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.
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.
Living unreservedly for God
2Corinthians 6: The smallness you feel comes from within you.
These are emotional words from the Apostle. He loves this church. They’re his dear friends. In fact, he considers them to be his children in Christ. At the same time he’s frustrated with the smallness of their lives. The infighting, bickering, competing attitude of theirs not only breaks his heart but it also limits their view of God and what he does in people’s lives. Without reservation Paul has given himself to them and to the Church in general. He’s suffered physically for it but at the same time he’s been blessed beyond description. If the Corinthians feel their religion puts them in a straightjacket it’s their own fault. There’s so much more to being a Christian than trying to be first in line at church potlucks or getting to be the one who sings the special song. Paul calls them to a better way: a passionate life lived joyfully for the Lord. These words speak to church people throughout the ages. Am I going to make church about meetings and rules and authority or am I going to make it about living passionately for the Lord? The first binds and limits me. The second sets me free to live “openly and expansively.”
Take Away: The Christian life isn’t binding – rather, it’s wonderfully freeing.
Freedom in Christ
1Corinthians 10: I’m not going to walk around on eggshells.
Somehow, Paul ends up back on the topic of meat offered to idols. It seems that he wants to be sure his readers understand just how freely God wants his people to live their lives. He tells them that if they go to the butcher to buy meat, just buy it without worrying about whether or not it was once part of a sacrifice to an idol. He doesn’t want Christians to live their lives in fear that they’re going to somehow mess up and get God upset with them. Of course, there are common sense rules to apply. If a Christian is a guest somewhere and the host says, “Now, I’m not sure you’ll want to join me in eating this particular piece of meat, as I’m eating it as part of a fellowship meal with an idol” then it’s plain that whether or not one eats that meat is a big deal to the host. Still, Paul’s message here is that I don’t have to live in fear that I’m going to somehow accidentally say or do or eat the wrong thing and get on the wrong side of God. Rather, I’m to live the life of a person who’s loved by God and who’s free to enjoy all the good things he sends to my life. So, praise the Lord, and might I have just a bit more of that excellent pot roast!
Take Away: The Christian life is to be one of joyful, thankful, freedom.
The greatest need of the believer
Romans 7: But I need something more.
In this passage the Apostle describes the frustration of many of God’s people. He’s been set free from sin’s prison and now wants to live God’s way. He understands that God’s ways are right but under the influence of sin even the purity of the Law becomes a tool of temptation and failure. He’s been freed from prison but some of that prison remains in him. He declares “I need something more.” A believer doesn’t have to attend a particular brand of church to identify with this statement. Having been forgiven of sins I set out to live a new life of righteousness in fellowship with the Lord. However, I come to the conclusion that this isn’t as easy as it appears. In fact, the harder I try to live that life of righteousness the clearer it becomes that, in Paul’s words: “I obviously need help!” Is this passage a pitiful surrender to sin? When all is said and done, is the Christian life all about grimly holding on through repeated spiritual failure? The Apostle will more fully answer these questions as he continues writing in what we call chapter eight, but he tips his hand when he says, “The answer, thank God, is…Jesus Christ.”
Take Away: Without the deeper work of God the Christian life is one of constant struggle.
Romans 6: You are dead to sin and alive to God.
The topic is freedom. When I was bound in sin, living a dead end life without hope Jesus came to rescue me. Taking my sin as his own, he carried it to death, stripping it of its grip on me. Then, in the resurrection, the possibility of new life came to me. When I join Christ at the cross I die to sin. When I join him at the tomb on resurrection morning, that resurrection life becomes mine. Now, I stand a free man, made new by the work of Christ. I’m filled with thanksgiving and forever indebted to the One who has made it all possible. The freedom I’ve received is a cherished possession, one that I guard carefully, realizing that some acts are out of bounds for me because to do them would place me back in bondage from whence I came. Instead, I willingly serve the One who gave me freedom, bound, not by sin and death, but by love.
Take Away: I’m bound…not by sin, but by God’s love.
Acts 22: I paid a huge sum for my citizenship. How much did it cost you?
The captain isn’t having a good day. He’s arrested a man thinking he’s caught an Egyptian troublemaker but now realizes he has the wrong man. He then lets the man address the crowd, and to his surprise he addresses them in Hebrew. In a few minutes, there’s another riot and the man has to be rescued again. At this point the captain has had enough; he’ll beat the facts out of the fellow and be done with it. Then, as soldiers prepare to do the flogging the man informs them that he’s a Roman citizen. To be guilty of detaining and torturing a Roman citizen could be disastrous to his career. Additionally, the captain takes Roman citizenship quite seriously because obtaining his own citizenship had been an expensive process. Now, he’s come within a few minutes of jeopardizing his career because of this mysterious man. He asks Paul how he obtained his Roman citizenship and Paul responds that he was born free. Commentators aren’t sure how it is that Paul’s a Roman citizen but the best idea is that his home town, Tarsus, has been declared “free” by Caesar. Such a town is bound to allegiance to Rome, but its citizens are unfettered by the heavy hand of Rome. These people have the rights of a Roman citizen. The captain’s impressed that Paul was born with a privilege that has cost him dearly. For my part, I’m somewhere between the captain and Paul. I wasn’t born free. Rather, I was born a slave to sin and the price for my freedom was far beyond anything I could pay. However, the price was paid, in fact, had already been paid 2000 years earlier. My freedom was obtained at great cost. How much did it cost me? Nothing; but it cost Jesus everything.
Take Away: I’ve been set free a great price: the blood of Jesus.
Playing “let’s make a deal” with God
Jeremiah 34: The army of the king of Babylon has pulled back…but not for long.
One of the many acts of rebellion against God committed by Judah is that of making slaves of their fellow countrymen. God forbade this from the very beginning of their existence as a nation, even as they came up out of Egyptian slavery. Indentured servitude, yes – slavery, no. With things falling apart as Babylon’s army’s about to take the city of Jerusalem King Zedekiah frees all the salves. It appears that he’s playing “let’s make a deal” with God. In fact, the Lord seems to agree to the deal. Nebuchadnezzar withdraws his army and for the time being Jerusalem is spared. At this point Zedekiah does a stupid thing. He reneges on freeing the slaves. Those who have been set free are put back into slavery. The result is quite predictable. Once again Jeremiah comes forward with a message from the Lord. He says God’s going to set Zedekiah free in the same way: free to face war and destruction; to face the wrath of God expressed through a foreign king. Nebuchadnezzar will return to Jerusalem to finish what he started. I don’t think it’s ever wise to make deals with God. Sometimes, I think God sees us as we see a child who promises to keep his room clean the rest of his life if we let him stay up to watch a favorite TV show. We know the child can’t keep his side of the deal. In general, though, God expects us to keep our word. Zedekiah should have stayed with his move to make things right. In failing to do so, he became, not only a law-breaker once again, but a liar too.
Take Away: The Lord expects us to keep our word.
The people with the blessing
Isaiah 61: I will sing for joy in God, explode in praise from deep in my soul!
As Jesus begins his public ministry he picks this portion of Isaiah’s writings as his text. Our Lord’s ministry will heal heartbroken people and pardon those held captive by sin. Jesus doesn’t read the entire “year of the Lord’s favor” sermon from Isaiah, but in that sermon Isaiah continues proclaiming all the good things God is about to do for his people. God is turning toward them in favor and there will be blessing upon blessing. They’ll be the recipients of the covenant God made with Abraham and with David and the whole world will know them as the people with the blessing. At this point in the message Isaiah becomes so excited about what God’s about to do that he declares that he’s exploding in praise from deep in his soul. Since Jesus picks these words to describe his ministry to the world we who follow him read this sermon of promises, not from only a historical point of view, but as though it’s directed to us, personally. In our lives we’re set free from the dominion of sin and enjoy “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Of course, we still deal with the ups and downs of life, but there’s a deep satisfaction that comes from being a people God has blessed. Even as Isaiah is moved to explosive praise by this promise of the Lord, we too are filled to overflowing with praise and thanksgiving for what the Lord has done, and is doing, in us.
Take Away: How wonderful it is to be a people God has blessed.
Ecclesiastes 3: God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time — but he’s left us in the dark.
One of the famous parts of Ecclesiastes is his “a time to plant and another to reap” section in which he lists all the opposites of life and decides they all have their proper place. The writer is impressed by all God has done in the world, but frustrated that he can’t understand the meaning of it all. I played golf with a fellow who had a long pre-shot routine that he went through every time he hit the ball. He shuffled his feet a specific way, waggled the club for what seemed to be an eternity, and then stood frozen over the ball before finally hitting his horrible slice. I wanted to shout out, “Just hit the ball!” No doubt, he needed some golfing lessons, but even I could see that he was over-thinking his golf swing. He had himself tied up in knots and it created, not an athletic, fluid golf shot, but a poor shot and a frustrated golfer. Solomon is frustrated that, after all his thinking and considering, he can’t understand all God does. He decides that “there’s nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.” That isn’t a ticket to living an immoral, God-ignoring life, but it’s a reminder that life is a gift of God and if we over-think it we, like my golfer friend, will spend way too much time out in the weeds rather than enjoying the beauty that has been freely given to us.
Take Away: Life is a gift meant to be enjoyed.