Saturday 29 December 2012

God makes us sons (Galatians 4:8-20)

Knowing God

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.
Galatians 4:8

Paul uses the term “slave” deliberately and carefully. He knows that some of his hearers were themselves slaves. To be a slave is to be without any rights or any status. You are owned by someone else, their property.

Yet the slavery Paul describes in verse 8 is not vocational but spiritual. “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.” Today, Paul would say that to any Christian who used to visit temples, who used to offer up joss-sticks to deities, who used to burn incense at altars. You were slaves, that is, in offering up your worship to these false gods (by which, I think Paul was describing something quite sinister, ie. demons), even though you might have been sincere in that worship, what you were doing was offering yourselves up in slavery and bondage to powers opposed to God.

“But,” Paul says in verse 9, “now that you know God.” Formerly, you didn’t know him (verse 8), now you do (verse 9). Yet notice how Paul immediately clarifies himself, “or rather are known by God.” That’s an important clarification. Being a Christian isn’t like going to university and taking up a course on God. We didn’t come to know God because we were clever enough or did a theology degree.

If I asked you, “Do you know Jackie Chan?” most of us would have seen his movies and some of us might even have met him before (eating wantan noodles in Hong Kong Fusion), but what if that question was, “Does Jackie know you?” What I am asking then is not whether you know something about a person but whether you have a relationship with that person. To be a Christian is to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ who freed us as slaves to receive full rights as sons of God and to be able to call him Ah-Pa. It’s a relationship.

But there’s a problem. These sons were turning back into slaves. It’s still a problem. It is what happens when the relationship becomes rules. Think of a marriage, a friendship or a family. When the relationship is replaced with rules, Paul says, what you end up with is slavery.

But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
Galatians 4:9

What Paul does in the following few verses is spell out for us three things: a hidden problem, a clear symptom and the only solution.

A hidden problem: Religious legalism

When Paul says to the Galatians, “Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” they would have been genuinely surprised. “Who, me? But I’ve stopped going temple. I’ve stopped burning incense at the altar.”

That was the slavery we began with back in verse 8. This is another kind of slavery (though it’s not entirely different). The clue lies in the accusation of verse 9, “How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles?” Paul uses the same phrase back in verse 3 to refer to the Old Testament Law, “So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.” It’s the same word stoichea translated “principles” in English.

On the one hand, these Christians used to be slaves to idols. This much, they understood. But on the other hand, they were submitting themselves under a new form of slavery - one that was through the law. That’s what verse 3 means, “we,” meaning the Jews under the Old Testament Law, “were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.” That word “principles” can refer either to basic rules and regulations or it can even be talking about spiritual forces in the demonic realm. Meaning, what Paul was saying - and this would have shocked his Jewish friends - was that being under the law without Christ was no different from being under the influence of pagan worship. Both were slaves.

Now how does this apply to us here in the Chinese Church? Take a look at verse 10.

You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!
Galatians 4:10

What are the principles of the Chinese Church? Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with celebrating Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival here in the Chinese Church. What I am asking is, do these festivals define us?

The “special days and months and seasons and years” that Paul is surprised to hear about in verse 10 were not cultural or pagan festivals. These were Jewish festivals from the Old Testament. The reason why he is so shocked to hear that the church was celebrating these festivals wasn’t because there was anything wrong with these celebrations - after all these were prescribed in books like Exodus and Deuteronomy; these included the Passover, even the Sabbath! There was nothing wrong with these celebrations and yet... and yet, there was something fundamentally wrong with them being celebrated in the church, because now these religious celebrations were no different from their pagan celebrations. Now, these celebrations were beginning to define their identity in the church not as Christians but as Jews.

Here in the Chinese Church, we have to be watchful that our Chinese-ness doesn’t come before Christ. Not simply because it brings shame to the gospel. Not simply because it hinders evangelism. Not just because it makes us inward-looking, small-minded and takes our eye of the great commission to the nations.

No, the danger that the bible warns us of is slavery. We turn sons back into slaves when we preach our culture instead of Christ; when we tell people what they must do instead of what God has done on the cross. We actually reverse the work of the gospel and lead people back into slavery.

So much so that Paul then says that when we preach law and neglect gospel, gathering here on Sundays is a complete and utter waste of time.

I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
Galatians 4:11

As the Chinese Church, we’ve been around for fifteen years. Imagine the founding leaders standing up in front of us today and saying, “It’s all been for nothing. You guys really let us down.” What would prompt them to say such a thing? Brother and sisters fighting against one another? Gross sin within the church family? Mismanagement of church money? A huge drop in attendance at prayer meetings?

You won’t find a hint of any such problems reading Paul’s letter to the Galatian. People were coming to church week in week out. They were celebrating the Jewish festivals. Believers were even doing their best to obey the Ten Commandments. No, what prompted Paul to write this letter to a church he himself founded and say to them, “I think I have wasted my time with this church,” is this: Men and women who don’t know the gospel; Leaders who don’t preach the gospel.

Because friends, when we stop preaching the gospel, what we end up preaching is law,  religion and rules. When that happens, the bible says, we have turned back to slavery.

A clear symptom: Loss of joy

It is clear that Paul had a long history with the church in Galatia. He reminds them of that history in verse 12.

I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.  Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.
Galatians 4:12-14

There was a time when Paul knew first-hand how loving this church could be. He was suffering with an illness that he admits was a burden to them; a “trial” is how he puts it in verse 14. Yet this was the circumstance God used to bring the gospel to them and to plant the church in Galatia - through an illness, through a pain situation - but as the setting in which Paul would tell them about Jesus.

Often times, it’s the other way around. Someone is suffering - he is in hospital, or she is in depression - and we respond in love and compassion. Notice however, something unique in this situation. Paul, the one who is suffering, tells them the gospel. That is why they welcomed him as if he were “an angel of God, as if (he) were Christ Jesus himself.”

We miss the point when we think that the reason why Paul was treated so well was because he was sick or because he deserved to be shown compassion or that these Galatians were such nice people. Paul wasn’t being nostalgic. Their initial response was compassion towards a sick man, yes, but in addition to this, faith in the message of this sick man. They put their trust in the gospel he preached and thus, received him as an angel (that word angelon can also mean messenger) of God, as if he were Jesus, whom Paul represented.

As a side point, this has application for those who are suffering and those who are comforting. If you are suffering as a Christian, the bible is saying that God can use your pain and God can use you to witness to him in the midst of your pain; not after you have been delivered from your pain. Paul can point to his suffering, “It was because of an illness,” and say, This was the reason, “I preached the gospel to you.”

Conversely if you are the one who is doing the comforting, you need the gospel as well. If all you are relying on is your own compassion; if all you are doing is responding to the need you see in front of you; you will either find yourself sorely ill-equipped or burnt out. God, who is the God of all comfort, comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from him (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

That was their initial response: compassion to Paul sickness, faith and repentance in Paul’s message. But something changed along the way.

What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Galatians 4:15-16

This joy that they had lost was joy that came from sacrifice. Paul isn’t saying that they’ve become meanies and hard-hearted. He testifies, “If you could have done so, you would torn out your eyes and given them to me.” That is, they were willing to help Paul to the point of sacrificing their own well-being. And Paul knew that they did this willing, lovingly, joyfully.

When Paul walked into church he knew each and every one of these brothers and sisters loved him. These guys had his back. Whatever happened to him - if he got into trouble, if he lost everything he had, if his life was on the line - these guys would do everything they could to help him, pray for him; they would sacrifice their own well-being for Paul. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that what we want to happen here in our church? Isn’t that liberating and simply, biblical? Why would we want to settle for anything less than that? And isn’t there a joy that comes from being able to love in that way?

Another reason why it’s important to see that this joy is in the context of self-sacrifice is because of what Paul says next: their joy has been replaced with zealousness.

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you.
Galatians 4:17-18

A more familiar word for “zealousness” might be “eagerness” - these Christians were now eager and keen to display their good works. But looking at the context, I would even describe it as a kind of artificial infatuation.

Their joy has been replaced with infatuation. The language Paul uses is one of courtship, whereby the false teachers have come into the church to woo the believers, to “win” them over, he says in verse 17, so that they would be zealous for them or infatuated with them. Yet this emotion is fleeting and temporal, as evident from verse 18, “It’s fine to be zealous,” Paul says, “provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you.”

Meaning, if you were to visit the Galatian church, everyone would still smiling. They would be more than eager to show you how much fun they have as a church. “What do you mean we’ve lost our joy, Paul? Can’t you see how happy everyone is?”

But Paul is telling us that it’s just a cover-up for something they’ve lost that’s deeper and much more precious. It’s joy. Joy that comes from the gospel. Joy that is borne from willing sacrifice. What they had replaced that joy with was an infatuation that was fleeting, that was self-serving, that was designed to mask their lack of joy. It was an act put on by the false teachers to win their approval and to alienate them from the truth.

Verse 16, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” I sincerely doubt the apostle Paul would have been considered a success today. You wouldn’t find him speaking in big church planting conferences. Even if he did, few would want to hear what he had to say. He was faithful to the gospel even when it meant being unpopular with his own brothers and sisters. It’s sad when that happens. But it happens, and when it does, the question is, will you still be faithful to the truth of the gospel?

Some you think it’s just in the context of Christian leadership that I’m saying this, but this faithfulness to the truth in the face of opposition and alienation stretches into any and every relationship - as friends, as family, as parents, as children, as husband and wives. It is not incongruous with what it means to love our friends, family, parents, children, spouses - and yes, we ought to speak this truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) - but the question is, will we still speak truth that is truth to those we love; will we still be faithful to the gospel and proclaim Christ when we are rejected by those whom we love. Jesus told us as much when he said, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21-22)

And what Paul goes on to say in the last couple of verses is that genuine love speaks this truth in the midst of the anguish, and continues to do so till the gospel takes hold of our hearts.

The only solution: Christ formed in you

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!
Galatians 4:19-20

I spoke with Cassii after last week’s service and she told me she’s going to study midwifery next year. My immediate reaction was, “That sounds gross!”

Maybe that’s just the reaction of a guy (an insensitive one!) but as Paul talks about childbirth here in verse 19, he spoke of it in terms of the “pains of childbirth” which he himself was experiencing, which I wonder if the Mums here today might hear and go, “What on earth does Paul know about the pains of childbirth!”

Paul is, of course, using an analogy, but with reason. The Mums can tell us from experience how painful it is to bring a baby into this world - the nine months of pregnancy, the morning sickness, the labour pains - but isn’t it true, Mums, that some of the pain that you’ve experienced in raising your children after childbirth can be just as painful, if not more painful, than childbirth itself. When a child rebels against his parents. When a teenager goes off the rails. When they endanger themselves and fall into deep trouble. The anguish and the hurt is so intense because.. because, it’s always there. You are always worried. You are always concerned. Because you are always, always their Mum and you always, always love them.

That’s the pain Paul is describing - an anguish that is prolonged and drawn-out - until, that is, Paul says, “Christ is formed in you.”

I was talking to an older Christian this week about his two kids, now all grown up and married, and living overseas. And he just casually said to me, “I don’t get to hear from them always and I know they have their own struggles. But as long as they know God, I’m not worried.”

Can I say, that is true assurance and that is true love of a Christian parent. That their children know God, or as Paul puts it, that Christ is formed in them. It’s talking about maturity in trusting Jesus and maturity in becoming more like Jesus. It’s not the university degree. It’s not the well-paying job. It’s not the happy family, house and kids. If those are the things we are trusting in to save us and our kids, we will carry our worries to the grave.

It is Jesus: Christ formed in us. That’s the we are doing here in the Chinese Church - we preach the gospel of Christ and the Spirit of Christ takes root in our lives, changing us to be more and more like Jesus.

And it is hard. Paul is in anguish. He is at this point seen as their enemy. People are saying he is being a spoilsport, a wet-blanket and a has-been two-bit apostle. False teachers are drawing believers away from the gospel to adopt religious legalism.

But this is true love rooted in the truth of God’s word. It means the gospel is relevant not just when things are going well, it is essential when relationships go down the drain. We keep preaching Christ and trusting in the power of God’s word and God’s grace to redeem us - and our loved ones - out of slavery to sin, out of selfishness and pride, into the freedom and salvation of the sons of God.

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