Posts Tagged With: Law

John 8: Dehumanizing Religion

One of the ugliest sides of religion is when it uses people.  Religion does this.  It pits people against each other in some cosmic game of “who is closer to God.”  We toot our own horns and then shoot pot-shots into other people.

In today’s reading, the religious people in the story drag a woman likely straight from the bedroom where she had been caught in adultery.  John even says, “they stood her out in the middle” of the crowd, before Jesus and asked him what should be done with her (8:3).  Are they really concerned with her sin?  Only mildly at best.  Are they really seeking justice?  Then where is the man she was with?  No, John makes it clear what they were doing:

They said this to test him, so that they could frame a charge against him. (8:6)

This woman is nothing more than a disgraced pawn caught in a desperate powerplay of the Pharisees.  She is just a platform on which to make their point that Law is to be followed.  She represents no more than an opportunity.  She is the faceless, story-less example of a moral issue.  This woman who had allowed herself to be used by a man for his passion is now being used by a whole cadre of men for their agenda of power.  The Pharisees are using this woman, in the name of religion.  Her sin was not excusable — and Jesus didn’t ignore it either (8:11b) — but she was still a human being.

When have we allowed our religious agendas to use people?  When has a person’s life become little more than a point in an argument or a story in a sermon?  When do we only see the immoral actions of people and fail to see the person doing the action?  Are there people who if they ceased to exist it would be fine with us?  Are there whole groups of people we easily write off with racial, religious, socio-economic, or political labels, caring less about their personal narratives?

Is there a way to follow our Master by seeing a person in need, not approving of their sin but also not condemning and dehumanizing them?

What caught your eye in this chapter?  

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John 7: Law or Life?

“Look here,” replied Jesus.  “I did one single thing, and you all were amazed.  Moses commanded you to practice circumcision . . . and you circumcise a man on the sabbath.  Well, then, if a man receives circumcision on the sabbath, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, how can you be angry with me if I make an entire man healthy on the sabbath?” (7:21-23)

Let’s remember something: the Pharisees were the religious ones in Jesus’ world.  And, yet, they are the ones who had the hardest time accepting Jesus.  For them, everything came down to the Law.  There are ways to go about the work of God.  There are forms and patterns.  There are boundaries and limits.  All of these laws ensure that life happens in the most controlled manner, and order brings blessing.

Yet, one can become so controlled by Law that the point of the Law is missed.  Order becomes more important than blessing.  The point of Law is to bring Life, but this can easily be forgotten when we make Law the point itself.

This is where the Pharisees had allowed themselves to get to.  Their glorification of the Law was now the point.  All that matters in a legal conundrum like whether sabbath or circumcision trumps the other is which law is more important.

Jesus tells them they have missed the point entirely.  The point is Life.  It is always Life.  Law exists to bring Life, preserve Life, promote Life, and reward Life.  So when our applications of Law stand in the way of Life, we have missed the point.

What do you think?

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1 Timothy 4: Overemphasizing the External

It is really easy to turn the way of Christ into a series of rules about external behavior.  That is not to say that the way of Christ is only internal — one does need to give attention to how one acts in this world — but there is something missing from a person’s Christianity if it entirely revolves around laws that dictate what a person does and does not do with their bodies.

We learn today that this was certainly happening in Ephesus:

They [the false teachers] will forbid marriage, and teach people to abstain from foods which God intended to be received with thanksgiving by people who believe and know the truth. (4:3)

Sometimes we do the same, especially when talking to younger Christians.  We make it seem like the task of following Jesus is all about not getting drunk, not smoking weed, and not sleeping around.  Then as people get older we talk about staying away from pornography, not speeding, and not missing church.  Of course, I am not suggesting that any of these are wholesome or appropriate; I simply beg us to remember there is more to the way of Christ than external rules, and limiting Christianity to external rules is action akin to the false teachers of Ephesus.

Like Paul was calling the Ephesian church to (1:5-7), like he was calling Timothy to (4:12), the way of Christ is all about “faith, love, and holiness” — all of which have external manifestations but all of which start as attitudes and desires of the heart first and foremost.  According to Paul today, to forget this is the beginning of false teaching.

What do you think?

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1 Timothy 1: Beware of False Teachers!

Lurking in the background of most Pauline letters is some person, group, or philosophy that threatens the orthodox beliefs and practices of the Christianity that Paul was spreading.  This is very much true in the letters to Timothy.

As we start our two weeks with these letters, let’s look at a profile of these “false teachers.”

  • They teach “false doctrines” (1:3; 6:3)
  • They want to be “teachers of the law” (1:7)
  • They base their teachings on myths not facts and genealogies not stories (1:4; 4:7)
  • They come off as conceited (1:7; 6:4)
  • They are argumentative, produce controversy, and disrupt the peace in the church (1:4; 6:4; 2 Tim 2:23)
  • They were full of meaningless and foolish talk, showing that they don’t really know what he are talking about (1:6-7; 6:4; 2 Tim 2:23)
  • They encouraged asceticism (4:3)
  • They used their authority for financial gain (6:5)

When you put this all together, this sketch does not produce a definitive identity.  Clearly, like many of Paul’s opponents, they were tying the Jewish law to the way of Christ.  The asceticism and emphasis on myth and genealogy could come from Judaism or from an early version of Gnosticism that was becoming popular in Asia Minor especially.

Maybe the most important point about these false teachers is what Paul says today:

That sort of thing breeds disputes rather than the instruction in faith that comes from God.  The goal of such instruction is love — the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. (1:4-5)

This was a false teaching that emphasized the obscure and ineffectual while neglecting the most important elements of the way of Christ: faith, love, and purity.

What does a Christian leader look like today who is similar to these false teachers?

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2 Corinthians 11: Not So Very “Super-Apostles”

Paul snidely labels those who are opposing him in the Corinthian church as the “super-apostles” (11:5).  Images of Clark Kent with a Bible come to mind.  He tells us a good deal about these people in today’s reading.

  • They have been able to sway some of the church away from true doctrine (11:3)
  • They may have been teaching significantly different things about Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel (11:4)
  • They clearly were well-educated, much more than Paul, especially in the area of rhetoric (11:6)
  • Given that much of this book is about the collection Paul is taking up for the Christians in Judea and that Paul repeatedly has to defend his financial decisions, the super-apostles were likely accusing Paul of using the Corinthians for money (11:7-9)
  • They are so flawed as to actually be “false” prophets (11:13a)
  • They transform themselves, chameleon-like, to look pious and orthodox (11:13b)
  • Paul calls them servants of Satan, implying they are a threat to spiritual purity, not simply other Christians with views different from Paul’s (11:15)
  • They are destined for Hell (11:15)
  • They regularly boasted about themselves (11:18)
  • They are enslaving, insulting, and exploiting the Corinthians (11:20)
  • They may be Jewish (11:22)
  • They have not sacrificed as much as Paul for the sake of the gospel (11:23-29)

So who are these people? When you put it all together it makes a lot of sense that these super-apostles were the same Judaizers who followed Paul throughout the eastern Mediterranean undoing his grace-oriented Christianity with a re-binding of law on Christians.  Their air of superiority had much to do with their ethnicity and training in the law.

For Paul these differences are more than surface differences of preference and style.  The super-apostles had eviscerated the very gospel and in so doing they were not to be tolerated at all.

What caught your eye today?

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1 Corinthians 6: Stay Clean

Have you ever noticed spilled food is only attracted to clean clothes?  I am convinced of it.  Put on a dirty shirt and you will never spill on it.  You can eat spaghetti, dripping wet barbecue ribs, or melting ice cream and you will still come out unscathed.  Put on a clean shirt and you are destined to drip ketchup from your hotdog right in the middle of your chest.  Murphy’s Law, I guess.

When I was young my mother’s last instructions to me any time I went out to play in the yard with my friends were “Stay clean!”  Of course, I never did.  A muddy hand is made clean again by rubbing them down the legs of your pants.  A bloody nose is stopped by the front of your shirt held up to your nose. Right?

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians today are the same: Stay clean!

You were washed clean; you were made holy; you were put back to right — in the name of the Lord, King Jesus, and in the spirit of our God. (6:11)

God has cleaned them up, now stay clean and don’t make His work for naught.  But it seems everything they did was making them dirty once again.  Sure, they were under grace and not under Law, so this was not a matter of staying clean so as to earn salvation, but just because “everything is lawful” (6:12) for them doesn’t mean they should take advantage of grace.

How were the Corinthians sullying their new clothes?

  • Dragging each other into the Roman courts to settle their personal differences and offenses (6:1-6).  They looked like an uncharitable bunch who couldn’t solve the problems of the world as they couldn’t even settle their own problems.
  • Forgetting that the hallmark of a follower of Christ is to model selfless sacrifice, even if it means being wronged and losing what is rightfully yours (6:7-8)
  • Indulging the body with immorality and possibly food (6:12-14)
  • Possibly using the services of prostitutes, maybe even religious prostitutes in the pagan temples (6:15-17)

That is no way to show God appreciation for what He has done.  One brings glory with a holy life.  One worships God by what one does in the body, as that is His temple (6:19-20).

“Stay clean!”

What did you see anew in today’s chapter?

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Romans 13: Love Is All We Need

Love is what God is looking for most from His people?  Love is all we need?  Love is the answer?  How can that be?

What about the Law?  Love is a willy-nilly notion.  It is here today and gone tomorrow.  Love can make people do stupid things.  We need something concrete, eternal, unchanging.  We need something you can look up, something factual.  Law is what we need.  At least this is something like what the most die-hard Jews in the Roman church might have been thinking.

And I would have to agree, if what we were talking about is the purely emotional, saccharine-sweet, I-get-butterflies-when-you-are-around kind of love.  Yes, I am not sure that kind of love is sufficient for a lifetime of guidance into right living.

But Paul is talking about something else.

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except the debt of mutual love.  If you love your neighbor, you see, you have fulfilled the law.  Commandments like “don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet” — and any other commandment — are summed up in this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to its neighbor; so love is the fulfillment of the law. (13:8-10)

How can the principle of love be enough to guide us into right living?  Paul answers that question twice: because love fulfills the Law.  All of the Jewish Laws were just ways to show love to our neighbors.  In appealing to love as the proper ethic for life, Paul was essentially returning to the basic principle that undergirds God’s way of life.  Paul goes further: Love is the fulfillment of the law because this kind of sacrificial love of will and choice sets out to always do what is best for a person, and in so doing does no wrong to its neighbor.  If the Roman Christians would treat each other that way they would be doing the Law that matters most to God.  If we today always did what was in the best interest of the people around us, we would truly be doing what God wants.

How does this teaching on love make something make more sense?

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Romans 8: Help In Our Weakness

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In case we miss the answer we have been looking for since yesterday, Paul gives us the answer twenty-one times in Romans 8: SPIRIT.

Paul left us with a defense of Law; it is not the root of our problem.  But Law is also not the answer to our problem, because it lacks the power to move us past our own powerlessness.  What we need is a power outside of ourselves.  And this is exactly what God brings: the Holy Spirit of God living within us (8:9).

The spirit comes alongside and helps us in our weakness. (8:26)

Maybe you grew up as I did in a religious tradition too scared to talk about the Holy Spirit lest we be labeled as charismatic, as if that were some great sin.  However, when we neglect the Spirit we are left only with ourselves and we are back in the middle of the mess of Romans 7.

Christians are called to listen with attentive minds and hearts to the Spirit of God within us (8:5-6).  This Spirit will guide and empower the children of God to live in accordance of God’s wishes, as the Spirit is the first piece of the new life already given to us (8:14, 23, 26-27).  All that God intended in the Law becomes possible when we “live according to the Spirit” (8:4).

What verse caught your eye today?

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Romans 7: Law Is Not The Problem, Nor The Answer

After yesterday’s post it is tempting to think that the Jewish Law was the root of the Christians’ problem in ancient Rome, after all the commands of the Law are what allowed sin to tempt and enslave (7:9-10).  Of course, this message would not fly in a half Jewish church, not to mention the fact that it maligns something that came directly from God.

Paul makes it clear that he is claiming nothing of the sort:

So, then, the law is holy; and the commandment is holy, upright, and good. . . . We know, you see, that the law is spiritual. (7:12, 14a)

The Law itself is a good thing.  Guidance from God on how to live life righteously and wisely is never bad.  But the side effect of Law is temptation, incitement to sin, and ultimately enslavement.

Why is that?  Why is Law by itself not the answer to our sin problem?

Law possesses no power within itself to save us from ourselves. It offers direction but no propulsion.  It tells us what to do — and it is right and that guidance is a blessing — but it does not give us a way beyond ourselves to do the very thing we know and often want to do.

I don’t understand what I do.  I don’t do what I want, you see, but I do what I hate. . . . For I can will the good, but I can’t perform it.  For I don’t do the good thing I want to do, but I end up doing the evil thing I don’t want to do. . . . What a miserable person I am! (7:15, 18b-19, 24a)

Law is not the answer. We (and the Roman Christians) need a supernatural power beyond ourselves to enable the life of righteousness and wisdom the Law describes.

The answer comes tomorrow.

What did you notice anew in this chapter?

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Romans 6: Free at Last!

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all slaves living in America.  He was the president, he said they were free, and that is that.

Well, it wasn’t really that easy.  The Confederates were no longer acknowledging Lincoln as their president so his words weren’t worth much to them anymore.  At least until the Union won the Civil War and asserted their power and laws.

So at the point of the Emancipation Proclamation were the slaves free or not?

You are only free to the degree people (including yourself) let you be free.

There were pockets of slave owners in Texas that got together and conspired to keep the word of the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  Many slaves could not read.  The slave owners would also run abolitionists out of town or even in rare cases kill them lest they stir up the slaves into dissension.  When rumors of freedom did get through to the slaves, all the slave owners had to do was tell them to look at their situation.  How could these rumors be true?  They don’t appear to be free, do they?  In the end, in these pockets of Texas, even though slavery had been abolished, freedom was denied to the slaves for another two years.

The Roman Christians were at a crossroads.  Theologically they had to decide how free they would allow themselves to be.  Their slave masters were not flesh and blood though.  They had to decide how free from law and sin they would be.

Paul has been painting a picture of Law that is not pretty.  There is within fallen humanity a propensity to sin (5:12-13), but until a command comes along declaring what we should and should not do the sinful desires inside of us do not know how to tempt us (3:20).  Think of children: as soon as you say don’t do something, what do they want to do?  The very thing prohibited.  Likewise our sinful desires.  The law was not intended to be a way to salvation, rather it showed us how depraved we truly are (5:20).  To hang on to law as a way to get right with God is nonsensical.  Law leads to sin which produces guilt and ultimately death (6:23), whether spiritual death or the metaphorical death of hope and love and goodness.

In this chapter, Paul sketches out an alternative.  He tells the Roman Christians: “you have been freed from sin” (6:7, 18, 22). Sin is no longer their master, because they have been freed from an obligation to follow the Jewish Law.  Law played its role and now it is time for another option: the cross and the grace that is freely offered there.  As we identify ourselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through baptism (6:3-5) we choose a new cycle.  The cross brings freedom which produces gratitude and ultimately life.

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. (6:23)

Paul, though, leaves these two opposing options as exactly that: choices.  The Roman Christians can choose to go the way of law or the way of the cross.  He argues one will lead to death and one to life.  They have been freed from sin by the power of the cross.  Through Christ’s resurrection God showed this truly is His world and life and death, freedom and slavery truly are His to determine.  But they still have to choose to not let sin have that power over them by going the way of grace through the cross, not the way of law and sin (6:12-14).  They would only be as free in the Roman church as they allowed themselves to be.

Nobody is encouraging us to follow the Jewish Law these days, but we can still give our freedom away to a works-oriented religion.  Again, this only leads to inevitable failure, overwhelming guilt, and the death of hope.  But the cross still stands before us today offering grace and freedom, propelling us into a grateful and abundant life of service to God and others.

The choice is ours.  How free will we allow ourselves to be?

What struck you in this chapter?

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Romans 2: Those Self-Righteous Jews

. . . and then the other shoe dropped.

Yesterday, Paul seemed to be squarely on the side of the Jewish Christians, one more Jew who saw the Gentiles as an inferior people group and unfit for leadership in the Roman church.

Today, in a piece of literary genius, Paul turns the table completely.

So you have no excuse — anyone, whoever you are, who sit in judgment!  When you judge someone else, you condemn yourself, because you, who are behaving as a judge, are doing the same things. (2:1)

Sure, the Jewish Christians would not be practicing idolatry or sexual immorality or robbery of the conventional sorts.  They were not literally like the Gentiles.  But that is the problem with self-righteousness.  It settles for literalism, and congratulates oneself for not doing some specific act of perversion.  Yet the Law had become the Jewish Christians’ idol.  And their adultery was spiritual not sexual.  They were worshipping their own ability to be good, and stealing God’s glory.

Worse yet, these Jewish Christians had narrowly defined “good.”  For them, good meant being of Jewish heritage, being among those chosen by God to have the Law, knowing that Law, being able to teach that Law, following the rituals of that Law like circumcision, food laws, and holidays.  Good meant being a good Jew.  So defined, yes, they were very good, and their Gentile brothers and sisters did not measure up.

Paul sets the Jewish Christians in Rome straight.  Good is not defined by hearing the law or having the law, but by doing it (2:13).  Paul goes one further: “Jew” — as in the people cherished by God — isn’t nearly as much about ethnicity as obedience.  Circumcision isn’t about getting rid of unclean flesh as much as it is about getting rid of an unclean heart (2:28-29).  Therefore, an uncircumcised but morally upright Gentile with a tender heart might actually be a better Jew, than someone who can trace their heritage back to Abraham.

If you are a Jewish Christian in this Roman church you have just been put in your place.  These chapters might be a rough start to a letter, but we can be assured that Paul had everyone’s attention at this point.

Do we ever do this same thing?  How so?

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Matthew 12: It’s What’s On The Inside That Counts

The Pharisees confront Jesus in today’s chapter:

Look here!  Your disciples are doing something that’s not permitted on the sabbath!” (12:2)

How dare they pluck corn and eat it!  That’s work!

So Jesus chastises the Pharisees on how completely they have missed the point.  Then he heals the withered hand of a man standing in the crowd.  Oh-oh!  More work on the Sabbath.  How dare Jesus disregard the Law!  So,

The Pharisees went off and plotted against him, with the intention of doing away with him.” (12:14)

I have never noticed this last verse in this way before.  The Pharisees are incensed that Jesus would disregard the Jewish laws and customs concerning the Sabbath, all the while they are making plans to murder Jesus.  

Yes, it seems they have missed the point.

Today’s chapter really drives home the saying “it’s what’s in the heart that counts,” not the rituals of our hands.

  • Our mouth speaks from the heart (12:34)
  • The fruit/deeds of our life come from the quality of our tree/heart (12:33)
  • A demon can be removed but it will only be worse later on if we don’t fill up our hearts with something good (12:45)
  • Family is defined more by faith than blood (12:50)
  • Repentance of the heart is better than experiencing miraculous signs (12:41)
  • Saving a life and restoring health is far better than getting caught up in law keeping (12:12)
  • Mercy is better than sacrifice (12:7)

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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Matthew 5: The Blessed Kingdom Life

There are some chapters that are just daunting to write about; the next three are some of those.  What can be said about the Sermon on the Mount that has not already been said and said better or is really worth saying?  Like James, these are chapters that will meet us where we are, somewhere different each time we read them.  Do share how God speaks to you this time around.

There are many different theories on what exactly Jesus was trying to do in the Sermon on the Mount.  Was he, the new Moses, giving a new law on a new mountain?  Was he setting out the moral code of the Church?  Was he giving the “impossible dream,” a perfectionistic dare that only punctuates how God’s Kingdom is only attainable by the power of God?  Or something else?

No doubt the parallels between Moses and Jesus are no accident, but 5:17-20 discount a view of the Sermon that diminishes or reverses the role of the Old Testament law.  No doubt the Church has turned the Sermon into its moral code, though we haven’t done so well, have we?  Consider how successful Christians are doing with lust, hatred, divorce, and love for our “enemies.”  Sayings like the following one do sound like they are “impossible” reminders of our own frailty,

Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect. (5:48)

But why does the sermon end with the declaration that we are as “foolish” as a man who builds a house on a sandy seashore if we do not do what has been said in this sermon (7:24-27)?

I would like to advance a different idea, one that is certainly not my own and has been gathered from many different places, none of which I remember off hand.  The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of life when you come into the Kingdom and when the Kingdom comes into you.  Partly idealistic but also partly practical and doable, this snapshot of Kingdom-life was Jesus’ invitation to a whole new way of life, here and now, a worldview (beliefs and actions) that if accepted would revolutionize the follower and those in his sphere of influence.

The Beatitudes

With this idea in mind, consider the Beatitudes (5:3-10).  Eight character traits or positions in life are put forward as “blessed” or fortune or happy — humility, the need to mourn, meekness, longing for divine justice, merciful, purity, peaceableness, and persecution.  Most of us would look at this list and say there is little blessing or happiness in most of these.  But these are exactly the kinds of people who will find God’s Kingdom to be an answered prayer.  These sorts of people will find what our present world’s system cannot or does not afford.  These marginalized, downtrodden, and sad people will find this new way of life that Jesus is bringing to be truly blessed.  These are the kinds of people who need a new system and they will find it if they will truly follow Jesus.  On the other hand, there are others who at the exact same time cannot embrace this way of life as anything other than a curse.  As an interpretive key that this is a plausible reading of the Beatitudes, I appeal to the “inclusio” or enveloping structure of the Beatitudes: both the first and last Beatitudes mention the “kingdom of heaven.”  In other words, all the falls between is the blessed Kingdom-life.

Old Testament Law and the Kingdom

Or consider what Jesus was doing in the long “you have heard it was said/but I say” section at the end of this chapter (5:21-48).  Jesus is not taking on the Old Testament law as 5:17-20 won’t allow it:

Don’t suppose that I come to destroy the law or the prophets.  I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! (5:17)

Jesus has come as a restorationist.  He is the rabbi who does not wish to start a new religion, rather has come to return God’s people to what they were called to in the beginning.  Jesus is not saying to ignore the Old Testament laws not to murder, commit adultery, divorce, swear falsely, reattribute justice fairly, or love your neighbor.  Kingdom people respect and keep God’s law (5:19).  Instead, Jesus is attacking the reductionistic legalism of the Judaism all around him that settled for the letter of the law and ignored the underlying attitudes that cause sin in the first place.  In so doing, he was in fact calling Kingdom-people to a “covenant behavior [that] is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  Life in the blessed Kingdom is obedient life, but of a deeper kind than had become the norm in the world — even the religious world — around them.

Matthew 5 is a majestic start to a truly magnificent sermon!

What do you think?

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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 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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Acts 22: I Was One of You

Have a blessed Ash Wednesday!

Christians are called to live in this world, yet not become a part of the world.  That is a hard balancing act.

Twice in today’s reading, we see Paul tell people he is, or at least once was, just like them (22:3-5, 19-20, 25).

Paul disputing with Jews and Greeks (mid-12th century)

A murderous mob of Jews has descended on Paul at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Some have heard he has defiled their sacred space with a unclean Gentile.  Others just hate this traitor and want to see him gone.  Either way they are ready to rip him limb from limb.  Had it not been for the intervention of the low-level Roman tribune, they would have had their way.  Paul uses the opportunity to address his accusers.  The gist of his remarks are that he once was just like them.  A Jew.  A well-trained one.  A law-respecting one.  He too once persecuted Christians.  He gets where they are coming from.  He once was just like them.

As the chapter continues, the tribune himself orders that Paul be flogged so as to expedite his interrogations.  Paul is quick to assert is rights.  He is a Roman citizen from birth.  He is entitled to a trial.  Again, though, we see Paul saying essentially, “I am just like you.”

And yet now Paul is different.  He has discovered there is something more important to God than law.  He has learned that the Messiah has come in the form of Jesus.  He is a Roman, but his ultimate allegiance is to a different Lord than Caesar.

I once was just like you.  Now you can become one like me.

Some will like that message because it brings hope and purpose.  For other it will only be scandalous and the heat will be turned up.

What struck you anew in this chapter?  

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Acts 15: What Does It Take to Be Saved?

Now, that’s a loaded question!  And not one I am about to try to answer here.  But it is the question the Christians in Antioch were asking.

Grace through faith in Jesus?  Definitely!

He [God] purified their [Gentiles] hearts through faith. . . . It is by the grace of the Lord Jesus that we shall be saved, just like them. (15:9, 11)

But is there more?  At least some of the early Christians thought so:

They must be circumcised,” they [believers from the party of the Pharisees] said, “and you must tell them to keep the law of Moses.” (15:5)

Much like Acts 2, Acts 15 is one of the more significant chapters in the book.  There is so much to say about this chapter.  The chapter also produces so many further questions.  Some of these observations and questions would be:

  • When an argument ensued, they gathered together to talk it out.
  • The Scriptures played a important role in their decision-making (15:15-18), but so did the everyday ministry experiences of the apostles involved (15:12).
  • Early Christianity was diverse enough to encompass former Pharisees and former prostitutes, Zealots and tax collectors, those with a great level of obedience to the Jewish customs and those who thought those customs were largely irrelevant.
  • Even after the decision was made to disagree with the Pharisaical Christians, the apostles and elders still accept them as “some of our number” (15:24).
  • This conflict ends with feelings of “delight,” “encouragement,” and “peace” (15:31-33).
  • How did the apostles and elders making the decision know what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (15:28)?
  • Why was blood in food deemed that much more important than circumcision or the Sabbath?
  • This decision was given to Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.  Was it also intended to apply to other churches too?  For instance, Paul didn’t make a big deal over food sacrificed to idols in Corinth.
  • Is baptism equivalent to circumcision?  Do the principles here regarding circumcision apply to modern debates over baptism?
  • What modern issues of debate would be in line with the topic of law observance?  Worship styles, gender roles, marital history, sexual preference?

However, I don’t want us to miss the big point in this chapter, so important that Luke says it twice:

Therefore this is my judgment: we should not cause extra difficulties for those of the Gentiles who have turned to God. (15:19)

For it seemed good to the holy spirit and to us not to lay any burden on you beyond the following necessary things. (15:28)

This did not mean there were no boundaries or requirements.  The Gentiles in Antioch were expected to avoid food associated with pagan idolatry, food that would still have a good amount of blood in it, and sexual perversions (15:20, 29).  Still, the apostles and elders decided to go the path of least resistance.  They endeavored to place as few barriers as possible between God and those Gentiles seeking Him.  Important to any debate Christians might have today regarding what it takes to be saved should be this same principle: don’t make it any more difficult than it has to be.

What stood out to you in this important chapter?  

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Mark 3: Surely He’s Possessed

People were watching to see if Jesus would heal him [a man with a withered hand] on the sabbath, so they could frame a charge against him.  [Standing before them with the man] he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath, or to do evil?  To save life or to kill?”  They stayed quiet.  He was deeply upset at their hard-heartedness, and looked around at them angrily.  [When Jesus healed the man] the Pharisees went out right away and began to plot with the Herodians against Jesus, trying to find a way to destroy him. (3:2-6, editing mine)

Wow!  We are only three chapters into this story and the antagonists are already going for blood!  Mess with power and you will feel the pain!

“They stayed quiet.”  Of course they did.  Side with the law and condone the neglect of the maimed?  Or side with Jesus and de-value the law they held so dearly, too dearly, undermining their own power?  Catch-22.

We use silence to hide.  Inaction is an attempt to skirt the issue.  Just don’t get involved and pass by on the other side of the road.  The Pharisees knew this approach well (remember that Samaritan parable or “picture,” as Wright calls them, 3:23?).

I am convicted today by how Jesus sees a lack of compassion as “hard-heartedness.”  Even when we feel like we have some good reason for it.

What did you find yourself “chewing on” today from Mark 3?

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