Approved By God.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:1-12 ESV

Jesus wastes no time. Once the crowd has taken their seats in front of Him, He jumps right into His lecture, and He begins with what has come to be known as the “beatitudes”.  This portion of His message derives its name from the repetitive use of the word, “blessing” that appears at the beginning of each line. The Greek word for blessing in the original text of Matthew’s gospel was makarios. In the Latin Vulgate, the word is beati, which is derived from the Latin beatitudo/beatus. Therefore, the name of this section of Jesus’ message became known as “The Beatitudes”.

In order to fully understand what Jesus is saying, we must know what He meant by using the word, “blessed”.  There is no doubt that it has a positive connotation. To be blessed is a good thing. But what kind of blessing did Jesus have in mind? We tend to use the word quite loosely and indiscriminately. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like, “He has been blessed with good genes” or “Grandchildren are such a blessing.” From our perspective, we can be blessed by good health, a new job, a strong constitution, a loving spouse and with good friends. Even in Jesus’ day, the word carried the connotation of being “supremely blest; by extension, fortunate, well off” (“G3107 – makarios – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Apr, 2017). The problem we face in reading The Beatitudes is applying our definition or understanding of what it means to be blessed and missing out on what Jesus was actually saying. Our natural tendency, just like the 1st-Century Jews sitting in Jesus’ audience that day, is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Warren Wiersbe states that the blessing to which Jesus referred is “an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that does not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” So while we might connote blessing with personal prosperity and a lack of problems, Jesus was speaking of something quite different. The root idea behind blessing is approval. God does not bless that which He does not approve. If you take the full context of Jesus’ message, it becomes clear that He is teaching about the kingdom of heaven and the character of those who belong to it. In essence, He is teaching about justification: how to be made right or approved by God. In the very next section, Jesus will bring up the Mosaic law. For the Jews in His audience, the Law had always been the sole requirement for attaining a right standing with God. It was through the keeping of the Law that man attempted to gain God’s approval or blessing.

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel on behalf of God.

“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NLT

They were to live in obedience to the commands of God. If they did so, they would be blessed by God. If they refused to do so, they would be cursed. In the previous chapter, Moses had made clear just what the blessing He promised would entail.

“You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:12-13 NLT

By obeying God, they would enjoy the approval and presence of God. They would know what it was like to have His protection and to enjoy His provision. The curses would be the result of having lost that relationship. But the Jews had ended up placing a higher value on the material blessings they enjoyed than on God’s approval. The idea that the God of the universe approved of them was less important to them than the personal prosperity they enjoyed as God’s people. And this misunderstanding of the blessing of God had resulted in them turning the Law into a means to an end. They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy, so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy. He had become nothing more to them than a conduit to more important things: health, happiness, material goods, crops, children, peace, long life, or whatever else they desired.

So here comes Jesus, preaching a message of what it means to be truly blessed by God. And what He has to say will rock the world of His listeners. He will tie the blessing of God to poverty, mourning, meekness, deprivation, and persecution. He will talk about heavenly rewards versus earthly ones. He will command His listeners to rejoice when they are persecuted, to turn the other cheek when they are slapped, to willingly go the second mile, to love their enemies, and to give to those who ask to borrow, expecting no payment in return. None of this would have made sense to His listeners. None of it would have sounded the least bit appealing. In the mind of the average Jew, it was the wealthy who were blessed by God, while the sick and the lame were cursed by God. They believed material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, so poverty must be a curse.

But what Jesus has to say in this passage will turn the tables on that kind of thinking. A great deal of what Jesus says will be in direct contradiction to their skewed understanding of the Law and what they believed was necessary to be right with God. They tied proof of righteousness (a right relationship with God) closely to outward signs of His blessing. But Jesus was going to blow up that presupposition. He was going to go to the heart of the issue – literally. Because Jesus was out to change the hearts of men. With His coming, the days were finished when men would be able to judge their righteousness based on outward evidence. God looks at the heart. And Jesus came to die so that men’s hearts might be redeemed and their behavior radically changed. What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment. He is speaking to a pre-cross crowd, explaining to them a post-cross reality. He knows something to which they are oblivious. He recognizes that all He is saying to them is not only impossible for them to understand, but impossible to pull off until He has died, been resurrected and the Holy Spirit comes. His words are preparatory in nature. He is expanding on His previous message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). Things were about to change. The Messiah had come. The Savior of the world was in their midst. And the means by which men might be made right with God, permanently and perfectly, had finally arrived. But before anyone could accept what Jesus had come to provide, they would have to recognize their need. That is why Jesus would later offer the Great Invitation: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT).

The Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be a new list of laws, rules and requirements for people to follow in order to gain God’s approval. It is a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who will find their approval by God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a pre-cross explanation of how right behavior will flow from having a right relationship with God, made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. The key message behind the Sermon on the Mount is the approval of God. And Jesus is in the process of helping His audience understand that right behavior stems from having a right relationship with God, not the other way around.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Wholly His To Be Holy.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. – 1 Corinthians 6:12-17 ESV

At the heart of Paul’s ongoing discussion with the Corinthians was his defense of and belief if the centrality of the gospel. For Paul, the gospel was about far more than a guaranteed place in heaven. There is no doubt that Paul looked forward to the day when he would be with the Lord in His heavenly kingdom. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul states that he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 ESV). Speaking of our earthly bodies, Paul says, “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2 ESV). He knew that the day was coming when he would receive a new body, a spiritual body, created by God for eternal life. “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1 ESV). But even with that assurance of a redeemed body and a reserved place in eternity, Paul lived with his sights fully set on the present. It was his aim to please God with the life he had been given and to do the work to which he had been assigned by God. It was this view that led him to write, “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10 ESV).

But what does all this have to do with the passage above? It seems that there were those in the church in Corinth who were living as if what they did in their earthly bodies didn’t matter. As Greeks, they probably held the view that the body was unimportant, acting as nothing more than a receptacle to hold man’s soul. “The Greeks always looked down on the body. There was a proverbial saying, ‘The body is a tomb.’ Epictetus said, ‘I am a poor soul shackled to a corpse’” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 22.). Evidently, it was this view of the body that was leading some of the believers in Corinth to commit acts of immorality. And Paul used some of their arguments against them. There were those who were justifying their actions by saying, “All things are lawful for me.” In other words, they argued that they were free in Christ. As Paul even taught, they were no longer required to keep the Mosaic law and its host of restrictions in order to be justified before God. But they were taking their newfound freedom in Christ to an inappropriate extreme, replacing legalism with license. They were combining their freedom in Christ with Greek dualism, that said the body didn’t matter, because we are spiritual beings. This viewpoint went contrary to the gospel. Christ came to redeem body and soul. He died to free us from the future penalty of sin, but also from the present power of sin over our lives. That is why Paul was able to say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). 

While, as believers, we do experience a newfound freedom in Christ, that does not mean that everything we are free to do is the right thing to do. Paul said that no all things that are lawful for us are helpful. For Paul, the gospel was about life change. It was about becoming other-oriented rather than self-focused. In fact, it was about dying to self and living for others, just as Jesus had modeled. Paul will raise this same issue later on in his letter. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV). Living the Christian life is not about what is best for me, but what will benefit the body of Christ and honor God. As Paul so clearly states, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31b ESV).

There is a sense in which the Corinthians did not understand the full impact of their conversion. When they had accepted Christ as their Savior, they had been joined to Him. They now shared His nature. They had been inhabited by His Spirit. As Paul states it, “your bodies are members of Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:15a ESV). The Greek word for “members” was commonly used to refer to a limb of the human body, such as an arm or leg. As Christians, we are members of the body of Christ. We have been joined to Him and He is the head of the body. We do not exist for ourselves. What we do affects the entire body of Christ. Which is why Paul asks, “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” (1 Corinthians 6:15b ESV). And he answers his own question with an emphatic, “Never!” What we do in our physical bodies has a direct impact on our spiritual lives. We are not dualistic in nature, but holistic. The Hebrew word for “blameless” is תָּמִים (tamiym) and it means “complete, whole, entire, sound, having integrity” (“H8549 – tamiym – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). We are to live our lives before God with integrity or wholeness. What I think with my mind matters. What I do with my body makes a difference. What I see with my eyes impacts my soul. Christ died to redeem all of me. He came to save me from what Paul refers to as “this body of death” (Romans 7:24). He came to give me new life here and now, and to miraculously re-purpose my body for the glory of God. So Paul would remind us, “Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God” (Romans 6:13 NLT).

No Other View.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! – Galatians 5:7-12 ESV

Paul took this issue very seriously. As far as he was concerned, it had little to do with the rite of circumcision itself, but it had everything to do with the integrity of the gospel. God had sent His Son as the one and only means for mankind’s salvation. His sacrificial death on the cross was God’s sole solution to man’s sin problem. God had never intended the law to save men, but to condemn them of their sins. The law revealed the holiness and righteousness that God demanded in a non-negotiable, hand-written form. It left no grey areas or anything up to man’s imagination. But man, in his sinful condition, was totally incapable of keeping the law, and this was no surprise to God. His plan all along had been for His Son to take on human flesh, in order that He might keep the law perfectly, and become the sinless substitute and unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, died on behalf of sinful men, and His death provided the only means by which men might be restored to a right relationship with God. Paul wrote to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25 ESV).

Anything and anyone that interfered with that message was considered an enemy by Paul. He didn’t suffer false teachers lightly. He would not tolerate those who preached a different version of God’s gospel. That is why he started out this letter to the Galatians with very strong words concerning those who were amending the gospel of God.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

In today’s passage, Paul commends his readers for running the race well, but then accuses them of allowing others to knock them off course. They had accepted Christ by faith and were living the Christian life in faith, but had run into an obstacle along the way. The Greek word Paul used was ἀνακόπτω (anakoptō) and it refers to something having its progress hindered, held back or checked in some way. The Judaizers, who were demanding that the Gentile converts in Galatia be circumcised, were actually hindering them from obeying the truth as found in the gospel. They were adding unnecessary requirements. And Paul made it clear that these new rules were not from God. “This persuasion is not from him who calls you” (Galatians 5:8 ESV). And the real danger of this kind of teaching was that it would soon permeate every aspect of their faith, causing them to walk away from the grace offered by God and back into the legalism of the law. Which is what Paul seems to be saying when he writes, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” This kind of false teaching would become like an uncontrolled cancer spreading through the church in Galatia and robbing them of the freedom they had found in Christ.

But Paul expressed his confidence that the Galatian believers would reject this false teaching and remain faithful to the life of faith.And he assured them that, regardless of what others might have said, he was not a proponent of circumcision. Yes, he had encouraged Timothy to be circumcised, but that was a different case altogether. Timothy, a young disciple of Paul’s, had a Jewish mother who had become a believer, but his father was Greek. In the book of Acts we read, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3 ESV). It had nothing to do with Timothy’s salvation, but with his ministry to the Jews. Paul knew that they would never listen to an uncircumcised Gentile, so he encouraged Timothy to undergo circumcision to make him acceptable to the Jews and provide him a platform to share the gospel with them.

Evidently, the false teachers in Galatia had been saying that Paul was also a proponent of circumcision, most likely using the story of Timothy as evidence. But Paul denies that charge and asks why he is still being persecuted by the Judaizers if they are all on the same page. No, Paul was adamantly opposed to these men and he made his position clear. For Paul, the very nature of the cross was an offense to the legalists. Jesus’ death had removed any vestige of self-righteousness or the possibility of justification by works. The cross symbolized Jesus’ once-for-all-time payment for the sins of mankind. Nothing more was necessary. But for the legalists, this party of the circumcision, the cross was not enough, so Paul had some harsh words for them. He compared them to the pagan priests who practiced ritual castration as part of their worship, and he wished that they would do the same to themselves. Paul was not necessarily wishing physical harm on these individuals, but was merely expressing his desire that they be cut off from the local fellowship of believers. He saw them as a real danger to the spiritual health of the church. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul had similarly harsh words regarding these types of individuals:

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. – Philippians 3:2-3 ESV

In our desire to be tolerant, we sometimes run the risk of allowing dangerously false doctrines to infiltrate the church. But when it came to the doctrine of salvation, Paul was anything but accommodating. He would not accept alternative views. He would not abide by those who offered a different version of the gospel. For Paul, there was only one means of salvation and it was by faith alone in Christ alone. And if anyone preached a different gospel, Paul called them out. And we should do the same. It is NOT true that all roads lead to the top of the mountain. It is false to believe that there are other ways for men to be made right with God. Jesus Himself said,  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Those who would add to or take away from the simple message of faith in Christ alone are not to be tolerated. Their false messages are not to be winked at or taken lightly. Our view is to be that there is no other view. There is no other gospel. There is no other means by which men might be restored to a right relationship with God. There is one hope for mankind: The simple, soul-saving, sin-slaying, justifying, sanctifying gospel of faith in Christ alone.

The Hope of Righteousness.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. – Galatians 5:1-6 ESV

In these verses, Paul makes it clear that the rite of circumcision was one of the big issues facing the Gentile believers to whom he wrote. They were being pressured by the Judaizers into believing that their salvation was incomplete unless they agreed to be circumcised. In essence, they were being told that they needed to become Jews in order for their salvation to be complete. But Paul warns them that there is no end to this slippery slope. If they give in to the demand of circumcision, then they will be required to keep the whole law. By accepting the idea that obedience to any requirement of the law is necessary for their salvation, they are placing themselves back under the full weight of the law. The apostle James made this point painfully clear in his letter: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10 ESV). Justification by the law required complete obedience, not partial.

The issue for Paul is that of freedom in Christ. He says that it is “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). Most of us, when we think of our freedom in Christ, focus on our freedom from sin and death. And yet, Paul speaks of another freedom we enjoy because of our relationship with Christ.

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. – Romans 7:5-6 ESV

Does our release from the law mean that the law was somehow evil? Paul answers that question rather emphatically. “By no means!the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:7, 12 ESV). What Paul is telling his readers is that the law is no longer to be viewed as a mandatory code of conduct or as a set of rules that must be obeyed to gain a right standing with God. We have been freed from that pointless pursuit. Paul spent his lifetime preaching the believer’s newfound freedom in Christ. That freedom includes our release from having to pursue justification through adherence to the law.

Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.” – Galatians 3:11-12 NLT

Paul did not want the Galatians to fall back into slavery. At one time they were slaves to sin and under the control of Satan himself. They had no other choice. But when they had accepted Christ as their Savior, they had been released from their captivity. Now they were risking falling back into slavery – slavery to the law. If they turned their backs on the grace offered through Christ and the justification that He alone could provide, they would be returning to a life of self-reliance and attempting to keep God happy through religious rule-keeping. To do so would be to fall away from grace, and Paul was not willing to sit back and watch them do that. It is not that Paul believed they would run the risk of losing their salvation. That is not what he means by falling away from grace. He is simply saying that they will be walking away from God’s sole method of salvation and justification: His undeserved and unearned grace as offered through His Son by means of faith. In Paul’s theology, faith in God’s grace gift of His Son would result in good works and a willing adherence to His commands. In the minds of the legalists, it was the exact opposite. They believed that man’s adherence to God’s law could earn him a right standing before God and was, if anything, as important as faith in Christ.

Paul gives us the key difference between a life that is grace-focused and one that is law-based. “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5 ESV). It is by the Spirit’s power that we are to live, not our own. And it is He who provides us with the faith necessary to eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. We don’t manufacture faith. It is a gift provided to us by God. It is with the Spirit’s help that we have “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). That was the author of Hebrews description of faith. God’s indwelling Spirit provides us with the supernatural ability to believe in things that have not yet happened and to trust in those things we can’t even see. It is by faith that we believe in our ongoing sanctification or transformation by God. We can’t see the end result. We can’t even see our sanctification taking place in real time. But we believe that God is doing what He has promised to do. Paul wanted believers to have a certainty and an abiding assurance that God had not only saved them by faith, but He was busy perfecting them by faith. And one day He was going to finish what He began by glorifying them by faith. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT).

God doesn’t need our help to make us holy. He simply asks for our complete reliance upon Him and our willing obedience to what He calls us to do, even when it doesn’t make sense. It is God’s Spirit that produces His fruit in our lives. It is the Spirit who produces in us a willingness and readiness to live obediently to God’s will. The hope of righteousness to which Paul refers is based on faith in the finished work of Christ. Our righteousness is not based on human effort or rule-keeping. It is based on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. We have been given His righteousness. We have been given His Spirit and, as a result, we now have the capacity to live righteously, not according to a written code of law, but a law written on our hearts. Our obedience is motivated from the inside, not the outside.

Released From Self-Reliance.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
    break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
    than those of the one who has a husband.”

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. – Galatians 4:21-31 ESV

One of the dangers of biblical interpretation is that of taking what was meant to be literal and turning it into an allegory. This is most often done with difficult passages. Because the Bible is made up of a variety of literary styles, such as history and poetry, and some passages are allegorical in nature, it can be tempting to take what God intended to be literal and to force upon it an allegorical meaning. Another thing that can make reading and interpreting the Bible difficult is that there are some passages that have both literal and allegorical messages within them. Paul provides us with a case in point. In his defense of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, Paul will use the historical account of the births of Ishmael and Isaac to explain the true nature of the law and man’s relationship to it.

Paul somewhat sarcastically asked his readers, who seemed to be set on living according to the law, why they refused to listen to what the law said. He then tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s two sons, found in the book of Genesis (located in the “law” section of the Old Testament). When a Jew referred to “the book of the law,” he was referring to not only the Mosaic law itself, but to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible as we know it today. The Genesis account tells of the birth of Ishmael to Abraham through his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar. This had been the result of Sarah’s attempt to help God fulfill His promise to give Abraham a son. The only problem was that it was not according to God’s plan. Sarah had seen her barrenness as a problem too big for God, so she had intervened and encouraged Abraham to have a child with Hagar, her handmaiden. But Paul pointed out that Ishmael, “the son of the slave was born according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:23 ESV). His was emphasizing that Ishmael’s birth was natural, not divine.  And as the son of a slave, his relationship to Abraham would be completely different than that of Isaac. God later told Abraham that Ishmael would not be an acceptable substitute or proxy as his heir. God had promised to give Abraham an heir through Sarah, in spite of her barrenness, and He did. God supernaturally intervened and made it possible for Sarah to conceive and bear Abraham a son. And Isaac’s birth was the direct fulfillment of God’s long-standing promise to Abraham.

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. – Genesis 12:1-2 ESV

As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her. – Genesis 17:15-16 ESV

And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:18-19 ESV

Ishmael, the son of the slave woman, was not to be Abraham’s heir. That right and responsibility would go to Isaac, the son of the promise. It is at this point that Paul reveals the allegorical or figurative message found in this literal, historical recounting of the births of Ishmael and Isaac. “Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants” (Galatians 4:24 ESV). What Paul is really providing us with is an analogy or illustration of what these historical events foreshadowed. Ishmael represented the covenant of the law given at Mount Sinai. Because Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” or, to put it another way, according to Sarah’s cunning and Abraham’s compliance, he was disqualified from becoming the fulfillment of God’s promise. The law, though given by God, was completely dependent upon man’s ability to live up to it. It was based on self-reliance. God never intended the law to bring about man’s justification or right standing before Him. It simply revealed and exposed the depths of man’s sinfulness. The law enslaved men under sin. It condemned them for their sin, but could do nothing to relieve them from sin’s control over their lives. That is, until Christ came. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV). At one point, Jesus had told the Pharisees, the experts in the Mosaic law, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36 ESV).

Paul was attempting to contrast Judaism with Christianity and compare life under the law with life according to faith. Paul wanted his readers to know that they were children according to the promise. They had been freed from the onerous task of attempting to keep the law in an ill-fated effort to earn a right-standing before God. Jesus Christ had died to set them free and justify them before God according to His works, not theirs. So why would they ever want to go back to trying to keep the law? Ishmael would not share in the inheritance promised by God to Abraham’s heir. And those who attempt to live by keeping the law through dependence upon their own self-effort, will not inherit eternal life, promised by God to all those who have placed their faith in His Son. The temptation toward legalism and self-reliance is alive and well today. The pressure to somehow earn favor with God through our own self-effort exists for all believers. But Paul would have us remember that we are called to live our lives by faith. We are to trust in God and His indwelling Holy Spirit, not our weak and frail flesh. We must learn to say as Paul did earlier in this same letter: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

The Goal: Christ-likeness.

Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. – Galatians 4:12-20 ESV

It would be easy to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians and simply assume that his sole motivation was to defend his particular interpretation of the Scriptures. But Paul was not just promoting his own doctrinal viewpoint over that of someone else. His goal was not to prove himself right and all others wrong. His objective was far more selfless and loving than that. He was out to see his readers experience the fullness of God’s love for them. He wanted them to grow up in their salvation and enjoy all that God had in store for them. And he was willing to do whatever it took to see Christ formed in them.

Paul was writing from the perspective of a pastor, not an academician. He was interested in heart change, not mere head knowledge. But he knew that an accurate knowledge of God and an understanding of true doctrine was essential to spiritual growth. False doctrine produces fake fruit. An improper or faulty view of God always results in a god of our own making. Truth is not relative. It is not up to our own imaginations or the insights of men. God has given us His Word in which He has revealed Himself to us. It contains divine insights into His character, will, relationship with mankind, outlook on sin, redemptive program and future plans for the world.

Paul had come to the Galatians, lovingly preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to them. He had taught them the truth regarding their own sin, their state of condemnation before God, and His gracious offer of salvation and justification through faith in Christ. He had taught them the truth and they had gratefully received it. And he had done so while living among them as a Gentile, free from the requirements of the law – even though Paul was a God-fearing Jew. He lived by the very philosophy he expressed to the Corinthians believers:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV

Paul had done this while suffering from some undisclosed physical ailment. But he had not let his health interfere with his efforts to evangelize and disciple the lost in Galatia. Perhaps this “bodily ailment” was the thorn in the flesh that Paul refers to in his letter to the Corinthian believers (2 Corinthians 12:7). Whatever it was, his condition proved to be a trial to the believers in Galatia; and yet, because of the good news he brought to them, they had gladly received him.

But now, because of the influence of false teachers, the believers in Galatia were eyeing Paul with suspicion and questioning the veracity of his teaching. He asked them, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:7 ESV). Sometimes the truth of God is difficult to understand and even harder to accept. The concept of justification by faith alone in Christ alone is not something that makes sense to us. It goes against our human sensibilities. We have been trained to believe that nothing is free and anything of value must be earned. Even our much-beloved American work ethic stands in stark contrast to the grace offered by God through Jesus Christ. And the Galatians were falling prey to the words of the Judaizers who were attempting to convince them that their salvation was incomplete and insufficient. They needed more. They needed to do more. In fact, Paul accused these false teachers of making the believers in Galatia dependent upon them. Paul was preaching the freedom found in grace, while his enemies were trying to imprison believers back under the law.

Paul preached grace. And his message of grace was not just tied to salvation. For Paul, grace was an essential ingredient to the Christian life, from beginning to end. Peter felt the same way.

I am warning you ahead of time, dear friends. Be on guard so that you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing. Rather, you must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 3:17-18 NLT

The danger we all face as believers is thinking that we must somehow transform ourselves into the likeness of Christ through self-effort and hard work. And while we do have a responsibility to pursue Christ-likeness, we must always remember that it is by God’s grace and through His power that we are transformed. We can no more sanctify ourselves than we could have saved ourselves. Sanctification, like salvation, is a grace gift, provided to us by God and made possible through His indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul knew that only God could “form” or transform the Galatians into the likeness of Christ. The word Paul used literally means, “until a mind and life in complete harmony with the mind and life of Christ shall have been formed in you” (“G3445 – morphoō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible).

Only God can turn sinners into saints, enemies into sons and daughters, captives into free men, the dead into the living, and the condemned into co-heirs with Jesus Christ. Paul wanted his readers to understand just how much he loved them and how desperately he longed for them to remain in God’s grace. Their growth in holiness was to be the work of God, not the result of human effort. Our role as believers is to remain completely dependent upon the grace of God. Any effort we put into our spiritual formation is to be according to His power, not ours. As soon as we begin to think that our spiritual growth is somehow up to us, we step out of the light of His grace and back into the darkness of legalism. We must always recognize that our transformation into the likeness of Christ is God’s work, not ours. Our sole responsibility is that of dependence that leads to willful obedience. Our desire, like that of Paul, should be to see Christ formed in us. But that requires living in the freedom of God’s grace and fully reliant upon His power.

The Self-Delusion of Self-Effort.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. – Galatians 4:8-11 ESV

There is a common belief, even among evangelical Christians, that all people are seeking after God. But the Bible seems to paint a distinctively different picture of mankind. Ever since the fall, humanity has been on a trajectory away from God, not toward Him. Men have not been seeking after God, but for anything and everything but Him. They have sought to make their own gods. Adam and Eve knew God intimately and personally. They had a daily and uninterrupted relationship with Him. But after the fall, they found themselves cast out of His presence. And the further mankind got from Eden, the more distant their recollection of God became. Paul paints a vivid picture of this fading knowledge of God in his letter to the Romans:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Romans 1:21-23 ESV

God’s character was visible through His creation. Paul writes, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20 ESV). But as time passed, men began to lose their perception of God and their ability to recognize His attributes in the world He had made. They lost their knowledge of the one true God and began to create gods that reflected the qualities and characteristics they deemed necessary for deity. Paul says they worshiped the creation rather than the creator. They even worshiped other men.

But Paul reminds the Galatians that they have had their knowledge of God restored, and it was not something they had achieved. It was not as a result of their own searching or seeking. He emphasizes the fact that they have come to be known by God. It was God who had sought them out and not the other way around. He had chosen to know them and have a relationship with them. He had determined to make Himself known to them through His Son. As the apostle John put it, “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (1 John 1:18 NLT). As a result of placing their faith in Jesus Christ, they had come to truly know God for the very first time. Up until that point, they had been “enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8 ESV). They had been worshiping false gods. They had been limited in their spiritual understanding and were stuck worshiping the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9 ESV). Their spirituality was of this world and not of heaven. While thinking they were seeking and coming to know God, they were actually moving away from Him.

But God had chosen to seek them out. He had called them to Himself and opened their eyes so that they could see the truth found in His Son’s death, burial and resurrection. For the first time they had been able to see the depth of their own sin, the hopelessness of their condition, and their need for a Savior. Rather than attempting to earn their way into God’s good graces, they relied on the grace of God as expressed in the finished work of Christ. But Paul was concerned that these very same people, who had discovered the secret of justification by faith in Christ alone, were allowing themselves to become enslaved again. They were listening to the false teachers who were preaching justification by works. Suddenly, grace was not enough. The death and resurrection of Christ was insufficient. More was required. Human effort was necessary. But Paul completely disagreed.

There were those who were trying to convince the Gentile converts in Galatia that they were not truly saved unless they became circumcised and began to keep all the Jewish rituals, feasts and festivals. That is what Paul means when he refers to observing days and months and seasons and years. These outsiders were convincing the Gentile believers that their salvation was incomplete. They needed to do more. Their faith in Christ was insufficient. And it was this false teaching, a form of legalism, that Paul stood against so strongly. He would not tolerate it or allow it to take root among the churches in Galatia. Earlier in his letter to the Galatians, Paul had stated his amazement at how quickly and easily the believers there had turned their back on justification by faith alone.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. – Galatians 1:6-7 ESV

There was no other gospel. There were no other requirements. The salvation offered by God was not based on human effort, but on faith in Christ alone. The works of men had never made God known to them. Self-righteousness had never earned anyone access to God. The righteousness God required was only available through faith in Christ. As Paul told the Romans:

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16-17 NLT

We don’t seek God. He seeks us. We can’t earn God’s favor. He must willingly extend it to us through His Son. When it comes to our justification before God, self-effort is self-delusional. We would do well to remember the personal testimony of Paul to the believers in Philippi: “I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9 NLT).

We Don’t Grow Alone.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. – Galatians 6:1-5 ESV

The two extremes of legalism and license both tend to encourage lifestyles of self-centeredness and selfishness. Law-keeping becomes a competition, where we compare our “spirituality” with others. The measure of our worthiness becomes a somewhat subjective determination based on our success compared to that of others. A lifestyle of license is inherently self-absorbed, where the individual’s wants and desires come first and others become tools or pawns to get what you want. Legalism and license are both flesh-based and produce harmful and hateful outcomes.

Yet Paul wants his readers to know that a life based on the power of the indwelling Spirit of God is something different altogether. It produces fruit that is beneficial to all those around us. It is anything but self-centered and self-absorbed. An apple tree does not produce fruit for itself. It is for the benefit of others. And in the same way, the Christian’s life is to be lived selflessly, focused on meeting the needs of those around them, including other believers as well as the lost. And Paul provides a practical, everyday life example. He describes a situation where a fellow believer is overcome by some sin. The word Paul used to describe this individual’s situation refers to someone being overtaken or surprised by sin. It would be like a slower runner suddenly being overtaken or caught by a much faster runner. The idea is of a believer’s sin suddenly catching up with him. He didn’t see it coming. Rather than being premeditated and planned, it caught him completely by surprise. This is not describing someone dealing with an ongoing, unrepentant sin issue, but an individual who suddenly and unexpectedly sins. In a case like that, we are to “restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” There is a humility and tenderness that must accompany our confrontation. Pride has no place in a situation like this. Exposing the other believer’s failure should produce no joy or create any sense of self-satisfaction in us. We are not the holier Christian confronting the less-spiritual brother in Christ. When Paul says, “you who are spiritual,” he is simply referring to someone who has the Spirit living within them. The Greek word he uses is πνευματικός (pneumatikos) and it refers to “one who is filled with and governed by the Spirit of God” (“G4152 – pneumatikos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible).

Those who are living according to the Holy Spirit within them will naturally care about those around them. They will have a supernatural sensitivity to the spiritual condition of their fellow believers and a Spirit-led desire to get involved in their lives. If we see a fellow believer suddenly caught up in sin, we are to loving lead them back on to the right path. The confrontation is to be done lovingly and constructively. The goal is repentance and restoration. But Paul warns us to be cautious and careful, “lest you too be tempted.” This is a reminder to not forget our own sin natures and susceptibility to falling into the same trap. It was John Bradford who said, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” That needs to be our approach when coming alongside a struggling brother or sister in Christ.

Paul tells us that if we share one another’s burdens, we are fulfilling the law of Christ. Paul most likely is referring to the words of Jesus when He described the greatest commandment as: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV). Christianity is not about a lengthy list of dos and dont’s. It is also not about a lifestyle of self-absorbed freedom to do what you want. It is about loving God and loving others. It is about living in the grace of God and extending that same grace to all those around you. We are fools if we think we are somehow better than someone else. Our right standing before God is due to His Son’s work on our behalf, not our own self-effort. We have no right to think ourselves better than another human being. If we do, we are self-deceived. Christianity is not about comparison or competition. It is not about how spiritual I am compared with another believer. I am not to compare my sin with anyone else. As a believer, I am called to examine my own life, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and allow Him to show me my sin. If I do so, I will find I have no reason to boast or be prideful. But if I look for others to compare myself with, I can always find someone who appears to be a worse sinner than I am, and that ultimately leads to pride. Each of us is responsible for our own sin. It is not a competition. But we have a God-given responsibility to come alongside one another and encourage godliness. Christianity is a community activity. It is a team sport. We don’t grow alone. Which is why Paul told the believers in Thessalonica, “So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11 NLT).

No Other Gospel.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! – Galatians 5:7-12 ESV

Paul took this issue very seriously. As far as he was concerned, it had little to do with the rite of circumcision itself, but it had everything to do with the integrity of the gospel. God had sent His Son as the one and only means for mankind’s salvation. His sacrificial death on the cross was God’s sole solution to man’s sin problem. The law was never intended by God to save men, but to condemn them of their sins. The law revealed the holiness and righteousness that God demanded in a non-negotiable, hand-written form. It left no grey areas or anything up to man’s imagination. But man, in his sinful condition, was totally incapable of keeping the law. And this was no surprise to God. He had intended all along to send His Son in human form, in order that He might keep the law and become the sinless substitute and unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, died on behalf of sinful men, and His death provided the only means by which men might be restored to a right relationship with God. Paul wrote to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25 ESV).

Anything and anyone that interfered with that message was considered an enemy by Paul. He didn’t suffer false teachers lightly. He would not tolerate those who preached a different version of God’s gospel. That is why he started out this letter to the Galatians with very strong words concerning those who were amending the gospel of God.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 ESV

In today’s passage, Paul commends his readers for running the race well, but then accuses them of allowing others to knock them off course. They had accepted Christ by faith and were living the Christian life in faith, but then had run into an obstacle along the way. The Greek word Paul used was ἀνακόπτω (anakoptō) and it refers to something having its progress hindered, held back or checked in some way. The Judaizers, who were demanding that the Gentile converts in Galatia be circumcised, were actually hindering them from obeying the truth as found in the gospel. They were adding unnecessary requirements. And Paul made it clear that his new rules were not from God. “This persuasion is not from him who calls you” (Galatians 5:8 ESV). And the real danger of this kind of teaching was that it would soon permeate every aspect of their faith, causing them to walk away from the grace offered by God and back into the legalism of the law. Which is what Paul seems to be saying when he writes, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” This kind of false teaching would become like an uncontrolled cancer spreading through the church in Galatia and robbing them of the freedom they had found in Christ.

But Paul expressed his confidence that the Galatian believers would reject this false teaching and remain faithful to the life of faith.And he assured them that, regardless of what others might have said, he was not a proponent of circumcision. Yes, he had encouraged Timothy to be circumcised, but that was a different case altogether. Timothy, a young disciple of Paul’s, had a Jewish mother who had become a believer, but his father was Greek. In the book of Acts we read, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3 ESV). It had nothing to do with Timothy’s salvation, but with his ministry to the Jews. Paul knew that they would never listen to an uncircumcised Gentile, so he encouraged Timothy to undergo circumcision to make him acceptable to the Jews and provide him a platform to share the gospel with them.

Evidently, the false teachers in Galatia had been saying that Paul was also a proponent of circumcision, most likely using the story of Timothy as evidence. But Paul denies that charge and asks why he is still being persecuted by the Judaizers if they are all on the same page. No, Paul was adamantly opposed to these men and he made his position clear. For Paul, the very nature of the cross was an offense to the legalists. Jesus’ death had removed any vestige of self-righteousness or the possibility of justification by works. The cross symbolized Jesus’ once-for-all-time payment for the sins of mankind. Nothing more was necessary. But for the legalists, this party of the circumcision, the cross was not enough. So Paul had some harsh words for them. He compared them the pagan priests who practiced ritual castration as part of their worship, and he wished that they would do the same to themselves. Paul was not necessarily wishing physical harm on these individuals, but was really expressing his desire that they be cut off from the local fellowship of believers. He saw them as a real danger to the spiritual health of the church. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul had similarly harsh words regarding these men”

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. – Philippians 3:2-3 ESV

In our desire to be tolerant, we sometimes run the risk of allowing dangerously false doctrines to infiltrate the church. But when it came to the doctrine of salvation, Paul was anything but tolerant. He would not accept alternative views. He would not abide by those who offered a different gospel. For Paul, there was only one means of salvation and it was by faith alone in Christ alone. And if anyone preached a different gospel, Paul called them out. And we should do the same. It is NOT true that all roads lead to the top of the mountain. It is false to believe that there are other ways for men to be made right with God. Jesus Himself said,  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).

 

 

 

Life-long Faith.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith — just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? – Galatians 3:1-6 ESV

You can sense the frustration in Paul’s words as he begins his theological defense of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. From his perspective, it is as if his readers had been cast under a spell. His previous efforts, while living and ministering among them, seem to have been in vain. He had gone out of his way to convince them of the grace of God made available through the cross of Christ alone, but now they were allowing themselves to be ‘bewitched” into believing that more was necessary. They were buying into the lie that circumcision was an added requirement to salvation. Paul’s problem was not so much with the rite of circumcision as it was with the problem of legalism.

Jesus Christ had died a gruesome death on the cross in order to provide a means of salvation for men and make possible their justification before God. He did for humanity what humanity could not do for itself. He satisfied God. His death was the propitiation for our sins. He fully satisfied the righteous wrath of God against the sins of mankind. And yet, here were the Galatians allowing themselves to be convinced that His death had not been enough. They needed to do more!

Paul was not against good works. He was not propagating a life of moral, ethical and spiritual complacency. Paul’s issue is with works being tied to and made a requirement for salvation and justification. Jesus paid it all. His sacrificial death on the cross was fully and completely sufficient to ransom men and women from their sins and restore them to a right relationship with God.

The message of false teachers will always fall into one of two categories. Either you have not done enough to be truly saved or now that you are saved, you don’t have to do anything. Theologians refer to these two extremes as nomism and antinomianism. We might recognize them as legalism and license. One promotes a doctrine of salvation based on religious rule-keeping. The other can result in a rejection of any moral requirements altogether. In essence, it teaches that we are no longer obligated to keep God’s moral law because we have been set free from it. And while there is a degree of truth to that assessment, it can easily lead to a justification of sin and a life of moral ambiguity. Both legalism and license share the same root problem: Self-centeredness. One places self at the center of man’s redemption, making human effort the key to salvation. The other promotes self to the point of making salvation all about self-gratification. Rather than holiness, license preaches happiness. Instead of encouraging death to self, license promotes a life of self-satisfaction.

Both of these extremes are dangerous. And Paul was constantly having to deal with both. In the case of the Galatians, the greater threat was legalism. They had placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior, but now they were being convinced that there was something missing. Which is why Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2 ESV). The answer was obvious. As Gentiles, they had done nothing in the way of keeping the law of Moses. And yet, they had come to faith in Christ and had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. None of them had done anything to deserve this incredible gift of grace from God. And Paul took it a step further, asking them, “After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:3 NLT). In other words, Paul was asking them if they thought their salvation was up to God, while their sanctification was up to them.

The issue Paul was raising was regarding their sanctification. Not only are we saved by faith in Christ, we are transformed or made Christ-like by the very same process. We can no more sanctify ourselves than we can save ourselves. God doesn’t save us, then leave it up to us to perfect ourselves. Again, Paul is not discounting the role of good works in the life of the believer. He is simply emphasizing the source from which those good works are to flow. Paul told the believers in Philippi, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV). Later on in this same letter to the believers in Galatia, he will write, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22 ESV). God not only saves us, He sanctifies us. Paul told the Corinthians, “And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT). We don’t make ourselves more like Christ, that is the Spirit’s job. Our role is to remain submissive and obedient to His activity in our lives. Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13 ESV).

For Paul, the entire process of salvation, justification, and sanctification was the work of God. At no point does the responsibility for redemption fall on man. The only thing we are required to do is trust. We are to submit our lives to His will and relinquish our right to self-autonomy. Paul stated his position well back in chapter two: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT). Faith isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event, it is a life-long pursuit. Faith is a lifestyle, a way of life, and the key to our salvation, sanctification and ultimate glorification.