Faith Expressing Itself Through Love – Galatians 5:6

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. – Galatians 5:6 NIV

Circumcision is generally not a religious issue among Christians today. But in Paul’s day it was very contentious. Circumcision represented keeping the Old Testament Law, something that many Jewish Christians were very concerned about. To them, the Law remained very important, and was something that they felt every believer should follow. But Paul, although keeping the Law himself, argued against forcing the Gentile believers to observe it. The issue was one of legalism; is there anything I must do to be saved apart from faith? And Paul’s response throughout this letter to the Galatian churches is a resounding no.

But does that mean that as a believer I am free to do what I want? I don’t believe so. In the second half of this verse Paul may have had in mind the words of Jesus when he identified the greatest commandments (Matt. 22:37-39); to love God with all you are, and to love others as yourself. What Paul tells us is that what counts in not obeying the Law, it is faith that expresses itself through love; love for God and love for others. A faith that does not express itself in love is dead and worthless (Jam. 2:14-26). To be clear, I am not saved because of the expressions of love in my life. But I am saved through a faith that does make that expression. A faith that is only intellectual acknowledgement has no value. Seek for a living and active faith.

#DailyBibleThought
https://aclayjar.net/devotionals/

Avoiding a Beating – Acts 22:25

As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” – Acts 22:25 NIV

In the previous chapter Paul expressed his willingness to suffer and even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus. And he does suffer repeated and eventually dies for Christ. But here, just after enduring a beating at the hands of the Jews, he avoids a flogging at the hands of the Romans by claiming Roman citizenship. He was not afraid to use the law to save himself from an unnecessary beating.

The law of our land is not always advantageous for us as believers, nor should we really expect it to be. But when it is, there should be no problem with taking advantage of it, if it will serve to advance the gospel.

The Law: Required, Fulfilled, Overturned, Upheld?

While Israel is encamped at Mt Sinai, following their exodus from Egypt, God gives to Moses a set of laws for the new nation.  These laws cover the spectrum of life for Israel, from moral, to health, to civil, to religious.  Obedience to these laws was not optional, but was required if Israel was to remain in covenant relationship with God.

Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.  Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2 NIV

From reading through the Old Testament one gets the impression that Israel actually did a rather poor job of living in obedience to the Law, and suffered as a consequence.  Only during those times when Israel made an effort to live in conformity with the Law did they prosper.  And that raises a question for believers today; what relationship does the Law have to our walk with God?  Is it still something that we are expected to follow?  Or is it no longer a requirement?

Required

I know many believers who insist that Christians today are expected to keep the Law.  Yet I know none of them who actually do so; at least in its entirety.  A significant portion of the Law deals with the sacrificial system, and I have yet to meet anyone who follows any portion of that.  Another big chunk of the Law deals with health and dietary issues, and again few, if any, make any attempt to follow those regulations.  A third portion of the Law deals with civil issues, like what to do if an ox gores someone, and these are likewise generally ignored.

It is only the portion of the Law that deals with personal morality that anyone attempts to follow today, and even then they are somewhat selective in the portions they choose to follow; generally agreeing, for instance, with the prohibitions against homosexuality but not in how to deal with victims of rape.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Matthew 5:17-18 NIV

This passage is used by many as proof that the believer has not been exempted from following the Law (or at least that portion of the Law they want upheld).  Indeed Jesus says that his intent was not to abolish the Law, although he did seem to eliminate portions (see Mark 7:19) and changed others (see Matthew 5:38-42)

Fulfilled

It seems to me though that focusing on the ‘not abolishing’ portion of that passage is probably not the correct point of emphasis.  It would seem like the ‘fulfill’ portion is actually the central point.  It is what Jesus came to do; fulfill the Law.  What does Jesus mean by this expression?

At least 13 times in the gospel of Matthew the expression “this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet”, or something similar, is used.  The author of Matthew was very concerned with demonstrating that Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies made about him.

And the author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to argue that the sacrifices mandated by the Law were only shadows of the sacrifice that Jesus would offer.  They simply pointed forward to Jesus fulfillment of them in his death on the cross.

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

   “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
         but a body you prepared for me;
   6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings
         you were not pleased.
  7 Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
         I have come to do your will, my God.’”

Hebrews 10:1-7 NIV

I believe that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:17-18 is not that I have to follow the Law, but rather than it was pointing to him, and he has fulfilled it, echoed in his cry from the cross, “It is finished.

Overturned

In contrast to those who would advocate that we are still obligated to uphold the Law are those who will argue that the Old Testament Law is not applicable to Christians today; and I must confess to being more sympathetic to this view.  The Law belonged to the old covenant established by God at Mt Sinai, a covenant that was replaced at Calvary.  The new covenant is one of grace rather than law.  By no means does this mean that I am free to do anything I want.  But it does mean that my relationship with God is not based on obedience to the Old Testament Law.

One of the earliest conflicts in the church dealt with Gentile believers and the Law, particularly circumcision.  It appears like the Jewish believers continued seeking to follow the Law in their daily practice.  But what about the Gentiles.  There were those who advocated that Gentiles should be required to follow the Law, while others felt like it was an unnecessary burden.  The 15th chapter of Acts describes the Jerusalem council where representatives from both sides of this issue met to decide this issue.  One the one hand were the backers of the Law:

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

Acts 15:5 NIV

And on the other side was Peter, along with Paul and Barnabas, who said:

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?  No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Acts 15:10-11 NIV

Ultimately James, speaking for the church, ruled that the Gentiles should not be expected to follow the Law, although the Gentile believers were asked to be considerate of the Jewish folk among them by avoiding some things that would cause them offense.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:19-21 NIV

Paul refers to this council meeting when he writes the letter to the Galatians, in which he argues strenuously against making observance of the Law something that is required to gain or to maintain God’s favor.  For sure, Paul is not opposed to the Law, but he sees it as being something that is applicable to those who have not yet come to faith.  But once we have come to faith in Christ, we are no longer under the rule of the Law.

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.  So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:23-25 NIV

Upheld

So, under the new covenant, what is the role of the Law?  In the first few chapters of Romans, Paul works to wrap all humanity up under sin, separated from God.  And in that discussion he says that it is through the Law that we become conscious of sin, it is the Law that makes clear to us that we have fallen short of the perfection that God requires.

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

Romans 3:20 NIV

No one has ever been, or ever will be declared righteous based on observance of the Law.  Instead the Law proves our need for a savior.  Once we have experienced the gift of righteousness that comes from God through faith, the Law has performed its function; it has been fulfilled.

Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

Romans 3:31 NIV

The Law is a good thing, so long as one uses it properly.  Obedience to the Law is not a replacement for, or enhancement to, faith.  But it continues to be stand as the standard that the unbeliever can measure against to help them realize their inability to please God based on their own efforts.

Fulfilling the Law – Matthew 5:17-20

From the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel comes this passage that, I believe, is often misunderstood and applied.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:17-20 NIV

This passage begins with Jesus refuting what was apparently a misconception that either was in existence, or that he expected to develop.  And that was that he was advocating a new religion that abandoned the foundations of the Law and the Prophets, our Old Testament.  And that is a misconception that would be easy to arrive at when, in the chapters to come, one listens to Jesus repeated say “You have heard that it was said … But I tell you …”.

But Jesus affirms that he has not come to abolish the Old Testament teachings, but rather to fulfill them.  The Old Testament is not obsolete.  But what does he mean by it being fulfilled?  What role does the Old Testament play today in the life of a follower of Jesus?

The word fulfilled is not one I use regularly, but it does have a couple of meanings to me.  The first carries the idea of completeness; my wife fulfills me, or makes me more complete than I would be without her.  The second way I use the word carries the idea of a promise, or obligation, carried out, or fulfilled.  When I buy something on-line, which happens more and more all the time, I expect that within a few days my purchase will show up in the mail.  There is an explicit promise made to me that my purchase will show up in 2,3,5 or 10 days, depending on how much I am willing to pay for postage.  The seller fulfills their obligation by shipping my purchase to me within the specified time frame.  And many companies even have what they call a fulfillment department, where the purchased items are packaged and shipped to the buyer.

I think both of these meanings have application in what Jesus is saying here.  We often say that the Old Testament looks forward to Jesus, or it points to him.  Like I am incomplete without my wife, so the Old Testament is incomplete without Jesus.  He fulfills the Old Testament and helps us to understand it more completely than we could without him.  Jesus is also the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies, as Matthew in particular frequently points out.

But I believe the most applicable fulfillment Jesus makes to the Old Testament has to do with the sin offering found in Leviticus chapters 4 & 5.  This offering, or sacrifice, is made in response to sin and was used to make atonement for the party who had sinned against God in some fashion.  In this offering, an animal takes the place of the offending party, and gives up its life, its blood being shed in place of the sinner, and making God favorably inclined toward the offending party.

The author of Hebrews, in chapter 10, explicitly makes the connection between Jesus sacrifice on the cross and the Old Testament sin offering.  Jesus actually does what the sin offerings only illustrated.  While the sin offerings could never actually deal with our sin, Jesus offering of himself did.  Jesus was that perfect lamb specified in Leviticus that was able to bring about atonement on our behalf.  Jesus fulfilled in his death, the requirements of the Law.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he spends quite a bit of effort discussing the Law and its purpose.  In chapter 3 he expresses that the Law does not replace the covenant established with Abraham (v.17), it was added because of sin until Christ came (v.19), the Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ (v.24), now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the Law (v.25).  So how does this relate to Christ fulfilling the Law?  If the purpose of the Law was simply to lead us to Christ, then when we have come to him, it has accomplished its purpose, it has been fulfilled.

So now, as a believer, I am no longer under the authority of the Law.  Does that mean I can do what I want?  Not really.  It means that my righteousness is not a matter of adherence to a moral code, which is what the Law is, but rather is based on what Christ has done.  I still need to live a life of love toward God, and towards those around me, which is the heart of the Old Testament Law.  But those should be done because of my relationship with God, not in order to obtain, or secure, it.

Jesus issues a warning against setting aside even a single command of the Law and commends those who practice them all; as well as warning and commending those who teach others to set aside or practice the Law.  I struggle with this passage because:

  • I do not offer any of the specified sacrifices or celebrate any of the festival days.
  • I eat a lot of unclean foods.
  • I wear garments of mixed materials
  • As tempting as it sometimes is, I do not advocate killing a child who strikes or curses their parent
  • I do not believe a rape victim should have to marry their rapist
  • I don’t do a very good job of resting on the Sabbath, a violation of which is punishable by death
  • I do not advocate putting adulterers, or others who have sexual activity outside of a husband/wife relationship, to death.
  • I have never called a priest to my home to check out mold growing on the walls.
Nor am I aware of anyone, including those who claim the Old Testament Law should be practiced by believers, who are themselves willing to follow all of these commands.  So what do I do with Jesus direction here.  Am I destined to be least in the kingdom?
 
I am not Jewish, nor am I under the authority of the Law.  I believe it is sufficient for me as a believer to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength and all my mind.  And to love my neighbor as myself.  If I will do those two things, and teach others to do the same, I will have met God’s expectation.  I don’t need a list of rules, whether they be the Old Testament Law, the morals of 17th century Puritans, or 21st century fundamentalists.  All those can do is show me my inability to live a holy life in my own strength.  Christ has set me free from the tyranny of the law, and by an act of grace, declared me to be righteous.  He has set me free from the law of sin and death, and made me free to love.

What Does God Require? – Micah 6:8

What does God expect of me as a believer?  It is common, and tempting, to believe that God ‘s expectations for me are to live a life as free as possible from sin; avoiding doing any of the things that fall on your particular list of sins.  The focus too often times seems to be on what we don’t do.  But should it be?

Now I will not dispute that as a believer, I should avoid doing things that will bring discredit to the name of Christ, that cause harm to others, or that are self centered.  But I have also come to realize that were I to actually be able to live a life that was guiltless before the law, either man’s or God’s, that I would still fall short.  In fact, I believe that what I do is more important than what I don’t do.  Even in the Old Testament, where the Law reigns supreme, we find this remarkable passage.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8 NIV

What does God require of me?  Not to obey the law.  Not to offer sacrifices.  Not to be sinless.  Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before him.  That is not a license to sin freely.  But it is a challenge to make a difference in the world around me as a child of God.

 

The Rich Young Man

In Luke 18:18-23 we see a young man of wealth approach Jesus.  “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life”, he asks Jesus.  The response is to obey the commandments, which he affirms he has done.  Then Jesus tells him something unexpected.  Obeying the commandments is not enough: there is something else you need to do.  “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then follow me”.  And like many of us, it was too much for him.  He was comfortable with his life.  Surrendering all he had in order to follow Jesus around the country was just too much to ask.  Walking humbly with Christ (God) is not as easy as just following a set of rules.  But how can I claim to be his disciple if I don’t follow him?

Parable of the Talents

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells us a parable of three servants whose master left them with a sum of money and then went on a journey.  At his return he calls each of them in to give an account of their service.  Interestingly, he did not ask them if they had been good servants and obeyed the rules.  Instead he wanted to know what they had done with what he had entrusted them with.  Two had made good use of the resources given them and were rewarded.  The third had done nothing with them, and was cast out.  What is it that makes the master (Jesus) happy?  Using what he has entrusted us with in his kingdoms work.

Parable of the Sheep and Goats

Following this, Jesus tells another parable, this time about Christ dividing people, like a shepherd divides the goats from the sheep.   One one hand are the sheep, those who have seen a need and acted to meet that need.  They are invited to partake of their inheritance in the Kingdom.  On the other hand are the goats, those who chose not to respond when they saw others in need.  And they are cast out into eternal punishment.  In neither case are they judged by adherence to a set of rules.  The judgement is not based on sin avoidance.  Rather it is based on acting justly and loving mercy.

John & James

John reinforces the message of the above parable in his first epistle.  If I see a brother in need, and I have the ability to meet that need, but do not, then God’s love does not dwell in me.  Again, it is my actions here that are important; what I do, rather than what I don’t do.

James gives us the same message as John.  If I see a brother with a physical need, and only offer encouraging words instead of meeting the need, then my faith is dead and useless.  Faith, if not accompanied by action, is dead and useless.

What does God Require?

So what does God require of me?  He does expect that I will live a holy life.  A life that is set apart for him.  That does indeed mean that I put to death, or let go of, anything that would get in the way of being able to serve him; especially surrendering to my own selfish desires.  But holiness is much more than that.  It means that I am dedicated to his service.  I become an instrument that he can use in accomplishing his purpose here.  It means that I walk humbly before my Lord, responding to his purpose in my life, making a difference in the world around me.

Don’t be satisfied with obeying the commandments, like the rich young man, and miss out on hearing “well done, good and faithful servant”.  Instead, use the resources the master has given you to honor him, and then “enter into the master’s happiness”.

The Ten Commandments & Christianity

As a Christian, am I supposed to obey the Ten Commandments and all the other laws in the Old Testament?  Just some of them?  Or can I pretty much ignore them?  Many Christians that I know would say yes to the first question, until you looked at the materials tag on their clothing, then they would change their answer to a yes to number 2.  Few would likely admit to a yes to the third question, yet in reality I think most of us really do in practice.  It appears like we follow some subset of the Old Testament law, but I suspect that is more coincidence than by design.  Most likely what we are really doing is following the moral standards of the culture we grew up in, which for me was somewhat similar to the moral teachings of the Old Testament.

But regardless how we actually respond to the initial questions; how should we respond?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say #3, I can pretty much ignore them.  After all Paul told me that I am no longer under the law, but am under grace; and he belabored the point quite extensively in Galatians.

Fulfilling the Law

But, you might ask, what about Jesus statement, in Matthew 5:17-19, that he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it?  This is often times used to argue that we should still be living in accordance with the Old Testament Law, of which the Ten Commandments are a subset.  But is that really what he meant by this statement?

Look at the rest of Matthew 5 and see what Jesus says.  Six times you see him saying something to the effect of “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …”.  Some of these were concerned with traditions, but many of them were dealing with OT laws, including two of the Ten Commandments.  While Jesus is not countermanding any of these laws, he does give fresh meaning to them and does it as one who has a higher authority than the Law, as one who is not bound by it.

Let’s look at another of Jesus teachings concerning the OT Law.  In Mark 7:14-19 Jesus shares what it is that makes a man unclean, and notice that it does not include the food he might eat.  The conclusion made by the author of Mark is that Jesus has declared all foods as being clean.  And one does not have to read much of the OT Law do know that this statement is in serious conflict with the dietary portions of that law.  If Jesus was demanding adherence to the OT Law, surely he would have not told us we could eat what we wanted.

How could Jesus be both fulfilling the Law, and negating part of it?  Unless fulfilling the Law meant something other than advocating that we should still be living under that Law.  Maybe, just maybe, Jesus meant that what the Law was intended to do, he himself actually accomplished; he fulfilled the intent of the Law.

So just what is the intent, or purpose, of the Law?  Paul has a very interesting discourse concerning the purpose of the Law in Galatians 3:19-25.  In this passage he says that the purpose of the Law was because of our sinfulness and was to be in effect until Christ had come (3:19).  In verses 21-22 he says that the Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, so that we might be justified by faith.  And now that faith has come we are no longer under the Law.

So if the purpose of the Law is to bring sinful man to faith in Christ, and its purpose has been fulfilled when one comes to faith, then has Christ not fulfilled the Law for me?  Indeed, the Law is still about, it is not abolished.  But it is no longer applicable to me; it has accomplished its purpose and is no longer in charge.

Sacrifice

A significant requirement of the OT Law was concerned with animal sacrifice, with a significant amount of that dealing with sin and its forgiveness.  When I would break the requirements of the law, sacrifice was required to bring me back into a right standing with God.

The first 18 verses of Hebrew 10 discuss these OT sacrifices and compares them to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Of most significance is that the blood of bulls and goats was unable to really deal with the sin in our lives, resulting in the requirement that they be offered repeatedly.  And this is unlike the sacrifice of Jesus, made one time, and able to permanently deal with sin.  And now, with my sin dealt with by the blood of Christ, there is no longer any need for sacrifice.

Here again we see a fulfillment of the Law.  The OT sacrificial system was simply pointing ahead to the more perfect sacrifice of Jesus.  And once that had been made, the OT sin sacrifices, an integral part of the Law, no longer had any value.

The Jerusalem Council

One of the early conflicts in the new church dealt with the question of applying the Law to Gentile believers.  Just exactly what was required for a Gentile to be in relationship with God?  Was faith alone sufficient, or was adherence to at least some part of the OT regulations required, in particular circumcision.  While circumcision actually predates the Law and is not actually a part of it, the issues is still a valid one for this discussion.  Need I be concerned with the requirements of the OT?  Or not?

Acts chapter 15 finds the early church wrestling with this problem.  And the result of this council is the recognition that circumcision, and the OT Law, are not applicable to Gentile believers, which includes me.  Other than a handful of suggestions to keep them from being offensive to Jewish believers, there are no additional requirements imposed on the Gentiles, either to come to faith, or to live as believers.

So What About It?

All this is not to say that I am free to do whatever I want as a believer.  I don’t believe that at all.  But as a disciple of Jesus, it should be sufficient for me to follow his teachings.  And they are, interestingly enough, summed up in a pair of passages from the OT:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Rather than get hung up with a bunch of rules to live by, simply seek to love God with all I am, and look out for the best interests of those around me.

For what it’s worth, I have no argument with any of the Ten Commandments, although I do with some of the rest of the Law.  In my life I generally do fairly well with keeping this set of commandments, even though it is not done intentionally as a way to be acceptable to God.  But I find it disturbing that so many people get bent out of shape over them being removed from court houses and schools.  And most of those folks probably couldn’t even tell you what all 10 even are.  Let’s focus on loving God, and our neighbors, and not try to enforce, or advocate, a code of conduct that we ourselves don’t follow for the most part.

Discussion

To discuss this topic, or express an opinion, please tune into the Hitler post on Rational Christianity.

image_print