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.

Sunday Meditations: The Role of Emotions

Emotions have something of a checkered past in Christianity, both in church history and in current manifestations.

On one end of the spectrum are those Christians who are all about the emotions.  Emotions are more spiritual than rational thought.  In fact, knowledge and logic actually impede a vibrant spiritual life.  Worship and prayer is evaluated on whether or not you felt something deeply.  Worship services may even be deliberately designed to produce an emotional response.  There is a large emphasis in this form of Christianity on having the right attitudes and feelings experienced at all times, and if someone isn’t feeling those things, it’s a red flag for their spiritual welfare.

On the other side of the spectrum is a deep distrust of emotions.  Our propositional understanding of the Bible and theology is our only sure guide to truth and right action, and therefore emotions are to be mostly ignored if not automatically suspect.  Things like worship and prayer are evaluated more on the basis of doing things correctly and communicating the right propositions.  The emphasis of this group is on believing and proclaiming (and to an extent, practicing) correct things, and if someone doesn’t believe or teach the correct things, it’s a red flag for their spiritual welfare.

In my own reflections on emotions and where they’ve stood in my life and my spirituality, I’ve come to see certain things about them.

First, I can’t allow myself to idolize my ability to reason.

“The heart often lies, but the brain, never,” is probably an accurate summary of Western rationalism, but it is not true biologically and, consequently, in our practical, lived out experience.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn this is the case.  Our brains are not built to be Objective Reality Processing Devices.  They are built for survival.  Obviously, perceiving reality truly is more beneficial for survival than not, but the goal of the brain is not to be a dispassionate, objective arbiter of truth: its goal is to keep you alive.

The same areas of your brain that are active in threat resolution are the same ones that are active when you hear things that you don’t agree with.  In other words, when you’re having a disagreement with someone, your brain is interpreting that disagreement quite literally as a threat to your existence.  Obviously, the subject matter is going to influence how much of a threat that is, but it’s interesting there’s actually a biological explanation for why disagreements can escalate so quickly and so violently.  Something that threatens my framework of thought is a potential threat to my very survival, so the brain would tell me.

Not only this, but since there is a voluntary element to my thinking, I can easily construct thoughts that lead me astray.  There’s some research that would indicate that we don’t even reason our way to a decision; we make the decision, then construct the justification for it after the fact.  I’m not sure that’s always how it happens, but all of us have had times when we’ve rationalized our way to a very bad idea or processed logic and evidence in such a way as to support our own prejudices.

That doesn’t mean our brains should be distrusted.  It just means that we have to recognize how subjective (and not objective) rational thought actually is and recognize that our rational faculties are part of a larger system of checks and balances, one of which is our emotions.

Second, I can’t idolize my emotions, either.

Emotions are biological processes designed for our survival as well, which means that they, also, will not reflect the world with accuracy.

Most people are on board with this to some extent.  We all know that sometimes things that are bad make us feel good, and some things that make us feel bad are good.  We all know what it’s like to feel like we can trust someone or that we love someone and discover that we were wrong.  We know our emotions can be manipulated (as can our rational thought processes).

These are all good reasons not to put our emotions on a pedestal, including in the area of spirituality.  Just because you don’t feel God’s presence on a particular day doesn’t mean He isn’t there.  Just because you don’t feel deeply moved by a worship service doesn’t mean you didn’t get a lot of good out of it.  Conversely, just because something makes you feel deeply moved doesn’t mean that it was true or good for you.

You’ve probably heard it before, “Christianity is about the heart, not the head.”  I would offer this is not true.  I would say, “Christianity is about engaging the whole person, all your faculties, not just your feelings or your rationality.”  Less catchy, but more accurate.

The Scriptures present us with a view of “who you are” that is a unified whole, not component parts where one is more important or trustworthy than another.  Our rationality, our feelings, our intuition, our gut, our five senses – all these things are like council members giving us advice.  And, like council meetings, they may not all agree and they may not all be right at any given time, and sometimes they’re all wrong (which is why the counsel of other people is very important to good decisions as well).  But they are all meant to keep the ship up and running.

Third, my emotions are generated for a purpose.

If you put your hand on a hot stove, you will feel pain.  The reason you will feel pain is so that your body and brain will discern a threat and yank your hand away from a force that will destroy it if you do nothing.  The pain does not exist just to add spice to your life; it is there to communicate something to you so that you will act.

We might think of a life free of pain to be a great idea, but in our world as it is right now, it’s a terrible idea.  In fact, this is big danger for people who, through injury or disease, have lost their ability to feel pain – they can be severely injuring themselves or even bleeding to death and have no idea.  They have to be constantly vigilant against this possibility because the pain doesn’t work.

Emotions can cause psychological pain, and that’s my signal that something is amiss, and I need to do something about it or I could sustain a lot of damage.  It’s like a warning light on your car’s dashboard coming on.

If you’re like me, you’ll leave that warning light on your car alone for some time until you get around to looking into whatever caused it.  Sometimes, whatever caused it is fairly small and you’re good to go.  Other times, the little thing that turned the light on is now a huge deal, and a $200 repair became a $2000 repair over time.

When you feel emotions, especially negative emotions, it is worthwhile to ask yourself, “Why do I feel this emotion?  Does this seem to match reality as the rest of me knows it?  What do I need to do about this?”

What makes this difficult is that we closely associate an emotion with the event that gave rise to the emotion, and we mistake that for the cause.  My child is being very loud, and I feel aggravated, ergo my child being loud is why I feel this way.

But that’s not actually true.  The question is, “Why am I feeling this way when my child is loud?”

See, hot stoves do not cause you pain in your hand.  Hot stoves damage your flesh with heat.  It is your own body that produces pain signals in response to this event, and it produces them for a purpose – so that you can resolve the situation before more damage is done.

We might say, “My hand hurts because I put it on the stove,” but the reality is, “I put my hand on the stove, and it started to burn my skin, so my body produced pain.”  You produced that pain.  Not voluntarily, and it was definitely in response to your environment, but that pain is all you.  And it’s good!

So we have to ask ourselves, “Why did this event cause me to respond with this emotion?”  Why does my son being loud make me feel aggravated?  Is it because I’m stressed about something else?  Is it because I have a fear of loud noises?  Is it because it’s making it hard for me to concentrate on something I really need to concentrate on?  Is it because, when I was a kid, my parents were big on the “seen but not heard” philosophy of child rearing and children making noise makes me cringe inside because of how I was taught and treated?

My therapist sometimes says, “If your emotion had a voice, what would it be saying to you?”

Because our emotions, like anything else, can skew things, we do need to confirm if our emotions seem accurate to us.  If I feel like the world is about to end because I spilled soda on myself on my way to a meeting, I know that emotion is at least disproportionate to the reality of the situation.  I can choose to behave differently than my emotion might dictate, and this is a wise course of action in many cases.  I can also consult with other people to see if the way I feel about something is distorting the issue rather than helping me get to the heart of the issue.

But even so, I rarely want to ignore that emotion entirely.  I might recognize it is out of proportion with reality, but that doesn’t mean there is no helpful information there.  Why did I feel so catastrophically about spilling that soda?  It might mean I’m afraid of something else, like losing my job.  Or maybe I have placed a lot of my self-worth in what people will think of me.  Who knows?  But it’s worth a listen, even if I decide that my emotions are not giving me fully accurate information.

Finally, and this is important, my emotion is a call to action.

What am I supposed to do?  This is the thing that keeps us from being at the mercy of our emotions or being a victim of our circumstances.

Emotions do not exist just to add zest to life.  Our body feels them for a reason, and that reason prompts us to action.  The warning light on your dashboard is not just interesting information; you’re supposed to do something.

Here’s what I’m not supposed to do: nullify my emotions.  Alcohol, porn, sleep, medication, even TV can all be things to turn to in order to feel something good instead of whatever I happen to be feeling right now.  Not only does it leave the problem that caused my emotion unaddressed, it has a strong chance of becoming an addiction.

That’s not to say nobody should ever have a nice drink or watch a movie to have fun or blow off some steam, but there’s a difference between “taking a break to chill” and “medicating my emotional state.”

Doing those things would be like my car’s warning light coming on, so I pry open the dashboard and take the light bulb out.  Warning light gone!  But not only have I not fixed the problem, I’ve hampered my ability to detect problems altogether.

Here’s another thing I’m not supposed to do: nothing.  If I do nothing to address what this emotion is trying to say to me, the odds are good this emotion will keep cropping up and get stronger over time.  The underlying problem that gave rise to this emotion will probably get worse over time and much more difficult to address.  In addition, I may start to feel like a victim of my circumstances – helpless in the face of things that happen to me.  While blaming others for the way I feel may make me feel better (and, sometimes, may be correct in the sense that someone treated me wrongly), it’s a temporary feeling.

It is also true that the circumstances that birthed this emotion might be circumstances that I can’t fix.  If a loved one passes away, you won’t be able to fix that circumstance.  However, there are still healthy things for you to do.  You can allow yourself to grieve.  You can seek out the company of loved ones who care about you who can share your grief.  You can pray.  You can get together with other people who loved person and cry together and tell your favorite stories.  Any and all of those things will help you address what your emotion is telling you and help you move through it.

For example, at this moment, my work is causing me a lot of stress and anxiety.  A lot.  I do not like feeling stressed and anxious, and there are all kinds of reactionary things that crop up as a result.  Can I medicate those feelings?  Or maybe I should just stay in bed instead of going to work, tomorrow, so I can not feel those feelings.

My stress and anxiety is trying to tell me something.  “There’s a problem, here, and it will damage you unless we do something.”

So, what is that problem?  Have I over-promised and created unreasonable expectations I’m supposed to meet?  Do I have unreasonable expectations for myself?  Have I allowed work to take too great a role in my life or sense of self-worth or well being?  Have I come to the end of my career and am ready to do something different?  Basically, I need to figure out why my present situation with work is causing feelings of anxiety.  Why am I reacting to my circumstances with anxiety?

Then, this will suggest things that I should do to resolve my anxiety.  I could pray more, always a good option with just about anything.  I could have difficult conversations to reset my commitments to a reasonable level.  I could have difficult conversations about conflicts I’m having.  I could talk through these things with my co-workers.  I could just complete the work that’s making me anxious, knowing it will be unpleasant to do so, because sometimes work just sucks and there’s no point in giving it the weight I’m giving.

There’s lots of things that could be done depending on what the issues are, but you’ll also notice most of them are unpleasant.  I may have to have a talk with someone I don’t want to have.  I may have to put my head down and barrel through unpleasant work.  I may have to be vulnerable about the way I feel with someone and risk looking weak.  But this is the only way to move through a painful emotion into happiness.

Sure, it feels great in the moment to ignore stressful emails and phone calls and decide “I don’t want to work on X today,” but none of that will actually get the dashboard light to turn off.  Only doing the work to resolve the actual issue will turn that light off, and how fulfilling and freeing it will be to do so!

So, this is a model I offer for your consideration.  Emotions are not more “spiritual” than thought, nor are they more capricious or prone to error, nor are they meant to be your primary guide to reality.  They are not meant to be suppressed, let go, medicated, or eradicated.

They are a messaging system that could very well be communicating something your more conscious faculties are missing.  They should be listened to, understood, and if appropriate, acted upon.

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!

Justification: Galatians 2:15-21

[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.]

What does it mean to be justified?

There’s actually a lot of overlap with how we use the word, today, and how Paul is using it here. Think of what it means for someone to justify their actions, or justify an expense, or justify eating a quart of ice cream in one sitting. It means “to demonstrate that this is right.”

Think of two people in a dispute in front of a judge.  After hearing the arguments, the judge decides one of them is right and pronounces them as being right.  The judge justifies that person.  In fact, when judges rightly justify the right people, we call that justice.

In the Old Testament, Israel kept God’s laws, and God was on their side. They defeated armies much larger than themselves and lived in a promised land, and as long as they lived in faithfulness to God – both in their hearts and as defined by the Law – they enjoyed prosperity even in the midst of enemies. They were justified by God – shown to the whole world to be in the right. When the Red Sea drowns your enemies or you beat an army of thousands with hundreds, there’s no mistaking who God thinks is in the right.

We call this way of faithful living “righteousness” (i.e. right-ness, living rightly) and God’s demonstration of someone being in the right as “justification.” It’s like when a judge pronounces a person not guilty.

But this arrangement did not work out for Israel long term. The Law was fine, but the people (and especially their leaders) did not keep it. They worshiped the gods of other nations, stopped trusting in God and started trusting in allies with big armies, and their leaders used their power to promote themselves and make money instead of sacrificially caring for the least of their people.

God, then, demonstrated they were not in the right. The curses of the Law kicked in. Israel was exiled from her land and, over time, ruled by a series of pagan empires. In Paul’s day, it was Rome. Israel’s very situation showed that they were not justified. So, what’s the solution?

Like many teachers of his day, Paul’s position used to be that the solution was to obey the Law harder. All kinds of elaborate scenarios were drawn up and enforced on believers so that they wouldn’t break the Law. If God saw that Israel was obedient to the Law, then He would have to justify them and overturn the penalties – in other words, save them from their situation.

But Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord. And Paul saw that Gentiles who barely did any of the things the Law requires received the Spirit when they had faith in Jesus. He realized that God was forming a new people out of both Jew and Gentile, but the Law divided them. Not only that, but the Law had only led to curse.

God wouldn’t justify a people who were trying to keep the Law; He would justify the people who had faith in Jesus. This would bring together Jew and Gentile. This would overcome the penalties of the Law.  This would show that God was on the side of believers over and against their accusers and persecutors who claimed with words and force of arms that the early, believing community was actually very much in the wrong.

How easy it still is for us, today, to measure our “rightness” on the strength of our obedience. We may believe God is on the side of those with the most rigorous moral rules. We might define our whole Christian life around our list of dos and don’ts.

The heartfelt pursuit of good works is important, but God did not justify Law-keepers. God justified those who believed in what He was doing in Jesus.

Getting in Peter’s Face: Galatians 2:11-14

[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.]

In the beginning of Paul’s letter, one of the things he wants to do is prove he is a legitimate apostle. So, on the one hand, he wants to show that he met with the other apostles and was approved of by them. But on the other hand, he also wants to show that his authority does not come from them but from the risen Lord.

So, Paul includes this story that shows he is not afraid to get in Peter’s face when Peter needs correction.

The apostles are a special group of people. The Lord Jesus picked them. They saw him risen. Before Jesus’ resurrection, they were fearful, they were selfish, and they did not understand much of what Jesus was trying to tell them.

But after the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, they quote the Old Testament like scholars and perform amazing miracles. They now talk like Jesus and can do the things only Jesus was able to do. They have his Spirit and his commission.

But the apostles are also only people. They are not free from sin or all their flaws. They still have learning and growing to do and still have weaknesses they struggle with.

In this case, we have Peter who normally eats with Gentiles who do not observe the Jewish food and table laws. This is a big no-no in Jewish law. Gentiles are unclean. But Peter, full of the Spirit of Christ, eats with them – these unclean riff-raff who should be excluded from the kingdom. Is this or is this not just like Jesus?

But when those who believe Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the Law arrive, Peter then proceeds to treat those same Gentiles as though they are unclean and will not eat with them. He does this because he is afraid.

We see, here, glimmers of the old Peter – the one who doubted Jesus when he was walking on the water, and the one who denied Jesus three times when pressured. Now, he faces the judgement of the Jewish powers he respects, and he folds faster than Superman on laundry day.

Paul calls him on this. He points out that, if Peter will ignore the Jewish table laws to eat with Gentiles, how is it that he now is acting as though he requires those Gentiles to observe those laws?

“If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to behave like Jews?”

And of course Peter is in the wrong, here. He is not acting consistently with the truth of the Good News, that Jesus is saving his people, and part of that salvation is rebuilding God’s people out of both Jew and Gentile so that there is no difference before God. This is something Peter agrees with, but when the rubber meets the road, he is afraid of what man will think of him.

And can’t we all see ourselves in that?

But good news – God does not leave us where we are. This same Peter who is afraid to eat with Gentiles in front of “the circumcision party” (which sounds like a terrible party if you ask me) is also the same Peter who tells them in Acts 15 not to lay a yoke on the Gentiles that they themselves cannot bear – the Law!

Do you see what happened there? Peter’s own weakness in Galatians 2 becomes the very foundation of his defense in Acts 15! “I, a Jew, can’t keep the Law, so how can we force the Gentiles to do it?”

This is exactly what Paul said to him that fateful day they argued over dinner.

We may despise our shortcomings, and to a limited extent, this can be good. We should want to live more and more consistently with the gospel. But we serve a God who is not only gentle, patient, and forgiving, He also takes those same shortcomings and brings about good. His strength becomes apparent in our weaknesses.