Saturday, November 11, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 3:1-14

Address 7
Damned for Power

Throughout the history of human thought, there has always existed a tension between truth and power. Which comes first, which takes priority over the other? Philosophers like Plato argued that knowledge is power, while others like Machiavelli argued that “might makes right.” St. Paul, I think, was more in Plato’s camp. “Let God be true though every man be false” (Romans 3:4) captures Paul’s dedication to truth. Having said that, Paul believed that the truth of the Gospel was accompanied by power, spiritual power. He describes his preaching this way: “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).

In our text today, Paul is going to unveil the biblical basis of his core teaching on justification by faith. In doing this, he will highlight his fundamental disagreement with the Judaizers who opposed him in Galatia, and with Judaism as he had practiced it. The key to his argument here I have called “damned for power.” Let me explain.

When a visitor comes to Uganda, one of the places he is sure to be taken is Jinja, along Lake Victoria, to the place called the source of the Nile. It is truly inspiring to stand at the memorial, looking out at the muscular current of water pouring out at 1000 metres above sea level and to imagine the thousands of miles that water will be carried by the force of gravity until it flows royally along the canals of Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

As part of the Jinja trip, the visitor will undoubtedly also see Owens Dam and the new Kirra dam extension, and if one is truly adventurous, one may go rafting downstream at Bujagali Falls. As I am sure you know, the two dams are the source of Uganda’s electric power, and the government has awarded a contract to build another dam below Bujagali Falls. This decision has been controversial because it will back water up and turn the falls into an artificial lake, threatening its natural habitat.

It strikes me that the Judaizers of Paul’s day saw the Gospel threatening the mission of Judaism just as the dam project threatens Bujagali Falls. Judaism in the first century was an outward-looking religion, with many Gentile converts and others called “God-fearers” attending synagogues without going the last step of circumcision and taking up the yoke of the Law. Many Jews believed that in the messianic days, the Law would go forth from Jerusalem, and the earth would be filled with its knowledge as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 2:4; 11:9). Jesus, to them, was the New Moses, the Teacher of the Nations. For these Jewish Christians, the blessing that had been promised to Abraham was like the Nile River. It had flowed through the history of the Jewish people and was now about to broaden out to the nations.

Paul, however, throws a barrier across the river of blessing, and this is the Cross of Christ: O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was shown forth as crucified? (verse 1). “Hush, hush,” the Judaizers say. “Such talk of crucifixion will turn off converts to the Teacher.” “Nonsense,” Paul retorts. “Christ crucified is the key to spiritual blessing for the Gentiles – yes, and for us Jews as well.  The word he uses - “show forth” contains the prefix pre- –“in advance” – a prefix Paul uses a little later when he says that Scripture “fore-saw” and “pre-preached” to Abraham the Gospel of justification by faith (verse 8). Perhaps we could translate it “fore-shown.” Part of St. Paul’s missionary task, it seems, was to show why the Messiah had to die. And this he did out of the Scriptures, which “fore-showed in black and white” that the death of the messiah had been announced all the way back to Abraham.

Paul says he showed Christ “before their eyes,” i.e., in the Scripture, but then he switches to ears: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (verse 2). Hearing is the primary mode of believing; the ear, like the heart, is a receiver, and a receptive ear is the doorway of faith. Perhaps as they heard him unfold the Scriptures, they saw the figure of the Crucified One foreshadowed there. In any case, this vivid hearing about Christ Crucified led the Galatians to faith, and faith led to their receiving the Holy Spirit in power and in signs and wonders (verse 5). They had been sitting in synagogues for years, Paul says, and the Law never produced this power. So why, for heaven’s sake, would they turn back to the Law to rule their lives (verse 4)?

Like a patient teacher, Paul now takes the Galatians back over his way of reading the Old Testament, back to Father Abraham. Let’s try to read the story of Abraham as Paul probably taught it. The Genesis story has four main events: 1) God’s call of Abraham to go to Canaan, which includes the promise that through him the nations would be blessed (chapter 12); 2) God’s promise of future offspring as many as the stars of the sky through one offspring (chapter 15); 3) God’s covenant of circumcision which precedes the birth of Isaac (chapter 17); and 4) Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah (chapter 22).

In Paul’s way of reading, prior events take theological priority over later events; therefore he finds it significant that the first two events of Abraham’s life concern faith. He begins with the second event: Thus Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham (verses 6-7; Genesis 15:6). Then he moves back to the first event: And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”  So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith (verses 8-9; Genesis 12:3).

Paul finds in these two events two mysteries which Judaism had not explained. The first mystery is how Abraham could be “counted righteous” apart from law. To be sure, some Jews argued that the patriarchs were justified by following the laws of Noah; others thought the Law of Moses was revealed secretly to them by angels and they kept it. But for Paul, these rationalizations could not explain how one could be just outside the legal framework of justice. The key, Paul notes, lies in the words “believe” and “reckon.” Abraham was righteous by another calculus, one of receiving by faith God’s declaration of approval.

The second mystery for Paul involved the blessing of the Gentiles. The word blessing is used exclusively for Abraham’s relationship to the nations. For Paul, this promised blessing is nothing other than the gift of the Holy Spirit, which had been received after Jesus’ resurrection and poured out especially in the preaching of the Gospel to the nations. One mystery, which continues to this day, is how a Jewish Messiah came to be worshiped largely outside his homeland and his own people (cf. John 1:11-12). The reason for this mystery, Paul discerned, was that the full inclusion of all peoples was an essential part of God’s plan to save the world.

“But what about us Jews?” we may imagine someone saying. “Is Abraham not our father, and is he not the father of circumcision?” Once again, Paul looks deeply into the text and finds a surprising answer. The law sealed by circumcision is not a channel of blessing but brings with it a curse. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them” (verse 10). Paul does not deny that the Law and circumcision are good things given by God, but their effect is totally contrary to their character. They bring curse rather than blessing. They require the kind of purity of heart and life that is simply impossible for fallen human beings. This being the case, the Law becomes an accuser rather than an advocate before the judgment seat of God.

Paul had not realized this in his earlier life. But when he met Jesus Christ, he realized that there could be only one way to righteousness. And so he says: Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for “He who through faith is righteous shall live”; but the law does not rest on faith, for "He who does them shall live by them” (verses 11-12).

This leads to one final mystery. Why then the Law? Why did God even bother to give his Law to the Jewish nation? Paul’s answer is that the Law placed human sin under an official seal of disapproval. When it says, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree,” it means Everyman, all who are sinners. The Law seals our fate, as damned before God. But it does so in order that God may fulfill his greater purpose of redeeming us. And he does this by substitution: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. The penalty of the law must be paid, but there is no one to pay it, except Him who can offer himself for us. As Paul says so beautifully elsewhere: [God] made [Christ] to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Finally, we see the connection between the heart of Paul’s Gospel, Christ crucified, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the nations. The Law was like a river flowing out through its channels into the desert, but its subjects were being drowned in the torrent. Jesus Christ made himself a dam against its force. He took all of its energy – the power of righteousness – into his own body, blow by blow as the nails were driven in. And when the dam was finished on Easter Day, he became a powerhouse, not just to the original recipients of the promise of Abraham, but to all peoples of the earth, who now receive the Holy Spirit and believe in Him. So Paul concludes that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Jesus Christ is all in all. He is all truth, and he is all powerful. But his truth is veiled in the mystery of his Cross, and his power is a spiritual power that can only be accessed when we accept it by faith – not by our own striving and deserving but by the Father’s declaration to us: “You are accounted righteous before me only for the merits of my Son Jesus Christ and not for your own works or deservings.” This is, as the Prayer Book puts it, a most comfortable doctrine – one to be cherished as we go out to do our work this day, and always.

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

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