August 4, 2013

Why All the Rules?

Good writers create tension.  Without any tension, there’s no real driving force to keep reading.  They will establish some kind of a problem or work to leave us unsettled so that we stay with them to get the tension resolved.  We don’t like lingering tension in our lives.  Well, for the last three weeks in our series Living Free there has been some tension building.  Here’s why: if you were raised going to church or if you’ve been going for very long, you have probably been taught for most of your life the importance of keeping the rules.  Keep the Ten Commandments.  Keep the Sermon on the Mount.  Keep most of the other laws that seem relatively culturally palatable.  And why should we do this?  Because this is what makes God happy and will keep us right with Him.  This is what churches teach.  This is what you learned in church.  This is what I learned in church.  Be good and do good and God will love you.  The better you are and do, the more God will love you.  Now, we get lots of messages on grace as well.  We’re told that God loves us no matter what.  We’re assured that there’s nothing we can do that’ll make Him love us any less.  But most of this comes with a subtle wink and an elbow nudge because really we need to keep those rules to keep God happy.

Here’s now I know all this: Last week after the service I had two different people come up to me with the same question.  The question went something like this: If we get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules, what does this mean for the Ten Commandments?  Do we not have to keep them?  If two people actually asked this question, I suspect there are a bunch more who were thinking it.  And this makes sense given that most folks who have gotten any kind of church training have received the message that if we want to keep God happy, the best way to go about that is by keeping the Ten Commandments.  Yes, God wants a relationship with us, but if we can’t get all the way there for some reason we can at least keep the Ten Commandments and the other rules and that’ll keep Him happy and off our backs.  Coincidentally, there are a lot of people out there—maybe even some in here—who claim to be a good person (and thus right with God…at least, right enough to give them a conscience-scrubbing pass on churchgoing) because they keep the Ten Commandments.  But, I’ve now been telling you for a month that doing things like that doesn’t actually do anything to help establish or maintain a right relationship with God.  Thus the tension.  So then, what’s the point?  If the rules don’t matter, why all the rules?  That’s exactly where Paul goes this week.  Find your Bible or Bible app or bulletin insert, find your way to Galatians 3:15, and we’ll take a look at Paul’s answer.

After spending all that time talking about the law’s impotence to grant us the thing we most desire—a relationship with God—the question burning in our hearts and minds is obvious: why then the law?  Paul here sets out to explain just that.  And as a disclaimer, Paul uses some pretty nuanced grammatical and theological analysis of the Old Testament to make his point.  Stay with me if some of this doesn’t click immediately and I’ll explain it as we go.  Look how he does it starting in v. 15: “Friends, let me give you an example from everyday affairs of the free life I am talking about.  Once a person’s will has been ratified, no one else can annul it or add to it.  Now, the promises [from God] were made to Abraham and to his descendant.  You will observe that Scripture, in the careful language of a legal document, does not say ‘to descendants,’ referring to everybody in general, but ‘to your descendant’ (the noun, note, is singular), referring to Christ.  This is the way I interpret this: A will, earlier ratified by God, is not annulled by an addendum attached 430 years later [the Law], thereby negating the promise of the will.  No, this addendum, with its instructions and regulations, has nothing to do with the promised inheritance in the will.”

Still with me?  In other words, God made a promise to Abraham to bless the whole world through his descendant (not descendants—Israel was not intended to be the blessing but the vehicle for it).  This promise was given because of Abraham’s faith in God.  Paul refers to this as God’s legal will.  Well, 430 years later, the law was added and Abraham’s descendants were told they needed to try and keep it.  But, this law didn’t have any bearing on God’s plans to bless the world through the descendant of Abraham who had not yet been born.  All of this is to say that the law given to Moses which served as kind of an addendum to His promise to, or will for, Abraham, did not have any bearing on His intention to bless everybody on the grounds of faith.  But again, why add to the original promise in this way?  That’s where Paul goes next.

“What is the point, then, of the law, the attached addendum?  It was a thoughtful addition to the original covenant promises made to Abraham.  The purpose of the law [are you ready?] was to keep a sinful people in the way of salvation until Christ (the descendant) came, inheriting the promises and distributing them to us.  Obviously this law was not a firsthand encounter with God.  It was arranged by angelic messengers through a middleman, Moses.  But if there is a middleman as there was at Sinai, then the people are not dealing directly with God, are they?  But the original promise is the direct blessing of God, received by faith.”

Got all that?  The law that was given to Moses—that’s the Ten Commandments plus the other 603 that went along with them—were given to show people living before they could benefit from the ministry of Christ how to live within the lines of God’s promise to Abraham and the relationship that came along with it.  Remember what I said last week about real freedom coming prepackaged with limits and that we live freest when we live within the lines?  The Law of Moses showed the people of Israel where the lines were.  But, it had no impact on God’s promise to Abraham and the relationship that accompanied it.  The people already had the promise and the relationship when the Law was given.  Thus, the Law wasn’t given to establish a relationship.  It wasn’t even given to maintain one.   It merely showed the people where the lines of the relationship were.  All relationships have lines.  I did a wedding yesterday and will do another one next Saturday.  The couple stood up here and made all kinds of promises to each other.  Do you know what those promises were?  Lines.  As long as we live within the lines, we have a relationship.  If we move outside the lines, we don’t.  And this not because the other person doesn’t want one anymore, but rather because we’ve rendered ourselves incapable of continuing it.  The Law, then, didn’t move people in the direction of a relationship with God.  It flowed from the relationship they already had by faith.  The Law was and is meaningless to people who don’t already have faith.  The faith relationship made them right with God.  The Law showed a people who already had a relationship but thanks to 400 years of slavery in a pagan environment didn’t have any idea how to live in the freedom of this relationship how to do it.  Are you with me?  Hang on to this idea to remember all this: the rules flow from a relationship, not to one.

Next, Paul explains in a bit more detail the reason for the Law, for the rules.  He starts by asking another natural follow-up question.  Look at v. 21: “If such is the case, is the law, then, an anti-promise, a negation of God’s will for us?  Not at all.  Its purpose was to make obvious to everyone that we are, in ourselves, out of right relationship with God, and therefore to show us the futility of devising some religious system for getting by our own efforts what we can only get by waiting in faith for God to complete his promise.  For if any kind of rule-keeping had power to create life in us, we would certainly have gotten it by this time.”

What’s Paul saying?  He’s saying that the purpose of the rules was not to somehow negate or replace His promise to Abraham that was based on faith.  Rather, it served to demonstrate conclusively that on our own we are not fit for life in the promise.  Essentially God set up an elaborate system designed specifically for the task of keeping us in a relationship with Him but which He knew was going to fail.  But why go to all this trouble?  To show the futility of religion—by which I mean a system of rules and rituals, symbols and ceremonies designed to put humans in contact with the divine—as a way to get right with God.  All religion fails on the point of putting us in a relationship with God.  And since that’s the primary goal of all religion, all religion fails.  If there was one that worked, we’d have found it by now.  The only thing religion really succeeds at is showing us that we’re wrong.  No wonder people don’t like religion.  When we act like Christianity is primarily a religion it’s no wonder people don’t really want to have anything to do with us or our message.  But surely there was more of a purpose for the rules God gave than simply telling us we’re wrong.  As it turns out, there is.  Paul goes here next.

Look at v. 23: “Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law.  The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.”  These Greek tutors Paul mentions were essentially glorified babysitters for rich kids.  They came behind the kids and with the authority of their father—who was like a god to them—made sure they knew when they were off track until that time when they were morally capable of making such decisions on their own.  So then, the second real purpose of the rules, which Paul has already hinted at, is to let us know what right looks like until we are morally mature enough to both recognize and act on it ourselves.  This maturity, by the way, only comes with a relationship with Christ.  Indeed, keep reading at v. 25: “But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God.  Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start.  It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.”

Okay, so check this out: God made this promise to Abraham to bless the world with a permanent relationship with Him through his descendant (who is Christ).  It was a promise which Abraham entered into with God through his faith, not some religious program.  Furthermore, all of Abraham’s descendants are eligible for the blessings of the promise, also by faith, not religious rules.  But, Abraham’s descendants were too morally immature to handle living within the lines of the promise—they didn’t even know where the lines were.  And so, God laid out the lines with gleaming clarity so there could be no question.  He did this to show them both that they were wrong, but also what right looks like.  Once Christ came, though, through His work we become enabled to live within the lines of the promise by our faith in Him.  The rules play no part.  And, it gets better: once we are living within the lines of the promise, we are in a relationship with God that will last forever.  Essentially, we become part of Jesus’ family.  After all, He Himself said that the ones who do the will of His Father (which is, very simply, to live in the relationship with Him promised to Abraham and his faith descendants) are part of His family.

So then, let’s boil all this down and make it very simple.  What’s the point of the rules?  Take this idea home with you.  Do not forget this.  If you do, you run the risk of trying to use the rules for something they were never intended to accomplish.  Are you ready?  The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  That’s it.  They don’t do anything else.  They don’t make us more impressive to God if we keep them.  They don’t put us in a relationship with Him.  They don’t guarantee us our spot in heaven.  None of that.  The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  But, so what?  What difference does this make?  This is where Paul goes next.  The next place he goes it to show us one extremely powerful implication of all of this.  Are you ready?  This is awesome.  The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like in order to point us to the necessity of taking part by faith in the promise God made to Abraham.  When we let the rules serve their intended purpose and allow ourselves to be safely stewarded into the promise we become part of Christ’s family.  We receive a place that we belong, not in the sense of a club or some society, but eternally.  We have a family identity that will last long beyond our earthly families have faded into history.  We have a family identity that carries far more prestige than any earthly family name.  We who were spiritual orphans are given a home.  Come back to the text with me in v. 28 to see how Paul describes this.

First he lays out one of the basic house rules: “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female.  Among us you are all equal.  That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.  Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous ‘descendant,’ heirs according to the covenant promise.”  In the household of faith we are all one in value (not role).  We are the ones through whom God intends to continue blessing the world as He promised to Abraham.  The family of faith is therefore intended to be for everyone.  No cultural divisions have any bearing here.

Next Paul goes to spell out how this adoption into Christ’s family works and the role the rules play in it: “Let me show you the implications of this.  As long as the heir is a minor, he has no advantage over the slave.  Though legally he owns the entire inheritance, he is subject to tutors and administrators until whatever date the father has set for emancipation.  That is the way it is with us: When we were minors, we were just like slaves ordered around by simple instructions (the tutors and administrators of this world), with no say in the conduct of our own lives.”  Prior to Christ we are spiritual minors, morally immature, and unable to navigate a relationship with the Father on our own.  The rules helped to stem this some, but they can’t plug the gap.  This was never their purpose.  The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  Nothing more.  The rules, then, were to tutor us in the way of Christ until the appointed time for His arrival came.  With this in mind, look how Paul finishes this section.

“But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman, born under the conditions of the law so that he might redeem those of us who have been kidnaped by the law.  Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage.  You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, ‘Papa!  Father!’  [We don’t cry out to God like that unless we belong to Him.]  Doesn’t that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child?  And if you are a child, you’re also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance.”

So here’s what this all means and then we’re out of here.  We were designed to spend eternity in a loving relationship with God as part of His family.  Our perpetual desire to be kings and queens of our own castles, however, makes this impossible for us to achieve on our own.  Not willing to let anything stand in the way of His plans, but humble enough to woo instead of force, God made a promise to a man named Abraham that He was going to use His descendant to enable all people to receive by faith this relationship with Him once again.  Until people were ready and able to walk in the faith necessary for the securing of this relationship, God laid down some rules for all those who desired to follow Him, but especially those direct members of Abraham’s family with whom He was still working to bring to bear the descendant who would make all things right once again.  These rules served to show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  They served as the M.O. for our attempts to stay on the path God laid out for us to follow to a relationship with Him.  They never worked, though, a fact which God knew ahead of time.  But, they were the best of a variety of insufficient options to plug the gap until time was right for Abraham’s descendant to enter the scene.  Once He did in the person of Jesus Christ and accomplished His work, the blessing promised to Abraham through his descendant, Christ, was made available to all those willing to receive it in faith.  And the blessing is this: we become a part of God’s family.  We receive a permanent seat at the table.  We are vested with the meaning and hope and freedom for which we were created, which we have always desired, but which we were never able to obtain.  The tension of life is resolved and we are able to live in peace and harmony.

If we are willing to receive the promise in faith, we become a part of Jesus’ family.  But, none of this happens because of the rules.  The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  I know some of you love the rules.  Again, the rules provide a sense of clarity and security.  But there’s no life to be found there.  Reliance on rules to reach a right relationship with God reveals a spiritual immaturity.  It’s akin to a 40 year old needing to be told when to go to bed and when to get up and when to eat and when to use the bathroom and what to wear and the like.  This is not how things are supposed to work.  The rules show us that we’re wrong and what right looks like.  The rest is received in faith.  So grow up.  Receive the inheritance that is yours for the taking as cherished children of your heavenly Father.  Step out and become fully who God designed you to be, not with the rules, but with faith in the person of promise: Jesus Christ.