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.

Saturday 22 December 2012

God sent his Son (Galatians 4:1-7)

No different from a slave

Our bible passage this afternoon is a classic Christmas text. It tells of how God sent Jesus to be born as a baby, taking on our humanity. We will get to that in verse 4. But just to set things in context, it is important that we begin reading from verse 1.

What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.
Galatians 4:1

The key phrase for us to note is how Paul says that the heir can be “no different from a slave”. Paul is describing a someone who looks like he has everything - who himself thinks he owns everything - but in reality is no different from a slave. Why? Verse 2 says that he is subject to guardians and trustees. Verse 3 tells us that he is enslaved by “the basic principles of the world”. He’s a slave. This guy isn’t free.

Now, Paul is not talking about sin. That’s important to realise as the slavery which Paul describes in this verses is not addiction to some kind of destructive behaviour. That kind of slavery is obvious. You can see it in your own life (and you may or may not realise this, but your friends can see it too). That kind of bondage or addiction to sin is obvious.

But the slavery that Paul is describing here is not sin because this kind of slavery looks respectable. In verse 1, he gives us a picture of the heir who “owns the whole estate”. Literally, it reads “lord of all”. This guy has everything. Do you know anyone like that - who has all the money in the world; who has the car, the girl, the looks, the smarts? Paul says this guy might have it all but in reality he is no different from the slave forced to clean his toilet.

The thing is, Paul isn’t being hypothetical. He might be using an illustration but in verse 3 he makes it crystal clear he’s applying that illustration to us as Christians. He’s saying it’s possible for us to be saved but still live like we’re lost; it’s possible for us as believers to be sons and act like slaves.

So, also when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.
Galatians 4:3

Did you get that? When we were children; we were in slavery? That’s Paul’s introduction to the Christmas message and his point is this: It’s possible for us as Christians to make a big deal out of Christmas and yet be absolutely clueless about the Christmas message.

It’s possible - in fact, I’d say that it’s likely - we have turned up today thinking, “This Christmas stuff is for someone else”; and we think it’s because we’ve done it so many times before, we know everything there is to know about Christmas; Christmas is for the kids, it’s for the newcomers, it’s boring - that’s what we think. But in reality, Paul says to us, “The real reason why you’ve lost that wonder over the message of the gospel is because you are like the heir who is no different from the slave”. Your friends might look at you and go, “That guy has everything.” Or, “She’s my role model.” But the truth is your life isn’t one of freedom. It’s one of slavery.

From Christmas to the cross

I got my haircut this week and struck up a conversation about Christmas with my barber, who is a Jehovah’s Witness. The thing you need to know about Jehovah’s Witnesses is they don’t believe that Jesus is God, so they don’t believe in the Christmas message that Jesus was God become man through the incarnation. So, my friend, the barber doesn’t celebrate Christmas (in fact, he doesn’t even celebrate his own birthday). When I asked him what his plans were for Christmas - whether he was going home, spending time with his family - he wasn’t at all keen on talking about it. “Christmas here in the UK is meaningless.” he said. “It’s just about presents and buying things. It’s not about Jesus.”

But then he pointed to bible which I’d placed on the counter. He had seen me reading it while I was waiting in line (I was preparing for this message) and was genuinely curious. “What is this, if you don’t mind my asking?” “It’s a bible,” I said.

“Do you mind if I took a look at your bible?” he asked. Wow! In fact, he did more than take a look at it. He called out to his friend behind his counter, “Hey, check this out!” He then showed me what he was reading that morning for his devotional (Psalm 37). We even talked about his favourite passages from Scripture (John 17 and Revelation 21).

As you can imagine, my haircut took a little longer than expected (and my hair ended up a bit shorter than expected!) He was trying to tell me why he believed Jesus was not divine. I was trying to answer his objections by showing how the bible pointed to Jesus as God.

But I also wanted to steer the conversation back to Christmas. Here was a guy keen to talk about God. He was enthusiastic about the bible. He had a high view of Jesus but he had a big problem with Jesus being God coming to be born as a baby. So finally I said to him, “I know that we disagree on this one thing - you say Jesus wasn’t God, I think the bible says he was. But what would it mean if he was? I know you don’t think so, but consider just for a moment - if Jesus was God, then what Christians are really saying is that God died on the cross. That’s the biggest difference between you and me. If God died on the cross, then it means God had to come as a man; then it means God had to be born as a baby.”

You see, Paul was trying to get to the same point when he talked about Christmas. He was trying to get to the cross. The reason God sent Jesus two thousand years ago, wasn’t just to be born as a baby. It was so that Jesus could die for our sins. In other words, the reason for Christmas is the cross.

Born under law

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
Galatians 4:4-5

Most people only ever hear verse 4, “God sent his Son, born of a woman...” but it is verse 5 that tells us why God sent Jesus; why Jesus was born of a woman. Verse 5 says, “to redeem those under law.”

If you remember, that is what the angel said to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Most babies only do three things - eat, sleep and poop. Babies are helpless, they can’t look after themselves, they need constant attention. They need constant care. But this baby, according to the angel, will grow up to do something for us instead. He will save his people from their sins.

That’s why Jesus was born. If you notice, Paul doesn’t just say, “born of a woman,” he also adds, “born under law.” Why does he say that? Born of a woman, we understand. In fact, isn’t that what we hear every Christmas? Jesus was born as a baby. His parents were Mary and Joseph. And then we get the kids to dress up as the shepherds who come and see the baby Jesus in the manger. We understand that Christmas is about Jesus being born as a baby. We’ve heard again and again that on Christmas Day, God sent his Son to be born as a man, born of a woman.

But why? That’s the question Paul is answering. Why did Jesus have to be born of a woman? Answer: Because Jesus was entering our world not as an heir but as a slave. That’s what being born under law means. It means humbling himself. It means Jesus subjected himself under God’s law, living in obedience to the law and ultimately taking upon himself the punishment of the law.

That’s why verse 5 begins, “To redeem those under law.” Redeem simply means to pay. His life was a kind of payment and the law was a bill that we couldn’t afford to pay ourselves, but which Jesus took on and signed on our behalf. Under the law, Jesus paid the price for our salvation.

A few days ago I went to see the musical Les Miserables, which tells the fictional story of Jean Valjean, a man locked up in jail for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release from prison, he meets a bishop who offers him food and shelter, but Jean ends up stealing the silverware instead. Jean gets apprehended by the police who bring him back in chains to the priest’s home. But instead of charging Jean Valjean with the theft of the silverware, the bishop thrusts a couple of silver candlesticks into his hands, saying, “You left so early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot... I gave these to you, also!”

What the bishop showed was more than generosity. It was grace. He gave Jean a second chance. “God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God,” said the bishop to Jean.

When Jesus paid our debt on the cross, he did more than pick up the tab. He released us from slavery to become sons. Verse 5 again, “To redeem us under the law that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Paul puts it another way in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

At the end of the day, Paul is saying you are either a slave or an heir. It’s either one or the other. Again, the kind of slavery Paul is talking about isn’t chains and oppression and bondage - it’s not the kind of slavery that’s obvious. Rather, this slavery looks respectable and proper from the outside.

Over and against the Valjean’s character in the musical Les Mis was the character of Inspector Javert, who spends his life searching for the escaped convict. Yet in a pivotal scene of the musical, Jean risks his life to save the inspector from being executed. The inspector cannot comprehend how a criminal he has despised all his life would come to his aid. Instead of gratitude, the experience fills the inspector with grief and hatred.

Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I'll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

Unable to deal with the conflict in his soul, Javert takes his own life by jumping off a bridge. You might say to me, “Now that’s just silly. Why would anyone be so broken up over the law - a bunch of rules - of all things?” Well, for Javert it was the law, but for many students here in Cambridge, it’s their degree. For many parents, it’s their children. For many Asians, it’s respect and status in the community. We’re not talking about something that’s bad or destructive in and of itself, rather, it’s what we’ve built our entire lives on, over and against God. It’s that thing or person or accomplishment, which if taken away, we would say, “I no longer have a reason to live.” That’s the kind of slavery Paul is describing in Galatians and I think it’s a kind of slavery that happens a whole lot here in a city like Cambridge.

What Jesus did in coming to be born on Christmas Day was take on our humanity, yes, but also, take on our slavery. He was born under law, so that when he died on the cross, he could take the full penalty of that law.

When you understand slavery in that way and what Jesus did to free us from that slavery, then you begin to see that people react to the message of Christmas in one of two ways. Either they are freed from their slavery by trusting in Jesus, or sadly like Inspector Javert, they would rather die the slave than live in gratitude to the one who freed them.

This means determining whether you are a slave or an heir is not as simple as asking yourself, “Am I free?” or “How blessed do I feel?” After all, Paul began with the heir who thinks he has everything but in reality is no different from the slave. Meaning, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you are one or the other - either out of pride or self-pity. No, the real test is in your response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The real test is look at the cross - to see there a man hanging in agony, bearing the full weight of God’s anger - and say, “That’s what I deserved, but thank you, Jesus, that you came and paid price I could never have paid on my own.”

The Spirit of the Son

Some of you are terrified at the idea of doing something like that because you think it’s a con that Christians use to get you to feel miserable about your sin. You are afraid that if you let yourself be vulnerable even for a moment, even before God, he’s going to point the finger at you and go, “Aha! Gotcha!”

If that’s you, then just listen to what Paul says next because he tells us God sends the Spirit to help us to cry out to him as more than just a master, more than just a judge. He wants us to call him Dad.

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:6-7

God helps us to turn to him every step of the way. First he sent his Son to die for us on the cross. Then he sends the Spirit of his Son to call him Father. Why does he do that? Precisely because it’s not enough to know that we are no longer slaves, we need to be reassured that we are sons. If you are at all able to pray to God and call him Father, here is a word of assurance from the bible that says to you, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit enabling you to do just that.

The point is, God doesn’t want slaves, he loves us as sons. He loves us to such an extent that he sent his own Son to die on the cross for us. It means he isn’t looking for you to prove yourself - he loves you. It means he isn’t looking for you to make up for your mistakes - he forgave you in Jesus already.

It means that in Jesus Christ, God became man, the Son humbled himself as a slave, the author of life suffered death, the sinless one became sin, the one who made the law was born under law in order that he might redeem those under law. In order that we, together with Jesus, might receive the full blessings of God our Father as his sons.

Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

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)

Saturday 1 December 2012

BibleCentral: Four lessons from Jonah Chapter 1

1. Revelation: God speaks

The book begins and ends with God speaking audibly to Jonah. What an amazing privilege to hear the voice of the Creator!

Yet Jonah’s response is to run. He flees from the “presence of the LORD” (that expression occurs three times in this chapter; twice in verse 3 and once again in verse 10). It is silly to think that Jonah could ever escape God’s presence, and he knows that. God is the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land (verse 9). Where could he possibly hide in all of God’s own creation?

Still, what Jonah is running away from is God’s word. He willfully ignores and disobeys God’s instruction to preach to the city of Nineveh.

2. Mission: God sends

The power of God’s mission lies not in the messenger but in the message of the gospel. God used Jonah – a self-centred, rebellious prophet – which means that God can certainly use you and me to speak the gospel to our friends …and even to our enemies.

3. Repentance: Turning away from idols to face God

The sailors turn from worshipping pagan idols to worshipping the true and living God. Repentance in the bible is not an emotional response whereby we feel rotten about something horrible we’ve done. Repentance is a complete radical change in life direction – from idolatry to true worship, from self-centredness to God-centredness.

Aside from the sailors, don’t miss the fact that Jonah needed to repent. The great storm and the great big fish were signs sent from God to show us that even the prophet Jonah needed to repent from his selfish actions and turn to face the true and living God.

4. Salvation: A better Jonah

Verse 15 reads, “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.” Although the sailors did everything they could to try and row back to land, in the end, the only solution that worked was the one Jonah himself proposed in verse 12, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea.”

As Christians, we have been saved from an even fiercer storm – the punishment of God’s anger for our sin. We can try to make up for it, but like the sailors, often times we find that even our sincerest efforts do more harm than good. Jesus came to take our punishment on our behalf. He is the better Jonah, who went to the cross willingly, not willfully; who died for our sins and not his own.

Jesus is a better Jonah – and a better Saviour – who faced the storm of God’s wrath because he was doing the Father’s will; and because he loved us even while we were his enemies.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

BibleCentral: The place and purpose of illustrations

Someone wise once said, “If you cannot illustrate it, you do not understand it.”

Illustrations are powerful tools to get your message across. Whether it’s from movies, pop culture or everyday life; illustrations allow you to connect with your audience; to help them understand and remember what you are saying to them.

This week at BibleCentral, we are looking at the place and purpose of illustrations in the bible. What we are going to see - specifically, from the book of Jonah - is that God uses illustrations. He uses a sea storm and a sand storm, he uses a big fish and a small worm; all as illustrations, all as examples to help us understand the gospel. Even God uses illustrations!

And yet, there is a great danger in using illustrations: We might end up preaching our illustrations and forgetting the gospel. People can go away remembering our funny stories having heard nothing from God’s word.

How do we preach the gospel and not our illustrations? In the coming weeks, how do we get the message of Christmas across without sacrificing Christ?

Find out this Saturday, the 1st of December at BibleCentral. Hope to see you there!

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.