Martin Luther King, JR day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Also, it being a Monday, I have in the past addressed “difficult passages” in the bible. Today, in light of the day it is, I offer a passage that we likely understand in thought, but fail to put in practice.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 (KJV)

How do we as Christians reconcile this with the quote often attributed to the Rev Martin Luther King, JR:

The most segregated hour in America is eleven o’clock, Sunday morning.

It was true then and its true now. The two should not be. Think on this and how we, the Church, should be one as Christ is one with the Father.

By Phil Stanziola, NYWT&S staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Summary of Galatians, April 4

Well, we finished our study of Galatians yesterday. Now, I’m going to give just an overview of what I think the primary message of Galatians is for us today and then turn it over to you, please leave your comments about how you felt about the study. If you want to look back on any of the previous reflections click here for a calendar that is hyperlinked to each post.

Galatians is fundamentally about what grace means. As part of that meaning, we have to come to an understanding of what the relationship between the law and gospel is. While the law, the Jewish Torah, is not a covenant devoid of grace, it was, nevertheless, meant to act as a temporary placeholder. When Christ came we were told it is time to grow up, and the relationship fundamentally changed. That change was a good one, though. It removed all social distinctions constructed by people and societies and leveled the playing field. Further, it broadened the scope of God’s covenant to include both Gentiles and Jews, including the broadening of active participation in that covenant, to include women and slaves (or those of lower social standing). Ultimately, then, what counts in God’s kingdom is not who you are in yourself, or what you do in yourself, but who God is, and what He has done for you that you could never do for yourself. This has a further implication.

While this necessarily means understanding our salvation in terms of rescue, something we cannot do for ourselves, it also means understanding our salvation as freedom, which carries with it more (not less) responsibility. If we are free, then we can’t get by with a singular act, like circumcision, but are instead obligated to fulfill the greater parts of the law, such as love your neighbor. We are to do these things, and ultimately to make a response to Jesus, out of our freedom, not because we have been determined to do so out of birth. Freedom, which is truly a wonderful thing, brings with it the responsibility to choose. While ultimately we are saved solely by God’s grace and not our own efforts, that salvation leading to freedom is a call toward willing discipleship. As result it is better to be marked by adherence to Christ than to be marked by some external act you do to yourself. Therefore, while on the surface Galatians is addressing the issue of circumcision and its superfluous nature, the way in which Paul constructs his argument means that Galatians says something very fundamental about Grace, our relationship with God, and His Kingdom on this earth, all of which is still relevant today.

What do you think? How have you liked going through Galatians (or whatever part you went through) this lent? Is there any particular way that God has spoken to you through this study? Did you find this study helpful in your own spiritual walk? Leave your thoughts on the study below. On a practical level for the future direction of this blog: Would you like to see more of this type of study in the future (such as on a weekly basis)? Are there other topics you’d like to see addressed? Any other books of the bible you’d like to go through? Any gross errors you’d like to address? Please comment to both a) build each other up, related specifically to this study and b) guide the future direction of this blog

This is the end of the Galatians series. Tomorrow will continue a series of posts on Holy Week, which was begun Sunday, with Maundy Thursday, followed by Good Friday, and then a Resurrection Sunday post. The overarching theme is on how Jesus’ actions change everything.

April 3 Reflection, Galatians 6:15-18

Galatians 6:15-18 KJV (NIV Link below)

15For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.

16And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

17From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

18Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Link to NIV text

Christ Marks it

So we’ve come to Paul’s final remarks and made it all the way through Galatians. Congratulations if you’ve kept up with the readings so far. Here Paul restates his key point: it doesn’t matter if one is or isn’t circumcised. That is beside the point of the Gospel. The point, instead, is the newly created thing you have become in Christ. Here Paul calls for unity. If anyone follows this rule, the one that focuses on the new creation Christ performs in us, then Paul wishes them peace and mercy. Being circumcised doesn’t make you part of the “Israel of God,” being a new creature does.

Here, in a rare instance, Paul seems to distinguish between ethnic Israel, marked by circumcision, and spiritual Israel, the Israel of God marked by becoming a new creature. If someone is still hung up on markers, Paul notes, then let them look to the marks of Christ. In a way then, it is the mark that Jesus puts on you, both spiritually and, in Paul’s case at least, physically. Paul was physically abused for his commitment and this is far more important than some self-imposed physical marker. This is the discipleship, not merely marks that say something about who you are to the world, but marks that proclaim whose the world is in spite of itself. Christ owns it and is reshaping it, even when it violently works against it. Above all, though Grace and peace come from Jesus Christ, our Lord.

What do you think? What do you think the “marks of Jesus” were for Paul? Do you have any “marks of Jesus”? In what ways in Christ reshaping the world despite itself today? Are you being an active part of this? [Come back tomorrow as we look back on the entire letter and be sure to offer your thoughts on how this study may have helped you].

April 2 Reflection, Galatians 6:11-14

Galatians 6:11-14 KJV (NIV Link Below)

 11Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.

12As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.

13For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.

14But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

Link to NIV text

Where to Boast

Paul begins this section by making his point very clear. He has begun his summation. Today we’d probably say “If you don’t get anything else I’ve written in the entire letter, get this:” and he comes back to the initial reason he had to write the letter. There are some who were claiming that one had to be circumcised, perform an outward display of righteousness, before one could become a Christian, and this was wrong.

Paul begins to wonder what would actually motivate this group to act in such a manner. Clearly it can’t be a genuine devotion to the law because they have neglected so much of it, he reasons. Probably, but not necessarily, Paul has in mind the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Well, Paul concludes, their reasons are entirely focused on themselves. They want to avoid persecution at the hands of certain Jewish groups, on the one hand, and show how much better Christians they are than those who aren’t circumcised, on the other. Further, while they want others to join them, ultimately it’s so they can be fashioned after their image, not God’s image. They want others to have the same prideful spirit along with them, in order to justify their behavior.

So Paul reaches this conclusion: if you are going to have pride in something, it shouldn’t be you, but in Christ crucified for you. The Judaizers, fundamentally, had a wrong orientation, and Paul wanted to reorient the Galatians church back to Christ. His death was not that of a prideful man, but of a God who became man and then died, in all places humbling himself. It is in that cross where we find our glory. Therefore we are not working in order to please the world, because the world is dead to us. Nor are we working to avoid persecution from the world, for we are already dead to the world. Persecution is not just a possibility, it is all but assured.

Ultimately this is about the source of our rescue. The Judaizers argue that you can rescue yourself, but the Gospel of Christ says otherwise. You can’t rescue yourself. Instead you must throw your life on the cross with Christ so that in his death you also die, persecuted and abandoned by the world. It is in dying with Christ, though, that we also rise with Christ. And so, although we have died, we live, and that is something worth boasting about.

What about you? Add your thoughts. Are there some things you do that seem like very good acts, but that you actually do out of a mistaken sense of pride? (i.e. do you give openly so others will know, or in secret to fulfill Christ’s command?) What do you boast in that is keeping you from boasting in the death of Christ, and subsequently your own death? When were you last humbled so that Christ could be glorified in you?

March 30 Reflection, Galatians 6:7-10

Galatians 6:7-10 KJV (NIV Link below)

7Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

8For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.

9And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.

10As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.

NIV Link to Text

Planting and Working

Don’t kid yourself. You can’t grow grapevines from apple seeds. Why, then, would you assume that you could receive Grace through your acts of adherence to the law? Working on your own, in the flesh, only produces the results of the flesh. If you are trying to make yourself acceptable to God, you will always be left with what you already were: someone who means well, but cannot be perfect. A man who is drowning cannot save himself if he can’t swim, and while he is busy thrashing about no one else can save him either. It’s only when he relaxes and trusts an expert swimmer (or else becomes unconscious, effectively having the decision made for him) that his life can be saved. In the same way, it is only by relying utterly and completely upon God in the midst of our helplessness that the Spirit can allow us to flourish.

You reap what you sow. At the end of today’s section Paul returns to the call for community. Sowing to please the Spirit involves performing actions out of love for others, especially the church. This love motivated action has its roots in the grace of God and is cultivated by the Spirit of God. It is sowing by giving of yourself for the sake of someone else, with no thought of personal gain. It is the love of Christ made active and present in your life.

What do you think? What opportunities have you had this week to perform a loving act for someone else? Do you sometimes get weary in doing good? Paul tells us that we need to wait for the proper time to reap the harvest. Do you sometimes get impatient waiting? What does it mean to be a part of the family of believers?

March 29 Reflection, Galatians 6:1-6

Galatians 6:1-6 KJV (NIV Link Below)

1Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

2Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

3For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.

4But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.

5For every man shall bear his own burden.

6Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.

Link to NIV text

It’s about Community

After what seemed like some very harsh statements about the Judaizers, Paul tempers his previous statements by admitting that, if someone is caught in sin, they should gently be restored. While this may seem at odds with his earlier statements, the unifying theme is the love and community of the church. Paul wants the Galatians to treat each other like a family, and Judaizers were threatening to divide that family. In contrast, someone who is not being intentionally divisive, but is nevertheless in sin, should be brought back to into right relationship with community gently and cautiously. Ultimately, it is about bearing each other’s burdens. Christ command was that we would love one another as he loved us. Christ loved us by offering to be yoked alongside us. Therefore we are to be yoked together, to bear one another’s burdens.

The opposite of that is to be proud or self-righteous. The warning in verse 1 is as much a warning against self-importance as it is against falling into the sin of a brother or sister in Christ. We should restore the one who has fallen into sin because we too could just as easily fall into the same sin. Self-righteous pride, where we think we are better than someone else, has no place in the Christian Church.

By the same token, just as no one should ever neglect their brothers and sisters, neither should anyone neglect their own responsibility. Having someone else to carry your burden is not a right, it is a gift. As such, while it should be offered, it cannot be demanded. If it were, it would no longer be love, but duty and then it would fall back under the law of obligation. Instead, we are to offer what we have humbly, strive to be better, but ultimately rely upon the love of God that first made us into a family by His grace. In so doing, we exhibit the community of God: the Church.

What do you think? Is there a way to take pride in your work without thinking of yourself as better than anyone else? How often do we exhibit love by gently bringing someone back to right relationship within the church? How often do we simply push them further away from the community? What are some practical ways you can help bear someone else’s burden right now?

March 28 Reflection, Galatians 5:19-26

Galatians 5:19-26 KJV (NIV Link below)

19Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,

20Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

21Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

23Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

24And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.

25If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

26Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.

Link to NIV text

Fruit versus Works

While it may be tempting to label this bit here a simple vice/virtue list, things that were common in the Greco-Roman world, Paul makes a subtle shift away from that. Rather than lack of effort versus concerted effort at virtuousness, which one would typically notice in these types of lists, Paul refers to the negative example as “works of the flesh” and the positive as “fruit of the Spirit.” This has been an integral point throughout the letter to the Galatians. Performing works in your own effort will inevitably lead to frustration. The only thing you are capable of doing entirely in your own effort is sin. You cannot live in the Kingdom of God by your effort alone.

In contrast, by abiding in Christ, who is the true vine, through the Holy Spirit we begin to produce fruit. These are not things that we earn or strive at entirely in our own power, but that come about naturally the more we are nourished by God’s spirit. In the same way we don’t say that an apple tree that produced good apples did so because it worked hard. We know that the good fruit it produced was a result of being cared for, having the right soil, getting enough water, and just being a good tree. These are outside of the tree’s control. It didn’t do a good job; it just was good tree. But we aren’t trees. We’re people. Here is the key difference: the tree has no option except to “abide” in its root system, the soil, etc; we have that option. Too many people decide not to abide. This is, it seems, the “natural” choice of our free will. As a result we have only produced rotten fruit. We need a dramatic rescue. Our very core needs to be transformed, and our roots need to be replaced. This is what the Christian walk is about. Jesus transforms our being, and we only give evidence of that transformation once we start abiding in the fresh soil, water, and sunshine that he, the gardener, has provided. Good fruit is the natural product of a good tree. As a Christian you are a good tree. Your old self has already been killed, your new self has a new root system. The question is whether or not you will abide now.

What do you think? Add your thoughts below. What do you think Paul means by keeping up with the Spirit? Do you feel like you always need to improve, like the Spirit is constantly pushing you to reach your own fulfillment? Why do you think Paul says we shouldn’t be conceited or envious of these fruit? Does that mean we can’t celebrate those who exhibit the fruit? Which fruit do you think you exhibit best? Which one do you think God is cultivating in you (working on in you) the most right now?

March 27 Reflection, Galatians 5:16-18

Galatians 5:16-18 KJV (NIV Link below)

16This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

17For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

18But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

Link to NIV text

An Inward Battle

Paul here describes the inward battle we all have, and the way to win it (sorta). He notes that there are two competing forces within every Christian, and they are focused on opposite ends. There is the flesh or ourselves and the Spirit of God. This is why Paul has been so insistent that we cannot add or take away from our salvation by the works of the flesh we do (or don’t do). The works of the law, those things we do under our own power, are contrary to the Spirit of God. And so within the Christian there is a battle between these two minds: the mind of God and the mind of our own flesh.

This is not the only time Paul has described an inner conflict between these two natures. In his letter to the Romans, where Paul also talks at length about the relationship of the Gospel to Law, he recounts his own struggle. His conclusion is that though he wants to good, he finds himself unable to do so under his own strength, but Christ sets us free from that bondage so that we may escape our own wretchedness. This is a common struggle, but Paul offers a sort of solution.

Paul’s solution to this dilemma? Walk (live) by the Spirit. Oh, right then, that’s all sorted. Well, this is clearly more easily said than done, and, as I’ve mentioned above, Paul is certainly aware of that fact. Nevertheless that is the only solution to this inner struggle. It is to stop trying to fight the battle in your own strength, which will inevitably lead you to lose the fight, and instead focus on your walk with God. The way to win the battle, then, is not to focus on the battle, but focus on Christ who has already won the battle for you. Be led by the Spirit and escape the law.

What do you think? Put your thoughts below. Do you experience this inner struggle? Do you, at times, feel like it is too difficult to fight? What do you think Paul means by calling our Christian life a “walk”? Do you sometimes feel “wretched” as Paul describes himself in Romans? Does it help to know that, for Christ, you are redeemed a saint? Is it somewhat odd to be at this interim where you are both sinner and saint?

March 26, Galatians 5:13-15

Galatians 5:13-15 KJV Text

13For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

14For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

15But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.

Link to NIV Text

Freedom and the Right Relation to the Law

Paul reiterates his point: you have been called for the sake of freedom/liberty. God called out your name, and in so doing proclaimed that your release from captivity. This freedom runs in contrast to the life under every obligation of the law. However, in response to his critics that such a theology would lead to immoral living, Paul cautions us: do not use it for the flesh. The entire point of the freedom you have gained in Christ is to serve one another out of love.

One way to look at this is to compare the service of a slave to the service of a freeman (or woman). Which is a greater display of love? Is it the slave who, though he may love the one he is serving, does so because that is his position in life and he is obligated to do so? Or is it the person who is free, under no obligation to serve, but who does so anyway, without complaint? The latter is the purpose of our freedom. Why is it that when we are saved we don’t immediately go to heaven? One reason is to serve one another. In short, you were saved in order to be the church. Love one another willingly, serve one another out of that love.

Paul then addresses a proper relationship with the law. If you want to fulfill the law, which the Judaizers had advocated, then you do better to fulfill this greater command. Not only did Jesus identify this as one of the two greatest commandments, but in the Talmud, the earliest Jewish commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the bible), Rabbi Hillel identifies this command as the summation of the law as does a later rabbinical commenter, Rabbi Akiva. Why follow the ritualism of the law and neglect this greater command? It is easier by far to perform a simple act like circumcision, but doing so misses the entire point of God’s covenant relationship with us; a point demonstrated most clearly by Jesus: to love one another. If you want to know why you are here, that is your answer: to be free and to be free so that you might love, which is seen most clearly in service to one another.

What do you think? Add your thoughts below. What can you do, right now where you are, to demonstrate love for someone else? Do you find it odd that Paul commands love, especially since a few verses later he describes it as a natural outflow of your relationship with God (fruit of the Spirit)? What do you make of Paul’s metaphor about eating each other? Have you ever seen or experienced the result of such a relationship? Perhaps you have worked in such a place (where people are “biting” each other to get ahead), did you think such an environment was/is conducive to being productive or successful? Have you experienced the opposite environment? Was it easier for everyone to be successful in that type of environment? If you don’t live/work in a positive (loving) environment, how might you make a small change to move it in that direct?

March 23 Reflection, Galatians 5:7-12

Gal 5:7-12 KJV (NIV Link Below)

 7Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?

8This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you.

9A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.

10I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.

11And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.

12I would they were even cut off which trouble you.

Link to NIV text

Hang on Minute, Let’s Talk about This

Alright, so Paul’s last line here sounds a bit extreme. While the action of “emasculating” (NIV) or “cutting off” (KJV) the Judaizer agitators is probably a bit far, Paul is not actually suggesting that it would be the appropriate reaction; he is merely expressing his outrage at what they are doing. While it may seem like a little thing, to ask that converts to Chrisitanity perform this tiny detail, Paul understands it as a much bigger issue. The problem was not circumcision per se, Paul admits in other places that he had circumcised _____. Rather, the issue is with what the circumcision means.

The Gospel, as Paul preached, was offensive to most Jews. It’s why, on more than one occasion, he found himself heavily persecuted by them. The offense was twofold: 1) It took away all requirements of the law, thus removing the Jewish-Gentile distinction for all time. 2) The way in which this was done was through a cross. Jesus, without blemish, died upon a cross. By dieing in such a manner Jesus’ death was, according to Jewish law, a curse. What had not been understood, however, was that the curse that was upon Jesus’ rightfully belonged to us. Jesus died in our place, bearing the curse that should have been ours. His resurrection, then, removed that curse for all time because it died with him, but Jesus was raised, and lives now, without it. Therefore those who link their lives with Christ, by declaring him their lord, die with him, but moreso by dieing with him they are therefore raised with him as well. If we deny the changed relationship we have with the law, by allowing something like circumcision to remain a requirement for salvation, then we deny that in Christ the law was fulfilled and that we are made righteous apart from it. To deny this on even one point, like circumcision, opens the door to its outright denial. If circumcision is still required, then nothing has changed. If we try to earn God’s grace, we have missed the point of grace altogether.

Add your thoughts below and build each other up. What do you think of Paul’s racing metaphor in verse 1? Do you sometimes feel that someone or something has “cut in on you” making it difficult to keep a good steady pace in your spiritual “race”? Do you think Paul goes too far by suggesting it would be better if the “agitators” “cut off” their point of disagreement? How do you take Paul’s strong language here?