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The Epistle of James Chapter 4 “Warlike Cravings”

Welcome to our on-line Bible study for 2017

The Epistle of James

Chapter 4 – “Warlike Cravings”
James is dealing with a congregation in turmoil. Passages like these bear out the truth that the early church was not some kind of idyllic community. James is confronting “conflicts and disputes” in the church. The Christian has to make a choice to submit wholeheartedly to God. Only then can the devil be resisted. We need to humble ourselves and seek the “more grace” which God promises.

I. “you ask wrongly” – 4:1-10
James is telling us that we should have no illusions about ourselves. We want things which come from the “cravings that are at war within you.” Once again there is a parallel with the apostle Paul who spoke of an ongoing conflict between the “flesh” (our sinful nature) and the “spirit” (our new nature in Christ). In graphic terms Paul states, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19).
James puts this in shocking terms: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” Is he serious? This is another example of what we call hyperbole, literally overstatement, to make a point. Jesus doesn’t want us tearing out our eye (Matt. 5:29). The point is being made that there are serious issues here. What are the cravings which are at war within us? And what does James mean by our asking wrongly, to spend what we have on our own pleasures (v. 3). Finally, how do we resist the “friendship with the world which is enmity with God?”
To answer these questions, several things have to be kept in mind. First, God is not opposed to pleasure. God did not create the world so that we would have nothing to do with the good things it offers. God made wine to gladden the human heart and food to sustain us (Ps. 104:14-15). He gives us the beauties of nature (Ps. 74:16-17). This includes physical beauty (Ezek. 16:6-14) along with love, sex and marriage (Song of Solomon). God does not withhold any good thing from us (Ps. 84:11). Second, as far back as the New Testament there were those who in a hyper form of spirituality taught that the body and even creation itself, were evil. Paul will not tolerate these “deceitful spirits” and states plainly that “everything created by God is good. And nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving” (I Tim. 4:1-5). So James is not talking about a Christianity that is defined by all the things it rejects and finds unacceptable. That outlook leads to a highly negative view
of Christian faith which unfortunately has its roots in the Christian Pharisees and
“super-apostles” Paul had to confront (Acts 15:1-5; II Cor. 11:5; Col. 2:20-23). Such
things contradict James’ view of “the law of liberty” (2:25).

So what is James talking about?
James is confronting his readers with a critical point. The truth is that we all have
sinful cravings within us. To pretend otherwise is to fall into self -deception or in
James’ expression, being “double-minded” (v. 8). We say one thing and do
another. We pretend that we are something we are not. We deny the reality of the
remnants of sin still within us. Two dangers present themselves here.
The first, in a misuse of our Christian liberty which simply follows the self-indulgence
of the world (the boast of the Corinthians that “all things are lawful,” including
prostitution (I Cor. 6). It is interesting that in several examples in the New Testament
the opposite of freedom is not really slavery. It is self-indulgence. On one hand we
profess belief in Christ. However, on the other we follow the pattern of the world
which resists Christ. This is the essence of being double-minded. Yet the pattern of
the world promises (falsely) to satisfy the cravings that are at war within us. This is a
deadly strategy which Satan uses to defeat us. James exhorts us in the name of our
faith in Christ to resist the devil (v. 7).
The second danger is spiritual pride. If we are proud, if we are over confident, we
are unprepared to face the reality that many times even our prayers are misguided.
Israel prayed to God for a king and God gave them one. However, Samuel the
prophet reminded Israel that in asking for a king they were rejecting God (I Samuel
8). In praying simply for things that build up our pride or excuse our self-indulgence,
even our professed belief in God is seriously flawed. Once again we are caught in
the trap of being double minded. Both sides of the “double” undermine our faith and
life in Christ. Spiritual pride and self-indulgence are really two sides of the same
coin.

II. Speaking Evil – 4:11-17
James maintains his focus on the use (or misuse) of the tongue. He warns against
speaking evil against one another. What does he mean by this? For him to speak
evil means to judge. We are all judged by the law. None of us are able to keep it.
Too often the law can be used as a big stick to beat people over the head. The law
is not nearly as important as the lawgiver who alone can judge. This is God. We
may ask, why did God give the law if no one is able to keep it? Paul’s answer is that
the law gives us the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:19-20). We have no right to judge
one another. The Pope was roundly criticized when he was asked about same-sex
marriage and his answer was, “Who am I to judge?” Yet his answer was simply
quoting James 4:12.

Does this mean that the church has no standards? No, but the standard we have is
the love of Christ. When we fall in our walk of following Christ, when we fail we need
to remember Paul’s advice to restore each other “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1).
This is how Jesus dealt with Peter. We are all vulnerable. There can be no
superiority in the household of faith.
James concludes this chapter warning against a temptation to boast. When we
make our own plans without depending on the Lord we are, in effect, boasting.
None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. We are dependent on the Lord. Even
the Greek poets could say that in God we live and move and have our being (Acts
17:28). There is an old rabbinic saying that if you want to make God laugh tell him
your plans for the future. Many times we are boasting without realizing it.
James ends with the simple statement that if we know the right thing to do and we
fail to do it then we fall into sin. This is similar to Paul’s statement about faith
working through love (Gal. 5:6). It is not hard to recognize the need for compassion.
What often is hard is doing something about it. James continually reminds us that
we need to be doers of the word, not just hearers (1:22). Mercy triumphs over
judgement (2:13).

Questions for Us –
1. What are examples for us of “cravings” that are at war within us?
2. What does it mean to be a friend of the world and an enemy of God?
How can religion make us an enemy of God?
3. What are some of the ways that we can be boastful without realizing it?

Next study – James chapter 5 – “The Price of Patience”

Grace Presbyterian Church - The Epistle of James Chapter 3 – Tongue of Fire

The Epistle of James Chapter 3 – Tongue of Fire

James in this chapter confronts a problem that we often overlook.  This is the problem of our tongues, our speech.  We tend to focus on more overt sins, murder, stealing, and adultery.  Yet James warns us that the tongue is “a fire.”  Indeed, it is set on fire by hell itself (v. 6).  As opposed to this, James calls us to the wisdom from above, a wisdom that is marked by gentleness.

 

  1. “For All of Us Make Many Mistakes”– 3:1-12

 

James begins with a serious warning about teachers.  What he says would certainly be applicable to anyone exercising authority in the church, deacons, elders, Sunday School teachers, youth workers, etc.  He makes what almost seems like an off handed comment that we all make many mistakes (not just a few).  There are many mistakes he could list.  We misinterpret things.  We are forgetful.  We don’t always pay attention.  We ignore people in need.  These are all “mistakes.”

 

James however is focusing in on something that is beyond the realm of a simple mistake.  In unflinching terms, he describes the problems we all have with our tongues, with how we speak especially how we speak about other people.  He begins by noting that the tongue is a “small member.”  Yet it is capable of “great exploits” like a bit guiding a horse or a rudder directing a ship.

 

James then goes on with a devastating list of what the tongue can do and indeed often does.  He calls it a “fire” ignited by hell itself.  It is a “world of iniquity.”   It “stains the whole body.”  It is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.”  It is incapable of being tamed.  Is he kidding?

 

James however is not kidding. He is deadly serious. One of the most untruthful sayings we learned in childhood is the refrain, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  This, as we know now, is false.  Words can wound.  They can be more painful than any physical injury.

 

He adds that the tongue cannot be tamed (v. 8).  It is in effect a deadly weapon that we can all use very easily and very quickly.  Scripture is hardly silent on this subject.  What James describes here includes cursing (Ps. 10:7), slander (Prov. 16:27), gossip (“A gossip’s whispers are tasty morsels swallowed right down.” Prov. 18:8 Revised English Bible) and boasting (Ps. 12:3-4).  To emphasize how serious this issue is Jesus tells us that we will have to give an account “for every careless word” we utter (Matt. 12:36).

 

James points out the obvious contradiction in the fact that “blessing and cursing” can come out of the same mouth.  We praise God with our tongues but then we can in effect curse other people, all of whom are made in the image of God (v. 9).  James uses several examples from nature.  A fig tree cannot produce olives nor can a grapevine give figs.  Water can’t be both fresh and salt.  What he is saying is that how we use our tongue, how we speak, reveals who we really are.

 

This is one of the great unacknowledged failings of Christians.  We can easily listen to gossip and all too easily also spread it.  We can mask this by pretending to ourselves that we’re just sharing a “prayer concern” or passing along some “news.”  It doesn’t take much to begin a sentence with “Have you heard . . . .?”

 

James is not saying that we shouldn’t speak the truth or testify to things of which we have direct knowledge.  However, we are reminded that we need to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).  We need to remember that our tongues can be expressions of hate rather than love.

 

  1. Wisdom From Above – 3:13-18

 

James has no illusions about the failings in Christian communities.  Twice in this brief passage he mentions the danger of “selfish ambition” (vv. 14, 16).  To this he also includes “bitter envy,” being “boastful” and “false to the truth.”  In effect we are presented with two forms of wisdom, so called.  The wisdom of the world is essentially little more than the craftiness which Satan demonstrated in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1).  In the world many times “selfish ambition” is the pathway to success.  This is the wisdom of the world which in God’s eyes is “foolishness” (I Cor.1:20).

 

James contrast this with “the wisdom from above” which he describes first of all as being pure.  What does he mean by “pure?”  For James this contrasts with what he described earlier as being “double-minded” (1:8).  To be pure in this sense is to have a single focus.  This is what Jesus calls being “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8).  It is being unstained, unmixed with other things, like “pure cane sugar.”

 

James goes on to speak of being peaceable, gentle, willing to yield and full of mercy.  The opposite of this is showing partiality and hypocrisy.  This brings us back to the issue of the tongue. Those who engage in gossip are neither gentle nor merciful.  To the extent that they condemn others whom they regard as inferior to themselves, they are showing both  partiality, and an absence of mercy.  Such people finally are hypocrites.  They practice a selective morality which excuses their own behavior and condemns that of others.  This is the term that Jesus uses to describe the religious leaders of his own time, especially the Pharisees (Matt. 23:13).

 

The three things that non-Christians find most objectionable about us Christians are the issues that James raises here.  The first is gossip, the abuse of the tongue which quickly leads to character assassination.  The second is partiality where we make distinctions among people.  We easily condemn those who are different from us.  The third is hypocrisy which is evident to everyone but ourselves.

 

James, rather than opposing Paul actually shares much in common with him.  As Paul condemned the legalists of his own time for their “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6), James warns of those who are unkind, judgmental and hypocritical.  We need to take these criticisms seriously.

 

 

Questions for Discussion –

 

  1. Why is our tongue so hard to manage?  How often do we say things we regret?  How can we avoid the “fire” of our speech?

 

  1. Have you been wounded by what someone has said to you or about you? How did you handle those situations?

 

 

  1. What can we do to help us avoid “selfish ambition,” “partiality” and “hypocrisy?”

 

 

Next Class May 17 (no meeting on Wednesday, May 3) – James chapter 4 – “Warlike Cravings”

Grace Presbyterian Church - The Epistle of James Chapter 2 “Faith Brought to Completion”

The Epistle of James Chapter 2 “Faith Brought to Completion”

The Epistle of James

 

Chapter 2 – “Faith Brought to Completion”

 

James in this section gets down to very practical issues in faith and life.  He emphasizes the fact that the sin of showing partiality is the complete opposite of loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39).  James emphasizes the difference between faith as assent and faith as genuine trust in the Lord.  In reality he shows the same view of the law and faith as the apostle Paul.

 

  1. “Acts of Favoritism” – 2:1-13

 

The church is not immune to the false standards of the world.  We are easily impressed by wealth and prestige.  Obviously the same problem occurred in the early church.  James points out that we can pay special attention to someone who is well dressed and appears to be rich.  At the same time, we can look down on someone who appears homeless or poor.  God, however, favors the poor.  We can never forget that.  Proverbs tells us, “Whoever is kind to the poor, lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full” (Prov. 19:17).

 

Showing partiality is a sin. Everyone is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).  This is the clear basis for the teaching that all are created equal.  This applies not only to social standing but to race, nationality, education or even religion.  This is not simply a matter of ethics.  It is a question of our spiritual nature, of our relationship to God.

 

James makes a point about the law that is also found in the apostle Paul. If we try to follow the Law of Moses we have to realize that to fail in one aspect of it is to fail in all of it: “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10).  Following the law is everything or nothing.  Paul and James agree that no one can live according to the law.  We can’t pick and choose among the commandments.

 

Paul speaks of freedom (Gal. 5:1). James refers to the “law of liberty.”  The essence of this law (or “norm”) is mercy.  The only ones to whom this mercy is not extended are those who have not shown mercy.  In Jesus’ framework this would be the religious leaders (Matthew 23).  Paul speaks of the fact that, in the final analysis, God will be merciful to all (Rom. 11:32).  In one of the strongest statements in scripture James says that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  This is why the gospel embraces prostitutes, extortionists, Samaritans and adulterers but condemns the self-righteous.

 

It is a sad commentary that often Christians are seen as being unmerciful since the demonstration of mercy is so central to the gospel itself.  Faced with the frequent criticism of religious leaders Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, “I require mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7).

 

  1. Faith Without Works – 2:14-26

 

This is the section of James’ epistle that has caused an apparent controversy with the apostle Paul.  On the face of it James seems to contradict Paul.  Paul said that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 4:1-5).  James says the exact opposite (2:23-24).  For this reason, Martin Luther called the Book of James “an epistle of straw.”  However, in spite of the apparent contradiction we have to ask, are Paul and James talking about the same thing?

 

In reality they are not.  Paul is speaking of faith as an essential trust in God.  He offers Abraham as an example because Abraham proceeds to follow God.  This, however, is the result of his faith not the cause of it.  James says something very similar when he indicates that Abraham showed his faith by obeying God in offering up his son.

 

Faith needs to show itself.  When Paul in his strongest defense of justification by faith apart from works adds that those who openly engage in the “works of the flesh” will not inherit the kingdom of God, he is indicating, like James, that faith must be visible (Gal. 5:16-21).  Early in Paul’s career his teaching was being distorted to justify self-indulgence (I Cor. 6:12-20).  For Paul faith was a complete trust and confidence in God’s promises.  It had nothing to do with human effort or merit.  Yet once having been justified by faith one’s life needed to show the reality of that trust in God (Eph. 5:1-20).

 

James actually is correcting two misconceptions of faith.  One is the view that faith is nothing more than a wish, a general hope.  To say to a poor person, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill” without offering any real help is nothing more than an idle saying.  Real faith propels someone to action.  Paul would not dispute that.  The other mistake is to identify faith with mere assent.  In that case faith is nothing more than a tacit acknowledgement without any commitment.  James uses the example of the demons who believe and shudder.  I can say objectively that Jesus is Lord and Savior without expressing any real trust or confidence in him.  The essence of James’ argument is his saying, “I by my works will show you my faith.”  This is to say that faith is central.  What James means by faith is a committed trust, not just an empty belief that doesn’t come to terms with a life that lives out that faith.

 

To put a final touch on his argument James uses the example of Rahab the prostitute from the Book of Joshua.   She knows that the Lord is with the Israelites.  She and her people have heard about the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians.  She believes that God is with the Israelites.  This however is more than an assent to a given set of facts.  Rahab takes the spies in.  She hides them and then lies about them to the king’s soldiers.  Two key points must be noted here.  Her obedience to God requires her to break the ninth commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”).  Second, she is a living example of what Paul calls faith working through love (Gal. 5:6).

 

Questions for Discussion –

  1. Why is it so hard for us to be impartial?  Why are we so impressed with people’s outward appearances?
  1. What does it mean to say that “mercy triumphs over judgment?” Does this mean that everything is acceptable (cf. I Cor. 6:12)?
  1. How can we demonstrate our faith? Why does faith need to be demonstrated?

Next Class – James chapter 3 – “Tongue of Fire”

wed. bible study James chapter 2

Grace Presbyterian Church - The Epistle of James – Chapter 1 – “Lacking in Nothing”

The Epistle of James – Chapter 1 – “Lacking in Nothing”

 

This letter deals with very practical questions about Christian life and practice.  James at first glance seems to challenge Paul’s idea that we are saved by faith alone (James 2:24).  Yet in the context of the discussion, James is really saying, with Paul, that “the only thing that counts is faith acting through love” (Gal. 5:6).  We are not exactly sure who the author is but tradition has ascribed the letter to Jesus’ brother, James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18).

Faith Being Tested – 1:1-16

James is writing to churches that are facing trials.  These trials could take many forms.  They could include persecution, internal conflict or physical problems which could include everything from sickness to natural disasters.  James’ advice in such situations is not what we would expect.  He says that such difficulties should bring us “nothing but joy.”  Is he kidding?

James definitely means what he says.  Testing builds up our endurance.  The practical effect of this is that, rather than ask God to remove the temptation, we should pray for the endurance which ii is supposed to teach us.  In testing God always provides a way out (I Cor. 10:13).  That doesn’t mean the testing will go away.

James next brings up a provocative idea.  We are invited to ask for wisdom (something that is essential to knowing God, Prov. 8).  But we are to ask in faith.  Already we can see that James, like Paul, places a priority on faith.  We are not to doubt.  This cannot mean a categorical absence of doubt since doubt and faith invariably go together (Mark 9:24).  James is using doubt here in the sense of a general uncertainty.  He speaks of being double-minded.  This is a person without true conviction who wavers back and forth, essentially a person without commitment.

James goes on to address the issue of wealth.  The rich will wither away in the midst of their busy lives.  For James, the rich should boast in being brought low.  It’s important to remember that in the context of the present world most Americans would be considered rich.  There’s no point in envying the rich since, as James says, they will “disappear like the flower in the field.”

James then ends this section with a discussion of temptation.  We may well ask, what’s the difference between trials, which we are to count as “nothing but joy” and temptation which is an enticement to evil?  The clearest way to understand the difference is the temptation of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness which is the place of temptation (Matt. 4:1).  However, the Holy Spirit doesn’t tempt Jesus.  Satan does.  Yet God may allow us to be tempted as a way of testing our faith.  We see a similar example in Job.  God allows Job to be both tested and tempted.  Yet it is Satan that is doing the real evil.  What James is really saying here is that we cannot blame God for our temptations.  We most often tempt ourselves.  As James says we are tempted by our own desires. Temptation itself is not sin.  Yet if we allow ourselves to be lured and enticed then the temptation finally results in sin.

Doers of the Word, Not Just Hearers  – 1:17-27

James proceeds now to list several basic characteristics of the Christian Life.  The first is to recognize that everything we have is a gift from God.  God does not give with a hidden agenda (How many times do we get calls saying that we’ve won a “free” gift?).  God gives freely and openly.  The greatest thing he has given us is new life in his Son.  Why then should we choose to live according to the old and fading patterns of the world?  James gets very practical.  He calls us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  Imagine how many conflicts we could avoid if we followed that pattern!  If we believe in Christ we have God’s Word implanted in our lives.  Every day we have to concentrate more and more on that Word.

James then adds that it is not enough to listen to the Word.  We need to be doers of that Word.  As we encounter God’s Word in reading, study or worship we can freely nod our heads.  We agree with that Word.  We recognize its truth.  However, if we don’t live out that truth then we deceive ourselves.

There is a long-standing tradition that goes back at least as far as Martin Luther in the sixteenth century which tends to see James in opposition to Paul.  However the more we study them both the more we see that is not the case.  James here speaks of the “perfect law.”  He does not mean by this the Law of Moses.  No, he is referring to the “law of liberty.”  This lines up with Paul’s view of freedom (Gal. 5:1).  The true law of liberty cannot be reduced to a legalistic code.  This law of liberty needs to be lived out in open and effective ways, even with some risks.  James seems to be saying that we have to dwell on God’s Word to experience this “law of liberty.”  Too often we simply forget what we have seen in God’s Word.  James uses the example of looking in a mirror and then turning away forgetting what the image showed us.

James now gets very personal.  If we are to be true followers of Christ then one of the first things we need to do is to hold our tongues in check.  James will have more to say about this.  Gossip and slander have done more harm to the Christian Church than almost any other sin.  He concludes this section telling us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled” consists of caring for widows and orphans and keeping ourselves “unstained by the world.”  The world remains a constant source of distraction, false goals and, indeed, temptation.  Trials build up our faith but giving into temptation can damage our faith.  We need to find the balance.

Questions for Us

  1.    Why is it so hard for us to find joy in the midst of trials?
  2.    How can we better discipline our tongues?  Why are we so often more ready to speak than to listen?
  3.    What are some examples of being doers of the Word instead of just hearers?

Next Study – James Chapter 2 – “Faith Brought to Completion

 

Grace Presbyterian Church - The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? Chapter 6 – “Bear One Another’s Burdens”

The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? Chapter 6 – “Bear One Another’s Burdens”

The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel?

Chapter 6 – “Bear One Another’s Burdens”

Paul has no illusions about the challenge of living the Christian life. Anyone can fall. Christians need to support each other, not condemn one another. Each of us has our own role to play in Christ’s service. There is no rank or hierarchy in the church. Paul reminds the Galatians of the battle with the flesh that he mentioned in the previous chapter (5:16-17). Insisting on observing the law however does not demonstrate spirituality. In fact, it only serves the pride of the flesh (Col. 2:16-23).

I. “A Spirit of Gentleness” – 6:1-10

Paul acknowledges that there can be failures and breakdowns in the Christian community. This is the practical application of his insistence that Christians have to follow the law of love rather than the written law. A focus on the law leads to condemnation and rejection when someone is “detected in a transgression” (The Scarlet Letter for example). Paul maintains that we who are led by the Spirit “should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” However, this has not often been the case because the Galatian heresy of depending on the law is so widespread. Too often Christians caught in a failing (certainly as defined by the law of Moses) are subject to removal from whatever office they have and even rejection by the Christian community.

This is the opposite of what Paul advocates. Such a person is to be restored “in a spirit of gentleness.” There is a vast difference between being removed and being restored. Paul would not object to a restoration that would include discipline, counselling or other appropriate responses. Yet all this has to be done by the community bearing the burden of the person and responding in an attitude of gentleness. Too often individual Christians and the church in general response with harshness and condemnation. What may even be worse is to cover up the indiscretion or to pretend it didn’t happen. This hardly fulfills “the law of Christ.” Jesus did not hesitate to criticize even the disciples but he always restored them (Matt. 17:17). Jesus placed a high priority on forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-22).

Paul reminds his readers that anyone of them may be tempted. We should not be quick to judge. Jesus puts it bluntly when he says let the one who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7). Years ago President Clinton’s lying about a sexual encounter led to his being impeached. He was roundly criticized. Yet some twenty years later it has been noted that virtually everyone involved in a leadership role in his impeachment has been found to have been guilty of some form of sexual immorality. These types of situations lead to the world seeing Christians as hypocrites.
Paul Is not about to excuse sin or indulgence. There is the other extreme that tolerates and accepts everything. God is merciful. “All things are lawful” (I Cor. 6:12). Paul has already warned about the danger of using freedom as an excuse for self-indulgence (5:13). God cannot be mocked. To take the attitude that I can do whatever I want because I’m free in Christ is in effect to mock God. If we indulge our flesh we will bear the consequences of corruption. However, if we focus on the Spirit (not the law) we will receive the benefit of eternal life. We are saved by faith. We need to live in faith. True, all of us are vulnerable. We all need support in Paul’s “spirit of gentleness.” At the same time, we are accountable and responsible. We can never take God’s goodness and mercy for granted.

Paul concludes this section with a call for action. We are to work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith. Our acts of mercy, love and justice need to focus on all people. Of course Christians should support each other. However, we cannot be limited to those in our own circle. We need to “work for the good of all.” We must be prepared to respond to anyone who are in need.

II. Final Thoughts – 6:11-18

Paul mentions the problem with his eyesight in referring to the “large letters” in his writing. In his final comments Paul reiterates his point that following the law, beginning with circumcision, is not a sign of spirituality, much less Christian faithfulness. In fact, it is the opposite. It is a sign of the flesh, our lower self-centered, sinful nature. Paul may be alluding to the fact that Christian Jews were being persecuted in synagogues when he speaks about avoiding persecution. However, this may apply to Gentile believers since it would be presumed that Jewish Christians would already have been circumcised.

Paul makes his point again that any display of following the law of Moses quickly leads to boasting (Luke18:11). This is the irony of the law. Rather than curtailing the power of sin or the flesh, it actually leads to greater sin (Rom. 7:7-25). The law in any form leads either to despair over our failure to keep it or to spiritual pride if we can convince ourselves that we are really following it. For Paul circumcision or keeping the law is not the main issue. None of those can be a commandment or requirement. For Paul the new creation in Christ is everything (II Cor. 5:17).

What Paul has done in this epistle and in his other writings is to turn the conventional view of religion on its head. Coming to God is not a matter of human effort or intention. Still less is it based on following any sort of law or religious observances. It is all a matter of God’s gift of new life given in Jesus Christ. The gospel breaks down all barriers. It is not a matter of belonging to any particular group or organization, religious or otherwise. The gospel is for all. There is no distinction, no separation. The fact that God has provided salvation for all solely by the grace (gift) received in Jesus Christ challenges us to proclaim the message. God is merciful to all (Rom. 11:32) but that mercy cannot be separated from the faith we have in Christ. Faith is broader than what we think. Christ is greater than we can imagine. In him a new creation has begun. Paul calls us to live into this new creation. We don’t create it but we can certainly witness to it and invite everyone to share it.

The tragedy of the Galatians and one that has been repeated throughout the ages is that God’s gift can be turned into a list of demands and requirements. When that happens freedom disappears. The loss of that all-encompassing freedom also leads to the loss of the fruit of the Spirit. The all-embracing message of the gospel is reduced to a narrow set of restrictions. For Paul that truly is a different gospel which in fact is no gospel at all. Paul prays for peace and mercy for the Israel of God. This is the transformed and renewed Israel that Paul describes in Romans 9-11, an Israel that embraces not only Jew and Gentile but indeed everyone,

“For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (I Timothy 4:10).

Questions for Us –

1. Why do you think it is so important to restore those who have fallen “in a spirit of gentleness?”

2. Why do we often find it easy to compare ourselves to others? Why is pride so deadly?

3. Why does Paul identify religious requirements like circumcision with the “flesh” over against the Spirit?

Next Study – James Chapter 1 – “Lacking in Nothing

Grace Presbyterian Church - The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? Chapter 5 – “Firm in Freedom”

The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? Chapter 5 – “Firm in Freedom”

The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel?

Chapter 5 – “Firm in Freedom”

Paul is elaborating on his concern for the Galatians. The essence of the gospel is freedom.  Any attempt to bring in the Law, or any part of the Law, is a denial of the gospel itself.  The idea that the Law will keep people from sinning is simply not true (II Kings 21:15; Rom. 7:7-25).  The Christian life is a matter of “faith working through love” (Galatians 5: 6).  The love that comes from Christ and is a gift of the Holy Spirit cannot be used to justify self-indulgence.

  1. “Called to Freedom” – Galatians 5:1-15

Paul cannot be more emphatic.  If the Law of Moses or any part of it is presented as being essential for salvation, then “Christ will be of no benefit.”  It would appear that the position of the Pharisee Christians might have modified a bit since the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).  There the emphasis seems to have been on a requirement for Gentile, as well as Jewish, Christians to keep the whole Law (Acts 15:5).  It appears that what the Galatians had been told was that they didn’t necessarily have to keep the whole Law.  They did, however, have to observe the requirement of circumcision.  This was the defining mark of the people of God going all the way back to Abraham as we have seen.  The Pharisees could insist that his was an everlasting sign (Gen. 17:13).  This however was an example of their completely literal approach to the Law.  Paul would insist that Christ is our circumcision. Even the Law itself spoke of circumcision being a matter of the heart. The Law was not now (nor had it ever been) the sole authority for the people of God.  God, for example, spoke through the prophets (Jer. 1:4).

For Paul there is no middle ground.  Salvation is all of grace through faith in Christ or it is nothing.  Paul would not object to circumcision as a choice.  However, it could never be made a command.  Paul is clear that the “only thing that counts is faith working through love”.  Love will do no harm to the neighbor (Rom. 13:10).  For Paul the Law is both fulfilled in Christ and set aside by him (Col. 2:13-14).  This is the double meaning of Paul’s statement that Christ is the end (goal) of the Law (Rom. 10:4).  For Paul if we are under the Law the offense of the cross has been removed.  What is striking about Christ’s death is that the Law has been both fulfilled and set aside.  According to Paul, to insist on any part of the Law as a requirement means nothing less than cutting yourself off from Christ.  Paul goes so far to say that those emphasizing circumcision should castrate themselves!  This is the equivalent of an expression we would never use in church.

This teaching has been difficult for Christians throughout history (John 6:60).  The Pharisee position has been replicated by Christians picking up a particular aspect or even inference of the Law and making it the identifying mark of what it means to be a Christian.  This list includes pacifism, slavery (for or against), alcohol, women in ministry, spiritual gifts, divorce, abortion, homosexuality and sex in general.  All of these are valid concerns.  However, when any of them become divorced from the freedom we have in Christ they become a punishing and inflexible law.  Faith active in love drops out.

When we return to the law we inevitably become judgmental.  We fall into the trap of what Paul calls biting and devouring each other.  This violates our call to freedom.  It negates the love we need to have for each other.

  1. The Flesh and the Spirit Galatians 5:16-26

Paul knows that his critics will insist that his strong emphasis on freedom will lead to indulgence and even immorality (this indeed had happened in the church in Corinth).   Paul is certainly aware of this danger.  He knows that there is a constant warfare going on in all of us between our “flesh” (our sinful nature) and the Holy Spirit which is in us by virtue of our faith in Christ.  He admits that the desires of the flesh are still with us as long as we are in this earthly form.  Paul’s major point is that any attempt to bring in the Law will not aid us in this conflict.  In fact, the Law only makes our sinful nature worse (Rom. 7).

Paul, however, believes that we can and indeed must depend on the power of God’s Spirit within us.  The Spirit gives us the strength to resist the demands of the flesh.  Paul adds that for the Christian we do not need the Law to tell us what sin is.  He says the works of the flesh are obvious.  Simply put, they are expressions of total self-indulgence. His list, which he admits is not exhaustive, includes sexual indulgence, pursuing false gods (these often went together in the ancient world), conflicts based on pride or jealousy, drunkenness, carousing “and things like these”.  He gives the solemn warning that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Such behavior, certainly as a style of life, is completely alien to the life we have in Christ.

Paul will emphasize that we are free from the power of sin.  We are in a struggle and we should not be discouraged when we fall.  However, in Christ our desire should be to demonstrate his love. What strengthens us is the “fruit of the Spirit.”  This is sometimes incorrectly referred to as “fruits.”  It is not plural.  This is all one fruit.  It has these characteristics: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control.  These traits not only offset the works of the flesh.  They expose the false Christianity of Paul’s opponents who end up in condemnation, guilt and self-righteousness

Paul reminds us that Christ in his death freed us from the power of “the flesh with its passions and desires.”  We will struggle with the desires of our sinful nature.  However, we don’t have to give in to those desires.  Paul’s final word is a warning about being conceited.  The minute we make progress in the Christian life, the instant we turn away from a temptation, we experience an element of spiritual pride.  This leads us to an attitude where we compare ourselves to others, either favorably or unfavorably.  We can envy other Christians whom we can think are doing better than we are or, at least, seem to be receiving greater recognition.  We need always to be guided by the Spirit to keep us from falling into these kinds of traps.

Paul next will address the issue of what do we do when we fail in our life as Christians.

Questions for Discussion –

  1. What are some of the ways that we are tempted to give up our freedom in Christ?
  1. How do we know when we exercising freedom or only being self-indulgent?
  1. Are you experiencing the fruit of the Spirit in your life? Why or why not?

Next Study – Chapter 6 – “Bear One Another’s Burdens

Grace Presbyterian Church - The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? – Chapter 4 – “No Longer Slaves!”

The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? – Chapter 4 – “No Longer Slaves!”

Paul seems baffled by the attitude of the Galatians.  It seems to him that they are almost afraid to live out the freedom they have in Christ.  Paul equates their background in paganism, worshipping the “elemental spirits of the world” to a dependence on the Law.  The Galatians are heirs of God in Christ not slaves.  Yet they are living as though they want to surrender their freedom and return to some forms of the Law.  This issue has been a major problem for Christians throughout the ages.

  1. “How Can You Turn Back?” – 4:1-20

Paul is having trouble making sense of the Galatians.  He uses the example of children who are heirs of a special inheritance.  When children are under age their status can be similar to that of a salve.  They are not allowed to act on their own.  They don’t have freedom.  They have to serve their master which in the case of children are their parents. In the case of a slave they remain in their dependent status their whole life.  This however is not the case with the heirs.  They grow into freedom and become their own guardians.

This are several things here that Paul’s opponents, the Pharisee Christians (Acts 15:1-11) or, as he calls them in II Corinthians, the “super-apostles” (II Cor. 11:5) would have had difficulty accepting.  First, Paul warns the Galatians about their previous worship of “elemental spirits.”  These could well have been the false gods of the Greco-Roman world (Acts 14:8-18).  Yet Paul clearly states that the Law of Moses fits into this category.  Paul’s opponents would, no doubt, have asked him how he could identify pagan gods with the true God of Moses.

Paul obviously is not identifying the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with Zeus or any other false gods.  However he is saying that the relationship one has to both of these can be the same.  To depend on either of these is to deny the freedom we have in Christ.  It is to opt for the position of a slave rather than that of an heir, a minor instead of an adult.  In Christ Paul says we have been adopted into God’s family.  Why would we want to exchange the status of an heir for that of a slave?  When Christ came “in the fullness of time,” everything changed.  This was as true of the Gentiles as it was of the Jews.  The Jews clearly have the advantage of having had the Old Testament (Rom. 3:1-4).  Yet if they reject Christ the end up having a zeal that is not enlightened (Rom. 10:2).  Paul’s opponents would maintain that they were not rejecting Christ.  Quite to the contrary, they were claiming Christ as the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.  Paul would contend, however, that by insisting on following the Law, they were not really following Christ.  

This is a striking claim.  Paul in effect seems to be saying that to insist on following the Law once Christ has come, is no different than following an idol.  He doesn’t elaborate on the special days, months and seasons he mentions.  Presumably these would have been the special days required in the Law (Passover, Day of Atonement, etc.).  There would be nothing wrong presumably with observing special days and seasons (Christmas, Easter, etc.).  The problem comes in if these become mandatory.  They cannot be made into requirements.  Apparently this was the case in some of the Galatian churches.  This is why Paul goes so far as to make the extreme statement that his work with them may have been wasted (v. 11).

Paul then addresses them very personally.  He speaks of the fact that he first came to them “because of a physical infirmity.”  Some commentators think Paul suffered from an eye aliment.  He states that they would have torn their eyes for him (v. 15).  Later he speaks of the “large letters,” with which he writes (6:11).  Paul speaks of the Galatians as his “little children” (v. 19).  He is perplexed by them.  They have been given this freedom in Christ but now are turning back to the Law.  Paul sees this as a denial of the gospel.

  1. Children of the Promise – 4:21-31

Paul comes up with an illustration that would have at the very least surprised his opponents.  He has already invoked the example of Abraham whom he pointed out had lived four hundred and thirty years before the giving of the law (3:17).  He refers to the two children of Abraham.  His first child, Ishmael was the son of the servant girl, Hagar.  However the child of promise was Isaac whose mother was Abraham’s wife, Sarah.  Paul goes on to say that the two women are an allegory representing two covenants.  Hagar represents Mount Sinai and the giving of the law.  She also represents the present unbelieving Jerusalem.  However Sarah represents the Jerusalem above (v. 26).  She represents the freedom which Isaiah speaks of in the quote Paul includes (v. 27; Isa. 54:1).  Paul’s opponents would have thought that he had his example backwards.  For them, certainly Sarah would have represented Mount Sinai, faithful Israel and the giving of the law.  Hagar and Ishmael would have nothing to do with their view of the law.

For Paul however the issue is not the law.  It is the freedom we have in Christ.  Anything that tries to remove that freedom is a “different gospel,” whether it is the worship of “elemental spirits” or the Law of Moses.  For Paul then Hagar represents any and all attempts to come to God through works, human efforts or religious practices.  All of these things finally bind and limit us.  Over against that, he sets the example of Isaac as a child of promise.  For Paul the promise is an inheritance which by its very nature cannot be earned, achieved or merited.  A promise with strings attached is not a real promise in his mind.

When Paul says “we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman (4:31).  The critical point here is that any attempt to devalue the freedom we have in Christ is a betrayal of the gospel.  Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount clarifies the fact that the Law is only provisional.  The life in the Spirit is much more.  However that life cannot be regulated or defined by any set of rules.  Paul’s concern here is not only with the Law but with any attempt to limit the freedom in Christ.  As the great New Testament scholar of the last century, F.F. Bruce, put it:

“To try and keep the desires of the flesh in check by submitting to a strict discipline of rules and regulations is only an alternative way of bondage.”

This year we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther, like Augustine before him, reformed the church with this teaching but yet to this day many churches and individual Christians have not fully accepted Paul’s teaching here.  Legalism in any form, whether it has to do with circumcision, divorce, homosexuality or whatever, finally denies the gospel according to Paul.  The objection arises, if we have no concrete rules of conduct for Christians then won’t people indulge themselves and live lives that are not only undisciplined but sinful.  Don’t we need some kind of code of Christian conduct?

Paul will answer those questions in chapter 5.

Questions for Us –

  1. What do you think is the Galatians’ attraction to the Law?  Are they afraid of the freedom Paul describes?  Are we?
  2. What is the difference between a child-like faith and being childish?
  3. What do you think is the relationship of freedom to forgiveness?

Next Study – “Firm in Freedom” – chapter 5