What God wanted all along
Hebrews 8: God put the old plan on the shelf.
Prior to Christ, the old plan was the only plan. It included laws written on stone, rules and regulations. It was characterized by failure, repentance, and trying harder. It actually never had a chance of setting people right with God and had more to do with letting people who wanted to “do it themselves” find out just how dissatisfying that kind of religion is. All along, the Lord had a superior way in mind. That better way started, not with rules and regulations, but with the Lord taking charge of salvation. His plan all along was to change people’s hearts so that their religion would be less religion and more relationship. There were plenty of hints that this was coming. The revered prophets of old were much more relationship oriented than they were rules oriented. Jeremiah, who’s quoted in this passage, longed for a day when God’s Law would be written inside a person rather than written on stone tablets. Their greatest king, David, was remembered, not as a man of rules but, instead, as a man after God’s heart. The rules had their place, but now they’ve been replaced by grace through Jesus Christ. Now, the old way is a museum exhibit. The new way is life, itself.
Take Away: Through Christ’s death we have abundant life – something rule keeping could never accomplish.
Life in the middle
Titus 3: Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print about the law code.
Since Paul’s somewhat critical of the average resident of Crete I assume that his warning to Titus here isn’t based on some natural tendency of Titus to get caught up in trivial matters. It seems to me that Paul thinks that the people of that island do share this tendency and if he isn’t careful Titus will get bound up in it too. Paul wants Titus, and all believers, to focus on the big picture. The Lord has graciously and in mercy reached out to us in our sinful state to establish us in a new relationship with him. He stepped into this world and knowing full well that we don’t deserve it, loved us anyway and went to work transforming our lives. Now, we’re made new, cleaned up by Jesus, recipients of God’s gift of himself to us. These are the things we’re to think and tell about. We’re to let others, outsiders, have the corner on worrying about the minutia of the law. They’re welcome to it. After all, if such things provide salvation, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have been Jesus’ best friends. Paul tells Titus to “put his foot down” and insist that the business of the Church is declaring Jesus and to provide evidence of what he does in people’s lives by being “bighearted and courteous,” law-abiding citizens. On one side of us are those who are “ordered every which way by their glands.” On the other side are those who focus on debating the finer points of the Law. Here in the middle, we just live for Jesus, telling our story to all who will listen.
Take Away: It’s easy to major on the minors – but to do so is to fail to live the life to which the Lord calls us.
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.
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.
My close, personal Friend
2Corinthians 3: God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone.
Paul’s ancestors placed the weight of their hope in God on the Law given through Moses. And not just his ancestors, Paul, himself, starts off here. Then, out in the wilderness on the road to Damascus he has a personal, transforming encounter with the Lord that forever changes his life. Never again will he base his relationship with God on what was written on stone tablets hundreds of years earlier. Now, his relationship with the Lord is just that: a relationship. He doesn’t have to check a rulebook to know how things are between him and God. Rather, he enjoys a personal, intimate relationship with his Creator. This “face to face” level of faith is what the Apostle wants for his friends at Corinth and it’s what the Lord wants to have with you and me. Listen, don’t ever settle for a book of rules when you can personally know God. That’s the offer he makes to us in Christ, who not only came to die for us, but also came to live with and in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. For Christians, the Bible isn’t a book of rules to be followed. Rather, it’s a map that leads us to God and then helps us live in his personal presence.
Take Away: Don’t settle for rules when the reality of God in your heart is abundantly available in Christ.
The curtain falls, but Act II is about to begin
Malachi 4: Remember and keep the revelation I gave through my servant Moses.
Did Malachi understand that these words were to become, for Christians across the ages, the closing words of the Old Testament? It’s highly unlikely. However, I believe God, the Holy Spirit knew it. The last two paragraphs of Malachi are an excellent ending for the Old Testament. For those of that day, still living under the Law, one of the last words is “remember.” They’re to keep the “rules and procedures for right living” given them by Moses. If they do that they’ll have done what the Lord requires of them. However, there’s another last word. It’s, “also look ahead.” The Lord isn’t finished working out redemption for them and all that has happened thus far has prepared the way for the really big deal that’s yet to come. As the curtain’s falling on this, the first act we’re told that the next act is going to be both interesting and surprising. They’ll know it’s starting when Elijah shows up to usher it in. For the people of Israel, that’s a long 400 years distant in the future. As for me, all I have to do is turn the page to see what has, up to now, been the black and white picture of God’s salvation plan displayed in living color.
Take Away: Even to this day we are wise to obediently remember what the Lord has told us while at the same time look forward to what he has promised us.