January 29, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Week of Septuagesima


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 deserting 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. 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 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.  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 theirs had (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 church in Damascus, Antioch, and 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. 1-22, 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.