We talked last week about being set free from the eternal penalty and the power of sin because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we give our lives to following and serving Jesus, we are no longer slaves to sin, chained to our vices and doomed to patterns or lifestyles of sinful failure.
But, even as Christians, there are still ways in which God is working in us to bring freedom. We didn’t get saved in a vacuum of history; there are a lot of things that have shaped the way we think and live: family, culture, school, friends, etc. We are going to revisit some dynamics in the early church to talk about how after salvation God continues to free us from slavery to false and destructive things.
Greek converts in the early church came from a particular kind of culture. Virtually all of them were coming from pagan temple worship and a Greek or Roman conception of how the gods worked. There are three things that stand out about how they lived and worshipped.
- Votive offerings. The people gave gifts to the gods who then gave them gifts in return. Everything received was earned. There were sacrifices, feasts, festivals, games, etc. but the fundamental idea was that if you were nice to the god, the god was nice to you. To get something, you had to give. The gods were cosmic slot machines; you put your spiritual money in, pulled the lever, and hoped you won. If things went badly, you had clearly failed the gods in some fashion, and you just tried harder.
- Competitions. The Olympics and other games weren’t just about athletics. They were staged for the gods. First place wasn’t just about fame and money; there was divine favor involved. Competition was the norm.In some ways, the most important distinction in that culture was between those who had power and those who did not. Life was a contest as people competed for the eye and the favor of the gods.
- Processions. You showed off how much you were willing to give the gods, how far you were willing to go, etc. You had to dress extravagantly, spend extravagantly, and act passionately. You had to show up for every event and festival, and front and center was better. Image and involvement mattered. You had to be noticed. And if you were noticed by others, the gods were probably noticing too.
Add to that the converts from Judaism. The NT makes clear time and again that they had come to rely on following the law of Moses to be righteous and holy, and by this time the rabbis had added tons of new laws. Keeping the law had brought pride, spiritual elitism, and a belief that if they were just good enough God would bless them.
Paul is addressing this kind of audience of Christians in Galatians 4:
During the time before you knew God, you were slaves to powers that are not gods at all. But now, when you are just beginning to know the one True God—actually, He is showing how completely He knows you—how can you turn back to weak and worthless idols made by men, icons of these spiritual powers? Haven’t you endured enough bondage to these breathless idols? You are observing particular days [Sabbath], months [new moons], festival seasons, and years [Passover, feasts]… This letter is really harsh, yet I am really perplexed by you. Now it’s your turn to instruct me. All of you who want to live by the rules of the law, are you really listening to and heeding what the law teaches?
In other words, they weren’t yet free. Here’s a short summary based on the many commentaries at biblehub.com:
The outword worship of rites and ceremonies of the Jewish law imposed a servitude no less severe than the customs of paganism, in which they thought their work would justify them. These rules were "weak" because they had no power to save the soul; no power to justify or sanctify the sinner because that can only come from God’s grace and Spirit. They could not give life, righteousness, peace, joy, comfort, and salvation. They were "worthless" because they could not impart spiritual gifts and graces (which Paul writes about in Galatians 5). They were only shadows of the riches of grace and glory, which come by Christ.
How had this happened? To understand, we have to go with Paul back to Genesis. God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would be the means by which God would bless the earth (Genesis 12:1-4; 15:4-5), which is typically seen as bring God’s salvation to the world. But Abraham was old, his wife Sarah was barren, and that presented what looked like an insurmountable problem.
So Sarah suggested that Abraham sleep with her servant, Hagar, so they could “build a family through her” (Genesis16:1-2). It was customary and legal in the ANE – though not good – to have a son through a servant. Abraham decided not to wait on the fulfillment of God’s promise to get his son. Instead, he decided to get his son through his own effort. Hagar conceived, and Ishmael was born. Fourteen years later…
“The Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age … Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him” (Genesis 21:1-3)
Ishmael is traditionally the father of the Arab peoples; Isaac is the father of the Jews. The Jewish people didn't like the heirs of Ishmael at all. (If you are wondering when the tensions in the Middle East started, here you go).
Apparently, when the Galatians were becoming followers of Christ, they were being told that in order to enter into the line of promise (Isaac) they had to adopt all the Old Testament Mosaic law, because Moses was clearly part of the line too (Galatians 5 and 6 add circumcision to the list of ‘rituals’ being addressed). So Paul knows that the following is going to be hard to hear:
“Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman [Ishmael] was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman [Isaac] was born as the result of a divine promise.” (Galatians 4:22-23)
So far so good. Isaac good; Ishmael bad. His Jewish converts are tracking with him.
These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.
By associating Ishmael with Mt. Sinai – the law of Moses – Paul just said that the traditional Jewish understanding of what it meant to live in the line of promise was entirely wrong. Abraham chose to rely on his own power to make God’s promises come to pass, and it backfired. The Jews were relying on the law of Moses to make themselves righteous, but that’s relying on their own effort to gain the promise of salvation. So the more observant they were of the law as a means of earning God’s favor or blessing by their own power, the more they were actually in the tradition of Ishmael, not Isaac.
But the Jerusalem that is above is free…So, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but sons and daughters of the free.
It’s a Jewish example, but I’m sure the Gentiles understood the application. In other words, if you want to keep relying on your ability to ‘do work’ to save you, you are in spiritual slavery and outside of God’s promise. You are meant to be free – and that freedom comes from Heaven. Heaven will fulfill the promise in God’s power, not yours.
This is a hard concept for me. I understand earning or not earning things. You do a job, you get paid or fired. If you lift, you build muscles. If you practice, you can be a good musician. If I do good things, I expect people will be happy with me, and I feel really good about myself. If I don’t and they aren’t, I can always eat my feelings and watch Netflix. It’s a cause and effect world that makes sense to me. It’s one reason that this post-heart attack life is taking some getting used to. I’m just not as productive as I once was. I can’t ‘earn’ like I used to. I don’t like it, but it feels…normal? Isn’t that life?
What’s worse is that I tend to apply this same principle to my faith. I become like a kid with a flower, plucking petals and muttering, “God loves me, God loves me not” depending on how well I am doing or how well my life is going.
- I have devotions and answer all my emails and remember everybody’s name and spend quality time with the family: “He loves me.”
- I am grumpy and forgetful and waste time and avoid my family because they wear me out and I yell at that stupid driver who cuts me off: “He loves me not.”
- I get good feeback on a sermon: “He loves me.”
- I don’t. “He loves me not.”
- I navigate a touchy subject on Facebook with grace, truth, and class…I don’t…
- I start my day with prayer…I don’t…
- I get a new job…I get fired…
- My marriage is amazing…my marriage is hard…
- People think I’m an excellent Christian…people don’t…
Do you see the trap? We are the Galatians, thinking that we can earn God’s love or favor by our power.
We give votive offerings. If we are nice to God, God will be nice to us. We have more devotional time, tithe more, pray louder, impress everybody at church with our exuberant faith, we volunteer more in hopes that we can force God’s hand. We can avoid poverty, illness, unhappiness, wayward children. Any ordinary and even good thing — morality, family life, church attendance, Bible-reading, prayer, witnessing, commitment to social justice—can be turned into a votive offering that is no better than what the pagans offered.
Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people and good things to bad? Because God is not a votive God. I hope this is comforting rather than discouraging. He gives and takes away according to His will and purpose, not because of our ability to perform. The Lord gives and takes away; His name is still blessed.
We Compete. If we think God is a votive God, it should be clear who is winning and losing, right? We should be able to figure out who is the most rigorous in obeying the Law or having the most faith. We wonder what other people did or didn’t do force God’s hand in a particular direction – and we assume others judge us through the same lenses. The one who is most obviously, outwardly successful – by our measure of success – must be the one whom God favors. And we return to the bondage of competition.
But there are no Christian Olympian Games in which I have to outperform others for God to love me. Paul said that he ran his spiritual race with endurance (Hebrews 12:1) and care (1 Corinthians 9:27), so it’s not like he coasted. He lived purposefully so that he could spread the good news of the gospel without detracting from it (Colossians 1:29). But he wasn’t competing with others to be a church superstar.
Here’s the reality: There are lots of pastors who preach better than I do.There are better husbands and fathers and friends. There are people who are wiser, more healthy, better users of social media, better managers of their time, better evangelists… the list is endless. That’s okay. I am not in competition with others. Maybe they can motivate and encourage me, but that’s only to become that best I can be in Christ, not so I can become them.
We Parade (Processions). Living well has its own reward – if I spend time in the Bible, I am absorbing God’s truth. If I spend time in focused prayer, I am purposefully humbling myself to God’s will and power. If I volunteer and help others and watch every word I say and give my money freely – good things happen all around me and within me.
But I don’t want to be zealous to earn God’s favor be noticed by others. I want to be zealous because I want to participate in the character of Christ and the Kingdom of God. I don’t need a processional. I don’t have to impress others. There is no Mr. or Mrs. Kingdom of Heaven contest. I don’t have to impress a panel of earthly judges in order to be righteous before God. I am free to live without the need to self-promote or be noticed. My identity comes from Christ. By the grace of God, I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:10). I am free to relax because Christ in me is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)
So this sets US free, but it sets others free as well. If my goal is to reflect the image of God, to be an ambassador that embodies God’s presence in the world, there are some implications here.
- Others shouldn’t have to earn our offering of God’s love. My relationship with you should be characterized by a godly love that honors and values you regardless of what you bring to the table. The church should be the place where “the tired, the poor, and huddled masses yearning to be spiritually free” can show up and be embraced with the sincerity that people created in God’s image deserve.
- We shouldn’t have to compete with other Christians. Your value, worth, and dignity have nothing to do with how you compare. In the Kingdom of God, you are free to be the ‘you’ God created you to be. I spent years trying to be other preachers. I finally had to give that up. I have to be the best preacher God made me to be. I try to learn from my heroes, but I’m not them, and I was not intended to be. Don’t look around the Kingdom of God and be envious or jealous. Embrace the gifts, talents and opportunities God has given you, learn and be inspired by others, and then be you to the glory of God and the good of His people.
- You don’t need to parade in front of God’s people. There is no need to impress in the Kingdom of God. You can get the applause of people or the applause of God. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2). Why? Because they did it to be noticed by people, and they were, so end of story. Jesus goes on to say that God rewards that which is done out of love and worship for Him.
Be free of from the obligation of saving and sanctifying yourself, of impressing God and others. Rest in the Grace of the Kingdom of God.