Saturday, November 4, 2017

“The Truth That Sets Us Free” (2017 West Coast Ladies Retreat Presentation)

The Truth That Sets Us Free:

Applying Paul’s Message to the Galatians to Our Lives[1]


“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).[2]


Imagine this:[3]

The year is 48, or maybe 49. The middle of the first century. In the backwater Roman Province of Judea, the Zealot movement is brewing. Picking up steam. Threatening to become a full-fledged storm. These Jews absolutely detest foreign rule. And to make it even worse, it’s pagan rule. They imagine themselves, in their fevered fanaticism, to be like the legendary – the heroic – Maccabees generations before, seeking to drive out the foreign overlords – out of their homeland, to the sea – by any means necessary.

These Zealots have a well-deserved reputation for violence. They are the terrorists of their day. Their nationalistic fervor, whipped into frenzy, would eventually culminate in what we call the First Jewish–Roman War, which began in the late 60s and resulted in the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its temple, scattering Jews all over the known world.

But for now, in A.D. 48, an attempted revolt against the Romans has ended in failure. So the Zealots turn their focus inward: They want to purify the Jewish people. Root out any “Gentile” influence that has infiltrated their culture. Their first target: the Sadducees.

Of the Jewish sects that existed in the first century, the Sadducees were the most Hellenized, the most accepting of pagan Greek culture. And therefore, in the fevered minds of the Zealots, the most corrupt. The Sadducees were willing to collaborate, to help, to assist, to ally themselves with those hated pagan, foreign invaders and oppressors, the Romans. As the ruling elite, the Sadducees constituted a considerable threat to any independence movement as long as they controlled the temple system and the priesthood, and welded significant influence in the Great Sanhedrin (the Jews’ highest judicial court).

The Zealots also target a smaller and newer sect: the Christians.

Why the Christians? They did not have broad religious influence in society. They didn’t have easy access to political power. Nor were they even particularly politically minded – unlike many Christians today. Furthermore, their seemingly blasphemous beliefs – like “Jesus is God” – were of greater interest to other religious factions like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Not so much to the political Zealots.

Yet they were a threat. These Christians saw the blessing of Abraham as a blessing for all people, not just the Jewish people. They took what most people saw as an “ethnic” religion, something one was born into, and turned it into a “universal” religion. A religion of inclusion. A religion built on proselytizing other nations.

So now these Christians are actively converting “Gentiles.” And unlike the other religious sects, they don’t require – nor even demand – that these foreign converts adopt Jewish customs. They have even begun rejecting some of these practices themselves. The solution? Purify the Christians, or kill them.

The Christians now have a serious problem on their hands. It’s bad enough to be persecuted for your fundamental beliefs. But being persecuted for conversing and eating with “Gentiles”? Let’s try to avoid that. Solution? Judaize the Hellenists. (Or the Latinists, as the case may be.)

It’s not as if they’re asking the foreign converts to follow all of the Mosaic Law or all of the Rabbinic Oral Law. Just enough to pacify the Zealots: Circumcision. Maybe the religious calendar of holidays. Some food prohibitions would be good too. That’s about it. It’s not like all of the ethnic Jews do any more than that anyway. (Unless they’re Pharisees spending every waking moment thinking about such things.) So they’ll tell the “Gentiles” to just act a little more like Jews, and everything will be fine.

Everything was not fine, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So the Jewish Christians begin their Judaizing campaign. First, in Jerusalem. And further north, in Syrian Antioch, where “Gentile” converts were relatively few. And then they expand their efforts westward into southern Galatia, today’s Turkey. Into the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, where Saul of Tarsus and Joseph Barnabas of Cyprus had recently won converts.

The Judaizers’ message to the Galatians was straightforward: Barnabas and Saul (better known by his Greek name “Paul”) had presented the basics needed to become a Christian. They, the Judaizers, were here now, with apostolic support, to expand on those teachings and make sure that Jewish customs were being followed.

From a Jewish perspective, there isn’t anything unusual about this. The concept of “elementary” teachings being followed by more “developed” ones is common in the Talmudic, or rabbinic, approach to religious education.[4] Faith in Christ. That was the first step. But if one truly wanted to be justified before God, one must accept circumcision to be joined to the Abrahamic Covenant. One must fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic Law to live a righteous life.

The Galatians were, understandably, confused. Someone raises his hand and says, “But when Paul was here, he said the Law of Moses couldn’t justify us.[5] Why do we have to obey it?”

“Oh, Paul? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Trust me. This is what the Lord’s apostles in Jerusalem expect you to do.”

The Galatians’ reactions were probably mixed. After all, some reasoned, they had to undergo the Jewish ritual of tevilah, or baptizo, full-body immersion into water, to convert to Christianity. Maybe their men needed to be circumcised as well.

This was no big deal for some of the Jews and “Gentiles” who had previously converted to Judaism. They’d already been circumcised. Already avoided pork in any form. Already made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the feasts.

Others weren’t happy at all. They had been attracted to Christianity because it retained what they liked about Judaism, but left out all of the tiresome nitpicking about how many steps you took on a Sabbath day or what non-kosher insects might be hiding in your vegetables.[6] And circumcision. The mere thought made many of the uncircumcised “Gentiles” positively ill. “What loving God would make someone mutilate himself? I’m going back to the Temple of Mēn” (the indigenous lunar god).

Some of the Galatians must have been concerned enough because word quickly got back to Paul in Syrian Antioch. When it came to the “Gentile Question,” Paul was already frustrated with the hypocrisy he saw among the Jewish brethren.[7] And the apostle Peter himself had already experienced at least one confrontation with the “circumcision party” over eating with Gentile converts.[8] This had to stop.

So Paul writes a letter – a passionate, uncompromising letter – that defends his message of freedom. A message that he had been divinely commissioned to preach to the Galatians.[9] A message that had received apostolic blessing and support from James the Lord’s brother, Peter, and John.[10] And most importantly, a messaged sourced from Jesus Christ himself.[11]

Clearly, Paul wasn’t the problem. The Judaizers were the problem. The “false brothers” who spy on him.[12] Who lie about having apostolic approval.[13] Who pervert the “good news”[14] for the sake of their reputations and to avoid persecution.[15] Who try to drown out God’s truth about living in freedom with their lies of bondage.


What is the truth?

As Paul explicitly says in his letter: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”[16]

It is faith in Christ that brings freedom, through the grace – the generosity – of God.[17] The Judaizers would have us nullify – make void – this grace.[18] Declare Christ’s sacrifice meaningless. They would have us return to a system with a false hope that it will bring freedom. But the Law does not bring freedom. In fact, the Law was never meant to bring freedom.[19] Rather, the Law enslaves.[20] Holds us captive.[21] It binds everyone to a curse, and justifies no one.[22]

Why? Because the Law demanded absolute perfection. It demanded absolute obedience to God’s standards in a way that human will-power could never – was never meant to – achieve. It wasn’t that the desire to obey God was absent (although arguably that could have been the case for some). The desire to obey God was there. Human will was powerless to do so.

The Law could not give us life, but the “good news” for us is that our righteousness – our acceptance – does not come by the Law.[23] It is Christ, and Christ alone, who frees us.[24] The Cross is what makes us acceptable before God.

But the lies of the Judaizers – the “legalists” – create fear in our hearts and minds. Create checklists. Create a bondage that weighs heavily upon us, while we long to be free. These lies cause us to question whether we truly are God’s children. To question our adoption by faith.[25] To cause us to try to prove our own worth by noting how many good things we do. To prove that we are “good enough” for God.

But that is a lie. The truth is we can’t bring about our own justification by our own goodness.[26] Rather, we called are to live in the Spirit, through whom we cry, “Abba, Father.”[27] The Spirit prompts us to follow God’s will. If we belong to Christ, then the Holy Spirit within us will – naturally – produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.[28] These do not come about through our own effort, but through the Spirit, who works in us to bring about holiness in our lives.


How does Paul’s message to the Galatians apply to us today?

As we live our lives of freedom we need to be alert. To be aware of the forces that seek to bring us back into bondage. To be aware of the lies that tell us we’re not good enough for God unless we follow some set of prescribed rules.

As we conclude this evening, I would like to leave you with three questions to ponder over:

First: Are you trying to live the Judaizer’s lie, relying on your own strength, your own power to become righteous before God? We often fall into the checklist trap, believing that, by just doing all the right things, we can reach perfection – live a righteous life – through efforts of our own, rather than allowing the Spirit inside of us to guide us.

This reliance upon our own strength only dooms us to failure. Repeat failure. God clearly wants us to live righteous lives, but as imperfect people, we continue to struggle with sin. Continue to fall short of that “benchmark” of perfection.

We might metaphorically beat ourselves over the head each time we fail. Reminding ourselves what a terrible person we are each time we disappoint ourselves and others. Each time we fall back into a nasty habit we’d like to quit. Each time we’re tempted to do something we know is wrong. We might even go so far as to physically harm ourselves, as a sort of “punishment” for our failure. As an incentive to get ourselves “back on track,” so to speak.

But what does “getting back on track” even mean? The phrase implies there’s something of our own effort – our own works – that will allow us to achieve that elusive goal of perfection.

Instead, we need to remember that it is not through our own efforts, but that of the Spirit within us that justifies us before God. Let the Spirit be the leader in your life, and let Him bring about perfection.

Second: Are there Judaizers in your life, pressuring you to give up your freedom in Christ to be enslaved by their rules? Sometimes other Christians appear to be nice and sweet, but don’t have our best interests in mind. They seek to impose their own rules on others. Bringing them into bondage. Forcing them to conform to their own ideas and preferences about how Christians should be in order to be justified before God.

Don’t dismiss this warning as exaggerated. There is a constant – ever-present – danger lurking. Christians, like everyone else, are predisposed towards controlling others. Some of you might remember the “discipling movements,” which first appeared in the 1950s and ‘60s, and were introduced among the independent Churches of Christ in the ‘70s.

One particular college campus program, begun by Crossroads Church of Christ in Florida, attracted swarms of converts and grew to an unprecedented size. The movement later became known as the Boston Church of Christ, and now is called the International Church of Christ.

What began as a commendable effort to provide potential and new converts with guidance and support – prayer and personalized Bible studies – a safe place to confess one’s sins – soon became an oppressive cult with leaders that used high-pressure tactics to intimidate, manipulate, and control those entrusted in their care. They demanded the right to determine when someone was sufficiently remorseful about their sin. To determine when someone was ready to be baptized. To determine when someone was ready to be saved.

The leaders proved themselves ill-qualified for the role of “shepherds,” when they used personal information to blackmail their members and demanded control over things like what to wear, whom to date, and what career to have. Non-conformists were “disfellowshipped.” Excommunicated. Declared separated from the love of Christ. Cut off from salvation from their sins.

But the leaders had no right to declare such things. It is faith in Christ – not adherence to your mentor’s capricious rules – that brings about justification before God. It is no wonder that when many college students or college graduates now hear the term “church of Christ,” their instinctive response is to run away. Realizing the fault of this system, the ICoC has tried to shed this bad reputation, but with little success. And other Restoration Movement churches have had to work overtime to distance themselves from it.

My purpose for mentioning the ICoC is to prove how easy it is for Christians to be caught up in the lust for power. To crave control over others. To limit the freedom of others. All in the name of Christ. So beware of the power-hungry Judaizers of today.

Third: Are there Zealots in your life, pressuring you to conform to their ideas of what a Christian should be? From time to time, there will be outsiders. Maybe those in connection with some other church. Maybe those who don’t identify as Christian at all. Who might try to dictate our lives. Tell us we should vote a certain way. Tell us that we should vote. That we support a particular law. View a particular movie. Share a particular meme.

Like the Zealots of the past, they are less concerned about promoting a religious message – in this case, the message of God’s grace – than they are interested in promoting a message that’s political. Social. Cultural. And they are quick to demonize Christians who prioritize Christ before politics. They assassinate the character of those who strive for unity among Christians rather than unity around a political candidate.

Remember that we can resist the Zealots of our day. Persecution may follow, but we can rest assured that it is God who defines righteousness, not the world around us. And it is God Who has declared us “freed to be free” indeed.

Thank you for your time.


[1] Presented on Saturday, October 14, 2017 at the 2017 West Coast Ladies Retreat “Free to Be Freed” held at Oak Glen Christian Conference Center, Yucaipa, California, hosted by Newland Street Church of Christ, Garden Grove, California. The session topics were based on Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free by Nancy Leigh DeMoss (Chicago: Moody, 2001).
[2] English Standard Version (ESV).
[3] The background information and interpretation choices presented here rely primarily on Galatians by Richard N. Longenecker, Volume 41 of Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).
[4] The idea is also used in Hebrew 6:1.
[5] Acts 13:39.
[6] This statement is purposefully anachronistic.
[7] Galatians 2:11-14.
[8] Acts 11:1-18.
[9] Galatians 2:2; cf. Acts 13:2.
[10] Galatians 2:1-10; cf. Acts 11:19-30.
[11] Galatians 1:11-12.
[12] Galatians 2:4.
[13] Acts 15:24.
[14] Galatians 1:7.
[15] Galatians 6:12-13.
[16] Galatians 5:1 (ESV).
[17] Galatians 2:20-21.
[18] Galatians 2:21.
[19] Galatians 2:16.
[20] Galatians 4:21-5:1.
[21] Galatians 3:23.
[22] Galatians 3:10-11.
[23] Galatians 3:21.
[24] Galatians 3:13; 5:1.
[25] Galatians 4:1-5.
[26] Galatians 4:6; 6:8.
[27] Galatians 5:16, 18, 25.
[28] Galatians 5:22-24.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

My Complicity with Racism

It’s a church-related event. The title of the talk speaks to an issue of concern to me, so I’m eager to hear what the university professor has to say. I’m an engaged listener, taking down notes, thinking up questions to ask.

Then the professor does something unexpected. To illustrate a point, he verbally belittles a young woman. Then another one. Maybe three in total. Each time, the audience nervously laughs. We understand what he’s trying to do, even if it makes us a little uncomfortable.

In my mind, I excuse it. The women – “girls” really – look to be about twenty, give or take a year. One has her blond hair pulled up in a ponytail and is wearing a college sweatshirt. I think the professor addressed one of them by name. They’re probably his students. They probably expected this.

I continue to listen. Take notes. Rewrite my questions so they’ll sound more intelligent to everyone else in the room.

Then suddenly a hand grabs my arm. I look up startled. I stop writing in mid-sentence, and my pen drops to the floor. The professor pulls me up off the chair, but it’s one of those classroom desk-chair combos. When I stand, the desk-chair tips forward, and I frantically try to keep my handbag, notebook, Smart phone, and water bottle from falling to the floor. (A difficult task, when someone’s holding your arm.) Everyone nervously laughs again, but this time they’re laughing at me.

I feel my cheeks burning red. I am hurt – physically and emotionally. I am embarrassed. Humiliated. Underneath, I am fuming mad.

Of everyone in the room, why had the professor picked on me? I’m not one of his students. I’m old enough to be his students’ mother. Where’s his respect for age? Doesn’t he notice my wedding ring? Where’s his respect for a married woman?

Oh, but I’m not a thirty-something married woman, traditionally seen as someone deserving of more respect than a twenty-something college coed. I’m black. Not literally of course, but that’s definitely his perspective. I’m sexless. Ageless. Devoid of any indicators of status or education. Black.

The sixty-something white man sitting next to me helps me pick up my things. His eyes meet mine. I can see that he’s not blind to the real situation. I had an ally. Someone who would stand by me if I just spoke up. I just needed to speak up.

But I don’t. Why not? Because my big humiliating moment had passed, and I dread making a scene. The professor had not noticed anything amiss. He’d moved on to his next point.

I can no longer take notes. My oh-so-important questions are forgotten. I spend the rest of the hour inwardly kicking myself for not speaking up.

Then the professor decides to verbally belittle me. I get a second chance to speak up, but I don’t. Again, I don’t want to make a scene. I decide to wait until his talk is over.

When it’s over, I make another excuse. There are too many people around trying to talk to him. Again, I don’t want to make a scene. I leave.

A few days later, I’m brave enough to email the professor. I tell him how hurt I was, but I say nothing of the racist overtones in his actions.

He replies with a heartfelt apology, saying that he didn’t intend to hurt me. I believe him. I forgive him. He seems innocently unaware that anyone might consider his act racist. I could enlighten him, keep him from making the same mistake again.

But I don’t. I want to forget the whole incident, so I keep silent.