Friday, November 10, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 3:14-26

Address 8
Testimony of a Nation

One thing I was forewarned about when I first visited Uganda was that I should be prepared to give my testimony at any time, whenever I spoke publicly. That very thing I was happy to do and did from several pulpits. Giving one’s personal testimony in Uganda, however, is part of a larger reality, which I will call the national testimony.


For Uganda as a nation has a testimony. In the providence of God, the kingdom of Buganda, and then later other kingdoms and tribes in its vicinity were prepared to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way few other peoples did. From the time the first Christians arrived in 1875 to the settlement of Uganda as a British protectorate in 1900, amazing evangelization took place, carried out by dedicated missionaries and by Africans who were willing to lay down their lives for the faith.

The testimony continues. Just as Christianity, fifty years after its arrival, seemed to be waning as a vital force in Uganda, the Revival began, which not only spread the faith further but Africanized it further across East Africa, as white and black Christians were reconciled with each other in a common mission.

It is not my purpose here to give a history of Christianity in Uganda, but simply to point out that sometimes a nation has a particular vocation or testimony in its history and destiny. It may embrace or reject that destiny. The so-called Christian nations of Europe today, it seems, have chosen to reject their heritage, making them some of the most hardened prospects for evangelization in the world today.

My previous address dealt with the particular and amazing way God chose to provide “blessing” to the nations through Abraham (Galatians 3:14). Abraham, who was the father of the Jewish nation, also became the spiritual father of the Gentile nations. I mentioned two great moments which shaped Abraham’s testimony. In the first, God commanded him to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia and go to a land he had not known and promised him that by so doing he would become a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). In the second moment, God appeared to Abraham and promised him a son of his own, who would be the “seed” or heir through which the first promise would be fulfilled. Abraham’s response to both these promises gave a particular character to his identity and to the identity of his descendents: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham became the father of faith (Romans 4:11).

Not that the Abraham’s descendents accepted this identity readily. Just as Europeans today would be more likely to identify the euro or the welfare state as key to their character, so Jews of the first century were inclined to testify that “we are children of Abraham because we are children of the Law,” and they would point to the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17), as a forerunner of the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Paul discovered on the road to Damascus, to his shame and consternation, that Jesus, not Moses, held the key to the testimony of Israel. It was Jesus, the Jew who had been damned by the Law, who was the true heir of Abraham, and it was those who believed in him, apart from keeping the Law, who had the power of his Spirit living in them. In today’s passage, Paul works through the apparent discrepancy between the true testimony of the Jewish people and what most Jews perceived as their vocation as “sons of the covenant” of Moses.

Paul begins his argument in a legal vein. He says, in effect, you want to argue law, all right, I’ll become your lawyer. He notes that Abraham had already signed and sealed a covenant with God before the covenant of circumcision was ever mentioned.

[God] said to [Abraham], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two…. Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for sure that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions…. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….” (Genesis 15:8-21 excerpts)

Paul notes several things about this earlier covenant. To begin with, it was a proper, legal “testament” of a promissory sort, sealed by a death. No one annuls even a man’s will, or adds to it, he says, once it has been ratified (verse 15). Everyone knows that once a will is signed and sealed, the intentions of the author must be honored: it cannot be changed or revoked but must be carried out to the letter. Therefore a second covenant made 430 years later cannot supersede the first one (verses 17-18).

In his reference to the 430-year stay in Egypt, Paul sketches a brief history of Abraham’s descendents. What is notable in this sketch is that it focuses on the Exodus, God’s great act of saving his people from Egypt, but no mention is made of the giving of the Law on Sinai. The Law, by implication, is not a proper fit with this prior covenant.

Most importantly, Paul notes that the first testament with Abraham involved an inheritance. Indeed the promise of an heir was at its heart. Paul may also have observed that the promise of offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven had to be a long-range promise. By simple calculation, Abraham knew he was not going to live to see its fulfillment. Four hundred thirty years would not be long enough to produce this kind of harvest. Paul connects the fulfillment of this long-distance promise not just with the multiplication of the people of Israel but with the evangelization of the Gentiles.

And the last “seed,” the final heir, is Jesus. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many; but, referring to one, “And to your offspring,” which is Christ (verse 16). Paul makes a spiritual interpretation of a grammatical point, namely that the Hebrew word “seed” is collective. “Seed” can mean one seed or many. I do not think Paul would deny that in one sense Isaac and Jacob and the children of Israel were the promised “seeds” of Abraham. But their sonship is, in his view, only partial and is a shadow of the One Great Seed, the true Son of God.

So the first covenant, which is still binding, promised a Son, and the mode of receiving this promise was faith. Why then the law? the Jew may ask (verse 19). What is the distinctive testimony of Israel as a people of the Law? Paul’s brief answer is: It was added because of transgressions… When he says “because of transgression,” he means both that the law disclosed sin and also that it increased sin (Romans 3:20; 5:14, 20; 7:14). I think we can understand easily how a law reveals sin. When a parent tells a child, “don’t hit your brother,” the child identifies hitting with sin.

It is harder to understand how law increases sin, but this difficulty disappears when we remember that pride is the greatest sin. And who is more proud than the person who prides himself on keeping the Law? “I thank you, God, that I am not like other sinners,” says the Pharisee, thus committing the gravest sin (Luke 18:11).

Now Paul tries to show how the Jewish people entered into spiritual denial about the nature of the Law from the very beginning, from Mount Sinai itself (verses 19-20). Martin Luther, with wonderful insight, connects these verses with the moment when God invited the people up to the top of the mountain, and they “stood afar off, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:19). The people knew that they could not stand before the holiness of God without experiencing the revelation and condemnation of their sin. “Lest we die,” was their cry. And so when Moses came veiled with the law tablets, the Law’s true meaning was also veiled to them. The Law of Moses was not a direct revelation of the loving face of God, but rather a revelation of his wrath against sin. The Jews forgot this. They thought it was the source of life, when in fact it was a source of death.

If one sees the Law in this light, Paul says, it is not contrary to the Gospel but complementary to it (verse 21). But it is complementary in the way shadows are complementary to light. Scripture shows human nature to be hopelessly darkened in sin, and the Law serves only to highlight the darkness in the light of faith (verse 22).

Now Paul, speaking as a Jew, revises the testimony of Judaism in a radical way. We Jews, he says, thought it was our vocation to be a light to the nations. We were to be the teachers of the Gentiles, and the Law was our curriculum. But now that faith has come, it turns out that the Law was not an instructor but a bodyguard. The Greek word Paul uses is pedagogue (verses 24o-25), a term we use in English for instruction, “pedagogy.” But in the Greek world, a pedagogue was usually a slave who accompanied the young person to school. He was not seen primarily as a teacher but a protector. So, Paul says, “we were confined under the Law, kept under restraint until faith came” (verse 23).

If the testimony of Uganda is, historically, an example of the openness of the Gentile world, the African world, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the example of Judaism is almost the opposite. (I do not say this in any anti-Semitic sense, and there are many happy exceptions). The fact is that by and large, most Jews from Paul’s time to now have chosen to keep to the Law rather than accept the Gospel. Although Paul wished otherwise for his fellow countrymen (Romans 10:1), he might not have been surprised at their stubbornness, since he understood the Law as binding rather than freeing the conscience.

It is not my interest to flatter one nation over another. Indeed the Jews, with their continual commitment to the meditation on the Law, have produced a rich intellectual culture, to which the whole world is deeply indebted. And the more open religious cultures of Africa, while they may spring into flames of faith more easily, may fail to deepen their roots with the learning and respect for tradition which the Law inculcates. I have heard many lovely praise choruses this past weekend – and I will no doubt hear more during the upcoming festivities. I only hope your enthusiasm for worship will be matched by your hard work in the classroom. For faith is not only a feeling but a knowledge as deep, yes, even deeper that the riches of the Law. St. Paul is a living witness to joining of thought and feeling in his unswerving attempt to express the truth of the Gospel out of love for his churches.

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

 

 

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