Sermon Sept 22

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

September 22, 2013

“A Child of the Gospel”

Galatians 3:26-4:7

The main theme of Galatians is the gospel. The content of the gospel is the grace of Jesus Christ – that Christ gave himself for our sins. Our salvation comes not through our own efforts to please God, but solely through what Christ has done for us. Everything Paul writes in this letter revolves around the good news of the gospel. Paul does this because there were some who were preaching to the Galatians a different gospel – one that advocated keeping the law and doing good works in order to obtain salvation. So in these first three chapters, Paul has returned again and again to the simple gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Now at the end of chapter three of Galatians, Paul reaches a climax. All that he has said up to this point brings Paul to this statement – “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” This is not one of those universal affirmations about the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Paul does not mean that we are all children of God simply by virtue of having been created by God.

There is some truth to that statement and Paul acknowledged it when he preached to the Athenians. At that time Paul was speaking against idol worship and wanted the Athenians to see that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all. But here, Paul takes the argument to a much deeper level. Paul says that through faith in Christ, we are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise, and children of God our Father.

Quite a few times in this book, Paul makes the point that we are heirs of Abraham and heirs of the promise. The final statement in our sermon passage says: “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”

That reminds me of the famous passage in Mark’s Gospel where the rich, young ruler comes to Jesus. He asked Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s an odd question. What can anyone do to inherit anything? Inheritance is a gift; it cannot be earned. A family inheritance comes by way of a family relationship. And that’s the point that Paul is making – through faith we are adopted into God’s family and we are heirs of the grace of God.

I think that in these verses Paul arrives at two main conclusions concerning our adoption as children of God. Paul emphasizes our oneness in Christ and our belonging to God. I’ll start with the second point. Just as the Jews had been slaves in Egypt until God saved them at Passover and rescued them through the Exodus, also we are all enslaved to this present evil age until we experience salvation through Jesus Christ. Paul said: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who are under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

Because we are redeemed by Christ, we have a new relationship with God. Because we are adopted as children means that we belong to God. It means that we are now heirs of the grace of God. Because of the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts, we are led to cry out – “Abba! Father!”

Paul wants us to know that behind the creation of the world and our own lives is not an angry, capricious, mocking God. When I hear people refer to God as the cosmic power or the universal principle or the higher power – I cringe a little bit inside. I think – don’t they know? – God is our Father. We can know that at the heart of the universe there is not only ultimate power, but ultimate love. God is not simply an abstract force. God is personal and loving.

Paul tells us that because of Jesus Christ we now have an intimate, personal relationship with God. We call God – “Abba! Father!” Abba is an Aramaic word. Aramaic was the language of first century Palestine and the native speech of Jesus. Abba means father, but in the colloquial, intimate sense used by young children. The nearest equivalent in English would be Daddy or Papa. Abba is the word of love and affection.

This is the way Jesus began all his prayers and what he uses in the Sermon on the Mount to teach his disciples about prayer. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find God addressed as Father. There are a few places where God is described as a father, but never addressed as Father. But Jesus is making a bold statement about God. The relationship of a parent and child is one of the most precious in human experience and Jesus appeals to this relation to teach us about the intimacy of our relationship with God.

First century Jews would not have been accustomed to speaking of God in such familiar terms. Their practice, out of deference to the third commandment, was to avoid all direct references to God and especially the Old Testament name of God – Yahweh. So God would be spoken of euphemistically as the Almighty One or the Merciful Lord or something similar.

The Gentiles would have been equally amazed at the term – Father. It was not the practice of the Gentiles to refer to one of their gods as Father. The Gentiles were polytheistic – they had many gods. There were gods who directed the forces of nature and gods of fertility and health and war. The Athenians even had a shrine to an unknown god, just in case they had left one out. These gods were to be appeased and obeyed and petitioned, but there was never any thought that they cared at all about human beings.

Why would Paul employ an Aramaic term for God to Greek-speaking Gentile Christians in Galatia? They wouldn’t know anything about Aramaic. But they had been taught by Paul that this was the expression Jesus used when speaking of God. They would know that this was how Jesus taught his disciples to pray. So when Paul says that we should pray, Abba Father, he is asserting that we have inherited this right from Jesus himself. We approach God as Father because we are his children.

There is a parallel to this passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he writes: “You have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Paul is saying that this is God himself, through his Spirit dwelling in our hearts, assuring us that we belong to him.

Tim Keller writes that to call God Abba! Father! “…signifies a confidence of love and assurance of welcome. Just as the young child simply assumes that a parent loves them and is there for them, and never doubts the security and openness of daddy’s strong arms, so Christians can have an overwhelming boldness and certainty that God loves them endlessly.”

Paul’s second conclusion has to do with our oneness in Christ. It comes first in the text but I placed it second, because I think it flows naturally out of the first conclusion – that we belong to God, that we are all children of God. This verse in Galatians is one of the great theological affirmations of the New Testament – “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

I think that all of us tend to define ourselves by our differences and our distinctions more than identifying ourselves with the whole. A certain amount of this can be healthy, but there is so much of it that isn’t. We are always erecting new walls and barriers between people. There’s something about our human nature that despises differences. We are quick to notice how someone else differs from us in appearance, belief or custom.

We can also detect this trend in the church. Christians can be as factional and divisive as anyone else. However, in the early church there were some notable exceptions to the prejudice and factionalism we struggle with today. There was a revolutionary change that took place in the first century church. The church was really the only place in the ancient world where social distinctions were not supposed to matter. Remarkably, in the church you could find a slave and his master sitting in the same congregation as equals. It was even possible that the leader of the church might be a slave or a woman. No distinctions were made between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

One of the great effects of Christianity is that it destroys the barriers that divide people. The ancient world was full of social barriers. The Greek looked down on the barbarian; the Jew looked down on every other nation; the slave was not even classified in ancient law as a human being; and women were hardly better off than slaves. But in Christ, all the barriers are demolished. In Christ, we stand with each other and with the rest of the world as brothers and sisters.

Paul makes it clear that the gospel has radical social implications. It means that I am a Christian before I am anyone or anything else. It means that all of the barriers that separate people in the world are no longer supposed to matter because of Christ.

Paul names three of the barriers which commonly divided people. First, there was the cultural or racial barrier – “There is no longer Jew or Greek.” God called Abraham and his descendents (the Jewish race) in order to entrust to them his unique self-revelation. But in the fullness of time, when Christ came, God’s promise was fulfilled that in Abraham’s offspring all the families of the earth would be blessed.

The cultural division between Jews and Gentiles was the first great conflict in the early church. It threatened to split the young church apart. From the beginning, we could have ended up with two churches – one Jewish Christian and the other Gentile Christian. This was the problem which took Paul to the Jerusalem Council around the year 50 AD. And Paul reports that the Apostles Peter and John and James the brother of Jesus extended to him the right hand of fellowship, affirming that there was one gospel and one church, and that Jews and Gentiles were equal partners in Christ.

Second, was the barrier of class or rank – “There is no longer slave or free.” Every society in history has developed its class or caste system. Circumstances of birth, wealth, privilege and education have always divided people from one another.

The gospel had great appeal to those who were at the bottom of society, the slaves and the poor. The gospel gave them hope. And yet there were also some people of wealth and social position who used their influence to further the mission of the church. The letter of James says: “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Third, was the gender barrier – “There is no longer male and female.” This was one of the strongest barriers of Paul’s time and even today it can unfortunately still elicit controversy. But Paul himself gave thanks for the women leaders he knew in the early church. At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he gives greetings to a number of church leaders. Of the 36 names mentioned, 16 were women. Elsewhere, Paul mentions women who were leaders of house churches, including – Priscilla, Chloe, Lydia, Apphia, Nympha, and the mother of Mark.

Paul recognizes that though there exists differences in culture and class and gender, in Christ they do not matter. He says – “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Realizing that we are children of God gives us an entirely new perspective. If God is our Father then we have nothing to fear. We know that we are accepted and loved. And being a child of God gives us a family of brothers and sisters of all kinds with whom we share a common faith in Jesus Christ. This is who we are as a church.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul puts it this way: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

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