend and tell me if I’m being an idiot”? Maybe we should print out little business cards with the words, “I hereby authorise you ___________ as my personal idiot inspector.”

I say that because doesn’t this passage teach us that it is possible for us to be foolish in our faith and not realise it? Galatians teaches us that it is possible for an entire church to be foolish in their faith and fail to recognise it!

You see, as dumb as it might be to turn away from Jesus, it is dumber to think that we are immune from making the same mistakes.

Paul speaks to four different groups in the church (meaning wherever you are here in the Chinese Church, at least one of these applies directly to you).

Firstly, he says to the new believer: Do you know the difference between religion and Christianity? Religion teaches us what we must do to be saved. Christianity tells us what God has done to save us in Jesus Christ. Do you know the difference?

Secondly, he says to the old-timer: Do you think you’re too old for the gospel? You’re not. The gospel isn’t the ABC’s of the Christian life, it is also the XYZ. The gospel saves you and the gospel sanctifies you. Keep on trusting in Jesus.

Thirdly, he says to those who have suffered: Don’t waste your suffering. God uses all of our life, not least our pain, not least our suffering, to remind us of how important the cross is - to bring us closer to him and not drive us away from God.

Finally, he says to those who have been blessed with plenty: You didn’t earn it. You received it by grace through faith through Christ alone. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t ever stop thanking God for that. Know that your blessing came through a curse. Jesus took our death to bring us life. He who was rich, became poor for our sakes, so that through his poverty we might become rich. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

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