Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 1: 1 – 7

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 1: 1 – 7

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

*       *       *

I’m frightened as I approach this epistle.

The biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham, N T Wright, has written about Romans: “What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breath-taking theological and spiritual vision.”

The difficulty for me is that there is a great deal of the epistle I find difficult to believe.

Nevertheless, I believe that the Holy Spirit is urging me to read and blog about the epistle, so that’s what I’ll do. It may change me profoundly. However, whether my understanding of my faith is changed or not, it will be deepened.

The issues I expect to be difficult are Paul’s view of God’s wrath; his view of God’s love; his view of the nature of Jesus’ death on the cross; and his view of human sexuality. In other words, an awful lot of the epistle.

Does that matter? I look at the heading of this letter to the Romans:

“And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul wrote this from Corinth to the Christians in Rome around about AD 57. It’s not just a letter to the Roman Christians, though. It’s an epistle, which is quite distinct from a letter. It is written for a general readership, and is intended to be persuasive. As such, it is addressed to us today, to me. It says I am loved by God, and called to be one of his holy people. It blesses me with God’s grace and peace.

Paul has written to me; it’s important; I must make sure I’m paying attention.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for your love. Thank you for Jesus. Please help me to read the bible and learn from it whatever I need to follow Jesus and to do your will. Please help me to have the humility to realise when I’m wrong and need to change my thinking.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

The resurrection of Jesus – unimportant people

The resurrection of Jesus – unimportant people

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.

The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment. (Luke 23: 44 – 56)

*       *       *

Jesus had been crucified, and hung dead on the cross. The women who came with him from Galilee were still there, watching. They intended to prepare Jesus’ body for burial in accordance with Jewish Law. They didn’t know what was going to happen to the body, but one thing they knew; if they weren’t there when the body was taken down it could finish up anywhere.

Where were the eleven disciples? Nowhere to be seen.

But Jesus had other disciples, even among members of the Jewish Council. Joseph of Arimathea was one of them. He was a man of substance, a man with access to Pilate. St Luke tells us this: Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. (Luke 23: 50 – 51)

All four gospels tell us that it was Joseph who went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Mark also tells us that Pilate was surprised that Jesus had already died; so surprised in fact that he summoned the centurion and asked if it were true, only releasing the body after hearing the centurion’s confirmation of death.

Joseph and (according to St John) Nicodemus (another member of the council who had sought teaching from Jesus, see John 3: 1 – 21), took down Jesus’ body, wrapped it in linen and laid it in a new tomb cut in the rock. St Matthew tells us it had been prepared for Joseph himself. There is a minor discrepancy between St John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels, in that St John says that Joseph anointed Jesus’ body with myrrh and aloes as well as wrapping it in linen.

And who’s there watching the interment? Why, the women of course. All three of the synoptic gospels agree that some of the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee were present. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph were both there, and possibly others. They are our principal witnesses that Jesus was dead and laid in a tomb.

The chosen disciples have fled. They have despaired. Their faith has crumbled.

But Jesus can’t be abandoned even in death; that would be unthinkable! He must be buried with the proper observances. The women don’t know what will happen afterwards, but that doesn’t matter; they will do the right thing for him.

Once again it is the humble, those who are prepared to continue walking with God one step at a time, who are the means of great blessing to the world.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for all people who trust you and are obedient to your will. Thank you especially for the women who accompanied Jesus, and stayed with him after death, giving us a record of Jesus resurrection.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Meditations for Good Friday

Meditation on St John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion

St John describes the crucifixion very briefly.

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

He doesn’t go into detail; he didn’t need to; his readers would all have been familiar with the practice. In our time, we aren’t familiar with it – thank God! – so we have no real idea of the horror. Suffice it to say, it was a procedure designed to strip the humanity from the victim, by the infliction, in public, of humiliation and intense pain continued until death.

The soldiers did that to Jesus, and I have to ask ‘Why?’

It was clearly willed by God the Father. There’s no getting around that.

I cannot see how a God of love could demand such a thing.

Let’s see what might allow it to happen.

Firstly, let’s ascribe responsibility for the execution itself to the right quarter. It was Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion, on the orders of a Roman governor, in response to the lobbying of the chief priests of the Jews. In other words, it was human beings that put Jesus on the cross. It wasn’t God.

Secondly, God the Father did not demand that Jesus be crucified. Jesus’ crucifixion is not a sacrifice to God.

Thirdly, God the Father could see that a certain sequence of actions would bring about the crucifixion of Jesus. In that sense, he planned the crucifixion.

Fourthly, Jesus, throughout his whole life, subordinated his will to that of God the Father. Like all of us he had free will, but he chose in every action to implement God’s plan.

Fifthly, Jesus continued steadfast in God’s will until the very end of his life. It was immensely costly; when we read the synoptic gospels we see that he was terrified at the prospect of being crucified.

Sixthly, it must have been in some way necessary. And now I’m starting to guess at mysteries, so take what I write with caution; it’s probably mostly wrong and certainly incomplete.

Perhaps part of the answer can be found in John 16: 7 “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

Despite the flawed nature of humanity, we can experience God living within us in the form of the Holy Spirit. This is our access to God the Father. This gives us strength and guidance as to how to become better people. Perhaps God’s long-term plan is that humanity should eventually be able to live authentically good lives? Wouldn’t that be worth Jesus’ (completely voluntary) sacrifice on the cross?

Well, that may indeed be the case, but why does it require such a horrible event? Or, to make it even sharper, why does God have a plan that includes the crucifixion? And I think to even start to understand that we have to return to my first point

“Firstly, let’s ascribe responsibility for the execution itself to the right quarter. It was Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion, on the orders of a Roman governor, in response to the lobbying of the chief priests of the Jews. In other words, it was human beings that put Jesus on the cross. It wasn’t God.”

Sin, or doing the wrong thing, is built into human society. It is firmly cemented into the power structures. When power structures are seriously challenged, they respond with violence. Take the case of the military junta that ruled in Argentina in the nineteen seventies. They didn’t want people working to help the poor. They snatched people who did so – teachers, health workers, union representatives – imprisoned them without trial, tortured them and killed them. Tens of thousands were murdered in this way.

I firmly believe that any power structure that is vigorously challenged about its wrongdoing will respond with violence, especially if it looks as though it may be forced to change its ways

I suggest, very tentatively, that the crucifixion of Jesus was the example we have been given to follow. We have to be prepared to challenge evil, not just in our own lives but in the society in which we live. It almost certainly won’t lead to martyrdom – although it may – but it will always be costly.

And why should we follow a course of action that could cost us so highly?

Because the really important aspect of Jesus’ crucifixion is actually his resurrection, the act by which God says “It is worthwhile challenging evil, because good has now overcome evil, and will do so onwards throughout history.”

Meditation on St Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

*       *       *

St Luke records three things that Jesus said as he hung on the cross in agony.

The first was: Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

He prayed for those who were torturing him. His thoughts were not for himself but for others.

The second thing Luke records was:

Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

Once again, his thoughts were for somebody else. What great compassion he showed to the condemned man hanging next to him! Jesus was continuing his ministry to bring sinners to repentance and then forgive them, right up until the very end of his life.

We will come to the third saying later.

What is going on in today’s reading? What is the message?

Jesus is perfectly displaying the love of God. He is giving every last breath to the service of God and his fellow men. To copy Jesus’ focus on God and on those around him is what we are called to do. It is all we are called to do.

Then we look at the cross. Who designed it? Human beings did. Who decided it should be used? The Roman Empire – made up of human beings. Who sentenced Jesus to die on it? Pontius Pilate – a human being. You see, human beings believe in punishment; we believe in retribution when something bad has been done.

And yet punishment for wrongdoers is the last thing on Jesus’ mind. He forgives those who crucify him – and I feel sure that the forgiveness extends back beyond the soldiers driving the nails through his flesh, to Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish authorities. None of them really knew what they were doing. He forgives the criminal beside him, even though the man says, ‘We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.’

God does not believe in punishment.

There is nothing conditional about Jesus’ forgiveness. The soldiers don’t have to stop driving the nails through his feet. The rulers don’t have to stop mocking him. The forgiveness is free and unconditional.

This is the climax of Jesus’ mortal life. Everything has led to this point. It is the most perfect and clear image we have of Jesus, and hence about God. And what does it say to us? It says, ‘God is love.’

GOD IS LOVE!

Prayer

Heavenly Father

You are love. You care for each one of us with a passion we can’t imagine. Thank you, Lord, thank you!

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Meditation on St Luke’s account of Jesus’ death

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.

The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

*       *       *

One of the key verses of this passage is v.49: But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

St Luke clearly feels that it’s extremely important to reassure his readers that the events he is describing are true, and happened in the way he describes. He has said from the start that he himself was not an eye-witness, so how does he know the detail of the crucifixion? This verse is the clue, particularly the phrase “including the women.”

There is considerable evidence that suggests that St Luke had access to Jesus’ mother Mary’s memories of the events of Jesus’ life. Indeed, it is quite likely that he heard them face to face from Mary herself.

St Luke reports that as he died, Jesus said ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’

This affirms that Jesus was fully human. It was necessary for him to commit his spirit to the Father, because as a human he had been separate from the Father. I do not believe that Jesus knew precisely what was coming next; he was fully human; he had to trust in God, just like the rest of us. And, having suffered the worst things that humans can do – betrayal, abandonment, denial, wrongful accusation, injustice, torture and death – having suffered all these, his faith in a loving God is unbroken. He can say ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’

Jesus has reached the end of a blameless life, totally dedicated to God’s will, and yet his life closes in isolation and agony on a Roman cross. It seems that sin has won.

Similarly, when we look at the world it can sometimes look very bleak, as though human sin is triumphant.

But Jesus, in these last few seconds, can say, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’

Sin does not win. Jesus died trusting the Father totally, because he knew the nature of the Father. The closer we can cling to God, the greater our trust in him will become.

The last six verses of this passage describe the burial of Jesus. Here, too, we have a verse about the women. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.

Once again, St Luke wants us to know that the burial was witnessed. There was no question of Jesus’ body being removed and buried somewhere unknown to the disciples; the women followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it. Jesus’ body was not stolen and smuggled away; it was laid in a tomb close to Jerusalem. The women saw it lying there, before going home and preparing spices and perfumes to anoint the body. They couldn’t go immediately to prepare Jesus’ body, though, because it was the Sabbath.

They had to wait…

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for courage and trust and obedience that Jesus showed as he died. Help us to follow him wherever you choose to send us.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Galatians 6: 11 – 18 Not circumcision but the new creation

Galatians 6: 11 – 18 Not circumcision but the new creation

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule – to the Israel of God.

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

*       *       *

This is the final short section of the letter. Paul reiterates his warnings about the false doctrine of circumcision, but he also seems to want to sum up his beliefs about being a Christian in this fallen world. There is a lot of theology in these few, short paragraphs, and what I write here doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

The world has been crucified to me. What might this mean?

A small part of the meaning might be that I need no longer allow human desires and drives to rule me. When I follow the direction of the Holy Spirit I avoid sin. When I forget to follow his direction, or when I choose not to do so, I sin – but, through Jesus, there is a way back to God for me.

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”

What counts is the new creation. What might Paul mean by this?

“The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” and yet life continues; we are not immediately with God in heaven. However, we are no longer ruled by human passions. We live as much as possible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But there is daily life to be negotiated; a living to be earned; children to raise; neighbours to help.

Once, all these matters would have been guided by our human drives and ambitions. Now we are called to live daily life according to the bidding of the Lord, not by obeying the Mosaic law, not by being circumcised, but by allowing God to transform us into the likeness of Christ through the power of his Holy Spirit. We are to become a new creation.

What a wonderful world it is, and how much more wonderful when we are created anew! As we place everything into God’s hands, it is a true delight to experience the love, the joy, the peace, the forbearance, the kindness, the goodness, the faithfulness, the gentleness and the self-control that are the fruits of the Spirit.

What counts is the new creation.

We are the new creation.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for making it possible for us to become a new creation.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you that you have made us a new creation. Thank you for Jesus, for his death and resurrection that overcame the power of sin in our lives. Thank you for the Holy Spirit who empowers us to live according to your will.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Easter

This study of St Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is complete.

Over Easter, I shall publish meditations on the events of Holy Week, before starting another epistle next week.

I wish you all a blessed Easter.

Galatians 6: 1 – 10 Doing good to all

Galatians 6: 1 – 10 Doing good to all

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to somebody else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

*       *       *

This passage is a collection of thoughts on how the Galatians – and all Christians – can put their faith into practice.

“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.”

We are all likely to sin, and there are many different ways of sinning. Here, Paul seems to be talking about sin that is so obvious it has come to the attention of the church family. Paul advises that the people to deal with that sin are those who live by the Spirit. That makes sense. Sin is turning aside from God; ‘missing the mark’. The best people to help a sinner turn back to God are those who are used to listening to the Holy Spirit, thereby discerning God’s will. Their discernment identifies the right direction; their obedience in their own life sets a good example.

Notice that Paul says “restore that person gently”. The sinner is not to be condemned but restored; moreover, their restoration is to be done gently.

Paul also warns those who work to restore the sinner. “But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” The temptation may be to self-righteousness; or pride; or to imitate the sinner. Or if the sin has been divisive – adultery, for example – there may be a temptation to take sides. Anyone working to restore a sinner must firstly focus on discerning what the Holy Spirit is saying about the situation, and secondly be aware of the risk of temptation.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” As we carry each other’s burdens, we are imitating what Jesus did for us. When I studied John’s gospel, it seemed to me that you could sum up its teaching as “Follow Jesus” and “Love each other”. That’s what Paul is saying here. And, of course, he is using that word ‘law’ again. This whole letter has been about freedom from the law. Here Paul is saying “You don’t have a long list of actions that are forbidden and actions that are mandatory; you have a Lord to follow. His law is that you should love each other.”

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”

‘Sowing to please the flesh,’ means giving human desires and drives priority over God’s will. If we do that, those desires will mislead us and ultimately imprison and destroy us. ‘Sowing to please the Spirit’ means paying attention to the indwelling Holy Spirit and being obedient to what he tells us about God’s will. As long as we are sowing to please the Spirit, we will experience the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. We will experience love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5: 22 – 23)

“Let us not become weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

Is it possible to become weary of doing good? Paul evidently thinks so. And what is his solution? “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” It is in practical care and concern for each other that we grow spiritually, and retain our enthusiasm.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for these words of Saint Paul. Please help me to take the opportunities I have to do good to all people. Please help me to be less selfish.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Galatians 5: 13 – 26 Life by the Spirit

Galatians 5: 13 – 26 Life by the Spirit

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one commandment: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

*       *       *

When I was studying the passage on Friday (Galatians 5: 1 – 12), I was very powerfully shown the core of Paul’s belief, the gospel that he preached. I will repeat here the three sentences that struck me most forcefully:

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,”

“For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.”

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

In today’s passage Paul feels that he must make it clear that liberty does not mean licence; he’s not contradicting yesterday’s wonderful revelation, but he knows that it could be misunderstood.

He uses the metaphor of the opposition of the flesh and the Spirit, and writes, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.” When he says this, I don’t think he means we shouldn’t enjoy the world. After all, God created the world and saw that it was good. Jesus participated fully and joyfully in human life – his first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. In the present day, many people are moved towards God by the beauty of his creation, and human love can give a wonderful foretaste of heavenly love.

If we look at Paul’s list of the acts of the flesh – “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like” – we see they are a list of basic human drives. If someone puts them first, ahead of the prompting of the Holy Spirit, then they will harm others and themselves. We need to be ever aware of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and give his promptings priority over our own human desires.

It would be a mistake to take Paul’s list as a list of rules; it is a list of examples of behaviour that results from giving priority to the desires of the flesh. Paul is saying, ‘If you behave like this, you are not living according to God’s will.’ It’s not a list of rules, because you cannot use it to achieve righteousness, which is exclusively God’s gift.

Paul includes another list. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Again, this is not a list of rules. It is what happens when you listen to the Holy Spirit and allow him to guide you in doing God’s will. These are, as Paul says, the fruits of the Spirit. If somebody is displaying these characteristics, then the Holy Spirit is working in them and through them. Don’t strive self-consciously for the fruit. Just listen to the Holy Spirit and act as he suggests.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for your love. Thank you for your grace that brings the righteousness for which we hope by faith. Thank you for the fruits of the Spirit in our lives.

Please inspire everyone who reads this blog post to listen obediently to the Holy Spirit, and to experience his fruits more and more.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Galatians 5: 1 – 12 Freedom in Christ

Galatians 5: 1 – 12 Freedom in Christ

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’ I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

*       *       *

Well, at last we have a straightforward passage!

Or do we?

This passage has changed my perception of Paul; in fact, it has turned it upside-down.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” In the context of this letter, it is clear that Paul means this absolutely literally. We are no longer required to observe the law; we have been given the Holy Spirit instead.

“For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” What God wants for us can’t be achieved by a ‘one size fits all’ set of rules. He wants us to learn to understand what we need to do by asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit. We are no longer slaves but God’s children, and therefore also his heirs. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

“For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” Our righteousness comes purely as a result of God’s gift of Jesus. As we await, by faith, this righteousness, we strive to do God’s will as it is revealed by the Holy Spirit. This does absolutely nothing to make us righteous; our righteousness comes purely from God’s grace. Our actions are our response to God’s love. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

I had always thought of Paul as being a bit of a legalist, but this passage shows me I was completely wrong. Paul is preaching freedom of the most radical kind – just like Jesus. No wonder the Jews hated him!

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

Alleluia!

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

Thank you so much for your gift of love, through the ministry, death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus. Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.

Amen

Galatians 4: 21 – 31 Hagar and Sarah

Galatians 4: 21 – 31 Hagar and Sarah

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

These things are being taken figuratively: 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. For it is written:

‘Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; break forth and cry aloud you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’

Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time, the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

*        *        *

I’m not at all sure that I’ve understood this correctly, but this is what I think the passage means. Paul is looking back in Jewish history to Abraham. He uses the story of Hagar and Sarah to create a parable. We know that this is the case, because Paul writes, “These things are being taken figuratively.”

This, very much shortened, is the story he uses.

Abraham was a righteous man because he believed in God’s promises and obeyed God’s commands. He was childless, and his wife, Sarah, was old. Nevertheless, God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as grains of sand on the beach. Sarah could see there was no biological way in which they were going to have children together, so she suggested to Abraham that he should have sex with her slave, Hagar, in order to have a son who could inherit his wealth.

Abraham did this, Hagar became pregnant and bore a child, Ishmael. But this wasn’t God’s plan. He intended Abraham’s inheritance to pass on through a son of Sarah. And, sure enough, twelve years later, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son for Abraham. This was Isaac, through whom all Jews claimed descent.

Acting under God’s instructions, Abraham sent Ishmael away. However, because Abraham was so distressed at the callous act, God promised that Ishmael, too, would father a nation.

You can find this story in Genesis 17: 1 – 27; 18: 1 – 15; and 21: 1 – 20.  

In Paul’s parable, Hagar stands for the covenant of the law through Moses. Sarah stands for the covenant of God’s grace, first to Abraham, and then to all mankind through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus. Paul says that Ishmael is born of the flesh. He means more than merely the carnal act; he means that Abraham and Sarah had tried to bring about God’s will by human planning. Isaac, on the other hand, was born purely as a result of God’s grace. He was born by the power of the Spirit.

Paul identifies the earthly city of Jerusalem with Mount Sinai (the place where the law was given to Moses and the Jews), and with Hagar and Ishmael. He is not saying that the inhabitants of earthly Jerusalem are literally the descendants of Ishmael. He is saying that because they still adhere to the law after God’s grace has come in Jesus, they are slaves. In that way, they are figuratively the descendants of Ishmael.

Paul identifies the Christians to whom he is writing as spiritual descendants of Isaac. They are children of God’s promise; they were born by the power of the Spirit; theirs is the inheritance.

And that applies to us, too. When we were baptised, we were born again by the Spirit. By God’s free grace, we are heirs of the promise made by God to Abraham. We are free, not slaves. Alleluia!

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

Thank you for your grace towards us. Thank you that we are free.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Galatians 4: 8 – 20 Paul’s concern for the Galatians

Galatians 4: 8 – 20 Paul’s concern for the Galatians

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and 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 Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

These people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

*       *       *

This passage seems a bit muddled. The people who are zealous to win over the Galatians are those who are trying to impose circumcision on them – but what’s this sentence about? “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces?” This seems to refer to pagan worship, rather than Judaism. Perhaps, indeed, it does. There were many converts from paganism to Judaism within the church in Galatea. Possibly they were relapsing into pagan practices.

There is a great deal about the people and the situation that Paul knew, and the recipients of the letter knew, and that we don’t know. If even Paul writes “I am perplexed about you!”, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that I don’t understand this passage.

Still, its main thrust comes across clearly. Paul fears for the Galatians, that the work he has done with them has been wasted. He feels as though he needs to start again from the beginning, saying: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,” He wants to encourage them to persist in faith in Christ Jesus, and to believe in the gospel even when he is not with them. “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.”

This is good advice to the Galatians – and it’s good advice for us as well. It’s all too easy to fall back into lazy habits of thought, and belief, and action, and prayer. We need always to be listening to the Holy Spirit; who knows what surprises he will have in story for us!

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for Jesus. Please help me to let him be at the very centre of my life.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Galatians 3: 23 – 29 and 4: 1 – 7 Children of God

Galatians 3: 23 – 29 and 4: 1 – 7 Children of God

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.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

4 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is under age, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were under age, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 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, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

*       *       *

This passage is full of theology. Today, rather than go into great detail, I’m going to take an overview. Perhaps I’ll look more at the detail tomorrow.

Paul is saying that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything.

We saw on Friday that God gave the law because his chosen people had behaved so badly. From the time of Moses to the time of Jesus, humanity was, figuratively speaking, enslaved. We had to obey the law, in every detail, for every minute of our lives. It was next to impossible.

What changed? Paul says this. “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, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” This is the gospel, the good news, that Paul has been preaching. Jesus was born of a woman. He was born under the law – just like every other human being. From that position, by perfect obedience and submission to the will of God, he was able to redeem us so that we could become children of God.

But that redemption is not automatic – we have to accept it. We accept it by believing in Jesus, and accepting God’s gift of the Holy Spirit of his Son. When we do this, we are no longer slaves but God’s children, and, since we are his children, we are heirs to his kingdom.

One implication of Paul’s teaching here, is that we have been given responsibility. It’s no longer sufficient just to slavishly follow a set of rules. We are called to help build God’s kingdom. We are called to attune ourselves to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. We are called to love everybody, just as God loves everybody – and, yes, that really does mean everybody.

We have two commandments:

“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ ” (Luke 10: 27)

These commandments tell us how God has set up the universe. He is at its heart, and his nature is love.

Praise his name!

Prayer

Heavenly Father

We praise you for creating the universe in which we live. We praise you that you care for us, that you love us with a love that is beyond our understanding. Thank you, for all your goodness to use, especially for sending us the Holy Spirit of your Son Jesus.

In Jesus’ name, Amen