(This is the 3rd message of the Galatians series I’m doing for the high school group at Calvary Fellowship. However, no one showed up yesterday, so this will actually be next week’s message. I thought I’d post it anyway. Hope you enjoy!)
Although it seems really odd to us today, circumcision was a major part of Judaism in Paul’s time. It was a way to separate Jew from Gentile – Israelite from Greek. But what Paul often describes in his letters was how circumcision became a form of slavery in the spiritual sense.
“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek,” Galatians 2:3
This verse alludes to the heart of the issue: Embracing the freedom of the gospel or seek the acceptance of the dominant religious elite by keeping the traditions of old.
We touched on this the first week by talking about where we place identity; is it with those who seek the acceptance of society or with someone else? But this week we’re looking at what is truly liberating about the gospel of Jesus.
Judaism, especially ancient Judaism, is a rather legalistic religion. If you ever get a chance, just breeze through Leviticus 11-15 – I know, not a very exciting book to read, but these chapters describe the purity laws of Judaism. If you were a Jew, you held these laws no matter what. But at the time of Jesus and Paul there was another set of laws which the priests and religious elite held their fellow Jews to.
Even though it was written down a couple hundred years after Christ’s death, the Mishnah (which is a part of what’s called the Talmud) represents the kind of oral traditions that were prevalent in Jesus’ time. These oral laws were as equally authoritative in that time period as the rest of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
An example comes from Mark 2:23-28:
“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’
And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’
And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Notice the key word in this passage, “lawful.” Judaism in Jesus’ time had become a very systematic religion that was mostly void of any authentic faith in God. People were more concerned about keeping accordance with what their religious leaders were telling them than actually seeking out a personal relationship with God. When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he had to deal with this problem head on.
The systematic nature of ancient Judaism is a nature that has permeated every religion of our day. Groups of leaders come together to set up these codes of conduct that they want all their followers to abide by. No doubt some have a good intent behind it; they want to make sure they’re obeying God rather than man. But what always gets overlooked is how their own commandments and laws become more authoritative than the commandments and laws of God. This was the issue with the Galatian churches; Jewish-Christians were coming forward appearing to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, but still clinging to the traditions of old – and requiring everyone else to do the same.
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” – Matthew 15:7-9
What is the gospel? It is the good news that Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves. These religious systems attempt to enable all followers to attain a certain level of spirituality by what they do. If they obey, then their lives are going to be great. If they don’t obey, then they’re lives are going to be hell. Paul’s words to the Galatians meant this: It is not by what you do or what you believe in; it is by whom you believe in that saves you – not just from hell or condemnation, but from the legalistic systems of this world.
Followers of the Way, which was a way of describing followers of Christ back in antiquity, were hated not because they were annoying people with funeral protests and Koran burnings; they annoyed people because they believed in Jesus – a God-man who broke their system to pieces.
Obviously the system still pervades in our day. We have countless books about systematic theology (the title alone should be a warning) and what Christians should believe. But Paul repeatedly argues that what we really need to believe in is the fact that we are loved so much by our God He died for us so we may live with Him in eternity.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,” Galatians 1:3-4
This week’s encouragement is to think about why we show up to church. Is it because we’re trying to please that false god of religious legalism? Is it because we’re trying to fit in with the rest of the Christian crowd? Is it because we’re trying to look good to the elites of our society? Or is it because we thirst for something beyond the system?
“People who have been starved of water for a long time will drink anything, even if it is polluted,” NT Wright, Simply Christian
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” – Jesus, John 4:13-14
Which well are you drinking from?