Galatians

Galatians 6: Focused on the Cross

We come to the end of our fourth book today.  These shorter books of Paul go quickly.  We are on to James tomorrow.  Good place to jump back onboard if necessary.

So much of Galatians has been anchored in the interplay between law and grace, slavery and freedom.  In the third to last paragraph of the book Paul tells us why the law is futile to make us righteous, why we are free from slavery, why we are alive in Christ, and why we can have the Spirit:

As for me, God forbid that I should boast — except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.  Circumcision, you see, is nothing; neither is uncircumcised!  What matters is new creation.  Peace and mercy on everyone who lines up by that standard — yes, on God’s Israel. (6:14-16)

Ritual makes us focus on ourselves.  The cross of Jesus focuses us on the work of Jesus.  The law offers guidance for right living, but leaves us without the power to do it.  The cross made spiritual power available with the coming of the Spirit at the ascension of Christ.  The law was spoken into the world of the old creation.  The cross vanquished all powers set against God’s Kingdom and started a new creation.  The law enslaved us to sin, guilt, and the death that is the consequence of failure.  The cross frees us from all such tyrannies.  The center of the way of Christ is the cross.  A cross-less Christianity is just one more way to end up enslaved.

As a result, the cross becomes our focus for how we live life each day.  We “carry each other’s burdens” or crosses (6:2).  This may leave the “marks of Jesus” on our bodies (6:17), but we are okay with that because we are certainly not the ones who want to “avoid persecution for the Messiah’s cross” (6:12).  Daily, we “sow in the field of the spirit” and as a result “harvest eternal life from the spirit” (6:8).  Focused on the cross as our power we take up the cross as our service — to God and to others.

Let’s try this again because it worked well last time: please summarize in one sentence the message of Galatians as you heard it this time around.

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Galatians 5: Live By the Spirit

Why don’t we need a system of laws and rules to “babysit” us anymore, as Paul said in chapter 3?

Paul gives us an unmistakable answer in today’s reading.

If you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law. (5:18)

In fact, the word “spirit” is used seven times in this chapter, punctuating Paul’s point (though I wish Wright had not chosen to leave “spirit” and “holy spirit” uncapitalized in his translation).

A system of laws, a list of rules, or a handbook of standards and dictates is comfortable for a lot of people.  Everything is stated and known.  It is also a good tool to have when dealing with children.  The problem, though, is that all of these exist outside of the person.  Someone made some laws or rules and published those and now we are expected to adhere.  The handbook is sitting over there on the table.  We can choose to know, learn, and follow it or we cannot.  While these systems of law do provide guidance, they don’t give power to meet those expectations.  And expectations without empowerment usually lead to failure.

Now, with the coming of the Holy Spirit into the life of Christians, there is both guidance and power.  And all of this exists within.  Temptation is still with us, of course.  It was right there with us when we operated by a system of dos and don’ts too.  The difference is that, unlike any system of law, the Spirit is alive and personal.  The Spirit wishes to “make us alive” (remember chapter 2) and empower us past the temptation and on to righteousness (5:5).  That Spirit guides us and if we will choose to “live by that spirit” (5:16) we find that progressively, little by little, the Holy Spirit puts to death the “flesh” (5:17) and truly “makes us free so that we [can] enjoy freedom” (5:1).

Free people are able to make the choices that truly liberate their souls.  It is not that the lifestyle our rules are trying to produce is bad.  Not at all.  The whole law really came down to one principle: love your neighbor (5:14), and that is as good a lifestyle as they come.  True Christian love requires an emptying of self, putting other before oneself (5:13).  It takes true freedom to choose to do that.  Freedom from requirement, from having to love others.  It isn’t love if it is done by obligation.  But when we step out in faith, trusting that the best way to happiness is to serve others, counterintuitive as it is, and that faith shows itself through love (5:6), one more crucifying nail is driven into the self (5:24), and the Spirit is able to produce fruit in our lives (5:22-23).

We don’t need a babysitter when we have the spirit of the Father inside us.

What verse stood out to you in this chapter?

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Galatians 4: Children of Freedom

However, at that stage [before coming to Christ] you didn’t know God, and so you were enslaved to beings that, in their proper nature, are not gods.  But now that you’ve come to know God — or, better, to be known by God — how can you turn back again to that weak and poverty-stricken lineup of elements that you want to serve all over again? (4:8-9)

Most who study the background of Paul’s letter to the Galatians agree that the Christians addressed in this book were originally Roman pagans.  Before Christ they “didn’t know God.”  They worshiped “beings that . . . are not gods,” though the Galatians would have thought they were.  They worshiped “elemental spirits,” some translations say, that is supposed spiritual powers that were tied to the elements of nature.  These Galatians were likely those converted in Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium.  Remember, when Barnabas and Paul arrived in Lystra they were first thought to be Zeus and Hermes respectively (Acts 14:8-20), a reaction that makes sense when we consider their paganism.

Now, at the behest of the Judaizers, the Galatian Christians were adopting a form of Christianity that practiced Jewish ritualism.  In fact, the Jewish laws and customs had become their real source of confidence, not the grace of God made available through Jesus.  Though this passage above says the Galatians were turning “back,” almost all agree they were not returning to paganism and that Paul is saying that their adoption of Jewish ritualism is really just turning back to a system that is akin to paganism is fundamental ways.

We could diagram it this way:

How was Jewish ritualism so akin to Roman paganism that Paul would see this as turning back, as if we have a boomerang effect like in the diagram above?  How could Jewish ritualism be closer to Roman paganism than to the gospel of Jesus?

The answer in one word was slavery.  In Paul’s mind both Roman paganism and Jewish ritualism enslaved a person.  Yes, they did this in different ways and their rituals and beliefs were radically different, but they ended up enslaving the worshipper just the same.  Whether one was offering a long line of seasonal sacrifices to the deities of Rome or one was doing the same to God, the result was the same.  The worshipper always had to do more, always had to curry favor with the gods or God, always paid off a debt, and always had to keep the angry gods or God happy.  There is no end to that “weak and poverty-stricken” system of slavery, whether done in Rome or Jerusalem.  On the other hand, true freedom could only be found in the grace of Jesus.  In Christ there is no more slavery (3:28).

I would like to assert that this same dynamic happens in Christian circles today.  We too have the boomerang of legalism.

It is easy to point out religious legalism when you see it.  This would be a legalism that says there is a highly religious routine or ritual that has to be done in order to achieve acceptance with God.  Religion is the way to salvation.  One is right with God because they have done particular religious rituals, as if the communion elements or baptismal waters have magical powers to cleanse.  One earns brownie points with God as he attends the prescribed worship services, serves in a public way in the correctly-performed church service, and gives a set amount of money to the church.  In religious legalism there is a correct set of beliefs and pattern for worship, and it is of utmost importance to discover and conform to these if one wants to be considered a true Christian.  Of course, the problem with religious legalism is the attitude with which these things are done, not the actions themselves.  Religion legalism trusts in human action.  It says the power of salvation rests in the efforts of the person to think and act correctly.  As futile as it is, religious legalism only leads to slavery.

For many of us religious legalism was an early trap we were able to escape from long ago.  It was our first religion, so to say.  But I see another legalism, though, that develops later that is just as enslaving.  For lack of a better term, let’s call this one progressive legalism (can you think of a better name?).  Let me stipulate that I would describe myself (and many would agree) as a progressive Christian, though I try to avoid legalism.  Nonetheless, I have seen how the practice of spiritual disciplines can become another list of things that must be done by good Christians in order to curry favor with God.  I have seen in others and experienced in myself a sense of self-satisfaction (or guilt and despair) in a list of benevolent efforts done for the poor.  There is within some progressives a set of required beliefs too, and those who do not hold these are considered inferior.  And that is when the slavery begins — to lists, earned favor, human actions, an expected way of thinking, an air of superiority, and the never-ending need to keep doing.

Though we might be tempted to place religious legalism and progressive legalism on the opposite ends of a continuum, in reality they are too alike for that.  This is the boomerang effect again, as we realize they are plagued by the same flaws.  Both are ritualistic.  Both rely on human actions.  Both are impotent and cannot change human beings.  Both rob us of freedom.

As Paul reminds us at the end of chapter four using Abraham and the mothers of his two sons as examples,

We are not children of the slave-girl, but of the free. (4:31)

Freedom is only found in Christ.

Where else have you seen this dynamic?

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Galatians 3: No Need for a Babysitter Anymore

Before this faithfulness [of Jesus] arrived, we were kept under guard by the law, in close confinement until the coming faithfulness should be revealed.  Thus the law was like a babysitter for us, looking after us until the coming of the Messiah, so that we might be given covenant membership on the basis of faithfulness.  But now that faithfulness has come, we are no longer under the rule of the babysitter.  (3:23-25)

I had many a babysitter growing up.

There was Debbie from down the street.  She introduced me to Deborah Harry (aka Blondie) right at the height of the punk rock rage.  Then it was Debbie’s sister and several teenage girls from church.  After that, being five and seven years older than my brothers, I became the babysitter.  I remember the time, though, I thought I was too cool to babysit my brothers, so my parents got one of my classmates named Renee to babysit.  I was told that if I were too cool to babysit, then I was also too cool to stay in the house while they were away.  I was exiled to the nearby park.  There was also the summer we had a procession of “nannies,” all college girls from the local Baptist church.  The most memorable of those was the one who was visiting from Zimbabwe for the summer.  She made us hotdogs one day and buttered the buns.  Didn’t toast them or anything.  Just butter right up on the hotdog.  Okay.

Babysitters are great . . . for a time.  But it would be kind of weird, however, having a babysitter when you are 32.  When your children are approaching the teen years you kind of get a sense that if they need a babysitter still, they might be a bit behind the curve.  There is a time for the babysitting to stop.

When maturity comes, parents have faith in their children.  Faith too in their parenting.  They trust that the growing child has the inner guidance to go the right way themselves.  Once you have experienced the freedom of adulthood, you don’t need a babysitter anymore.

What verse really got you thinking?

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Galatians 2: Made Alive in Christ

Have you heard this riddle before?

They have not flesh nor feathers, nor scales nor bone; but they do have fingers and thumbs of their own.

How about this one?

This household object used to be alive but now is dead but can come alive again.

Answer?  A glove.  A leather glove for the second one (though leather doesn’t work with the first riddle).  A leather glove used to be a cow, and it “comes alive” when a hand is placed inside it.  Some of us who work together only have to think back to last year’s chapel theme and a friend’s use of this same glove image.

I grew up singing a song based pretty much word-for-word on verses 19-20.  Maybe you did too.  I love scripture songs.  They plant God’s word in my heart.  At the same time, they pose a problem for me, as I discovered again today.  I find a song more easily divests the words of their meaning and I forget what the passage is about.  I guess the passage just becomes too familiar.

So I enjoyed reading Wright’s rendering of 2:19b-20 because he made these words fresh again with meaning.

I have been crucified with the Messiah.  I am, however, alive — but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me.  And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

I go back to the image of the leather glove.  I am dead, crucified.  This isn’t my life, or at least it is not supposed to be.  So whatever life one does see in me is really the life of Jesus who is in me.  My strength is not in my own power to do good (what so much of the latter half of chapter 2 is about).  My life doesn’t even rest in my own faith, rather I have my assurance because of the faithfulness of Jesus (a major theme in Wright’s theology).

Oh, to be more glove-like!

What struck you in this diverse chapter?

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Galatians 1: No Other Gospel

“Good news,” she said.  “You’ve qualified for twice as much as you are asking for!”

“She” was the woman at the bank where my wife and I applied for a mortgage loan to buy the house in which we presently live.

Naturally, thoughts of a bigger house, a better zip code, second and third bathrooms, a guest room, a workshop in the garage, and more modern amenities flew through our minds.

I am very thankful today that we had enough sense to balk at her suggestion and proceed with the modest amount we had originally been seeking.  I can’t imagine how we could have afforded the monthly note had we listened to her “good news.”  I still wonder what she was thinking, but then the word “predatory” comes to mind.  It was the early 2000s after all.

Not all “good news” is really all that good.

Slavery is a perfect word to describe what my wife and I would be experiencing had we taken on a mortgage payment twice what we pay right now.  Working long hours and extra jobs to pay the mortgage company.  We would be truly house-poor.  Feel free to sit in the corner over there where a couch should be, had we the money!  In fact, I have noticed that any time I do something largely or completely for money, I end up regretting it.  It is never worth it.  Anything but good news.

The resounding theme of Galatians 1 is “gospel.”  The word is used six times in this short chapter, and the phrase “good news” — the literal meaning of the word “gospel” — is used twice more.  But back then as much as now, not all good news is really all that good.

I’m astonished that you are turning away so quickly from the one who called you by grace, and are going after another gospel — not that it is another gospel. (1:6-7a)

Bear in mind the context of Galatians (see the bonus post below).  The Galatians are new Christians, some of the first converts of Paul’s first missionary journey.  But just as quick as they accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ laced all the way through with grace as it should be, they were being told by a group of hardline Jewish Christians — typically called the Judaizers — that good Christians are good Jews as well.  If you really want to follow God, you have to follow the Jewish law and customs.  Step right up for your circumcision, sir.  Stop cooking that filthy swine, madam.  Family, stop, it’s the Sabbath.  This was the new “gospel” they were hearing, and it seems from this verse above that some of the Galatian Christians were persuaded.  Jesus was a Jew after all.  God did come first to the Jews, didn’t he?  Paul himself was a Jew.

In no uncertain terms, Paul made it clear that not all gospels are truly good news:

If anyone offers you a gospel other than the one you received, let that person be accursed. (1:9)

Paul will tell us more later about why all gospels are not equal.  Simply put, some “good news” enslaves.  Well, that’s no good news after all.  Are we made right with God by grace or by law?  Because if it is by grace, you are free.  All debts are paid.  No obligations are in place.  One obeys out of gratitude and love.  But if it is by law that we are made righteous, then we are enslaved to a system of our own best efforts, which sadly always come up short.  There is always more to do.  We can always be better.  And we are obligated, for sure.

That’s slavery.  And that’s no good news!

What modern day “good news” isn’t really as good as it sounds?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Galatians

Galatians was a favorite of the Reformers.  Martin Luther said of the book: “This is ‘my’ epistle.  I am wedded to it.”  Galatians has also been a favorite of evangelicals, given our focus on salvation.  As we start the epistles of Paul, there may be no better start.  Paul gives us the gospel, stripped down and simple, and leads us to the Holy Spirit as our power for spiritual living.

Almost no one questions whether Paul wrote Galatians.  In fact, Galatians may be his first letter, or at least one of the earliest.  Whether Christians have to be circumcised is a big question in the letter, and this was an issue that was settled definitively in Acts 15.  Strangely, Paul never cites that decision in Galatians, possibly suggesting this letter was written even before the events of Acts 15.  That would mean that the events of Galatians 2 refer to Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11:30.  Regardless, what we have here is some of Paul’s earliest thinking.

Historically, there has been no agreement on whether Paul is writing to Galatian Christians in the northern part of that Roman province or to Christians in the southern cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, converts from his first missionary journey.  Remember back to Acts 13-14, how Paul had quick success in this region only to be followed by fast opposition from the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who believed that one had to become a good Jew in order to be a good Christian.  It makes most sense to me that Paul is writing the Galatians in the southern province as a rapid rebuttal to the Judaizers who are jeopardizing his work.

What do you have to do to really be considered a Christian?  What is it that truly saves a person?  These are the questions Galatians will take up in a big way.  They are also questions we often ask today as well.  There will be much that is helpful in this short book.

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