Thursday, November 9, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 3:26-4:11

Address 9
Rend the Heavens and Come Down

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” says a Shakespeare character (Jaques in As You Like It). There is a real sense in which this is true. We all live within it a certain “worldview,” what the Germans call by the nasty-sounding word Weltanschauung. In one respect, a worldview is simply a picture of the universe or cosmos. For instance, some cultures have seen the world as a large mountain, or an ocean with land masses floating in it. Others imagine a three-decker universe with heaven and earth and the underworld. At a deeper level, a worldview is a set of assumptions about what is ultimate truth and worth living for.

Everyone holds a worldview of some sort, even if he is not aware of it. Let me give you an example. Say an epidemic of ebola hits an area as it did in northern Uganda a few years ago.. Some local healers may conclude that it is a demonic attack and they may try to drive the evil spirits across the Nile River. On the other hand, the World Health Organization will send in a team of people who are committed to the belief that ebola is merely a virus that can be dealt with by scientific techniques. The modern worldview may, in this case, be more “successful” in treating a particular illness, but it is possible the modern person is unable to grasp the spiritual significance of sin and suffering. He treats it merely as a “thing,” a technical “problem” to be solved.

According to the creation account in the Bible, one of God’s first acts was to build a “firmament” between heaven and earth. The firmament is the dome of the sky. In the day we see the clouds; at night we see the stars. But at either time, there are limits on our horizon. I think the physical firmament is a symbol of a spiritual firmament between God and his creatures. For this reason, Yuri Gargarin, the first Russian cosmonaut, got it all wrong when he reported from space that he did not find God up there. God is above the world, it is true, but He is above the entire world of our senses, the world that science is so good at measuring.

Yet it is this world beyond, this heaven of heavens, that our hearts so desperately long for. Thus we can share in the prophet Isaiah’s prayer, “Lord, rend the heavens and come down!” That is a wonderful image. We can imagine God tearing the firmament apart like a piece of cloth and coming down in our midst.

I have already made the case that the decisive event in St. Paul’s life and ministry was his encounter with the Risen Christ. God did literally “rend the heavens” for Paul and looking up into the open heaven, Paul saw Jesus, the Crucified Jew, seated at God’s right hand. But Paul did not take this as just a personal mystical moment. As he pondered it, he realized that what he had seen personally was in fact true absolutely and universally.

He puts it this way: When the time had fully 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). The prophet Isaiah’s prayer had been answered. The heavens had been ripped open when the Son of God descended to be born of a woman and when He rose again and ascended to the Father’s right hand. All that is required to see this are the lenses of faith.

This morning I am going to explain our text for those people who are more visually than verbally oriented, by means of a “worldview chart.”

This chart is my attempt to portray the biblical worldview, particularly as it was revealed to St. Paul. Along the horizontal bottom line we have the inhabitants of earth. They are divided into two groups: Israel, the chosen people of God, and the nations. When Jews and Gentiles look up toward God, they do not see him directly. In fact, they see the firmament of heaven.

The spiritual firmament which the Gentiles see is the “law of nature.” Many ancient philosophers and moralists taught that there were religious and moral truths and duties which were built into the nature of things. Paul himself comments elsewhere that “when Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Romans 2:14).

This is the positive side of natural law. Paul highlights the negative side of the natural world in the passage today: when we were children, we were slaves to the elements of the world (4:3). The phrase “elements of the world” probably does not mean “elemental spirits” as some translations have it, but the physical laws of nature, which include the moral truths of the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as well as the scientific truths of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. These elements, Paul argues, are created by God and transmit something of his wisdom and glory, but they are also “weak and beggarly” (verse 9). They conceal God more than they reveal him.

The spiritual firmament which the Jews see is the Law. According to Paul, the Law is not transparent but is delivered by a Mediator, Moses, who himself is veiled. The true meaning of the Law is not what it seems. Jews took it as a means of life, when in fact it was an agent of death. How could this be? Here in Galatians 4, Paul makes a shocking equation. The power behind the Law of Moses is no different from that behind the pagan law of nature. When Paul says “we were slaves to the elements,” he is presumably speaking of Jews as well as Gentiles. And later he warns those pagans who once worshiped things that were “no gods,” not to turn back to them by observing days, and months, and seasons, and years (verse 10). In other words, the power that enforces the Law of Moses is not God but “the principalities and powers” of this age. This must have come as an astounding put-down to Jewish pride in the Law, but it is a humbling which Paul himself had experienced on the Damascus Road.

Both Gentile and Jew looking up into heaven find it made of brass, or perhaps at times like a badly silvered mirror that allows a little light to pass through but mainly reflects back one’s own image. From Paul’s point of view, even though the natural law and the Law of Moses derived from the truth of God, they could not truly enlighten a person but rather reflected human sinfulness. So neither law, in the end, really gives escape from this world. We are still captives to our worldview, still actors on an artificial stage. St. Paul’s cry: Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death! (Romans 7:24) is another way of saying: Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!”

Now we turn to the Good News, represented by the vertical axis, grounded in the Cross. When the time was fulfilled, God sent forth his Son, Paul says (verse 4). And again: God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (verse 6). These two acts of sending are like two stages of an inheritance. The Son’s coming into the world is an act of redemption and adoption. Christ came to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (verse 5). It was a costly act because Christ had to submit to the principalities and powers of this age and receive the penalty of death for us. Christ had to become a stumbling block to Jews, being cursed by the Law, and foolishness to the Gentiles, having the form of a criminal, in order to reckon us righteous and raise us into the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6).

The means by which we are carried through the firmament to God is faith. Paul puts it this way: now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God (verse 9). “Knowing God” is another way of saying “believing in Him,” but believing itself is a response “being known.” We do not climb up a ladder to heaven. Rather we are carried their by his grace, through faith. And the moment we ascend by faith, the Spirit descends into our lives bringing us assurance of the Father’s presence and care.

Finally, the vertical action of God’s sending His Son for us and His Spirit in us has horizontal consequences. Jew and Gentile, each of whom had been staring at parallel reflections in the firmament of heaven, now come together at the foot of the Cross. As the veil of the Temple was torn in two when Jesus died on Calvary, so the dividing wall between Jew and Greek comes tumbling down. And not just ethnic divisions are overcome in Christ, for There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3:28).

Paul would not deny that there are continuing differences in worldly society. Jewish Christians may worship differently from Gentile Christians. Men and women will continue to have certain roles in the family and society. Paul even sees slavery as a tolerable, though not a desirable, state. But by “putting on Christ” Christians cease to look to these distinctions to identify themselves, and they begin to see the world in a new perspective.

Many children remember the wonderful day when they got their first set of eyeglasses. Suddenly the world becomes a new, a beautiful place. Becoming a Christian is like this, Paul says, maybe even more like a blind man seeing for the first time. Therefore, it is pure nonsense for someone to turn back to their former worldview. It would be like throwing away one’s glasses and stumbling around again.

My brothers and sisters, look to Jesus, look to his Cross, look to his ascension at God’s right hand. Don’t let any element of the world any “no god” however alluring, keep you from claiming your inheritance as God’s son or daughter, through Jesus Christ the eternal Son.

These eleven expositions were addressed to students at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, in the Fall of 2000.


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