Law or promise?


Read Galatians 4:1-7

Chapter four begins as a continuation from chapter three. We need not get too concerned about chapters and verses in the Bible. They were not in the original and were devised so that we could easily refer to specific passages within the book. In the main, they are very good. However, they do not necessarily express God’s idea of how parts of scripture should be broken down into sections for us to read. The chapter and verse numbers are not inspired by the Holy Spirit in the same way that the text of the Bible is!

The obvious continuation, here in Galatians 4:1-7, reinforces what has been said previously about becoming children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. When we have put our complete trust in Him, have confessed our sins and completely turned away from them and have asked Jesus to be Lord of our lives; then we are all one in Christ Jesus through faith. (Galatians 3:26-29)

A legal trust

In chapter four, to illustrate what he is talking about to the Galatians, Paul uses an example with which we should also be familiar. When a child is left some money or property by a relative who has died, the normal practice is to set up a trust that will look after the inheritance until the child reaches a certain age. The trustees may be allowed to give small advances from the trust but, even though the child is legally entitled to the whole inheritance, it is not possible for the child to have access to all of it, until old enough to do so under the terms of the will. Until that time, the child is no better off than anyone else and must be granted approval before using even a tiny part of the inheritance.

Paul likens this situation to humanity's position throughout the period of the Old Testament (or "old covenant") as the period of the law of Moses is sometimes known. But, at exactly the right time - at the time appointed by God the Father - He sent Jesus into the world, born of a virgin woman during the "old covenant" period. Jesus became a human being, yet without losing His deity – having a divine nature but contained in a human body – and lived amongst us. He lived as an ordinary person but committed no sin. This unique nature and experience allowed Him to buy freedom for the rest of humanity, who were slaves to sin and guilty under God's law. Having done that, He went further and adopted us as His very own family. Let that get hold of your heart! "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."

Here at last was a human being who could live a fully human experience, yet never sinned. Not that He wasn’t subject to the same temptations that we are. The Bible says that He was, but that He was "without sin". (Hebrews 4:15) He paid the price that the law would have otherwise demanded from us! But... this is only effective when we receive that free gift.

An unwanted gift

Have you got the full picture of all that Jesus paid for us to receive? Parents frequently buy presents for their children. They spend some time considering what they want to give them and when will be the best time to go to them and hand over the present in person. But suppose that the children weren't prepared to receive what had been offered to them. They might say: "No, just keep it and stop bothering me!" Alternatively, they might receive the present, open it, then just put it on a shelf and leave it there, or take out one small part of the gift and leave the rest untouched. It sounds faintly ridiculous, doesn't it? Because, rejecting a gift in that way would be of no benefit to them whatsoever. Indeed, it would be likely to upset their loving parents very considerably.

If we don’t accept God’s gift to us – eternal life, in and through Jesus – then we are going to be doing exactly that and, not just to our human parents, but to our heavenly Father. How will we ever gain the full benefit of what He has done, packaged up and sent to us, in Jesus, His own Son? We can miss out on so much in our lives if we just receive our salvation and don’t grow in our relationship with the Holy Spirit. Only then can we benefit from our gift and allow His Spirit to flow through us and abundantly bless all around us. This can be the most amazing life. As soon as Christ redeems us, God sends the Spirit of His Son into our hearts to obtain salvation and all the benefits of adopted children. As we die to ourselves and live to Christ, not in our own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can know with complete certainty that we are God’s children. (Hebrews 5:11-14) Paul had taught all this to the Galatian believers and they had accepted it (and much more) while he was there in person. But, as soon as he had departed, other so-called teachers came along, saying that it wasn't enough to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour; everyone also had to keep the old covenant laws as well.

Read Galatians 4:8-16

Relying on the earlier covenant laws is the opposite of relying on Jesus but, for the Galatian believers, it all seemed very plausible. The Jewish teachers who had turned up there had a great deal of experience in religious matters. For them to say to the Galatians: "Well, yes, of course you can believe in Jesus, but what Paul didn’t tell you was that you must keep the religious laws as well and we have come to put you right and explain it fully to you." Many of the Galatian Christians saw nothing wrong in adopting a compromise solution. Paul, however, was seriously concerned for them. He realised that they were now trying to earn favour with God.

A trusted friend

When Paul had first gone to Galatia to establish churches there, the people had been worshipping all sorts of other deities and following other beliefs. (The Bible refers to such things simply as "idols".) Nevertheless, Paul spoke to all who would listen about the fact that Jesus was the "Messiah) ("anointed one") and had come to earth for the purpose of setting people free from the "law of sin and death". The Galatians accepted what he had to say with great joy. In fact, they received Paul himself with great joy as well. But now, Paul is wondering whether his work with them had been in vain. He had been so thankful for their kindness to him when he was suffering. "Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?" (Galatians 4:12-16)

A dangerous temptation

What had happened to all that joy? It can be the same with us. We can hear for the first time all that Jesus has done for us with great joy and excitement. We can feel the weight of sin and guilt slide away from our shoulders as we come to the foot of the cross in repentance. But, if we do not spend time getting to know Father God and learning about the amazing things that He has done for us, we will be in danger of forgetting that initial joy and excitement. Before we know it, we will start listening to other people who tell us about things that we need to do in addition to receiving the gift of salvation from God Himself.

Remember the preparation time Paul had, when he went away into the desert, to grow his relationship with the living God? Jesus Himself had thirty years of preparation for three years of ministry. Our initial reaction, in the first flush of giving our life to Christ and being saved, can be to want to rush off and, in our desire to thank God for His amazing gift, to throw ourselves into all sorts of "work for the Lord" - endlessly doing, doing, doing stuff, without deepening our relationship or actually getting to know Him more. As problems begin to build up and we experience opposition to what we're doing, we can respond in a totally ungodly way and often not recognise where the attack has come from. We think that we are fighting "flesh and blood" when we are actually in the midst of a spiritual battle, a battle of the enemy's making, in an attempt to get us off track. (2 Corinthians 10:4)

Two kingdoms

In our world, we are surrounded by people who believe in all sorts of things. Some are even atheists, who believe that there is no God at all. But it is a world of two kingdoms. God is the creator of all people, but He is not the Father of all people. In order to be part of His kingdom and His family, we must focus on what it means to be an adopted, chosen, child of God. As soon as the Holy Spirit enters our hearts, we are no longer slaves to the kingdom of the world and all the bondage that involves. We begin to recognise that we have been chosen by God Himself and, as His children, we are the inheritors of all God promises and gives to us. We can do nothing to earn this gift, but we do have to accept it by being prepared to turn away from our sinfulness and to receive Jesus (God's Son) into our hearts. This is the greatest of blessings that God gives us. Only those who believe in Christ can legitimately call God their Father. (Galatians 3:16)

In no other religion is God called "Father". The followers of other religions cannot fully know God because they do not know Him as Father. Some recognise God's existence as a living, holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, higher authority; but the one true God is more than this. He is the Triune God, three in One, One God three positions or actions, but totally one. God is also our loving and merciful, heavenly Father and, we who believe in Christ, are His children. When Jesus left this earth He sent the Holy Spirit to complete His work, We are baptised with the powerful Holy Spirit so we can be obedient to do Jesus' work The followers of other religions seek to please God in order to obtain blessings for themselves and a place with Him in eternity. But we, who believe in Christ, seek to please God because of the blessings He has already given us. We desire to show our gratitude because we are His children and we want to behave like His children. (Ephesians 5:8) Other religions say: "Obey, so you might be saved." We obey out of love and thankfulness for our salvation, which has been sealed by the blood of Jesus. Followers of other religions may know deep down that it is not possible for human beings to be saved by obeying religious rules and regulations. They may recognise that no person will ever be good enough to earn salvation, but still have a deep thirst for God that drives them on to perform rituals and sacrifices in the hope of being accepted by Him.

But we know that seeking salvation through obedience to rules and rituals will never work. Salvation in Jesus Christ is available only by grace through faith. It is a gift. However hard we try to please God, He will never love us more. However much we fail and mess up, He will never love us less. That is grace. The Galatians had all too quickly forgotten this. Paul yearned to be able to go to them, but had to be content with writing instead, to get his loving message across.

Read Galatians 4:17-20

Paul was totally perplexed that these people, with whom he had spent time so recently and who had responded to the words of life and truth that he had spoken, could so rapidly be diverted from the truth. The ones who had come to divert them were zealous, but their zeal was misdirected. In fact, it was a different kind of zeal altogether: a zeal to destroy. People can have a positive zeal for the things of God: to build others up and, thereby, be built up themselves; to know the truth and help make it known. When Jesus was in the temple on one occasion, He turned over the tables of the money changers because "zeal for His Father’s house consumed Him". (John 2:17) Paul longs with all his heart for these Galatians to be endued with this positive zeal to build the kingdom of God. He must also have remembered so clearly the time when he himself was full of zeal to destroy Christians and how wrong he had been. (Acts 9:1-2) He is an amazing example of the transforming power of the truth and the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart.

"This is my longing for you too that you, being built up in the faith, may know the power and authority of God’s love for His people; that you will be rooted and established and grow into mighty men and women of God changing our nations and communities, in your desire to make known to all people the reality of the truth you have now found." (Ephesians 3:17-19)

Speaking the truth

How easy it is for those who were once our friends to become our enemies. How quick we are to count as enemies those who tell us the truth about our faults. We must always be prepared to speak the truth in love, even if in so doing we make an enemy. (Ephesians 4:15) At the same time, we must be sure that it is the truth we are speaking before we open our mouths up and we must examine our hearts to be sure that we are speaking in love. Another biblical principle it to speak to a person, initially, in private, face-to-face and never behind someone's back. I have spoken up so many times to justify my point of view, when Father God wanted me to keep quiet and allow Him to work the situation out for the good of all and His glory. God’s desire is that the world will see the body of Christ - all believers - as united and loving one another, so that the world will know that Jesus is alive and real today. (John 17:21)

Knowing joy

Paul notes that Satan had taken away joy and freedom from the Galatian believers. The enemy cannot steal our salvation, but he can put us back into bondage with accusations and condemnation, thus limiting our joy and the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Joy - a fruit of the Holy Spirit - is a spiritual force and different from happiness, which is dependent upon our circumstances. We experience joy because we are no longer in bondage to the kingdom of the world. All too often, followers of other religions live in fear, in case they do not fulfil even one of the rules and regulations that they follow and, therefore, incur anger from their god. There should be freedom and joy in God’s family because we are in Christ and His perfect love for us casts out all fear. (1 John 4:18)

Furthermore, we can find joy in obeying Jesus. There is no great joy in following rules and regulations but, as Christians, we are those who follow Christ and His leading. When we love someone, it is easy to do what pleases them. When we love and follow Christ, it is even easier because He gives us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the strength to follow Him as well as the joy of obeying Him. At the beginning, the Galatians had been so joyful and grateful to hear the truth of the good news through Paul. Now he is concerned that they may have become his enemies, because he has told them the truth about their error. His clear motive is to point people back to Christ, but Paul now thinks of himself as "in the pains of childbirth again", having previously "given birth" to the churches in Galatia. He believes that he needs to work again to restore the joy of salvation in Christ that they once had. This is the goal of every true pastor. Just as a mother’s birth pains do not cease until the child is delivered, so Paul’s pain and hard work will not stop until Christ is formed in the Galatians. He looks to the time when they will be mature, attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)

Having tried to use his warm-hearted power of persuasion with the Galatians, to claim their love and loyalty, Paul is now going to try using theological argument to speak to their minds as well.

Read Galatians 4:21-31

In the first half of this section, Paul addresses himself to those who are tempted to return to living under the old covenant law. He wants them to be in no doubt about how the law is described in God’s word. (Galatians 4:21-23) He takes his listeners back into the Old Testament to remind them of what happened to Abraham. Abram (as was known initially) left the place of his birth - Ur in Chaldea - and arrived in Haran, in what is now northern Syria. At this point, his father died. After some time, God spoke to Abram. "The LORD had said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you’". (Genesis 12:1-3) Abram obeyed God and set out with Sarai his wife and his nephew, Lot, together with all the servants that he had acquired while they had lived in Haran. It was a permanent move and they took with them all their possessions and livestock. Abram had no other reason to go, except that he had heard and responded to the voice of God. He set out for an indeterminate place – a place that God promised He would show him in due course.

Promises, promises

This was the start of Abram’s walk of faith with God. On that journey, God made promises to him that he wholeheartedly believed. The first promise was that he would inherit the land that he walked on. Abraham found that working with Lot caused friction because they both had large flocks and finding pasture for them became ever more difficult. Abram offered Lot the option to choose part of the land to settle in, saying that he would go int he opposite direction himself. Lot chose the very best land, leaving Abram with the barren and stony territory. At the parting of the ways, I am sure that there must have been many questions going through Abram's mind. Did he think, perhaps, that he had "blown it", "messed up" or "given away his inheritance"? But God spoke to him again in reassurance and said: "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you." (Genesis 13:14-17)

Sometime later, Abram began to question God. It was all very well having these big promises from God, but Abram could not see how God could possibly keep them. One of those promises was that he (Abram) would become the father of many nations, but Abram and Sarai had long since passed the age of childbearing, so how could God’s promise actually happen? As he was discussing it with his wife one day, she came up with an answer - a good idea: why not have a child with her slave, Hagar? Abram was persuaded and the result was Ishmael. Now this may have appeared to be a good idea to Abram and Sarai, but it certainly was not a God idea! It was an entirely natural solution to a very natural problem, but God’s promise to him would be executed in God’s way and at God’s time in an entirely divine way. Some years later, God appeared to Abram again (Sarai was listening to the conversation). God said to Abram that he would have his own child by Sarai his wife. By that time, Abram was ninety-nine years old and Sarai was ninety years old! Nevertheless, that is precisely what happened, Isaac was born: a child of promise – and what a promise!

Paul took this figuratively as representing two covenants. The servant, Hagar, represents the old covenant and its system of laws that had been given at Mount Sinai - before Jesus came. The free woman, Sarah, has been barren all her life and her son was born by the power of the Holy Spirit - God’s choice and power. Sarah brings in the new covenant of freedom, superseding the law, which has now been fulfilled through Jesus. She is the "mother" of all believers in Christ - all true heirs of Abraham, born as a result of the promise God that gave Abram and Sarai. We are of the new Jerusalem (above) and so have freedom in Christ. (Galatians 4:24-27) Jesus has paid the penalty that would otherwise have had to be paid by us and we are free indeed. (John 8:34-36)

God’s promise – His word - is powerful. It is a living word, giving life. Through God’s word, Sarai gave birth to a child, Isaac, even though she was ninety years old. In the same way, through God’s word of grace, the Galatians have been born by the power of the Spirit. They too are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, the true offspring of Abraham, not by naturel descent, but by the grace of God. The descendants under the old covenant represent those people who wish to live under the old law. These children are destined to be slaves to the law. They must keep the law - one hundred percent of it - all of the time. There is no freedom because, the instant you do not keep to the letter of it, you are lost for eternity, with no hope of redemption from a sacrifice by a priest in the temple. The early system of sacrifices only covered sin; they did not remove it. As we have said before, it is impossible to keep the law, but the descendants of the new covenant represent those who have accepted Jesus as Lord... and they are free. Through His death, Jesus has paid the penalty that would otherwise have had to be paid by us and so we are free indeed. (John 8:34-36)

Choices, choices

Now, as he writes of the problem that faced Abraham in the Old Testament, Paul offers the only solution to this problem of which way to go: the way of the law or the way of Jesus. (Galatians 4:28-31) Abraham knew that the child born from human effort could never live in the same household as the child born from faith in God, so he sent Ishmael away with his mother, Hagar. The Bible says that God was with Ishmael and he grew and prospered. Indeed, he later became the father of the Arab nations. Of course, that reminds us of the problems that Israel continues to have with the Arabs today (and vice-versa), but God has a plan for all of Abraham’s children and we are seeing the outworking of that plan today. (Genesis 21:8-21)

The heirs of the flesh (human nature) will always persecute the heirs of the Spirit. That is why Abraham put the slave woman and her son Ishmael out of his house. In the same way, the Galatians needed to get rid of the false Jewish teachers who were "sons of the flesh".

When it comes to our choices, we need to be just as ruthless. We cannot have a foot in both camps. We need to make up our minds. We who believe in Christ are children of the free woman. We are God’s children by grace - a gift of God that we receive by trust. So let's not throw away the gift of salvation or His amazing grace by putting our faith in works or religion. Let our faith be in Christ alone.

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