Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Galatians 4:21-31 ‘You are a miracle child’

Galatians is a little bit repetitive.  Paul piles argument upon argument to support the outrageous claim that all a person needs to do to be accepted as a beloved child of God is to hand over control of their life to Jesus.  Galatians says you can do nothing to earn God’s acceptance.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died a sacrificial death so that you can experience peace with God.  Salvation as simple as putting trust in Jesus!
‘But what about obedience—are you saying that it doesn’t matter what you do?’  When you ask me that question I know I am truly preaching grace.  The famous Welch preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said that ‘there is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amount to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do …’
This morning we are going to see yet another argument that Paul gives to show that salvation is all of grace and none of works, and then I will tell you that you will only be able to truly obey God if you grasp this good news.
You are a miracle child (21-23)
For generations the people of Galatia (in what is now southern Turkey) knew nothing about the true and living God.  Then Paul visited them to recuperate from an illness.  He shared the good news of Christ with them.  Many responded in joy and became Christians.  But it was not long before false-teachers came along and muddied the waters.  These false-teachers agreed that Jesus was the Messiah, but claimed you had to obey all the laws of the Old Testament to be a Christian.  Their message was that God will accept you on the basis of what Jesus did plus what you do.  That is a denial of the gospel.  Paul wants them to realise than grace plus anything (rituals or obedience) results in nothing.  Salvation is by grace alone.  To help them understand this he tells them more about Abraham.
Paul has already shown that Abraham is a great example of someone who was saved by free grace.  He was a sinful man from a pagan background who was given a promise by God.  Abraham simply believed God’s promise and it was credited to him as righteousness.  Obeying the Old Testament Law had nothing to do with his salvation, for Abraham lived hundreds of years before that law was given.  Indeed, the grace that saved Abraham also kept him.  For at times he sinned and wavered in his faith, but he remained a friend of God.
One occasion where Abraham wavered in his faith was when he allowed his wife, Sarah, to persuade him to have a child with her servant girl, Hagar.  The promise that God had made to Abraham involved a son.  But God was taking his time.  Abraham was eighty-six years old and he still hadn’t changed any nappies.  So Abraham took matters into his own hand.  Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.  Ishmael was the result of human effort and planning.  Paul describes him as the son who was born in the ordinary way (literally ‘by the flesh’).  Ishmael is a good example of the religion of the false-teachers with their striving to earn God’s acceptance.     
I heard of a family planning clinic that was offering some sort of deal whereby they would wave a large part of their fees if the couple failed to conceive.  They would never have taken Abraham and Sarah on as clients.  Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac, the son of the promise, was born.  Have you ever heard of such a thing?  That is extra-ordinary.  It is one of many examples in the Old Testament when something happens against all the odds, and leaves you knowing that God’s must be behind it.  Paul describes Isaac, as the son born by the power of the Holy Spirit (29).
If you have been born again then you are a miracle child.  Isaac was born by God’s miraculous work, and you were born again by God’s miraculous work.  At the beginning of his gospel, John wrote about those who become children of God who ‘are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God’ (NLT).  You were dead in your transgressions and sin (Ephesians 2:1)—dead people can do nothing to become alive.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)—people steeped in sin cannot do anything to win God’s approval.  We were hostile to him (Romans 8:7)—people don’t naturally give up on pride and seek the grace of true and living God.  We are kept by the power of God (1 Peter 1:5)—it is God who will keep you to the end.  From planning, to conception, to new birth, through life and into all eternity your faith is all about the work of God.  You have a lot to be thankful for!
You were born to be free (24-27)
Paul takes the story of Isaac and Ishmael (and of Sarah and Hagar) and shows how it relates to the two ways people try to be right with God.  There are only two types of religious person in the world—those trusting in their own goodness and those trusting in the life and death of Jesus.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.  One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.  Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
The false-teachers pointed the Galatians to Mount Sinai and reminded them of the Law of Moses.  They told the Galatians that they must obey those laws in order to be saved.  Yet that law could never save people.  It was not designed to save people.  It was given to those who had been rescued from Egypt to show them how to live in the time before the coming of Jesus.  One of its functions of that Law was to expose people’s refusal to obey God, and so cause them to cry out for the forgiveness and grace of God.
Paul then contrasts two cities of Jerusalem.  The first-century Jerusalem was the home of the Jews.  The Jews had forgotten the grace of God.  Like the false-teachers they believed that they had to earn God’s acceptance through observing rules and rituals.  The other Jerusalem is from above.  Isaiah had referred to God’s people as Jerusalem—not a physical city but a community of God’s people.  This Jerusalem is free, and she is our mother.  We were born to be free.  Isaiah told God’s people in exile, that God had not finished with them.  He would supernaturally bring about the new birth of many children.  Your faith is a part of the fulfilment of that promise!
Religious people will hate you (28-31)
Before I tell you about the relationship of obedience to faith, I want you to notice that religious slaves will always resent free sons.  The one born to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit.  Those who are trying to earn the acceptance of God have no grounds for joy and they eventually resent those who are resting in the free grace of God.  This was seeing in the bullying words of the false-teachers who caused such havoc in Galatia, and it shows itself in so many ways in the modern world.  Paul tells us that we must resist the teaching of those who say things like, ‘sure it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you live a good life and are sincere.
Conclusion—only those who understand grace can live a life that pleases God.
The first verse of our reading is astonishing, given the sheer beauty of grace and the fact that trying to earn God’s acceptance will rob you of your joy.  Tell me, you who want (desire) to be under the law … Many of the Galatians wanted to be placed under laws that no longer apply to the Christian.  They want to buy into a false-understanding of that law.  They wanted to contribute to their salvation.  They wanted to earn God’s acceptance.  I suppose it must have been rooted in pride.
But you can never please God if you are working to earn his acceptance.  To start with, trying to earn God’s acceptance denies the fact that Jesus has done everything necessary to make wicked people dearly loved children of the Father.  Secondly, if you are only living a good life so that God will bless you and take you to heaven, then you are not really being good at all—you are simply being self-absorbed and self-righteous.
The seventeenth century Belgic Confession of Faith says, ‘far from making people cold toward living in a holy way, justifying faith so works within them that apart from it they will never anything out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.’  So while living to earn God’s acceptance will leave you joyless, proud and insecure understanding God’s grace will fill you with gratitude, thankfulness and awe.  You will want to obey Jesus because you love him.
Finally, this has an important application when we see moral weakness and spiritual apathy in our lives, and in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  I remember hearing a wonderful Christian teacher explain, ‘when things seem slack don’t revert to preaching law.’  Yes, there is a time to rebuke and warn.  But our primary means of bringing change is not to nag.  Nagging doesn’t work—anyone who is married knows that.  The primary way to inspire holiness is to magnify the beauty of free grace, ponder deeply on the privilege of being an adopted and beloved child of God, and remember that your sin has been dealt with.  Then the love that has been poured into you will flow out of you!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

What does it matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere? (1 John 2:18-27)

'Sure it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as your sincere.' 

That's what many of our friends think, when it comes to religion.  Mind you, they know that you need more than sincerity in other areas of your life.  You might sincerely believe the railroad tracks were clear, and die instantly when the train hits you.  You might sincerely believe that the bottle contained medicine, and become very ill when you realise you have swallowed bleach.  A friend of mine sincerely believed that he had bought tickets to see Real Madrid, until the tickets arrived marked Athletico (and for the night they had left Spain).

In an age of spin and hypocrisy sincerity is a wonderfully attractive virtue.  But sincerity can't save you, only Jesus saves.  So we go to our friends with a message of truth that gives life, and pray that God will open their eyes to see its beauty.  And when people don't understand this message we have an obligation to correct them.

John is writing this letter to people who have been exposed to the disturbing message of false-teachers.  He warns them that it really does matter what you believe.

1.  What you believe matters (18-23)

'My dear children, this is the last hour...'

The last hour it that period of time between the Day of Pentecost and the time of Jesus' return.  We are in this last hour.  This last hour is marked by hostility towards Christians and their message.  Sometimes that hostility comes from the outside (in the form of persecution), and sometimes that hostility comes from the inside (in the form of those who distort the message). 

Now in this last hour there are antichrists, that is people who oppose the person and message of Jesus.  John refers to the false-teachers with this strong language.  'They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us.'  They had claimed to be Christians, they had tried to move the church away from the truth, and then they had left with their followers.

What had these false-teachers believed?  We have seen that they claimed that sin does not matter, that they had no sin and that they do not sin.  They didn't see their need of grace and mercy.  Now we see that they deny that Jesus is the Christ.  Later in this letter we will see that they refused to acknowledge that Jesus is from God.

2.  Beware of those who would lead you astray (24-27)

John says, 'I am writing these things about those who are trying to lead you astray.'  False-teachers always seek a following.  Be on your guard!  Their teaching is often subtle.  It sound tolerant to say all religions led to God, but Jesus said I am the way, the truth and life, no one comes to the Father but by me.  It sound wonderful to talk about spirituality, but if that spirituality is not centred on the cross it is nothing.

John point to two things that will keep you from false-teaching: the person of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the gospel.  'You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth' (20).  The Holy Spirit guides us into the truth, and he will never guide us away from the scriptures that he inspired.

See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.  If it does, you will also remain in the Son and in the Father' (24).  The Bible isn't simply a book of knowledge or a manual telling you how to live.  The Bible is a living word that introduces you to a person.  These truths enrich our relationship with our loving and mighty God.

Just before we begin to rap up, notice that in verse twenty-seven he talks of not needing anyone to teach you.  He cannot mean that they don't need to be taught, for then he would not be writing this letter to them.  Nor can he mean that they don't need those gifted to teach the word, which Ephesians tells us are given to build up the church.  The simply point is that they have no need of the sort of teaching the false-teachers were offering.  Be careful who you listen to!


'It doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere'.  All the writers of the Bible would strongly disagree.  Truth matters!

I have an agenda, but it is not a hidden agenda.  I want you to see the beauty of the gospel, and I want you to never forget that the cross is the heart of that gospel.

The apostle Paul summed up his message saying, 'I preach Christ crucified' (1 Corinthians 1:23).  If you understand the cross you will never agree with the false-teachers when they say sin does not matter, Jesus is not the Christ and Jesus is not from God.  If the cross is not at the heart of our belief, then we don't believe the message of Jesus.   This is important to remember for truth matters.

I remember watching a friend struggle to hold back the tears as he read the following words from Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson:
'When we think of Christ dying on the cross we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to Himself.  We should almost think that God loved us more than He loves His Son.  We cannot measure His love by any other standard.  He is saying to us, “I love you this much.”  The cross is the heart of the gospel; it makes the gospel good news.  Christ died for us; He has stood in our place before God’s judgement seat; He has borne our sins.  God has done something on the cross which we could never do for ourselves.  But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross.  He persuades us that He loves us.'

(I began this sermon by reading https://unspokenblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/my-wife-has-tattoos-marriage-new-birth-and-the-gospel/ )

Monday, 11 April 2016

Galatians 4:12-20 'What has happened to all your joy?

On a Friday afternoon you get your pay-cheque, but it does not fill you with joy.  For you have been paid what you have earned through all your hard work.  So you don’t jump up and down with amazement at how gracious your employer is.  You don’t run out onto the street and tell people that she is unexplainably kind.  You might not even feel the need to say thanks. 
Getting what you have earned does not produce joy!  But the gospel is not about getting what you earned.  The gospel is about the free gift of God.  The gospel is about grace being poured on wicked rebels like us.  Understanding the gospel should fill us with joy.  Paul asks the Galatians, ‘what has happened to all your joy?’  They have begun to forget the gospel of grace!
The message of grace had brought the Galatians joy
Paul brings them back to their first encounter with him.  As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you (13).  We are not told what this illness was.  Some think that he may have contracted malaria on the coast of what is now Turkey, and had gone to the hilly region of Galatia to recover.  Others think that he may have had an ailment of the eye—which is why he uses the picture of them giving an eye, if they could have, as an expression of devotion to him (15b).
Whatever the source of his illness it had caused a diversion in his travels and had resulted in him bringing the gospel to them!  Despite what the ‘health and wealth’ people teach it can be God’s will for his people to be ill.  Paul’s illness was part of God’s plan to reach the Galatians.
An ill man came to the Galatians in vulnerability and God spoke through him with power.  That is consistent with the way God works.  The Christians in Corinth loved impressive people, but Paul would teach them, ‘when I am weak I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:10).  Whatever your circumstances, your lack of gifting, your shy temperament, your shortness of energy, the limits to you knowledge and experience or your family circumstances, God can use you with your weaknesses and where you are.  As you know I have struggled with a psychiatric illness.  God has used that experience to help me minister to others.  One person said to me, ‘I knew I could share this with you because you have been through it to.’  I got into the car and spontaneously gave thanks that he let me pass through the pain I experienced.   
Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.  Instead you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Jesus Christ himself (14).  He was a burden to them, but his message was a delight to them.  The gospel of grace caused them to look beyond their circumstances.  So one Christian, in a year when his wife had undergone five operations for cancer and terrible problems at work, said that when ‘I had every reason to feel beaten, I felt joy.  In spite of everything, God gave me the conviction of being loved … it was not happiness, gush or jolliness … but I knew that he … would give me and my family enough courage and grace for each day.’
Joy is not the opposite of sadness.  We know this because the Bible speaks of joy and sadness existing together.  The apostle Paul can speak of being sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10).  I believe that no one has ever displayed as much holy joy as Jesus, yet he is described as a man of sorrows who was familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  One day God will wipe away ever tear from your eyes, but that day is not in this life.  Your first prayer for your hurting Christian sister or brother should be that they won’t forget the infinite love of the God who gave his Son in order to make them one of his dearly loved children.
The message of merit robbed the Galatians of joy
Paul notices that something has changed in the Galatians since those early days of delighting in the gospel of free grace.  ‘What has happened to all your joy (15a)?’  What had happened was that false-teachers had come to the region of Galatia and muddied the waters.  These false-teachers agreed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they claimed that you had to obey all the laws of the Old Testament to be a Christian.  The false-teachers preached a gospel that depended partly on God and partly on self.  Many of the Galatian Christians were been taken in by it, and it robbed them of their joy. 
How could you be joyful if you have to earn God’s acceptance?  How could you know if you had done enough to buy a place in his family?  Your friend thinks, ‘God will accept me because I am sincere and I tried my best.’  But the truth is that our best is not good enough for a perfectly holy God, that none of us has actually done our best, that our best was always a pretty self-absorbed and proud form of self-righteousness, and that we are not at all sincere.
We go into the world with a message of joy!  It is not a message that says you will never be sick; remember Paul’s illness.  It is not a message that says you will never be sad; we follow of a man of sorrows familiar with grief.  We are not promising that life will be easy; Jesus warned that we will have trouble in this world.  We are sharing something far greater.  We are telling them that when the right 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 the full rights of sons (4:4-5).    
The message of grace changes you from within
In his book on delighting in our heavenly Father’s love, Sinclair Ferguson explains, ‘Knowing in the very depths of my being who I am, as I come increasingly to appreciate what it means to be a child of God, has a tremendously powerful effect.  It sets me free from the world’s anxious quest to “be somebody”’.
The false-teachers weren’t free from the need to be somebody.  What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them (17b).  They were absorbed in their egos.  Then want applause and a following.  That pride seems to have rubbed off on the Galatians who are tempted to put on a show for Paul.  He has to remind them that they shouldn’t simply be zealous for good when I am with you (18b).  I know so well that insecurity makes us crave people’s approval.
But the apostle Paul is secure in God’s grace.  He doesn’t minister to them to win their applause.  Grace has transformed his heart, so that he is genuinely concerned for their spiritual well-being.  ‘My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you [he is talking of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, who makes us more like Jesus], how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you (19-20).
Charles Simeon was one of the most influential pastors of the early part of the nineteenth century.  Yet when he was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge he faced great opposition.  The people of that church did not want him, and the regulars refused to turn up.  The church wardens locked all the pews so that those people who did attend church could not sit down.  People refused to say ‘good morning’ to him and spat on him in the street.  Some even threw dead cats at him as he preached in open air.  But he laboured away for years with passionate love and commitment to the truth.  As it turned out he did eventually win the affection of the people.  It has been said of him, ‘His method was to tell the truth.  His mind-set was love for his people.  His motive was to see Christ formed in them.  And he did those things despite the cost.’  The same was true of the apostle Paul.
May the beauty of grace fill our hearts with joy, even when our circumstances fill our lives with sorrow!  May the security of knowing that God is a good parent, who loves us, even when we let him down, make us free from seeking our significance from the applause of people!  May the Holy Spirit’s transforming grace free us from the tyranny of living for our egos! 
Paul asked the Galatians, ‘what has happened to all your joy?’  I hope that studying Galatians is bringing you joy—the joy of knowing that God has not treated us as our sins deserve, but according to his loving kindness.  While getting your pay-cheque after a hard weeks work doesn’t fill you with amazement, grace causes us to sing.    
‘And can it be that I [even me, with all my failures and sin, both in the past and the present] should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood?  Died he for me who caused his pain [his perfect life for my guilt one!]?  For me who him to death pursued [me, a natural born rebel who was hostile to his holiness and has let him down more times than can be counted]?  Amazing love!  How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?’

Friday, 25 March 2016

Galatians 4:1-7 'More that free'

Russ Moore writes of the occasion when he and his wife adopted two boys from an orphanage in Russia.
“When Maria and I first walked into the orphanage, where we were led to the boys the Russian courts had picked out for us to adopt, we almost vomited in reaction to the stench and squalor of the place.  The boys were in cribs in the dark lying in their own waste.  Leaving them at the end of the day was painful, but leaving them the final day before going home to wait for the paperwork to go through was the hardest thing either of us had ever done.  Walking out of the room, to prepare for the plane ride home, Maria and I could hear Maxim calling out for us and falling down and convulsing in tears.
“When Maria and I, at long last, received the call that the legal process was over, and we returned to Russia to pick up our new sons, we found that their transition from orphanage to family was more difficult than we had supposed.  We dressed the boys in outfits our parents had brought for them.  My mother-in-law gathered some wild flowers growing between cracks in the pavement outside the orphanage.  We nodded our thanks to the orphanage personnel, and walked out into the sunlight, to the terror of the two boys.  They had never seen the sun.  They had never felt the wind.  They had never heard the sound of a car door shutting, or the sensation of being carried along at one hundred miles-an-hour down a Russian road.
“I noticed that they were shaking, and reaching back to the orphanage in the distance.  I whispered to Sergei, ‘… that place is a pit.  If only you knew what is waiting for you:  home with mummy and a daddy who love you, grandparents and great-grandparents and cousins and playmates, and McDonalds’ Happy Meals.  But all they knew was the orphanage they had come from, and it was squalid.  They had no other reference point.
“We knew the boys had acclimated to our home—that they trusted us—when they stopped hiding food in their high chairs.  They knew there would be another meal coming.  They wouldn’t have to fight over scraps.  This was the new norm …
But I still remember those little hands reaching for the orphanage, and I see myself there.”
Adoption is a beautiful thing.  At its best it originates in the in the heart of people who simply want to pour out love.  It transforms the lives of the broken and vulnerable.  It is a reality that is offered to each of us.  For God is an adopting God.  This idea of adoption gives us the deepest insight into the nature of his love.     
The first thing I want say is that before we were adopted we were slaves (1-3).
Our passage opens with the picture of an heir whose father has died.  This heir is placed under the supervision of guardians until he is old enough to inherit.  Those guardians order the boy about.  They direct and discipline him.  He is not free.  He is no different to a slave.  So also with us—we too were slaves before we encountered Christ.
When we were under age, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.  Paul has been talking about the Law of Moses.  This Law had the good purpose of showing people the extent of their sin, so that they would cry out to God for his free grace and mercy.  However, Satan used that law to accuse people of their sin and leave them in hopeless despair.
Most of the Christians in the Galatians churches had not come from a Jewish background, but the elemental spiritual forces worked against them too.  They believed that they had to preform many duties and rituals to appease their pagan gods, and they knew nothing of the grace, mercy and intimacy that can be experienced in the one true and living God.
We too were slaves.  The same elemental spiritual forces worked against us too.  Maybe you believed that you would go to heaven because you were a good person.  But you could have no peace.  For when you look an honest look into your heart you could see that there was a lot there that was not good.  Besides how could you ever be sure that you were good enough for a God who is known as holy and pure? 
The second thing I want to say is that God gave his Son to make you a son (4-5)
The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once said, ‘we moved not towards the Lord, but the Lord towards us … The offended God himself, in infinite compassion broke the silence and came forth to bless his enemies.’  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. 
The Law of Moses revealed the extent of the people’s sin.  It demanded an absolute obedience.  It pronounced a curse on those who were disobedient.  Without the input of grace it left people without hope.  But Jesus came and took the curse of that Law upon himself.  He died for our guilt too.  ‘There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he alone could unlock the gate of heaven, and let us in.’
He redeemed those who are under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons.  He didn’t only free us from guilt and condemnation; he has taken us to his heart.  He didn’t just let you out of prison; he gave you a place in his family.  He gave his Son to make you his son.  He is the father who lifted his robes and raced through the streets to hug you and kiss you.  You are his treasured possession.  He delights over you with singing.  He holds you close to his bosom.
J. I. Packer writes, ‘In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs.  Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship.  To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater’ (Packer).
Cast your mind back to the love that Russ and Maria Moore had for those two Russian boys—Max and Sergei.  Do you realise that that is just a taster of the infinitely greater love that God wants you we experience in him?  Remember that it took time for the boys to realise that they were safe and accepted—to stop hiding food in their high-chairs.  God wants us to realise our position as sons, and so he gives us the person of the Holy Spirit.
The third thing I want to say is that God gave the Spirit to tell us we are sons (6-7)
God gave the Son to make us sons.  He gave the Holy Spirit so that we could experience this reality in our live.  God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who cries out, ‘Abba, father’ (6).
There are so many confusing voices that rob us of the joy we should experience of being sons of God.  Experiences of rejection make it hard for us to understand God’s acceptance.  The devil comes as an accuser who is unable to rob us of our salvation, but will do his best to rob us of the joy of our salvation.  Some of us are even prone to anxiety disorders, which security a hard thing to feel.  My prayer is that you will eventually experience the Holy Spirit drowning out those other voices.
God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who cries out, ‘Abba, father’.  Why do you pray?  God wants you to ask him for things that are in line with his will.  More importantly he wants us to pray that we would experience more of him.  He wants us to pray from our hearts.  He wants us to pray that our hearts would be centred on his love.  ‘Praying Abba Father is the deepest prayer of faith … The very word father carries with it hope, love, forgiveness, faith and acceptance’ (John Miller).  Ask the Holy Spirit to help heal your distorted view of God.  When you start thinking that he is like a severe policeman to be obeyed, or a judge who is seeking to find you guilty, the Spirit proclaims, ‘no, he is your father’ (Hugh Palmer).   Your heavenly Father longs for you to know the joy of being secure in his love.
Finally, look at verse seven and see that we are both sons and heirs.  This reveals a wonderful truth about how amazingly gracious God is to us.  You see in the ancient world the inheritance always passed to a male child.  If there was no son then one was adapted so that inheritance could be passed on.  We have been adopted to receive the inheritance of God’s lavish grace and his tender love.  But take note of the fact that the Father did not need to adopt us, for he has a Son.  He did not need to adopt anyone.  He did not need to adopt sinners like us.  This adoption speaks volumes about his gracious heart.   
‘Unless you’re assured that God loves you, it’s pretty hard to do anything in the Christian life’ (John Miller).  One of our problems is that we look in the wrong place for reasons as to why God would adopt us.  Don’t look into the recesses of your heart to explain why God set his love upon you.  You’ll see you sin and conclude that God could never accept you.  But his acceptance is not based on your heart.  It is based in his heart!
He is the God who loves his enemies.  He is the God who sent his Son into the world to save sinners.  He did not choose you because you are beautiful or good.  He chose you in sheer lavish grace.  He loves to make slaves into sons.  He loves to cleanse people of their guilt.  He loves to pour his mercy upon the wicked.  He wants to clothe you in the righteousness of Christ and put his ring on your finger.  The concept of adoption is the guarantee that God will not let you go, even when you let him down and fall into sin, ‘for only bad fathers throw their children out of the family, even under provocation; and God is not a bad father, but a good one’ (Packer).  So don’t give up trying to grasp the fact that he loves you, for it pleases his heart when the joyous truths of adoption delight our souls.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Galatians 3:15-29 'Fully knowmn and fully loved'

In the film The Fisher King, Amanda Plummer plays the part of a shy and awkward accountant, called Lydia.  Robin Williams plays Parry.  Parry takes a liking to Lydia and begins to pursue her.  But she doubts that anyone would really be interested in her.
Parry asks Lydia for a dinner date, after which he offers to walk her home.  ‘I think you’re a little attracted to me,’ she observes.  But, although she loves him, she puts a damper on things.  If you knew what I was like you wouldn’t be so keen.  Your infatuation will wear off.  You’ll leave me and never call again.  You’ll soon begin to think that I’m just a piece of dirt.
‘I’ve known you for a long time,’ Parry responds.  ‘I know you come out from work at noon every day … I walk with you to lunch … I know what you order … I know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends and I know that sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else feeling as alone and as separate as you feel you are … I love you … I love you … I love you and I think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks and I would be knocked out several times if I could just have that first kiss.  And … I won’t be distant.  I’ll come back in the morning and I’ll call you if you let me …’
How does she respond?  She slowly touches his face and asks, ‘You’re real … aren’t you?’
We yearn for grace!  We long to be loved by someone who can handle all our weaknesses, flaws, failings and sin.  We want someone who really knows us and yet genuinely loves us.  And the great thing is that the reality is better than the fiction.  The truth is that while you are more sinful than you have ever realised and more loved than you have ever dreamed.  So let’s continue drinking from the pure stream of grace that flows so abundantly out of Galatians.
For generations the people of Galatia (in what is now southern Turkey) knew nothing about the true and living God.  But one day the apostle Paul turned up with the great news of Jesus.  He told them that Jesus lived the perfect life and died a sacrificial death so that we could experience peace with God.  He shared a message that assures people of forgiveness and gives them a new heart.  He told them that the gift of God was conditional on nothing else but putting our trust in the person of Christ.  Many people responded with joy and became Christians.  But it was not long before false-teachers came along and muddied the waters.  These false-teachers agreed that Jesus was the Messiah, but claimed you had to obey all the laws of the Old Testament to be a Christian.  Paul writes to set the record straight.
Firstly, Paul points out that: God has always, and will always, bless people through grace (15-18).
He has highlighted Abraham as the great example of being justified by grace through faith.  Abraham was a pagan man from an idolatrous family who simply believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.  Now Paul points out that the promises made to Abraham, and the salvation that accompanied them, were an irrevocable agreement.  Salvation has always been, and will always be, based on God’s undeserved favour to those who trust him.  Salvation never has been, nor ever will be, the results of our efforts and attempts to be good.
It is wonderful to realise that his means of giving us peace with God has always centred on the person of Jesus.  The promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed (singular), who is Christ.  God promised Abraham that through this seed (or ‘offspring’) all the nations of the world would be blessed.  Our faith is the outworking of that promise!  We are blessed!
God’s richest blessing has nothing to do with the size of your bank account.  God does not promise you an easy life.  He may even say ‘no’ to some of your most heartfelt prayers.  But he never turns away the person he has drawn to himself.  He is the promise-keeping God who gives eternal life to those who do nothing else but trust in him.  He wants you to feel securely embraced in his ever-lasting love.  This is what we need more than anything else in life!
Secondly, Paul points out that we have to see our need of grace if we are going to receive God’s blessing (19-22).
‘Okay’, reply the false-teachers, ‘you claim that Abraham was saved by simply believing God’s promises and not through circumcision or obeying the Law of Moses.  We’ll agree to differ with you on that one.  But you cannot deny the Law of Moses was given as a means to earn your salvation.’
Actually the Law of Moses was not a means of earning your salvation.  God had made an irrevocable agreement with Abraham.  So if God saved Abraham by grace through faith then the Law of Moses, given centuries later, could not change that.  It could not be a means of earning salvation.  Instead, it was given to show people how guilty they are (NLT).  The Law of Moses showed people how greatly they needed salvation.
Imagine you dislike your doctor but you don’t realise how much contempt you have for him.  Then you go for a check-up and he writes you a prescription.  When you arrive home you look at his prescription, tear it up and throw it in the bin.  The writing of that prescription ends up highlighting how little you think of that doctor.  In a similar way the law showed people how unwilling they were to obey God and how much they needed his grace.
The Law of Moses was a temporary measure.  There is a young lad who attends the Christian Union in University of Limerick who thinks that all the laws of the Old Testament are binding for today.  But the Law was given from the time of Mount Sinai until the Seed (Jesus) came.  We are no longer subject to its rules, rituals and regulations.
The Law of Moses was sterile—it could not create life.  For if a law could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.  But the Scriptures declare that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.  The tragic reality is that we are incapable of reforming ourselves.  We are incapable of the perfect obedience that the Law of Moses required.  We are prisoners of our sinfulness.  We could never have lived a life that would earn acceptance from a perfect and pure God.
The Law of Moses was put in charge (it was a custodian or guardian), until Christ came that we might be justified by faith (24).  Paul has in mind the practice of having a well-educated slave act as a tutor to the heir of the estate.  While that heir was a boy the tutor guided, corrected and even disciplined the child.  But when he became a man, and the guardian’s work was finished..  Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.  This is not saying that justification by grace through faith only came into being when Jesus arrived on the scene.  We have already seen that Abraham is the great example of being justified by faith.  However, before the life and death of Jesus had been revealed, people did not fully know the grounds upon which the living God accepted them.
So can you see that the Law of Moses complimented the message of grace by showing people their guilt and caused them to cry out for mercy?  The Holy Spirit still has such a ministry—he convicts the world of guilt and sin.  The life and teachings of Jesus do the same thing—they expose how unlike Jesus we are.  Even our compromised consciences tell us that we have failed to live up to our own standards.  But as we are brought to our knees we are comforted by the promise that God will never reject the contrite heart and that the one that looks to him and cried out ‘have mercy on me a sinner’ and pleads ‘save me’ is counted as justified.
Thirdly, grace is the basis for profound unity (25-29).
If you get grace you will realise your fundamentally equality with all of God’s people.  You bring nothing to the table.  Your background counts for nothing.  Your family counts for nothing.  It doesn’t matter whether you were proud and respectable do-gooder or a scandalous hooligan—you are simply a sinner saved by grace.  Because pride is such a repugnant sin in God’s eyes, do-gooders are amongst the worst of all sinners.  Will you admit that you were as far from God as the rapist you read of in the news? 
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  Grace is the great leveller.  We all have of equal status before his eyes.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.  If you belong to Christ you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.  If we understand the nature of grace we will be colour-blind, and we cannot be snobs.
Conclusion—to be fully known and completely loved
Grace tells you that you are far more sinful than you ever realised and far more loved than you ever dreamed.  In grace we are fully known and completely loved. 
Tim Keller writes, ‘To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial.  To be known and not loved is greatest fear.  But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.  It is what we need more than anything.’  I am struck that he writes in a book on marriage.  If you are married, what your spouse longs for from you, more than anything else, is to know the security of being vulnerable and yet deeply loved.
People are longing to know that they can let their guard down with you.  Those who grasp that they are more sinful than ever realised and more loved than they ever dreamed make great friends.  I have a friend that I can be completely real with, and it is liberating.  His love shows me a glimpse of how amazing grace is.  Grasp something of the beauty of grace and you will no longer keep people at a safe distance.  You will be free to shed that hard outer shell.
So let the grace that flows into you pour out of you, so that you can magnify the beauty of an eternally loving God and be a blessing to all who know you!     

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Grace can set you free! (Gal. 3:1-14)

Galatians is an epistle of grace.  But I really struggle to apply this message to me.  You see I am an insecure people-pleaser who seeks to earn approval.  So when I do something kind I struggle to keep it a secret.  I crave praise.  Indeed I am floored by the slightest criticism.  Even as I open up like this I am hoping that you will be impressed with my humility.  I have wasted too much of my ministry trying to make myself popular.  I am not free.  Grace calls me to be free!
Are you free?  Have you been able to cast off all the disgrace that has been heaped on your shoulders?  Your mother was critical and your father distant.  You were never accepted by the 'in' crowd.  Your parents only delighted in you when you made the team or won the prize.  Your first love stopped loving you.  Your closest friends let you down when you asked for help.  It's all people treating you without grace.  So now you are driven.  You will earn respect.  You will need no one.  You’re a perfectionist.  You are not free.  Grace calls you to be free!
The key to living in a graceless world is to enjoy the love of a graceful God.  We need to come to a place where it is God's verdict not people's verdict that matters most to us.  As he embraces us in his love, his verdict is 'accepted', 'loved', 'secure' and 'cherished'.  When one hurt Christian was told that God delighted over her with singing she responded saying, 'if I could believe that was true I could face anything!'  Grace can make you free!  So let's dig in to this epistle of grace.
God is more committed to you than you realise (1-5)
Grace is so amazing and yet we are quick to abandon it.  It is ridiculous that anyone would be so stupid to despise grace, which is why the apostle Paul is so incensed with the Galatians.
'You foolish ('mindless') Galatians! Who has bewitched you?  Before your very eyes Christ was portrayed as crucified.'
Do you see that their abandoning grace is directly related to failing to see the importance of the cross?  They should not abandon grace because, 'Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified before your very eyes.'  John Stott writes, ‘If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.’  
Yet one author who was trying to make Christianity more relevant said he didn't know why Jesus had to die, and a young leader said he thought the cross was bad public relations.  How foolish!  Such cross-less Christianity soon becomes nothing more than affirming your self-esteem and pursuing your self-fulfilment.  It is all very much shaped by current trends of thought, and is very far from the beauty of a faith that enables you to be real about your sin and enables you to glorify God by enjoying him for ever. 
‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?'  The cross makes grace possible, and the Holy Spirit makes grace real to us.  The Holy Spirit convicted us of our sin and awoke us to our need of grace.  He brought us to the place where we could see our moral bankruptcy.  He showed us that we had no choice but to cry out for mercy.  He made the message of the cross beautiful to us.  He caused us to see that life without Jesus is empty.  Then as we are born again in grace we receive him.
Not only are we born again in grace we are kept by grace.  'After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?'  The God who began your life in the Spirit will keep you by the Spirit.  So stop trying to win God's acceptance.  He is no longer your judge but the dotting father you have always needed.  He is your shepherd who holds you close to his heart.  He does not want you to be insecure.  He wants you to be at peace.  He wants you to marvel in his love.  God is more committed to you than you realise!
Salvation has always been about grace (6-9)
This gospel of grace is not new.  It did not begin with Paul.  It did not begin in the New Testament.  God has always rescued his people by grace.  
Central to the argument of the false-teachers is the issue of circumcision.  They said that you needed to be circumcised to be a real Christian.  Presumably they looked to the example of Abraham.  'After all Abraham was circumcised,' they declared.   But Abraham is actually the great proof of the fact that in the Old Testament people were saved by grace.
When Abraham appears on the scene he had not done anything to deserve God's favour.  In fact he was from an idolatrous and pagan people (Joshua 24:3).  But God chose to give him a wonderful promise and enabled him to trust that promised.  'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness' (Gen. 15:6).  He was not justified by obeying the Old Testament Law - he was justified hundreds of years before the law was given to Moses.  His justification had nothing to do with circumcision - he was not circumcised at this stage in his story.  He simply heard God's promise and trusted in his goodness.
The promise to Abraham spoke of the blessing of people from all nations.  Abraham's family line arrives at Jesus.  Through faith in Jesus, people like us from 'the nations' have been blessed along with Abraham, 'the man of faith'.
The amazing thing is that by simply taking God at his word we have become brothers and sisters with all the wonderful and flawed people who have been saved from every age.  The grace that saved the murderer Moses saves you.  Deborah is your sister in faith.  Grace kept Job from abandoning his faith in the time of suffering.  Grace enabled Samson to cry out to God one last time, even though he has spent his life wasting his potential.  It was grace that gave Ruth such a beautiful heart.  It was their shared experience of the grace that bonded David and Jonathan together in such rich friendship.  From beginning to end the Old Testament is a book about grace.  Salvation has always been by grace through faith.
While grace is free, it is cost Jesus his life (10-14)
But there is a lot in this letter about law?  Why did God give the law if he wanted to save us by grace?  The Law of Moses was given from the time of Sinai to the time of Jesus.  One of its central purposes was to show people their need of grace.
This law was not like an exam where you could score forty percent and still pass, or a pile of rocks where you could remove one rock and still have a pile of rocks.  The law was like a delicate pain of glass where you hit one little corner with a stone and the whole thing shatters.  'All who rely on observing the law are under a cruse for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not do everything written in the Book of the Law."  One of the main purposes of the law was to expose people's sin and show them their need of grace.
If the law pronounced God's curse upon people, what hope do we have?  We have Jesus!  He took that curse upon himself so that we could go free.  Again, it is all about the cross.  'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."  In their song 'O to see the dawn', Keith and Kirsty Getty explain, 'this is the power of the cross, Christ became sin for us, took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross.'
Tim Keller points out that the Bible begins with a tree, ends with a tree, and has Jesus being placed upon a tree.  The Bible began with a tree, the tree of life.  Adam and Eve stole from it as humankind descended into sin.  We were separated from tree of life.  But in the book of Revelation we see that the tree of life is in the city of God.  The tree of life represents life and vitality, as opposed to the decay and death working in us now.  But how do we get to the city where we can eat its fruit?  By realising that Jesus hung on another tree for us!
In his poem 'Sacrifice' George Herbert pictures Jesus speaking from the cross.  'All ye who pass by, behold and see; Man stole the fruit, now I must climb the tree; a tree of life for all, but only me.  Was ever grief like mine?'  'Because Jesus got the tree of death, we can have the tree of life' (Tim Keller).
Conclusion - How can we honour this message of grace?
We can honour grace with a simply cry.  You see the Spirit teaches us to cry 'abba, father' (Galatians 4:6).  Ask the Spirit to help you see God as Abba!  Crying 'abba' is how we should respond to grace!
There is debate about this term 'abba'.  Many say that it is the equivalent of our term 'daddy'.  But it is more basic than that.  It is a simple two-syllable expression like 'mama' or 'dada'.  It is the language of utter vulnerability and dependence.  You see by the time a child is old enough to say 'daddy' or 'mummy' they are at an age where they can manipulate to get their way.  They might sit on your lap, look you in the eye, look as cute as possible, and say, 'daddy can I play on your iPad because I have been good all day.'  However, when a child is still at the stage of saying 'mama' or 'dada' they are utterly dependant, they can't cut a deal, and they have nothing to offer.  They simply want to be fed or held by someone they are totally dependent on.
God doesn't want us to try to earn his acceptance.  We are not allowed cut a deal with him.  Instead we honour him with the sort of attitude that simply cries abba, dada.  This is the grace that can set us free!