MESSAGE FOR MAY 18, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 3:6-9
In the text we will look at this week in Galatians, Paul again assails the false teaching that had so influenced the churches across Galatia. Their teaching, that we can be acceptable to a holy God through our obedience to the law—through our performance, though our pride welcomes it, is in fact not the gospel and will not save anyone. We have also seen in Galatians that to the extent that we are walking under this performance-oriented belief, we will not walk in obedience and joy before God. Last week, we saw that Paul appealed to the Galatians’ personal experience of God’s grace through faith to help them see the lie of the false teaching. As we saw last week, his point is--because we initially received the Spirit through faith, not works, it’s therefore foolish for us to believe that we should live the Christian life as if it were our performance that makes us acceptable to God. He exposes the horrible inconsistency of believing we can finish through our flesh or our good works what God began in us by grace through faith. This week, he moves from that argument rooted in the Galatians’ personal experience, to one drawn directly from the pages of the Old Testament; specifically from the life of Abraham. He uses Abraham as a decisive example of someone who was made right before God on the basis of his faith, not his performance of the Law.
Because Paul’s argument in these verses is rooted in Abraham and God’s work in him, before we read the text, we need to review some important truths about Abraham. Abraham is the most important person in the book of Genesis and one of the most important persons in the Old Testament. He’s important for several reasons. First, in Genesis chapter three God promises to Adam that his offspring or “seed” would inflict a mortal wound on the serpent, Satan. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham and promises him, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." We know from Paul that chief among these blessings that will be given to every family or people group on earth is Jesus Christ, who would in fact be this seed or offspring of Abraham who would crush Satan and liberate God’s people from the fall. Second, through this promise and the covenant he makes with him in Genesis 15, God establishes Abraham’s seed or offspring to be his chosen, covenant people. This new Abrahamic people, out of all the other people on earth, would have a special relationship with God. They would be his people.
In the Old Testament, central to the idea of being someone’s offspring or “seed” is the belief that the offspring will resemble its father. That means that if you are a true child of Abraham, you will resemble him—not necessarily in a physical sense, but in a spiritual and moral sense. Jesus reiterates this truth in John chapter eight. He says to the Pharisees who wanted to kill him, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.” Notice how he grounds a person’s relationship to Abraham by how they respond to him. Later in 8:56 he tells them Abraham’s very different response to him. He says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” Jesus says that the true children of Abraham are manifest, not by their biological connection to Abraham, but among other things, by their joy and gladness at his coming.
So the Jews believed that a child of Abraham is identified by whether or not they resemble Abraham. On that much, Paul and the Judaizers agreed. Where they violently disagreed was on the question of: “In the Old Testament was the root character trait of Abraham by which his children—the people of God were made acceptable to God?” That is, what is the root characteristic of God’s people, the children of Abraham by which they are made righteous with God? The Judaizers said that what defined Abraham—and what made him acceptable before God was his obedience to the law, particularly circumcision. Based on that, the Judaizers taught that if you were circumcised, that marked you off as a genuine child of Abraham. They drew that belief about Abraham from Genesis 17:10. God says to Abraham, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” The Judaizers taught that Abraham’s fundamental identity—what made him acceptable to God--was defined by the fact that he and his offspring were circumcised. Abraham obeyed God’s command to be circumcised, so therefore—if you want to resemble Abraham--and show that you are his child, you too must be circumcised.
That sounds like a very logical argument, doesn’t it? One truth I want us to see, and what I tried to demonstrate two weeks ago when I assumed the role of the false teacher, was that these arguments sound very reasonable. Yet, they bring eternal death to anyone who holds them. These arguments are generally internally consistent, but they are false because they in sometimes fairly subtle ways twist the Scripture. This reminds us again that we must all be working theologians because these kinds of sophisticated, nuanced lies are still around today and the only way to counter them is to know this book very well—not just the big picture, but the details. Otherwise, we could be as vulnerable as the Galatians were.
Paul doubtless knew the Judaizers were using Abraham’s circumcision as proof that they should “complete” God’s saving work in them by being circumcised, so he directly confronts this lie. Paul responds to this affront to grace by quoting from Genesis 15—two chapters earlier--saying in verse seven, “just as Abraham "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” He saying here in essence, “No, the defining character trait of Abraham—what made him acceptable to God and therefore his spiritual offspring, was not his obedience to the law— it was his faith.” Genesis chapter 15 recounts an event when Abraham had 24 years earlier met with God and God explicitly revealed what truly made Abraham acceptable to him. Remember, back in chapter 12 when God called Abraham, God promised to bless all the families or ethnically diverse people groups on earth through the offspring of Abraham. Three chapters later, he comes to a still childless Abraham who wonders how this blessing will be brought about since he had no biological heir. Genesis 15:5 says of God, “And he brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."
This was an outrageous promise for a few reasons. The most obvious is--Abraham is at this point an old man whose wife had been barren and was past child-bearing years. This just didn’t happen to people. Even in our day, with all the often bizarre reproductive options that are being exercised, you don’t see women this old who are pregnant. Second, it’s clear this promise of a huge number of offspring will never be fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime. He will never see this infinite, stars-in-the-sky-like progeny come to pass. Yet, in spite of these factors that powerfully work against this promise being fulfilled, Abraham believes God. He simply ignores the overwhelming evidence that this promise will not be fulfilled and instead believes that this God would be able to fulfill these outrageous, laughable promises. According to Genesis and later, Paul, what makes Abraham acceptable or righteous in God’s sight is this faith. In fact, (and don’t miss this) it is only AFTER Abraham is declared righteous by his faith that God enters into this covenant relationship with him. God does not bring Abraham into covenant with him in response to some act of obedience Abraham performed. He brings him into a covenant relationship in response to his faith. The pattern is set—the way into a covenant relationship with God—the only way to be acceptable to God is through faith.
Paul is simply drawing on Old Testament precedent when he argues that it is faith, not works that make a person a child of Abraham and not circumcision. This is the Biblical argument of Genesis that Paul draws on when he says, “just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now that we have some background, let’s read through the rest of this text through that Old Testament lens. Paul writes, “7Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." 9So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Now, we see more clearly why Paul writes, “Know then that it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham.” In Romans chapter four, Paul again uses Abraham as the example par excellence of the truth that it is by faith that we are justified or made acceptable to God. There he goes into more detail and actually explains the relationship between circumcision and his faith.
He says, “…We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,” For Paul, the order of events in Abraham’s life is vitally important. Abraham was counted righteous by virtue of his faith. Later, in Genesis 17 he entered into the covenant of circumcision, but he was circumcised AFTER he had already been counted righteous. There was no cause and effect relationship between circumcision and Abraham’s righteousness as the false teachers claimed because Abraham was justified by God BEFORE he was circumcised and what made him righteous was his faith. Paul says that circumcision did not make Abraham righteous; it was simply an outward sign confirming that God considered Abraham righteous because of his faith. Think of it this way. Having small pox leaves physical scars that last for life. If you see an adult with small pox scars, that doesn’t mean he currently has small pox—that he is still contagious. The scars are an outward sign that he has had small pox. Likewise, obedience to the law does not mean that you are, through your works currently being made acceptable to God. It is instead an outward sign that you have in the past been made acceptable to God. The Judaizers had confused what was at the root of Abraham’s righteousness--his faith, with what was only an outward sign--circumcision that manifested his right standing with God.
We frequently make this same foolish mistake today all the time, don’t we? We are tempted to believe that we are made acceptable to God on the basis of all that we do for him—our works. God’s opinion of us goes up and down dependent upon our level of obedience, our performance of spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible reading. As we will see later in Galatians, those good works actually grow out of our justification—our right standing with God. We must never forget the proper order here--our personal holiness is grounded in God’s previous justifying work in us. We are NOT justified by our holy works. We are justified by faith that, when it is genuine saving faith, always produces works. To believe otherwise is to go against God’s pattern of relating to fallen human he began all the way back to Abraham, 4000 years ago. This is always the way he has justified people, though faith. The life of Abraham proves this.
Paul continues his argument in verse eight saying, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Now, the question here is—what does Paul mean by the statement that “God… preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham by saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed?” In what sense was God preaching the gospel to Abraham through his promise to bless the nations through him? The answer is in the source of the blessing that God will give to the nations through Abraham. The source of the blessing of Abraham, as we will see later in Galatians, is Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus, the seed of Abraham, a Jew, that all the people groups of the earth shall be blessed. Think about that in relation to verse eight here where God preaches the gospel to Abraham. What is the gospel in its simplest expression? It is simply the good news of Jesus Christ and that is what God implicitly preached to Abraham. God would bless the nations through Abraham through this one seed that we now know is Jesus Christ. In that sense, God absolutely preached the gospel to Abraham. The entire New Testament in one sense is simply the revelation of who that Seed would be and how God would use him to bless the nations—through his life, death, resurrection and promised second coming.
Like other Jews at this time, the Judaizers believed that the only people God would ever bless in this saving way—would ever bring into covenant with him--was the Jews—those who were circumcised. That meant that if you were going to receive this blessing by God through Jesus Christ, you must be circumcised. Paul counters that lie by reminding the Galatians that God had always planned to bless not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles in this way and that this blessing to the Gentiles would come through Abraham. The blessing of the Gentiles through Abraham was part of God’s plan from day one. All the nations, not just the Jews, would be blessed through Abraham. Because this promise of God’s blessing through Abraham was not given exclusively to the Jews, it was a lie for the Judaizers to teach that in order to receive the blessing of Abraham; you first had to become a Jew.
Paul concludes his argument in verse nine by reiterating the connection between faith and Abraham. He says, “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Abraham’s identity was established not by his works—though he certainly did many great things, but by his faith, which made him righteous before God. The Judaizers had wrongly used Abraham as an example of someone who was acceptable to him by works when in fact Abraham is the example par excellence of a man of faith.
Let’s bring one point of application. That is: all those who are truly justified by faith and made right with God will live lives characterized by faith. In Romans 1:17, Paul quotes Habakkuk and says, “The righteous will live by faith.” He does not say only that the righteous will be saved through faith, but that they will also live by faith. The last two weeks we have seen this truth. This week, we saw that the kind of faith we are to live by is a work-producing faith as seen in Abraham, so let’s think about the kind of faith that characterized this man and which we will show if we are genuinely his children by faith. Although we in the church talk about living by faith, frankly in North America, we are seldom forced to do this and many of us fight against living by faith like the plague.
Beyond our faith-discouraging North American context, the power of sin covers this world with a black shroud of unbelief in at least three ways. First, the sin in the world conditions us to doubt everything we cannot see. We want evidence up front for everything we do. Second, this sinful world compels us to take the paths of least resistance and live with as little risk as possible. We don’t like risk. If you take risks you may get hurt and sin always values pain avoidance more than God’s glory. Third, the power of sin pushes us to trust first and foremost in ourselves and to doubt that anything good will happen to us outside of what we are able to bring about ourselves. The power of sin works to make us doubt all the time. We are conditioned to doubt in our prosperous, need-nothing culture and the power of sin works in us the same way it worked against Abraham.
Yet Abraham, by God’s grace--in the midst of the black shroud of unbelief that hung around him, trusted God to do far more than he could ever see--a nation of people were going to come from his dead body? “Yes, I’ll believe that...Why, because God promised it! I can’t see it—there’s nothing in my experience that leads me to believe it, but I’ll believe it.” Abraham, in a world filled with doubt, by God’s grace trusted God and took enormous risks--leaving his homeland for a land he knew not. Abraham staked his entire destiny on God, on the fact that he had both the power and integrity to keep his promises.
We who claim to be justified, made righteous by faith like Abraham was—are we living as children of Abraham displaying the faith of Abraham? If we have placed our trust in Christ alone to save us from the power of sin and have been justified by God, then we, by God’s grace have exercised the faith of Abraham. Are we living in it day by day? It’s a towering irony that many of us claim that we have trusted God with the most precious thing we have—our eternal souls, but refuse to trust him with their money, possessions and family. When was the last time you did something in obedience to God that, if God didn’t provide miraculously, you would have, at best, made a fool out of yourself? When was the last time you took a real, tangible “here’s-what-this-will-cost-me-if-God-doesn’t-deliver” risk in trusting God? I’m not talking about mindless recklessness, but simply the Abrahamic obedience that comes from faith in GOD. It’s probably not Biblical faith to respond to a difficult situation, “It’ll work out.” Without a ground of faith in God’s provision, that is reckless. Frequently what is meant by that is, “It’ll work out because I can handle this.” The faith of Abraham had a very different object. The Bible teaches us that God calls his people on a regular basis to trust Him and step out in faith. If we are not experiencing this, it’s not because God has stopped doing that, it’s because either we are not listening, or because he has stopped wasting his breath on people who refuse to listen to Him.
If God were to call you to quit your job and use your gifts and energies in the mission field for one of those people groups that were blessed through Abraham’s seed, Jesus, would you even be able to hear that call? Would you be willing to obey God, trusting that God’s will for you is better than your house, possessions, proximity to loved ones and your well funded retirement? That’s the faith of Abraham—that’s the faith that makes a person right with God. Parents, are you willing to trust your kids to God as Abraham did Isaac? Have you placed them on the altar, trusting that God will take care of them for his optimum glory? Or, are you trying to play God in their lives through fleshly control and manipulation? One way to tell if that is happening is to judge your response when they deviate from your plan for them. Are they in God’s hands or yours? Abraham gave Isaac to God and he turned out ok.
Are we giving sacrificially financially to the kingdom of God? For many people in North America, giving a tithe or even several times more than a tithe requires little, if any faith. Abraham risked everything, taking his flock and all his worldly possessions into unknown lands that doubtless didn’t feel nearly as safe as the land of his fathers. Abraham left his friends and kinfolk to follow God. Are we stepping out in the faith of Abraham, risking our relationships in obedience to God by boldly sharing our faith in Christ? Are we bringing our treasures before God--our family, our possessions, our reputations and regularly offering them back to him, knowing that He has a right to take them anytime He wants them? Do we trust Him with them? What would our response be to Him if He did take them from us? Would we trust Him? Do we live out the faith of Abraham?
If we are in Christ, the seed of Abraham, this is who we are. This is in our spiritual DNA if we are children of Abraham. We are Abrahamic in our faith. This is our spiritual birthright, our heritage, one of the characteristics by which we are identified as being a child of Abraham through Christ. Do people see you as a person of faith? Is that one of the defining characteristics of your life? It was Abraham’s. We must be careful that Jesus does not have reason to tell us, as he did the Pharisees, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did.”[John 8:39] Though Abraham was by no means perfect, when you think about what Abraham did, that can be sobering to people who, at times do whatever we can to not have to trust in God. May God give us grace to glorify Him by trusting in His power and integrity to keep his promises as Abraham did..
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