Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas 2009

"Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." Luke 2:11 “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” John 1:14 . . . Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Christmas Means to Me . . .

I apologize in advance for this little meditation -- it consists material and concepts I have published on my various blog sites over and over again over the years. So if you've read this stuff before, I hope you'll bear with me. This is, indeed, the essence of everything I believe in, and who I am.


Its been the subject of many of the Christmas movies and television shows down through the years . . . the "real meaning of Christmas." Whether it's Keenan Wynn's Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street," all the"Whos down in Whoville" in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," or even "Phineas and Ferb" in the new Disney Channel cartoon series, the themes are the same . . . Christmas is over commercialized, and we need to get down to the true meaning of Christmas, which invariably turns out to be some sort of altruistic concept of selflessness and a spirit of giving. Often times the scripture from Luke 2:14 (always quoted from the King James version of the Bible), "Peace on earth, good will toward men." Its this "good will" that is presented as the essence of Christmas.

There is, of course, a kernel of truth in this. But there is one Christmas movie/tv show that truly gets it right. In "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Charlie Brown, in his exasperation over holiday pressures, cries out "Isn't there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?" Linus takes the stage, a spotlight hits him, and he recites the Christmas narrative from Luke 2, with an emphasis on verse 11, "today is the City of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." After he's finished, he says to Charlie Brown, "and that's what Christmas is all about."

Indeed. Its all about a person. Its all about Jesus. Its all about a relationship with this person.

Of course, the perception we have of Jesus at Christmas time is as an infant, lying in the manger. Babies are not very threatening or complicated when it comes to a relationship. Relating to the person of Jesus as an adult -- the one the gospels portray for us -- is a lot more complicated. There is a perception that Jesus, at the Son of God, demands an awful lot of us. A lot of that "altruism" that Kris Kringle and the Whos were looking for. Good behavior. Right and righteous living. Getting along well with others. Unselfishness.

When we think about what we think Jesus expects from us, especially during the stress of the holiday season, it almost seems like we're being watched. Like he's "making a list and checking it twice,"
that he it all figured out, just exactly who is "naughty" and who is "nice."

Wait a minute . . . this is really starting to sound like its related to the Christmas concepts we grew up with.

But the truth of the matter . . . the real, biblical truth . . . is not at all like this.

What is the real meaning of Christmas? Why did Jesus come into the world? In all the hustle and hassle of what we generally face when we celebrate Christmas with our families and friends, I often feel just like Charlie Brown did -- frazzled, under pressure, and feeling like I just don't measure up. I cry out -- "I can't take this any more! Life has too much pressure! What IS Christmas really "all about?"

Jesus has the answer to my question. In Matthew 28:30, he says "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (from "The Message" translation of the Bible).

This is tremendous imagery, reflecting in modern, 21st Century style English the basic message Jesus was trying to tell us. I particularly love the phrase "unforced rhythms of grace" and that there will be nothing "heavy or ill fitting on [us]." That is the essence of Christ's relational style, for anyone who has a real, living relationship with Him.

But the "Message" translation leaves out the most famous part of the original language of this verse -- the part that really has made this verse so quotable over the centuries. Here is the same verses in the NIV:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus' audience, centered in a primarily rural and agricultural culture of the ancient middle east, would have readily understood the concept of a "yoke." It was usually a large harness made of wood that was fitted over the necks or shoulders of farm animals. It was done either in pairs or larger groups of 4 or 6 animals. The more experienced animals were placed in a position so that what they did, where they went, the things they did forced the other, less experienced animals to go in the same direction and do the same things. In time, the inexperienced animals "learned the ropes" so to speak, and soon were doing and practicing the very same things the older animals did, and they didn't have to think about it. This was a more humane, gentler way to train animals than whipping them or "breaking" them. It was being trained and disciplined in a way that made it seem like you weren't being trained or disciplined. Our relationship with Jesus is like this -- his "yoke is easy." It is in this yoke we learn the "unforced rhythms of grace." Its a kinder, gentler life changing experience. Jesus is SO like that.

In a past discussion on this matter, a visitor to one of my blog sites commented that there is a second cultural angle to this. Its not just an agricultural image, but a culturally religious one. Here is what he had to say about these same verses:

"Jesus was actually using a double meaning for the Jewish word translated into yoke. For a Jew, the word yoke could mean the wooden thing to keep oxen together and go in a straight line. It also means the teachings of a Jewish rabbi. A rabbi would often tour around Israel, and the most famous and well respected rabbis gained quite a following (as we see with Jesus), one of the central marks of a rabbi was their "yoke" their set of beliefs and teachings...from the most famous of rabbis came the formulation of books like the Talmud and it's commentaries. What Jesus was saying there was. Come to me, my teaching is different that what you've seen before, it's not as legalistic as what you've learned, it rests easier on your shoulders. Come follow me and you'll see that the teaching I have to offer is easier."

This is also quite true. It shows how the cultural meaning of the texts offer us a richer tableau to view when we see it through the eyes of those to whom the words were originally spoken, and not just the eyes of a 21st century middle class American.

But it also speaks of relationship. The essence of Matthew 11: 28-30 is Christ's relationship with us. Whether viewed as a connection like oxen yoked together in learning to serve, or a connection to a religious teacher that would offer us a new and better way, the essence is still the same. Its all about relationships -- a mentor walking with his charge, or two persons laboring together. Except the mentor or coworker here is the God of the universe.

Charles Simpson, the internationally known apostolic charismatic leader, said that you can break down everything in the Bible, everything in God's kingdom, to some form of relationship. Any or you who actually read my journal entries on this site regarding the book of Galatians know that this is the essence of what I see coming out of that book -- God's relationship with his people, fulfilled in a promise.

And as I am thinking about Christmas, and what it really means, it is the Incarnation, the concept of God becoming a man in the form of Jesus Christ, that is at the forefront. And this too, is also all about a relationship.

Indeed, the Incarnation is something that is personal to each of us.

There is the anecdote regarding the Mom who finds her preschool aged daughter drawing pictures. Mom asks the little girl what she is drawing. "I'm drawing a picture of God." Mom smiles, and comments "But nobody knows what God looks like." The little girl things for a moment, and continues to draw. "They will now" she says.

That is what happened with Jesus. Before Jesus came into the world, no one had ever truly seen God, or known God, or understood what God was really all about. But when we come to know Jesus, we come to understand . . . we come to truly know "what God looks like."

The essence of the Incarnation is described in John 1:14

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”

But how is that "relational?"

Well, the "Word" is God, in the form of Jesus.

The concept of becoming "flesh" was viewed by audience that John wrote for as almost vulgar. The Greek word for flesh connotes an earthy, almost scandalous or "in the gutter" type image. "Flesh" means the sensual, the sensuous, the cravings of our natural state. It means being separated from God, inclined to sin, separated from divine influence and control. It was, literally, a "dirty word." I can almost see images from that scene in the movie "The Christmas Story:" where the main character "Ralphie" is helping his Dad change a tire, and uses the "F" word -- the "Queen mother of dirty words." In the minds of the people of Jesus' time, having God come "in the flesh" would have been as shocking as hearing a child use that word. Its like talking about fecal matter -- you can use the word "excrement," or you can use the socially unacceptable word that rhymes with "fit," but you're still talking about the same stuff. That's what the connotation of the Greek word for "flesh" has here.

And think about it. Philippians 2:5-8 says:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature { Or } God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature { Or } of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!"

Jesus left the glory of heaven --volunteered for the part, and put on this "fecal," dirty matter and be one with us. If your going to truly relate to someone, you have to be at their level. That's what Jesus did when he was born in the manger at Christmas.

This concept is not to be taken lightly. John 3:16, which says "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Its a verse that isn't often quoted in the context of Christmas -- we usually get Luke 2, or Matthew 2. The Angels, the Shepherds, or the Magi. But John 3:16 is "What Christmas is all about" to quote Linus from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." God loved us so much, he gave us his son. But how do we measure how much God loved us? When you consider the context of the verse quoted above from Philippians, its almost incomprehensible. God, lowering himself to the level of mankind. I had a good friend in high school, who used to try and explain this by saying that to understand how far God had to "step down" to put on that "flesh," we need to picture one of us coming into the world as a maggot in order to redeem all the flies. No matter how highly we think of ourselves, no one of us, or even the entire race of man, is really of any consequence within the vastness of the universe, and of creation. Yet God chose to be just like us, so we could be right with Him.

And he did this on a personal level. This wasn't a grandiose, sweeping concept that would scoop us all up together as an impersonal mass, like a broom sweeping up all the dust at once. Redemption is as personal as holding hands, as a tender kiss. He did this all as a person, as an individual, so that each of us could get to know him, one on one.

He did this by coming live in with us, right in our neighborhood. The words for "made his dwelling among us" in John 1:14 is the same words used when describing making camp -- Jesus literally "pitched his tents with us" when he became a man. He moved in. So we could see him at home, where it really counted, and he could see the same things with us. This is relational living. Jesus wants to be as close to us, or closer, than our own nieghbors. But think of more than just the next house over. Think best friends. Like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Inseperable, bosom buddies. That's what this language implies.

That is the essence of the Incarnation -- the essence of Christmas. Christ became just like us, as fallible and dirty and slimey as us -- but he never sinned, he never fell into the trap. But he was willing to come down to our level, to stoop as low as the eternal God of the universe could bend over, so we could see Him as he truly was, and he could relate to us on a personal level. So close, you could see Him working in His yard, talk with him across the back fence, and so he could hear it when your kids practiced thier band instruments.

Jesus became part of our family.

That is the essence of Christmas, ladies and gentlemen, and its why I get excited to think about these things this time of year.

Jesus wants to be my neighbor, my bosom buddy, my best friend.

He wants me to take his yoke upon me, and learn his ways.

He wants to share a meal with me.

He wants to have tea with me (another story I have posted before).

And because of this relationship, I have eternal life, and my very nature has been changed to something that can actually begin to come into line with what those Christmas movies see as the real meaning of Christmas -- that "good will toward men" stuff. Without Jesus, I am doomed to fail in my own efforts to be good. But now that I am a new creation in Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:17), I can, in Christ, obey his call to help and serve others.

That's what the Incarnation means.

And my family and I wish all of you a very merry, blessed, and joyful Christmas!!!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Favorite Christmas Movies

I need a little diversion in what has otherwise proven to be a very busy week.

A conversation/debate started when I posted that my family was gathering for the annual viewing of "A Christmas Story." A lot of folks love that movie, while others communicated their disdain. But it got me thinking about the rare concept of a "Christmas movie," and the ones that over the years have helped define the holiday season for me and my family.

I was originally going to weigh in with a "best and worst" list of Christmas movies, because there are some real clunkers out there too. But in the interest of trying not to offend my friends who may like one of the holiday films I despise, we'll just make this a list of my favorite Christmas movies.

So, in no particular order, are my list of favorite holiday cinema:

* "Humphrey's Search for Christmas" and "The Littlest Present." Yes, two movies I have actually appeared in make the list! These are two films produced by my church's kids ministry, and they have become a part of our holiday traditions both because they are enjoyable to watch, were so enjoyable to make, and, especially in the case of "Humphrey," have become a part of my own family traditions. When "Humphrey" was released back in 1991 or 1992, I was just starting my family, my kids were little, and they watched the video and listened to the song soundtrack over and over and over. And because of my personal connections to these films, they bring back wonderful memories.

* "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" The first of the Rankin/Bass stop-action animated Christmas specials, and still the best. I remember watching this when it premiered back in 1964 or so, and because it was an annual part of my childhood Christmases, I still enjoy it today. Cheezy? You betcha. But its a great story, and the songs have become part of the annual Christmas music rotation along with traditional fare like "Silent Night" or "First Noel."

* "The Toy that Saved Christmas" This is the "Veggie Tales" entry into Christmas -- very clever, very original, and a great message for kids. Larry the Cucumber's "Silly Song," "Oh Santa" is a satiric Christmas classic! Again, this was released at a time my kids were little and very much into "Veggie Tales" videos, so it is imprinted on my family's collective consciousness (along with the Veggie Tales Christmas album!) and was produced before Veggie Tales went "mainstream" after their financial difficulties a few years ago. I consider the earlier Veggie Tale work, when Phil Vischer was still running the show, to be much superior to the current product.

* "Miracle on 34th Street" Here, I mean the original version, with Maureen O'Hara and Keenan Wynn. (The remake just didn't work for me at all). My family watches this every season. Wynn's portrayal of Kris Kringle creates a very human, sincere Santa Claus, and the performance of a young Natalie Wood as a little girl transformed from a Christmas agnostic to a "true believer" is a heartwarming story. Plus, the courtroom scene where Kringle's attorney legally proves there really is a Santa Clause resonates with this usually cynical lawyer.

* "A Christmas Carol" Charles Dickens' Christmas novella about the transformation of the cold hearted Scrooge through the visitation of the three Christmas Spirits has been on of my all time favorite stories -- I have re-read it annually for years. There are several screen adaptations that I have enjoyed. I have not seen the most recent Disney version featuring Jim Carey (I usually can't stand Carey, so I can't imagine that project working),but I can recommend at least five movie adaptations of "A Christmas Carol." The best version from a total cinematic viewpoint is probably the 1951 British production starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Very true to the original story, and Sim established the mood and mannerism for Scrooge that have been copied by actors portraying the role ever since. Two more modern productions that were very effective in preserving the original story line and giving us wonderful interpretations of Scrooge and the other characters are versions which starred George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart respectively. The Stewart version took some liberties with the story in setting up the film, but did not take away from the concept, and Stewart is a great Scrooge. In addition, there are two childrens' version of the story I recommend. The "Muppet Christmas Carol" is surprisingly well done, using the muppet characters to portray roles in a way that is respectful to the original material, but still allows the usual Muppet humor to seep through. The musical numbers are fun, too! And who could forget Mr. Magoo? There is a "Mr Magoo" cartoon version of "Carol" originally produced in the 60s. While its probably not a "first class" production, it was an early influence that got me hooked on the story. For that, I will always be grateful, and therefore recommend it.

* "White Christmas" This is one of my family's favorites -- we've watched it every year, and I probably have half of the movie's lines memorized. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and great songs by Irving Berlin. Yes, its a typically cheese-ball Hollywood musical, but its great fun.

* "Holiday Inn" The original "White Christmas." Indeed, while the movie "White Christmas" is much more widely known, this is the the film that originally introduced the fabled Christmas song. Starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, this should be the movie that is remembered and be the big Holiday Classic. "White Christmas" pales in comparison, and is really a more modern rip-off of this film. This was songwriter Irving Berlin's brainchild - a musical about a fellow (played by Bing Crosby) who opens a resort hotel that is only open on each holiday -- hence the name "Holiday Inn." Many popular song classics were introduced in this film -- "White Christmas," "Easter Parade" "Be Careful Its My Heart." The reason why this film has faded from the holiday movie pantheon is obvious, though. The scene commemorating Lincoln's birthday has the entire cast in black-face makeup in the tradition of old minstrel shows, a concept that is patently offensive to African-Americans. Otherwise, the singing and dancing in this film is top notch.

* "A Christmas Story" I have always loved this film, perhaps because the family culture portrayed in it is very close to what my extended family was like growing up, and that it is set in a fictional town that represents Hammond, Indiana, which might as well be the town I grew up in, being so close geographically. I always enjoyed Jean Shepherd's radio monologues and his books, and this movie is a wonder encapsulation of several episodes from his popular book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." My family enjoys watching this movie every year, and I know a complete sub-culture has grown up around it. I've discovered that people either love this film or hate it. I think a lot of it has to do with relating to its mid-western, working class concept. For better or worse, that was my life as a kid, and even though this film is set in 1939, I can relate to it in so many ways.

* "The Nativity Story" A recent entry to my list of Christmas favorites, this is one of the few decent attempts to actually tell the story of Christ's birth in its proper historical setting. Its fairly accurate from a scriptural standpoint, and the portrayal of Mary and Joseph as fallible humans rather than idealized saints is refreshing. I highly recommend this movie.

* "Its a Wonderful Life" Yes, this movie had to make the list. I find it interesting that when this film was released back in the late 1940s, it did not do well, and was largely forgotten until the early 1970s. Then, because the copyright had expired, public television stations began airing it over the holidays because they didn't have to pay for the broadcast rights. When I was in high school, you could watch this film six to eight times a week during the Advent season on a variety of TV outlets. Today, the movie is as much a part of modern American culture as any other film. The message is timeless, and the performances real and meaningful. And if you really think about it, its one of the few movies of its kind where the bad guy (Mr. Potter) doesn't get his comeuppance at the end. But George finds his place in the world, and that makes for a very happy ending.

* "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" This has to be my favorite Christmas movie of all time. Unfortunately, its really a half-hour commercial for the Mormon church. That being said, you don't really realize that until the very end of the film (the hints might be obvious, with performances by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the story set in Salt Lake City, and a scene set on the Temple Square). Jimmy Stewart (the star of "Wonderful Life") is featured here. He plays a lonely widower who lives in a sort of Walter Mitty like fantasy world, where he imagines great adventures for himself. The focal point of the story is when he is visited by a group of Christmas Carolers who are uncomfortable with his shabby little apartment and lifestyle. A little girl leaves her mittens behind, and Mr. Krueger, in his imagination, tries to find her. The highlight of the film is a scene where he is arranging a nativity set on his table, and imagines himself at the very first Christmas, and has a conversation with the infant Jesus. I challenge anyone to watch that scene to not come away with tears in your eyes. It is a remarkable performance, and one that gets to the heart of what Christmas is really all about in a way that few other films have ever done. I have read that Mr. Stewart demanded that the scene be shot in one take, because he did not have the emotional wherewithal to go through it more than once.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 23

Galatians 5:23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Paul closes out his list of the fruits of the spirit with the last two items.

“gentleness” The King James Version translates this as “meekness.” There has already been a word in this list that could have been translated as “gentleness,” the New International Version translated it as “kindness.” The word here does indeed literally mean “gentleness,” but implies meekness, and especially humility. This is mildness and evenness of temper – not easily provoked, patience under duress, injury or offense; not proud, vain or haughty. Numbers 12:2 speaks of Moses as being meek. I think the key concept to understanding what “gentleness” is, as one of the fruits of the spirit, is humility. That is, submissiveness to God, and humble in spirit. It also implies a strong sense of nurturing – a parental sense of love, and to lead and nurture others in gentleness and humility.

“self control” The King James renders this as “temperance.” This word conveys the essence of a person who has mastered his or her desires and passions, especially sensual desires. This is the utmost in self restraint. Interestingly, one of the primary uses of this word in ancient Greek culture was to describe “continence” – a word that can mean to control carnal desire, but as a medical term refers to the voluntary control of the bowels. Its amusing in a way – the Holy Spirit produces fruit in the believer that amounts to a sort of spiritual “potty training” if you will – we grow and develop in our ability to choose not to sin. This was a big deal in the ancient world. The ability to abstain from vice, to discipline one’s own body and personal desires was probably one of the most highly respected virtues of the ancient Roman world. The fear of lawlessness – the freedom to sin to one’s delight – was one of the primary criticisms of the doctrine of “salvation by grace.” But Paul emphasizes that those who are transformed through Christ fulfill the morality of the Law by the inspiration of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:14).

“Against such things there is no law.” I Timothy 1:9 states that the Law was not designed for the righteous, but for sinners. There is an implication in the English translation of this phrase that there is more – “no law – that can bring a charge.” The power of a transformed life in Jesus is just that – our sins are wiped away and there is nothing to bring a charge against. The Law becomes practically unnecessary, because the fruit of the Spirit produces the righteousness of Christ in us – the “new creation” we are in Jesus comes through the power of the Spirit, not through obedience to the law.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 22

It's been a while since I've updated the Galatians Journal. I've been busy with a project (which is a very good thing).

Galatians 5: 22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,”

Paul now shifts gears. After his list of “vices,” the “acts of the sinful nature,” he now contrasts that with the “fruit of the Spirit.” The metaphor of God’s people bearing fruit was not new (see, e.g., Isaiah 27:6, Hosea 10:1 & 14:8). But this is a perfect picture of how the miraculous transformation of a living relationship with Christ – being truly born again – works . Paul contrasts the “acts” of the sinful nature (or “works” as translated in the King James Version in 5:19) with the concept of the “fruit” of the spirit. Fruit is something that is produced by the tree because of its nature, in the natural course of the tree’s life. The tree doesn’t strive to produce fruit – it just happens, because that is what the tree was designed for, it’s what the tree does, indeed, it’s what the tree IS!!. Paul is emphasizing that it’s the believer’s nature that has been transformed – made new at a foundational level – in Christ (see 5:24). Its fruit “of the Spirit” because it’s the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer that produces righteous, “Christian” character traits as opposed to the mere moral discipline of trying to follow the law. As briefly discussed at the end of the entry on the previous verse (5:21), Paul’s arguments throughout this letter (indeed, in ALL of Paul’s letters) clearly lay out the premise that justification by faith does not result in the ability to sin as we please ,because God is bound to always forgive us (see Romans 6). The Holy Spirit, living inside the believer, produces the Christian virtues – the “fruit of the Spirit” – in each believer’s life.

“love” The Greek word here is “agape.” This is unconditional love, love that does not seek return or reward. It’s the highest, noblest form of love.

“joy” This could also be translated “gladness.” But it also implies greatness in joy and gladness, as the word itself in the Greek can be used as an adverb, meaning “greatly” or “enormously.” The joy that comes through the Holy Spirit is deep and over powering.

“peace” The original Greek work here has many meanings, just as “peace” in English does. It can be used to describe peace between nations, as in the peace that follows a war. That would imply exemption from and freedom from the rage, havoc, and fear that comes with war. The reality of the concept that life is a spiritual battle means a relationship with Christ brings an oasis in that battle. It also means a peace between individuals – the Holy Spirit fosters healing in relationships. It implies safety, security, and prosperity, because true peace makes and keeps things safe and prosperous. The peace of Christ, the “fruit” of peace, is the tranquility of our soul knowing and being sure of our salvation through the promise of Christ, not fearing God’s retribution because we have a relationship with Jesus and a sense of contentment with our lot in life here and now.

“patience” The King James Version translates this as “longsuffering.” In the literal meaning of the original Greek, there are two concepts. First is constancy of character, “patience” in the sense of endurance, consistency, steadfastness, and perseverance. It’s not giving up or giving in when the going gets tough. Second is the concept of “longsuffering,” that is, the ability to endure unfairness and wrongs, forbearance, patience in dealing with the faults of others, slowness in getting angry, and not feeling a need for revenge. It’s the ability to forgive, and continue to forgive, even when the other person fails to change or recognize they’re doing wrong.

“kindness” The KJV translates this as “gentleness,” and the original Greek literally means moral goodness and integrity. It also means being kind, benign, and yes, gentle. Proverbs 15:1 speaks of a “gentle answer turning away wrath.” The transformed character of a Christian doesn’t avoid confrontation, but wisely uses “kindness” in the fruit of his or her life to deal with issues, rather than the corresponding “acts of the sinful nature” such as “fits of rage” or “discord.” (See 5:20)

“goodness” Both this and the previous word could be translated as “goodness,” or “kindness,” but they’re different. The previous word implies a gentle approach to contention, and right behavior and ethical reaction in the face of wrongdoing. The meaning of this term is literally “uprightness of heart.” This is the essence and nature of moral goodness, and implies benevolence and selflessness. It would appear that the fruit of “kindness” is aimed at dealing with those who are opposed to us, or have an issue with us, or who need moral guidance. The fruit of “goodness” seems to aimed more at those who need help, at charitableness, and laying down our lives for others.

“faithfulness” The KJV translates his as “faith,” and that is the essence of the word. First and foremost, it is conviction of truth – truth involving one’s relationship to God, and the trust and passion connected to the belief in that truth. If is the absolute conviction that God exists, that He created the world, that He rules the world, and is our provider and the giver of all good things. It is the absolute conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the only means of salvation in God’s Kingdom. In a more general sense, it means fidelity of character – the transformed Christian life is one of consistency and reliability. The fruit of “faith,” or “faithfulness,” therefore, means we are consistent in what we believe in, rely upon, and exhibit as behavior. It means others can rely on that consistency – rely on the fact that we have been changed, and are walking with Christ. They can rely on our word and morality, and rely on our loyalty and friendship. The fruit is shown in our faith in God and his Word, and his work in the body of Christ – and in how others can have faith in the “faithfulness” shown in our lives!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 21

Galatians 5:21 “and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. “

Paul concludes his list of specific examples of “acts of the sinful nature” here.

“and envy” There is apparently only one word that is equivalent to the original Greek here, and that is “envy.” But why the “and?” Only the NIV version includes it. Perhaps the original language implies this to be linked to the prior group of sins. Envy would obviously be at the root of selfish ambition, divisiveness, and factions. But there’s more. While the NIV, New American Standard, and Amplified Bibles all translate this as envy, the King James Version adds a second sin, an additional word to the list. So, just like in verse 19, there are 4 Greek words translated into three English words here. The KJV adds “murders” and that is indeed what the original Greek literally means. Why do the other translations leave this out? Not being a Greek scholar, I can’t say for sure. Obviously, murder is an act of the sinful nature, that would be so obvious as to go without saying. It would also seem to fit better tucked in amongst hatred, discord, jealousy, and fits of rage. Yet, this seems to be meant to intensify “envy.” The first murder in history was the result of envy (see Genesis 4: 4 through 8). This is more than just a desire to have something that belongs to someone else, or desire someone’s position, talent and the like. This is envy so deep that we want to kill the other person.

“drunkenness, orgies” The first word here simply means “intoxication.” The second word, “orgies” (translated as “reveling” in the KJV) is a special, specific word in the Greek that is tied to the worship of Bacchus, the Greek God of Wine, and it describes a feast or drinking party that lasts all night, involving music, dancing, parading in the streets with torches, sexual cavorting – in general, a loud, riotous revelry fueled by drinking. In a word, “partying,” as it’s understood in modern American slang, but this is over-the-top "partying" to be sure!

“and the like” A few verses back, I mused about whether this list might be conclusive – here it is obviously meant to be a list of examples, not a definitive list of sins. For other similar lists, see First Corinthians 6: 9-10; Ephesians 4:2 and 5:9, and Revelation 22:15.

“I warn you as I did before” In all of Paul’s letters, he emphasizes that this kind of behavior is unacceptable for Christians.

“shall not inherit the kingdom of God” Falling into or getting involved with one of these “acts of the sinful nature” does not disqualify us from salvation. Especially because this list includes sins that involve our thought life and emotions, the temptation in these areas are always great. But Paul is presenting and defining these “acts,” and then in the next few verses, compares them with the fruit of the Spirit, to emphasize that these are character traits more than they are individual actions. It is not in avoiding these acts of the sinful nature that we will get through – that is trying to obey the law all over again. But it is when we become a child of “the promise,” when we are changed and become a “new creation,” so that we no longer are known, in our character, by these traits. Plus, I don’t think the concept of “inheriting the kingdom of God” as that phrase is used in the New Testament, has anything to do with salvation. Paul only uses it to describe sinful behavior that will disqualify people from their “inheritance,” (here, and in First Corinthians 6:9-10 ) -- or to describe how the resurrection of our bodies in the next life will work (I Corinthians 15:50); James used it to describe how the poor get special consideration (James 2:5), and Jesus uses it, in the King James Version, to speak of the reward for those who use their talents well (Matthew 25:34). The Bible clearly teaches that there is a reward for good works that occurs in the judgment we will experience when as believers, we will eventually stand before God after we die and in the final judgment. In I Corinthians 3: 11-15, it states that we are judged for what we do AFTER we come to a saving relationship with God through the Promise. For the things that we do that emanate from our character as new creations, as the fruit of the Spirit, or the result of obedience, we receive a reward in the next life – in heaven. But if we continue to live selfishly, unrepentantly continuing to commit these acts of the flesh, Paul says in I Corinthians 3:15, such deeds will be “burned up, [we] will suffer loss, but [we ourselves] will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” If we have become children “of the promise,” our nature should change and we no longer indulge in the acts of the sinful nature, or at least we have the power in our lives to now avoid them. That is really Paul’s point here. Paul is being specific, so those of us who become Christians who have known only the “acts of the sinful nature” can clearly understand that there will be an eternal consequence to stubbornly cling to this kind of behavior.

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 20

Galatians 5: 20 “ idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions”

Paul continues with his specific description of the “acts of the sinful nature” or “flesh.” The word Paul uses for “acts” in verse 19 is translated in the King James Version as “works,” which seems to play on the concept of “works of the law, as in “observing the law" (see Galatians 3:2). In the previous verse, Paul described all manner of sexual sin (summing it up in 4 words or terms in the original Greek, but translated as three English words in the NIV). He leaves sex behind in verse 19 and moves on to other matters.

“Idolatry” This literally means the worship of false gods. But even in the original Greek, the context goes beyond simply sacrificing to idols and false religions, bad as those concepts are by themselves. It also means avarice – an insatiable greed for riches; or an inordinate, miserly desire to gain and hoard wealth. This is beyond greed – it’s the worship of riches, an all-encompassing obsession with money. Obviously, in our modern age, ambition, a lust for power, and an obsession with popular culture would fit in here as well.

“Witchcraft” As with the word “idolatry,” there is more to the original meaning than the basic English translation can convey. Of course, this refers to sorcery, the magic arts, and other occult practices. But the first definition in my Greek lexicon for the original word is “the use of or the administration of drugs,” followed by “poisoning.” So, while gluttony and over indulgence aren’t specifically on this list, the things that lead to addiction – particularly drugs and other material that alters the consciousness or leads to serious health issues (e.g. tobacco, alcohol, overeating, other obsessions) could be covered here. The fact that the NIV pairs this word with the previous “idolatry” indicates how they work hand in hand – not just false religion linked with the occult arts being used to manipulate and control people, but also greed and obsession being twisted and amplified into societal forces that will also manipulate, control and destroy.

“hatred, discord, jealousy” The next three words are translated quite literally from Greek into English. The Greek word for hatred here is very strong – this isn’t just strong dislike, it’s downright enmity. “Discord” means strife, contention, or wrangling. It boils down to being argumentative, I suppose. “Jealousy” is interesting. It literally means “zeal,” that is, excitement of mind, ardor, or fervor of spirit. This could be zeal in a positive sense, but the stronger notion is a sense of fierce indignation, or punitive zeal. I suppose this is hatred with passion. The secondary meaning involves envy, contentious rivalry, and basic jealousy. It think it was Paul’s intent to emphasis the indignation part, as in “righteous indignation.” Its easy for anyone to allow offenses of all kinds to take root, and when we justify our hurts in our religiousness or self-righteousness, it turns to envious or hateful zeal. We can be our own advocate, or take on the offense of a friend of loved one, in a negative comparison or the desire for what someone has, their talent, or their position.

“fits of rage” The King James Version translates this as “wrath,” the New American Standard as “outbursts of anger,” the Amplified Bible emphasizes “ill temper.” The original Greek word here emphasizes passion – hot, boiling anger that comes in waves. The secondary meaning involves the “wine of passion” or “inflaming wine,” which either drives the drinker mad or kills him with its strength (implying a secondary connection for this kind of rage to alcohol or drug abuse, though such a connection for this kind of rage is obviously not necessary). This is truly the kind of anger that is so deep it leads to destruction.

“selfish ambition” The literal meaning of the original language here is to “electioneer.” That is, to put yourself forth in a conniving way – it implies all the intrigue of a hotly contested election. Thus, this is factiousness at its peak. The King James Version translates this as “strife,” the New American Standard says “disputes,” the Amplified says “selfishness.” It means a bit of, or all of these things. This is more than mere ambition in the sense of furthering oneself by advancing one’s career (although an over emphasis on that concept could lead to what Paul is talking about here), but seeing division and using it to your own advantage, setting things up with the sole purpose of advancing oneself. “Blind” Ambition, perhaps? Merciless ambition to be sure. This was an extremely rare word in Paul’s day. Aristotle used it to describe a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair or unscrupulous means. In other new testament letters, we are exhorted to avoid this mindset and not selfishly put our own ambitions forward. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:3, James 3:14). Selfishness and self-promotion are heart attitudes.

“dissensions” is translated in the King James Version as “seditions,” and it literally means “divisions.” The NIV translates this pretty accurately. This speaks to causing factions and divisions, driving people apart, a rebellious spirit that seeks anarchy and the overthrow of authority.

“factions” This is a more specific word than the previous one, yet it has many meanings and applications. It has three basic interpretations. It is an extremely violent word – it literally means to storm and capture something, like invading a city or country. It also means to choose, the process of choosing, or a choice. But the best translation of the original Greek for this word occurs in the Amplified Bible, which interprets this word as a “party spirit.” But we mean “party” as in political party, a group of people following their own tenets or beliefs. It also means any division caused among people based on opinion or belief – groups with peculiar opinions, heresy, or sects. Is this the spirit of denominationalism? Certainly the American church acutely suffers from this. Or dare I say, this speaks to the important underlying theme of this letter – that one must conform to a particular cultural or ethnic practice in order to acceptable to God and/or the congregation – in this setting (the Roman province of Galatia), it was Gentiles who needed to act or become like Jews in order to “fit in.” What does it take to be acceptable in our congregations? Do I expect others to be “politically correct” when it comes to denominational or local practice? Such a concept is the essence of “factions.”

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 19

Galatians 5: 19 “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;”

“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious” Paul begins to get specific—to individually list actions which are manifestations of the “flesh,” and to contrast these concepts with a specific list of the fruit of the Spirit immediately after, the result of “living” by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). But this is not a body vs. Spirit dichotomy. While this verse’s “vices” all have to with sexuality, we can’t fall into that trap. Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, emphasized that the body and Spirit had nothing to do with each other – it was “body, bad; human spirit,"good.” The Old Testament Jewish notion wasn’t a whole lot different. “Flesh” to them meant human finiteness, animalistic tendencies, and mortality. It meant moral weakness and susceptibility to sin. The Spirit, however, provided miraculous power to speak prophetically and to do powerful things. So, like the Greeks, the Jews saw the sinful nature, or flesh and the Spirit as having nothing in common. (See, e.g., Genesis 6:3).

While there is a kernel of truth in these presumptions, we must be careful not to let Platonic- like philosophy influence our biblical worldview. It’s not a matter of body verse spirit. Both in worldly thought and in the church, there is an obsession with the body, and sexual matters. Many Christians feel if you can just overcome sexual sin, you’ve got it made. While important, just focusing on avoiding the immoral acts listed in this verse isn’t the end – as can be seen by the other acts of the “flesh” in the rest of the list. Paul’s focus here on "flesh" verses "Spirit" changes the focus of the struggle. The believer who is truly a “son of God,” a “child of the promise,” – truly born again and in an intimate relationship with Jesus – has had his nature changed. God’s presence now indwells and lives inside the believer. This transformation (see Galatians 2:20, 6:15 and 2 Corinthians 5:17) allows believers to live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and have a new moral ability – the ability to supernaturally reflect God’s own character in the way they live.

Paul starts the list with three sexual sins. (As an aside, is this list meant to be exhaustive in any way? Most conservative bible scholars treat the other “lists” Paul makes – including the fruit of the Spirit later in this chapter, as “all there is.”) The NIV has three sexual sins listed – “sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery.” The New American Standard and Amplified versions have the first two the same, but list “sensuality” and “indecency” respectively as the third “vice” in verse 19. The King James Version lists 4 sexual vices where the others have only three – “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lasciviousness.”

There are actually four words in the original Greek. The first of these four Greek words can really only be translated as “adultery. “ This has a very specific meaning – intercourse between a married person and someone not his/her spouse. The second Greek word, “porneia” (I wonder which English word has its roots here?) is a more inclusive but still quite specific term, covering any illicit sexual relationship of any kind – adultery, fornication (sex between unmarried people), homosexual or lesbian sex, bestiality, incest or any intercourse with a close relative, and intercourse with a divorced person. (This about covers any sexual relationship outside of marriage). The third Greek word here is “akatharsia,” which is a more general term. It means anything unclear in a moral sense – and while it is more often applied to sexual situations, it wasn’t necessarily limited to sex. This covers lust, the overly luxurious, and generally profligate living. This also covers the concepts of impure thoughts and motives. The last Greek word in verse 19, “aselgeia” appears to be an amplification of the one just before it. This implies unbridled lust, licentiousness (that is, unabashedly and unrestrained, shameless sexual behavior) and wantonness (over the top, careless, wild and unrestrained). This is sexual behavior that goes beyond the pale – outrageous, insolent, shameless behavior. Thus, the entire gamut of sexual issues beyond the sanctity of marriage is defined as “acts of the flesh,” ranging from impure thoughts to adultery and the most outrageous sexual behavior imaginable. It’s important to understand the specificity of Paul’s list here – not to lay condemnation but see that this is serious business. Most of the moral philosophers of Paul’s era simply condemned the excesses in indulging in the flesh, and even the Jews of that time recognized the difficulty in keeping the entirety of the law, and often excused it. But Paul is saying these behaviors, in their entirety, from motivation to full blown excess, are evil (and verse 21 contains a warning). But remember, Paul is not putting the body verses the Spirit. Rather, by making this list, he is bringing specificity to human nature, and contrasting this later with the fruit of the Spirit. These works of the “flesh” are merely the fruit of living life without God’s power and without the connection of a relationship with Him.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 18

Galatians 5:18 “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.”

Once again, Paul brings his arguments full circle, returning to the topic of Galatians 5:1. That is, a relationship with Christ means freedom; dependence on the law means slavery.

“If you are led by the Spirit” If you are a Christian – a “son of God” (see Romans 8:14), that is, authentically Christian, in a living relationship with Jesus; if you are truly born again, then:

“you are not under the law.” To the Jew of Paul’s day, it was expected that one would observe and obey all the components of the Old Testament Law for salvation and/or sanctification. One didn’t obey the law as a means to please God per se, but one did so in order to be acceptable to God in the first place. One slip up meant the relationship with God was broken. Freedom in Christ, at least according to Galatians 5:1, frees us from this bondage, and we depend on Christ’s redemption to bring us into right relationship with God. This, of course, horrified both the traditional Jew and the Greek believers of Paul’s day, because they feared that this meant accepting Jesus as the Messiah would result in, according to Paul, Christians being free from all moral authority. That’s ridiculous, of course, but Christians are freed from the law in the sense that Israel had been under the law. The law as practiced before Jesus came to the earth did not provide the means to resist sin, or the power of sin – it only served to condemn the sinner. But the grace of God in Christ – a living relationship with Jesus that miraculously transforms us in our inner man – this enables us to resist sin and the sin nature. (Paul is about to specifically expound on that in the following verses). For the Greeks of Paul’s day, their humanistic philosophers held that the truly wise needed no laws or rules – they instinctively knew what was right. The Old Testament had a parallel for this when it spoke of the law being written on a person’s heart (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34). The Jews understood the concept of Israel being “led” by God, especially in its deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Indeed, that is the exact parallel. The law is slavery; redemption in Jesus is freedom. And the parallel in the struggle to resist sin, and the “flesh” is there as well – Israel, as a nation, struggled with throwing off the yoke of slavery and following God into the wilderness. Paul explains here and in places like Romans 7 the Christian’s battle with sin. But unlike the Old Testament story, we, as Christians, have a greater weapon, a clear way to true freedom – the transformational power of a relationship with Christ!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 17

Galatians 5:17 “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.”

The NIV translates the original Greek verb here as “desires what is contrary.” The New American Standard Version uses “sets its desires against.” The Amplified Bible uses “opposed to.” The Kings James Version uses the most colorful and extreme language in its translation – “lusts.” Obviously, verse 17 drives home the reality of the sin nature and the Spirit being diametrically opposed. But the depth and seriousness of this conflict is lost a bit in the NIV’s choice of translation. As discussed in the earlier entries for Galatians Chapter 5, the Greek work that the NIV translates as “sinful nature” literally means “flesh,” and is translated as such in the KJV. “Flesh” is an earthy word, bordering on profanity in the Greek and Jewish cultures. It really means more than just the “sinful nature,” it implies everything that encompasses human weaknesses – some versions of the bible translate this as “human nature,” and that makes a little more sense here. It implies the depth of all human weakness – sin, yes, but also mortality, aging, sickness, pain, negative emotion etc. But it also includes that which is the “positive” side of humanity and human nature, that is, striving on our own, without God’s help. Thus, “flesh” or “sinful nature” really means the worst (or best) that a person can be or become in and of himself. Paul is making two things clear – because the flesh has nothing in common with the Spirit or God’s power, a person can live his life by the Spirit – that is, in a living relationship with God through Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, or live by the flesh – that is, live his live without any dependence on God. Galatians 5:16-18 makes it clear, you can’t have it both ways. Second, by stating “you do not do what you want,” he emphasizes the powerful nature of the conflict. This is discussed more fully in passages such as Romans 7: 15-23 and I Peter 2:11. Because we are born with a sin nature, this struggle will ensue all of our lives. It is only by living by the Spirit, in an intimate relationship with Jesus, that there is victory in this conflict.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 16

Galatians 5:16 “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

As emphasized in the analysis of the previous verse, the Judiazers’ arguments centered on the sanctity of the community – we need the rules of the Law to keep people from falling into sin and depravity. But Paul has just argued that a relationship with Jesus is based on freedom, and that slavish devotion to rules only leads to “indulging the sinful nature.” But even in freedom, we are warned to not “use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (5:13). It seems to be a paradox – We’re not supposed to sin, yet we’re supposed to be free from the rules. How is this going to work?

Verse 16 begins the revelation of the answer to this age-old question.

"So I say, live by the Spirit.” In the original Greek, the work translated in the NIV as “live” literally means “walk.” It was part of the Jewish cultural viewpoint of the Law to refer to following the Law’s principles as a “walk.” The Jews saw their devotion to the Law as having a relationship with the Law – it was a mindset designed to mold one’s behavior by familiarity, like becoming intimately familiar with terrain by walking through it over and over. The Greeks really had no cultural parallel for this concept. To tell a Greek of that era to “walk by the Law” or “walk by the Spirit” would have seemed foreign. Yet, this is precisely why this concept needed to be driven home. Paul is aiming his instruction at those who were familiar with and related to Jewish culture, and is encouraging them to “walk” outside of it. To give up cultural concepts and rules as a basis for defining who we are in God, and “walk” instead with and in a relationship with God Himself.

And while the word here literally means “walk” it is also proper to translate it as “to live.” The verb tense here is present, and its intensified. It could be translated as “go on living by the Spirit” or “continue to live by the Spirit.” It implies habitual conduct. The “walking” or “living” here also implies we are to be responsive to the Spirit, controlled by the Spirit, and guided by the Spirit. This goes way beyond the concept of rote obedience. Again, it’s all about RELATIONSHIP.

But I think a few things need to be established. The relationship is based on the promise. (Galatians 3:6-9). The promise and its power result in a complete transformation – we are made new. (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15). Our foundational nature and relationship with God is changed. We are no longer slaves to sin, but sons of God. (Galatians 3:26 – 4:7). Our ability to resist sin, the “sinful nature” or “flesh,” is not so much a matter of our will, or ability, but is based on this change of nature, and on the relationship with God, and the indwelling of His Spirit, and on the POWER of the Spirit. This change of nature, the “walk” in the Spirit that is habitual, responsive, controlled and guided is fueled by God’s limitless power. It is SUPERNATURAL. The same miraculous power that raised Jesus from the dead, that gives us miracles and gifts (Galatians 3:5 – I don’t think we can discuss this without including the essential nature of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2 (and in Galatians 3:5) and the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a supernatural manner), this power helps us to be free of the sinful nature, of the “flesh.” Yes, there is always choice involved, a day by day, minute by minute choice. But the combination of changed nature and indwelling power makes that choice less of a struggle – we are truly, really free! (See Galatians 5:1).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 15

Galatians 5:15 “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

“biting and devouring each other” Cannibalism horrified both Jewish and Greek sensibilities in the ancient world. This sort of metaphor was not uncommon in Jewish texts (see, e.g., Proverbs 30:14) and would have pushed the right buttons in the audience this letter was aimed at regarding the seriousness of the situation. Focusing the metaphor on the mouth and teeth also serves to connect this concept to the fact that the dispute was really about words, the use of words, and arguing.

“you will be destroyed” The “you” here is amplified in the original Greek. It implies not just an individual, but the entire congregation. Again, the foundational principle of God’s promise in Christ is RELATIONSHIP. In these last two verses, Paul sums up how the promise is connected to and works with our relationship with each other in the Body of Christ. In verse 13, he notes we are called to freedom, we are set free in Jesus not for ourselves, but to serve (and not to serve as a slave, but to serve “in love”). Verse 14 quotes the Law of Moses to support this promise and concept – this has been the focal point of God’s plan all along! Now, here in verse 15, Paul lays out the consequences of NOT following the concepts laid out in verse 13 and 14 – relationships are destroyed, and the entire church is devastated. Verse 15, then, is the opposite of the previous two verses.

But here is an important notion – verse 13 warns that we shouldn’t use our freedom in Christ to indulge in the sinful nature. This was the main accusation the Judiazers used for insisting on obedience to the Mosaic Law – without the Law, people would do whatever they want, and sin and depravity will reign. But if you look ahead a little further, to verse 19, Paul explains the kind of behavior that proceeds from “indulging the sinful nature" as stated in verse 13. Verses 19-20 list the usual “sinful nature” type activities that come to mind when most folks visualize “indulging” that nature. “Sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, and witchcraft.” These sins are probably at the top of the list of concerns for the Judiazers as well. But as Paul’s list of sins continues, we see things more common to the “good people” of middle class America, things that go on in your local church community all the time – “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy.” You see, the “acts of the sinful nature,” (literally, the “flesh”) are not just limited to things like drunken orgies, drug binges, sleeping around, and bowing down to graven images – the kinds of things that much of ancient Greek society encouraged and which offended Jewish sensibilities (as well as violating God’s Law!), but include a whole bevy of “fleshly” activity that a straight laced, dignified, ceremonial (“church going,” if you will!), properly obedient to all the rituals Jewish fella (or modern day Christian) could indulge in and still appear to be respectable. Defining a person’s status and acceptability to God by the mere observance of rules and rituals produces a self-righteous, haughty, and critical spirit. By insisting on obedience to rules as the defining concept, you guarantee “indulging in the sinful nature” because the community of believers are now competing to show off their righteousness (even if only subconsciously) rather than working together in love. The ultimate result of relying on the law to save us is the destruction of relationships! And as Paul points out here, “you will be destroyed by each other.” The Devil is not to blame here, at least not so much. If we choose this path, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the ultimate destruction of our relationship with Jesus, and our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 14

Galatians 5:14“The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Paul connects the concepts of the previous verse to the law itself. He does this to add credibility to his argument for those who cling to the Jewish traditions. This shows that the Sadducees and Pharisees of that time had really gotten it all wrong. The real purpose of God’s law – the heart of the matter – had nothing to do with outward expression or behavior, or the proper fulfillment and performance of ritual. The heart of the matter is LOVE and a RELATIONSHIP built on love. Even the concept of being able to sum up the entire law, the hundreds of commandments that make up the Torah, in a single sentence means the law was always intended to be used in the context of relationships – as something to help us understand our relationship with God, and each other, rather than something to box us in. The law was meant to serve man, not man to serve the law. If I see my friend and fellow Christian disobey the law (in this context, meaning he is walking in sin, falling short of what God has called him to do), my attitude should be “how can I help,” not condemnation.

This verse quotes the law itself – Leviticus 19:18 – which also serves to bring Jesus himself into the argument, for He used this verse to answer the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” (See Matthew 7:12 and Mark 12:31). If Jesus Himself had this attitude and concept in mind, how can we adopt a different conclusion?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, Verse 13

Galatians 5:13 “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

“You, my brothers” Again, Paul emphasizes the close and intimate relationship he shared with the Galatians. The use of the term “you” rather than a more all inclusive term like “us” (as in 5:1) also seems to emphasize the intimate nature of a relationship with Jesus.

“were called to be free” The verb translated here as “were called” is in an intensified form. It also could be translated as “were indeed called.” It’s a higher calling. A stronger calling. The ultimate calling. Plus, the use of the word “calling” also emphasizes the concept of the RELATIONSHIP (remember, it is a universal truth and one of the major themes of this letter – everything in God’s Kingdom comes down to RELATIONSHIP). A “call” means God chose us; He reached out to us; He spoke our name. Think of the story of the prodigal son. He thought that he had made the decision to return to his Father. But it was the Father who was waiting all along. “Call” means God is the author of the promise. We can’t do anything ourselves to complete it. Think of your Mom or Dad, preparing the family dinner, and then calling everyone to eat. Our response is to gratefully come to the table, sit down, and partake.

“But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” Paul ties up this first section of Galatians 5 by returning to his opening thesis in 5:1 – the freedom we walk in is a gift from God, so don’t abuse it. Paul has already touched on this concept in this letter in a variety of ways – look back at 3:15-24 for a discussion of the purpose of the law, and freedom from the law’s constraints – but the implication here is that the law’s guidelines help define the limits that we should live within. Romans 6:1 states that the freedom we have in Christ does not give us a license to sin. 1 Peter 2:16 says the same thing, emphasizing that if freedom in Christ is real, it can’t be used as a front to cover up a life of sin. Paul is tying up his original thesis in 5:1 and transitioning into the next section, which emphasizes personal righteousness and integrity. But if freedom is NOT a license for our personal fulfillment (this is the “American Way,” no? Thomas Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence has become the mantra in our society – we have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) or to do “what we want,” then what is it for? Paul answers this rhetorical question in the very next phrase --

“rather, serve one another in love” At this point, I want to shout “Ah ha!,” or "Eureka!," for this simple truth is really the core concept here. “Freedom,” therefore wasn’t designed for us as individuals, to set us “free” to do whatever we want to do, but to equip us to serve God and each other – in love! The context of the words translated here as “indulge the sinful nature” implies “selfishness.” That’s the key. Of course, the freedom Christ brings to us has great, even incalculable personal benefit. But the real purpose in setting us free from sin and bondage is so we can be useful for God. Now, the way I phrased that last sentence makes it sound like the emphasis is back on “works,” that is, on what we do. But God seeks to set us free in order to bring us into right relationship with Him. He showers us with love and gifts, redeems us from hell, communes with us, abides with us, and makes us a part of His family. We are free from the law – that is, we no longer need to earn God’s favor. But what do we do with that freedom? The purpose of “freedom in Christ” is to allow us to creatively, personally, and intimately respond back to God in love – to serve Him with all of our hearts.

Let’s go back to the family dinner analogy. I am called by God to come to the table. I don’t have to pay for my meal, like in a restaurant, I’m part of the family now. I am free to choose what I eat, and how much. (I personally struggle with my weight, and with overeating, so this concept strikes a chord with me). If I choose to not eat a balanced meal, or to overeat, or just eat dessert, or to sneak a snack of junk food before I get to the table so that my appetite is ruined, the result is easy to see. At best, I’ll get fat and be unfit for the hard work I need to do -- the work God set me free to do! At worst, I’ll get sick and eventually be of no use to anyone. I will also displease and disappoint my Father, who gave so much to provide me with such a fine meal, and the freedom to enjoy it. I will end up not being in right fellowship with him. I won’t be thrown out of the family, or not be allowed to come to dinner anymore (that is, I won’t lose my salvation), but I will bring a world of trouble onto myself, and be of little use to God in the sense that there will be good chance I will miss out on the specific purposes God called me to because of my irresponsibility. My freedom is a gift I am to use with responsibility.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 12

Galatians 5:12 “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”

Paul’s sarcasm and wit combine with his passion and anger here. He uses similar wordplay as he did back in 5:7 -- the verb translated as “cut off” or “cut in” could be applied to cutting in front of a runner in a race, or surgical cutting in the practice of circumcision. Here, Paul is even more direct, but the wordplay still has double meaning. The Greek word used here could mean either “cut off” or “castrate.” Most of the more literal translations of the Bible (like the KJV) render this as “cut off,” implying that what Paul primarily means here is that he wishes the Judiazers would “cut off” their fellowship with the church. This is logical, in the overall context, but there is also a subtext here,and most other translations connect this verb with the concept of circumcision in this discussion, and translate it as “mutilate,” “emasculate,” or even “castrate.” Paul is certainly not being explicit or prurient, but his passionate approach and deep affection for the Galatians indicates that an insult like this is certainly not beneath him. He is far more passionate in his criticism of the Judiazers than in the blame of the Galatians themselves. Another interesting concept, however, is that while circumcision was required by Jewish law, and therefore common to every Jewish family, Roman society viewed the practice with horror and disdain. Years later, Emperor Hadrian would outlaw circumcision as a barbaric practice. But Paul’s insult here has a particularly Jewish irony. Many of the pagan cultures in and around Palestine in the Old Testament and even in Paul’s day included castration as a part of their religious or social rites (including the Greek cultures of the people of Galatia), and Jews had a traditional strong disdain for eunuchs (i.e. castrated males – see Deuteronomy 23:1). For a Jewish man to intimate that another Jewish man should be castrated would truly be a cultural insult -- and in the context of the underlying them of Paul's attack on racism/cultural identity in this letter, it seems appropriately ironic.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 11

Galatians 5:11 Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished

“Brothers” Again, we have the “intimacy” factor carrying over from the previous verse. Paul believes the readers of this letter are truly born-again Christians, truly brothers in the Lord in every way that the term applies, and expresses the inherent family-like relationship of the kingdom. Paul truly loves these people.

“If I am still preaching circumcision” A rhetorical question – the usual way a Gentile converted to Judaism was circumcision for males, and baptism for males and females, but the concept of a relationship with Christ is so much more. The implication is that Paul has been accused of preaching circumcision as necessary for salvation, along with the Judiazers. Or perhaps Paul was being slandered as being sympathetic to the Judiazers because he himself was ethnically Jewish. The confusion caused by this heresy and the ethnic intimidation among the Galatians was great.

“why am I still being persecuted?” If Paul were simply converting Gentiles to Judaism, the Jews, in particular the Judiazers, would not be against him, or object to what he’s doing. The Judiazers were more sensitive to their own cultural expectations than to those of the Galatians. Aw, that was too polite – to be blunt, they were bigots. The Jews of Paul’s day looked down on Gentiles as inferior, and objected to the concept of such inferiors being accepted into the faith simply by believing in Jesus. This is also the great sin of modern American Christianity – the cultural segregation of the church. Looking ahead to Galatians 6: 12-13, we see the real reason for the Judiazers insisting on circumcision is cultural conformity, pride, and to blend in, in order to "stay out of trouble" with the bellicose faction of Jewish believers who insisted on outward adherence to the minutiae of the law. Believing in Jesus proves to be risky in worldly culture. The “persecution” here comes from the Judiazers themselves, reacting to this very concept. Examples of this kind of thing in the cities of Galatia are found in Acts 13 & 14, where the reaction to Paul’s preaching and the conversion of the Gentile population was for the Jews in the region to stir up persecution. A comparable situation would be the civil rights advocates who tried to “preach” freedom and equality in the South in the mid-20th century – the white establishment often reacted the same way the Jewish elites did in Acts 13 &14.

“In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.” Romans 9: 32-22 and I Corinthians 1:23 both reference the cross as a “stumbling block” for Jews, and ‘foolishness” for Greeks. The Jews cling to (and even today, they still do) the need to obey the law to prove their worthiness. If you need a physical act to be saved, if any part of being right before God depends on what we do, then the cross (and Christ’s sacrificial death) is meaningless. That's the simple truth, though even many ardently evangelical Christians fail to understand this concept.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 10

Galatians 5:10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.

“I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view” The first sentence of verse 10 is an interesting insertion.. As he has in other sections of the letter, (see, e.g., 4: 11-21) Paul is letting his personal emotions show, and his deep affection for the people of the Galatian churches. This also speaks to the previous references in the letter to a real, authentic conversion experience by the members of the Galatian churches, a real relationship with Jesus (see, e.g., 3: 1-5). The implication here is that the faith of the Galatians was and is (at the time Paul wrote the letter) real – they really ARE children of the promise. While Paul says his confidence is in the Lord, what he really means is he has confidence in the Lord TOWARDS the Galatians, and that the “other view” they will not take -- the position they will maintain is to really coming to agree with the truth Paul is teaching – they will be of one mind with Him. How can Paul have this kind of confidence? How can he be assured that the Galatians, as screwed up about theology and the nature of God and salvation as they are, as ethnically prejudiced as they are, will come around? How can Paul be so confident of failed, fallen humans? Because of the PROMISE!!!! The Galatians, as a people (as a congregation, meaning most of them) had truly come to know Jesus. That is, truly born again! As Paul had been arguing throughout this book, the promise of God through faith in Jesus can never be negated. Paul is simply expressing this reality – We can’t be saved by what we do, or what group we belong to – therefore, we can’t be lost once we’ve come into a real relationship with God by what we do or what group we choose to identify with or exclude. The Promise never fails.

“The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be”
The level of difficulty here is hard to determine. The word translated here as “throwing into confusion” is presented as “troubling you,” “unsettling you,” or “disturbing you” in other translations. I have a sense that the NIV is closer to the literal meaning with “throwing into confusion,” (this is serious business, and we wouldn’t have this letter if this wasn’t crucial), but the less intense words in other translations seem better in the context of the preceding sentence – this is not a matter that ultimately robs or affects the Galatians regarding their salvation, but is merely a bump in the road for them.

“The one . . . whoever he may be.” Paul does not absolve the Galatians from blame for these issues (see 3: 1-5), but here it is made clear that the greater blame rests with those who are trying to deceive them. Paul does not identify who they are – there were probably many. But by leaving it vague, he also seems to imply that there is a demonic “spiritual warfare” side to this battle as well. He seems to identify a singular “one” that represents the many Judiazers – this would imply a satanic, “borg” like concept (you Star Trek fans will catch on to my reference) of demonic control over a large group of people.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, Verse 9

Galatians 5:9 "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough."

While most other bible translations don’t do this, the NIV places this verse in quotation marks, emphasizing that the phrase is a proverb, a universal saying of sorts, kind of like “a stitch in time saves nine” and such. “Yeast” represents evil when used in the Bible as a metaphor, especially with regard to teaching or theological deception. Exodus 12:15 requires that yeast must be removed from a Jewish household prior to Passover – a rite of purification and cleansing from sin. In Matthew 16: 5-12, Jesus explains at length to his disciples about guarding “against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16: 6, 11). This section directly connects the “yeast” with the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 6:12). In Luke 12:1, Jesus gives a similar caution, but himself identifies the issue with the “yeast of the Pharisees” as the sin of hypocrisy. In I Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul uses the same proverb as here in Galatians 5:9, but elaborates, making the connection to Exodus and the Passover – the need for cleansing and the celebration of redemption in the Passover now realized in its fullness in the person of Jesus. But in the I Corinthians passage, the “yeast” is connected with church members openly practicing sexual immorality, as well as dissension, malice, and other forms of wickedness.

The obvious truth of this proverb makes its meaning plain. Just a pinch of yeast is enough to affect the whole lump of dough. Yeast is itself is a living organism, and affects the bread, or rather, INFECTS it. It’s like a virus to the human body. Only a slight inclination to error or a few people teaching a false doctrine is enough. These seemingly small influences can and will pervert the entire conception of faith in an individual, or mislead an entire congregation.

While some theological points may be as important, this one is foundational. Requiring adherence to a standard of conduct or especially an outward ritual to be “saved” or acceptable to the church community perverts and negates the sacrifice of Christ. Wrapping that concept up in a package of racial or ethnic custom is no different. Think of it this way – a person or group that has right-on, orthodox theology but can’t accept someone because of a racial or cultural issue is like a pure glass of water with an eye-dropper full of sewage added. Would you drink it? Is that acceptable?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, Verse 8

Galatians 5:8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.

The word for “persuasion” here implies that the influence is evil or wicked. Starting in the previous verse (verse 7), when Paul asks “who” interrupted the “good race,” the blame for all this confusion is being placed and the spotlight is aimed at the real culprit – the Judiazers. Of course, Paul is not letting the Galatians off the hook – but this section of scripture recognizes the reality of spiritual warfare and the insidious nature of deception. Paul does not mince words here or in the next few verses regarding who is ultimately to blame, the price they will pay, and the difficulty of discerning truth once deception takes hold.

“does not come from the one who calls you” The “call” here is from Jesus, of course, but the context here implies it is the call from the God who made the promise to Abraham – the one who calls us to freedom in Christ. So the context is clear, Paul is contrasting this “kind of persuasion” versus the “call.” The character of the persuader is evil, the one who “calls” is righteous and true. Even the verbs used imply the character of the source – the evil one needs to persuade, to argue, to distort truth in order to weasel their way in. The Lord is “calling” – an invitation, rather than a debate, a notice, rather than a treatise. It’s the difference between the call from Dad and the call from your college professor, or, better yet, the call from the country club. You don’t need a pedigree or a letter of reference to come back home. The father of the prodigal son calls and waits – and celebrates when the prodigal returns home, after the “race” was interrupted.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, Verse 7

Galatians 5:7: You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?

Paul uses the metaphor of a race, of athletic competition, to portray the Christian life in several places in his writings (e.g. Philippians 2:16, and here in Galatians 2:2). The implications of this verse are similar to what we just discussed above in Galatians 5:4 – this is not to imply that getting “off course” means we can lose our salvation. But we CAN choose to engage in behavior that will lead us off the course. We’re not disqualified from the team, so to speak, but God’s purposes in our lives is delayed or thwarted – by the choices we make, or the way in which we react to circumstances. This concept is borne out in I Corinthians 3: 10-15. The foundation is Christ – through the promise, not by what we do or who we are. This is our entry INTO the race. But then, we build on the foundation, or run in the race. We will be judged for what we do, and our reward in heaven will be based on this (see I Cor. 3:13-15). But, our ability to get into or enter heaven is based solely on the promise – on the foundation. (I Cor. 3:11). To use another sports analogy, the promise gets us a ticket to the game, but what we build on, as per I Corinthians 3, or how we run the race as described here will determine how good our seat will be. The Galatian churches WERE running a good race – they had been on track, with a vibrant, living relationship with Christ. But something happened. The Judiazers “cut in.” This is another play on words. “Cutting in” could of course cause a runner to fall, be pushed off the course, or lose his focus. It is also a play on words for the concept of circumcision, which is a surgical procedure. Relying on rules, or on an outward concept rather than an inner change – even relying on ethnicity, culture, or denomination to define our relationship with God and with each other keeps us from “obeying the truth.” In other words, its “rebellion.” Plain and simple. The blatant sin here cannot be disguised.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, Verse 6

Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

“For in Christ Jesus” This verse is sort of a “proof text.” By that, I mean it’s a summary of the reality and truth of the Gospel message, and therefore of Paul’s entire argument/presentation here in the book of Galatians. Its like an “if-then” statement. Another way to translate this opening phrase is “If we are in Christ Jesus, then . . . “ The power; no-- the REALITY of Jesus in our lives proves itself by the fundamental transformation manifest in our lives. This, of course, is because of Jesus, and our living relationship with Him, and not our own efforts.

“neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” This is the obvious conclusion of all of Paul’s arguments in the letter, and in other places in Paul’s writings. This is the practical reality of this spiritual truth. In Galatians 2:21, 5:2, 6:15, as well as over in I Corinthians 7:19, Paul expresses the very same concept. But in this context, this helps complete our “proof,” our “if-then” statement. If we are in Jesus, then – obedience to the law, or any set of rules, doesn’t count. By the same token, because obedience to the law for the Galatians meant adopting ethnically Jewish customs and discarding their own native culture – in other words, to become Jewish, rather than Greek – the if we are in Christ, then matters of race, ethnicity, culture, denomination, language, music style, etc. don’t count. Galatians 6:15 says the very same thing, but with the opposite emphasis – it is the “new creation” that counts!

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” James 2:18-19 states that “faith without works” is useless. Some have tried to use that passage to prove that in order to be right with God, there must be some sort of obedience to rules, some sort of “good deed” in order to please God, or in order to be saved. In other words, to rely on just “faith” is not enough. That is not what James means, and its not what Paul is saying here. In the context of this verse – again, as a “proof text,” – Paul is making a very important distinction. Faith is not simply an intellectual assent, or some sort of abstract theological principle. Faith serves as the foundation for our relationship with God, but it serves as the spark that ignites the fuse. REAL Faith is a living force in our lives. It activates and energizes (verbs implied here in the original Greek) our relationship with God. We aren’t doing anything in and of ourselves – no good deeds or outward obedience is involved – but it’s the relationship we now have with God through faith, its our transformed nature, the concept of being a “new creation” that begins a process, a change. Faith is more than agreeing with God – it’s a living, transformational trusting in the grace of God. This will express itself in acts of love. In I Thessalonians 1:3, Paul notes that the Thessalonian Christians have produced good things in their lives through faith – “good work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by Hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is not describing people being obedient so as to earn “brownie points” on the heavenly ledger. This is describing a change in nature; this is NEW CREATION!!!. What is being “expressed through love” here is not just an effort to be obedient, but a life so changed by Christ through the relationship made possible by God’s unconditional grace, that it now simply desires to do good in response to the unfathomable love of God! The word in this verse for “love” in the original Greek is “agape.” This is the highest, noblest word for love in the Greek language; it is unconditional, unlimited love, love with no boundaries – indeed, it is the love expressed in John 3:16, where it says, “For God so loved the world . . .”

In the context of our “proof text,” then, the proof is complete –

If we are in Christ, then

1. Obedience to the law doesn’t count;
2. Ethnicity and culture doesn’t count;
3. We ARE transformed, we are “new creations;” and
4. This transformation will be made manifest in us – other people will see that the grace of God, by faith, is the thing that has changed and transformed us.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, Verse 5

Galatians 5:5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

“But by faith” Obviously, this phrase is the essence of Paul’s arguments through out this book/letter. The original language implies that the opposite sentiment is present as well – the New International Version uses the world “but” to reflect this – What this should or could say is “Not relying on the law,not relying on what WE do -- but by faith.”

“we eagerly await through the Spirit” This is the HOLY Spirit, of course. While Paul has not made the Holy Spirit his focal point for much of Galatians (he did use the presence of the Spirit and the Galatians’ operating in the gifts of the Spirit as the indicia of receiving Christ by faith rather than through obedience to the Law back in 3:2-5), but he is about to start doing so in 5:10, discussing life lived in the Holy Spirit, and freedom from the law AND from sin.

“the righteousness for which we hope.” There is very little eschatology in the book of Galatians. But here, this verse discussed how Paul and the Galatians, at that time, were “eagerly await[ing]” this “righteousness,” and that they waited in “hope.” Most of the arguments in Galatians have dealt with the here and now – how faith in Jesus, rather than obedience to the law, makes us acceptable to God now, as we are. I suppose there is always an implied concept of heaven and eternal life, but here it’s no longer implied. This verse’s “hope” apparently looks forward to the hope we all have for eternal life – our heavenly reward. It also implies the hope for the return of Christ, the end of the age, where all things will be made complete, and we all will be one with the Lord. Indeed, the implication for completeness is clear. There is a duality that Paul has only hinted at in the rest of the letter, a duality he will now begin to emphasize as Chapter 5 progresses. There are two realities at work here. The first has been emphasized by Paul’s arguments since Chapter 3 – there is a blessing and good that comes immediately through faith in Christ – by faith, we are in right standing with God in the here and now. We are instantaneously free. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet faith in Christ is not just an end, but a beginning – the start of a process. There is the beginning of a change in our lives, as we conform to God’s will and in our purpose, in our thoughts, in our actions. This is what we “hope” for, anticipate, and wait for. After a lifetime with Christ (which can be short or long, from cradle to grave, or a confession moments before death – only God determines), we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, where he will pronounce a final “not guilty.” The dichotomy, the duality, is this “not guilty” is assured in the here and now through “the promise” Paul has emphasized throughout Galatians, while the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit works in us to defeat our sin nature. This same reality and dichotomy is present in the world at large – Christ has redeemed us, and offers His redemption to all, but there is also a spiritual war going on that will culminate in Christ’s return. We all “eagerly await” and “hope” for all of this. The promise redeems us now, and will continue to “work out our salvation” (see Philippians 2:12) until the end of our lives OR until the Lord returns.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, Verse 4

Galatians 5:4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

As we have been emphasizing over and over again throughout these studies and meditations on the Book of Galatians, the defining concept about what it meant to be a Jew in Paul’s day – and even today – is that a Jewish person was born into the covenant by virtue of being Jewish – ethnically. Of course, this is the very thing Paul has been arguing against all along here – not against Judaism per se – but against any kind of ethnic exclusivity for the covenant promise. Yet, even Jews recognized that one can be cut-off from the covenant by refusing to obey it. The NIV uses the word “alienate” here. Other translations present this word as “separated” or “severed,” which suggests something harsher than “alienate” or even the King James Version’s “no effect.”

“You have fallen away from grace” Paul has clearly established that salvation is only by Christ (see, e.g., Galatians 2:21). Paul seems to be saying – even emphatically – that seeking salvation any other way leads to being “severed” – cut off.

This last phrase – “fallen away from grace” – is troubling, in that it seems to state that a believer in the promise, by returning to a reliance on obedience to the law in order to be saved, “falls away from grace,” is alienated, cut off – exiled from the promise. This is a difficult construct, and would appear to contradict all of Paul’s earlier arguments about the promise taking precedence over the law. Is Paul suggesting that one can lose their salvation?

I don’t think so. While passages such as 2 Peter 2:20-22 and 2 Peter 3:17 seem to allow for this concept, the clear teaching of John 10:27-30 (especially verse 28), Romans 8:28-39, and much of Paul’s arguments from Galatians chapter 3 and 4 explain that no genuinely saved person can be lost. So what does Paul mean here by “fallen away from grace?”

As an initial aside, I believe we can temper some of the “severity” of this argument somewhat by considering Paul’s word choices and the art of rhetoric. The focus of this entire section is Paul’s arguments against the specific Jewish religious/legal requirement of circumcision. Beginning here, Paul will use words that reflect violence, physical mutilation and words that can be used to describe literal “cutting” as a rhetorical word-play to accentuate his arguments against this practice. The use of the Greek word for “alienate” in the NIV, which literally means “severed,” fits into this concept.

Also, we need to take the statement “fallen away from grace” in the context of the rest of the Letter. Paul has been focusing on the concept of slavery. In Galatians 3:22, 4:8-11 and then in the section just preceding Chapter 5 (Galatians 4:21-31, the “figurative” argument regarding Hagar & Sarah), the emphasis has been on being slaves to the Law. Then, in 5:1, Paul warns the Galatians to not be “burdened” again by a yoke of slavery. All of these passages, combined with the current verse, suggest that a genuinely saved “child of the promise” can choose to live like a slave again.

Indeed, the language of this passage implies that a true believer can willfully place themselves outside the scope of God’s divine favor. How? Remember, trying to gain God’s favor by observing the law is mutually exclusive from receiving God’s favor through His grace. Recall the curse Paul discussed in Galatians 3:1-14 (“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse”). 2 Peter 3:17 warns us to be on guard so that “you may not be carried away by error.” Taken in the context of the rest of Galatians, and indeed, the whole of Scripture, this is not a statement about losing one’s salvation – but rather an indicator that the Galatians were deceived. We can fool ourselves, and choose to live like a slave, and reap the bitter fruit of that spiritual mindset and lifestyle. But a truly saved person doesn’t lose their salvation by making this choice. Some will point to the aforementioned citations in the Second Letter of Peter , and even Galatians 5:21 along with this passage as evidence that salvation can be “reversed.” Well, I don’t buy it. Even 2:Peter 2:22 ends the argument by saying “a dog returns to its vomit” and “a sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.” In both cases, the nature of the animal has not changed. The sow is still by nature a pig – the “wash” was merely a cosmetic change. Paul says elsewhere in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Later on in Galatians 6:15 he says “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” God sees our hearts. There must be a fundamental change – I don’t think the 2 Peter discussion is speaking of that. Plus, Romans 6, 7, & 8 and later on in Galatians 5, there is plenty of discussion of the ongoing struggle with the sin nature in the life of a true believer. The good news is, even when we make a mistake, and choose to live in the slavery of the law and/or sin, however incrementally we may choose, the promise is NEVER invalidated. Just read on to the next verse, and look back at Galatians 4:26-28 and 2:17-21. Our status as “sons” cannot change.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verses 2 & 3

Galatians 5:2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. <3> Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.

“Mark my words!” The Greek word translated here as “mark my words” etc. turns up slightly different in other English translations of the Bible. For example, the King James Version has this as “Behold, I Paul say unto you.” I think the original Greek comes off better in the context of the NIV, at least to the average American, down to the exclamation point. Paul is emphatic in driving home the concept of RELATIONSHIP and his covenant level connection to the Galatians. He is saying, “Hey! Look! Its ME talking here!” And by doing this, he is calling to mind the credentials he has with the Galatians. These include his experience, depth of relationship with God, his integrity and testimony (see Galatians 1:13 – 2:10) the history of their shared relationship (see Galatians 4:12-19) and even his own investment and personal risk in standing up for what is true (see Galatians 2:11-21). Paul’s integrity and reputation WAS Christianity in the Gentile World. It would be a little bit like the Pope addressing Catholics, or Billy Graham addressing evangelicals today – but more so, because Paul was directly and personally involved with the Galatians, and had introduced them to Jesus, had personally planted these churches. Authentic, lateral brotherly relationships based in the Holy Spirit and upon the Word of God are the currency of the Christian life.

Then, in both verse 2 and 3, Paul gives us a double barreled ultimatum of truth. Verse 2 phrases it personally – “if you let yourselves be circumcised.” Verse 3 broadens it to universality – “every man.” Repeating a principle in successive verses/sentences like this for emphasis – even making the second statement broader and more emphatic than the first – was a common Hebraic and rabbinical argument technique. The book of Proverbs, even Jesus himself used this concept many times in the scriptures.

Of course, the Jews of Paul’s time had a concept that Gentiles could be “saved.” A righteous, God fearing Gentile could be “saved” by keeping the seven laws/principles God gave to Noah (I tried to look at this concept in a general sense back in the our discussions in this Journal involving Galatians 3). But to truly be a part of the covenant, if a gentile was to convert to Judaism, he would be required, like all devout Jews, to keep all 613 specific commandments given to Israel at Mt. Sinai (well, that’s 613 by rabbinical count). The Jewish tradition – even before Paul’s day – was that the law was a symbiotic whole. Each piece was dependent upon the other. A devout Jew was required to keep every commandment. Rejecting any single part was a rejection of the whole.

The point Paul wants to make is another “legal argument” and is found here in verse 3 – by accepting circumcision, the Galatians were obligating themselves to strict obedience to the entire Jewish law. However, Paul has already noted the impossibility of this standard -- no one can possibly keep the entirety of the Mosaic law (see Galatians 3:10-12) and how the Galatians had really adopted an “ale carte” view of Jewish law, tradition, and culture, leading to a strange blend of pagan and Jewish rules and customs (see Galatians 4:8-11). Clearly, the Galatians' approach wasn’t working.

In the midst of this discussion, Paul sums up the entire purpose of the letter. If you submit to the rules of circumcision – an outward physical change that really has no bearing on your heart or your interrelationship with God or man – then Jesus has no value.

“No value?” Wait a minute, that’s pretty heavy! But its absolutely true, and, it works on two levels.

The first is the more obvious. To rely on something outward, on something we do in and of ourselves as a behavioral action to make ourselves acceptable to God invalidates the promise. If, by obeying a rule, we can be made right with God, then we don’t need the sacrifice of Christ for redemption or salvation. Jesus truly is of “no value.”

The second level is more subtle, but all the more heretical. Circumcision was as much a cultural concept in Judaism as a spiritual principle. Every Jewish male received circumcision as a right of passage. I do not want to seem to belittle this as a cultural concept, but it served as an initiation ceremony – in some ways not unlike the “cloak and dagger” secret initiation ceremonies in college fraternities, or Fred Flinstone putting on the horned hat to be a member of the Water Buffalo Lodge. This is because the essence of fraternities, lodges, even street gangs, is relationship! But like street gangs and fraternities, the Judiazers insisted on conformity to an outward, cultural standard to be acceptable. These are all corruptions of the truth, which requires a mere acceptance of the promise and then the fruit is a living relationship with God. To rely on a cultural concept as trivial as an initiation ceremony to define our acceptability to God and each other is to reject Christ. If we use this standard in any way to define who is acceptable to God, or to us, we reject Christ. Skin color, language, ethnicity, neighborhood, educational level, musical style/genre, denomination, economic strata, size of family, political view, anything – If these become our measuring standards for God’s kingdom, Christ truly has “no value!”