Motive for your Ministry
Galatians: Continuing in Grace • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 23:32
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God redeems slaves to Law [outside], adopting us, and transforming us through Spirit [inside]
Today I want to talk about captivity and freedom. Captivity and freedom.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of being locked up, being a captive? Perhaps you have - perhaps you’ve only ever considered it from a distance. Personally, I find the idea of that terrifying. Years and years ago I read a children’s book telling the story of a Romanian underground church leader back in the communist era, imprisoned for years in terrible conditions for his faith. It’s been a long, long time, and I still can’t get the horror of that story out of my mind.
He was held captive in part just to stop him, to stop him speaking about Jesus. But mostly he was held captive as a punishment: to hurt him, to deter others. Why is captivity felt as punishment, not just restraint? I think it’s because we were made to be free and we long to be free. Because it grinds against our nature.
We’re working through a letter in the bible from Paul, one of Jesus’ first followers, to a group of churches he started in what is today Turkey. One of the surprises for us in this letter is the way Paul talks about the Jewish Law, the set of rules and regulations from God which defined how the Jewish people should live. It’s particularly surprising because Paul himself was Jewish - and before he started following Jesus, he was into this Law big-time.
In today’s passage, Paul describes this Jewish law as holding people captive, as locking them up. He describes it as a sort of policeman keeping people in check, truncheon in hand so they stay in line. That’s a shockingly negative description but it really was constricting: it told you who you could marry, how you should dress, how to harvest your fields, how to cut your hair.
“Whatever,” you might be thinking, “I’m not Jewish so what’s that got to do with me?” Well that’s no get-out-of-jail-free card - that’s no escape from being captive to law, locked up under it. We all live under law, maybe not the Jewish law, but under law, like it or not. Paul, in what we’ll read today, talks about every one of us being held in captivity in the same way - in slavery actually, under what he calls the “basic principles of the world”.
What’s he getting at there? Law, any law, makes us captive, locks us up, in a way. And it’s a basic principle of the world that we’re under law, surrounded by it. No escape. You live in Scotland so you live under a huge pile of laws, held captive by them, we might say.
Now you might think “well, I’m hardly held captive by Scottish law - these are good things, right things. It’s like saying I’m held captive by the lines on the road.” And you might be right that they are good things - but the truth is you’re still captive - you’re still captive to them because law goes against your nature, your basic desire for freedom. It restricts you.
Now law is needed - needed to restrain evil and to promote good. Think about taxes for example. Do you pay your taxes? I hope you do. The law says you must. But imagine if there was no law about paying tax. Imagine if everyone was just free to pay tax if they wanted or not to pay tax if they didn’t feel like it. How well would that work, do you think?
Why is tax-paying law? Primarily, in our country, it is enforcing care for others. Take a look at this chart of what our taxes pay for. We could just declare all this purely voluntary: Pay for others’ healthcare if you like. Pay for their welfare if you like. But, if you don’t fancy it, no worries. How well do you think that would work? To achieve this good - the NHS, welfare - to achieve this good, we need law to restrain our freedom.
Or think about equality legislation. Why is that there? Because it’s not happening all by itself when we just exercise our freedom. The basic principles of the world tell us freedom is in tension with the good. Tells us we don’t naturally pursue the good we want to see so we need law. And law makes us captive, takes our freedom, in pursuit of that good.
Two big problems, though: one, we’re not free under law, and two, things still aren’t that good.
Yes, things are better than they were. We can have misty-eyed romantic visions for what life was like in the 1800s - everyone swishing about in fancy dress, taking “a turn about the room” - but for most people it was actually pretty terrible. And nowadays - largely because of laws - things are much, much better.
But they’re not good. The world’s still a mess. Our country’s still a mess - so what’s the solution? More and more laws to try and fix things. But it’s a bit like a whack-a-mole: every time you think you’ve got things sorted, another problem pops us. So we need some more law.
You might be thinking “bring it on: the law doesn’t grind against me - I’m all for it, all in line with it, so it doesn’t hold me captive” - and maybe that’s the case for our national laws so far - but there are so many other “laws” which surround us, restraining our freedom for our good.
COP26 has been a huge hoo-hah and most of us recognise the “law” it reflects: that we must protect our environment. Yet even those at the centre of the show struggle to walk the talk. The Babylon Bee has a great spoof article on Bill Gates at COP26:
Bill Gates, one of the wealthiest men alive, is passionate about fighting climate change. In a recent interview, he warned everyone of the sacrifices we will have to make to avoid a climate disaster. This statement was broadcast live from his 367 foot long, 650 million dollar superyacht.
“It won’t be easy. There are a great many obstacles we must overcome if we are to survive climate change,” said Bill Gates. “This may mean giving up some of the luxuries we love the most. We will all have to substantially reduce our travel...”
Now that’s a spoof but who can overlook the irony of 400 private jets flying to a climate conference? And it’s not just them: we all have “laws” for good which hold us captive, laws we fail to keep. We’re busy in our own lives making more and more laws, trying and trying again to fix things and arrive at “the good”:
I’ll go to bed earlier tomorrow
I’ll eat better tomorrow
I’ll exercise more tomorrow - or just exercise at all
I won’t do that again
But we’re about as good at making laws as breaking laws. Law’s no solution in the end. On the one hand, it holds us captive, taking our freedom. On the other hand, it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t produce the good that we hope for - because people keep on breaking it - because we keep on breaking it. It just tells us we’re in the wrong.
What’s the solution here? How do we arrive at “the good”? Do we just need to be tighter captives under more and more chains? You know that’s not right - our society, our culture places huge value on authenticity, on being ourselves - on not being forced to conform. And that heart-longing for freedom is right and something to celebrate. The problem is, so is our longing for the good - and they seem fundamentally incompatible.
Let’s read together and see what we learn. We’re in the little book of Galatians which is dense and short - and so it’s a bit hard to find - page 1170 in these blue bibles. Galatians chapter 3 and starting a verse 23. Look for the big 4 - chapter four, then up a bit to the tiny 23 - verse 23. Page 1170. Galatians 3:23 and David’s reading for us today. And just so you know, we’re going to be reading the footnoted translation option in Gal 4:3:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Thanks David. Now there’s a huge amount in this passage and we’re not going to cover it all - the main thing I want you to see here is the resolution of the tension between freedom and “the good” that we’ve been talking about. This passage walks through the same story twice, adding just a little more the second time, but the starting point is clear both times:
In v23 the starting point is in custody, locked up. In v24 we have this “guardian” - not a teacher, but someone in authority over a child to keep them on the straight and narrow - with a stick if necessary.
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.
And then in the second telling of the story the starting point is slavery, slavery under these basic principles of the world: “laws” from our world and our selves - laws we fail to keep.
Galatians 4:1–3 (NIV)
What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.
In both tellings we start out captive: slaves, oppressed from outside. And then in both stories there’s a turning point, an “until”. “until Christ came” - Gal 3:24; “until the set time” Gal 4:2 - and then, at last, things can change.
See, God invites us to step out of this captivity and into freedom through faith in Jesus. Out of the prison of the Jewish Law, out of the prison of performing for our world’s laws and our own laws - and into freedom.
Galatians 4:4–5 (NIV)
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law
He sent Jesus to redeem - if that word feels old fashioned, it is, thankfully: it’s a word from the world of slavery. It means to buy back slaves, setting them free. That’s what Jesus came to do: to free us. The bible talks about him purchasing us with his own blood - that’s a bit of a grisly picture telling us the price of our freedom: Jesus’ death on the cross, his blood poured out. Jesus releases people from slavery to law. He releases people from slavery to the basic principles of the world: that we must give up our freedom.
Jesus invites us to become children of God through faith - to be adopted as a his very own children. And I want to extend that invitation to you, here, today, right now: become children of God through Jesus. Leave this slavery behind - this endless unsatisfiable law - and find freedom.
You didn’t cut it and you can’t cut it. You don’t measure up and you won’t measure up. But this invitation isn’t for qualified winners, it’s for unqualified losers like me. You want to take that step? Or just talk to someone about it some more? If you’re on the stream, hit the “prayer” button and talk to one of our hosts. Here in the building? Come talk to me afterwards - I don’t bite!
application #1 Come and find freedom
application #2 And if you already know that freedom, think again about what it means, about how it is described here - about the contrast: you’re a beloved son, not a captive slave. You don’t have to perform to stay on the show, you’re part of the family.
But, you might be thinking, how is this going to work? How can we leave behind the law and not leave the good behind with it? How will we step into true freedom and not find ourselves just making a mess with it? Don’t we need law? Isn’t that a basic principle of our world? That freedom is in tension with good?
If you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian I’m so glad you’re here today and thanks for hearing me out this morning. I want to challenge you to think about this tension between freedom and the good seriously. How can it ever be resolved? More and more law at the expense of freedom? More and more freedom at the expense of the good? Just a middle way, giving up some of both? What do you think?
Stick with me a little longer because the second thing I really want us to see in today’s passage is that God offer us a solution which sacrifices neither freedom nor the good.
When we red through, did you notice the emphasis there was on inheritance? Both of these stories end with it:
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
In both cases, our status as heir rests on us being in the family line. In the first telling, because we’re baptised into Christ, that is, we are united into him, and Christ is Abraham’s seed (that is, his special descendant like we talked about last week), we are too - so we’re heirs of Abraham. In the second telling, because of Jesus’ redemption, we’re adopted into God’s family - and a very particular word is used there for adoption, one which specifically means adopted as inheritor; the adoptee is in line for the inheritance.
Why does inheritance matter? Why the emphasis on it? In our world, it’s about getting stuff when someone dies. That’s not quite the sense in bible times - just as well since God isn’t about to die. See, your “inheritance” in Jewish thought was your part of the promised land, your family’s ancestral plot, your family’s share which you lived on. Inheritance here is something which the whole family shares in now - yours in the present, not the future.
So joining the family - through being baptised into Christ, through being adopted into God’s family - means we get to share in what belongs to the family right now. And what is that? What’s shared among them? The answer is the Spirit - God’s Holy Spirit - God’s presence with, and in, his people.
If you look back a few verses, Galatians 3:14 tells us
He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
And here in Galatians 4:6 we see the same thing: because we are adopted into his family, he sent the Spirit into our hearts:
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”
If you were to dig back into the long story of God’s people you’d see lots of things pointing ahead to this amazing hope, this promise finally fulfilled. But perhaps the clearest of all is this short section from one of the ancient prophets of God, Ezekiel, also in our bibles:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
The solution to the tension between freedom and the good is a new start - a new heart, a new Spirit within us - God himself within us. Then, at last, we can truly be God’s people. At last we can say and know that he lives among us - because he lives within us. At last, we can free without fear because we are being transformed.
The Law, all law, coming from outside of us can only make us captive, makes us slaves. No law can ever free us, only condemn us when we fail. The solution isn’t more and more law. Neither is the solution a freedom which simply abandons the good. The solution is a new life coming instead from within - God’s Spirit, alive within us, transforming us from the inside out so we can be truly free. This is how freedom and the good are ultimately reconciled.
Now if you’d call yourself a follower of Jesus, but you wonder whether this is really your story, whether this is true for you, here it is in black and white:
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”
These words are true - God has sent the Spirit into the heart of every single one of his children - every person who has become a child of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
It’s time for me to close - but we always like to ask the question “so what” - let me leave you with two brief “so-what”’s:
If you’re not a believer here, you might look at the people around you and laugh: God alive and at work inside of them, transforming them to reconcile freedom and the good?! Fat chance. Look, we’re pretty naff - totally appreciate that - I stumble and fall, and make many, many mistakes.
But what you’re seeing is a work-in-progress not the finished article. Being renewed from the inside out is a process, a renovation which will take some time. There is something to see: because it’s a process, that means there’s been progress.
We’re not what we were. Sure we might not be as nice as you yet. We’re definitely not the finished product. But we are being changed, making progress. Slow, perhaps, but progress nonetheless. So what? If you’re exploring faith today, can I invite you to look for this progress; see if it’s true, that followers of Jesus are not what we were, that something is happening.
And if you’d call yourself a Christian today, so what? Look back. Find where God has been at work within you. Treasure that and celebrate that. Lean on that evidence that God has sent the Spirit into your heart - lean on that and look forward with hope and confidence. But don’t keep it all to yourself! Speak about what God has been doing inside of you - how you’ve changed. That’s a testimony to the power of God.
There’s more to say, but no more time. So let me pray...