Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

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It is important for us to understand the world that these Colossian Christians lived in, so that we can see why Paul wrote what he did, and how they would have understood and applied it to their lives.

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Colossians Part 1: The Whole Shebang

Colossians is a letter written by Paul to the Christians in the city of Colossae. Colossae was a relatively small town in an area of the world that we would now call southern Turkey. It was three to five days’ journey east from the large city of Ephesus. In order to understand this book of the Bible, it is important to know a little bit about the kind of world those Colossian Christians lived in.

By that point in history, virtually all of the land within two-hundred miles of the Mediterranean sea had been conquered first by Greeks, and then by Romans. Though there were still local customs and languages, for the most part, everybody spoke Greek, and participated in what we call “Greco-Roman culture.”

Colossians has a lot to say about worshipping God. A big part of that culture was about worshipping various gods. The chief god was Zeus, and his wife was Hera. Apollo was the god of healing, among other things. Hermes was the god in charge of messages and communication. So, if you sent an important letter, you might make an offering to Hermes to make sure it was favorably received. If you wanted healing, you went to the shrine of Apollo. Athena, besides being a goddess of war, was in charge of weaving and pottery, so if you were a craftsman in these trades, you probably worshipped her. In fact, many trades (like baking, blacksmithing, leather working) had guilds, and one of the main things you did in your trade guild was come together and worship the god who was in charge of your trade. Colossians also mentions drunkenness, and sexual immorality. Often times, worshipping the various gods involved feasting, getting drunk, and then having sex in the temple or shrine of the god you worshipped. Generally, they were not having sex with their spouses in this context. So, Paul writes about sexual immorality.

In addition, the Greco-Roman people had a fascination with what they called “mystery religions.” Anything strange and mysterious and weird drew their attention. And, of course, there was a great tolerance of any sort of worship or religion. It was no big deal if one man preferred Apollo, and another Zeus. People didn’t care. But what was not tolerated, what eventually led to persecution, was when Christians said everyone else was wrong. As long as you could agree that your religion was one of several dozen equally valid ways, there was no problem. But it was thought arrogant to claim that your religion was the One True Way. Sound familiar?

The one exception to these sorts of religions was Judaism. Jews worshipped only the one God, and they had a special dispensation by the Roman government, so they were tolerated. By this point in history, however, Jews did not live simply according to the Old Testament. They had developed an elaborate system of laws and theology that went far beyond what the Old Testament teaches. Christians, of course, worship the same One God, though they did not add all of the things added by the Jews, and added instead, the wisdom and truth brought by Jesus Christ.

So, when Jews and Christians met each other, they had this in common: they worshipped only the One true God as revealed first in the Old Testament. They shared some of the moral values that no one else in the culture had. In some times and places Jewish people, recognizing the common ground they had with Christians, sought to turn the Gentile Christians into Jews. In other places, they condemned Jewish Christians, claiming they had fallen away from Judaism. They wanted to make Christians live according to the Jewish laws – even the ones that weren’t in the Bible. Paul writes about this sort of thing in this book of Colossians.

Paul talks about the roles of women and men in the family and the church. Women in that culture were not as free as they are now, but were not as oppressed as some people might think. For example, a woman named Hedea won the war-chariot race in Corinth in the year 43. If a woman won the race, it isn’t a stretch to assume that more than one woman participated. War chariot racing is a violent, physically demanding sport, but apparently, women did it. In many places, the New Testament talks about prominent women who had enough influence to get Christians kicked out of local towns. Lydia was a businesswoman; no mention is made of a man in her life. She appears to be self-sufficient, and no remark is made as if that was particularly unusual. In the first century, in Ephesus, there was a woman holding a position something like what we would call “superintendent of the school district.” Many women had work that required them to travel around the town and do business.

In Rome, at least, marriage was becoming a farce. Divorce was rampant. Men and women swapped wives and husbands like they were at a flea market. There is a marriage record of one woman marrying her twenty-third husband. For the man, she was his twenty-first wife. It was a time and place where sexual immorality was common, and marriage was just not valued. Again, sound familiar?

So we need to understand that Paul’s words about marriage and family were not simply re-affirming what everyone around there believed. They were counter-cultural. Radical, even.

One final cultural thing we should understand: slavery, since Paul briefly mentions that, also. In the Greco-Roman world, there were essentially two types of slavery. The first is what we usually think of when we hear that word. These were slaves used to mine precious minerals, or to work on the Roman war galleys. They were treated little better than animals. They were people who were wholly under the control of their masters, and they were treated horribly. This is not the type of slavery that the New Testament (or Colossians) writes about, since there were no such slaves living in the towns and cities of the Greco-Roman world. Most of these were captured in war.

There was, however, another kind of slave. They were “bound” into service to their masters with a legal agreement. But this situation was much like the position of indentured servant that was quite common among white Europeans during the American colonial period. Certainly, they weren’t free to leave their masters without a change in the legal situation. Certainly, they had fewer rights than legally free people. But it was nothing like the race-based chattel-slavery that took place in America during the nineteenth century. Some translations of the Bible translate this type as “bond-servant” which is probably a better term. There were huge numbers of this sort of “slave” in the world at this time. Many of these people were “slaves” only for a period of their life – ten or twenty years. Most of them reasonably expected to – and did, in fact – gain their freedom at some point in life. They were paid for their work, which basically defies the description of “slave.” They could own property themselves – in fact, there are records of slaves owning slaves! They could marry, and have families, and their “owners” could not separate them from their families.

In those days, a slave with an important job for a wealthy, noble family, was often far better off than a free person trying to make a living on their own.

Now, let’s talk about the specific reasons Paul wrote this letter. As far as we know, Paul himself never went to Colossae. For a time, he planted house churches in Ephesus, and apparently, a man from Colossae, named Epaphras, visited Ephesus while Paul was working there. Epaphras became a Christian while he was in Ephesus, and then returned home to Colossae, where he started teaching people to follow Jesus. Many people there became Christians, and one or more house churches were established there. We know that one of the Christians was man named Philemon, and another one was Philemon’s bond-servant, Onesimus.

A few years later, Paul was a prisoner in Rome, under house arrest, with a fair amount of freedom as he awaited an audience with Caesar. This man Epaphras came to help and encourage him. It appears that Paul had a long talk with Epaphras about how things were going with the church in Colossae, and Paul wrote this letter in response to that conversation.

There were already several people in Rome with Paul, including the slave named Onesimus. In addition there was a man from Ephesus named Tychicus (tik-ki-kis). Tychicus is mentioned several times in the New Testament. It appears that he often traveled with Paul as part of his ministry team, and Paul thought very highly of him. After the arrival of Epaphras, Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians (the one we have in our Bible) and possibly another letter to Laodicea, which has been lost. By the way, I like that we know that. It shows that God was in control of what went into the Bible. Not everything Paul wrote was supposed to be part of the Bible, so God, in his providence, allowed that letter to be lost, while, in his providence, others were preserved.

In addition to that lost letter, Paul also wrote this letter to the Colossians, and a letter to Philemon, whom I mentioned above. That letter is also part of the Bible. Tychicus was given the task of carrying the letters to Ephesus and beyond, and also encouraging the Christians in those cities.

All right, with all this background, I want to do something a little different. We will take the text piece by piece, as I normally do. However, it is very helpful to have a sense of the whole thing before we examine each little part. Therefore, please end your time by reading the entire book of Colossians at one sitting, right now. It took me eleven minutes to do so out loud in the spoken version of this sermon. If you prefer to listen to that, it starts at 26:11 in the recorded sermon. As you do so, write down anything that strikes you, and especially, jot down any questions that come up from what you read. However, jot quickly, and keep reading, so you have a sense for what the whole letter feels like.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today through the text!

SELF-JUSTIFICATION, OR JESUS-JUSTIFICATION?

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Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good. You don’t have to try any more.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 15

GALATIANS #15

Galatians Chapter 5:2-6

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:2-4, ESV2011)

Before all you ladies quit reading, I want to make it clear that these verses have to do with some timeless and important principles. It isn’t really about the male anatomy at all. Remember, the situation in Galatia is that some false teachers have come in and are saying that although Jesus is the Messiah, in order to be right with God and be truly saved, you must follow Jewish law. For men, that meant that they must be circumcised. Some of these folks were in Jerusalem with Paul at one time:

But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses! ” (Acts 15:5, HCSB)

Now, let’s be clear. Paul himself was circumcised. At one point, he had his helper, Timothy, circumcised, so that he could stay the houses of non-Christian Jews (Acts 16:3). So clearly, Paul did not view circumcision itself as evil or always wrong. The problem was, the Galatians were starting to believe that circumcision was necessary (for men) to get right with God. For both men and women, they felt it was necessary to follow Jewish law.

Paul is saying this: “We are saved by Jesus plus nothing. If you want to count circumcision or the Jewish Law toward your salvation, then you can’t count Jesus. If you want to follow the law, you have to follow the whole thing perfectly, your entire life.” Jesus presents us with an either/or proposition. Either we receive him, and him alone as our only hope, or we try and get right with God through our own efforts. But we can’t do both.

If you think anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus will get you right with God, then you are on your own. If you say, “well, God needs to let my aunt into heaven because she was so kind and generous,” you are really claiming that one way to get right with God is kindness and generosity. Paul, Jesus and entire New Testament disagree.

You can come to God through Jesus, have no other claim or hope; or, you can come to God with anything else you want, but not Jesus. Jesus is exclusive. Martin Luther, writing about these verses, put it this way:

“This teaching is the touchstone by which we can judge most surely and freely about all doctrines, works, forms of worship, and ceremonies of men. Whoever (whether he be a papist, a Jew, a Turk, or a sectarian) teaches that anything beyond the Gospel of Christ is to necessary to attain salvation; whoever establishes any work or form of worship; whoever observes any rule, tradition or ceremony with the opinion that thereby he will obtain the forgiveness of sins, righteousness and eternal life – will hear the judgment of the Holy Spirit pronounced against him here by the apostle: that Christ is of no advantage to him at all.” (Martin Luther).

People these days do not like the idea that there is only one way to God, and therefore only one way to heaven. According to the Bible, there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. Jesus said it himself:

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matt 7:13-14, HCSB)

The apostles all reiterated this teaching of Jesus. John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. (1John 5:11-12, HCSB)

The reason Jesus is the only way, is because it is only through his life, death and resurrection that God’s holy standard is satisfied. God is holy. Holiness destroys sin. If we come into God’s presence with sin in us, we will be destroyed. Jesus embodied both the holiness of God the flesh of sinful humanity. Because of who he was, his life, death and resurrection satisfied the holy standards of God’s nature. He was the only one who could do that. As we trust him, he includes us in what he has done. But if we try and justify ourselves in any way, Jesus is useless to us. The Galatians were trying to do it through Jewish law. Let me share a few ways I’ve heard people these days try to justify themselves apart from Jesus:

“Well, I’m basically a good person.”

“I’m no saint, but I’m no worse than anyone else.”

“I’m no saint, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

“I’ve gone to church all my life.”

“I take care of the people around me. The bible says to love your neighbor, and I do that, probably better than a lot of church people.”

Folks, this is all self-justification. These statements are all about getting into heaven by your own merit, or at least your own merit compared to other people (but not compared to God’s Holy Standard). This is living by law. In terms of relating to God, it is no different from insisting upon following Jewish law. It is up to you to be good enough, or to be at least no worse than others, or to behave religiously. Paul says that if you rely on such things, Jesus Christ is of no value to you.

Some people look for justification in other religions. They may say that all religions lead to the same goal. I always find that idea kind of humorous, because the one thing all religions seem to agree upon is that the other ones are wrong. Islam claims to be the one right way. Jesus himself excluded any other way but himself. That means you can follow other religions if you want, but you won’t have anything to do with Jesus. Even Hinduism and Buddhism, which many people think are so inclusive, are not really that way. They might be willing to includes Jesus as another one of their thousands of Deities, but they absolutely refuse to let him claim the exclusivity that he claims. In other words, they are inclusive only if you accept their way of looking at things, which of course, means they aren’t that inclusive.

There is one more thing people do to justify themselves. They simply change the standard. Listen carefully here, because it doesn’t sound like living by law, but it is. The ten commandments command us to put God first, to not make or worship idols, to not take the name of the Lord in vain and to observe a day set aside for rest and worship. They tell us we should honor our parents. They say we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. Jesus said they were all summed up by these two ideas: Love God, and Love your Neighbor.

So our current culture says “It’s all about love. As long as you act ‘loving,’ you are a good person.” So, you can cheat and steal and lie as long as you do it to the government or a large corporation, where no one (that you know about) gets personally hurt. You’ll still be a good person. You can have sex with someone you aren’t married to, as long as it is loving. You can have greed and envy and hatred in your heart, as long you don’t hurt anyone. You can gossip, or get drunk, or lie to your boss about why you weren’t there. Our culture has reduced holiness to innocuousness.

Now, all this is still self-justification. We aren’t putting our hope in Jesus to forgive us and make us good from the inside out. We are changing the standard of goodness and holiness so that it describes the way we prefer to behave. We are trying to make ourselves righteous by changing what righteousness is. This isn’t putting our hope in Christ – it is putting our hope in the fact that we can, through our own efforts, meet the reduced standards. If this is our approach to God, we are trying to be right with him so other way than Jesus. Paul says, if that is so, we are cut off from Christ.

Now, again, circumcision in itself is not the problem. Paul writes:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love. (Gal 5:6, HCSB)

The issue is self-justification. Circumcision might be a good thing for hygiene or even something that helps some people remember they belong to God. But it can’t be a law, or a means to get right with God.

There are many things like circumcision. Fasting can be helpful to focus our hearts and minds upon the Lord. Certain forms of worship and spiritual disciplines can really help us grow closer to the Lord. But if you ever find yourself thinking “If I just do this, I’ll be OK with God,” watch out! The devil is lying to you. If you think, “Only people who do this activity, or observe this ceremony, are real Christians,” you are in deep spiritual danger!

Let me be even more clear. Not even keeping the ten commandments will get you right with God. First, if you are old enough to read these words, you have already failed to keep the ten commandments. It’s already over – you haven’t kept the whole law perfectly for your whole life. You aren’t holy enough to come into the presence of God. You never will be. It’s good to follow the ten commandments – the Holy Spirit, living inside Christians, wants to do them. But if you are trying to follow the ten commandments in order to keep God from smiting you, you are out of luck. The smiting is coming, unless you are in Jesus.

Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good.

When you are in Jesus, as you submit to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, you will start to look a little more holy, because he wants to live his holy life through you. But it won’t be you trying to be good in order to please God or get to heaven. It will be Jesus in you, being good, as you. And you won’t trust your own goodness or worry if your own goodness is enough – because the goodness of Jesus is enough for you.

I know you screw up, because I know I screw up. I know that even though Jesus has made me good, I don’t always act like it. Paul knew this about himself too. And that is why he wrote verse 5:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (Gal 5:5, HCSB)

The Greek word there for “eagerly wait,” frequently refers to waiting for the fulfillment of something that has been promised, but hasn’t happened yet. We have this righteousness through Jesus, and yet it isn’t fully complete at this time. So we anticipate it eagerly. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 9:28. He wrote this to the Christians in Rome:

For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:19-25, HCSB)

So what does all this mean for us now? Paul talked about freedom in verse 1. What freedom it is to be done with justifying yourself! You aren’t letting yourself off the hook – you are admitting that you can’t get off the hook and you need Jesus to save you. You are admitting you cannot do it. There is great freedom in that.

There is a warning here, too. If you think you can add to what Jesus had done for you, or if you think you have a part to play in saving yourself, you are in grave spiritual danger. And there is a warning also, to not make good things into necessary things.

Finally, there is this business of eagerly waiting. I see a lot of people who call themselves Christians who do not seem interested, let alone eager, in Jesus bringing his righteousness into their lives. It makes me wonder how much room he really has in their hearts. We don’t need to be perfect. We don’t need to strive to make ourselves good. But we should eagerly anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to do those things. We can be looking for it, praying for it, ready to respond right away as the Spirit prompts us to do something, or refrain from doing something else. We are not supposed to wander off and say, “Well, let Jesus make me righteous if he can, I’m off to do my own thing. Good luck to him.” No, Paul says that we who are in Jesus should be anticipating his work in us, eager to see it come about.

What is the Spirit saying to you today?

FREEDOM!

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 14

Galatians #14 . Chapter 5:1

Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1, HCSB)

These two sentences are extremely powerful. I want to pause and unpack them a little bit. Paul says that Christ has liberated us. One natural question is – how has he done that? Colossians 2:13-18 gives us a clue:

And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses. He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; He triumphed over them by Him.

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. (Col 2:13-18, HCSB)

Through the cross, Jesus Christ has liberated us. His death fulfilled the law, and erased our debt and obligation to it. His death triumphed over, and disarmed, the demonic powers that were free to torment us for our failure to keep the law.

Paul says we are liberated to be free. Two more useful questions are, “What are we free from? What are we freed to?”

I’m so glad you asked. What follows all applies to me as much as to you, but I am going to write it as “you” so that you can appreciate the full impact of your freedom. As you consider your freedom, remember this is freedom that you have only in Christ. You didn’t get it. You didn’t earn it. You don’t get to keep it apart from Christ. But in Christ, you are indeed free. Let me explain what I mean by in Christ. You are in Christ when you keep on trusting him. I use the expression keep on trusting quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. This is not a situation where you just say, “Well I got baptized, so I’m good now.” Or “Well, I got saved five years ago, so I’m good now.” This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us.

So, in Christ Jesus, you are free.

You are free from the obligations of the Jewish ceremonial law, as Paul has made very clear throughout this letter.

You are free from subservience to the little regulations that religious people sometimes put on you. Things like: The way you dress. What you eat. The way you express worship. Dancing. The manner in which you pray. The music you listen to. Acting externally religious or pious. You don’t have to keep a formula to be right with God. You don’t have to follow man-made rules. Paul wrote to the Colossians:

If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence. (Col 2:20-23, HCSB

But wait, there’s more.

You are free from the eternal consequences of the fact that you have broken God’s moral law. That’s right, your sins no longer determine your status with God. No, they do not. If Jesus lives in you, he will want to express his life through you in a way that honors God’s moral law. But your failures at times do not determine your status with God. You are free from being defined by your failures and sins.

You are free from trying to make yourself good. Don’t you argue with me, yes you are. In Jesus Christ, God has already made you good. You are free from having to do that.

You are free from shame.

You are free from shame.

In Jesus, there is nothing wrong with who you are. You are not judged based upon your sins, or your failures, or your flaws. You are judged on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus.

You are free from the way others view you. You are even free from the way you view yourself. Now, you can accept the way God views you – which is through the “lens” of Jesus. It’s a little bit like this. When you are in Christ, God looks for you, and finds you there, in Jesus Christ. And what he sees you there, what he sees is Jesus. So he looks at you, and sees the righteousness of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the strength of Jesus, the honor of Jesus. If you are in him, you have the life of Jesus in you. God isn’t deceived when he sees all that, because it is there.

You are free to have joy without guilt. You are free to love yourself, because you are in Christ, and he is in you. You are free to follow the leading of Holy Spirit without beating yourself up for your failures. You are free to wallow with happiness in the fact that you are loved at the deepest core of your being. You are free to live as the person that God made you to be, and not according to the expectations of others.

You are free from trying to get God to bless you. Receive the blessings he chooses to give with joy, and trust him to bless because he is good, not because you are.

You are free from trying to get it right all the time. Let Jesus get it right through you, by continuing on, in Him.

You are free from figuring it out, managing it, controlling it. What is “it?” you ask? Only everything.

Really? Is all this true, without reservation?

Yes.

Paul will go on and talk about walking according to the Holy Spirit – what we might call, “Christian Living.” We’ll see how all that works when we get to that point. But before we move on and talk about Christian living, we have to make sure that we understand this freedom we have in Jesus. You are free. Don’t submit again to slavery. Stand firm.

The word “yoke” in the New Testament usually implies a sense of servitude or slavery. Jesus invited us to take his yoke, and Paul, later considered himself a servant or slave of Jesus. But Jesus said “slavery” to Him was easy, and the burden is light. Other New Testament passages use the word “yoke” with negative connotations about hard service. The Greek version of the Old Testament, also frequently uses the same word this way. So we have two paths: we can be bound to Jesus, but his yoke is easy and light; or, we can be bound in slavery to having to measure up. Listen to how Jesus invites us:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30, ESV2011)

Paul says, stand firm in the free and easy, restful yoke of Jesus. How do we do that? First, I think it is important to recognize that our battle is not against flesh and blood. The verses I just shared from Colossians show us that Jesus has disarmed the demonic powers. So, having been disarmed, their strategy now is to lie to you. They will come to you say, “I know Tom said you were free from shame, but he doesn’t know who you really are inside. You know that you deserve to live in shame.” This will sound like you, talking to yourself, but it is a lie from the pit of hell. Stand firm. Don’t submit to that slavery any more.

They will come and say, “It’s all good to say that you are free from trying to make yourself good, but after all, the bible tells you to follow certain standards of behavior.” In a few weeks we will get into all the stuff about Christian Living and Christian Behavior. Jesus wants to live his life through you, so of course, your behavior should look more and more like Jesus. But you don’t accomplish that by your efforts. You accomplish it by embracing who you are in Jesus, and continuing to trust him. Actually, Jesus accomplishes the “Christian living” through you. All you have to do is trust him, and let him do what he wants to in and through you.

To fight these lies, we should cling to the truth. Jesus said,

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32, HCSB)

If we continue in his word – this is part of what it means to be in Jesus Christ. We continue to trust him, and trust his word. His Word tells us the truth, and the truth sets us free. Practically speaking, that means that one very important way to stand firm in our freedom is to know the Bible, and continue to know it even better. Read it. If you aren’t a reader, there are plenty of great CD’s and MP3’s you can get so that you can listen to the Bible. Talk about it with your Christian friends. Grab a devotional that points back to the bible. Stand firm by staying in touch with what the Holy Spirit says through the bible.

It’s also helpful to have allies. Other believers who are continuing on in Jesus can encourage you as you do the same. Listening to these messages, praying together, talking about your struggles and joys – all these help you stand firm.

Sometimes, one of the best ways to stand firm in our freedom is to thank God for it, regularly. Often times, truth really seeps into the soul through the power of thankfulness. If you don’t thank someone for a gift, either you don’t like that person, or you don’t like the gift, or you don’t really believe it has been given you. Thanking God for all this freedom is one way of really grabbing hold of it.

In Jesus, you truly are free. Stand firm in it. Rejoice in it.

HOW DO WE LIVE BY THE PROMISE?

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The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person.

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GALATIANS #9

The Law shows the absolute necessity of the promise. The law shows us our need for the promise. If we didn’t have the law, we wouldn’t understand the holy character of God. If we didn’t have the law, we would not realize that sin is a problem, and one we cannot overcome. The Law isn’t wrong. The problem is, we can’t do it.

The Law is not in contradiction to the promise. It was given as complement, to show that the promise was needed. God gave the promise first, to invite his people to live by faith. But he gave the law later, to help them understand why they needed to live by faith.

In Galatians 3:24 it says that the law was our guardian. Although the Greek word sounds like “pedagogue,” (which in English means “instructor of children,” or “teacher”) it has a different meaning here. The best English translation might be chaperone.

In the culture of New Testament times, the guardian, or chaperone, was there to make sure that boys who were intended to be great and noble did not “go bad.” They were there to keep them from making stupid mistakes, or compromising moral character. They protected them from both physical harm and moral harm.

That was the purpose of the law, and in some ways, is the continuing purpose of the law. Sometimes we view the law as a restriction – it seems to be a fence, keeping us in, restricting our freedom. But what there is a cliff on the other side? What if the wall is actually preventing us from great harm?

We considered the first commandment last time. Let’s look at it again. “You shall have no other Gods besides me.” This means that God is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives. He is to be number one, to have precedence over everything. Now, we could look at this and say, “Hey, that’s not fair. What if I want to make sports my number one priority – at least for a period of time? What if I want to make money, or my career or my spouse or my pleasure to be first priority? What’s wrong with going for it? Didn’t God make me with certain desires? Why shouldn’t I embrace them to the fullest?”

All right, let’s say you did make sports your number one priority. What happens when you get too old to compete with younger, fitter people? Your whole life crumbles. You are still alive, but you can’t live for sports anymore. The command protects you from this.

Suppose I decide that being a pastor should be the most important thing for me. That sounds good and reasonable, doesn’t it? But if I put that in front of my relationship with God, look at what happens. If the church does well, I am doing well. But if someone complains, or people start leaving, it destroys my whole world. I have nothing left if I can’t succeed as a pastor. The first commandment protects me from that. If God is the first thing, the most important thing, than no matter what else in the world crumbles, I am ultimately OK.

The other commandments protect us in similar ways. I am sure that adultery must be pleasurable and exciting. But ultimately it destroys marriages, it handicaps the lives of the children conceived by it, and the lives of the children whose parents divorce because of it. It often spreads diseases. Eventually, it destroys society as a whole, and we are even now starting to see the unraveling of Western culture because so many people have run away from the protection of the commandment against adultery. Now, let’s be clear that God forgives it, and works in the lives of those who have failed to obey it, and brings healing and redemption. But my point is that the commandment is to protect us, not to spoil our fun.

So Paul says, the law was a chaperone, a protector. In Greek and Roman culture, the chaperone’s job ended when the child became a man. The idea was that by that time, the young man had internalized good moral character. He knew right from wrong, and was willing to do right. He was strong enough to protect himself from physical harm also. It isn’t that he should no longer live morally or safely. The idea was that now those attitudes were inside of him; he would behave that way because of the character that been formed in him.

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. Our lives should still look more and more like the character of God as shown in the law. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied about this new relationship to the law:

“Look, the days are coming” — this is the LORD’s declaration — “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant they broke even though I had married them” — the LORD’s declaration. “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” — the LORD’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them” — this is the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.” (Jer 31:31-34, HCSB)

In the case of the noble Greek and Roman families, the chaperone/guardian did not take a child and turn him into a nobleman. No, the child was born a nobleman. They did not become noble by following the guidance of the guardian; rather, they were made noble by their birth. Something preceded the guardian, and that was noble birth.

So with Christians, following the guardian (that is, the law) is not what makes us Christians. It is our spiritual re-birth into Jesus –what we call “being born again.” We are born according to God’s promise to save and transform all who trust in Jesus Christ. The law is good and right. But the promise is greater. The law serves the promise, not vice versa.

Paul puts it this way:

The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:24-29, HCSB)

In the Greco-Roman culture of the Galatians, the sons in the family were the ones who inherited everything and carried the family name. But they did not have the rights and privileges of sons until they reached adulthood Until then, they were still under the authority of their chaperone. So Paul says – we are all “sons.” I think he means sons who have come into adulthood. We are no longer under the chaperone of the law, but in the trust-relationship of the promise. When he says were are “sons,” he doesn’t mean we are all male, he means that all of us – whether male or female, Jewish or not, slave or free – are inheriting the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We are all counted as legitimate and free, we all carry God’s family name, through faith in Jesus Christ. The Jews in Galatia have been telling the Christians that being Jewish is necessary and important, that anyone who is not Jewish is, in a sense, “illegitimate.” But Paul says, “No. We are all the same in Jesus Christ. We are all legitimate in Jesus Christ. Jews aren’t better than Gentiles. Free people aren’t better than slaves. Men aren’t better than women. The only thing that counts is Jesus Christ. In him, we are all legitimate inheritors, legitimate bearers of the family name of God.”

Paul wraps it up by saying that if you are in Christ (that is, if you trust Jesus) you are a true Jew – you are a “descendant” of Abraham. You stand in the true tradition of Abraham, which is salvation by trust in God’s promises, especially trust in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus.

So, what does this mean for all of us today?

First, it is important to realize that the law is good and right. But we don’t become righteous through it, because we cannot do it all, or consistently. We don’t live by a set of rules. We live by a relationship of trust in Jesus, and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. He has already fulfilled the law for us. We are already completely righteous through him. He will guide us so that our lives do reflect the character of God as expressed in the law. But that character and that behavior forms in us not through our strenuous efforts, but through listening to the Holy Spirit and obeying his guidance.

How does this work? Some things are quite obvious. It’s silly to pray, “Jesus, do you want me to commit adultery?” Of course he does not. Although the law can’t save us, it is still true and right and good. A better prayer might be “Jesus, prevent me from even having the opportunity to commit adultery.” Or, “Jesus I give you my will and my body, to use as you want. Keep me from sinning.” Remember and recognize that through Jesus, you are already holy in spirit. Keep up that conversational prayer. It’s hard to be talking to Jesus, while at the very same time you are doing something unrighteous and unholy. His character within you doesn’t want to do it. If you feel a strong desire to sin, be honest with him about that, and keep up that conversational prayer.

Second, as I read these verses, I have a strong sense that some of you need to hear this: you are legitimate. You aren’t second class. You are a full heir of God, you carry His family name. No one who trusts Jesus is any worse – or any better – than you. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Your failures are irrelevant. Your socio-economic position is irrelevant. Your gender is irrelevant. Your ethnicity is irrelevant. Through Jesus, you have become one of God’s Chosen Ones.

HOW DO WE KNOW THE BIBLE IS TRUE?

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If you are a Christian for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll probably have a thought like this: “What if this is all made up? What if none of it is real?”

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Galatians #3 . Chapter 1:11-12

Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not based on human thought. For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12, HCSB)

Apparently, the people who were misleading the Galatians said something like this: “Look, Paul is just a human being. We are teaching you based upon the authority of many wise rabbis who have gone before us. But here he is, coming along making up new stuff. He got what he learned from the apostles in Jerusalem, and put his own spin on it. He isn’t even a real apostle.”

But Paul responds here. Remember last time, we talked about the different “false gospels” that we encounter from time to time. Now, Paul talks about the source of the true gospel.

The first apostles were considered reliable teachers of the true gospel, because they had known Jesus personally, and he had personally chosen them. Paul was a little different. He had not known Jesus when Jesus was alive. In fact, Paul was a Pharisee, considered by those in Jerusalem to be one of the rising young bright stars of Judaism. He saw the followers of Jesus as a threat to Judaism, and he persecuted the Christians, causing them to be arrested, and many times, causing them to be executed. But on a trip he was taking to arrest and kill more Christians, Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision. We have a partial record of this in Acts 9:1-18. We don’t know everything that Jesus said to Paul in that appearance, but apparently the Holy Spirit revealed the true gospel to him. Just a few days after encountering Jesus this way, this is what Paul did:

Immediately he began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues: “He is the Son of God.” But all who heard him were astounded and said, “Isn’t this the man who, in Jerusalem, was destroying those who called on this name and then came here for the purpose of taking them as prisoners to the chief priests? ” But Saul grew more capable and kept confounding the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this One is the Messiah. (Acts 9:20-22, HCSB)

Paul had been an anti-Christian. Just a few days after his conversion he was preaching so powerfully that the Jews in Damascus could not dispute him. Where did he learn the message of the gospel that he preached? He had only been a Christian for a few days. Paul tells us, right here in Galatians: it was revealed to him by Jesus himself. Paul, talking about the message of gospel, given by Jesus, tells the Corinthians:

Last of all, as to one abnormally born, [Jesus] also appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me. Therefore, whether it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed. (1Cor 15:8-11, HCSB)

The point is, Paul got the message from the same place that the other apostles got it: from Jesus Christ himself. Paul then passed it along to the churches. The source for our gospel is the same as the source for the early Christians: the teaching of the apostles who knew Jesus Christ (including Paul). Today, we call that teaching “The New Testament.”

I have friends who think the New Testament was made up by people who wanted to gain power through religion. Now, I’ve covered this in the past, but I suppose it’s possible that some of you have forgotten, and also that others never did hear this. Paul felt that it was important for the Galatians to understand that the message about Jesus came from God, not from human beings. I think it is important for us to understand the same thing.

So, the gospel we believe comes from the New Testament. Where did that come from?

Historians can determine the date of ancient documents through a variety of methods. They can look at the writing materials that were used, and compare them to materials used at known dates and places. They can study the language, and compare it to various time periods to see if it is similar (or not) to other writings in various eras. They can check some historical references with other documents, and against the discoveries of archaeology.

When more than one copy of an ancient document is discovered, scholars compare the various copies. If all the copies say the same thing, scholars conclude that they have accurately preserved what was originally written. Where copies vary, scholars consider which copies are older, and how many copies say the same thing, and how many contain the variant. This way, they can reasonable determine what the original said, even when they don’t have the original to study.

A book called Gallic Wars was supposed to have been written sometime around 50 B.C., dictated by Julius Caesar to a scribe. Historians believe that this book is what it claims to be, and was written in the time of Caesar. Even so, the oldest actual manuscript they have of this book is a copy of a copy (and so on) that was actually made 1,000 years after Caesar. The idea is, the book was made, and then as it fell into disrepair, new copies were made, and as those copies got older, new copies were made of the first copies, and so on. They have discovered ten ancient copies of Gallic Wars, with the oldest one, as I said, 1,000 years later than the original. This is considered an excellent historical document for that period in history (which is very close to the New Testament).

Another ancient book is Annals by Tacitus. This too, is considered an excellent source, written around 100 AD (or CE, if you prefer). Today, twenty ancient texts of Tacitus’ writing exist. The oldest is a copy that was made in 1100 AD – 1000 years after Tacitus wrote the original. With regard to Annals, no historian seriously disputes that they were indeed written by Tacitus. Most also accept that what Tacitus wrote has been accurately preserved.

How do these excellent sources compare to the New Testament?

GreekNT3A fragment of parchment containing part of the book of John has been discovered. This piece is believed to be either part of the original written by the apostle himself, or a copy that was made within forty years. A fragment of Matthew has been discovered that most scholars believe was part of the very parchment written by Matthew himself. Other fragments, and even whole books of New Testament, date from within a hundred years of the time of the apostles. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament is about 150 years removed from the time of the apostles. This is far, far better than any other ancient document that exists.

Compared to twenty ancient copies of Tacitus, or ten of Julius Caesar, scholars have discovered roughly 5,500 very ancient copies of the New Testament in Greek (the original language), and an additional 19,000 ancient copies in other languages like Syrian, Latin and Coptic. For hundreds of years, scholars have been comparing these manuscripts to one another. If all or most of the texts show that John wrote “Jesus wept,” than we can be pretty darn sure that John did in fact write, “Jesus wept.” In addition to all these actual copies of the New Testament, we have extensive quotations of the books of the New Testament contained in letters and writings from early Christians, dating from the time of the apostles and on.

With the overwhelming number of copies and the various languages, scholars have found some variations in part of the New Testament. These variations are all very small, and none of them change the essential meaning of any New Testament passage. By the way if you have an NIV version of the bible, it will make a footnote of every major textual variation. Here’s an example of a major variation:

In Luke 23:42, Luke writes that the thief on the cross said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The NIV version of the bible makes a footnote there is enough evidence to note a variant manuscript reading. The variant would read like this: “Jesus remember me when you come with your kingly power.” You may say: “What’s the big deal with that? What does it change? Doesn’t it mean the same thing?” That, of course, is the point. It changes nothing significant. Nor do any of the “significant” variants. If you have an NIV Bible you can scan the bottom of the text as you flip through the pages and see all the significant variants.

Because of the great number of copies which all record the same words, and because they are so ancient, we can be quite sure that the New Testament we read today is the truly and accurately preserved teaching of the apostles of Jesus Christ.

Every year around Easter, the National Geographic society trots out a documentary or story about the “lost gospels” or the “books that should have been included in the bible.” It’s true that there are a few ancient documents about Jesus that are not included in the New Testament. But there are huge differences between them and the New Testament.

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We know historically that by around 250 AD at the latest, virtually all Christians were using the twenty-seven books that make up our present day New Testament. The New Testament was not officially defined by a conference of Churches until sometime in the mid 300’s AD, but for all intents and purposes it was well established even earlier than that.

There were several things that caused a book to be included in the New Testament.

  1. The New Testament book had to be connected to an apostle (either written by an apostle, as in the case of Paul’s letters, or written by someone who associated closely with one or more apostles, as in the case of Luke and Mark). So the ancient book, The Apocalypse of Peter, though it names an apostle in the title, was never recognized in any early writing, or by any other evidence, as having anything to do with the real historical Peter. Needless to say, it isn’t in the bible.
  2. The New Testament book had to enjoy widespread early use among churches. For example, the Gospel of John was used and recognized in churches all over the known world by a very early date; whereas the “Gospel of Judas” was never really recognized outside of Alexandria, Egypt and that at a fairly late date, by people who weren’t even Christians. Again, by at least 250 AD, virtually all churches were using a common set of apostolic writings – this set of books was later called “The New Testament.”
  3. The New Testament writings had to agree with generally accepted Christian doctrine. In the 140s AD, a man named Marcion came up with his own very twisted version of Christianity and listed various writings which he thought should be considered sacred. He and his “New Testament” were rejected by almost all churches, because they were contrary to the teachings that the churches had held since the time of the apostles.

I guess what I am saying to you today, is the same thing that Paul was trying to say to the Galatians. I want you to know brothers and sisters, that this gospel that we received and have believed does not come from human beings. It was preserved by human beings, and we can see that it was preserved accurately. But it came from Jesus Christ. But there is even more. John recorded that Jesus said this:

“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

And a little later, he said this:

When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14, HCSB)

The Holy Spirit inspired and guided those who wrote down the gospel. And the Spirit guided the process by which these writings were either preserved, or not preserved. We know that there was a third letter which Paul wrote to the Corinthians, which is lost to history. The Holy Spirit caused that happen – that letter was not part of what the Spirit wanted preserved.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, HCSB)

We have the written words of the true gospel in the form of the New Testament. And we also have the Holy Spirit, given to us through Jesus, who continues to remind us what Jesus said, and guides us to receive and understand the truth of God’s Word. It doesn’t come from human beings who made it up for their own purposes.

If you are a Christian for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll probably have a thought like this: “What if this is all made up? What if none of it is real?” Don’t feel bad about having those thoughts. Instead, remember this: It is entirely reasonable to believe that the New Testament is the unaltered teaching of those who knew Jesus, whom Jesus chose as his apostles. All the evidence says so. It is reasonable to believe that that they believed what they wrote, since most of them gave their lives for that belief (incidentally, they didn’t get power or wealth out of it). But it does require faith to believe that their writings are true, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. It requires faith to believe that Spirit continues to speak through the New Testament today. That faith means we risk being foolish. It means we risk believing something that isn’t true – that risk is the nature of faith. But when we embrace that faith, the Holy Spirit makes these words real and relevant in our lives today.

For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. (Heb 4:12, HCSB)

The true gospel, not made by human beings, can speak directly to your heart and to your attitudes. It can convict you of sin, comfort you with grace and lead you closer to the true and living God. It can and will change your life eternally.

WHAT ARE YOUR CREDENTIALS?

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 1

Galatians #1 . Chapter 1:1-2

This week we are beginning a new series on the book of Galatians. It is a relatively short book – six chapters. As with all of the bible, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the writer to write this, and for it to be preserved and chosen as part of the New Testament. Even so, it is helpful to understand some things about how it first was written and why.

Like much of the New Testament, Galatians is actually a letter written to several Christian churches. It was written by the Apostle Paul. Paul and his colleague Barnabas (and a few others) took a mission trip from their home church in Antioch (in modern day Syria) in the 40’s AD. They went to Cyprus, and then to what is now South Central Turkey. Acts 13-14 describes this journey. They returned home to Syria.

Shortly after this, word came to Paul (we don’t know exactly how) of a controversy that was arising among many of the churches they had just visited. In response, Paul wrote this letter. It was probably the first letter that he wrote to any church, and it is certainly the first letter of his that we have preserved. He may have written it sometime in the year 49.

When I was seminary, the exciting controversy about this book was this: did “Galatians” refer to “North Galatia,” or “South Galatia?” Properly, the province of Galatia was north-central Turkey, but we don’t really know if Paul ever went there. There was a point in history when south-Central Turkey also was called Galatia, but that was before Paul’s time a little bit. So did Paul go somewhere we never heard about? Or are scholars wrong about when Galatia included the southern area? This was considered a major and probably unsolvable conundrum. Theologians don’t get out much.

I’m telling you now, Paul was writing to churches in south-central Turkey, in the cities recorded in Acts 13 and 14: Towns like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. There, I’ve solved it. Part of the reason I favor this view, is because the things that happened in these cities when Paul was there seem to be reflected in the letter.

Pisidian Antioch was the first city in the region where Paul and Barnabas really made an effort to talk to people about Jesus. They went to a local synagogue and shared the good news. It was well received at first, but after just a week some of the Jewish community began to oppose him:

But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to oppose what Paul was saying by insulting him. (Acts 13:45)

Again,

So the message of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jews incited the prominent women, who worshiped God, and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their district. (Acts 13:49-50, HCSB)

And yet again,

The same thing happened in Iconium; they entered the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against the brothers. (Acts 14:1-2, HCSB)

The same sorts of things happened in the nearby towns of Lystra and Derbe. So when these churches were just starting, there was a great deal of controversy with some Jewish people. We have to remember that in the beginning, the first believers thought of Christianity as merely the completion of the Jewish religion. In fact, I still kind of think that way. In any case, the Jews who did not like the teaching of the Christians took it personally, because it seemed to them, not a separate religion, but a pollution of pure Judaism and a threat to it. To make matters even more complicated, many of the first Christians in these towns were Jewish themselves, although some were not.

Apparently after Paul and Barnabas left the area, the Jews did not leave things alone, and many of the Jewish Christians in the churches began to listen to their non-Christian Jewish brothers. Within the churches, Jewish Christians began to teach that the “good news” was not salvation through Jesus Christ alone, but salvation through Jesus AND through following Jewish law. In other words, only the Jewish Christians were truly saved, and if the Gentiles wanted to be saved through Jesus, they had to become Jews first, and faithfully observe Jewish religious laws.

Paul wrote Galatians when he learned of all this. Now, as we jump in here, I have a few thoughts. Every once in a while, I run across a group of Christians who teach that you need to follow Jewish law in order to be truly saved. Really – I do meet these people. I can scarcely believe it, since this book of Galatians so clearly refutes that. But they’re out there. So, if you ever run into them, this study of Galatians will help.

Let’s be honest though – most of us don’t have regular contact with folks like that. It isn’t exactly a front-burner issue in most Christian churches these days. So what’s the good for us today?

I think we find the answer when we look a little deeper at the issue of following the law or living by grace. Strange as it seems, the truth is, it is easier to live by a set of rules than by grace. It’s all laid out for you. You just consult the rule book, and if you do the right thing – even if your heart wants nothing to do with God – God has to deliver on his promises. You are in control of things – it is up to you. You live right, and God will give you a good life.

But grace is messy. We can’t control it. And it is all about the heart – we can’t get grace with hearts that are not interested in God. We can’t get grace when our hearts are too proud to admit we really have no claim on God, and nothing we do could ever change that. Grace is hard to evaluate. No checklist will tell you if you have it or not. Grace can’t be controlled. We can’t make God respond to us by behaving rightly. We just have to trust him.

Galatians is all about Law and Grace. And truthfully, most Christians still struggle with how those two things relate. Our natural tendency is to try fix things ourselves – and that is law. We want to believe that if we do certain things – like pray and live right – then God will be obligated to do certain things in response – like answer our prayers or keep us from hardship. But that is law, not grace. This letter is very relevant indeed to people who struggle with these things.

So, with all that in mind, let’s begin.

Paul, an apostle — not from men or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead — and all the brothers who are with me: To the churches of Galatia.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. To whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Gal 1:1-5, HCSB)

This is Paul’s first letter, and it is possible that those around him encouraged him to be more tactful in the future. But the truth is, he is hopping mad, and he doesn’t waste time on saying nice things to no purpose. He begins immediately by reminding the Galatians that he writes with a spiritual authority that comes from God.

There are two reasons for this, I think. Clearly, the Galatian churches were being influenced by people who considered themselves leaders. Paul is reminding them that his leadership comes from a call he received from Jesus Christ himself on the Damascus road. It’s as if he’s beginning by saying: “who are these people to say that I’m wrong? I’m a messenger from Jesus Christ and God Father Himself.”

Secondly, since Paul’s opposition is mostly Jewish, he is creating a big contrast from the way Jewish rabbis teach, and his own approach. Jewish rabbis in that day typically taught by quoting other authorities, sometimes going back several ‘generations.’ They might say something like this:

“We have just read from the Torah how Moses led the people across the Red Sea. Rabbi Hillel quotes rabbi Judah ben Tabbai as saying that it was the obedience of Moses in stretching out his staff that we must notice here.”

By the way, I made that example up. The point is, the style of Jewish teaching was to quote authorities, who often quoted other authorities. In contrast, Paul says, “I’m speaking for Jesus. He himself sent me. I don’t need to quote authorities.” Paul himself had been a Jewish rabbi before he became a Christian. He could have established his Jewish credentials to impress the Galatians. Instead, he believed his only worthwhile credential was the fact that Jesus saved him and called him.

This is key to the entire message of Galatians. Paul’s only credential is Jesus Christ, and he considers it far greater than any possible contenders. Ultimately, he is going to tell the Galatians that Jesus is their only credential as well. From the very first sentence he is asserting the fact that everything is Jesus, and whatever is not in Jesus is useless.

So maybe the place to begin application is to ask this: What are your credentials? Are you a generation or two removed, or do you know Jesus for yourself? Is the basis for your faith what someone else said, or is it your own trust in Jesus? Are you willing to say, “Jesus is my all I have; Jesus is my only claim?”

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

If I’m Dead to Sin, Can I sin all the time now?

LIVING IN REVERSE, PART 4. ROMANS 6:12-23

dead-alive

 

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Last time we considered the New Testament teaching that in Jesus we died to sin and to the law. Through this death, which is accomplished through the death of Jesus, we have been set free from sin and the law. (Romans 6:7,14,18; Romans 7:4,6) Last week I shared no less than one dozen scriptures that teach explicitly that in Christ we have died.

The picture Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans 7:2-3 is of marriage. When two people are married in the eyes of the law, they are married. It would be a sin to marry someone else at the same time. But if the husband dies, the laws regarding marriage no long apply. Because of the death, the law doesn’t apply any more. It would no longer be sinful or illegal for the woman to marry someone else. The law was made irrelevant by death.

In the same way, the power of sin to bring us condemnation through the law has been destroyed by the death of Jesus, and by our death which happened in Jesus, as we have trusted him. We can’t be condemned as sinners anymore, because as Paul writes:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

Now, when you really get this, there is a natural question that arises. Does this mean I can sin all I want, because the law no longer applies to me? Now stick with me here. I am going to give you an answer that may surprise you, but you need to follow through the ENTIRE answer I am about to give.

Technically, the answer is, Yes, you can sin all you want. If you are in Jesus, your sins don’t “count” anymore. In the eyes of the law, you are dead, so the law cannot be used to condemn you for anything you do now.

Now, that is a shocking answer. It isn’t the whole story yet, and I want you to stick with me as I give some further explanation in a moment. But just pause here for a moment. Do you see how outrageous the grace of God is? He has made it so that if you simply continue to trust Him, you cannot fail. Even when you do fail, it isn’t counted as you anymore. That’s why we see all those passages in the New Testament saying that when we are in Christ we are New Creation, we are Holy, we are Blameless and so on.

You see it isn’t our job to work ourselves into a state of holiness. God has already put us into a state of holiness, in our spirits. Our only job is to keep believing that he has done this, and through that faith, He will continue to work the holiness deeper and deeper into our soul and body life.

I use the expression keep believing quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. This is not a situation where you just say, “Well I got baptized, so I’m good now.” Or “Well, I got saved five years ago, so I’m good now.” This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us.

Last week I spent some time talking about how what we believe profoundly shapes what we do. So the next part of the answer comes here. Technically, you can sin all you want, and it doesn’t count against you. But if you really believe that God has freed you from sin, that you have already been made holy, you will be far less inclined to sin than if you believe you are still fundamentally a sinner.

If you believe you are half sinner, and half saint, then it is only natural for you to go through life sinning half the time. If you believe that, and you sin less than half the time, I commend you for your great will power, though it is misguided. The bible does not say you are half sinner, half saint. It says that if you are in Jesus, then in the most essential part of your being, the part that doesn’t change, the part that already has a solid connection to eternity – your spirit – you are entirely holy. You are completely separated from sin and the law.

When you believe what the Bible says – that the essential you is already holy and is free from sin – you will sin less, not more, because action follows belief. If you find that you are sinning a lot, what you need is not to try harder to stop, but to believe more fully what God says about you.

Now, there is another thing that will eventually restrain our sinful actions. There is a movie from the 1990s called Groundhog Day. In it, a weather reporter named Phil gets trapped in an endlessly repeating day – February 2 1993, to be precise. Only Phil is trapped in this day. Every day, the other people he meets are living the day as if it is their first February 2, 1993. The only thing that carries over from day to day is Phil’s memory. Naturally, at first he is depressed. One night he is drowning his sorrows in drink, and he says out loud: “What if nothing you did mattered. What if you woke up every morning as if the previous day had never happened?”

One of the other drinkers in the bar said, “That would mean there would be no consequences. You could do anything you like.”

Phil catches on to this idea, and at first, he abuses the fact that there are no consequences for his actions. He gets drunk, commits crimes, and does many morally reprehensible things. After a while all that loses its luster, because he realizes there is no life there. So he tries to commit suicide. He kills himself dozens of times, but always wakes up the next morning at 6:00am on February 2, 1993.

But finally, truly knowing there are no consequences, he begins to live for love. Repeating this day endlessly with one of his co-workers, he falls in love with her. And knowing it doesn’t matter what he does, he finally chooses, because of love, to do what is good and right and noble. He devotes himself to literature and music. He tries as much as possible to help others. Every day he says the same boy from breaking his leg, and the same man from choking. Every day, he tries to save the life of the same old bum who dies on February 2, 1993. Day after day, he tries to bless the people that he is stuck with.

I suggest that you are really in Jesus, and you really know you are free from sin, you will discover quickly that there is no real life in sin, and the pleasure you get from it is false and always disappoints you. When you really know you are free from sin and law, you will find yourself more often drawn to the Lord and REAL life, than the shallow, brief and bitter pleasures of sin. And when we learn to love God, we find that living for love naturally moves us away from what would hurt our loved one, and toward things that are good and right and noble.

Here’s another analogy. I am married to Kari. We have a legal marriage license from the state of Illinois. Suppose we went to a marriage counselor and I said: “Kari committed to be my wife, ’till death do us part. We are legally married, and there is no part of the legal document that specifies what I must do, or what I may not do. So does that mean I can stay out until 3 AM every night and party all I want? Can I stop working, and let her provide all of our finances? Can I spend all our money however I want, without talking to her about it? Can I leave dirty dishes and smelly laundry all over the house?” I could go on, but you get the picture.

Marriage is not about a legal contract in which I fulfill my duties or else face the consequences. I could technically do all those things and remain legally married to Kari. But what kind of relationship is that? I don’t do those things (except leaving the occasional dirty dish) because I love Kari. Now there are times when either Kari or I do things that hurt each other. When that happens, we have to talk about it, and ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, and heal the relationship. But we don’t say sorry because we have rules about saying sorry. I don’t clean up after myself (a lot of the time, anyway) because there is a rule that I have to. But I know it is helpful for our relationship if I do. I am motivated by love.

This is the picture the New Testament gives us of our relationship with God. Truly, if you are in Jesus Christ, sin is irrelevant. But what is relevant is your relationship with him, your love for him.

Paul describes it almost exactly this way. He uses the analogy of a woman who husband dies, and then she is free to marry someone else. Paul says:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

We died to sin and to the law so that we could be raised into relationship.

If you are looking to find out how much sin you can get away with, then I question whether you actually are in relationship with God. I would say at the very least, you relationship with him is in very serious trouble. And, believe it or not, that is really the question of someone who is still trying to live by the law. You want a rule about how many rules you can break and still be OK. You aren’t really in relationship with God.

So, to go back to the sin question, since you are free from sin, dead to it, is there a problem if you sin? Well, is there a problem in your marriage if you cheat on your spouse? Of course there is. It isn’t a law problem, it is a problem that shows lack of belief in what God says, and lack of love for him. But we need to understand that it isn’t about performing correctly for God or reforming ourselves or making ourselves holy. It is about believing Him and loving him.

I don’t like it when I hurt Kari feelings. I hate the feeling when we are fighting and our relationship isn’t right. I feel the same way with the Lord. And the truth is this. If I say something hurtful to Kari, and I never say sorry and seek her forgiveness, it puts a barrier in our relationship. The more I hurt her and refuse to resolve the hurt I’ve done or acknowledge my mistake, the more distant our relationship will become. Eventually all the hurts and barriers and distance add up, and if we let it go, we might end up divorced. But you can’t divorced without signing papers. It can’t happen without you knowing about it and agreeing to it.

In the same way, if we continue to live in such a way as to hurt our relationship with God, we will become more and more distant from him. Eventually, we may be so distant that we get no benefit from our relationship with Him. The prodigal son left his father. The father still loved his son, and called him his son, but the son got no benefit from it. Even though he was the son of a loving, kind and generous father, he was living with pigs and eating pig food to survive. He might have died that way, and so, through his neglect of the relationship, never received anything more from his father.

Some of you reading this believe you can never lose your salvation. Some of you believe you can. Wherever you come down, the Bible is very clear that it is very serious thing to be distant from God. The bible exhorts us to continue to have a daily relationship with Him, through faith.

But once more, I want to emphasize that if you truly believe how outrageous God’s grace is, when you truly know that He really has freed you from sin, you will not be motivated to sin nearly as often as before. The more you believe, the less you injure that relationship with God, and the more quickly you will seek healing and resolution when you do hurt that relationship.

We don’t fight sin by trying be good with our own willpower. We don’t conquer temptation by gritting our teeth and getting over it. We start by believing that we are already holy, that in fact, we don’t have any relationship to sin any more. We live now in relationship to God, a relationship of faith that is based upon unconditional love, not rules.

Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? I apologize, but this message is getting long, and so I will answer that question next time.