Sermon Sept 8

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

September 8, 2013

“The Gospel and Abraham”

Galatians 3:1-18

The stakes are high in the first two chapters of Galatians. Against his critics, Paul defended his authority as an apostle and the truth of the gospel he preached. The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel is all about what Christ has done for us. At the very beginning of this letter, Paul said that it was Jesus Christ – “Who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has saved us from our sins. And Christ has done it all. Our salvation is completely the work of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s opponents were called Judaizers, and they claimed that salvation came first of all from trusting in Jesus Christ, but that it must be coupled with our own good works, specifically, obeying all of the laws of the Jews. However, Paul insists that the gospel is not good advice for us, but good news about Jesus Christ. It is not an invitation to do anything, but a declaration of what God has done. And therefore the gospel is not a demand, but an offer.

Now as chapter 3 begins, Paul scolds the Galatians for their unfaithfulness to the gospel. This is how Eugene Peterson translates these opening verses of chapter 3 – “You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for its obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the Cross was certainly set before you clearly enough. Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it?”

Paul is saying that the Galatians started off on the right track when they trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. But now in Paul’s absence, they have succumbed to the belief that their ongoing life as Christians must be completed by their own good works.

In Paul’s preaching, Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed to the Galatians as crucified on their behalf. Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of God atoning for their sinfulness. The cross of Christ was at the heart of Paul’s preaching. It undergirded everything he wrote to the churches. Paul said: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
To the Corinthians, Paul wrote: “When I came to you brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” So we can appreciate Paul’s angst when he hears what the Galatians are doing. In chapter one he said: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”

N.T. Wright offers a marvelous analogy to understand what the Galatians are doing and how Paul feels about it. You may remember that a year ago circus performer Nik Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He did the same feat three months ago at the Grand Canyon. Well the first person to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls was a Frenchman called Blondin in 1859. It had never been done before and people thought he was crazy. But he was so confident and accomplished that he walked across it a number of times. He went frontwards and backwards; he pushed a wheelbarrow in front of him; he crossed it blindfolded; he even stopped and ate lunch in the middle. He also offered to carry a volunteer across on his back, but no one came forward. However, he did carry his manager across the falls on his back.

That’s where N.T. Wright focuses his analogy. He said: “Now supposing, halfway across, the man said to Blondin: ‘Look here, this is all very well, but I really don’t trust you any more. I think I’d better do the rest by myself. Let me down and I’ll walk from here without you.’” Can you imagine such a scene? He would have to be completely crazy – more crazy than he was to get on Blondin’s back to begin with. How did he suppose he was going to make it on his own?

That is exactly the reaction Paul has when he hears that the Galatian Christians are now going to place their trust in their own efforts to keep all of the Jewish laws and rituals. Twice, Paul calls them foolish. Are they out of their minds? He asks – Having begun with the Spirit, which they did when they trusted in Jesus Christ, are they now going to set aside the gift of salvation in order to earn their own way to God?

For Paul the answer is a resounding – No! It is impossible. What good can we do that would put God in our debt? The way we receive salvation is by trusting in Jesus Christ. And the way we grow to maturity in the Spirit is by trusting in Jesus Christ.

The Judaizers, the false teachers who confounded and misled the Galatians, claimed that Christians must also become Jews and keep all of the Jewish laws. They looked back to the great law-giver Moses as their teacher. To counter their false teaching, Paul trumps them and goes even further back – to Abraham. Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish people.

In fact, did you know that sixty percent of the world’s population traces its lineage back to Abraham? Abraham is considered the father of the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham is the father of the Jews because they are his actual descendents by his wife Sarah through his son Isaac. Muslims claim to be descendents of Abraham because Arabs believe they are descended from Ishmail, the son of Abraham by his slave Hagar. And as we will see, Christians are the spiritual descendents of Abraham as the father of our faith.
At the end of chapter 3, Paul writes: “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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

To think of ourselves as a son or daughter of Abraham may not carry great weight with 21st century Christians, but this would be a powerful argument for the Judaizers and those who heed their message. In the New Testament, to be called a son or daughter of Abraham was one of the highest honors that could be bestowed on someone.

When Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector and the biggest sinner in Jericho, expresses his trust in Jesus Christ, Jesus said to him: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

When Jesus met a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years, he healed her of her infirmity. This took place on the sabbath and when the religious Jews complained that Jesus was working on the sabbath, Jesus replied: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

And it was John the Baptist who blasted the religious Jews with these words: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

The easiest way to grasp an idea is to see it embodied in a person. And so Paul call Abraham to be a witness to the gospel. The key statement Paul makes is in verse 6 – “Just as Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This is a direct quote from Genesis 15.

God’s covenant with Abraham begins in Genesis 12, where God says: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

This was the greatest, most far-reaching promise imaginable. God promises to give Abraham a land to live in, descendents to carry his name, and to make him a blessing to the whole world. The biggest obstacle is that Abraham and Sarah are childless and too old to have children.

In Genesis 15, God repeats the promise to Abraham. When Abraham complains that he is childless, God calls him out of his tent at night and says to him – Look up at the stars in the sky; this is what your descendents will be – innumerable and beyond measure. The promise of descendents was vividly portrayed before Abraham’s eyes in much the same way that the promise of forgiveness through Christ crucified was profoundly revealed to the Galatians.

And it says that Abraham believed God. Abraham believed the promise and trusted in God to make it happen. It’s one thing to believe in God. I think most people would say they believe in God. But it is something far greater to believe God. Abraham is the father of our faith because he is our example of faith. The God he believed in was the God he trusted to make it happen.

Paul’s conclusion, echoing the words of Genesis, is that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” The word “reckoned” means “declared” or “accounted”. It was an accounting term which meant that money was received and credited as payment for a debt.

When Abraham trusted God, God credited him as righteous. Abraham was not accepted as righteous on the basis of anything he had done to deserve it. Abraham was still a sinner, but by faith, God declares that he is righteous. When we trust in the good news of Jesus Christ, though we are still sinners, we are saved by Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul is speaking to the Galatians, but also to you and me when he says – “So, you see, those who believe are the descendents of Abraham.” That’s the good news of the gospel – that if we live by faith in God then we too become the recipients of God’s promised blessing.

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