Posts

The God Who Passes Through: A Reflection on Galatians 3

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue says “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story…do I find myself a part?'” (216). The church in Galatia had forgotten the story they had once received with joy, which was the Gospel story.  This is why Galatians is known as Paul’s angriest letter. You can just hear the frustration and disappointment in Paul’s writing:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1 ESV)

The problem with forgetting our story as Christians is not just that we lose sight of what is true and what gives us life, but that we are also taken over by rival stories. Our culture promotes a story of self–self-sufficiency, self-promotion, self-satisfaction.  A rival gospel in our own day is one of individualism where we can only find “freedom” if we do what we feel is right for ourselves. It wasn’t so different in Galatia. The Christians in Galatia were slipping back into the “law,” believing that they needed to be the ones to earn their salvation.  The primary way this manifested in the Galatian church was by their trying to force Gentile believers into circumcision, which signified entrance into the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17). While this story they had fallen back into had all the trappings of piety and religion, it was really a gospel of self. They had forgotten their new and better story, a story where Christ provides a way to freedom for all through him and him alone (John 14:6).

This “gospel of self,” both in our day and in Paul’s, cultivates a kind of fear. It places the burden of salvation, joy, contentment, and freedom on us.  We shift our reliance from an unlimited God to our limited selves.  It is in this state of fear and worry that we begin to take measures into our own hands. We make lists, we read self-help books, we try to go to bed earlier, we listen to TED talks, we volunteer our time, we do our best to pray and read our Bibles, we go to work early and stay late, we make sure we attend church and small group, and we expect the same from others. There is nothing inherently wrong with any one of these “rules.” They have value so long as they are operating in the right story.  We need to take a serious audit of our lives and ask the question: Are we operating in the right story? Is our list-making, self-help following, people-pleasing, five-minute-a-day praying blueprint for our lives producing any growth?

Many of us Western Christians have smuggled the story of the world–a story of individual achievement, social status, self-sufficiency, productivity and consumerism–into the Church.  We have tried to baptize a way of life that is totally foreign to what God intended, Christ inaugurated, and the Spirit inhabits. We sing “Take the World, But Give me Jesuswhile carrying the story of contemporary culture in our back pockets.

I know this because I struggle with the same thing. I find myself always battling anxieties about my future. These anxieties force me to ask “I” or “me” questions.  “What if I fail?” “How will I know what to do next?” “What if I’m not accepted?” “How will my gifts be utilized?” “What if my calling is never realized?” Notice that these questions–the questions many of us wrestle with every day–are totally centered around the self, the I. Of course, these kinds of worries are natural to us, because we are natural sinners born into the world’s story. Unfortunately, it draws us into a way of life that is marked ultimately by “anxiety for tomorrow” and leads to us trying to control every aspect of our lives (Matthew 6:34).

This is one of the primary reasons why Paul’s letter to the Galatians is so important for us today.  Of course we aren’t demanding circumcision for those who want to be a part of the Church; however, we do find ourselves capitulating to rival gospels all the time, often bringing them into the church.

Paul responds to this backwards gospel in Galatia by sternly (read: angrily) reminding his fellow believers that Christ has ushered in a new stage, a new covenant. Trying to apply the old paradigm (which had an important place in the story of God!) onto the new becomes “works righteousness” and is antithetical to the Spirit of God and His mission in the world (Galatians 3:28).

But how does Paul do this? How does he prove to them that this law and taking matters into their own hands is no longer necessary and assumes the wrong story? He reminds them of their story– a story that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus.  After all, Paul mentions Abraham eight times in Galatians 3 alone, so it should be obvious to both the Galatians and us that our story encompasses the whole of Scripture.

Genesis 15 tells the story of God’s sacred covenant with Abraham, and in Genesis 15:8, right after God has reminded him of the promises of offspring and land He has in store for him, Abraham, who has been wandering and surviving and stumbling in the wilderness for years, often taking matters into his own hands, desperately asks, “How am I to know?” a question we are all too familiar with when anxiety creeps in and we feel as if our calling may never materialize. Notice, again, that it is a question centered on “I.”

God answers this question not with a time-frame, not with a seven-step plan, not with a to-do list, but with a promise. He makes a covenant with Abraham.  

To enact this promise, God instructs Abraham to bring “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9).  He then told him to cut in half the cow, goat, and ram (but not the birds) in half. In Ancient Near Eastern treaties, which this covenant between Abraham and God certainly draws upon, the halved animal carcasses communicates that if either party violates this sacred promise, they will end up like these animals. Death is to come upon the one who doesn’t uphold the sacred covenant.

But, as we read a few verses later, Abraham does not pass through. He doesn’t participate in the covenantal ritual. Instead, Abraham only saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” pass between the animal carcasses (Genesis 15:17).  Because the fire and the smoke represent the presence of God, the narrative is telling us that only God passes through.

The significance of this cannot be understated. This means that God Himself–the One whose Word can never fail and whose promises are eternal–takes the penalty of a failed covenant upon Himself. This is the beginning of God’s story with His wayward people. A story about a God whose mission it is to bring all things into His love, even if it means giving up His own life.

Now let’s return to the Church in Galatia.  Paul, in responding to their false gospel, reaches the climax of his argument when he states:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14)

Paul is saying that Christ himself, who is the Word of God incarnate, took on this “curse” and became like the slain animals of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Christ, who is fully God and fully man, becomes the curse that was meant for us–not because God’s promise failed, but because ours did. By doing so, Christ fulfills the original promise made to Abraham and, if we have faith in Christ like Abraham had faith in God, we too become “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).

Artwork by Josefa de Ayala

This faith is a deep trust in the God who passes through on our behalf. This means that if we continue to try to pass through ourselves, if we continue to attempt to earn God’s promises by laws and rules and plans, we are participating in the wrong story, a false gospel.

Jesus Christ, in fulfilling the promises of God to redeem creation, inaugurated the fulfillment of God’s story that began with Abraham.  If we forget this story, it means that we have forgotten that God is a God who passes through.  A God who passes through the animals on our behalf to take the burden of the promise on Himself.  A God who passes through the spiteful and vindictive crowds, carrying that heavy tree, getting tortured and mocked on His way to become a curse for us.  

When we remember the story that centers around God and His redemptive work, we avoid the burden of attempting to tell a story that we never could.  We move from the story of limited self to the Story of unlimited God, whose promises are both sure and true. And when we do this, when this faith overtakes our hearts and we participate in God’s story, we can set up “rules” for our lives, but these rules are now an expression of our salvation, not an attempt to earn it. They become the means by which we enter into deeper communion with a God who has already achieved freedom for us precisely because he has already passed through death on His way to life. He invites us to do the same.

A rigid matter was the law, demanding brick, denying straw,

But when with gospel tongue it sings, it bids me fly and gives me wings

18th Century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Ralph Erksine

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Advent Week One Devotional Questions

Let us, as a church family, reflect on these questions as we end the first week of Advent.  Our prayer is that we, both as individuals and as a family, “prepare the way” in our hearts for Christ himself.
These questions are based off of Jordan’s sermon this past Sunday, which you can listen to here.
  1.  What words or phrases would you use to describe the season of life you are in now?
  2. In what ways does our identity as an “exile” or “alien” appeal to you? What is itchy about it? Are there any areas that you do not feel like we separate from the world?  Do you feel like you are “waiting” for another world to come?
  3.  What in this coming season are you grateful for? How can this gratitude prepare your heart for Christ himself?
  4.  What in this season are you longing for or desiring? In what ways can you invite Christ into this longing?
  5.  What would it look like to “set up an altar” in this season of your life, just like Abraham “set up an altar” in the wilderness (Gen 12:7)
New City Teaching Team

“Here I Am”: Recovering a Theology of Calling

“We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone.” – Os Guinness, Rising to the Call

The question of calling haunts me. It seems to follow me wherever I go.  It’s a part of every thought about my future, a factor in many of my decisions in the present, and is in nearly every conversation with friends and family. I know I am not alone in this.  I often hear friends talk about where they feel called, what they feel called to do, and how they are going to go about following that call from God.  It can be exciting, overwhelming and anxiety-producing all at once.

In many ways, the centrality of calling in Christian circles makes sense.  The fundamental structure of God’s story involves call and response.  God called creation into existence, it responds by reflecting His beauty, creativity, and even His very image.  God calls Abram out of Ur and he responds in obedience (Gen 12). God calls out to Moses from the burning bush and Moses responds by saying “Here I am” (Exodus 3). Jesus calls fishermen to follow him, they respond by dropping their nets (Matt 4).  And so on.  This rhythm we see in the story of God is even the reason why we structure our worship around call and response; it is the ebb and flow of the Christian story.

It is no wonder then that many in the Church, including myself, have a kind of obsession with figuring out the what, where, and how of God’s call on our lives.

But there are serious dangers here.

I have observed that in my own life and the lives of those around me, when we talk about “calling” we are usually referring to specific things like occupation, location, people groups, and so on.  Again, to a certain degree, this makes sense.  God does call us to specific places, tasks, and people groups.  He called Jonah to Ninevah (Jonah 1), He called Moses to free the Israelites from slavery (Exodus 3), and He even called Philip to one particular person, the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8).  We shouldn’t disregard the specifics of God’s call, but in our attention to them, we should be wary of making them into idols.

If there is one clear theme in scripture, it is that God is pursuing our hearts. Our hearts are the seat of our affections—they contain the throne room of our loves and are the core of our very being.  So, if our hearts are preoccupied with things that are less than God Himself, then there will inevitably be misalignment in who we are.  This misalignment is what scripture calls “idolatry.”

Many of us, including myself, have flirted with (and maybe have even fallen into) this trap of idolatry when pursuing God’s call on our life.  When we think about, talk through, and pray over our call, we find ourselves obsessing over titles, romanticizing places, and maybe even yearning for recognition.  We often mask our misaligned desires in language of “calling” in order to baptize our ambition while all the time God was calling us not to a title or to a place, but to Himself.

But how can we avoid this idolatry when trying to embrace God’s call?  These secondary aspects, the “lower tier” goods of location, position, people groups, etc. are so interwoven into this question of calling that it seems impossible to filter and order them in a healthy way.  How can we grasp a theology of calling that helps us develop rightly ordered loves?

I believe the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 offers us understanding and hope.  But first, some context.

You see, when Abraham was seventy-five years old, he was called out of Ur and told to settle in the land of Canaan.  God promised him that he would be the father, the patriarch of a “great nation” and that this nation would “be a blessing” to the rest of the world (Gen. 12:1-3 ESV).  Abraham obeyed “as the Lord had told him” and traveled as a nomad for decades, moving in and out of the land that he had been promised, waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled (Gen. 12:4 ESV).

This was no easy task. During this period of over twenty-five years of wandering, waiting, and yearning for the “call” on his life to be realized, Abraham did the following things:

  • Abraham lied to Pharaoh and told him that Sarah was not his wife but his sister because he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him in order to have Sarah (Gen 12:10-20)
  • Abraham was impatient with God and questioned the Lord on when he would give him an heir (Gen 15:2-3)
  • Abraham struggled with how he was to possess the promised land of Canaan (Gen 15:8)
  • Abraham, fearing that Sarah would never be able to bear him a child, decided to take matters into his own hand and had a child with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant (Gen 16:1-4)
  • Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” at God when He specifically promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah because she was ninety years old (Gen 17:17)
  • Abraham lies again about Sarah’s identity to King Abimelech because he feared for his own life and his own future (Gen 20:11)

If you read the entire story of Abraham carefully, you quickly realize that Abraham struggled to understand and embrace God’s call on his life.  He pleaded with God for clarity, he questioned God on how he was going to fulfill His task, and there were even times when he tried to control his own fate.

But despite all of these missteps along the way we also see in Abraham someone who, by God’s grace, repeatedly returned to God in prayer, who renewed His promises with the Promiser, and ultimately never stopped believing and trusting that God was faithful to his word.  Abraham’s belief in the Lord was “counted to him as righteousness” not because it was perfect, but because despite all his fears and doubts he never let it slip away (Gen 15:6).

All of this fumbling, wrestling, questioning, promising and re-promising leads up to Genesis 22.

In this chapter we have the story of God “testing” Abraham and commanding him to sacrifice his only son who represents the culmination and the fulfillment of God’s call and promises to Abraham. (Gen 22:1-2).  Abraham responds by saying “Here I am” and by doing what God commands (Gen. 22:1).

At this point in the story, most of us are asking: “Why would Abraham agree to such a cruel request?” and more importantly “Why would a perfectly good God command anyone to do such a thing in the first place?” These are understandable questions, but when we locate this story within the entire trajectory of Abraham’s pursuit of God’s call, things come into focus.

You see, in order to understand this story you have to understand what God was after. He was in pursuit of Abraham’s heart, the axis of his affection and desires.  There was the reality, however, that Isaac represented to Abraham the “lower tier” aspects of God’s call such as the title of patriarch, the legacy of a great nation, and the power that comes from being a leader.  If Abraham is more concerned with these secondary aspects of God’s call, they could usurp God’s rightful place on the throne of his heart.

But Abraham trusted God.

Just as he was lifting the knife in order to go through with giving Isaac back to the One who promised him, an angel of the Lord called to Abraham. Abraham responded “Here I am.”  The angel then told Abraham “Do not lay your hand on the boy…for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:12).  Nearby was a ram caught in a bush so Abraham sacrificed the ram to God and named the place “The LORD will provide” (Gen. 22:14).

Abraham, over the span of nearly three decades, was wrestling with and seeking out the Lord.  This continual, faithful struggle cultivated in Abraham a heart that was ready to say “Here I am” when he was asked to give everything. He spoke these words not out of cold indifference, but out of a deep and unshakeable trust that the “Lord will provide.”

Abraham’s story is, in many ways, our story.  We feel a call on our life, but we lack clarity. In this murkiness we begin to question, doubt, and to make our calling our own.  We dream of places and positions and peoples and are tempted to make these things ultimate.  However, if, like Abraham, we receive God’s daily grace to give us the strength to cling to His promises, the Caller will mold and shape our hearts so that we, too, may say “Here I am” when God asks us to give it all back.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor