Friday, November 30, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Galatians. Day 15, Set Free By Christ

Paul makes one of the most beautiful and liberating statements of the Bible as we begin Chapter 5 this morning: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1)

Christ---the Son of God---did the work that was necessary to set us free from living under the law. Who can argue with Him? What higher authority is there than the adult Son of God who has all the authority of the Father? A grown son in ancient society had all the same authority, rights, and privileges over his father's estate as his father had, so we find Jesus Himself saying, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:38)

The yoke Paul is talking about is the Galatian's desire to live under the law. They have been confused and led astray by teachers who insist they aren't full members of the family of God unless they submit to the law of Moses. These teachers want to mix the old covenant with the new covenant. I am sure that when Paul preached Christ to the Gentiles, his biggest fear was that they would try to mix Christianity with their old pagan religions. Instead it has turned out that the biggest threat to the Gentiles' newfound liberty is legalism. There is really no quicker way to make a person ineffective for Christ than to provide him with a set of rules to follow and to force his focus onto his own performance instead of helping him to focus on building a relationship with the Lord.

The better we know Christ, the better we will be at living in ways that honor Him. But the more we concentrate on how well we are keeping a set of rules, the more we are likely to conclude that living the Christian life is impossible. Paul, a former Pharisee, knows what it's like to have his entire life consumed with studying the law, trying to keep the law, and failing at keeping every single point of the law. Many of Paul's Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ experienced the same frustration under the law that he experienced and are now enjoying the freedom of grace. There are some, though, who are unwilling to embrace the new covenant and are troubling the Gentile believers. As a Gentile I can't imagine what a relief it must have been for Paul and for many of the Jews who came to Christ to throw off the yoke of the law and to embrace the grace of Christ. Paul wants his Gentile friends to enjoy this same freedom and he's angry that anyone is interfering with their liberty, so he says, "Stand firm! Don't give an inch. You know the gospel that saved you. When anyone tells you that you must do something to 'add to' your salvation, stand firm in the confidence that Christ has already done everything necessary for your salvation."

"Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galatians 5:2-6) In modern times parents may choose to have their baby boys circumcised. Grown men who were not circumcised as babies often choose to undergo circumcision as adults. This is not what Paul is talking about when he warns the Galatians that submitting to circumcision is putting themselves under the law. In today's world this medical procedure does not mean (at least for Gentiles) that a man is committing himself to living by the law. A man is not doomed to living under the law if his parents circumcised him or if he chose to be circumcised as an adult for some reason. What Paul is saying is something like this: "You have been saved through faith in Christ, but if you willingly choose to undergo circumcision you are agreeing to keep the law. What you are saying is that what Christ has done is not enough to justify you in the sight of God. You are signifying that you want to try to justify yourselves in the sight of God. What use then is your liberty in Christ? You are willingly placing yourselves in bondage."

He reminds them that they started out well but got off track somewhere along the way. "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the One who called you." (Galatians 5:7-8) He declares, "I don't know who is trying to persuade you to live by the law instead of by grace, but it wasn't Christ who told you this."

He now quotes a proverb that is logical and well known to people of all cultures. "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." (Galatians 5:9) In the Scriptures we find yeast (leaven) used as a symbol for wickedness and sin. Sin doesn't just affect the person who committed it; sin affects everyone around that person. In the same way that a tiny amount of yeast makes the whole lump of dough rise, a tiny amount of false doctrine is capable of infiltrating the whole church. At the time of his writing, it could be that only a few of the Gentiles have been influenced by false teachers, but Paul knows how quickly a problem can spread. He wants to settle the matter before it has a chance to lead more and more believers astray.

"I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty." (Galatians 5:10) He comforts his readers and himself by saying, "I believe that the efforts of these false teachers will prove to be unsuccessful. I know you are intelligent enough to recognize the truth. I believe that you have the faith to stand firm against the wrong doctrine that is trying to creep into the church and I believe you will be strong enough to cast it out."

Those who are not telling the truth about Christ and about the gospel of grace will face punishment by the Lord if they do not repent and desist in their efforts to bring legalism into the Gentile church. The Lord takes very seriously any attacks on His character and He takes very seriously any attacks on the faith of His followers. If Paul is angry about those who are trying to turn the Galatians from the truth, we can just imagine how angry the Lord is about it.

I think that some of these legalistic teachers are claiming Paul is preaching circumcision and the observance of the law. They are trying to back up their own teaching by saying, "Paul says the same things!" With Paul not present in Galatia right now, the false teachers have managed to convince some that he has actually said such things. He is quick to refute this claim. "Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished." (Galatians 5:11) The same type of people who are troubling the Galatians are the same type of people who are persecuting Paul for preaching that salvation comes by the cross of Christ. So logically he asks, "If I'm preaching circumcision, as some claim I am, then why are they against my ministry? If I were preaching that, then my teaching would be in line with theirs. But I preach salvation through faith in Christ alone, and that is why the legalistic teachers are opposed to me. They are offended when I say that the cross, and not works, justifies us."

Paul is so upset right now that he angrily says of those who are misleading the Christians of Galatia, "As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!" (Galatians 5:12) It was a practice in some of the pagan religions of the region for the priests to make themselves into eunuchs. We could paraphrase Paul's heated words like this, "Those who are so focused on mutilating the flesh, why stop at circumcision? Why not just make themselves into eunuchs if they think mutilating the flesh makes them holier in the eyes of God? They are trusting in the works of the flesh for salvation instead of trusting in Christ for salvation, so if circumcision is good, emasculation surely is even better!" He's saying this sarcastically, of course. He knows his readers will see how illogical this statement is and he knows they will probably laugh when they read it. A little humor is probably needed right now to break the tension of the serious subject matter, plus it helps to drive home the point Paul is making about the futility of trying to make the inner man holy by making physical changes to the outer man. His point is backed up the Lord Himself, who commanded Israel in Deuteronomy 10:16, "Circumcise your hearts." The Lord said this to Israel after He had given a second set of the ten commandments to the nation to follow. This clearly shows us that justification in God's eyes was not obtained by the keeping of the commandments but by faith in the Giver of the commandments. It was what was in the heart rather than what was in the flesh that was going to make Israel right in the eyes of God. It is still what is in the heart that makes us right in the eyes of God.

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