Saturday 8 December 2012

God promised his Son (Galatians 3:15-29)

How do we understand the Old Testament? According to today’s passage, there are two possible ways: We read the Old Testament either as law or as promise. According to today’s passage, one leads to death while the other leads to life.

When you teach kids in Sunday School about Daniel and the lion’s den, or when you read a psalm, or even when you watch a movie like the Prince of Egypt, it is important to ask yourself, “Is the bible telling us what we need to do or is it telling us what God has done? Am I reading it as law or as promise?” The two are completely different; and chances are, many don’t see that difference. Chances are, many look at the bible - specifically the Old Testament - and see only the law, the rules and the things we need to do for God.

Paul wants us to open our bibles and see God’s promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. He wants us to hear good news. Today, we will look at the second half of Galatians Chapter 3 under three headings:

1. Promise
2. Purpose
3. People

1. Promise

The first point is promise and Paul begins with an everyday example. That’s verse 15.

Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no-one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case.
Galatians 3:15

Paul is describing a contract - a piece of paper that you sign your name on to say, “I agree to everything written in this document.” Whether it’s a mortgage for your flat, a subscription for your iPhone or the marriage certificate you sign on your wedding day, the contract is promise that you make in writing. “I give my word that I will abide by all the terms spelled out in this contract.”

The word that Paul uses to describe this contract in verse 15 is “covenant,” (Greek: diatheke) a word which commonly refers to a person’s last will and testament (“When I die, I bequeath my XBOX and Pokemon collection to Rock Fellowship”). Yet at the same time, the word “covenant” is used in the bible to describe not a human contract but God’s promise. God made a covenant with Noah promising never again to destroy the earth by a flood. God made a covenant with Moses giving him the Ten Commandments. When God makes a big promise he wants us to sit up and pay attention to, he makes a covenant.

Meaning, when you read the Old Testament, what you should hear is God saying, “Here is all the stuff I am going to do.” The Old Testament is a written contract with God’s name signed on every page, “I, God, promise to abide by all these terms.” In fact, “testament” is simply another way of saying “covenant”. Old testament and new testament simply mean old covenant and new covenant. The bible is God’s promise given to us in order that we may trust in his word; in order that we may rely on his promises.

Why is this important? Because we often see the bible not as a promise but as law. We often teach the bible as a list of rules that must be followed in order to be saved. When someone comes along and says, “Actually, it’s not about what we need to do but what God has done,” we get surprised. When someone comes along and says, “Reading the bible as the law is the wrong way to understand God’s word,” we get upset. But that is exactly what the apostle Paul says to us in verse 17.

What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise, but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
Galatians 3:17-18

Paul is telling us, “Don’t get the law mixed up with the promise.” The promise came first to Abraham (verse 16) whereas the Law came 430 years after Abraham. Meaning, two things: firstly, salvation is not through the law - as a kind of reward for being good - that is not the basis of our salvation; but secondly, the terms of salvation are not cancelled out by the law - God didn’t add extra requirements to be saved. He didn’t replace the promise with a new set of rules. That’s what verse 18 means, “God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.” There were no strings attached when God first blessed Abraham and that hasn’t changed even with the coming of the law. God’s blessing was always by grace alone.

How does this apply to us? It’s easy to start with God’s grace. That’s what made Christianity so awesome to start with - God saved us while we were still sinners. Beginning with grace is easy, continuing on by grace isn’t. Sometimes we open up the Old Testament and read about people like Abraham, Moses and David and turn them into examples on how to live the Christian life. To some extent, that’s useful. We learn from their faith, from their mistakes, from their experiences. But if all we see in the Old Testament are models of faith - examples on how to live faithfully and avoid sin - if that’s all we see, then we’ve read the bible as law and not as promise. We have read the bible as a how-to manual on how to be a good person. And Paul is saying, that’s the wrong way to understand God’s word.

God’s salvation is always by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. From day one, that’s how it began with Abraham. Abraham was not a holy man. He was a pagan worshipper whom God chose to bless and to use to prepare the way for Jesus. It was God who made a covenant with Abraham and God who gave Abraham his promises. If you are a Christian, it was God who called you when you were still running away from him. He called you by grace and he saved you by grace.

Each time you open the bible, it ought to remind you about what God has done, not what you need to do. Each time you meet Abraham, Moses and David in the bible, you should be amazed not so much with their faith but with their God who was faithful and gracious to them, who continues to be faithful and gracious to you.

2. Purpose

The second thing we see is the purpose of the law.

What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one.
Galatians 3:19-20

The question is: If God saves us by grace alone, why do we need the law? Doesn’t the law distract us from the promise? In fact, why not get rid of all these stuffy rules and let people think for themselves?

Paul says there is a reason why God gave the law. Asking the question, “What, then, was the purpose of the law?” Paul immediately answers, “It was added because of transgressions.”

Meaning, the law helps us to recognise our need for Jesus by helping us to recognise our sinfulness. The way the law does this is rather strange if you’ve never heard it before. The law doesn’t simply point towards our sin and say, “Ooo, that’s a bad thing you’ve done! That’s sinful.” What the law actually does is reveal our sinfulness. It is like dropping a mentos sweet into a bottle of Diet Coke and watching the whole thing explode. That’s what happens when we come into contact with the law. Our hearts rebel against the law almost instinctively like a chemical reaction.

Why would God have such a strange purpose for the law? To show us that sin is more than just breaking a set of rules. Sin is that instinctive reaction in our hearts to turn against God who set the rules.

If you are in any position of authority, you need to realise this. Whether you’re teaching Sunday School or you’re trying to get friends to come for Rock Fellowship or you’re leading the music team in church, one way to exert your authority is to lay down the law - “No Haribo in class!” “Why didn’t you come for Rock the last couple of weeks?” “Make sure you keep to the music rota and turn up on time for practice!” If all you are doing is laying down the law, pretty soon, your friends won’t simply be rebelling against the law, they will be rebelling against you. Don’t get me wrong, rules are important. Kids do need structure. Adults do need direction. But if all you are as a leader is keeping the rules and punishing those who break the rules, you are not a very good leader. In fact, you are not a Christian leader.

Why do I say that? Look at verse 19, “The law was put into effect by angels through a mediator.” God enforced the law through angels, meaning, this was serious; it wasn’t willy-nilly to be taken lightly. But at the same time, God didn’t simply give us the law, he gave us a mediator for the law. A mediator is there not just to make sure the rules get followed, he’s there for when the rules get broken. Moses was a mediator: he gave the Ten Commandments to Israel yet when Israel sinned, Moses went before God to ask for forgiveness.

You see, God knows who he is dealing with. The question is: Do you? When you look at the kids in your Sunday School class, when you look at your music team, when you look at the guys who turn up (or don’t turn up) for Rock Fellowship - do you realise who you are dealing with? Spoiled brats? Rebellious sinners? If all you have is the law, then all they will be are spoiled brats and sinful rebels! But if you know your own heart as sinful (that’s what the law does) and if you know Jesus as your mediator in heaven who intercedes before his Father (that’s what the gospel does), then each time we mess up, we will point to Jesus and not the law. Each time our friends mess up, we will be gracious with them just as God has been gracious with us.

That’s why Paul can say, “The whole world is a prisoner of sin,” but at the same time not mean that we’re stuck. He can actually talk about the law and not be legalistic (which is actually a really hard thing to do!) Why? Because Paul can look at the law - which shows him his failures and his sin - and what he really sees is his need for Jesus.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Galatians 3:21-22

What do you see when you look at the law? Another way of thinking about it is to ask: What comes to mind when you think about Christmas? Until I came to the UK, I didn’t realise what a big deal Christmas was here. I mean, back in Singapore, Christmas is a public holiday, there’s lots of shopping, Christians meet for a church in the morning and families gather for a meal afterwards - so there are similarities between UK and Singapore. But I have noticed a big difference and that’s the stress. Travelling back home in the snow, getting presents for the family, preparing the turkey dinner, going on the diet afterwards - it all results in depression, anxiety and friction. It made me realise that Christmas here in the UK is better equated with Chinese New Year back in Asia.

I’m not even going to say something like, “It should be about Jesus.” Don’t get me wrong, Christmas is about Jesus. But even Christians who know it’s about Jesus get stressed over carol-singing, over organising evangelistic events or rushing to the family service on Christmas morning in a way that is not unlike the non-Christian who thinks of Christmas as just another bank holiday. Why? Because we look at Christmas and see law. Christmas is just long list of stuff to get done and we forget that Christmas is about what God did that we could not do for ourselves. He sent his Son to die for our sins.

The biggest difference between the person who understands Christmas and who doesn’t isn’t who goes to church and who doesn’t; it isn’t the person who gives presents and the one who doesn’t - the biggest difference between the person who understands Christmas and the person who has completely misunderstood it is this: one sees it as promise, the other sees it as law. One hears the message of Jesus coming as a baby, born in a manger, taking on humanity and goes, “God promised he would send his Son and he did.” The other goes, “God sent his Son and I must send Christmas cards.”

Promise or law: Which is Christmas to you?

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
Galatians 3:23-25

The English Standard Version translates verse 24 by saying, “So then, the law was your guardian until Christ came.” Here, Paul describes the law like a babysitter. It’s job is to make sure we keep out of trouble and finish our vegetables. At times, the English Congregation feels a bit like baby-sitting with kids who don’t want to be here and parents who want me to make sure you kids learn some manners. Now the bible isn’t saying that’s wrong, I mean, here it’s saying that’s precisely the role of the law. But it also tells us that if you think they are going to be Christians that way, you’re kidding yourselves. The law can never save, only Jesus does. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision/babysitting of the law.” If all we are doing here in the English congregation is going through stories on how to be good and respectful, we are actually keeping people from hearing the gospel. We are acting as if Jesus never came. Similarly, this Christmas, no amount of gift-giving or carol-singing can take the place of the telling our friends the gospel - Jesus Christ came to save sinners. In our Sunday School, in our evangelism, in our Christmas services, there needs to come a point when we say, “Alright, I need to actually get to Jesus.”

To recap, the purpose of the law is reveal our sinfulness and to keep our sinfulness in check. It’s purpose was never to save but to point us to the only one who can: Jesus.

3. People

From promise to purpose, we end with our third point: people. Paul says to us in verse 26:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:26

God’s promises were given to Abraham, it says in verse 16, but not just to Abraham but rather to his son. If you look back to verse 16, you notice that Paul goes to great lengths to explain how this promise comes to just one son; he isn’t talking about many sons but just one, “and to your seed,” he says at the end of the verse, “meaning one person, who is Christ.”

That’s important because here at the end of the chapter, Paul turns to us as Christians today and says, “You are all sons of God.” The only way that happens is through Jesus, the one and only Son of God. Verse 29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”

One way of thinking about this to imagine waking up on Christmas morning to find loads and loads of presents underneath the tree. How exciting! Except that when you look closer at the packages, every single one has label on it that says “For Jesus.” None have your name on them. All of them are meant for Jesus alone.

The bible - the entire bible, meaning the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation - is God’s promise for his Son, Jesus Christ. All the blessing and all the inheritance of God are meant for him alone but here’s the thing: if you are in Christ, all those blessings come to you. Every single one of those presents under the tree might have his name on them, but you can say, “This is mine.” To be in Christ means trusting in death that pays for all your sins. When Jesus died on the cross, he took all the punishment of the law for all the sins that you did. In that way, Jesus fulfilled the law on your behalf. But to be in Christ also means to identifying with Jesus in his death.

I am crucified with Christ therefore I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

Paul refers to this identification with Christ’s death when he says in verse 27, “For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” It’s not our goodness that saves us, it is Christ. All we do is trust in the salvation that he offers. That’s verse 28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” We don’t trust in our status, gender or heritage, we trust only in Jesus.

In the recent weeks, verse 28 of Galatians 3 has been used in controversial ways. Especially where Paul says there is neither male nor female (which is an echo of Genesis Chapter 1, verse 27). This verse has been used to argue for the equality of genders within the church’s leadership, particularly the ordination of women bishops in the Anglican church. This verse has been used to argue that there ought to be no gender discrimination, especially in the issue of marriage between two homosexuals. I don’t have time to go into either one of these debate except to say that the central issue for Paul was our trust in Jesus alone for our identity and salvation. The biggest thing that separates you and me is not colour of skin, language, status, money or gender. The biggest problem between you and me is the biggest problem between us and God. It is our sin. These issues matter greatly, I’m not saying that they don’t. But they are secondary (yes, even the issue about homosexual marriage) to the gospel of Christ’s death for our sin. If we as Christians engage in these issues, our job is not simply to defend the law, it is to preach the gospel. In marriage and the distinction between the genders, there is a glorious picture of the gospel of Christ and his church. In the headship of the church and submission to male elders, it is shaped firstly by our submission to Christ who himself submitted to his Father when he went to the cross.

All of the blessings of Christ only come to those who are in Christ. So, more important than asking this Christmas, “Am I blessed?” and start to count off how many presents you received through the post box, is to ask the question, “Am I in Christ?” Why? Because none of these blessings -  of inheritance, of God’s love, of eternal life - mean diddly squat if you are not trusting in Jesus alone, and what you are doing instead is trying to earn these blessings outside of Christ by working hard, obeying the law and being as good as you can.

Are you in Christ? If you are, then you have three things: promise, purpose and people. Promise: You open up the bible and see how generous and gracious God is to his people and to you. God’s word becomes God’s promise to you in Jesus. Purpose: Even when you mess up, you see the real purpose of the law, not to condemn you but to point you to the cross where Jesus took all your condemnation. People: These are your brothers and sisters in Christ, here in the church, who have all received grace and forgiveness through the cross. Each time we meet, we encourage one another to keep trusting in Jesus alone for our salvation and identity.

Are you in Christ? If you are, then Christ is your blessing. All you have is Christ.

I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way.
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave.
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will.
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still.

Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life
(“All I have is Christ, Jordan Kauflin, Sovereign Grace)

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