February 5, 2012

Scripture and Commentary for Week of Septuagesima Sunday

Monday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 123, 127, Gen. 1:1-19, Mk. 6:7-13
Evening - Ps. 126, 128. 131, Amos 7:1-8, 8:1-3, Gal. 1:1-10

Commentary, Gal. 1:1-10

Tonight's readings take us into the Book of Galatians. Written by the Apostle Paul, it is a straightforward statement of the doctrine of the sacrifice of Christ as the only atonement for sin. While Peter ministered in northern and eastern Galatia (1 Pet. 1:1), Paul carried the Gospel of Christ to the southwestern edge of the province (Acts 14:6-7). Though faced with much opposition and persecution, Paul established Christian congregations in the region, but when he left to preach in other places, false teachers came behind him perverting the true Gospel and leading the church astray (Gal. 1:6 & 7). The essence of their false gospel was the idea that the sacrifice of Christ is not enough to save people from hell. In addition to His sacrifice on the cross, Christians need keep the Old Testament ceremonial laws and rituals or they can not go to Heaven. Thus, they made salvation a reward earned by human works, rather than a gift purchased by Christ and given by grace.

Why is this a problem? Because if we can earn Heaven by our own efforts we don't need a Saviour. This makes the entire life, ministry, and crucifixion of Christ futile and unnecessary. Furthermore, if we can atone for sins by keeping rituals, sin must be a fairly trivial matter. Sin must not be an offense to God, a rejection of His Divine authority, or a personal rejection of Him as God. It is simply an error, a mistake, which God doesn't really care much about, and for which we can make amends by offering a sacrifice or giving a few dollars to the Church, or saying an extra prayer. And, if sin can be so easily atoned for, it was foolish of God to become a Man and suffer and die for it. In addition, any view that makes the Old Testament ceremonies compulsory for Christians overlooks the fact that the entire ceremonial law foreshadowed Christ and is fulfilled in Him.

Thus, the issue at stake in this book of Galatians is not just how we get to Heaven; it is the issue of the very nature, wisdom, and holiness of God and of our relationship to Him. It is the issue of the nature of sin. Is sin an arrogant slap in the face of a holy and omnipotent God, or is it simply a slip up that God overlooks?

If God is too holy to endure even the thought of evil, if He is angry about the sorrow and destruction caused by sin, and if sin makes us criminals who deserve to be punished, then it is impossible for us to cover our offenses with a few good deeds or pretty ceremonies. God Himself is going to have to bear the affront of our wickedness within Himself. He is going to have to make a way for us to be forgiven and get to Heaven apart from our own actions and abilities. He is going to have to bear the penalty of our sins in Himself. This is exactly what He did. In Christ He gave himself for our sins on the cross (Gal. 1:4). This is what is at stake in the book of Galatians. This is why Paul wrote, that those seeking to save themselves through the law are moving away from Christ (1:6) and those who teach that it is possible to save ourselves by keeping the law are perverting the true Gospel (1:7) and are accursed, meaning, condemned to hell (1:8 & 9).

Tuesday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 135, Gen. 1:20-2:3, Mk.6:14-29
Evening - Ps. 129, 130, Amos 1:1-5, 13-2:3, Gal. 1:11

Commentary, Gal. 1:11

The Galatians, like us, were confronted with a wide variety of choices and decisions in religion. The pagan cults around them were too numerous to count. In addition to them was the Jewish faith, and now, in the preaching of Paul, they faced the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By the grace of God they were drawn to Christ, but as soon as Paul left them to found new churches elsewhere, others came to them, claiming to believe in the same Jesus, same crucifixion, and same resurrection, but teaching a different way of salvation. Paul, they said, was mistaken about the Gospel. You cannot be saved by Christ alone; you have to earn it by keeping the Jewish ceremonial law. You have to become Jews. Only then will your sins be fully forgiven. So the Galatians faced the question, who do we believe? Realising this, Paul reminded them of his Apostolic authority and the origin of his message.

Paul was not just a travelling philosopher or entertainer. Paul was an Apostle of Jesus Christ. This meant more than being just "a person sent" which would be the literal translation of the Greek word, apostolos. An Apostle was an emissary from God, and his message was from God. He had no authority to change the content of the message, or to add to or delete from it, but he had full authority to proclaim it as the message from God Himself. So, like the Apostles in Jerusalem, Paul's Apostleship was not conferred on him by people (1:1), it was a direct calling from Christ Himself.

His message was not his own, nor did he receive it from other people (1:11). This does not mean Paul never heard the Gospel before he met Christ on the Damascus road. In his zeal to kill Christians (1:13) he had probably heard many Christians tell him about Jesus. As a rising star in the religious leadership of Israel he had probably learned the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, for he had to know what Christians believed in order to determine who was or was not a Christian. But Paul did not go to Jerusalem to study with the Apostles after his conversion. Instead, he went into Arabia to ponder what had happened to him and to devote himself to studying the Scriptures (1:17). He wanted to learn what the Old Testament really taught about the Messiah and His Kingdom. He then returned to Damascus, to the very Christians he had once intended to kill, and became a part of the Church there. By that time he was already grounded, so, while he undoubtedly grew in the faith while in Damascus, he did not receive his message from the ministers of the Church there. He already knew the Gospel prior to his arrival, and he went there to teach, not to be taught After three years in Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem and conferred with Peter and James. Paul mentions this because it is important for the Galatians to know Peter and James agreed with him, both in the content of his message and in his calling as an Apostle. His Gospel is the same Gospel they preached, and his Apostleship had the same validity as theirs (1:18-20). Having this confirmation from Jerusalem, Paul travelled to Syria, where he became a part of the church in Antioch, from which his missionary journeys would begin (1:21-23).

So, Paul was appointed to the Apostleship by direct commission from Christ, he learned the Gospel message by revelation from Christ, and the truth of his message was affirmed by the other Apostles in Jerusalem. Could the people who taught the gospel of works produce such credentials? If not, should the Galatians believe them or Paul?


Wednesday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 137:1-6, 140, Gen. 2:4-9, 16-25, Mk.6:30-44
Evening - Ps. 132, Amos 2:6, Gal. 2:1-10

Commentary, Gal 2:1-10

Tonight's reading takes us to the famous council at Jerusalem. The promoters of the gospel of works, often called the party of the circumcision or Judaisers, had gained a large following in the Church and the question had to be dealt with. Many Jewish Christians had probably continued in the Old Testament traditions, though they were forced to start Christian synagogues, rather than worship with non-Christians Jews. They had no problem with the old traditions, nor did they see them as adding to the work of Christ or earning salvation. They were not the Judaisers. The Judaisers believed the ceremonial law was absolutely necessary to salvation. No one, they maintained was truly a Christian or going to Heaven unless he kept the ceremonial law.

The council of Jerusalem showed the Judaisers' gospel to be nothing but a perversion of the true Gospel of Christ. The culmination of this council came when James, Cephas (Peter), and John, certified the veracity of the Gospel preached by Paul as the one true Gospel by extending unto him the right hand of fellowship (2:9). This is a public statement by the Apostles that Paul has Apostolic authority to preach, and that he preaches the Apostolic Gospel.


Thursday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 141, Gen. 3, Mk. 6:45
Evening - Ps. 139, Amos 3, Gal.2:11

Commentary, Gal. 2:11

There is yet another issue at stake in this whole consideration of the place of the ceremonial law in the Church. That issue is the very nature of the Church itself. Is the Church simply a continuation of the Old Testament Israel, or is it the fulfillment of it, the New Israel? If it is simply a continuation of the old Israel, then they are correct who say Gentiles who want to follow Christ must first become Jews. If the Church is the fulfillment of all the promises and prophecies to Israel, then Gentiles are not required to become Jews, and, even Jewish Christians are not bound by the ceremonial law. So, which is it? Before we can answer this question we must assert there is much continuity between the Old and New Testaments. We may be better able to understand this if we remember that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old, and that, together, they tell the same story of salvation by grace through the sacrificial blood of Christ. The Old Testament ceremonial law pictured the sacrifice of Christ in a way that is similar to the Lord's Supper today. So, the two are part of the same story. The Old Testament is the first chapter, preparing the way for the Messiah; the New Testament is the fulfillment and completion of the story.

But the Jewish nation and the Church are also different, and Gentiles are not required to become Jews or keep the ceremonial law. This is because the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ. Why would we offer animal sacrifices when the Lamb of God has offered Himself once for all? Why would we concern ourselves with things that made people ceremonially clean when Christ made us truly and completely clean by His own blood? Thus, the Jewish rituals have done their job, they have pointed us to the one Sacrifice that can take away our sins and make us clean in our souls before God. Having completed their work, they, like John the Baptist, must decrease while Christ increases.

It is important to see that the Apostles and elders already understood this. It was not a concept ironed out in debate and decided by majority vote. Peter and James affirmed that it was true fourteen years before the council took place (Gal. 1:18 & 2:1). The purpose of the council was not to decide what was true, but to declare what was true to a large gathering of Church leaders so all would know the truth on this issue.

Yet the idea of ceremonial uncleanness, which was a central part of the ceremonial law, was difficult for Jewish Christians to surrender. Even Peter had lapses of faith on the issue, for when he was in Antioch he ate with Gentiles freely, but when Jews came up from Jerusalem, he separated himself from the Gentiles. Why the separation? In the ceremonial law, a Gentile was unclean. That meant he was unacceptable to God and unacceptable to God's people, Israel. Eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles made a Jew unclean, meaning the Jew was in the same situation as the Gentile before God. But if a Gentile became a Jew and began to keep the traditions and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, he became acceptable; he became "clean." The Gentile Christians at Antioch did not become Jews, so Peter, thinking the Jewish emissaries from Jerusalem would consider them unclean, stopped eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles (2:12).

This gave Paul another chance to proclaim what was already known by the Church; that it was not the rituals of the ceremonial law that made people clean before God. Only the shed blood of Christ made a person clean (2:16). Paul points out that Peter knew this, as did other Jewish Christians in Antioch, for they freely ate with Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ until the other Jews arrived. If they did not keep the ceremonial law by remaining separate from the Gentiles, how could they expect Gentiles to keep the law? And why had they eaten with the Gentile Christians, thus, breaking the ceremonial law, in the first place? It was because they knew it is not keeping the law, but faith in Christ that makes a person clean to God (2:14-21).

Friday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 143, Gen. 4:1-16, Mk. 7:1-13
Evening - Ps. 142, 146, Amos 4:4, Gal. 3:1-9

Commentary, Gal. 3:1-19

The Galatian Christians, Jews and Gentiles, knew it was Christ, not the law, that made them clean and acceptable to God. But when the Judaisers came teaching that Paul was wrong and that they needed to keep the ceremonial law to make themselves acceptable to God, their faith wavered. So Paul addresses the very heart of the matter in tonight's reading. He asks two questions. First, did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the law or by hearing the Gospel of Christ in faith (3:2)? The Galatians had to admit that when they believed in Christ as their Saviour, they received the Holy Spirit of God, which represents all the blessings given to a person in Christ. They also had to admit that they did not receive the Spirit by doing the rituals of the ceremonial law. They received Him by grace through faith. This forced the Galatians to realise again that they are saved by the grace of God in Christ, which they received by faith, not by doing the works of the law. Second, if the blood of Christ made you clean enough for the Spirit of God to dwell in you, do you really think you can make yourself cleaner by rituals and ceremonies (3:3) or by any other thing you can do? To make such an assumption is blasphemy. "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common [unclean]" (Acts 10:15, 28, 34-47). Even Abraham, father of the Jewish nation, was saved by grace, not law (3:6) and it is those who trust in Christ through faith who are his true children and heirs of the promises of God (3:7-9).

Saturday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 149, Gen. 6:5-8, 13-22, Mk. 7:14-23
Evening - Ps. 148, 150, Amos 5:1-13, Gal. 3:10-18

Commentary, Gal. 3:10-18

Tonight's reading reinforces Galatian's two main points. First, those who try to make themselves acceptable to God by keeping the law, always fail. Thus they remain under the wrath of God. Second, only those who are in Christ are acceptable unto God.

Those who try to make themselves acceptable to God by keeping the law always fail. The reason it is impossible to make yourself acceptable to God by keeping the law is that the law must be kept perfectly. Any failure to keep it to its fullest measure, including having the proper mental and spiritual intentions and attitudes, makes you unacceptable. This includes both the ceremonial law and the moral law, so, to fail to keep the moral law perfectly renders you unacceptable to God. And, even if you were to keep the ceremonial law perfectly, it could not atone for your failure in the moral law. Therefore, since no one has ever kept the moral law, anyone who tries to make himself acceptable by means of the ceremonial law is wasting his time (3:10).

Only those who are in Christ are acceptable unto God. Those who are accepted by God are accepted on the basis of Christ's sacrifice (3:13) received by faith (3:11). This is true of Gentiles as well as Jews, for Christ died for us, that the blessing of Abraham (3:8) might come to the Gentiles, meaning, we are made fully acceptable to God and receive His Spirit through faith (3:14).

Abraham also was accepted by grace not works. He actually lived more than 400 years before the ceremonial law was given (3:17). Therefore, he could never have made himself acceptable by it. He was accepted by God because he trusted God, and God accepted his faith and treated him as though he were without sin (3:6). Abraham received the promise of Christ (3:8 & 16) 400 years before the ceremonial law was given, and the giving of the law did not negate the promise (3:17). So the entire history of redemption has been the history of God's grace as promised to Abraham (3:18). It is the story of the promises of God, not the good works of man.

Septuagesima Sunday Sermon

God Our Help
Psalm 121
Septuagesima Sunday
February 5, 2012

"From whence cometh my help." These words, like many in literature and music, have a double meaning. So to say, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help" is first a statement of confidence that the hills are a help to Jerusalem. Ancient Jerusalem was set on the famous hill known as Mount Zion. Like most cities of its time, it was enclosed by a thick wall upon which soldiers could walk and fight to defend the city. The walls were surrounded by the small valleys of Tyropoeon and Kidron, which, in turn, were surrounded by another wall, a natural wall of rugged hills of which the Mount of Olives is the most famous. This made Jerusalem a natural fortress. An attacking army would have to scale the surrounding hills, cross the Tyropoeon and Kidron, under fire from archers on the wall, scale the wall of the valleys, advance further up the hill, still under attack by defending archers, and, finally, climb the wall of Jerusalem itself before it could even begin to fight the Jerusalem soldiers. So the hills around the city were a natural defense, and it is to these hills that Psalm 121 says in confidence; "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence cometh my help."

Yet, "from whence cometh my help?" is also a question. Wonderful as the hills are, they cannot do everything. They cannot comfort those who sorrow. They cannot heal the sick, or give meaning or hope to life. Only God can do these things; "From whence cometh my help? My help cometh even from the Lord."

One of the points made by the Psalm is that God is able to help. It is hard to describe the help a hill gave to soldiers in days past. It gave those on the hill a commanding view of the enemy's movements, but it also enabled them to fight better. An arrow fired downhill had more range than an arrow fired uphill. A large stone rolled downhill was a danger to all in its path; a large stone rolled uphill was more dangerous to the soldiers rolling it than it was to the enemy. So, the high ground was always an advantage, always a help. And Psalm 121 is making a comparison; it is saying, as the hills are a help to the physical city of Jerusalem, God is the help of the spiritual Jerusalem, His people. He made heaven and earth. He made the universe. He created the stars and the galaxies. "He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names." "Great is our Lord, and of great power." "In the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength." If God has the power and wisdom to do all these things, then it must be true that, as 2 Chronicles 25:8 says, "God hath power to help." This God of power and strength is like the hills around Jerusalem. He surrounds and protects us. He is a wall of defense. Can any enemy harm us if God is our defense? "If God be for us, who can be against us?" asks St. Paul. It is God who justifies us, and it is God who makes us to be more than conquerors so that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:31-39). Daniel 3:17 sums this up very well. Faced with death in the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego say plainly, "our God whom we serve is able to deliver us."

But what good is power to help if it is not used? What good is the ability to do good without the will to do it? Therefore it is important that our God is able and willing to deliver us. "He will not suffer thy foot to be moved" according to verse 3. When you live in a city set on a hill, there is always someone who wants to knock you off. The city of Jerusalem had many enemies who would have gladly destroyed it. But God would not let Jerusalem's "foot" be moved. Secure footing is essential to making the high ground an effective help in battle. You can't fight if you can't stand, and you can't stand if the footing is not secure. The Psalm pictures Jerusalem standing secure and firm on Zion, because God upholds the city. God holds the feet of the city, so that instead of standing on loose sand and rocks that can slide out from under it, Jerusalem stands on the unmoving and powerful hand of God.

It is easy to see the spiritual meaning here. God's Church is always surrounded by enemies. They attack in wave after wave, and we see their numbers and power, and our faith almost fails us because we know we are no match for them. It is true, as Martin Luther wrote;

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be loosing.
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He
Lord Sabaoth His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

God is on our side. More importantly, we are on God's side, and He will not allow His church to be vanquished. And He won't allow you to be either. If you truly are in Christ through Biblical faith, He has promised you that He will keep you by His power in this world and in the next. He does not say you will not have to fight. He does not say you will not grow weary or weak. He does not even say you won't be wounded in the battle. He does promise that "He will not suffer thy foot to be moved." In other words, after all the battles are over, by His power, the Heavenly Jerusalem will still stand, and so will you if you are a citizen of that city.

Verse 5 tells you, "The Lord Himself is thy keeper; the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand." The Psalm imagines the hills around Jerusalem as soldiers standing guard. They are always there in the burning sun and deepest night. On a moonlit night you can see them standing there, but even in the darkest night you know they are there protecting you. They never take a vacation. They never sleep. What a wonderful symbol of God watching over His people. He is there in the heat of the day and the cold of the night. The sun shall not burn thee by day because God is on guard so you can rest in the shadow of His wings. The moonlit winter night will not harm you because God is on duty, allowing you to rest in the warmth of His love. You can sleep and take your rest because He never does. He never sleeps on duty, never deserts His post. He never quits. He never takes a day off, or a vacation or a rest. He is always on duty, ever vigilant.

The Psalm does not mean to say you will never experience hardship or trials in this life. It does not teach that you will always prosper, always enjoy good health, or always have things and people go the way you want. It is not so much a promise of good things for the flesh as it is a promise of good things for the soul. This is brought out in verse 7, "The Lord shall preserve thee from evil; yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul."

It is often very difficult to remember that God is more concerned about the health of your soul than the comfort of your body. You, if you are like the rest of us mortals, are busy with the things that contribute to your physical comforts. You work and plan and play and rest, and, even pray to God to increase your comfort in this world. There is a sense in which this is right and good. I believe God wants you to enjoy life, and that He gives good things to be enjoyed. There was a time in the history of the Church when many people thought God wanted them to be miserable. So they joined monasteries and convents where they starved themselves, slept in the snow, and even beat themselves with whips while rejecting even the most basic comforts of the flesh. Many died of their self inflicted sufferings; others were perpetually worn and sick. Thanks be to God we now understand the Bible better and do not murder ourselves thinking we are pleasing God. But, I wonder, have we gone too far in the other direction? Today you rarely hear a call to perseverance, self-discipline, or self-restraint. You hear instead that God is going to give you health and wealth and indulge all your wants, like Santa Clause, only better. Both of these views are heresies. You need to remember that God is investing in you for the long term. His concern is about fitting you for Heaven rather than giving you luxury and ease on earth. It is your soul that concerns Him most, and He is not afraid to prune a few branches to make your soul produce fruit.

We close today's message remembering that it is to the grace of God in Christ that we ultimately look for our help. He is the hill that surrounds and protects us. He is the one who makes our feet to stand firm upon the mount. He is the one who overcomes our foes and delivers us safe to the Mansion of Heaven. Everything promised in the 121st Psalm is accomplished by Christ for us on the cross. We only receive it by faith as His gift to us. It is through Him that you can say, "My help cometh from the Lord."