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.

Sunday 18 November 2012

What happens when a Christian sins?

But if, in our endeavour to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.
Galatians 2:17-18

What happens when a Christian sins? That’s the question Paul raises in verse 17 - “If... we too were found to be sinners?” He isn’t talking about the non-believer who doesn’t know Jesus. He isn’t talking about the backslider who has turned his back on Christ. No, these are genuine Christians who are “endeavour(ing) to be justified in Christ,” - who are living day-by-day trusting in Jesus, following Jesus and loving Jesus - who are the same people who then fall into sin.

Literally, the phrase means “found out” (heurethemen - discovered). Meaning, not simply, that your friends point it out to you (“Aha! I saw what you did!”), but more so, that you are aware of a particular sin in your own life - an ongoing struggle with temptation, perhaps; or a serious wrong that you have committed against your own conscience and against God.

What do you do then with your sin as a Christian? How are you likely to react to your sin as a believer?

What Paul says next is personal, practical and real. He says to us: You are going to be tempted to do one of two things. You are either going to excuse it or justify it.

Excusing our sin

The first common reaction to sin is to try and excuse it. Paul says to the Christian, “Is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!” What he is saying is: Just because you know that Jesus died on the cross for your sin does not mean you have a free pass to keep on sinning. You need to stop. You need to repent - that is, to turn away from your sin and to face up to God. In fact, it even means that if the sin that you’ve committed is a crime punishable by law, you need to submit yourself to that punishment.

Now, when Paul asks the question, “Is Christ then a servant of sin?” it’s not as strange a question as you might think. When someone gets the gospel for the first time, it always sounds too good to be true. God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins in our place - while we were still sinners. He died to pay for all our sins - past, present and future. Many people are going to hear that and think it is a con. They are going to think, “What’s the catch?” Why? Because it sounds too good to be true. It sounds like God is handing out a blank cheque. It that really happened, what would stop us from taking advantage of God’s generosity and abusing it?

And it needs to be said, that is a real temptation for us as Christians - to take God’s grace for granted and to use it as an excuse to keep on sinning. Paul says, “Certainly not!” That’s the attitude we need to take towards our sin, “No way am I doing that!” “No way am I going to use Jesus as an excuse to keep on cheating on my wife.” “No way am I going to use my church attendance as a cover up for my greed.” Paul is serious about sin, but it is because Paul is even more serious about Jesus. No way is Jesus to be used as an excuse, a free-pass, a licence to sin against other people, against our conscience, against God. No way.

So, that’s the first temptation for the Christian who has fallen into sin: to excuse it, to minimise it or to take it for granted. But the second temptation is the one he really wants us to sit up and take notice of. It is the temptation to justify that sin.

Justifying our sin

For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.
Galatian 2:18

Paul gets personal. If I rebuild; what I tore down; I prove myself (literally, establish myself) as a sinner. Paul is speaking from his experience of struggle with his own sin and openly confesses, “Here is what I am most tempted to do with my sin: To justify it.”

If you have a bible, it’s worth looking back to the context of his argument in Galatians Chapter 2, especially beginning with verses 11 onwards where he mentions the apostle Peter’s visit to Antioch. You see, there, Paul confronts Peter’s sin in public. What was it that Peter did that was so horrible and so serious that Paul had to bring it up on Sunday morning in church in front of all his friends and family? Did Peter embezzle the church funds? Did Peter run away with his secretary? Well no, it was none of that, actually. All Peter did was he stopped hanging out with the non-Jewish friends after church. He was afraid, Paul tells us, of the “circumcision group”, that is, Peter was afraid that word would get around that he was breaking the traditional Jewish laws by mixing with Gentiles (non-Jews) and this would result in problems for the Christians back in Jerusalem. He was afraid that members of the “circumcision group” would use his behaviour as an excuse to carry out hate-crimes against the church in Jerusalem.

So, if you think about it, Peter was acting out of love, out of concern and out of consideration for his brothers and sisters in his home church. Paul saw things quite differently: Peter was acting out of fear. In itself, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that out of fear, Peter decided he would turn to the law instead of gospel, to deal with his fear.

Again, we might read this and say, “What’s the big deal?” Peter didn’t break any laws. Peter didn’t hurt anyone. What was the big deal?

The reason we say that is because we think that sin means law-breaking. That’s the most common understanding of what sin is: It’s breaking a set of rules. We think that sin means breaking the law. But notice how Paul defines sin quite differently here. Look at what he says in verse 18: “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.” What is he saying? With respect to the law, it’s not the person who breaks the law who is the sinner, it’s actually the person who tries to keep the law. That’s a surprising definition to find, of all places, in the bible, isn’t it? Here is a verse that defines the sinner - the transgressor, as Paul puts it - not as the lawbreaker but the lawmaker.

“If I rebuild what I tore down,” Paul says. Remember that Paul used to be a Pharisee. He was the Hebrew of Hebrews, who kept the law, perfectly. This was a guy who memorised Genesis to Deuteronomy, word for word. This a guy who knew the rules, who lived by the rules, who enforced the rules. But when Paul became a Christian, he considered everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord, for whose sake he lost all things (Philippians 3:8). What does that mean - to consider everything a loss? (He even calls it “rubbish” - a euphemism, as the word he actually uses much, much more offensive than trash)

What is he referring to? Paul is talking about his confidence in his own track record. That’s what the law represents. For Paul the Pharisee, the law was a way to fix things. But for Paul the Christian, he had come to realise that the law was never meant to fix anything. It was only there to uncover our brokenness and sin. The only solution that God has given us for our sin is Jesus. His death on the cross pays the full penalty of sin and credits our account with the full benefits of his righteousness.

Looking to our Saviour

As Christians we know that. But Paul is saying to us, we tend to forget; and the times when we are most tempted to forget is when we sin. We look to the law for a way to make up for our sin. We look to the law for a solution that will allow us to pay for our sin. We look to the law for a means to feel better about our sin. But all the law does is condemn us of our sin. What does Paul say again? “If I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.”

To turn back to the law, after having known Jesus and trusted in his salvation by grace through faith alone, is to establish ourselves firmly in our guilt as sinners. It is, in effect, to say to Jesus, “Thanks for dying on the cross for me, but I’ll take it from here.” Paul says, “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21)

And yet, don’t miss the fact that Paul is speaking about his own sin and his own struggles with sin. Verse 19: “For through the law, I died to the law so that I might live for God.” Verse 20: “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Verse 21: “I do not set aside the grace of God...”

Why does Paul get so personal here? Just a few verses earlier, Paul had been talking about Peter’s sin of hypocrisy, of fear of man, of compromising the gospel - and Paul mentions how he confronts Peter of his sin. But you see, Paul is confronting sin in a brother’s life not with the law, but with the gospel. And Paul then turns and says to us, “Quite frankly, the only difference between Peter and myself is the grace of God.”

I met a pastor a few years back who was in a counselling situation with someone who had committed a horrible sin. “How could he do that?” he said to me. “How could a Christian sin like that against someone he loves?” Over the years, as friends have shared with me their struggles with sin, I admit that at times, I have been tempted to say the exact same thing, “How could this happen? How could you let this happen?”

This passage from Galatians soberly reminds me that as I encounter sin in another believer’s life, I should be all the more aware of my own sinfulness and I should be all the more aware of the overwhelming grace of God available through Jesus Christ. Like Paul, I should be able to say, “There, but the grace of God, go I.”

If you are a non-Christian, you need to know that the only thing differentiating you and me is not our sin. We are both sinners. That is not to say, however, that there is no difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. We are both sinners, yes, but God has forgiven the sin of the Christian. He has done this not based on the law, not based on the track-record of the believer, not based on the goodness of the Christian, but purely out of his grace towards sinners. Sinners, like you and me.

But if you are a Christian, and you know this gospel - this message of free grace and forgiveness - what this passage is saying to us is: Don’t be surprised by sin. Don’t be surprised by sin - whether it is sin in others or sin in your own life - to the point that when sin happens, you are tempted to excuse your sin or justify your sinfulness. Instead confess your sin to God. Turn to Jesus alone who died for your sin and rose for your justification. There is forgiveness and restoration at the cross.

Most important of all, don’t wait till you are caught in a serious situation of sin before you start looking to Jesus as your Saviour. For Paul, apostle though he was, the reason he was aware for his struggles and sinfulness, wasn’t because he was constantly absorbed with himself. It wasn’t because he was vigilantly looking out for this or that trace of sin. Quite the opposite actually, Paul was constantly focussed on one thing: Jesus. All his life, Paul never got over the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for him, a sinner. Every day, Paul looked to his Saviour. Every day Paul was conscious of Jesus’s sacrifice, “The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me!” And Paul knew, that in Christ, he was fully accepted; that in Christ, he was absolutely loved.

Alas, and did my Saviour bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown
And love beyond degree

My God, why would You shed Your blood
So pure and undefiled
To make a sinful one like me
Your chosen, precious child?
(“Alas, and did my Saviour bleed,” original words by Isaac Watts, additional words by Bob Kauflin, Sovereign Grace Music)

Sunday 11 November 2012

Sweet and sour Christian (Galatians 2:11-21)

Accepted by God

To be justified means to be accepted. To be justified in the bible means to be accepted by God.

We might not use the word “justification” in everyday language, but we understand how important acceptance is in everyday life. When you apply for a job, you submit your CV and you attend the interview in order to be accepted for that job. When you apply for place at university, you submit your A-level results in hope that you will be accepted into that university.

That is, we understand that our acceptance is based on something we have to do. We need to have the grades. We have to have the right skills.

Which is why people hear about justification in the bible and naturally assume the same thing about God: We think that God accepts us based on how good we are or how hard we’ve tried. But that’s not what Paul says in verses 15 onwards:

We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified (that is, accepted) by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.
Galatians 2:15-16a

The reason why God accepts us - the one and only reason he does this - is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not based on what we do but on what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

Now that can be a problem for someone who isn’t a Christian. How can God punish someone else for my sin? How do I know that I have really been forgiven?

But let me tell you, the fact that Galatians was written says to us that this basis of acceptance - this whole understanding of how God justifies us in Jesus alone - can be a big problem for Christians. It is very possible for Christians to forget this. In fact, it is very tempting for Christians forget this. Especially when we sin. Look at verse 17.

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!
Galatians 2:17

Paul is speaking to Christian believers who look to Christ’s sacrifice and obedience for their justification but then take one look at their own lives and go, “I am a failure compared to that. Jesus might be perfect but I’m not.” Perhaps this Christian is struggling with a sin that keeps happening again and again. Perhaps their family and friends call them out on their sin, “I’ve known you since you were a kid. You’ve messed up lots of times in your life and we won’t let you forget that.”

When that happens, it is tempting to turn away from Jesus and look to our own efforts to try and make up for our mistakes. Now remember, I’m talking about Christians here. These are genuine believers who know that Jesus died on the cross to take their punishment on their behalf. And yet the truth is, what the bible says about justification can take a lifetime to sink in. It’s unusual teaching. It’s more natural to think that when I mess up, I have to clean up my own mess. That’s what God wants of my life: for me to prove that I’m sincere enough, I’m good enough, I’m hardworking enough for him to let me into heaven.

The law

The reason why this was especially so for Paul and his readers was the law. Notice how that phrase - the law - keeps popping up again and again.

Verse 16:
So we, too, have put our faith in Jesus Christ that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no-one will be justified.

Verse 19:
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.

Before Paul became a Christian, all he knew about God was through the law: a way of referring to the Old Testament law of God; a way of referring to the bible, even. The law was what made Paul acceptable before God. If he knew the law and if he kept the law, Paul thought, God must therefore love him and accept him.

After Paul became a Christian, however, he saw the law quite differently. He realised that he could never fulfil the law of God no matter how hard he tried. The law would only expose his failures and condemn him of his sin. The only basis of his acceptance before God was Jesus. By the way, if you haven’t figure it out yet, that’s the gospel. The gospel says that Jesus Christ took our punishment of sin on our behalf and transferred to us all his goodness and acceptance.

Hence, each and every time Paul does refer to the law, it is to tell us: This is not the way to be saved. This is not the way to be accepted. The law is the direct opposite of the gospel. Why? Verse 16: So we, too, have put our faith in Jesus Christ that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no-one will be justified.

Sin and the Christian life

Now Paul begins in verse 16 by saying, “We know this.” If you are a Christian, you know the gospel. It’s Jesus alone and nothing else. But we forget. Hence, he asks the question in verse 17, “What if we sin?” Actually, what verse 17 says is that we are exposed as sinners - “it becomes evident” that we are sinners (ESV: We are found to be sinners - or found out). His follow-on question is, “Does this mean that Christ promotes sin?” That’s a pretty important question. Does it mean it’s OK to sin? Does it mean we should sin even more? Paul immediately answers his own question, “Absolutely not!”

Paul takes sin in the Christian life pretty seriously. Forgiveness does not equate to licence. Just because God has forgiven you of your sin, does not mean you now have permission to keep on sinning and disobeying God.

But notice this as well: You will sin. This isn’t a hypothetical question. As a Christian, you will struggle with temptation. You will fail. You will fall back into sin. When you do, the way to deal with your sin is Jesus. Look to the cross and see how God dealt with your sin.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. When we do sin, our gut instinct is to cover it up. It’s OK to talk about sin in the abstract. It’s OK to talk about sin in the past tense. But admitting that we are sinful, right here and right now, as Christians? That’s just embarrassing. Some of us might even be thinking, “That’s just wrong! How can I be a sinner and a Christian?”

Martin Luther once described Christians as simul iustus et peccator, which is Latin for “simultaneously justified and sinful”. Christians are both accepted and sinful. If you’ve never heard that before, it’s a very important truth to get your head around. As Christians, we are fully accepted by God - loved by him, treasured by him. We are holy in his sight. We are perfect. Why? Because we are clothed with the acceptance of Jesus Christ.

But at the same time, we are sinners. Don’t you see? It has to be so. If the only reason why we are accepted is not what we’ve done but what Jesus did, it must mean that we are sinners; though we are justified sinners. We are forgiven sinners. Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? But that’s what a Christian is. Simul iustus et peccator - simultaneously justified and sinful.

Two reasons why this is such an important lesson to take home:

(1) Without it we truly stand condemned;
(2) With it, we are absolutely loved.

1. Without it we stand condemned

Firstly, without this understanding of acceptance through Jesus alone, we’re in real trouble. I mean, serious, serious trouble. Look at what Paul says in verse 18:

If I rebuild what I destroyed I prove that I am a law-breaker.
Galatians 2:18

What’s a law-breaker? Simple answer: someone who breaks the law, duh! That makes sense. You have a series of rules and if you break them, you pay the penalty. That’s the way laws work. They keep us in check. They expose bad behaviour. They ensure justice.

Paul is saying something else here. He says, “If I rebuild what I destroyed,” referring to his dependance on the law to justify himself, “I prove that I am a law-breaker.” Another way of putting this is, “If I go back to law-keeping, then I will be condemned by the law.”

What is he saying? It’s not those who break the law who are condemned but those who try to keep it. I wonder if you caught that? It’s not those who break the law who are exposed as the true law-breakers, rather it is those who try to keep the law, who try to uphold the law, who try to enforce the law, who reveal themselves to be the true law-breakers.

That’s a strange thing to read, in the bible, of all places!

Now remember the context of Paul’s argument. He is still talking about sin in the Christian life. He is asking us, “What does your gut tell you to do when you’ve done something bad?” And Paul is saying to us, “You are going to be tempted to justify your sin with the law.”

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t admit your sin. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be punished for your sin. If you’ve committed a crime and the law says you have to go to jail, you should go to jail.

But what Paul is exposing in our hearts is that desire to find some other way than God’s way to prove our innocence or to pay for our sin. “If I rebuild what I destroyed.” What’s he referring to? It’s his confidence. When Paul became a Christian, he tore down all his confidence, all his reliance, all his trust in the law as a way to prove himself because he’s already said at the end of verse 16, “because by observing the law no-one will be justified.” You guys know this (verse 15). The purpose of the law is only to condemn sin as sin.

And yet, Paul knows his heart - and ours - that we want to feel like we’ve done something to make up for our sin, and that the laws gives us a way to do that. We can pay that debt. We can do the time. We can suffer. And after taking that punishment, there is a part of us that says, “There! I know I did wrong, but I’m OK now. The law says so.”

No, it doesn’t.

Paul is saying to you and me, if we try to do this, then we become the real law-breakers. Now, we might not do this intentionally. In fact, we might have very sincere intentions in doing so. This is where Peter comes is. Look with me to verse 11.


When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
Galatians 2:11

The background to this section on justification is a visit that the apostle Peter made to the church in Antioch that resulted in a big showdown between the two apostles. And Paul begins by saying, “he stood condemned” (according to the English Standard Version). Peter did something that was so wrong- so damaging - he wasn’t simply condemned under the law, he stood condemned because of the gospel. You see, what Peter was doing was verse 18. He was trying to rebuild something that he had previously torn down.

Let’s continue reading in verse 12.

Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Galatians 2:12-13

The Jews and the Gentiles here are referring to the first-generation Christians and the second-generation Christians. They were two completely different cultures. In fact, they were two separate culture - the Jews were taught never to mix with the Gentiles.

So to begin with, Peter visiting the church in Antioch was a big step. Here was the most famous Christian leader in the whole world visiting a church full of Gentiles. Imagine the new Archbishop of Canterbury turning up at the English service today. He plays badminton with us afterwards and even goes to HK Fusion for supper with the guys. If that happened, the whole city of Cambridge would be talking about it (the whole country, even!) There would be news cameras at the back of our meeting today. It would be a big deal!

And Paul tells us that Peter’s visit began really well. “He used to eat with the Gentiles.” But then something happened; something which changed Peter’s conduct.

What happened was a few friends from Jerusalem popped for a visit to Antioch and their presence affected Peter’s conduct amongst the Gentiles. “When they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because of those who belonged to the circumcision group.”

What Peter did was go back to the rules of the law. Back in Jerusalem, the traditional Jews separated themselves from the non-Jews. That’s just the way it always had been. Peter knew that once you became a Christian, all these laws were no longer meant to separate them from others, because Jesus had fulfilled the law. God even gave Peter a vision about this in Acts Chapter 10. The vision was that of a large sheet coming down to earth with all kinds of unclean animals and a voice that said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter said, “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” God answered him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Now the vision was about food, but it wasn’t just about food. You see, the food laws separated the Jews from the non-Jews. I can’t eat this “unclean” thing so I can’t eat with those who eat these “unclean” things. No char siu pao’s. No spring chickens (ask a Chinese person if you don’t get that reference). And if you ate those things, I can’t hang out with you.

But the vision wasn’t about unclean food, but unclean people. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” God was telling Peter that we are made acceptable not through food, but through Jesus. Not through the law but through the cross. Peter knew that.

But you see, that was back in Jerusalem. This is Antioch. In Jerusalem, there weren’t many non-Jewish Christians. In Antioch, the majority of Christians were non-Jewish. Everyone had char siu pao for breakfast. And Paul says, when Peter first arrived, he also had char siu pao for breakfast. Verse 12, “He ate with the Gentiles.”

The change came with Peter’s friends who arrived from back home; from Jerusalem. And what probably happened was this: These guys, who were genuine Christians, who were Jewish, said to Peter, “Brother, I understand that you want to hang out with the non-Jewish Christians here in Antioch. That’s a good thing. But you need to realise that your visit is causing problems back home. You are Peter. Jesus’ number One guy. People are noticing and it’s causing trouble for the church in Jerusalem.”

Why do I say that? And what was this trouble? Verse 12 tells us that Peter began to draw back because he was “afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group,” that is, referring to a group of extremist Jews (who weren’t Christians) who were persecuting the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem. If you’ve been brought up to understand that God’s law wants you to separate yourself from other cultures and races and suddenly this new teaching comes along which teaches Jews to openly mix with non-Jews, it is very likely that you are going to be offended by such teaching. These members of the “circumcision group” were upholding the traditions of their fathers. They saw Christianity as a cult which was diluting their heritage and making a mockery of their religion.

I think that Peter was responding out of sincerity and concern for his brothers back home in Jerusalem. What did he do? It wasn’t such a big deal. He just decided to follow the Jewish laws outside of Jerusalem. After church, instead of going out with the Gentile gang, he went out with his Jewish friends. Instead of char siu pao for breakfast, he had cornflakes. No big deal, just a change in diet. Just a small change in his company of friends.

No big deal? For Paul it was a seriously big issue. For one thing, “the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy.” Peter’s actions was causing a split in the church in Antioch. “Even Barnabas was led astray.” For Paul, that was the last straw. Church leaders were being influenced by Peter’s behaviour. Paul called it what it was. Hypocrisy.

Up to this point, few people would disagree with Paul’s assessment of the problem. Many people, however, disagree with Paul’s solution. Paul confronts Peter in a very vocal, public way. Have a look at what Paul does next and ask yourself, “Would I do this?”


When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
Galatians 2:14

Not in private, but in public, Paul stood up in the middle of a Sunday church meeting and confronted Peter’s actions in front of all his friends. Wow! Seriously, Paul? Couldn’t this have been handled, well, more sensitively?

Two things to notice: Firstly, Paul was making a stand for the gospel. “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” What was at stake was not tradition. It was not a clash of opinions. Peter was doing something which was affecting everyone’s understanding of what it meant to be saved; about what it meant to be accepted. It was not in line with the gospel.

It had to do with the central issue of justification. Peter’s actions - though innocent, though foolish - were damaging to the gospel. It was sending out the signal that in order to be accepted as Christian, you had to be a Jew; and in order to be a Jew, you had to follow Jewish rules. If Peter was invited as a guest speaker, he would have undoubtedly preached, “You are saved in Christ alone, by faith alone, by grace alone.” But his facebook friends list gave a different picture: You are accepted based on the law alone.

The second thing to notice is that Paul himself was a Jew (that’s why he says in verse 15, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’). But Paul was a Jew standing up for the non-Jews in his church. Paul knew that Peter knew the gospel. Paul knew that Barnabas and his leaders knew the gospel. But Paul knew that the Gentile Christians who were younger in their faith, who were the second-generation Christians in the church, were being taken advantaged of. Their faith was at risk. And Paul stood up for them to let them know that in Jesus Christ, they were 100% real, 100% genuine and 100% accepted. In Christ, the non-Jewish Christians were 100% justified. In front of the whole church, Paul stood up and confronted Peter.

Would you do this?

Often times something like this happens for the wrong reasons and impure motives. We uphold the law and make a stand for our rights. We raise our voices only to make known our problems and to defend our causes.

Paul stood up for the gospel to defend the weaker brothers and sisters in the faith; to defend Christians who were least like him. He was Jew confronting another Jew, not about the law, but about the gospel, for the sake of the Gentiles. Peter stood condemned not because of the law - he was following the law. No, Peter was condemned because he neglected the grace of the gospel. That kind of condemnation is more severe than anything the law can dish out.

Would you do this? If you are Christian leader, I dare say, you must.

As sincere as Peter’s motives were, he acted out of fear, and in the process influenced his friends to do the same. If you asked them, “Why are you doing this?” they would have given you perfectly reasonable, logical excuses for their behaviour. It was out of concern for the church in Jerusalem. It was no big deal. It’s just food.

For Paul, what was at stake was the truth of the gospel. Paul is the kind of guy who links everything he says and does to the gospel: even food and fellowship. “It’s not just food,” Paul was saying to Peter, “it’s who you are eating your food with.” “It’s not just fellowship,” Paul was saying, “it’s a question of who are your brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Unwittingly, Peter was being led by the law. Boldly (and I would add, lovingly) Paul was turning Peter back to the gospel. The two are completely different means of justification: law and gospel. If you are a leader, what is your basis of leadership, I wonder? Are you leading on the basis of the law? Do people have to listen to you because you are the enforcer of the rules? Because you are the one who has kept most of the rules? Or are you leading because of grace and the gospel? There is a big difference, friends. One leads to condemnation. The other leads to life.

Paul says in verse 19, “For through the law, I died to the law so that I might live for God.” The important thing to note here is the past tense, “I died.” The law reminds me of all the punishment, all the condemnation, all the accusation that has now been paid in full. I died when Jesus died on the cross. He took my punishment so that now I live.

Is that you? Or are you still being condemned day-in, day-out. As a leader, are you still condemning others, day-in, day-out. That’s a sad, sad way to live, but many choose to live that way because they are conscious of their sin but they have no consciousness of a Saviour. Christians can look straight at the law - Christians don’t deny the law, they can look straight at the law and at their sin that is condemned by the law - and say, “I died. But in Jesus now I am alive to God.”

Do you know this? Do you have this?

2. With it, we are absolutely loved

So, the first thing we’ve seen is, without the gospel - this acceptance by faith alone - we stand condemned. But the second thing we see is that, with this acceptance by faith alone, we are absolutely loved. And that’s verse 20.

I have been crucified with Christ and 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

How do you tell someone who is so conscious of his or her sin that they are loved by God? What can you say to help them know that they are accepted freely, just as they are, in Jesus Christ?

Here is where the tension between the two extremes: of being accepted on one hand, and being sinful on the other, comes together in a very practical way. It’s love. It’s the only way to be so sure of God’s love that nothing can ever shake your confidence in that love.

If you don’t have this tension, you do one of two things. You deny your own sinfulness or you draw on your strength. You deny your sinfulness by saying, “Oh, it’s not really that bad. At least I didn’t do something worse like bla bla bla.” Or you draw on your own strength, by saying, “Next time, I’ll try harder. I’ll pray. I’ll get help.”

Let me tell you, when you’re talking to a friend who has really messed up - and you can sense that he is so hesitant to open up to you, as it is - you will be tempted to say one of these things. “It’s not so bad.” “You can do it, I know you can.” And neither will get him closer to understanding God’s love.

No, what you do - what you have to do - is point to the cross. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Paul is being personal here. There’s no “we” but “I.” I’ve been crucified. My sin is real, my punishment is real and Jesus really had to die. For me. Paul doesn’t dare say, “It’s not so bad.” He says, “My sin is so devastating, Jesus had to be pinned on a cross and forsaken by God. That’s how serious by sin is. That’s how horrible it is. Jesus died for my... my sin.”

But because Paul can say that, he knows with absolute certainty, Jesus’ love for him is real, tangible, personal. “The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” I know the most famous verse in the bible is John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world...” but here is a verse we need to be able to say honestly and truthfully for ourselves, “The Son of God loved me. He gave himself for me.”

Do you sense how Paul is so overwhelmed by this? It is almost as if he is saying, “Me? How could Jesus have died for me?” But he did. And simultaneously, Paul is reminded by the cross how real his sin is and how real God’s love is. Through Jesus’ death on the cross.

As I write this, I think of a couple of people I know who I wish I could tell them face-to-face, this is how you know God loves you. These are friends who have stayed away from God because they are ashamed. These are friends who have run away because they are scared. I wish I could tell them Romans Chapter 8, verse 1, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me from the law of sin and death.”

Do you feel like you need to clean up your act before coming to God? That’s a silly thought. God knows you, better than you know yourself. He sent his Son to die on the cross while you were still fighting against him, while we were still sinners, Romans 5:8 tells us, Christ died for us. That’s God’s love shown to us on a cross.

Simultaneously justified; simultaneously sinful. That’s the definition of a Christian in this lifetime, according to Martin Luther. I would add just one more thing: Simultaneously loved.

I have been crucified with Christ and 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.

Saturday 3 November 2012

BibleCentral: Nine lessons on worship from Exodus 33

1. Idolatry: Idolatry is not simply the worship of a false God; idolatry is often false worship of the true God

Aaron points to the golden calf and says to the Israelites, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4) Elements from the worship of the true God - the ark of the covenant (which was also made of gold), the feast, the burnt offerings - are faked in their worship of an idol.

What Aaron did was “baptise” their idolatry. He imported elements of true worship in order to make their false worship excusable and acceptable.

Similarly, idolatry is seen today not just in pagan temples or in Asian homes with wooden altars and joss-sticks. It can be present in churches, where elements of the true worship of God are used as a cover-up of false worship or even as as a method of promoting self-worship.

2. Worship: All of us - without exception - are worshippers.

God made us to worship him - to acknowledge our Creator as the source of our existence, our purpose and our identity.

Sin is the rejection of God’s rightful rule over our lives in preference for autonomy - which is self-rule, and which leads to self-worship. At the end of our lives we want to look back at everything we have done and sing, “I did it my way.” That is sin: We want to be God over our own lives.

3. Mediator: We need a mediator who is both like us and unlike us before God.

Moses stands between God and Israel as a middleman. As a mediator.

He represents God to the people by speaking God’s word to them as a prophet. He represents Israel before God in pleading their case and petitioning God for their forgiveness as a priest.

In order to Moses to do his job as a mediator, he has to be like Israel in identifying himself with their sin. When God threatens to judge Israel for their sin, he offers to take their judgement on their behalf (Exodus 32:33) Yet at the same time, he stands apart from Israel in his obedience to God’s word and his passion for God’s name.

4. Temple/Tent: God defines the parameters of right worship.

This incident is sandwiched between two sections on worship which are strikingly similar to one another. If you look at Chapters 35 to 39 (which outline the instructions for the Sabbath, the construction of the Tabernacle, the ark, the furniture and the priest’s uniform) and then turn back to Chapters 23 to 31, you quickly realise that one is a reflection of the other. The only difference is, the first section (Chapters 23 to 31) contain the instructions - the blueprints, if you like - and the second section is the application of the instructions seen in the building of the Tabernacle.

Moses’ encounter with God in Chapter 33 is a turning point. After receiving the blueprints for worship from God himself, it now looks as if God is pulling out of the project. Moses meets God in a makeshift tent - the “Tent of Meeting.”

The point is quite clear. Religion is meaningless without God. These rules for worship are useless if we still stand under God’s wrath. No amount of worship will make up for our sinfulness before a holy God.

5. Blessing: God’s greatest blessing is the giving of himself.

“Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey,” God says to Moses, “but I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way,” (Exodus 33:3)

Here is God’s blessing minus God. At least the Israelites are quick to recognise “these distressing words. They began to mourn.” (Exodus 33:4) They recognise their sin in counterfeiting the worship of God and they repent.

Here we learn that repentance is more than turning away from sin. It is more than feeling sorry for our sin. It is turning to face the true and living God (1 Thessalonians 1:10). The Israelites realise that God’s blessings - wealth, prosperity, security, happiness - are meaningless without God.

6. Judgement: God’s greatest judgement is the separation of himself.

Punishment, death, judgement - all that happens in at the end of Chapter 32. After the golden calf incident, three-thousand people die at the hands of the Levites. The survivors are struck with plague.

But here in Chapter 33, judgement is depicted in a more subtle way. God distances himself from Israel. He sends them off to the Promised Land but tells Moses he won’t be tagging along. Moses has to leave the camp in order to speak with God in a tent he pitches “far off from the camp.” (Exodus 33:7)

You get a sense from Moses’ conversation with God that this distancing of God - this separation of God - from his people is a much more fearful judgement than the death, execution and plague that occurred back in Chapter 32. Why? Because the bible reveals death as a separation. We tend to think of death as cessation - and end of life, existence, purpose. But the bible tells us that death is seen in God separating himself from us. It is a relationship break-up with the one who gives us true purpose, meaning and love.

7. Glory: God’s glory is seen in his goodness.

Moses asks to see God’s glory. God replies, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you...”

God’s glory is not seen in his power, his wisdom or his holiness. It is ultimately seen in his goodness shown to sinners. Supremely it is seen in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

When Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he immediately speak of his death. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24)

8. Sovereign grace: God is sovereign in choosing to forgive and restore sinners through his grace.

“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19)

God reminds Moses that his grace is given freely. It means we did not do anything to receive grace, otherwise grace would cease to be grace.

Moreover, grace is an expression of God’s sovereignty even over those who rebel against his rule. It is those who have received such grace - which in this context means forgiveness and salvation - who are most aware of God’s awesomeness and holiness; who are drawn to worship him as their King.

10. Jesus: Jesus is the one and only mediator, temple, sacrifice, high priest and true worshipper who enables us to enter into the presence of a holy God through his death on the cross.