Law and liberty - Galatians 3:15-29
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Aim: To remind the Christians that they are justified before God when they put their trust in the promised Seed and to encourage them to rejoice in their privileged position as co-heirs with Christ.
The summer months of 1940 were incredibly tense for the civilians of Great Britain. Across the channel, Adolf Hitler and his army were making remarkable progress in their efforts to conquer the people of Europe. More than 300,000 troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and the surrounding beaches in May and June and although at the time the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said it was "a miracle of deliverance" many civilians back on this side of the channel wondered if a similar miracle would prevent a German invasion of Britain. And so began the tense months that became known as the Spitfire Summer. In June and July German bombers began attacking convoys off the south coast and began making raids on the ports of Dover and Plymouth. The RAFís 700 Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were heavily outnumbered. But day after day the brave pilots climbed into their aircraft to fight the enemy and to protect the British way of life. The tension lasted for months, with the threat of invasion always a real and present danger. In fact, it wasnít until mid-October that Hitler ordered his invasion fleet to disperse. Around 1,700 Luftwaffe bombers and fighters had been shot down in just a few months and Britain had lost more than 900 fighter planes. Nearly 500 British pilots and aircrew lost their lives. But despite the loss of life it was a remarkable victory, and surely Winston Churchill summarized the mood of a nation when he said during a speech in the House of Commons on the 20th August 1940: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
During the Battle of Britain the civilians were helpless. All they could do was look up into the skies and witness the battle that was taking place above their heads. Two powers were fighting for control of their lives. And they knew that the outcome of the battle would affect how they lived day by day. So just imagine for a moment that the Luftwaffe had won? Just imagine for a moment that the Germans had invaded England during the summer of 1940? Life for the average civilian would have been radically altered. Curfews, secret police, German as a national language, no more embarrassing penalty shootout defeats. Life could not go on as it was before. Therefore, everything depended on this crucial battle.
The same was true for these Galatian Christians in Southern Turkey during the 1st Century. For years and years they had known nothing of the true and living God but one day Paul had arrived with the good news of Jesus Christ and they had accepted his message. It was a message about forgiveness, a message about a new start, a message about a guaranteed place in heaven and a message about a powerful Spirit that could transform a person from the inside out. And these Galatians heard the message, received the message and accepted the message with great joy! But in the months that followed, other teachers had arrived in their region and they were trying to convince the Galatian Christians that the message they had accepted as being sufficient and true wasnít quite enough. So yes these other teachers wanted the people of Galatia to believe that Jesus really was the Jewish Messiah but they were at pains to persuade their listeners that simple trust in the person of Jesus wasnít enough to guarantee you a place in heaven. "How could it be?" they said. What a scandalous thing to say! Instead what you needed to be saved, what you needed to be justified, what you needed to be declared acceptable for Godís presence on the final day of judgment was Jesus PLUS obedience to the Old Testament. Only then would you be spending eternity with God.
And do you know what? These Galatian Christians were starting to believe them. They were beginning to turn away from the truth that had saved them many months before and were instead seriously contemplating embracing a different message all together.
So what we have in this letter that we call Galatians is our very own first century spiritual Battle of Britain. Two powerful forces are fighting it out for the control of these Christians in Southern Turkey. Paul, on the one hand, with his gospel of simple faith in Jesus Christ for instant justification and, these new arrivals, on the other hand, who are arguing for Jesus PLUS obedience to the laws of the Old Testament. The battle is tense and the battle is serious. In fact, how much more serious can you get? The stakes are massive. Because remember that these two groups of people, Paul and the new comers, are not arguing about trivial niceties, they are not arguing about where you store the vacuum cleaner in the church building. No, they are fighting for the truth about how human beings are justified before their creator. And as they argue the Galatians look on, helpless yes, but knowing that the outcome of this fight will influence their day to day behaviour.
The same is true for us. I know that at first sight the arguments of Galatians 3:15-29 may seem irrelevant to us. They may seem complex and cumbersome and you may even be thinking to yourself "Lee, this is not worth the effort." But can I say to us this morning "It is worth the effort." Because these arguments are not irrelevant to us. It is crucial that we hear them today. Because by listening to them not only do we discover why the Old Testament law is no longer applicable to our situation as New Testament Christians but we are also shown again the privileged position that we enjoy as those who have personal faith in Jesus Christ.
So with these expectations in mind letís turn to verses 15-18 and hear what Paul says about the priority of the promise. Verse 15.
"Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise."
Paul begins by using an everyday example. He makes an everyday observation. He says think about human wills that have been signed and sealed. Now English law today, unlike the ancient Greek law that Paul was probably referring to, allows someone who has drafted a will to make a new one or add to it before they die. But nevertheless there is a moment when the will in question becomes duly established. There is a moment when it becomes signed and sealed. Once death has taken place the will cannot be altered and the promises it contains must be carried out. Because once the end game has been reached in whatever legal system we are talking about, whether ancient Greek law or contemporary English law, a will is not an ongoing process of negotiation. After the death of a relative the family do not gather round the lawyer and haggle for what they think is right. No, they gather nervously round the old, musty table in his office to learn if the one who has died ever liked them in the first place. They do not gather round the table to make changes. No, they gather round the table to listen to the unchangeable promises of the one who drafted the will in the first place. When it is signed and sealed it must be carried out. And so Paul writes at the end of verse 15 "so it is in this case." Or as he says in verse 17, "What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant (which is the same word that is used in verse 15) previously established by God and thus do away with the promise."
Can Paul be any clearer? He wants us to grasp once and for all the priority of the promise over the law. Unlike so many Christians alive today Paul knew that the Old Testament did not begin with Exodus chapter 20. He knew that before Moses there was Abraham. Yes he was fully convinced that God gave the law to his special people for a particular reason at a particular time but he shouts to us this morning "Please donít forget that Godís first big agreement with a special people is not found in Exodus chapter 20 but in Genesis chapter 12. Or to put it like this: 430 years before the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai, God made three major promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 that cannot be set aside.
Do you remember them? First, he promised that he would make Abrahamís descendants into a great nation. God promised Abraham, with no strings attached, that at some point in the future his descendants would be so vast in number that nobody could possibly count them. A great nation. Secondly, he promised that Abraham and his seed would inherit a place to live in. Genesis 12:7 "The LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring (or seed) I will give this land."" A people, a place and then, thirdly, a blessing to others. Genesis 12:3, God says this to Abraham "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
Now what do you notice about the nature of this agreement between God and Abraham? How many obligations does Abraham need to fulfil for God to carry out his promises? Absolutely none! Because what is fundamental to notice about this special agreement is that it takes the form of a promise, not the form of an obligation. So without expecting anything in return, God says to Abraham, "In the future because I have said it you will become a great nation, you will have a brilliant place to live in and through you all the different people groups on this planet will receive a blessing." Now how generous is that? And how different is that from an agreement based on the expectation of obedience?
Or as Paul puts it in verse 18 "For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise."
We are never to think that the Old Testament is the story of God trying out Plan A to see if it succeeds before the arrival of Jesus Christ with plan B. We are not to think that the Old Testament is the story of salvation by works and the New Testament is the story of salvation by grace. God has always been the God of grace. He has always been making extravagant promises to people who deserved nothing from him but his condemnation. And we see that as we examine the promises made to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12.
Now if you read the book of Galatians carefully you will discover that one of the three promises is the most important for Paulís argument. So if you have your bibles open have a look with me at Galatians 3:6. Paul says "Consider Abraham: "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham (and then notice where he quotes from Ė Genesis 12:3 Ė our third promise): "All nations will be blessed through you." And then he concludes in verse 9 "So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." Now what blessing did Abraham receive? What was the most important blessing that God gave to Abraham? It wasnít his sheep or his cattle or his big suitcase of designer clothes. No it was his status of justification before his creator. That was the big blessing that Abraham received. He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. By faith alone he was declared innocent before his judge. Thatís what justification means. By faith alone he experienced the greatest blessing of all. And one day he was promised that this blessing that he experienced would be granted to every nation on earth. Or to be more precise, he was promised that one day all nations on earth would be blessed through his seed.
So listen to what we read in Genesis 22:17-18, just after Abraham has been asked to sacrifice his only son Isaac, God says to him: "I will surely bless you and make your seed as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your seed will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed."
Now look at what Paul says in verse 16. "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ." Paul was a careful bible student. He was not someone who just skimmed over the words of Scripture but someone who with apostolic insight taught the significance of key words and phrases. And this is what he does in verse 16. He zooms into the language of the promises, and he says to us, do you know what you find if you look at the language closely? You will find that the Hebrew word used in connection with the promises is always singular and never plural. Therefore, it should always be translated as the singular English word seed and not the plural word seeds. And the reason, according to Paul, is because ultimately the seed who would fulfil the promises made to Abraham would be an individual and not a group of many people. So we donít have to conclude that Paul is an idiot. He knows fine well that the word seed when used in the Old Testament often does mean a group of people who are to be thought of as one collective whole. He knows there is some ambiguity in the word. Does it mean an individual or does it refer instead to many people who are thought of as one group? But using his apostolic insight he concludes that the ultimate reason that God chose to use this word was because of its ambiguity. So, therefore, as a consequence we can legitimately read the Old Testament on two levels. First of all, at level one. We can legitimately understand the promise of blessing through the seed of Abraham as referring to the people of Israel as a corporate group.
Because we see that, donít we, as we read through the story of the Old Testament? When we meet Godís people and they are under his blessing, then the people around them tend to experience blessing as well. But, secondly, we also need to read the Old Testament at level two. Because the ultimate reference of the promises made to Abraham way back in the book of Genesis is not a corporate people but a single individual called Jesus Christ. And thatís why Paul believed God ensured that the Hebrew word used in connection with the promises was singular rather than plural. God the Father always knew that one day his only Son, would be born as the Son of Abraham, as we discover in Matthew 1:1. He knew that one day his only Son would become the seed of Abraham and he knew that one day through his perfect life of obedience and through his unique sacrificial death, he would be the one who would bring the blessing of justification to the Gentiles.
Or let me summarise what Paul has just argued in verses 15-18 like this: the law of God given to Moses 430 years after the promises given to Abraham was never intended to provide justification for anyone Ė Jew or Gentile. And how do we know this? Because the way of justification for everyone had already been promised to Abraham many years previously in the form of an unchangeable agreement. God had said to him through your seed all nations will be blessed. Therefore, we can conclude that from the very beginning it was Godís plan to bring the blessing of justification, to every nation on the planet, by sending his Son into the world as the singular Seed of Abraham.
What, then, was the purpose of the law? Verse 19: "It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come." Or in other words, the law given through Moses was not only like a Virgin Train on a winterís day, arriving on the scene later than expected, but it was also like an overweight squirrel sitting on a very narrow branch in a very high tree Ė a temporary arrangement! It was added to both reveal and to restrain sin.
So, according to verse 19, it was added because of transgressions. Or to make it clearer what Paul means we could say: "The law was added to turn a sin into a transgression." Because after the arrival of Godís law the true nature of sin became much clearer. It was now recognised as a breach of Godís holy law. It was now a legal offence with legal consequences. One of the functions of the law was not to bestow salvation on people but to convince them of their need of it by exposing just how serious their problem was. The law revealed the sinfulness of sin.
But, secondly, it also restrained the sinfulness of sin. So, according to verse 22, the whole world is a prisoner of sin. That is the problem of the world. Not a lack of education, or a lack of resources, or a lack of money, or a lack of hope or even a lack of good quality genes. Yes all these have a part to play but the real problem facing humanity is that we are all by nature prisoners of sin. We have a disease that has completely taken over us. Not that we are as bad as we possibly could be but by nature we have a disease that has affected every part of us. It has affected our minds, so that often what people think is right could not be further from the truth. And it has affected our feelings, so that often what people feel is the right way to behave is actually a deeply damaging path to walk. But look what Paul says in verse 23 "Before this faith came we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed." Do you see the picture? Because of the human condition the law was like a prison jailor to the people of Israel. It guarded them, it hemmed them in and it restrained them. It kept them from doing their worst as they waited for the promised Seed to arrive. But once he had arrived and once he had completed his mission the days of the law were numbered. Because what does verse 19 say, the law was added until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.
So in this spiritual Battle of Britain there is a clear winner. Paul may have been caught by surprise by the movements of the enemy who had visited his churches in Southern Turkey.
But once marshalled, his arguments are very persuasive. And so therefore because of the priority of the promise and the purpose of the law, not just the Galatian Christians, but all Christians today can rejoice in the privilege of the believer.
Have a look at verse 26. "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abrahamís seed, and heirs according to the promise."
Do you see who is at the centre of this paragraph? It is Christ! He is mentioned five times in these four verses. Verse 26 "You are sons of God through faith in Christ." Verse 27 "for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ." And then verse 28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ." And then verse 29 "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abrahamís seed and heirs according to the promise"
Here is the amazing privilege of the believer. How do you and I get access to the blessing of justification that Jesus came to bring? How do you and I get access to the benefits of his perfect life and his sacrificial death? By faith alone. It is almost the trumpet call of this whole letter. Do you get it yet? It is by faith alone that we are justified before God. It is by faith alone that we are declared innocent and acceptable to spend eternity with God. And why? Because by faith we are linked to Jesus Christ and therefore share all the benefits that he enjoys because of who he is. So in verse 26 we are called sons of God. No one is a child of God by birth. Yes we come out of our motherís womb as creatures of God but to be children of God, or more accurately sons of God - because remember in the Old Testament it is the son who receives the inheritance Ė to be sons of God we need to be united by faith to the Son of God. The wonderful news is that by faith I share in all the benefits of Christ.
So my justification is no legal fiction. God the Father is not pretending I am righteous when in fact I am a filthy rotten scumbag. No by faith I belong to Christ and so therefore, according to verse 27, I have clothed myself with Christ. I have gone to his wardrobe and put on his clothes of righteousness. So therefore, as outrageous as it may seem, because of my faith in Christ I am completely righteous.
Some time ago during the war, a famous American art collector learnt that his son had been killed in action saving the life of another soldier. The following Christmas the soldier who survived and who himself was an amateur painter, gave the art collector a simple portrait he'd sketched of his son. It was nothing like a masterpiece but it became very special to the man in his loneliness. Not long afterwards the collector died; and his paintings were to be auctioned, according to his will, on Christmas Day. To everyone's surprise the auction began with a painting on no acquisition list. It was the painting of the man's son. "Who will open with $100?" the auctioneer asked. Nothing was offered. It was suggested they move on. But the auctioneer said, "No! We have to sell this one first." Eventually a friend of the old man - not a collector, and not very rich - offered a small sum: "I knew the boy, so I'd like to have it."
"Will anyone go higher?" called the auctioneer. There was silence. So the auctioneer said, "Going once, going twice. Gone." People sighed with relief thinking they could get on with the real business. The auctioneer, however, then looked at the audience and said the auction was over. There was stunned disbelief. "It's very simple," the auctioneer explained, "according to the will of the father, whoever takes the son ... gets all."
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