Sunday 13 January 2013

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)

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