February 3, 2013

Scripture and Commentary Week of Sexagesima Sunday


Monday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 2, 3, Gen 7:1-23, Mk. 7:24
Evening - Ps. 4, 8, Amos 5:14-24, Gal. 3:19-29

Commentary, Galatians 3:19-29

Galatians 3:19 opens with an important question; what is the purpose of the law of God?  Of course God's law has many purposes.  The moral law, summarised in the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Christ, reveals the absolute perfection of God.  It reveals the will of God for all mankind in everyday life.  It shows mankind how to live in harmony with God and each other, thus it shows the way of peace and happiness (Ps. 19:7-14).  The ceremonial law reveals that those who break the moral law are unacceptable to God unless something is done, apart from the moral law, to make them acceptable.  The law shows, then, that, by our own actions, we are unclean and unfit for any kind of fellowship with God, and that we need to be made clean by something outside of the moral law, or we will remain forever unacceptable to God.
                 
This is brought out in several verses in our reading.  Regarding our failure to keep the moral law, we are told the Scripture "hath concluded all under sin" (3:22).   Regarding the ceremonial law, we are told we can never make ourselves acceptable to God through it (3:21).  This is important, for if we can atone for sin by performing a few ceremonies, then sin is a very trivial thing to God.  If sin is trivial to God, it can be trivial to us, and if sin is trivial, so is righteousness.  Holiness, justice, integrity, the Commandments of God, love for God, and love for one another really don't matter.  Only the ceremonies matter.  This mistaken view of the law was held by Israel many times throughout her history, and she paid dearly for it.

We come now to one of the law's most important purposes; it is our teacher to lead us to Christ (3:24).  How does the law lead us to Christ?  First, it concludes all people under sin (3:22).  This means it reveals to us that we are sinners.  Comparing ourselves to the moral law of God does not reveal how good we are.  It reveals how wicked we are and how far short we are of the total perfection of God.  Second, the ceremonial law reveals that there is nothing we can do to atone for our sins.  Do we really think a ceremony, or even the life of an animal can make up for our sins?    A right view of animal sacrifices reveals how pitifully small and powerless they are to cover our sins (Heb. 10:4).  In short, they reveal the absolute impossibility of making ourselves acceptable to God.  If we are going to be made acceptable to Him, He is going to have to accomplish it for us.  Thus, the law teaches us that we need a Saviour.  It leads us to cast ourselves on the mercy of God and the sacrifice of Christ, that we may be justified by grace through faith, not by the works of the law (3:24).

The law also shows the deadly seriousness of sin.  It is not trivial to God and it cannot be trivial to us.  It is so serious that sinners are called dead (Eph. 2:1) and worthy of death (Rom. 1:32), whose eternal destiny is the fires of hell (Rev. 20:15).  Sin is so serious that we are unable to atone for it ourselves.  Nothing could save us from the fires of hell but the sacrifice of Christ Himself.  That's how serious sin is to God.

So, what is the relationship of the ceremonial law to the Christian?  The short answer is, it has fulfilled its task and is no longer necessary (Heb. 8:13).  It has been our schoolmaster, but in Christ we have graduated from it.  From it we have learned that we are sinners.  From it we have learned that our sin must be made right before we can be acceptable to God.  From it we have learned that we cannot make our sins right by the ceremonies of the law.  From it we learned that its ceremonies and sacrifices symbolised the life and ministry of Christ, "the Lamb of God:" who alone can atone for our sins. From it we have learned to trust in the suffering of the Lamb of God as the payment for our sins and the ground of our acceptance with God.  Now that we have graduated from the school of the law, it no longer has control over us.  We have moved into faith (3:25-26).

There is now no difference between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles.  All are shown to be sinners unable to save themselves, and all are saved only by the grace of God received by faith (3:28-29).  Those who are God's by faith in Christ are the true seed and descendants of Abraham; the true heirs of the promises of God (3:29).

Tuesday
                          
Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 5, Gen. 8:6, Mk. 8:11-26
Evening - Ps.11, 12, Amos 6:1-8, Gal. 4:1-11

Commentary, Galatians 4:1-11

We are heirs of God through Christ (4:7).  The Apostle is telling Jewish and Gentile Christians that we are the heirs of all the promises of God given in the Old Testament.  We inherit the promises not by means of the law, but by trusting in Christ's sacrifice as the Lamb of God that takes away our sins.  It is very important to understand that faith is the means by which we become a child of God and an heir of the promises.  Physical descent from Abraham does not make one an heir.  Keeping the ceremonial law cannot do it.  Becoming Jewish cannot do it.  Only faith can open the door to Heaven.  Only faith is the key to the Kingdom.

Verse 7 is the conclusion of the flow of thought that begins in verse 1.  We are told that, under the ceremonial law, we were as children under the care of tutors and governors (guardians).  But when God had brought the world to just the right moment, according to His plan, He sent His Son to redeem those who were under the law (4:4-5).  He released them from their tutors and guardians and gave them the inheritance foreshadowed in the law and foretold in the prophets.  Everything promised in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ and given to His people of faith, the Church.

Verses 8-11 make a second point based on the preceding verses. It is stated in the form of a question in verse 9, and it asks the Galatians why they would want to go back to being ruled by the guardian when they can have the inheritance of Christ?  Why would you turn your inheritance back over to the guardian instead of keeping and enjoying it yourself?  Why would you want to be bound by rules and rituals that cannot take away your sins, when you can live in the freedom of Christ, who can take away your sins?

 
Wednesday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 7, Gen. 9:8-17, Mk. 8:27-9:1
Evening - Ps. 13, 14, Amos 8:4-12, Gal. 4:12-20

Commentary, Galatians 4:12-20

To attempt to cleanse your own sins through your own actions is to reject Christ. Thus, Paul writes to the Galatians, "I am afraid... lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain" (4:12).  Paul's appeal that we become as he is, means to trust in Christ alone to forgive your sins and reconcile you to God.  That he was as the Galatians were, means was a time when he also was counting on his own works to make him acceptable to God.  But he realised that he, like all people, must receive acceptance as a gift of God, not as a reward for his own efforts.
 
Paul apparently suffered an illness while in Galatia, but it did not prevent him from sharing the Gospel, and it did not prevent the Galatian people from receiving him with love and hearing him gladly (4:15).  But, by the time Paul wrote the book of Galatians to them, their apparently strong faith in Christ had wavered so much that Paul doubted they were in Christ at all (4:20).


Thursday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 9, Gen. 11:1-9, Mk. 9:2-13
Evening - Ps.17, Amos, 9:1-10, Gal. 4:21 

Commentary, Galatians 4:21,
People often stumble over this passage because it appears Paul has imposed a meaning onto a Bible passage that is completely foreign to it.  The Old Testament story of Isaac and Ishmael is obviously a straightforward record of historical events, but Paul seems to make it an allegory of law and grace.  The difficulty people have with this is fourfold.  First, if Paul can allegorise one passage of Scripture, what is to stop us from allegorising all of it?  Second, if the Bible has an allegorical meaning, what is it and how can we know it?  Third, if the Bible has an allegorical meaning as well as a literal meaning, which is more important?  Fourth, and most important, if the Bible has a meaning beyond the plain and obvious meaning of the words, we can never really understand the Bible.  Before we address these issues, let us recall two very important principles of Biblical interpretation.  First, Scripture interprets Scripture.  This means the meaning of one passage will always illuminate and compliment the meaning of other passages in specific, and the entire Bible in general. Second, we should always understand the Bible in the plain and obvious meaning of the words, unless we have good reason not to.  We are not to allegorise passages that are clearly meant literally.

The difficulty with tonight's reading disappears when we realise Paul is not allegorising the Old Testament; he is simply using the historical facts of Isaac and Ishmael to illustrate the point that bondage begets bondage and freedom begets freedom.

Ishmael, was the child of bondage. It is as though Paul is saying, "Let Ishmael symbolise people trying to atone for sin by keeping rules and performing rituals.  The rules and rituals themselves are bondage, for the people are bound to observe them, yet they can never really atone for sin."  Bondage begets bondage.

Isaac was the child of freedom.  Paul is saying, "Let Isaac symbolise those who have trusted Christ to make them acceptable to God.  They are free of the bondage to rules and ceremonies.  They are free of the need to earn Heaven.  It is given to them as a gift from God."  Freedom begets freedom.

Paul goes on to use Hagar as a symbol for the law given at Mount Sinai, and Sarah as the symbol for grace given through Christ, "the Jerusalem which is above" (4:26).  Those who were born into Israel were in bondage to the law until the Saviour came to fulfill the law and release them from its requirements.  Those who are born into Christ are born into freedom. Therefore, they are no longer enslaved to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.  "[W]e are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free" (4:31).

Friday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 22, Gen. 11:27-12:6, Mk. 9:14-29
Evening - Ps.6, 26, Amos 7:10, Gal. 5:1-12

Commentary, Galatians 5:1-12
Tonight's reading is a plea to stand fast in the liberty of grace and not return to the bondage of trying to earn God's favour by our own works.  There is no middle road; either we must keep the law and become Jews, or we are saved by grace through faith and the ceremonies of the law are superfluous.  Any attempt to return to the law is to reject the work of Christ and fall from grace (5:4).  And, if you are going to reject Christ for any part of the law, you must keep the whole law perfectly to be acceptable to God (5:3). 

We see an important point in verses 11 and 12.  Paul preaches salvation by grace through faith alone, and has never taught that Gentiles must become Jews, or that Jewish Christians are required to keep the ceremonial laws in any way.  If he had, the Jews would not be persecuting him.  They would be praising him, for he would be bringing multitudes of converts to the Jewish faith.  They may have disagreed with his view of Christ as the Messiah, but they could have tolerated that.  But Paul, preaching the Gospel of grace, actually made the Jewish faith irrelevant.  If Paul's Gospel was true, the Jews needed to come out of Judaism and into the Church.  The Old Israel had fulfilled its mission and it was necessary for Jews to join the New Israel, the Church. This is what angered the Jews.  The Temple, the sacrifices, the rules of clean and unclean, circumcision, kosher food, and everything that typified and identified the Jewish people would have been rendered obsolete.  This is why they persecuted the Church. This is why they rioted at the preaching of Paul, and beat him and stoned him and tried to kill him.

Saturday

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 16, Gen. 13:1-18, Mk. 9:30-37
Evening - Ps. 93, 98, Hosea 4:1-10, Gal 5:13

Commentary, Galatians 5:13

Salvation by grace through faith is not a license to sin (5:13).  Paul quotes Leviticus 19:18, which our Lord quoted often, as part of the summary of the moral law's requirements of the way we treat each other. Paul, like our Lord, quotes it to show its continuing relevance and authority in the lives of all people.  It is still the standard of life to which Christians aspire because, by God's grace, we love our neighbors and we love God.

Living by love is not as easy as it sounds.  Love requires us to choose against ourselves.  Love requires us to do things we don't want to do, and to sacrifice things we do want to do.  Just as love of God requires us to organise our schedules in a way that makes public, family, and private worship a top priority, love of neighbors requires us to orient ourselves around giving rather than receiving.  This causes a spiritual battle to take place in us (5:17).  It is the battle of our own desires and will (flesh) against the desires and will of God (Spirit).  It is the battle of our sinfulness against God's holiness.  It is a life-long war, and we must expect to have to fight it, and we must expect it to be difficult.

Since the war is spiritual, our weapons are spiritual.  Our power to fight is the Spirit of God.  Those who surrender to the flesh are easily known by their actions and way of life, called the works of the flesh (5:19).  Those who fight on in the Spirit are also easily recognised by their actions, called the fruit of the Spirit (5:22).  The victory we seek is absolute.  The goal is to exterminate our sin, to rise above our own desires and live for Christ alone.  Paul uses the gruesome practice of crucifixion to illustrate our objective.  We are to crucify our own desires, in order that we may live for God.  If this sounds difficult it's because it is.  If it sounds painful it's because it is.  If it sounds unpleasant it's because it is.  But this is what it means to live and walk in the Spirit (5:25).

Frankly, most "Christians" will not fight this war.  They will not crucify their will and comfort to live for God.  Seeing the difficulty and personal sacrifice required to truly follow Christ, they will retreat.  They will opt for an easier gospel, like the Galatians have done.  They will choose religious ceremonies over self-crucifixion.  They will choose happy feelings over obedience to God.  They will choose self indulgence over service to God.  Yet, all the while they will convince themselves they are in Christ.  But those who live by the Spirit walk by the Spirit.

Sermon, February 3, 2013


                                          The Misery of Sin
Psalm 71, Genesis 3
Sexgesima Sunday
February 3, 2013

If you talk to contemporary people about the misery of sin, you will probably receive shocked looks, and maybe even anger and hostility.  "Who are you to tell me what is right for me?" they will say.  And they will accuse you of being ignorant, backwards, even a criminal on the same level as mass murderers and dictators.  There is a very active movement that says Christianity is oppressive, faith is mental illness, and what the Bible calls sin is actually liberation and freedom.

But let's briefly look at the results of non-Christian views in history.  Think of the mass murders in the French Revolution, and in the rise of communism in Asia, and Europe.  Millions of people died in these movements for "freedom."  Let's look at the deaths in America due to the decline of respect for faith, morality, and human life; again, millions have died here.  I know that the "church" has been guilty of crimes as well, but everyone knows they are are the result of corrupting and deviating from Biblical faith, not from believing and following it.  In reality, sin is misery, and, going toward Lent we begin to think about that misery, because, unless we understand it and its cause, we will never understand God and His mercy.

A major part of the misery of sin is seen in our relationship to the Creation.  We were formed from the dust of the earth, and, at first, we lived in harmony with it.  But in the Fall that harmony was ruptured.  Yes, the earth still brings forth its fruit, the sun still shines and the rains still fall.  But the earth also brings forth briers and poisonous plants, and droughts and floods.  Many, believing they have silenced Christians, proclaim they could never believe in a God who allows tornadoes and earthquakes and suffering.  And many Christians ask themselves why these things happen.  The answer is found in Genesis 3:17-19, "cursed is the ground for thy sake... in sorrow shalt thou eat of it... thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth... in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground... for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

Simply put, when we, by sin, became enemies of God, we also became enemies of nature.  And nature has turned against us.  That is why we have killer storms and devastating floods.  It is why we have illness and suffering and death.  It is why nature often destroys what we build.  It is why buildings crumble, cars rust, and our physical bodies wear out.

A second part of the misery of sin is found in our relationship with other people.  At the very beginning we see Adam and Eve in perfect love and harmony.  But after the Fall we see Adam blaming Eve for his sin.  It wasn't Eve's fault that Adam ate the fruit.  It was his.  Before the Fall he would not have accused her before God.  He would have defended her, for his love for her had been perfect.  But, now, being a sinner, and being corrupted in his nature, he is alienated from his wife.  Their perfect love is now defective and polluted with self love, so he blames her for what is obviously his fault.  God Himself pronounces that this will continue, telling Eve her husband will rule over her and she will desire her husband's authority (Gen. 3:16).  Sin has ruptured their relationship.
               
It did not end there. Cain murdered Abel, and it wasn't until the time of Enos, Seth's son, that people began to seek God again.  And the Fall continued to wreck human relationships.  The mighty men of Genesis 6:4 were warriors.  Their presence shows that mankind was already forming armies to kill one another. Genesis 6:11 says, "The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence."  It became so bad "it repented the Lord that He had made man upon the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart" (Gen. 6:6).

Have things improved?  Have education, revolution wealth redistribution, the United Nations, constitutions, kings, parliaments, presidents, congresses, treaties, technology, or even religion changed things?  I think not. I think the words of Moses in Genesis 6:5 are as true today as when he wrote them nearly four thousand years ago, "the wickedness of man was great in the earth... the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."  I think of the words of James in the fourth chapter and first verse of his book continue to be true, "From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your own lusts that war in your members?  Ye lust, and have not: ye kill and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not."

I agree with Thomas Jefferson that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.  I agree that these are self evident truths, but there is another truth I consider more self evident than these.  Simply stated, that truth is, all are sinners.  All have neglected much of the good they ought to have done, and have done much evil they ought not to have done.  And no where is this sin more evident than in our ruptured relationships with other people.

A third part of the misery of sin is found in our ruptured relationship with God.  Frankly stated, we have become God's enemies.  Notice I did not say God has become our enemy.  It is we who have turned against God, not God who has turned against us. 

The result of this rupture is the alienation and emptiness of the soul that often grips us.  We have lost our identity, we have lost our meaning,  we have lost our purpose, because we have lost our God. Young people used to spend much time and effort trying to "find" themselves. I don't see that much any more.  Today's youth spend their efforts inventing themselves.  If they don't like the identity they create, they simply re-invent themselves.  And they keep re-inventing themselves whenever they want to change.  But it is not only young people who do this.  People of all ages re-invent themselves many times during their  lives.  Part of this is thrust upon us as we go from children to adults, to parents and grand parents.  But part of it is simply because we don't know who we are in the first place.  We don't know we are created in the image of God to know, love and enjoy Him.  Therefore we are constantly trying to re-invent ourselves according to other images.  This is all part of our ruptured relationship with God.  In short, we have rejected God's call and purpose for us, and have invented our own.  But our self-invented identities cannot fulfill our need to be right with God, and so we are miserable.

But there are worse consequences of this ruptured relationship.  We have come under God's justice.  We have been measure by the standard of God's perfect righteousness, and we have been found wanting.  We have become criminals against His righteous law, and are liable for the penalty our crimes deserve.  We have become children of wrath, and the wages of sin is death.

Fortunately sin is not the end of the story.  Grace is.  We see fallen humanity and we learn that we need a Saviour.  We look at Christ, and we see that we have one.  By grace nature will be restored to its original state.  It will become our friend again.  The storms will cease.  Disasters will end, as will hunger, illness, and death.  It will become Paradise again, restored by the power and grace of God.

By grace human relationships will be restored.  We will be delivered from our sinful lusts, to live in perfect love and harmony.  There will be no more crime, strife, or hate.  We will finally be able to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, and study war no more.  We who are in Christ already live in the restoration.  It is not complete yet.  It will never be complete in this present age in which sin and violence prevails.  But we have the hope of peace and we have the taste of peace.  Our natures are being transformed by God through the means of grace.  So we are able to live among each other in a way that approaches the way we shall live in that great day of Peace.

By grace our relationship with God is restored.  Our sins are forgiven.  His anger is appeased, and we are turned to Him to love and serve Him in joy forever.

The misery of sin is great.  There is not one problem or sorrow of this life that cannot be found to be the result of sin.  But the grace of God is greater than our sin.  His grace will win.