A while back someone in our church met a guy from the International Church of Christ (which is basically a cult). And he asked if she was a Christian. So she said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'And what do you think makes you a Christian? So she said, 'Trusting in Jesus and his death for our forgiveness.' To which he said, 'Look, it's great that you believe in Jesus… but now you need to be properly baptised.' And it turned out that this meant being baptised by them, in their way – and that otherwise, she wasn't really a Christian. Which was disturbing. Because it made her wonder, 'Have I understood the Christian message right? And have I been given the whole story by JPC?'
I wonder if you've had anything like that – someone saying, 'It's great that you believe in Jesus… but now you need to take this extra step or have this extra experience to become one of us'?
Well, that's what was going on in the churches to whom Paul wrote Galatians. And this time last year, we did Galatians 1 to 3. And we left it there because doing the lot would have taken a long time – and made it harder to have a balanced diet of different parts of the Bible over a year. The downside of that is getting back into it after a year's break. But here goes. Let me remind you of:
1. The Background
After Jesus died and rose, the apostles preached about him and people became Christians. And to begin with, they were all Jews – people with the background of the Old Testament, who lived under the Old Testament law. And the apostle Paul was a Jew himself, but the Lord Jesus told him to take the Christian message to Gentiles – which is Bible-speak for non-Jews. So Paul went to this Gentile area, Galatia; he preached the gospel; and people became Christians. And Paul told them, 'You don't need to take on living under the Old Testament law. That's the way we Jews had to relate to God before Jesus came. But now that Jesus has come, that's not the way we're to relate to God.'
Well, Paul then left Galatia, but pretty soon some Jewish Christians arrived saying something like the International Church of Christ guy. They said to the Galatians, 'Look, it's great that you believe in Jesus… but now you need to take on living under the Old Testament law. Because Paul didn't tell you the whole story: you do need to live under the Old Testament law – otherwise, you're not really in relationship with God.'
Now, you may already be thinking, 'This doesn't sound as if it's going to be very relevant to me: no-one's telling me I must take on living under the Old Testament law, and I don't lie awake worrying about whether I should.' To which I'd say: like many parts of the Bible, you can't just read straight off Galatians little messages for you and your life on Monday morning. And if you treat the Bible as if you can do that, you'll end up very frustrated with it indeed. But if you're prepared to work at understanding what God was saying to them back then, you'll find massive messages for us today about the gospel – to give us the stability and confidence in our faith that we need.
So relevance will come, but step one is to explain why these Jewish Christians thought the Gentile Christians must take on living under the Old Testament law. And to do that, you need a Bible overview – which is what our passage today really is.
So here is the beginning of a simple Bible overview:
Reading that overview left to right:
• In the box 1 is the picture of how things were in the beginning – described in Genesis 1 and 2. The crown stands for God (the crown represents his right to rule over his creation), the stickperson stands for the first man and woman; and that's the way things were made to be: human beings living under God's rule.
• But the next box along (box 2) is the picture of the fall, described in Genesis 3. That was when Adam and Eve effectively said to God, 'We don't want you ruling our lives – we want to live them our own way.' And that attitude to God is what the Bible calls 'sin' (so that word now appears in the picture). And that attitude and the behaviour it leads to brings us under God's condemnation (which is the black barrier between God and us in the picture). And that's the box we were born into. We weren't born like Adam and Eve were created – so the car stickers saying, 'Little angel on board' are wrong (as every parent knows in experience). No, we were born like Adam and Eve became through the fall – which is why your parents never had to teach you to be selfish or to lie or to fight: it came naturally.
• But then box 3 takes us forward to Genesis 12, where you get the promise on which the whole Bible – God's whole plan of salvation – is built. It's God's promise to Abraham to rescue that fallen situation and to put people right with him again. So there in that box is God's promise coming down to Abraham. And Abraham trusted that promise and began a relationship of (albeit imperfect) obedience to God.
• Then box 4 takes us forward to Exodus 20. And there are Abraham's descendants – the people of Israel. And God now gave them his law, to spell out comprehensively what obedience to him involved. And he said to them, 'The way to live in relationship with me is to live under this law.'
But here now is the picture of how these Jewish Christians who'd arrived in Galatia saw things:
They put all the emphasis on God's law and on trying to obey it – and basically believed that the law solved the sin problem. They didn't think they were perfect, but they thought if you were living under the law, God no longer saw you as a sinner – they believed it made you acceptable. So no wonder they said to the Gentile Christians, 'You can't be right with God unless you live under the Old Testament law.' To which Paul's answer, where we re-join Galatians, is: 'They're wrong – because they've totally misunderstood the Old Testament. They've put all the emphasis on God's law, when it should be on God's promise.' So here's my first heading:
1. Only Jesus can Solve our Sin Problem (vv15-18)
Look at Galatians 3, v15:
To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant [or promise], no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises [ie, God's promises] were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings", referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring", who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterwards, does not annul a covenant [or promise] previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
Now there's not time to explain every detail in today's passage. But the principle is always: see the wood for the trees; get the drift. So let's try to do that, with the help of this next picture. Paul is saying this is actually how we should see the beginning of the Bible:
Paul is saying two things in vv15-18:
- No.1: that God's promise to Abraham is the all-important, fundamental thing in the Bible – and that his giving of the law later doesn't change that.
- No.2: that the promise to Abraham was really about Jesus and pointing forward to what Jesus would ultimately do.
Just look back to v16:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings", referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring", who is Christ.
So, in Genesis 12 onwards, God said to Abraham repeatedly, 'I am making this promise to you and your offspring.' And that word can be singular or plural. So if you have one child you can call him or her your offspring; I've got three children but I can still say, 'They're my offspring.' Well, Abraham's immediate offspring (singular) was Isaac. Isaac then had Jacob and his twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel – so the people of Israel were Abraham's offspring (plural).
But Paul says: the offspring (singular) whom this promise really referred to, down the tracks, is Jesus.
Now God's promise to Abraham was basically, 'I will bless people through you and your offspring.' And 'blessing' means rescuing them from that fallen situation of rejecting God and being under his condemnation. And as Paul re-read his Old Testament as a Christian, and re-thought everything, he had realised: that promise was really pointing forward to Jesus, as this next picture tries to show:
So, how can we be rescued from the condemnation we deserve, without God compromising his justice? The answer is (see box 5 of the picture above): through Jesus' death on the cross, where he took the condemnation we deserve so that on the one hand justice was done on our sin, and on the other hand we can be forgiven our sin. And that's why Galatians has some of the most important verses in the Bible about the cross (eg, 3.13).
But that only solves the problem of God's judgement against my sin. It doesn't by itself solve the problem of my rejection of God – of me not wanting God to rule over me. For that (see box 6 of the picture above) I need the risen Jesus to come into my life by his Spirit and to open my eyes to his love for me on the cross and to change me, through seeing Jesus' love for me, into someone who wants to love him back. And that's why Galatians also has some of the most important verses in the Bible about the Holy Spirit (throughout chapters 4-6 especially).
So our sin-problem is so deep that only Jesus can solve it by his work for us on the cross (box 5 in the picture above), and then in us by his Spirit (box 6 in the picture above).
But his work in us right now is only a beginning. I've been a Christian for 34 years now, but there's still so much sinfulness in me that needs to be changed (apply to my wife and children and colleagues for details) – so many sinful desires and habits that are like squatters in the house of my life: I don't want them there any more, but I can't evict them and I'm still often stupid enough to do what they want me to. And that will only be fully solved beyond this life (see box 7 in the picture above), when the Holy Spirit finishes the job by raising me from the dead, when all those sinful desires and habits will finally be evicted and I'll be in a sinless place in a sinless relationship with God and everyone else there – which the Bible calls 'glory'. And that's why v18 sums up the blessings of the gospel in the word 'inheritance'. Look at v18:
For if the inheritance [what lies beyond this life] comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
I was visiting one of our older members just before Christmas. He has cancer, and at one point he glanced at the Christmas tree and said, 'I probably won't see one of those again.' (That's assuming they don't have them in heaven.) And we'd been talking about his health problems and I said, 'It's good to be able to look forward to having a new body and getting rid of the old one.' And he said, 'Yes, but above all I'm looking forward to getting rid of my sinfulness.' And that's the right perspective, isn't it? That's how the sin problem is finally solved. And only Jesus can solve it.
And if you've come to see that sin is your real problem, you need to ask him to solve it for you. And if you want to know how to do that, pick up one of the Why Jesus? booklets from the Welcome Desk and give it a read.
So first of all, Paul says here: only Jesus can solve our sin problem. But next he says:
2. God's Law can only Show Up our Sin-Problem (vv19-24)
Looking back at the picture above, we saw how God's promise to Abraham was really pointing forward to Jesus. Which begs the question in Galatians 3.19:
Why then the law?
Why did God add that into the picture? Why not just send Jesus straight away? Well, read on:
It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made...
So God added the law into the picture 'because of transgressions'. And transgression means crossing a line you shouldn't cross. So for example, if I'm driving empty country roads with our children in the back, then to stop them getting car-sick, I iron out the corners a bit, where it's safe to do so. And that's OK if there's no line in the middle that you're crossing. But the moment there's a solid line, then ironing out the corners becomes transgression – it becomes wrong, and you realise you're in the wrong, because of the law of the road.
And in v19, Paul sees God's law as the moral line which God drew to make us realise we're in the wrong with him. For example, God's law says, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' And before God gave them his law, the people of Israel were sinful and selfish like everyone else. But God then drew that line into their lives to make them realise it. And if tomorrow you set yourself to love every person you meet as you love and look after 'number one', you'll end the day pondering how selfish you really are – if you're honest.
So God added his law to show up the sin-problem, not to solve it. So onto v21:
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?
Ie, did God announce Plan A – 'I will solve the sin-problem through sending my Son' – but then announce Plan B – 'Actually, on second thoughts, you can solve it yourself by keeping my law'? Well, read on in v21 for Paul's answer to that:
Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life [ie, life back in relationship with God], then righteousness [ie, being put right with God] would indeed be by the law.
But actually, God's law can't solve the sin-problem – and was never meant to. Read on, v22, instead:
the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
So now Paul sees God's law as a one-man judge and jailer, who pronounces sentence – eg, 'You haven't loved your neighbour as yourself – so you're guilty of deep self-centredness of nature' – and who, metaphorically speaking, sends you to jail – leaving you feeling locked away from God and from any hope of being accepted by him. Read on, v23:
Now before faith came [ie, before Jesus came so people could trust in him], we [by which Paul means we Jews – remember, he was one; we] were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith [ie, put right with God through faith in Jesus].
So Paul sees God's law 1) as a moral line drawn to make us realise we're in the wrong with him, 2) as a one-man judge and jailer, but also 3) as a guardian. Actually, the original word meant something like 'child-minder'. Well-off people in those days had slaves, and if you had primary aged children, one slave would be this child-minding guardian. And his job was to take your kid or kids to school and to stop them bunking off anywhere else on the way.
And Paul is saying that the story of God's Old Testament people from Exodus 20 onwards was:
- They were given the law.
- They broke the law.
- So the law was meant to show up the sin-problem of the whole human race (because Israel was just typical of everyone).
- And then, like a child-minding guardian, the law was meant to point the human race to Jesus. It's as if the law was saying to Israel, as her story unfolded, 'I'm taking you to Jesus. And I'm trying to stop you bunking off anywhere else – because there is no solution to the sin-problem anywhere else: not in government or law or education or trying to be a better person or any other religion.'
So strictly speaking, verses 23 and 24 are about the story of Israel in the Old Testament. But what God's law did for them then, it can still do for people today. So it may be that you're not a Christian and not convinced about this sin business – you think it's far too negative and that human beings are basically good. To which I'd say two things: no.1, if you really believe human beings are basically good, why did you lock your house before coming out? And no.2, why not set yourself consciously to keep that part of God's law I mentioned – 'Love your neighbour [which means everyone you meet] as yourself [which means with the same love and care you give 'number one']' – and see how it goes.
And what's the relevance of this if you are a Christian? Well, it's that whenever you read God's law in the Old Testament or quoted in the New, it'll keep showing up your sin-problem. Because although the way we relate to God today is no longer by living under the Old Testament law, it is still part of God's Word to us and does still tells us how he wants us to live – and therefore whenever we read it, it will show us more of our sin and remind us again and again that we're people who need Jesus – who need his death for the forgiveness of our sins and who need his Spirit to overcome more of our sinfulness. And that's the message of the Old Testament, in a nutshell: the whole Old Testament is saying, 'You're a person who needs Jesus.' And the more you go on as a Christian, you'll realise you need Jesus more, not less.
So Paul says here: 1) only Jesus can solve our sin problem; 2) God's law can only show up our sin-problem. And lastly he says here:
3. If You're Trusting in Christ, God Fully Accepts You – And Accepts You as Fully as Anyone Else (vv25-29)
Remember: the problem in Galatia was these misguided Jewish Christians telling the Gentile Christians, 'You can't be right with God unless you live under the Old Testament law, like us.' And being told that would at best leave you feeling second class – accepted by God, but not in the 'inner circle'. And at worst, it would leave you doubting whether God accepted you at all. So look down to v25, where Paul wraps this bit up:
But now that faith has come [ie, now we live this side of Jesus' first coming], we are no longer under a guardian [ie, the way to relate to God is no longer living under the Old Testament law], for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (vv25-26)
This weekend we had friends staying with us, and they asked if they could stay. We also had my mother-in-law and an aunt staying with us, and they asked if they could stay. We also had our children staying with us, but they didn't ask. They never do. They don't need to, because they're already as 'in' as they possibly could be. And Paul says: everyone trusting in Jesus is fully accepted like that by God as his child. So there's no inner circle, no first and second class. And that's the point of v28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
So the first of those (the Jew/Greek pair) was the problem in Galatia, because these misguided Jewish Christians were implying that they were the inner circle, the first class – and that the Greeks (or non-Jews) weren't. To which Paul says, no:
There is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Which doesn't mean literally none of them were Jews or non-Jews – you've got to be one or the other. It simply means regardless of that difference, they all had one and the same relationship with God, standing before God, value in God's eyes through trusting in Jesus.
And likewise, he doesn't mean literally that none of them were slaves or free, or male or female. It simply means that regardless of the differences between slaves and free in society, and regardless of the differences between men and women in God's creation-order, all have one and the same relationship with God, standing before God, value in God's eyes if they are trusting in Jesus.
Now I know, from talking to people in our church, that some of us who are trusting in Jesus feel second class here. I've had people say as much to me – for example, because they don't feel they fit socially; or because they're single and not married with the requisite three children; or because they're divorced; or because they have mental health problems; or because they struggle with homosexuality; or for other reasons.
Well what would Paul say? Along the lines of v28, he would say, 'There is neither 'middle class' nor any other 'class'; there is neither doctor nor dustman; there is neither single nor married; there is neither divorced nor undivorced; there is neither those with big problems and those with smaller problems; there is neither 'straight' nor those struggling with homosexual desires… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' Paul would say that regardless of which side of those pairs we're each in, if we're trusting in Jesus, then we all have one and the same relationship with God, standing before God, value in God's eyes.
So will you believe that of yourself – and turn from feeling either inferior to other believers here or superior to other believers here? And will you believe that of every other Christian here, and treat them accordingly?
Because one of God's purposes for Galatians is to get churches not only to believe that, but to live that, so that every believer feels fully 'in'. And needless to say, we have a way to go on that.
If you want to read something alongside this sermon series, here are two suggestions:
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller, Good Book Company – this is the more readable of the two suggestions, but partly because it doesn't go so much into the details of what Galatians means, verse by verse.
The Bible Speaks Today: Galatians, John Stott, IVP – this is a bit heavier, because it explains more, but it's still accessible and well-applied.