During this week, I took a few days of holiday on my own. I paid my first visit ever to the famous and the very alternative place called Byron Bay. There are strange experiences to be had in Byron Bay, and not least, the change which is caused by the weather. I realised that the community of Byron Bay have had to learn how to stay happy, calm and steady when everything that makes Byron Bay attractive is taken away. That’s the fact. When the clouds come, it’s a very, very different place.
For the Christian, our conditions can change. And when our conditions change, as God may in his wisdom, bring a change of circumstances, we find ourselves having to, with greater enthusiasm and more deliberate intent, go back to the Bible to check and see that God is steadfast in his love and his faithfulness. It’s very constructive and productive that the conditions will change to cause us to go back and check exactly what the character of our God is like. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to meditate in difficult conditions on what the Bible calls the steadfast love of God.
There is another way, however, that our lives can be clouded and this is not the clouding of the conditions but the clouding that takes place in our own heads when some kind of heresy moves into our thinking. And we find ourselves starting to believe, unhelpfully, that the God we trust in is not so steadfast after all, but may actually be relating to us according to our attention to detail. This is the Galatian heresy. I want you to try and imagine what I’m talking about here. Just imagine if God is not that committed to you but he is provisionally committed to you. He’s considering being committed to you, provided you perform in a certain way or tick certain boxes.
This is the heresy which has come into the Galatian churches. It’s the idea that God’s grace which comes to all who put their faith in Christ for salvation can actually be improved or even undone depending on how you respond to certain boxes to be ticked. It’s actually a very torturous way to live the Christian life. And the Galatians were under pressure from these heretics to believe that if they tick the boxes of certain rituals, like holidays, special food, and even the ritual of circumcision, that God would warm up to them and that he would, as it were, unfold his arms and start to be affectionate.
This as a severe cloud for the Christian church. It impinges on the character of God. It impinges on the way we fellowship as believers. It affects on the way we experience joy and peace. What does it say about God? You see that his gracious promises can be improved or undone by our successes or our failures. How do you relate to a God who is so dependent on what you do or don’t do?
For example, would you rather go on holidays where the weather may change or the person you’re travelling with changes? Would you rather be on a road which is winding and a little unpredictable or find that the person you’d chosen to travel with would only be pleasant towards you if you matched all their demands? You can see the extraordinary difficulty of this. And you can see why Paul is agitated that people would start to think that God is like that.
So our section today is Galatians 3:15-25. What we’ve seen so far is that Paul begins with a protest that the Galatians would welcome the heresy into the church. And then, of course, he goes on as we saw, to defend his authority to speak on the subject because he’s being discredited. Then for a couple of weeks, we saw his reminders that belief brings new life. That’s what brings new life. It’s believing in Jesus. And you can’t improve on what God gives you when He gives you eternal life. You can grow, of course, you can mature, but you can’t improve on the life that he gives you.
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What we’re going to see today, we’re going to see two things. The first is we shouldn’t try and improve on the promises of God and we do try to do that. We’re also going to see why God gave the laws, why the law of God was given.
Don’t Mess With God Given Promises
Look at chapter 3 verse 15, he says, “Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life.” The word “brothers” is significant because he’s writing to Christians. He’s not talking to non-Christians about how they can be saved. He’s talking about Christians about how they can stay clear, secure, humble, and joyful in the Christian life. And even though he’s obviously agitated, he still loves them, and he calls them brothers.
He introduces there in the illustration of a will, “Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life, just no one can set aside or add to a human covenant or will.” And then he goes on for his arguments. So his illustration is a covenant or a will, the word in the original means the same. Because these are Gentile Galatians who wouldn’t be familiar with covenant and Old Testament covenant as much as the Jews would, we can be pretty sure that he probably means the word “will.” How do you communicate to people who’ve got no understanding of church or church history or Bible? One of the ways to do that is to use an everyday illustration, and that’s what the Apostle Paul does.
The point he’s making is you don’t change your will. You know, if uncle Burt decides in his will that he’s leaving his socks to his son, he’s leaving his socks to his son. If Aunt Mabel decides that she’s leaving her pet budgerigar to her granddaughter, she’s leaving her pet budgerigar to her granddaughter, don’t interfere with the will. God promised to Abraham that he would have a global family. So don’t interfere with the will, with the covenant, says the Apostle Paul. You’ll notice the detail, however, in verse 16, is that God made a promise to Abraham about what he would give one specific descendant of Abraham.
You can imagine that God said something to Abraham like this, “In my will for you, Abraham, your descendant who will come down the track is going to get everything that lasts. But everything that matters, everything that lasts I’m leaving to your offspring. I’m leaving to your seed. I’m leaving to your descendant.” The word in the original is seed.
So in Genesis 12, “it’s to your offspring.” Genesis 13, “It’s to your offspring.” Genesis 24, “It’s to your offspring.” And the point, says Paul, is it’s singular. He’s talking about one descendant who’s going to come down the track who’s going to collect everything. And we’re told in verse 16 that this one great descendant is Jesus. If you belong to Jesus, you share with Jesus in Jesus’ inheritance. In fact, if you belong to Christ the seed, if you look down to verse 29, you become part of the seed. You become part of the seed of Abraham. When you place yourself in Christ’s hands, you find that everything comes.
There needs to come that step of placing yourself in Christ’s hands as Savior and Lord, then the penny will drop. And you’ll begin to understand. But that’s what the Apostle Paul is saying. When you’ve placed yourself in Christ’s hands, you’re in the hands of the one who will provide everything in the short or the long-term.
If I could use a straightforward illustration and the last illustration to do with Byron Bay, when I was planning my few days away, I picked the cheapest motel that I could find. And of course, the cheapest motel still promised that it would be like paradise. And I was suspicious, and I went off being suspicious. But when I got there, I discovered that the cheapest motel, which I had picked, was actually 50 meters from the beach and 50 meters from the shops. And it was neat as a pin, and I had everything that I could possibly want.
So placing myself in that situation, I actually found that everything I needed came with it. Placing yourself in Christ’s hands, you will discover that everything which you could possibly require will come with him. So Paul says in chapter 3:16, “God has made His promise or His will out to Christ. And since he, Christ, will receive everything those who belong to Him will share one day in that.”
Now not only is God’s inheritance wrapped up with Jesus but look, verse 17, how could the law change that? God made the promise right back with Abraham, everything will end up with Jesus. How’s the law going to change that, especially as the law came 430 years later?
It’s hard to work out what these 430 years is actually measuring. It could be something like the promise to Abraham through to Mount Sinai, or it could be something like the last promise to Jacob right through to the wilderness wanderings. But the point is there was a huge gap between the promise and the law. So God didn’t say to Abraham, “Look, here’s a promise if you keep the law,” there was no law. God said to Abraham here’s a promise you don’t need the law.
“And if he did say,” verse 18, “you’ll get the inheritance if you keep the law, it wouldn’t be a promise because it would be a condition.” But it wasn’t a condition. It was a promise. So the Apostle Paul is saying don’t fall for people who bring in a condition when you’ve got a promise. Don’t fall for those people who tried to change God’s promises into laws, who try to change God’s inheritance offer into a condition. Focus on the promises.
I was reading through the week that when Switzerland was looking for a place to store its radioactive nuclear waste, they actually chose a small mountain village. I won’t try and pronounce the name of the town in the centre of Switzerland, a population of 2,000 people. And they asked the 2,000 inhabitants of this small village if they would be prepared to have the nuclear waste of the country dumped in their area. Makes an airport at Sydney’s Badgery’s Creek look pretty nice. The village agreed to have the nuclear waste in their area by a vote of 51% to 49%.
The economist then decided to offer a sweetener, so they offered $9,000 per year per person if they would do this. And the village then took back the offer, and 25% were willing for the nuclear waste to be dumped in their vicinity. Why was there the change from 51% to 25%? The reason is that once the money was introduced, the community felt that it had become a bribe. And what had begun as a sort of a generous piece of civic responsibility had now become just a cheap piece of bribery.
The point I’m making is that you cannot add to grace. And if you do, especially in the area of Christian security, if you try to add what God promises, what God gives by grace, it insults Him. It divides the church into those who have and have not, those who do and do not and it’s destructive to your own peace and joy. That’s the first thing in this section. The apostle Paul is saying don’t mess with promises. You might be thinking to yourself, as you sit there this morning, “I don’t really know what he’s talking about.”
But what I’m talking about is this, that it is so easy inside a fellowship to have a little sense of one-upmanship, a little sense of I’ve done this, and you’ve not done this, I’ve performed here, and you haven’t performed here.
If you start to think that that’s the way you can impress God or relate to God, you insult Him. You’re in danger of dividing the fellowship, and you’re in danger of robbing yourself of your joy. It’s when you recognise that God has made promises freely and fully to us in Christ and you rejoice in them, and you rejoice in everybody who rejoices in them, you honour Him, you strengthen the fellowship and you are at peace. That’s the first little section.
Don’t Miss Why God Gave The Law
You see this verse 19, “What then was the purpose of the law?” This isn’t an obvious question to ask, isn’t it? Why did God give the law if keeping it or not keeping it has no influence on salvation?
Why did God give it? Why did God give Moses in Mount Sinai? Why didn’t He just jump from Abraham straight over to Jesus? Did God make a mistake with the law and can we ignore it safely?
Look at verse 19. The first part of the answer to the question is that it had a job to do until Christ came. Verse 19, what was the purpose of the law? “It was added because of transgression until the seed, that is Jesus, to whom the promise referred had come.”
So the law had a little job to do, which was like a splint holding a broken leg in place until the doctor turned up and brought the healing. That’s the temporary job. The second part of the answer why the law is in verse 20, and this is that the law was a sign of trouble. You see, verse 20, a mediator, or verse 19, “The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.” The point the Apostle Paul is making here is that the law is a sign of trouble. It’s always a sign of trouble.
Why do we have laws in our community? We have laws because of potential trouble. Some people are making the laws and trying to keep the order and those who need to obey the laws and are in danger of breaking up the order. So law is always a sign of trouble. Promises don’t necessarily mean trouble. God gives promises, but the law is a sign of trouble.
The third part of the answer why the law, verse 21, is that there’s something tragic about the law. And that is that it cannot bring life. All those people who think that by living well and being nice that they will one day walk into life, life eternal, life in heaven, are going to be so tragically disappointed because the Lord works the exact opposite way and gives the life which then enables the faithful living.
The law doesn’t oppose the promises of God. The Apostle says, “Don’t you realise that only promises can give life, the law can’t give life?”
We come in verses 22 to 24 to the real reason for the law. I’ll read you these verses. “The scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin. So that what was promised being given through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” In other words, we’re in prison because of sin, Christ unlocks the prison. Verse 23, “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law. Locked up until faith should be revealed.” Verse 24, “So the law was put in charge, like a babysitter to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
Now, friends, stay with me just for a few minutes because this is an important bit of teaching, understanding our Bibles and that is that God gave the law primarily to Israel.
Israel received the law, and they were to realise from the law what God is like, great. What they are like, not so great, and they will long for a saviour. But let’s build ourselves into this particular argument for a minute.
The law reveals the trouble that we’re in so that we value Christ. As John Stott says, the law doesn’t give salvation to us. The law gives knowledge of our need of salvation. Luther says the law was given that we might sigh and groan for deliverance. Again, says Luther, if the law could justify, then we would love it. We’d take pleasure in it and we’d embrace it with goodwill. But where is this goodwill? It’s nowhere. You don’t find people in church or out saying, “Oh, I’m so thankful for the law. It’s such a help.”
The genius of God was to provide a law that would make us want Christ. So the promise and the law work together because the promise is saying he’s coming, and the law says you need him. I’ll give you a sort of a homely illustration. Imagine a doctor says to a friend as he listens to his friend walking upstairs breathing very heavily and being a heart expert recognises that this friend has undoubtedly heart problems. Imagine the doctor says, “I will freely operate on your needy heart.” And the person says, “No, thanks.” And sort of scoffs and walks in the opposite direction.
So the doctor then decides to send the friend a present, and the couriers turn up, and they drag this huge present inside. And he opens it, and it’s a treadmill. And he runs on the treadmill for a minute or two, and he’s so tragically out of breath. He realises what trouble he’s in and he rings his doctor. Now did the doctor give the friend the treadmill so that he would run on the treadmill to save himself? No, he gave the friend the treadmill so he’d run on the treadmill and call the doctor. So the promise you see is, “I’ll help you, but if you don’t listen to the promise, the law says you need that help.” They work together.
Paul’s illustration is a different illustration. He says we’re in prison. We feel locked up by the law. We can’t solve it. We can’t do it. We can’t escape it. We can’t perform it. We need Christ to forgive us and to remake us. Or he uses another illustration, the law is kind of like a tutor or a babysitter who looks after us until Christ. So the promise and the law are friends, it’s part of the genius of God to not only tell us there is a wonderful person called Christ but to give us this indication that we need him.
Two quick questions. Does the law actually lead people to Christ? Because you’ll see in Galatians 3:24 this little phrase “to lead us to Christ.” This is an important question because it sounds as though the law has got the power to lead us to Christ. But actually, if you can stay with me, the little phrase “to lead us to” shouldn’t be there because it says in the original, “the law is to Christ” or “the law is till Christ.” And the translators don’t know what to do. So they say, “Well, it must mean the law is there to lead us to Christ. But we need to know that the law is not able to lead anybody anywhere.” It’s a splint. It’s not an ambulance. It’s not a good Samaritan. The law leaves us in our prison, in our splint until Christ comes and heals us and forgives us and delivers us.
The second question, should we use the law or the 10 commandments in helping non-Christians know their need of Christ? Again, this is a fundamental question because many people say that if we were using the law to explain to non-Christians what they were like, then they would see their need for Christ and we would have more converts. But we need to remember that these people who the Apostle Paul is writing to are not Jews. They’re Gentiles, they’re Gentile believers. And we’ve got no real evidence that the Apostle Paul went and told them the law. He tells us in chapter 3 verse 1, he went and proclaimed Christ to them.
But is it a good idea to tell the law to non-Christians? I think it will confuse a lot of non-Christians. You don’t find Jesus at the well with the woman in John 4 taking her to the 10 commandments. He talks to her about thirst and water. You don’t find the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 with the pagans in Athens, taking them to the 10 commandments. He talked to them about creation and judgment. So I think the answer to the question as to whether we should be using the 10 commandments to help people put their faith in Jesus is to say it may be helpful. But you won’t find as you read the New Testament on the way people conduct their evangelism to pagans that the 10 commandments is a great priority.
So it’s a useful tool. It may be. But when we’re witnessing to non-Christian people, we need to use the creative skills that God gives us to talk about need and solution. I think of the way Jesus does this with Nicodemus. Nicodemus, he is a Jew, and he thinks he’s got a tremendous religious life. And so Jesus says to him you need a new life. You need to be born again. Need? Jesus is the solution. Or think of Jesus with the woman at the well, he says, “You’ve got a bucket, it’s a lovely bucket. You’ve come to the well, but it’s going to be empty soon, and you’re going to be thirsty soon, and I can give you water that will never run out.” You’ve got a need? Jesus is the solution.
Or think in John 5, there’s the man, he’s just made him well, he’s been a paralytic, and Jesus says to him you’re well, that’s wonderful, but there is something worse that may happen to you, meaning judgment. You’ve got a need, you need Jesus. We’ve got to use our careful thinking as to how we’re gonna communicate to people that they’re helpless and hopeless without Jesus. And there is a whole range of ways to do that. And the law may be one of those ways. Now, the important thing you see is that the law is not designed to save but to point to the need for a saviour.
Well, I close with a few points of application. My first point of application is when you get down to the morning tea today, and I’m standing around, don’t come and talk to me about Byron Bay. I’m not interested in Byron Bay. I don’t wanna talk about Byron Bay. I say that in the nicest way. But here’s some application. Be thankful for any way that the Lord brought you low so that you knew your need of Jesus. I don’t know whether the Lord has brought you low because your relationships are not working or because in the past your health was failing or because you were afraid of sin and judgment as you ought to be. I don’t know how the Lord brought you low or brings you low, but be thankful for the way he brings you low because that’s part of his kindness to make you value Jesus.
And because he’s brought you low, let’s imagine he’s brought you low, and he’s brought you to Jesus, focus on Jesus. That’s where your joy and your peace will be found. Focus on the promises, focus on what God has said, focus on what God has done through Jesus. That’s where your peace, your joy, your fellowship, your praise will be found. It won’t be found by studying yourself. If you’re in a spiritual fog at the moment, do what I’ve done recently, which is to write out a prayer on a page, which is exactly what needs to be said to God in order to bring you out of the fog. Because there’s no point in just sitting in a chair in a fog wondering what to do. Work out what you need to say, what you would love God to do, and write it down in prayers.
The second thing is that our gospel is incredibly good news. We are very blessed to be able to save the world and we can. The feast is prepared. We don’t have to say to people like the other religions of the world, “Here’s 1,000 rules for you to keep.” And even when you keep them, you’re not going to survive or arrive. To be able to say, “Come, the feast has been prepared,” or, “It’s finished. He’s died on the cross.” Is a wonderful gospel. But we still need to help people have a sense of their need as well as this wonderful provision.
So think carefully, pray carefully about that. We will have to be brave to say the negative as well as the positive. We can’t go around expecting the world to listen to the gospel if they just hear the positive. And the third and the last thing is don’t miss the big overarching theme in Galatians which is that God stays the same. He’s always the same in the way he saves people. It’s by grace not by works. And his promises are gracious promises. He’s steadfast. This is a tremendous thing for those of you who are going through troubled times to be able to go back and say, “God remains the rock, whatever my circumstances, whatever my mood, whatever my conditions, He remains the rock of refuge.”
And as we live in a world which is asking us to change God and to change his word, so that ethical issues like gay marriage, abortion, and a whole range of issues can be adjusted to keep up with our culture that’s running over a cliff, we can stand and say, “He doesn’t change. That’s what’s so great about Him. He doesn’t run like a puppy after the culture. He’s bigger than the whole culture and knows what is good for the culture. And that’s why we’re standing with God, who is a rock in the face of ethical decline.”
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you this morning for these wonderful promises that you have made. And we pray that you would help us to turn away from the mirror which dogs us every day. And to look out through the window of the gospel to see what you have said and promised and what Christ has done. We thank You, Father, for the way you’ve brought us to our sense of need, whether by law, or whether by failure, or whether by tension, or whether by sickness or sadness, or whether by doubt. We thank you for those ways you’ve brought us to see our need and to put our faith in Christ. We pray that you would use us as your servants this week to bring good news to needy people and to live as those who are saved people. And we pray this in Jesus name. Amen.