Wednesday 30 January 2013

This Saturday at BibleCentral - Ephesians!

Join us this Saturday, 1pm at the Central Library for BibleCentral as we look at the amazing, glorious, wonderful, awesome book of Ephesians.

Click here for details: BibleCentral: The Church of God

Sunday 27 January 2013

Unnatural people (Galatians 6) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 27 January 2013.

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Saturday 26 January 2013

Unnatural people (Galatians 6)

Today is our last study from the book of Galatians. Essentially, Galatians teaches us what the gospel is not. The gospel is not about religion, it's about God's grace. The gospel is not what we need to do, it's what God has done. The gospel is not about us, it's about Jesus.

Even in today's study from Galatians Chapter 6, where Paul talks about us  as the church, he brings the focus back to Jesus. And there are three ways we do this as a church: (1) We carry each other's burdens, (2) We sow to the Spirit, and (3) We boast in the cross of Jesus Christ.

1. Carry each other’s burdens

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.
Galatians 6:1-2

At some point in time, you and I are going to mess up. That’s what Paul means when he says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin.” All of us still have a sinful nature inside of us. Until Christ comes again and gives us new bodies and new natures, in this lifetime we will struggle with our sinful nature and there are going to be times when that nature is going to trip us up.

That’s what being “caught” in a sin means. It doesn’t mean that we go around catching people, “Aha! I caught you sinning!” It means that our sinful nature lays traps out for us and if we’re not careful we will get caught in one of these traps.

When that happens to someone here in the church, Paul says that those who are spiritual - those who are mature Christians - should react in a way that is loving and gentle. Your job is not to go around catching people and punishing their sin. The bible says that your number one priority is restoring that brother and sister to Christ and doing this with “a spirit of gentleness” (ESV).

But there's a warning. “Watch yourself,” Paul says, “or you also may be tempted.” Be careful that you don’t end up in the same trap because you also have got a sinful nature. Because the guy you’re talking to might try to justify that sin; he might try and rationalise that sin and you might go, “Yeah, you’ve a good point.” Next thing you know, the both of you are caught in the same trap and someone else has to come to counsel the two of you! Does that happen? Yes it does!

Don’t go alone; Don’t counsel someone of the opposite gender; Have the bible open in front of you and ask, “What does God have to say about all this?” These are a few basic points to keep in mind when we are dealing with sin as sinful people. with the wisdom of God, with the love of God, with the word of God.

But why do we do this? The reason is verse 2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” As Christians, we turn to our brother and sister and say to them, “Hey, that looks really heavy. Why don’t you let me give you a hand?” Some things are just too heavy for one person to carry all by themselves.

Some of us come to church as consumers. We think of ourselves as paying customers. We have a list of needs and if this church meets my needs, if this bible study meets my needs, then I’ll stay. Some of us act like consumers in our relationships: If this person makes me feel good, if he buys me stuff, if she keeps looking hot then I’ll stay in this relationship. We do this with our jobs: As along as this job fits in with my career goals I’ll stick around, but as soon as another opportunity comes along with better pay, I’m gone.

The opposite of being a consumer is being in a covenant. A covenant means, “I promise to meet your needs not matter the circumstances.” A covenant is what parents do for their children. Parents can’t turn around and say, “This kid is so troublesome, so smelly, so rebellious - I’m giving up!” No, they continue to love their children, even if they poop all over the place, even if they mess up, because parents are in a covenant with their kids, "I will always be your Dad. I will always be your Mum." A marriage, too,  is a covenant: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

And being in a church is about covenant. Coming not just when you feel like it. Coming not just to have your needs met. But coming because this is your family. Coming to help with their needs and burdens.

Now when Paul says, “in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ,” we have to understand that Paul is speaking to a group of people who thought that being a Christian was all about obeying laws in order to please God. These are religious people; these are rule-keepers, who think that if they follow all the rules and get the best exam results, God will say to them, “You’re a good Christian.”

Paul says to them it’s not about regulations, it is about transformation: Living a life that has been changed by Jesus Christ. You were a sinner but Jesus has put his Spirit in you.

That’s why, earlier on, he spoke to those who were “spiritual,” and what Paul didn't say was, “You guys are so gifted.” No, true spirituality is about restoring your brother or sister who has been caught in a sin. Those who are spiritual display the spirit of gentleness when dealing with sin (which is the fruit of the Spirit, as we saw last week), especially the sin of their brother and sister in Christ. The spiritual person is a loving person.

On the other hand, the religious person is concerned with one thing: himself. The only time he turns to looks at his neighbour is compare himself to his neighbour and say to himself, "I'm glad I'm not this loser." Paul calls that self-deception.

If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.
Galatians 6:3-5

The issue here is our identity: Who do you think you are? For many of us today, our identity is a projection of what we want others to think of us, whether it's on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram - we project an image that we have crafted, moulded and photoshopped so that people will “like” us, “follow” us and “friend” us online.

And Paul is asking us: Do you even know who you are? Are you constantly comparing yourself to your neighbour, thinking, “He’s got more friends than me.” What is your life really like? Test your actions, Paul says. What are doing with your time, with your money and with your relationships that God has given you and are you using these gifts to glorify yourself or God?

The way that Paul puts it is to say, “Each one should carry his own load.” Some of you might say to me, "Hang on, didn't Paul tell us back in verse 2, to carry each other's burdens? So which one is it: Am I supposed to carry my own load or to carry my brother's as well?"

Verse 5 is about personal responsibility. The two words for “burden” and “load” are two different words, one is heavy (think of a moving truck) and the other light (think of your backpack). When you’re moving house and you’ve got boxes, furniture and books and you call up the guys to come with their cars and help out, that’s a burden.

But if it’s just your backpack that you left behind at Rock Fellowship, you should just get on your bike and get it yourself, not call up the whole English Congregation and the elders and the council so they can have a prayer meeting about it.

Some things are burdens and some things are loads and we need to be able to tell the difference between the two. Here in verse 5, Paul is talking about carrying our own loads as a way of saying that each one of us needs to be aware of our personal responsibility before God - for our actions and thoughts and motives.

The reason we have both verses here in the bible - “Carry each other’s burdens,” and “Carry your own load,” - is because it’s possible to use our problems as an excuse to shift our responsibilities, it's possible to use our problems to take advantage of brothers and sisters here in church. "I have a problem," we say, "Now it's your job to solve my problem because the bible says you must carry my burden." No, it's a load that you need to bear yourself. You need to be accountable for your actions before God. When we do that, we act like consumers and not covenant-keepers. We burden others; we don’t carry the burden of others.

That’s a helpful thing to keep in mind the next time you are in trouble. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t call me or the brothers for help. I’m just saying, is it a burden or a load? Are you just seeking attention?

Some things we can’t deal by ourselves - the burden of a tragedy, a sin, an illness, a loss - these are burdens we ought to share within the family of God because we can’t deal with them with our own strength. But our own lives, our own actions and our own motives - those are things that we are responsible for in God’s eyes. My question to you is: Can you tell the difference?

2. Sow to the Spirit

Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.
Galatians 6:6

Last Wednesday, I asked the guys what this verse meant. The answer I got was, “We must pay our pastors.” That’s a good answer!

But it’s more than that. “Sharing all good things” is more than just sharing our money. It includes encouragement. It's actually talking about our lives. The Greek word koinonia meaning fellowship or partnership, and it’s describing how the fellowship of God's people is built on God's word.

When the instructor speaks from God's word, this is a blessing to the hearer; and Paul then says to the person who has been blessed through God's word, "Share your life with him." That is, fellowship with him. At the heart of every fellowship group here in the Chinese Church - Joshua, Rock, Paul, Esther - is the instruction of the word of God. It's what makes these fellowship meetings possible. It's what makes our fellowship sweet and a blessing to those who come and share their lives with one another.

Now, is this verse talking about paying our pastors? Yes and No. Yes, in that the worker deserves his wages. But No, in that the money we give to pastors isn’t first and foremost a salary. We don’t pay pastors to do a job. We free them up from the worry of earning an income to pay the bills in order that they can concentrate full-time of serving God.

The legalist reads this verse and says, “We pay the pastor this much money so we expect him to do this much work. That's his job.” Or the pastor can read this verse like a legalist and say, “I deserve to be paid a salary, I’ve given up so much for these people and this church owes me for my sacrifice.”

But the Christian who understands grace reads this verse reminding him to be generous. As a church, I hope that we will support our workers generously - with money, with prayer, with encouragement and not least, with love. The pastor who understands the same verse graciously will, at times, not make use of his rights by denying payment (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9) so that the gospel can be received freely without hindrance.

When you look again at Galatians 6:6, you soon realise that the instructor can be anyone - from the pastor to the Sunday School teacher to the parent at home. It's anyone who teaches God’s word faithfully and clearly with whom we ought to share all good things with. It is sad when a church is willing to pay their pastor a salary but are not willing to share their lives with him. It is sad when a pastor doesn’t know his church and only ever serves them from the confines of his study preparing the weekly sermon. Sharing all good things means building a relationship with our leaders, showing our appreciation to our leaders, because your pastor might just be the loneliest person in your church. He might need your encouragement as much as you need his!

Paul describes this fellowship as an investment. It is one of the best investments you can ever make in your life - loving one another in Christ. And Paul says next, it's an investment with a guaranteed return!

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Galatians 6:7-8

To sow means to plant a seed. To reap means to gather in the fruit - after the seed has grown into a tree and the tree bears fruit - then you reap that fruit.

Meaning, it doesn't happen overnight. Like any investment, it takes time. You can’t put an apple seed in the ground today and expect to be baking apple crumble tomorrow. An investment takes time. Still, the principle is this: the kind of seed you plant produces the kind of fruit you’ll end up with. “A man reaps what he sows.” That’s the basic principle. If you plant apples, you get apples, you don't get bananas. The kind of seed you plant results in the kind of fruit you reap.

Paul says there are two different seeds which produce two results. One is the sinful nature, the other is the Spirit. One brings death, the other brings life.

The guy who sows to please his sinful nature will reap the fruit of destruction. The better word for it is decay (or as the ESV has it, “corruption”) that is, it's talking about a destruction that happens slowly over time.

What is he describing? Last week we read that the acts of the sinful nature were sexual immorality, idolatry, anger, drunkenness; so Paul could be saying that if we keep sleeping with our boyfriend or girlfriend, if we keep worshipping our money, if we keep taking our frustrations out on our friends and family, if we keep drinking and staying out late, it’s just a matter of time before the consequences catch up with us. We will be stuck in our sin. We will face God’s judgement.

But that’s reading this verse in terms of the individual, whereas the whole of Galatians Chapter 6 is about the community. Notice how he keeps using the phrase, “each other,” and “one another.” He is talking about our sowing and our reaping as a community, not as an individual. As a church and not just as a Christian.

Meaning, the real question is: What are you investing in here in the church? Here in Rock Fellowship?

If all you do in church is gossip, if you hang out with same group of friends every single week, if you harbour feelings of resentment and envy against your brothers and sisters - that’s sowing to the sinful nature. That is, you are being selfish, but moreoever, you are sowing seeds of your sinful nature. It means that when the harvest comes, it won't just affect you, it will affect the people around you. The destruction/decay that you eventually reap is a church that is fragmented by your own selfish actions.

But “the one who sows to please the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Again if this verse is talking about the community, then eternal life is not describing your own salvation (for you are saved through faith in Jesus alone) but rather it's talking the gospel bearing fruit in the life of the church. Your words of encouragement, your witness, your love and patience are seeds that God uses to grow his church, even to bring others to faith in Jesus Christ.

Isn't this worthwhile? To be pouring your time, your money, your energies, your passions into the church - because God promises you, you will get a guaranteed return on your investment.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up hope.
Galatians 6:9

I know that many of us here know what Paul is talking about. We're weary. I know the Sunday School teachers are so worn out from serving in a ministry that 100% output with 0% input. I know some people describe coming to the Chinese Church as “tiring.” I know that every single one of your have said to Jesus at some time in your lives, “Lord, I don’t know if I can carry on. This is too much for me to bear.”

Let's be honest. Some of us are just impatient. We want instant gratification. If we don't get immediate results it means that it doesn't work. We tried reading the bible for ten minutes and say, “Nothing happened.” We prayed for a couple of weeks but complain, "God didn't fix my situation." We came to church a couple of times a year - CNY and Mid-Autumn Festival - and say, "I have any friends."

But some of us have been patient, loving, sacrificial and though we feel guilty admitting it, we feel like calling it quits. If that’s you, Paul says, “Don't be weary in doing good.” What he does is encourage us, "Nothing you have done has been wasted, not a single thing."

Notice what Paul does not say. He does not say that things will get easier. He does not say, "Take a break," though there's nothing wrong with that. But ultimately, Paul says the one thing that we really need to hear as weary saints. He says, "Nothing you have done will go to waste." “At the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up hope.” Why does he say that? It's because the real solution to our weariness is hope. Hope produces Christians who persevere. Hope strengthens our assurance in a God who is no one's debtor.

Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” Our hope is in the God who gives life; the God who gives us the growth. At the proper time, God will cause our investments to grow to such a point that it will be a harvest. You won’t be munching on seeds, you will be feasting on fruit!

Every lesson to the kids in Sunday School counts. Every invitation to an event where your friends can hear about Jesus. Every prayer for a mum or dad who doesn’t yet know God. Each and every seed counts. Keep planting. Keep planting. The harvest is not yet but it will come; it’s not in your hands, it is according to God’s timing.

It may be that God will see fit to bring about the harvest only when Jesus comes back. It may be that some seed bear fruit sooner. Either way, Paul says to you, “Don’t give up hope,” and “Keep doing good.”

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Galatians 6:10

The word for opportunity (kairos) is the same word used in verse 9 for the “proper time.” Our time in this life is given us by God as an opportunity. It’s not saying, “Wait for the perfect time -that perfect opportunity - to help your brothers and sisters in trouble.” No, your whole life is the opportunity that God gives you. It’s this lifetime we have now in which we are to good works to all people. Who are you supposed to help? Paul says, "Do good to all people." It's whoever is next to you. Whoever you meet today. That’s the person God has put in your life to serve. Your neighbour. The kid who sits next to you in class. Your boss. Your colleague. Do good to all people. 

But Paul also says that we have a particular responsibility to our brothers and sisters. “Especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Tithing is not commanded of Christians; loving your brother and sister in Christ, is. When we take the collection each week, we make it very clear to the visitors and non-Christians, this is not for you, it is a family matter. Even so, as Christians, you are not compelled to give your money. There is no command about how much or how often.

Yet here we have a command in Galatians 6:10 reminding us of our responsibility to love our brothers and sisters as our family in Christ. We should not be embarrassed about putting our church family as a priority. Yes, the same verse reminds us the importance of doing good to all people, to support worthwhile causes, to be active in helping the poor and bringing relief to the suffering. But it is shameful when we neglect our responsibility to our own church community. For those who are giving faithfully and serving regularly, I commend you to continue doing so as an expression of love and commitment, particularly to your family here in the Chinese Church, and to do so not legalistically, but generously, willingly and joyfully.

For some of us, the more fundamental question is: Do you have such a family? Do you have a community - a family of believers - to whom you are accountable to and among whom you serve and provide for?

You might legitimately say to me, “The Chinese Church is not my church family. I’m just passing through.” My question to you would still be the same. Do you have a family of your own?

Otherwise, nothing I have said today will make any sense to you, friend. Every verse in Chapter 6 is about your personal relationship with your Christian brother and sister. Every verse is about your investment in a church family you call your own. Do you have a family in Christ whom you are accountable to, whom you love, whom you serve; who love and serve you?

If you do - whether it’s here in the Chinese Church, StAG, Eden, Christ Church, CPC, St Matthew's wherever it may be -  the bible says to you, Invest in it. Keep sowing to the Spirit. Keep carrying one another’s burdens. Keep doing good.

And in the proper time, God will bring about a harvest because this church is God’s family. It is the body of his Son, Jesus Christ, and he wants it to grow and bring glory to him.

3. Boast in the cross

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
Galatians 6:11

If Paul were speaking on a Sunday at church, at this point, he would have pulled the microphone out of the stand and stepped out from behind the podium, to say to the congregation, “Listen. What I’m going to say next is really important.”

That’s what he does here as tells his secretary to stop typing and Paul takes over the keyboard and hits the Caps-Lock key and goes, “SEE WHAT LARGE LETTERS I USE AS I WRITE TO YOU WITH MY OWN HAND!” What's he doing? He's trying to get our attention!

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.
Galatians 6:12

In case we forget, this was a church with a big problem. Religious teachers had come into the church. Yes, that is a big problem: To have people teaching Christians how to be religious!

It’s a problem because most people can’t tell the difference between religion and Jesus. It's a problem because Christians are sometimes tempted to choose religion instead of Jesus. And here in verse 12, Paul tells us the reason why: Religion makes us look good.

“Those who want to make a good impression outwardly.” That’s Paul’s description of religious teachers, as people who want impress their followers. Literally, it reads, “Those who want to put on a good face in the flesh” In Chinese, we would say, they wanted us to Pei Min, or to give them face. They want our respect and admiration.

So, a religious teacher might begin talking about Jesus in his sermon, but he ends up talking about himself. There’s a trick to doing this, Paul tells us. It’s by taking up a religious subject and then focusing on it exclusively so as to avoid bringing up the cross. “The only reason they do this,” Paul says, “is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

The issue back then was circumcision. The religious teachers said, “If you are circumcised, then you are really a Christian who follows the law.” But Paul exposes their motives in verse 13.

Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh.
Galatians 6:13

Here is the irony: The religious teachers were telling their followers to do something they didn’t do themselves. “Not even those who are circumcised obey the law.” Yet if they can get you to obey the law, then it gives them a reason to boast. See how many people responded to my sermon and committed themselves to being circumcised!

Like I said, the issue then was circumcision but what would be the issue today? What issue would a religious teacher use to make himself popular, so as to avoid talking about the cross? What would he teach others to do but would himself avoid doing?

The truth is, it can be just about anything in the bible that is good and godly but twisted to make us look good and to avoid talking about the cross of Jesus Christ. It can be making disciples, it can be baptism, it can be church attendance, it can bible-reading. When we tell people to evangelise their friends (but we ourselves don’t talk about Jesus with our neighbours). When we make people feel guilty about not praying enough, not giving money enough, not loving one another enough (but we are stingy, greedy, spiteful and rarely open our bibles and pray at home). When we do this to avoid talking about Jesus, that’s us taking a good and godly teaching in the bible and turning grace into law.

That includes anything and everything I’ve said today about carrying one another’s burdens, doing good to all people, sowing to the Spirit - if I’m saying this just to make myself look good; to avoid doing these things myself; to change the subject from the cross of Jesus Christ - then what I am preaching is not the gospel, it is law; if so, I am a religious teacher and I should be kicked out of the church and never be allowed to teach from this book ever again!

In verse 15, Paul says, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.” That’s important because Paul didn’t have a problem with circumcision but he had a big problem when circumcision was used as a way to earn our way to salvation. He has a big problem when circumcision was used to replace Christ.

The religious teachers were boasting in the flesh but Paul would boast only in the cross.

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
Galatians 6:14

It’s not our church, it’s the cross. It’s not how many people become Christians, it’s the cross. It’s not what programme is coming up for Chinese New Year, it’s the cross. One thing only should we ever boast in: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How does that work out practically, though? Does that mean we can’t have a programme for Chinese New Year? Does that mean we shouldn’t praise God when people become Christians?

The way this works out practically is to ground all our boasting in the cross. The word “boasting” is actually the same word used back in verse 4, “Let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbour.” It’s your identity. It’s the basis of what’s making you so happy and thankful. That’s your boast.

And Paul is saying that the basis of who we are and what we do has to be the cross. So, when talking about our church, it’s not just the friends and the food and the fellowship, but when you get right down to it, it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has paid for the lives of these brothers and sisters and makes it possible even just to get along; in his body he broke down the dividing walls of hostility. Jesus, he himself, is our peace. We are his body, the church. We exist to glorify him, that is our purpose as the church.

When talking about Chinese New Year, it’s Jesus who blesses us with ultimate peace and hope and the promise of eternal life by taking our punishment on the cross and exchanging our sin with his righteousness alone. It’s the grace of God, not our good works. We were dead in our sins and tresspasses, but God was merciful and loving. He raised us in Christ, he seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. He predestined us for adoption as sons in Christ Jesus.

That’s boasting in the cross. For many of us as Chinese, it means this: Not being ashamed. Not being afraid of opening our mouths and saying, “Jesus died for my sin. I am a sinner and Jesus is my Saviour.” I know we are afraid of rejection. Remember the false teachers in verse 12, “The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” These false teachers feared man more than they feared God. They were cowards; many of us are cowards when it comes to opening our mouths and talking about Jesus.

Unlike the false teachers, Paul’s boasting was rooted in boldness. He knew that Jesus was God crucified on the cross. He knew his sin was fully paid for. And he knew that in Jesus, he was part of God’s new creation.

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.
Galatians 6:15- 16

By the way, that last bit in verse 16, where Paul speaks about the “Israel of God,” he’s talking about you and me. That’s our identity in Jesus - Israel. Every time you open up the Old Testament and read about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the sons of Israel; every time you read about the Exodus and the nation of Israel, King David and the kingdom of Israel; every time you read about people of Israel, Paul is saying, that’s us. We are his people, not because of race, not because of culture, not because of anything we did but because of what Jesus has done on the cross, we are now his holy people. The church - the Galatian church full of non-Jews, even the Chinese Church today - is the Israel of God.

Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
Galatians 6:17-18

Paul, unlike the false teachers did not avoid persecution for the cross of Christ. He boasted in the cross and Paul had the scars to prove it. These scars were like medals. They proved that he was the real thing.

The word for “bear” that he uses here - “I bear on my body,” Paul says in verse 17 - is the same word he used in the beginning of the chapter when he calls us to “bear one another’s burdens” and to “bear our own load.” It means to carry something heavy or to endure something that is difficult.

And what he is saying is: these marks prove that we are the real thing. Some of you have these burdens and marks. Some of you have suffered for the sake of Jesus. Don’t be ashamed of them. Be assured because of them, that you have been found faithful by God not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him.

The result of such marks of suffering is not bitterness but grace. Paul ends his letter with a blessing, not a curse. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be your spirit, brothers. Amen.” Christians who boast in the cross, who suffer as a result of that boasting, who respond with grace and the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ - they are the real thing.

And far from avoiding such a path I encourage you to embrace it. To so live your life for Jesus that you would risk it all to gain him. Because we are called bear one another’s burdens. Because our sure investment is in the Spirit of God. And because our one and only boast is in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Friday 25 January 2013

Church: The body of Christ

Beginning February 2013

Sunday 20 January 2013

Worship recording (Sunday 20 January 2013)

Recording of singing and praise at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 20 January 2013.

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Order of service

  • Welcome
  • Song: We belong to the day
  • Song: O Church Arise
  • Prayer of confession
  • Song: Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
  • Song: You alone can rescue
  • Song: I have a shelter in the storm (and offering)
  • Friendship break
  • Bible reading
  • Sermon
  • Closing song: Hallelujah! All I have is Christ

Unnatural living (Galatians 5:16-26) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 20 January 2013.

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Saturday 19 January 2013

Unnatural living (Galatians 5:16-26)

So I say, live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Galatians 5:16

The theme of our talks from Galatians 4 to 6 is called “Unnatural.” There is something different, strange, unnatural about the Christian life. That is true from the perspective of the world, but as we will see from today’s passage, that’s also true from the Christian’s perspective. To live by the Spirit, Paul says, is something that goes against our natural instincts, what our English bible’s call the “sinful nature”.

So it might surprise you to learn that the bible is speaking to Christians about their natural instincts to sin and to rebel against God. But ultimately, Christians are not to live by that nature. God has freed us from slavery to sin but he has also done something else. He has put his Spirit in us enabling us to live in obedience to him. That’s the main focus of today’s passage: What it means to live by the Spirit. What that Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered life looks like.

We will see three things in today’s passage: the struggle, the sinful nature and the fruit of the Spirit.

1. The struggle

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.
Galatians 5:17

One reason why we are afraid confessing sin is fear of embarrassment. “What would my friends think if they knew that I had this sin in my life?” Especially when it is a sin that we are struggling with - it keeps coming back again and again. So we try to hide it from our friends, even from God, because we think that struggling in this way means failure.

Paul says that the very fact that you are struggling with your sinful nature and not giving in to sin is evidence of the Spirit’s presence in your lives. The fact that you still wrestle in prayer, “God help me to overcome this sin and this temptation. God please change my desires to live for you and not for myself.” Paul calls this a conflict - a war - between the Spirit of God and the flesh of man.

It means that this is what the real Christian life looks like. It’s a struggle. The Spirit is at war with our sinful nature. It is not the guy who looks as if he has everything under control - no temptations, no struggles with his conscience - such a person is either faking it, or worse, he isn’t a Christian.

1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is not that one’s a sinner and the other isn’t. No, the difference is that the Christian is a forgiven sinner. The very next verse reads, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Do you believe that? That if you came to Jesus right now and said sorry; that if you brought before him all the horrible, shameful, wicked things you have done just this week, Jesus would forgive you; and more than that, he would purify you from all unrighteousness. You would walk away free and forgiven. Do believe you could do that right now and leave justified through the blood of Jesus?

The point is: Some of us think that we need to fake it here in church. We think that it’s expected of us when we come here on Sundays - to look presentable, to serve in Sunday School, to be an example to the kids.

And maybe we’ve never read a passage like this which says that it is that struggle with sin that proves you’re a Christian. That proves that God’s Spirit is working inside of you to bring you to repentance and prayer and trust in him.

And rather, it’s those who don’t have the Spirit who don’t have this problem of sinning and then hiding it from their friends. They think that God doesn’t see. They think that because their friends think they’re a good Christian it means they’re a good Christian, when in reality they are in denial. Or as John puts it, they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them.

That’s the first thing see in this passage: a struggle between the Spirit of God and the sinfulness of man. And I think what Paul does next is help us to get real with that struggle. He lists out for us the acts of the sinful nature.

2. The sinful nature

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.
Galatians 5:19-20

Right after this we will be looking at the fruit of the Spirit where we get another list. That’s the list Christian’s like to memorise and hang up on their walls. I have yet to see someone hang this list up on their bedroom wall - The Thirteen Acts of the Sinful Nature.

But it’s here for a reason. This is our sinful nature. Some translations use the word, “flesh,” that is, it’s part of our DNA.

What we often do is look at a list like this and start condemning the world out there, “All those sexual immoral people; all those idolaters; all those drunken alcoholics. I’m glad I’m in here in the church.” And we might even point to verse 21, “Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It’s those other guys who do these horrible things who won’t get in.

And what happens is that we forget that we, too, have a sinful nature. Verse 21 begins with Paul saying, “I warn you.” You guys need to watch yourselves, that you don’t do these things. You have a sinful nature, too.”

Again, it’s that denial of sin that keeps us from taking this list seriously; from actually memorising this list - not just the one that comes after that talks about love, joy, peace and patience - but acknowledging that we need to be watchful of our own tendencies to sin.

The first on the list is sexual immorality. What you do with your physical bodies matters to God. The bible is clear that sex is to be enjoyed between a man and a woman exclusively in marriage. Anything outside of that is what the bible calls sexual immorality. Impurity and debauchery just widens scope to include pornography, adultery or sleeping with someone who isn’t your husband or wife.

Then we have idolatry and witchcraft. Idolatry is worshipping something as God that isn’t God. It can be a statue of Kuan Yin in the temple. It can be your work, your money and your health. Anything that we put before God and treat as God, that’s idolatry.

Witchcraft makes us think of movies like Harry Potter, but the Greek word pharmakeia is where we get the English word “pharmacy”. It’s describing poisons and drugs that can cause harm. The two - idolatry and witchcraft - go together in that the worship of a false God doesn’t just destroy you, it harms those around you. Pharmakeia is the action of producing poison and while that can describe Professor Snape’s potions in Harry Potter, it can also describe the drug dealer who worships money and produces substances that kill, it can describe the corrupt executive who worships success and is willing sell merchandise that are harmful to the consumer for the sake of profit.

Hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, factions and envy. It’s again tempting to think of examples “out there,” but what about right here in the church? Is it possible to lift up your hands worshipping God with your voice while at the same time you are hating your brother or sister who is just next to you; your heart is going, “I can’t stand that person”? Is it possible to serve together on the same team but use ministry as a stepping stone to get your agenda across? Come on! Of course it is. We did a bible study on this passage this week at Rock Fellowship and the first thing that came out a sister’s mouth when I asked, “What do you think of when you read this?” - her very first words were, “Church politics.”

Can we get real for a moment? We struggle with this. I struggle with this - hatred, discord, jealousy, ambition. We have to call it what it is. It’s sin. Now later on, we’ll see that we don’t deal with sin just by focusing on sin, we focus on Jesus. But many of us are in denial over our sin. We think sin is something that’s out there when it’s in here in our lives and we need forgiveness for our sin when we come before our Saviour. It means that church leaders mess up and when they do, the solution is not to cover up but to confess to Jesus, not act like it’s not a big deal.

The list ends with drunkenness, orgies and the like. I would replace “orgies” with partying. Are you the kind of guy who knows how to have a good time? Just because you are in University and all your friends are out partying on a Friday night; just because you have that freedom and opportunity to stay out as long as you want; doesn’t mean that you should. I know there’s a part of you that says, “I’m young now, I need to enjoy life, I know my limits, I am free to make my own choices.” And what I am saying to you is: Can you distinguish the voice of your conscience from the voice of your sinful nature?

Now the reason why Paul calls this list the actions or the works of the sinful nature is because our actions reveal who we are listening to. Get this, the point is not whether or not you have a sinful nature - we all do. Rather the reason for this list is for us to get real about whether we are following that nature or following the Spirit. And Paul begins the list by saying, “It’s obvious.” The acts of the sinful nature are obvious. When you look at the things you are doing in your life, our actions which can be seen reveal our motives which are unseen.

And Paul ties up this list by saying in verse 21, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live in this way,” - literally, those who do these things (hoi ta toiauta prassontes) - “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It is your actions; what you’re doing, that reveal who you are listening to and where you are headed.

The sinful nature produces sinful actions which are obvious, says Paul, but in contrast, the Spirit shapes your character. It literally changes, not just what you do, but who you are to be like Jesus. This, according to verse 22, is the fruit of the Spirit.

3. The fruit of the Spirit

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22-23

Earlier on, we saw thirteen actions of the sinful nature. (Paul even adds the words, “And the like,” meaning there could be lots more.) But here we see just one fruit.

Why is this important? If you have the Spirit, you will produces all nine characteristics of this fruit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - because they all form one fruit. All of them should be present in some degree and form in your life.

To be loving means to seek another person’s good at the expense of yourself. To be joyful means you have found something of true value and meaning to pour out your love upon, such that even if circumstances are tough and you might be suffering, your joy still remains because your treasure still remains. To be peaceful means your relationship with God is rock solid - your conscience is clear; and therefore you are always seeking to reconcile others who aren’t at peace with God, we who aren't at peace with their friends or with themselves.

To be patient means you’re not someone who’s quick to get angry; some translations have “long-suffering,” meaning, it’s painful when others sin against you, but you are still keeping your cool. To be kind and good is another way of saying that you are generous and merciful; you are actively looking serve others whether or not they deserve your help and generosity. To be faithful means that you are trustworthy; you are dependable; you are reliable. To be gentle means you respond to sin the way God does; you don’t condemn, but you want to forgive. In Galatians 6:1, Paul says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” Finally, the self-controlled means that you do have temptations; your sinful nature is still there, but you are not using that as an excuse to sin. It’s your life, your actions are your responsibility and you are keeping a check on your behaviour and actions.

Nine characteristics but just one fruit. You can’t pick and choose. All of them are present in the life of the Christian.

But then Paul rounds of this list by saying, “Against such things there is no law.” Think with me for a moment: Why does he say that?

If you have been following our series through Galatians the past few months, you might know the answer. Throughout the letter of Galatians, Paul has been telling us that there is a big difference between the law and the gospel. The law tells us what we need to do. The gospel tells us what God has done.

That’s really, really, really, really important because the fruit of the Spirit is something that Spirit does. That’s why it’s called fruit. It is a result of trusting in the cross of Jesus Christ.

And after giving us this list of nine character traits, Paul wants us to be absolutely clear - You don’t get saved by doing these things. You don’t get saved by being loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled.

If we don’t get this we make the mistake of thinking that Sunday School is about teaching kids how to be good. If we don’t get this we make the mistake of thinking bible study is about how to be loving. If we don’t get this we make the mistake of thinking worship is about us trying to make our way up to God.

You can’t legislate people into being good and loving. The best you can do is enact laws that keep people from doing evil and acting out their sinful tendencies. That’s why the acts of the sinful nature are obvious. You can come up with a new rule every day on what shouldn’t be done. But if you try to do that with Christianity, you don’t understand the gospel. It’s not about what you do, but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. In verse 24, Paul brings us back to the cross to remind us of that.

Those who belong to Jesus Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.
Galatians 5:24

This is how you deal with sin, you bring it to the cross. Paul began in verse 16, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Meaning, keep your eyes on the Spirit not on your sinful nature; keep your eyes on Jesus, not on your sin.

In other words, the fruit of the Spirit is really the fruit of the gospel. It is the by-product of trusting in Jesus for our justification and our sanctification. The point of having a list like this is not be burdensome - to check up on Christians, “Are you loving, peaceful, patient?” - these are not rules are reflections of God’s presence in our lives. He has put his Spirit in us!

Keeping in step with the Spirit

Think about that for a moment. God who is holy and awesome and gracious and loving, lives inside this human body. Let that sink in!

The Spirit is mentioned seven times in this passage, don’t miss that. God’s Holy Spirit is literally inside this body. He’s not just up there in heaven, he is right here with us; he is right here inside of us. That is an awesome thought!

And yet, if that is true, why is that we still sin? Why is it that, at times, we still live as if God didn’t put his Spirit in us? It’s our sinful nature. The bible says that there’s that part of us that is at war with God. That’s the whole point of this passage, to open our eyes to that struggle.

Paul keeps saying to us, “Live by the Spirit. You are led by the Spirit.” That is, he is telling us that we need to be consciously seeking to be obedient to God at every moment. In verse 24, it means coming back again and again to the cross to be forgiven and restored. But the way he puts it in verse 25 is to say that following the Spirit is like marching to a rhythm.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:25

It’s saying that life has a rhythm, a pace, a momentum to it. It’s saying that what matters aren’t just the big decisions - career, marriage, where you’re going to live, what huge siginificant thing you are going to do with your life. If we think that way, we are still thinking in terms of the law; in terms of things we have to do.

Yet Paul says you live by the Spirit by keeping in step with the Spirit. What does that mean?

Years ago when I joined the music team at my church in Singapore, I had learned an invaluable lesson: Listening to others and playing together as a team. I thought that since I had been playing the piano for years; since I’d been playing in my student fellowship for years, it was not a problem playing in this church and I was so wrong!

When you’re playing by yourself it’s just you and the music score. You just play. But when you are playing as a team, you are listening out for the voices, for the other instruments. In particular, you are listening out for the drums, because the drums keep everyone in step and in sync.

I remember how much I hated it when my music coordinator would point me and say, “Piano and bass; play!” “Piano and drums; play!” She would isolate each pair of instruments and force us to play each piece over and over again, not so that we would get our parts individually, but so that as we played our parts, we were in sync with the other instruments. So that we were listening to one another.

It’s the same in our Christian lives. There is a rhythm to this life and God’s Spirit is prompting us to always seek him every step of the way, such that He is setting the pace, He is setting the direction, He is leading us. And it shows, not just in our actions, but in our character.

That’s the point of the nine characteristics of the Spirit - to be loving at all times, to be peaceful at times, to be joyful in all situations - not just in the big life decisions and the rest of the time you are a totally different person. No, you are constantly seeking to live out your life rooted in the gospel, standing at the cross, keeping in step with the Spirit.

And just in case we forget that, Paul slips in verse 26.

Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Galatians 6:26

Did Paul forget something from the list of sinful actions? Is that why he says, “Don’t be conceited”?

No, the reason is Paul knows that even this can be turned into a law; into a work that we do. “Look at me, I’m following the Spirit.” “Check this out, my church is sooo loving!”

And Paul is saying, “Don’t use this as another burden to lay on people’s shoulders.” It’s sad when we use godliness as a cover-up for putting people down in the church; as a way of making people feel small. That’s not the gospel.

The gospel is about Christ taking our burdens of sin, death and judgement. The gospel is about Christ freeing us from slavery to sin and restoring us as sons.

So each time we hear this gospel, we hear Christ calling us to come to the cross and lay down our burdens; to confess our sins - the things we have done against God this week, the things we have left undone for God this week - and ask that he cover us with his righteousness and empower us by his Spirit to live by his grace. Each time we hear this gospel, we hear Christ calling us to lay down our lives and pick up our cross and follow him.

In our closing song, we sing these words:

Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me.
Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose.
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You.

Let us pray,

Father, use our ransomed lives in any way you choose
and let our only boast be in You.
In Jesus’ name,

Sunday 13 January 2013

Unnatural birth (Galatians 4:21-5:1) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 13 January 2013.

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Unnatural birth (Galatians 4:21-5:1)


“Unnatural” is the name we are calling this series on Galatians 4 to 6 as a way of describing the Christian life. Being a Christian is strange. Now by that, I don’t just mean that it is supernatural though Paul does say that in verse 29 - Christians are born “by the power of the Spirit”. Christians are born again through the work of the Holy Spirit, also known as regeneration, and this is supernatural. It is a work of God.

But the reason why I am calling the Christian life “unnatural” instead of “supernatural” is because Paul isn’t just talking about that turning point when we first became Christians. It’s not just conversion he is talking about. He is describing growth and maturity in Christ - the everyday experiences we have as believers - and he is describing how continuing to trust and depend on Jesus puts us at odds with our natural tendencies; puts us at war with our natural selves.

It is natural, having trusted in Jesus for our salvation some time ago, to live trusting in our own strength in the day-to-day challenges of life, school, work and family. Even though we know that God is sovereign and holy and loving, the more natural way to get things done is to act as if everything depended upon our initiative and effort.

Paul says that it is this natural tendency to rely on ourselves, even though we know we should trust in God and his grace alone, that lies behind the problem of religion. The reason why Christians need to be extra careful about religion is because there is a part of of us that thinks that maybe it isn’t enough to trust in Jesus alone. There is a part of us that thinks that God wants us to be religious and that maybe God wants us to pay him back for all he has done for us in Jesus.

Paul wrote this this letter because of this problem. Religious teachers had come to the church in Galatia, a church which Paul planted years ago, and in his absence were telling the Christians that while it was well and good to confess our sins to Jesus and be forgiven, they had to do something else; they had to be religious Jews. After all, Jesus was a Jew, the people of God were Jews, all of Jesus’ first disciples were Jews. To be a Jew meant you had to follow the Old Testament rules on what you could and could not eat, it meant observing the Sabbath and celebrating the Jewish festivals, and for the guys, it meant getting circumcised!

You might think, “That kind of religious fanaticism won’t work today,” but you need to realise that what these religious teachers were speaking to was that voice at the back of our heads which says, “I knew it! I knew it was too good to be true!” What they were appealing to was that sense of debt and insecurity that says, “I owe God for his blessing to me and I need to pay him back,” and what the religious teachers did was open up to the passages in the Old Testament which said, “This is how you do it.” For them, the Old Testament Law was like a giant bill which said, “This is how much you need pay up!”

But this is where Paul really surprises us in his response to the religious teachers. He tells us that people who talk like that haven’t read their bibles.

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?
Galatians 4:21

In effect, Paul is saying that the law warns us not to be under the law. That is what we are going to see today. The law warns us that if we try to live under the law, we end up being enslaved to the law.

Using the Old Testament, Paul gives us three illustrations - of two women, two covenants and two sons - to show us how law and religion lead us to slavery but only Jesus frees us from sin. Three points from today’s passage: Two women, two covenants and two sons; to show who we are, who God is and what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

We begin with two women. That’s verse 22.

1. Two women

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as a result of a promise.
Galatians 4:22-23

The story of Abraham and his two wives is the story what happens when we think that God’s promise is too good to be true. When God says to us, “I am going to bless you with something you have longed for, with something that will give you ultimate joy and meaning,” and you reaction is, “That’s nice, God. But it’s just not going to happen.” We look at our circumstance, we look at our limitations and even though we know God is offering us our heart’s desire, we don’t believe him because his word sounds too good to be true.

The promise that God gave to Abraham was the promise of a son. “To your offspring I will give this land,” God says to Abraham in Genesis 12:7. But three chapters later, Abraham complains to God, “You have given me no children” (Genesis 15:3).

Such that by Chapter 16, when there is still no sign of a son, Abraham and his wife take things into their own hands. By this point of time, Abraham is 86 years old, his wife is 76 years old, and the two of them have basically given up on the idea of having kids but the truth is, Abraham and Sarah gave up on God. Sarah says, “The LORD has kept me from having children.” (Genesis 16:2). Did you hear that? God is responsible for this problem we’re facing. He didn’t come through. He didn’t keep his word. It’s hard not to blame God when things don’t go according to plan. When that happens we get desperate, we feel guilty, we get angry. When that happens we take things into our own hands. Sarah says to her husband, “Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her” (Genesis 17:2)

The servant’s name was Hagar and she gave birth to son, a boy named Ishmael. Notice how the NIV describes this in verse 23, “His son by of the slave woman was born in the ordinary way,” or “according to flesh,” which is a way of saying that this is how all babies are born. The normal way. The usual way. But it wasn’t God’s way.

For all intents and purposes, the plan worked. Abraham had a son to call his own. But it wasn’t God plan, it was theirs. To the extent that when God reminds Abraham again of his promise to give him a son through Sarah, he laughs. He laughs at God, saying, “Will a son be born to man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” (Genesis 17:17) In fact, Sarah does the same thing when she hears God’s promise in Genesis 18, “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” (Genesis 18:12) Why? Because it was an impossible situation, but more than that, it was something that sounded too good to be true.

When you have been waiting for something you’ve prayed for and dreamt about for so long, only to be let down and disappointed time and time again, you stop waiting. You stop dreaming. You start to lose hope and the natural thing to do, the human thing to do, is to lower your expectations; to settle for something more realistic. It’s a defence mechanism.

Abraham laughed at God and sometimes we laugh when God says to us, “I offer you eternal life.” If you are in the prime of your life now, healthy, intelligent, on the college rowing team, playing badminton every Sunday after church, you probably don’t think much about eternal life. But go through cancer and then read a passage on healing. Lose a loved one and then hear how Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Some of us might just laugh cynically in God’s face, “Eternal life? Is there such a thing?”

The same thing happened to Jesus in Matthew 9. He goes to a funeral and says to the mourners, “The girl is not dead but asleep,” (Matthew 9:24) They laugh at him. I would have thought the more natural response would have been anger, but no, the mourners laugh at Jesus.

Why? Because when God offers you something that really matters but has eluded you for so long and when he offers it to you at the time of your life when you need it the most - joy, happiness, meaning, life, love - we dare not trust him to come through with his promises. Like Sarah, we might even say, God kept me from this happiness. So now it’s up to me to try and manufacture my own.

That’s what Sarah did. She manufactured a son. Through Hagar, her servant, she was able to produce for Abraham, a son born in the ordinary way. “But,” verse 23 continues, “(Abraham’s) son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.” This son was not born the ordinary way; the natural way. How could he? Abraham was 100, Sarah was 90. But the point is, God did keep his word. Their circumstance and even their sin could not stop God from keeping his word. This son was born to Abraham as the result of a promise that God gave, that God kept.

What was natural in our eyes - a son born to woman in perfect health as a result of a natural act between a man and a woman - was unnatural in God’s eyes; Abraham slept with his servant, Hagar. Abraham laughed at God’s promises. Abraham broke his marriage covenant. And what was unnatural in our eyes - a son born to a grandma in her nineties - was never a problem for God. He was simply keeping his word.

Isn’t it ironic that Paul is speaking to a group of people who “want to be under the law,” and saying to them, “Are you aware of what the law says?” (verse 21) Some people know God’s word only enough to doubt it. Like Abraham, they hear the promise, and instead of trusting it, they say, “It’s too good to be true,” or, “My situation’s different,” or, “God is telling me what I need to do.” They know God’s word enough - but just enough - to doubt it, to question it and to deny it.

Yet God’s word reminds us again and again that God is a God of his word. He is faithful in keeping his word and his promises.

2. Two covenants

From two women, Paul quickly moves to the picture of two covenants. That’s verse 24.

These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves. This is Hagar.
Galatians 4:24

Paul points to Hagar, the slave woman, and says, “That’s religion. That’s the Old Covenant.” In doing so, he is equating the Ten Commandments, the Law given by Moses on Mount Sinai with slavery. The word “covenant” means “contract,” like the piece of paper you sign when you get a new mobile phone, or when you apply for a job, or when you get a loan for your new flat, except that this contract locks us into slavery. It “bears children who are to be slaves.”

More than that, Paul says, it’s not just the Old Covenant that locks us into slavery, it is also the present day religious system in Jerusalem. Look at verse 25.

Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.
Galatians 4:25

What Paul does is bracket the entire Old Testament religion - from Hagar, the slave girl in Genesis; to Mount Sinai in Exodus with the Ten Commandments; right up to present day Jerusalem with its temple worship - and says, It’s slavery. Religion is slavery.

It might surprise you to hear that in the bible; to hear the bible warning us about being religious. Paul is warning us that if we try to obey the Old Testament as a series of rules and regulations - let me put it plainer than that - if you try to obey the bible as a to-do list, what you are doing is signing a contract that binds you into lifelong slavery.

Well-meaning, good-natured, sincere Christians do this. They open the bible and all they see are the rules. They open the bible to remind other Christians to obey the rules. The gather on Sundays and all they hear are rules and regulations on what they must do in order for God to love them and bless them. But that’s not Christianity. That’s religion.

And Paul is telling us, that’s not the way to read the bible, as law. We open up the bible and see what God has done, not what we have to do. We open up the bible and see Jesus, how he fulfilled the law when we could not - living the life we could not live, dying the death we should have died. As Christians we read the bible not as law but as a promise to see God’s faithfulness and goodness to us in Jesus Christ.

Or as Paul puts it in verse 26 onwards, we open the bible to see the unseen - to see the Jerusalem that is above.

But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:

“Be glad, O barren woman,
who bears no children;
break forth and cry aloud,
you who have no labour pains;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband.”
Galatians 4:26-27

Paul tells us there are two Jerusalems, but notice this: it’s not the old versus new Jerusalem; as if to say, it’s old school versus new school. Paul isn’t telling us to update our forms of worship. He isn’t saying that we need contextualise the bible to a new audience. It’s not old versus new but rather the present Jerusalem versus the Jerusalem above. It’s any and every religion that is here and now as opposed to the reality of heaven that is above.

That’s really important because Paul isn’t wiping away the Old Testament. The Ten Commandments, the temple, the worship and sacrificial system, the priests - these are shadows of a greater reality. Meaning when we as Christians do read the Old Testament, we should see Jesus. The Old Testament gives us glimpses into the heavenly reality of what God has done through Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the meeting place between God and man. Jesus is the High Priest who intercedes on our behalf.

Paul is confident of what the bible actually says - it actually reminds us of Jesus and God’s faithfulness and love to us in Jesus. So much so, that when the religious teachers come along and say, “The Old Testament teaches us that we should obey the rules and regulations,” Paul can actually say to them, “You guys don’t know your bibles.” Verse 21, “Are you not aware of what the law says?”

But more than that, Paul says to them, “You are slaves. Hagar is your mother. Sinai is your mother. The present Jerusalem is your mother. And in preaching the law all you are doing is producing more slaves.” Verse 25 again, “Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem.” Why? “Because she is in slavery with her children.”

“But,” Paul says, “the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” What does he mean by that? In what way is the Jerusalem above “free”? It is the freedom that comes rejoicing in God’s children. “Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labour pains.”

Imagine saying this to a wife who is unable to bear children, “Be glad, O barren woman.” Of course, we shouldn’t - Paul is speaking of the heavenly Jerusalem. But then again, what Paul is describing is joy - a joy that is so significant it can overcome the sorrow of a childless mother. He even dares to say this, “More are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” A desolate woman is someone who has lost everything. No family. No husband. No children. She is emptied out, that’s what “desolate” means.

It’s a strange description: of joy in the midst of sadness; of abundance in the midst of emptiness. But again, Paul is not describing us, he is describing heaven. The Jerusalem above is the reality of heaven, and here Paul is quoting the words of Isaiah the prophet (Chapter 54, verse 1) to describe how Jesus saves us through the New Covenant. He emptied himself. He bore our suffering. He fills us with his righteousness and joy.

In verse 24, Paul tells us that the two women represent two covenants, and we’ve looked at Hagar. Hagar was the woman who produces children the natural way and that’s a picture of religion. Religion is the natural way of growing your church, your attendance, your influence. But religion lays down burdens. It empties us of joy. Its creates demands that are never satisfied.

But the second woman is Sarah. She is the barren woman who produces more children, she is the desolate woman who overflows with joy. Why? Because the Jerusalem above is free and she is our mother. What does that mean for us? We find out in our last point as we look at two sons to ask ourselves this question: Which son are you?

3. Two sons

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Galatians 4:28-31

How do you know you are the real thing? How do you know you have truly been freed from slavery through the promise of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ? That’s the question Paul is answering. Verse 31, “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.” This is how you know.

Paul gives us two indicators. The first is persecution.

“At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.” Peter says the same thing to us when he writes, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13) Paul writes to the Philippians, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29)

But perhaps it is Jesus’ own words that bring home the reality of persecution at the hands who think they are serving God. “In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” (John 16:2)

It’s easy to think that these warnings are only for extreme cases; for Christians living in places opposed to the gospel, where it is illegal to read the bible, when you might get locked up for meeting in the name of Jesus Christ. At one level, it reminds us that many of our brothers and sisters live in this reality. We are the ones who are strangely blessed with freedom to worship, an abundance of bibles and different translations, meeting halls with air-conditioning and comfy seats; here in Cambridge where you can hop from church to church looking for the best teaching and the best music and the best fellowship and not worry about persecution and rejection or the threat of death. We are the ones who are strange.

But on another level, it’s not so much that we are strange, as we are naive. How do you know you are the real thing? For us, it’s strange to hear Paul talk about persecution and say, “This is how you know are the children of promise.” And yet Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:11) Speak boldly for Jesus and you will experience rejection. By implication, one of the reasons we don’t experience much rejection is because we don’t speak about Jesus. It’s not just circumstance the bible is describing, it’s faithfulness to the gospel.

That’s why the persecution that Paul describes in verse 29 comes from the son born in the “ordinary way.” This is Hagar’s son, the one born through religion, the one born in slavery to religion. It’s another way of saying that religious people are bullies. They take out their frustration and rage on those they perceive as being not worthy of God’s love and the freedom that he gives in Jesus Christ. If you make your stand for the gospel in an environment that is religious, that is entrenched in its traditions, that prides itself with its goodness and accomplishments and history, you will be cut down. Why? Because the gospel exposes our slavery to sin and the law. The gospel exposes pride and hypocrisy.

But the point is, this is how you know you’ve got the gospel - when you continue to speak for Jesus in a world that is in slavery to sin and the law, and you experience the inevitable backlash of making your stand for the gospel. That’s the first indicator: persecution.

But the second is this: You are still standing firm in Jesus. That’s Chapter 5, verse 1.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1

The freedom we receive is not the freedom to move away from Jesus. It is the joy that comes from willingly serving him and continuing to trust Jesus in the face of opposition, temptation and sin.

What this does is help us understand the rather controversial Old Testament quotation in verse 30, which says, “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Paul could be telling them to get rid of the false teachers. “Don’t tolerate them. Kick them out. They have no place amongst God’s people.” At the very least, I think that is true.

But more than that, Paul is speaking to us; to our assurance as Christians, because remember how he then says in very next verse, “Therefore, brothers, we are not sons of the slave woman.” Tie this back to Galatians 5:1, warning us about being “burdened again with the yoke of slavery,” I think what Paul is saying to us is this: Christians are aware of a greater cost of slavery, beyond the burden and unhappiness of religion. Christians are aware that those who willing enslave themselves to religion have no right to God’s inheritance as sons. It is only as we stand in Jesus alone for our justification and acceptance before God that we have this assurance that we are the real thing. We are loved as sons. And we are citizens of heaven, the Jerusalem that is above. Whatever the cost and whatever the temptation, we stand firm in Christ.

Two ways to live

To recap: we have seen two women, two covenants and two sons. The two women represent the slave and the free, the natural and the unnatural; one represents doing things our way, the other involves trusting God who graciously makes a way.

The two covenants are religion and the gospel, the present Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem. Religion multiplies itself by multiplying rules and by multiplying slaves. The gospel is God emptying himself in Christ to fill us with his righteousness. He takes our sin and gives us his joy.

The two sons are the persecutor and the persecuted, the bully who asserts his rights and the heir who receives his inheritance. It is the slave and son.

And Paul ends by asking us, “Which are you?” There are two ways - and only two ways - to live. Either you are trusting in the law, a religion, a belief system, your own goodness to justify yourself. Or you are trusting in God’s promise of freedom that comes through Jesus’ death on your behalf on the cross.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.
Romans 5:1-2

We will stand as children of the promise
We will fix our eyes on Him our soul's reward
Till the race is finished and the work is done
We'll walk by faith and not by sight
(“By faith”, Keith and Kristyn Getty)

Sunday 6 January 2013

Mountain of glory (Matthew 17:1-13) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 6 January 2013, which also happens to be Epiphany Sunday in the traditional church calendar.

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View transcript (From a bible study led in March 2012)

Friday 4 January 2013