Looking Like Jesus: Galatians 6:11-18

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

As Paul brings his letter to a close, he points out that his handwriting is really large. It’s just a little personal comment like any of us might put in any letter, but it lets us know that Paul has weaknesses – in this case, his eyesight. Some have even thought this vision problem might be the “thorn in the flesh” Paul talks about.

We read in other ancient writings that Paul was bald, scarred, short, and bow-legged. He even had a unibrow! Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 10:10 that the church loved his writing but thought he was pretty unimpressive in person.

None of this stops Paul from planting churches all over Asia Minor. He assumes that, whatever prejudices anyone might have about the way he looks or his physical challenges, this is no obstacle to the Spirit and the spread of the gospel, nor is it an obstacle to him living out the mission he believes Jesus has for him.

Paul tells us, near the end of his letter, that he believes the Judaizers are hypocrites who are just trying to avoid persecution. They themselves do not obey the Law, but they take pride in how many people they are getting circumcised. It’s hard for me not to think of the scandals that tend to arise in the lives of popular Christian speakers.

But Paul tells us the only thing he wants to be proud of is that the cross of Christ has made him dead to the world and brought him to life in a new one – a life of the Spirit where Jesus lives through him.

And for Paul, this is almost literally true, because he has been physically abused for his message, just as Jesus was. Paul says that this is why nobody should be giving him a hard time about circumcision; only his resemblance to Jesus matters.

As Paul closes this letter, he challenges all of our preconceived ideas of who is worthy of esteem. The only thing that matters is how much someone’s life looks like Jesus. Do they sound like him? Do they act like him? Do they prioritize what he did? Do they suffer like he did?

It doesn’t matter how much theology someone knows. It doesn’t matter how big their church is or how engaging they are. It doesn’t matter how many books they’ve written. It doesn’t matter how rigorous their moral standards are. It doesn’t even matter how many people they’ve shared the gospel with.

The only thing that matters is if they are like Jesus in the world. This is something that can unite a farmer in rural Kansas with a megachurch pastor in New York. For ourselves, for our congregations, for our leaders, for people we look up to, Paul leaves us with that final, vital question:

Do we/they look like Jesus?

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Bearing Burdens: Galatians 6:1-10

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

There is a lot of good, pastoral advice packed into this little section. Every sentence or two could easily be its own devotional meditation.

First, Paul tells us that, if someone sins, we should gently work to restore that person. We don’t shame them. We don’t isolate them. We don’t stop spending time with them. It has sometimes been said that, “The Christian army is the only army that shoots its wounded.”

But we also don’t pretend like nothing happened, either. We don’t sweep it under the rug. We don’t keep it a secret. If we are helping to restore someone, that means we are doing something about the sin. We are helping them make things right – repairing damages and relationships – with the goal of healing that person and the community of believers.

Then, Paul tells us to be on guard against temptation and follows this immediately with, “Bear one another’s burdens.” Part of this may just be the wisdom that serving others is a great, practical way to escape temptation when it comes. Serving others gets us out of our own heads and focused on other people. But part of this is also that our burdens are often causes of temptation. Our burdens cause us stress, fear, and pain, and it is in those times we are very prone to doing something we shouldn’t. By helping with one another’s burdens, we help bring down everyone’s susceptibility together.

We often think of sin as a private matter and a personal, individual struggle, but that is not how the New Testament talks about it. Everyone’s sin is everyone’s problem. It’s something we fight as a team, and when it happens, we work together to make it right.

This might seem to contradict what Paul says next about each person carrying their own load and taking pride in their own work and not their neighbor’s, but I doubt Paul decided to just contradict his own teaching in the very next sentence.

We get a clue a few verses down the chapter. Paul notes that the Judaizers are disobeying the Law, but they’re taking pride in the fact that people are getting circumcised. In other words, they’re personally disobedient to the Law, but they’re proud of the fact that they’ve gotten others to follow it.

I think this is what Paul is getting at. We should bear one another’s burdens and help one another in the struggle against sin, but we also need to make sure we’re also striving for obedience and not taking pride in how well we’ve been helping others or how well they’re doing. If you encourage other people to avoid sin, but you yourself are sinning, this is hypocrisy. So, while helping others with their struggle, make sure you are paying attention to your own obedience as well.

In the last few verses of this section, Paul reminds us that if we invest in the works of the flesh, we’ll receive the corruptibility that comes with that. But if we invest in the Spirit, we’ll reap life that will go on and on and on.

This is not just true for individuals. Remember, Paul’s letter was not to individuals – it was to the entire congregation at Galatia. We need to keep an eye on our individual lives but also our communal life together. We need to make sure our churches do not become places where people are made slaves to the Law, but rather are encouraged to live according to the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and cultivate the fruits of the Spirit.

Finally, Paul says to work for everyone’s good, especially the household of faith. I don’t think Paul is saying that somehow believers are more deserving of our help that other people, nor do I think Paul is saying that believers should help themselves at the expense of non-believers.

Paul has to remind them “especially the family of faith” because, as you read Paul’s letters to congregations, you can see most of them are doing a terrible job of taking care of one another. In the same congregation, you’d find rich people sitting in special chairs and eating rich feasts right next to someone who could barely afford to stay alive and was not even invited to share in the meal at the Lord’s Supper.

So, it’s not so much a matter of believers being more worthy of help than everyone else; it’s a matter of, “You guys can’t even care for one another in your own congregations. You need to get your act together, especially if you’re going to share the gospel with those outside your church.”

But Paul does clearly tell us to work for the good of everyone, and it reminds us of Father Abraham, whose descendants were meant to be a blessing to all the families of the world. We still have that mission. Christians are not supposed to be a pain in everyone else’s neck! We’re supposed to be a blessing – a source of comfort and help and good news – to everyone. And when we work to be a blessing to everyone, it shows that Jesus is our King and establishes the truth of the good news we bring.

What is Freedom For: Galatians 5:16-26

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

Paul is still explaining why freedom from the Law does not mean doing whatever you feel like at any given time. He encourages the Galatians to live according to the Spirit instead of the flesh.

Paul isn’t talking about our physical bodies versus our immortal soul. Paul is contrasting a life according to our own desires, ambitions, and efforts versus being guided and “lived in” by the Holy Spirit.

Sin is obviously following our own desires, and Paul racks up a pretty good list of the sins he sees everywhere in the Roman Empire. It might surprise us that things like being an angry or an argumentative person gets put on the same level as sorcery and idolatry, but Paul shows us there are all kinds of facets to living a life according to the flesh.

Keeping the Law is also living according to the flesh. The motives and behaviors might be better than sinful ones, but keeping the Law still depends on our will, our desires, and our efforts. Even though Paul knows the Law is holy and comes from God, when it comes to our practical experience, the Law and sin are like fudge ripple swirl ice cream – always going together.

In contrast, Paul paints a picture of a person who is living by the Spirit – qualities like love, joy, and peace. It’s interesting that Paul’s picture of living by the flesh has a lot of specific behaviors in it, but Paul’s picture of living in the Spirit is all about characteristics. He seems to think that, if we have the Spirit and are guided by the Spirit, we will have these virtues and right behavior will just take care of itself.

If we have been crucified with Christ, we are dead to sin, the Law, and all the things associated with our own striving and failing. We have, instead, been made alive in the Spirit so that we might live out a new life – Jesus’ life – with acts of love and peace and mercy that flow out of us and don’t need to be defined by a Law.

This is certainly true freedom.

Love Above the Law: Galatians 5:2-15

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

Since people are justified by faith and not by keeping the Law, does that mean we’re free to do whatever we want?

Paul gives us a hint when he tells us, here, that it doesn’t matter who is and isn’t circumcised. The only thing that matters is faith that is put into action through love. True faith produces loving works.

Acting out their faith in love seems to be something that the Galatians were really good at! So Paul is very upset that teachers have come in to try to turn them to the Law. Paul has suffered persecution to teach them about grace and faith instead of Law keeping, and now people have come in to undo all of that.

It’s here that Paul gives us his infamous line that he wishes that the people who were preaching the law of circumcision would just go all the way and cut the whole thing off. Once again, not recommended in your typical correspondence. This is like an angry Facebook comment long before Facebook was invented.

But Paul warns them that this is not an excuse to do whatever they want. Instead, they are to become slaves of one another out of love. Because loving your neighbor as yourself sums up everything the Law requires of how you behave toward one another.

This is actually a strong command from Paul. He’s not asking the congregation to be friendly to one another. He’s not asking them to help each other if it’s not too much trouble. He’s asking them to be like slaves of one another because of their love for one another. In other words, any of them should be willing to do anything that anyone needs, whether you feel like it or not, or whether it benefits you in any way or not.

For Paul, if there is a poor person in your congregation, there had better not be any rich people in your congregation, because the wealthy members should be sacrificially giving of their money to help their poor brothers and sisters. If someone in your congregation doesn’t have shoes, you’d better not have two pairs, because one of those pairs needs to go to the person who has none.

This may seem uncomfortable. It may even seem a little un-American. Why should I give up something I’ve worked hard for and enjoy just for someone else’s sake? Why should I put my own welfare at risk to help someone else?

But that’s exactly the point. This kind of love is supposed to stun the culture. It’s supposed to make people take notice of Christians and how they care for one another. It’s supposed to look different than what everyone else is doing. Remember that the Lord Jesus poured out everything for the welfare of the people he loved, even when they rejected him.

Is that what people think of Christians, today? Is that what people think of your church? Is that what they think of you? Do they think, “I’m amazed at how far that person will go to love someone else?” Paul gave this instruction two thousand years ago. Maybe it’s about time we got serious about being known for our love.

Two Women: Galatians 4:24 – 5:1

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

Paul tells us that the story of Hagar and Sarah tells us something about the old covenant God made with national Israel and the new covenant God is making with all who have faith in Christ. You might not have thought of this the first time you read about Hagar and Sarah, but it is an ancient rabbinical tradition to look at what other meanings stories might have beyond their initial one.

Hagar has a son of Abraham, but Hagar is a slave woman, and her son comes from Abraham trying to bring about the promise by his effort.

Sarah also has a son of Abraham, but Sarah is not a slave, and her son, Isaac, comes to her as a gift from God because of the promise God has made to Abraham.

Paul tells us that this is like the two covenants. One covenant – the Law that Israel agreed to keep at Mount Sinai – is a covenant that depends on effort and made slaves of her children. The other covenant – the promise that God made to Abraham – was a covenant of freedom because the covenant was kept by believing. It was faith that fulfilled Abraham’s obligations and faith that brought him the fulfillment of the promise God made.

Paul shows us that national Israel – the earthly Jerusalem – were children of the slave in bondage to a covenant of their effort that they could not fulfill. But the people of God now – the citizens of heavenly Jerusalem – are those who have faith in Jesus.

Those who were in bondage under the Law have been set free! And those who were not under the Law can now be citizens of that new Jerusalem! Since Jesus has made this possible, no one who has been set free should be trying to get back under the yoke of slavery.

We belong to the Jerusalem above. We receive a promise that has been kept by faith. Let us not return to a life of bondage.

All Slaves to Something: Galatians 4:8-20

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

Paul’s Greek is a little confusing, here, but having first addressed the Jewish believers and their situation, and having talked about how faith in Jesus has brought Jew and Gentile together, he now talks to the Gentiles – the people who did not know God. Since I’m a Gentile, this speaks to my experience a little more directly.

Gentiles were slaves as well, not to the Law, but to powers who were not gods. We don’t know exactly what Paul is thinking of, here. Maybe it was the gods of Roman religion. Maybe it was Caesar, whom the Romans believed to be divine. Maybe it was other spiritual beings. Maybe it was simply the forces that everyone lived under that were more powerful than they were.

But in any case, Paul seems mystified that these people would want to go back to being slaves, this time to the Law. The Gentile believers are now observing the special feasts and days that the Law requires, and Paul can’t believe it.

It’s not that observing a special day for your own reasons is sinful; it’s that these believers hoped they would be justified through keeping the Law, so they are zealous to observe all its regulations just like the Judaizers had told them.

But this isn’t just some theological disagreement to Paul. This threatens their very relationship. Paul knows that being zealous for Law keeping will put them at odds with Paul, and Paul was once beloved to them. This breaks his heart, and the pain he feels is like a woman in labor, longing to see the Spirit of Christ live in these precious Galatian believers.

This may seem weird to us. Isn’t obedience good?

Well, Paul reminds us that, for those who have faith in Jesus, obedience is not keeping a set of regulations so as to seem “right” over and against a world who does not keep those rules. Obedience is, instead, more fully and consistently living out Jesus’ life through your own.

Why Then the Law: Galatians 3:19 – 4:7

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

If Abraham was counted as righteous because of his faith, and he received the promises through faith, why did the Law come at all? Why not just keep on with the faith thing? Why bring the Law into it?

Well, the problem is that people would sin. So the Law came to be like training wheels for God’s people. Different translations say here that the Law was a “tutor” or a “nurse” or a “disciplinarian.” The idea is that the Law was like a very strict trainer for God’s people.

Under the Law, they were shown what faithfulness looked like, and there was even a system for making atonement if they messed up. But the Law could not make the people faithful, and it became a curse. Paul describes it sometimes like a guardian and sometimes like a prison warden.

Israel under the Law is like a child kept under the oversight of a very strict tutor, and the child fails often to measure up to the tutor’s requirements. What was intended to bring the nation up in righteousness instead became a time of bondage and suffering to them.

This may be a little weird for us to think about. We often think of being slaves to sin, but here, Paul also tells us that Israel was a slave to the Law.

This all changes when God’s timing brings Jesus into the picture. Jesus is God’s true Son, so when he comes to his people suffering under the curse of the Law, Jesus dies for them, is raised from the dead, and made both Lord and Christ. All who believe on him will be saved – not just the Israel that Jesus loved so much, but also the Gentiles Jesus knew would hear this news. And this includes men and women, Jews and Gentiles, free and slaves – there is no longer anything that divides one group of people from another when it comes to having faith in what God has done in Jesus.

And not only do they become the people of God, but they are adopted as sons! Our relationship to God isn’t derived from being under God’s appointed guardian – it’s by being in God’s family directly. God has sent the Spirit of the Son into our hearts so that we would be sons and daughters as well. This is something the Law could not do, but now the Spirit of Christ lives in and through us all.

People of all races, genders, political views, economic classes, theological positions – they are your brothers and sisters who share the same Spirit. Jesus has torn down anything that would let a specific group claim they are the true children of God or somehow more favored than the others.

If the Spirit of the Son is in your heart, you are not a slave to the Law, and you are not a slave to the principles of this world. You are free of such things, and you are a son or daughter of God, and an heir to His promises.

Father Abraham: Galatians 3:6-18

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

Abraham is an amazingly important figure in the Old Testament for all kinds of reasons. Even though several important things happen before him, Abraham is the start of the story that most of the Bible is concerned about.

For Paul, trying to bring these believing Jews and Gentiles together under faith in Jesus, Abraham is is very important for three reasons:

1. Abraham was not a Jew when he was called by God. He was a pagan wandering around Mesopotamia. Although he became the father of all Jews, God made a covenant with him while he was what the Galatians would normally consider a Gentile.

2. Abraham did not have the Law when he was called by God. He was not circumcised. He did not keep dietary laws. The only thing going for him is that he believed God when God made promises to him and made a covenant with him.

3. Abraham’s promises were intended to bless the Gentiles as well. Even though God entered into a special agreement with him and his descendants, the entire world was meant to be blessed through their faithfulness.

Because of these things, Abraham may be the father of the Israel by ancestry, but he is the spiritual father of both Jews and Gentiles who would have faith in God like his. Abraham, too, was once a Gentile apart from the Law, but he believed and trusted God, and God counted this as faithfulness.

And now, Jesus has brought the promises that were given to Abraham to both Jew and Gentile, making them both heirs. Because of Jesus, the promises that everyone thought were lost because of sin are now reclaimed and made available to all. The only thing that brings you into this people is to believe and trust in God who has revealed Himself in Jesus. If we have Abraham’s faith, God counts it as faithfulness apart from the Law.

Think about that the next time your Gentile kids (or you) sing the song “Father Abraham”:

Father Abraham had many sons.
Many sons had father Abraham.
I am one of them, and so are you.
So let’s just praise the Lord!

How Did You Receive the Spirit?: Galatians 3:1-5

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

This may be my favorite part of the letter because it’s such a clear statement from Paul: did you receive the Spirit by believing what you have heard about Jesus, or did you receive the Spirit because you kept the Law?

The believing Jews know that they did not receive the Spirit by keeping the Law; they received the curse from the Law. They received the Spirit from Jesus through faith. The believing Gentiles never kept the Law to begin with, but they received the same Spirit as their Jewish brothers and sisters when they believed the news about Jesus.

So, the Spirit has come to these two groups – one that failed to keep the Law, and one that was ignorant of the Law. The thing they share in common is that they both believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah who died, was raised, made Lord, and will judge the world. In response, they received the Spirit, uniting them to God and to each other.

Paul, then, asks them why they want to go back to the Law after having this experience. Was it all for nothing? What was the point of what they were all experiencing if they were supposed to dedicate themselves to Law-keeping?

Paul’s point, of course, is that there’s no reason to run back to Law-keeping. God is changing the world, and He’s starting with His own house. The Spirit has come, not through obeying the Law, but by faith in Jesus!

God shows by the giving of His Spirit who is in the right in the midst of those who claim to speak for God, yet have made the Law a heavy yoke for the people.  God justifies the believers, not the Torah keepers. These are the people God will save out of the world. It is not those who throw themselves into conformity to the Law; it is those who truly trust.

God showed He was on Jesus’ side when He raised Jesus from the dead. God showed that Jesus’ followers were in the right by pouring out His Spirit on them. That Spirit came by faith, not by Law keeping.

As we who love Jesus try to live out his life in our own, this is good for us to remember. If we begin God’s work by faith, we do not complete it by obeying the Law. We begin by faith, receive the Spirit by faith, do good works by faith, enjoy union with Jesus by faith, and attain the resurrection by faith.

Galatians 2:15-21 Pt. 2

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

Paul has said that the Jews are not justified by keeping the Law. In other words, they are not pronounced to be in the right – or declared righteous – by their obedience to the Law. Instead, they are justified by faith in Jesus.

But this leads to an objection that people still have, today: if you aren’t righteous by obeying the Law, but instead by faith in Jesus, doesn’t that mean that you can basically sin all you want and Jesus has made this possible?

Paul doesn’t think so, but he gives a reason that may surprise us.

In Paul’s mind, the Law made Israel sinners. The problem wasn’t with the Law; the problem was with people’s hearts. But, nevertheless, once the Law showed up, people broke it. A lot. Sin actually increased. The Law did not help Israel live more righteously in the long run. Instead, it was her downfall.

So, if you try to go to the Law for your justification, you don’t demonstrate yourself to be righteous at all. You reveal to everyone that you’re actually a sinner! You’re on the wrong side! You actually end up being worse off than you were, before. Now, if the nation had been faithfully obedient to the Law, that might be a different story, but everyone in the first century knows that was not Israel’s experience, and now she was suffering the curse because of it.

The solution to move from being on the wrong side of righteousness to the right side is to believe in what God has done in Jesus and share Jesus’ faith. This doesn’t just mean believing right things about God; it means following Jesus and making Jesus’ life your own. It means throwing yourself all in with Jesus’ mission. It means taking up a cross for yourself. It means that you are crucified with Christ.

Someone who is crucified has died both to sin and the Law. Neither has any power over someone who’s dead. But the miracle of miracles is that Jesus rose from the dead and lives in believers. Jesus’ life becomes our life! Jesus lives in us and through us.

And if Jesus is alive in you, the Law cannot condemn you. You already died. There is now only Jesus who lives, and he is blameless before God.

Paul knows that this is something that we have to grow into. He knows people don’t just stop sinning altogether once they have faith in Jesus. But being under the Law was like being in a falling elevator; now you begin the climb out of the shaft.

By the power of the Spirit, the risen Christ lives in you! And the more you embrace that, believe that, pursue it, and seek to have Jesus’ life shine through your own, the more you will live for God. There is no remedy for sin greater than this. Not more rules for you to follow, but something new for you to become!