Responsibility of seasoned saints
Galatians 6: So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good.
The church is, obviously, an imperfect body. After all, it’s filled with imperfect human beings. Within its number are mature, settled saints and new, raw believers and folks everywhere in between. It’s a challenge to be a part of such a diverse family. The Apostle reminds the “trained” and “mature” believers that they have a responsibility to enter into “a generous common life” with those who’ve gone before and at least implies that they’re to do the same with those who are trailing behind them on their spiritual journey. He knows that this kind of communal living takes effort and can be a real energy drain so he frames the issue using a familiar crop growing illustration. The farmer works the fields, not because he likes what he’s seeing right at that moment but because of what he believes is coming. As “seasoned saints” patiently love and encourage others within the body of Christ they do so with two truths in mind. First, they remember where they came from and how others accepted them when they were young, frustrating, inconsistent believers. Second, they anticipate what the Lord’s going to do in the lives of these folks. The language he uses is that of self-responsibility: “Let’s not allow ourselves…” he says. Some folks haven’t yet gotten beyond the children’s end of the pool. Those who are experienced, capable “swimmers” are to, in Paul’s words, “Work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.”
Take Away: There are people at all stages of spiritual growth in the family of God.
Galatians 5: Love others as you love yourself.
Freedom isn’t free. For one thing, it’s expensive to obtain. That’s true on national levels. Wars are fought and lives are lost for the cause of freedom. It’s also true on the spiritual level. Jesus goes to the cross, giving his all to set us free from the dominion of sin. Freedom is also difficult to retain. Again, on national levels, once freedom is gained it’s often under attack from without and within. Vigilance is necessary if freedom is to be retained. Otherwise, it will gradually erode and be ultimately lost. Paul warns his readers that spiritual freedom must be guarded and allowed to mature. In his case, some are urging the Christians at Galatia to exchange some of their freedom in Christ for Jewish rules and regulations. He tells them that if they do that they’ll be “cut off from Christ” and “fall out of grace.” He also explains that freedom will actually destroy itself unless it’s harnessed. Otherwise, freedom becomes destructive and, in the name of freedom, people tend to “bite and ravage each other…annihilating each other.” If freedom is to survive it must be harnessed, placed under some controlling principle and authority. The Apostle doesn’t leave us to figure this out for ourselves, but plainly states that authority: “love others as you love yourself.” Spiritual freedom, then, might be thought of as rather fragile. On one side, it can be choked off by rules and regulations that seem to draw us like moths to a flame. On the other side, it can, itself, become a negative, destructive force that causes pain and ultimately consumes itself. The only hope is for our freedom to be placed under submission to love. It’s no wonder that Jesus, who paid the ultimate price to obtain our freedom insisted that his followers love one another. Otherwise, what he obtained for us is ultimately lost by us.
Take Away: Even freedom as great as it is must be made a servant to love.
Who will I allow to teach me?
Galatians 4: They want to shut you out of the free world of God’s grace so that you will always depend on them.
The Christians at Galatia are good hearted people. In fact, before they were ever established in the faith they welcomed a traveling preacher who was too sick to continue. These good people took him in, loved him, nurtured him to health, and then received his message. Their relationship was a mutual one. They gave him what he needed and he, in turn, shared with them the best news of all time. Now, though, we see the dark side of their hospitality. Others have come, claiming a “new” twist on the gospel Paul preached to them. These same people have welcomed these teachers and are now allowing these teachers to influence their understanding of how to live the Christian life. In many cases, seen more today than then, good, serious, honest people can arrive at differing opinions on a variety of spiritual issues. However, as we see in this passage, there are some who are out there teaching for all the wrong reasons. They’ve found that Christians are, indeed, a welcoming, generous people. They’ve found that if they say the right things they can gain a following of gullible sheep that can be manipulated to serve their own needs. In Paul’s day those teachers are perverting the gospel to mix faith in Christ with adherence to the Old Testament rules and regulations. Today, some are preaching a gospel of materialism and God-manipulation. Sometimes such false teaching rises from an honest failure to understand. However, as it was in Paul’s day, there are teachers out there who will say whatever they have to say to get whatever it is they want to get from gullible people. Generally speaking, their goal is either money or power or both. Paul practically begs his readers to hold steady to the pure gospel of Christ. In our day with unprecedented media access we can pretty much pick and choose those who we will allow to influence our thinking about spiritual things. More than ever we need to focus on Jesus and his Gospel.
Take Away: Who are you allowing to influence your thinking about spiritual matters?
Galatians 3: Anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure.
It’s astounding to read the writings of this once exemplary Pharisee as he takes on the failure of rule keeping. Paul was, at one time, a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was cheered for his dedication to a thousand-and-one rules; zealous for that way of life to the point that he hunted down and imprisoned any who threatened it. Now, years later, he’s making a lawyerly case against that approach, urging his friends at Galatia back from the brink of yielding to a “Jesus-and” approach to God. When a past Pharisee says rule keeping dooms a person to spiritual failure I’m wise to listen. Paul says the key to spiritual life isn’t trying harder, rather it’s trusting God more. He says this secret has always been out there, hidden in plain view. After all father Abraham is counted as righteous, not because he’s so good at always doing just what God wants (in fact, he’s notoriously bad at it) but rather because he trusts God. Rather than creating a human powered way to God the rules prove to me once and for all that that approach will never work. I’m left in a hopeless condition unless a superior way is made available to me. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus, the Son of God, accepts my failure as his own. What rule keeping can’t do, he does. The door to righteousness is opened wide. To surrender to a “Jesus and” approach is to take a step backward to a failed system. My hope is firmly fixed on “Jesus only.”
Take Away: There’s no other way to God than through faith in Jesus.
Rules and regs
Galatians 2: If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
Years earlier the council at Jerusalem came to a momentous decision. While it was okay for Jewish Christians to continue to observe the Jewish rules and regulations the burden of keeping those rules wouldn’t be placed on the Gentile believers. That was a very big deal, but it wasn’t the end of the subject. Some of the “rule keeping” Jewish Christians refused to accept that decision. Off they went to the Gentile churches to “re-educate” the new Christians. Their brand of Christianity was quite Jewish. Beyond that, even Jewish believers like Peter tended to walk on both sides of the road on this one. Around Jews they were very Jewish, but when they were with non-Jews, they relaxed and conducted themselves as though it is, indeed, faith in Jesus that alone makes a person right with God. Paul and Peter had a bit of a falling out about it when Peter, who had been getting along just fine with the Gentile Christians, quietly withdrew from them when a group of rule keeping Jewish Christians showed up. Clearly, in spite of the fact that there had been an official ruling on the matter, in practice, things were still up in the air. Paul, in this case, doesn’t appeal to the Jerusalem ruling, but, instead goes straight to the cross of Christ. He reminds his readers that if rules did the job, then the Jews, of all people, would be happily satisfied with their situation. He also tells them, that, if that was possible, then Jesus would have never gone to the cross. After all, his message to us isn’t “try harder and you’ll be fine.” Rather, his message is that he is the “way, the truth, and the life.”
Take Away: Even if we somehow managed to keep all the rules we’d still be unsaved outside of Christ.
Faith or works?
Galatians 1: I can’t believe your fickleness.
The Apostle wastes no time getting to his purpose in writing. He states his credentials, reminding his readers that he is “God-commissioned” and then challenges their recent move away from grace and to Law. This, he says, is no small thing. Rather it’s a pivot away from Christ; a rejection of his message of mercy and life transformation. During his time in their province, Paul laid a foundation of faith for them. He avoided “rule talk” and concentrated on “freedom talk.” He knows all about rules and regulations. In fact, in earlier days he was the champion of both. The biggest fans of such things cheered him on, making him their hero. After meeting Jesus, though, Paul rejected all that. Then, as a messenger for Christ, he set out to tell the Good News and in the telling he carefully avoided binding people up with the things that had bound him the first part of his life. Now he hears that many are embracing the old, failed approach and he’s writing to put a stop to it. In his mind one must decide between seeking righteousness by faith or righteousness by works. The first is achieved only in Christ. The second, well, the second is never achieved and bound for failure before it starts. As I begin reading Galatians right off I’m plunged into a discussion about one of the primary concerns of human beings across the ages: just what must I do to be righteous in the eyes of God?
Take Away: Righteousness can never be found in keeping rules.