Vicaring now and gave a sermon two days ago. Thought the message was good to share and so doing another rare summer blog post.
My suspicion is that even some of those who consider themselves Radical Lutherans may really appreciate this message.
Honestly though, I’m not totally sure! If you consider yourselves Radical and would let me know, I’d deeply appreciate it…
The texts for the day were Is. 65:1–9 Psalm 3 Gal. 3:23—4:7 Luke 8:26–39
“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” – Gal. 3:23
This is the first verse from our reading in Galatians and it introduces us to a part of the New Testament that can really be quite difficult to understand…
It’s hardly impossible though, and I submit to you that God demands our full attention and reflection here.
What is the absolute crux of what Paul is saying?
In short, He is saying that when it comes to our being justified before God… when it comes to the matter of whether we can be at real peace with God… we, as His true people, can only identify with Abraham and not with Moses.
What do I mean?
Very early on in the Bible, after the flood which destroyed the world, God wanted to call a special people to Himself.
Therefore, he chose Abraham, and gave him some very important promises. A careful reading of Genesis shows us that these promises were made to Abraham without any conditions whatsoever:
Abraham was told to go with God and that he was going to get land, a ton of descendants, and that he would also be a blessing to all the nations. The key word here is Promise. A promise without conditions.
And as the Apostle Paul always reminds us in the great book of Romans, Abraham believed God.
Years later, God called Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, out of a 400-year slavery in Egypt.
And after freeing them from their enemies, He gave them help and guidance in the form of the 10 commandments as well as certain “ceremonial laws” (you know, things like things like circumcision, food laws, special days of obligation, worship in Jerusalem at the Temple, sacrifice, etc.).
In this case, there was not strictly a one-way-promise but a two-way covenant.
Under the clouds of thunder at threatening Mount Sinai, the people swore to God that they would follow these commandments.
The key word here is not promise—certainly not unconditional promise—but law.
The matter in the Old Testament seemed pretty straightforward: if they followed those commandments, they would attain all manner of earthly blessings and victory.
If they did not, they would be cursed…
We know what happened right? The Old Testament is the narrative of Israel’s constant failure and rebellion.
Here in Galatians though, Paul wants to show us how the law cannot, must not, overshadow God’s promise.
He means to clear up any confusion we might have about this: the law given to God’s people through Moses was meant to be a temporary matter.
When “faith comes” in the “fullness of time,” meaning when Jesus Christ comes in human flesh, this law will have served its purpose, and in a very real sense the law would no longer have dominion over God’s people, legally and otherwise!
As Paul bluntly puts it later on in Galatians, “if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise, but God gave [this inheritance] to Abraham by a Promise.
In part this means the following: Jesus’ work as the true Lamb of God, the true Priest, the true Temple, etc… means that He is the fulfiller of all those ceremonial laws – He reveals what these were ultimately all about and pointing too!
And now, for example, God declares to His Apostles that certain animals that were once “unclean” to us are now “clean” – good to eat!
According to God in the book of Acts, this also means that the Gentiles can come into the church without having to submit to these ceremonial, or purity laws (practices)….
Again, God declares all of these unclean animals clean – even if Jesus has cast the unclean demons into the unclean pigs! No doubt about it – parts of God’s law had now been rescinded or abrogated.
The times they were a-changing. We wonder where modern notions of “progress” come from…
I bet you didn’t know that the Apostle Paul is the paragon of true progress. His teaching is the thing.
Really? Yes! Paul gives us some more excellent clues about just what God was doing here in the rest of our Galatians passage for today. He tells us that the purpose of the law was to serve as a pedagogue.
And what does he mean by this term? Well, it seems “child-leader”. “Child-leader”—think about that.
In Paul’s time, in the Greco-Roman world, a pedagogue, or child-leader, was a slave who accompanied a schoolboy—a schoolboy who would also one day be the heir of that slave’s master—in order to make sure that he got to where he needed to go.
In other words, Paul is saying that the law is a pedagogue, whose role was very limited: the pedagogue was put in place to make us pay attention to what God’s will is and what He wants to teach us… where He wants to lead us.
More specifically and historically, Paul is saying that for Jews to be ready for the Messiah, one needed the “pedagogue,” or family slave, to basically force us see who and what is true and good – and what is good is certainly good for us and all our neighbors…
Again, the pedagogue was needed in order to help God’s people to see that who He is and what He sets up, what He commands, what He decides to punish, etc. is simply and unapologetically good.
Some of it, surely, is only necessary in a fallen world, but it is unquestionably good nonetheless!
This the family slave would attempt to deeply impress, or “inculcate,” in his young charge, who was also, legally at least, a slave.
The child simply could not graduate from these “elementary principles”—or perhaps “ABCs”—without this help from the pedagogue, the “child-leader”!
By the way, these pedagogues often did have the reputation of being quite unbending and harsh…
(and by the way again, as a bit of an “aside”: the Galatian Gentiles to whom Paul writes, who believe the Gospel, also had been under the slavery of “elementary principles” in another sense – that of the “natural law” found in the world. They did not have the same kind of benefit the Jews had, who had the revealed law of God, this special “pedagogue,” and other privileges…)
So does this mean that once “faith comes” and we are “all one in Christ Jesus” that the law no longer has any relevance? Can we just get rid of the pedagogue, the family slave, and be on our way?
Well, not exactly. Listen to Martin Luther talk about how while the ceremonial laws—again, things like circumcision, food laws, special days of obligation, worship at the Temple, sacrifice, etc.—completely go away, the Christian still must give heed to what he calls the “moral law”:
Peter explains in Acts 15 how it is to be understood that neither the ceremonial law—with which he deals there chiefly—nor the moral law, is to be imposed on the neck of the brethren; obviously because Christ has come in order to fulfill the law, which neither the fathers nor their offspring were able to bear; and to liberate all who believed in him from the curse of the law. Since, therefore, [the Law’s] office is to terrify and condemn, its yoke is to be removed from the necks of the believers, Gentiles as well as Jews, and Christ’s yoke is to be imposed on them, so that they may live under him in peace who rendered the owed obedience required by the law and gave it to those who believe in him. It is nonetheless to be fulfilled by the pious also, to mortify the works of the flesh by the Spirit, in order to purge out the old leaven (Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 5:7). Thus, the law remains, but its burden or yoke does not weigh down the necks of those upon whom Christ’s burden is imposed, because it is easy and light (Matt. 11:30)” (SDEA 73)
So what is Luther saying here? Has he, like the demoniac, been captured by Satan’s wiles? Is he putting those who should be free back under the law?
Not at all. What is happening is this:
Those who are in Christ are to have it firmly engrained in their minds that even though God has completely eliminated parts of the Old Testament law – particularly those “ceremonial” things that made it extremely hard for Israelites and Gentiles to mix and mingle[i] – there are also things about it that accurately show us what it means to be God’s people even today. What it means to be His child and to live in his household.
What it means to be an heir of the Most High King!
Those who are no longer under the law are no longer under its dominion in part because they have come to the knowledge and conviction that God is good and that His will is good… that all His commandments and judgments are good!
Jesus fulfills this law for them because it is good!
They also know that they still have a nasty sinner inside them, one who still needs the watchful eye and even the unartful threats of the family slave, or pedagogue.
Sure the law couldn’t produce the needed righteousness, the real “righteousness-externally-and-in-the-heart” in us – and it was “weak” in just this way – but at the same time that was never its purpose.
Rather, true believers know that they still need that reliable family slave. They still need the pedagogue to be their “child-leader”: to show them, in various circumstances and contexts, what sin really is.
For its purpose was to make them ever aware of our great need for total deliverance…
And that deliverance, of course, comes from and in Jesus Christ: now in His declaring us righteous! Now in His beginning to sanctify us by His Spirit! And later too: in our final glorification, to be completed when Jesus comes…
For this reason, they are happy to be in God’s law, even though they are no longer under it! Indeed, the “righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us”…
Let’s talk now a bit more about those interesting ceremonial laws that we’ve been discussing.
What makes all of this so complicated is that while the whole law given to Moses could not produce righteousness, there were, evidently, some parts that really needed to go…
So what does God want to teach us here?
Remember, earlier we talked about how because of Jesus, God declares that animals which were once unclean are now “clean”.
This means, in part, that the Gentiles can come into the church without having to submit to the Jewish ceremonial, or purity laws….
Also, we pointed out that “Jesus’ work as the true Lamb of God, the true Priest, the true Temple, etc… means that He is the fulfiller of all those ceremonial laws – He reveals what these were ultimately all about and pointing too!”
So again, what does God want to teach us here? Can we get any more clues?
Should we say, like some in the world do today: “Why don’t some in the church accept homosexual practice? Should you then not eat shellfish either?”
You can see the reasoning here. God said shellfish were unclean in the Old Testament. He said the same thing about homosexual actions.
In the New Testament though, shellfish are “clean,” and so why not homosexual actions as well?
Perhaps you have noticed that persons who are more secular but who also pay a little attention to religion see things in this manner… In short, getting right to the point, the world today wants parts of the Christian heritage but not the whole thing.
Many, for example, like the idea of Christ’s compassion, of the “image of God”, or the dignity of all persons, of unity, of a “new man” and “new creation” – but do not want the entire Christian life…
The thing is, if you listen to some folks like this, a lot of the time they seem to make some sense.
But they, being self-made persons, subscribe to a very different notion of progress.
Therefore, we need to pay attention not to man’s own way of reasoning and “being logical,” but rather to the specific explanations that the Scriptures give us concerning these things.
So what does the Apostle Paul say about these ceremonial laws? He says that they were “a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Things like religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and Sabbath days, he tells us, were meant to point us to the coming Christ and teach us about Him and His work.
The same thing can be said for the Temple, the priests, the sacrifices, the scapegoat, the food and purity laws, and circumcision.
Perhaps look at it this way: those ceremonial laws are like the scaffolding for a building. When the building has finally come, when the Christian faith has finally come, the scaffolding is no longer necessary.
I hope that is helpful and also hope that all of this makes you curious! Compels you, in a good way, to learn even more and go deeper!
Just as we can learn much about God, man, and His and our character from His moral law, the same is certainly true about these ceremonial practices.
We know that while we are no longer under the law’s dominion, it indeed was and remains good!
Again, many today have missed these core issues we are talking about and skate on the surface of the Bible.
For example, many today love to quote the part from Galatians where it talks about how “there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave or free, male or female…” and speak eloquently and compellingly about the equality of all, how there should be no real differences or that these should not matter at all, etc.
Our response to this is that this passage, though it is primarily about how we can all stand equally before God on the basis of Jesus Christ, certainly does have very real implications in the world. It can’t not, and this is, quite frankly, why we live in what we call “the West”.
Again though, this passage does not mean much of what people tend to claim it means, for in truth many really don’t know or value God’s word like they should.
I’m not going to go into detail about these things, as we have limited time and addressing controversial topics in what would amount to a rather bullet-point fashion is probably not a good idea.
Still, I’ll assume you kind of know what I mean about this other kind of “progress,” but if you don’t, feel free to ask me about it…
In any case though, there is a good reason why these problems exist for Christians and Christian cultures.
These words are explosive because the Gospel is absolutely explosive. Absolute dynamite.
And when change happens… when surprising shows of unity happen… when the walls of division, confusion, and hostility between people began to fall—even if just on a more local basis!—this stunning show of divine power may well cause many an unbeliever to question themselves and fear… just as many did when the demon-possessed man was healed…
Then, as the prophet Isaiah says:
I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that was not called by (or did not call upon) my name.
We don’t want to get in the way of this! And so, in Galatians, Paul goes on to urge us to “walk by the Spirit,” for when we do this, we “will not gratify the desires of the flesh”:
“Sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”
It is precisely because we have the Holy Spirit and its fruits—and, correspondingly, are “not under the law”—that the abject wrongness of these things, and the hell-bound character of these things, is now even more evident to us than it may have been before.
We, because of the Gospel—not the pedagogue—are God’s new creation. And so things like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” are to characterize us…
Go forth in the light of His truth and His gospel.
[i] Very interestingly, Luther suggests that it is not so much what Christians believe – in this case about God’s law – that the world finds problematic, but rather its willingness to act on its beliefs, which we all know tends to, uncomfortably, reveal divisions and distinctions among persons. To the idea that Eph. 2:14 suggests the wall destroyed by Christ is his law, Luther responds as follows:
“And here Paul speaks about the law of Moses proper, not about the Decalogue, since the latter pertained to all nations. For the nations did not hate the Jews because of the Decalogue, but because they separated themselves from the remaining nations by way of unique worship and ceremonies, and called themselves alone the people of God, all the others they called atheists and unbelievers. The quarrel was about the temple and the ceremonies. Yet finally Christ came and destroyed this obstruction and Jews and Gentiles were made one. But if the Decalogue is referred to, it is well, and it is here removed, and destroyed insofar as it is damnation, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.” (ODE, 123)