Paul often steps through many questions in his letters. These are either questions he has heard or he does well to anticipate the questions himself. In chapter three he, a Jew, is asking about the status of the Jewish people. Do some say that the Jews have no advantage now because of what Jesus has done (3:1)? Are the Jews any better off (3:9)?
Paul says there was an advantage to being entrusted with the “oracles” of God, but does that mean the Jews are now better off? Is there any different status or level for the Jewish believer as opposed to the Gentile believer? To that he says no. Receiving the promises of God did not mean that those promises were not for the world, as well. And this was not a race in which one runner was given a head start. Paul is de-emphasizing our activity completely in order to focus on the faithfulness of God.
This is one of the parts of the good news that can be uncomfortable at times. When grace means that “I am saved apart from what I do” it is easy to accept. But if grace also means “they are saved having done less than me” that can feel different.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a master of a vineyard hires workers at different times throughout the day. At the end of the day the foreman calls the workers in to be paid:
And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:9–16 ESV)
Our attention ought to be less on the others working alongside us in the kingdom of God, and more fixed on Jesus. If we let ourselves be caught up in comparison, we aren’t looking to him. And he is our true reward.
We should be thankful that God is gracious, and we should pray that more would receive his grace. When God gives generously, it doesn’t take away from what he has done for us.
If God treated we who were spiritually poor the way Israel cared for its poor, we would never share in his riches. If God treated we who were his enemies the way Jonah would have, we would still be lost.
And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:3-5
There are some great books that defend the Christian faith that I’ve personally enjoyed in the past. They could be grouped broadly into the category of “apologetics.” This name isn’t based on our saying “sorry” for our faith, but the word relates to giving a defense. While I certainly believe that there are reasons to believe in Jesus Christ and that our Bible is a trustworthy book, it is important to remember that we cannot argue someone into faith. We shouldn’t present some sort of bullet point list to someone, then demand that she believe.
While Paul does use argumentation and is thoughtful with his words and his audience, he is primarily a witness pointing to Jesus. Paul can’t make someone believe. In fact, he doesn’t want to. His desire is that a person’s faith “might not rest in the wisdom of men.”
This chapter goes on about how what we now know–the wisdom of God that we see in the cross of Jesus Christ–is not based in our own intellectual achievements. It is not because I’m smart enough that I’m a Christian. Likewise it is not because someone is dumb that they may not believe. The eternal purposes of God are known to us because they have been revealed to us by the Spirit of God.
But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
1 Corinthians 2:9–10
We can’t even boast in our knowing because it is a gift of God’s grace. Our coming to believe and understand is a work of God’s through and through.
We ought to love God with our minds, seek to know him better, to discern the mind of Christ, and speak ably about Jesus to those around us, always giving a reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). But we do not do this as though everything hinges on my skillful argumentation. Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith, but it is not a faith dependent on advanced understanding and academic achievement. Our faith is dependent on the working of the power of God.
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. 2 Timothy 1 :8-9
As much as this is a letter to Timothy and about his ministry, it isn’t really about him. Paul wants to keep the focus on Jesus Christ and what he has done. It is not on the basis of our work that we are called, but because of God’s purpose and grace.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t called to do a work. We are. God has a plan for us and wants us to follow it. But just as it isn’t all about Timothy, it isn’t all about you or me. We are to make our work point to Jesus.
We do have a role to play, but Jesus deserves all the glory. We would have nothing if not for the grace given in him.
It reminds me a bit of this quote from Stacey King, a teammate of Michael Jordan.
I’ll always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined for 70 points.
(Said after Michael Jordan scored a career high 69 points and Stacey King scored 1 point against the Cavaliers. )*
*But when it comes to the work of our salvation, we don’t even contribute that one point.
Our focus passage from this last week was the familiar passage (at least familiar relative to other parts of Ezekiel) of the valley of dry bones. God brings Ezekiel to a place full of death. There are bones that are long dead and have dried up. They appear to be hopeless, for who holds out hope that life can return to a corpse, let alone the bones that remain after years of decay? But God commands Ezekiel to speak this prophecy to the bones:
O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.
As God had described it so it happened. Ezekiel witnesses dry bones covered with sinews and then flesh. But just to have appearance of the living is not enough. God then breathes life, Spirit, into the bodies. Then they stood as a great army.
These bones represent the whole house of Israel that believed itself beyond hope, but God still had a plan for them. He would revive them and put his Spirit within them. Just as it was with the vision of the bones, the work God would do in Israel would be miraculous and therefore would cause the people to know whose hand was behind this. Then the people would know God is the Lord for only God could save them from death and gift them with life.
This chapter describes the work of God for a nation in exile and suffering from their sins, but the miracle of turning death to life is described as well in the New Testament. I find that Ephesians 2 parallels this in some ways.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Like the dry bones, we were dead. What could the bones do to restore flesh and life? Nothing. As a people dead in our sins, how could we save ourselves? We lived according to the sinful ways of the world, like the people of God in Ezekiel. They acted just like the nations surrounding them and suffered discipline for their disobedience. Likewise we are described here as children of wrath, just like the rest of mankind. But God rescues us in both situations and it is not because we deserved it. I see two reasons, first that God is merciful and loving to his people.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…
Imagine reading that passage and ending before this verse. It is a dire situation. That is a pretty big “but” that comes to our aid. The situation was dire as well for the people in exile. In both, all hope is lost if not for the intervention of a gracious God. It is and has always been “by grace you have been saved.”
The other reason that God would do such a thing is that it fits in with his perfect plan. In Ephesians we see lines like, “so that in the coming age he might show immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” and “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Ezekiel is full of the line, “that you may know that I am the Lord your God.” God’s work for the whole house of Israel is a testimony to his character and his grace and he wants the people to know, and he wants the world to know. We are chosen not to merely enjoy a blessing, but to also carry a great responsibility in God’s plan for this world.
God saves us from our sin and he raises us up with Christ. He does so because he has a plan for us. That plan is one of blessing, surely. But it blessing to be shared. His saving us is not a result of good works, but it is part of a plan that God prepared beforehand that leads to good works for his sake.
It is only because of God’s grace could we receive such mercy and love. Like dry bones, we could not bring back life. Even if we could somehow restore flesh and sinews, we still would lack life–the breath of God within us. Fortunately his plan did not call for us to remain dead. His plan was for us to have a life where we walk in his ways. This plan bought us back from death, restored us, and raised us to life with and because of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I haven’t devoted much typing to the book of Judges this week, something I’ll be sure to remedy for the next week’s assignments for Year in the Bible. But in reading through Galatians I see a connection to Judges, and Galatians could just about be retitled and delivered to the tribes of Israel. Paul writes in chapter one:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—
He goes on to say that calling anything but the gospel of Christ ‘gospel’ doesn’t make sense, for nothing is good news compared to God’s grace. But, the point I’m making with relation to Judges is that this church in Galatia, some two thousand years ago, suffered the same problems that God’s people struggled with thousands of years before that. They so quickly turn from the God who had delivered them from Egypt and delivered them into the promised land. Sadly the story is a common one in which humanity, for no good reason, turns from God.
I don’t know whether we should grow more angry with ourselves seeing this pattern continue or if we should have greater sympathy. Maybe both. At least it should help make us humble people.
The good news is that this pattern also includes a God who forgives and welcomes us back again and again.
Paul’s style throughout Galatians is great. He has been a servant of Jesus Christ for years but still writes with such passion and urgency as if he is just coming back from meeting Christ on the way to Damascus. He knows what is at stake with the churches in Galatia who have fallen prey to false teachers and have subsequently turned from the gospel, and in so doing, have turned from the one who has called them.
He make God’s grace an emphasis of the letter–that God has called us, that Christ gave himself for our sins, that he has delivered us, and that any work that is required of us has been accomplished, therefore our works can not contribute to our being saved. He emphasizes grace through and through. Sometimes it is bold and confrontational as he challenges these churches, like when he quickly jumps into the meat of the letter with words like “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ” or when he calls them “fools” for now trying to bring in some sort of works righteousness into a gospel of grace.
But sometimes his lifting up of God’s grace, his movement to us and for us when we cannot merit it, is more subtle. It sounds almost offhanded in 4:9. Paul writes about the difference between where we all once were, enslaved to false gods, compared to being heirs of God. He writes, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, who slaves you want to be once more?”
I love this verse. We are reminded even in knowing God that he has initiated. He is the one who has begun all things and he is also the one who has done all things for us. We have not come to know God, but to be known by him. How humbling is the verse, and for that matter, this whole book? We can never measure up to God nor can we ever merit his love. But he has called us by name, he has made us his own. Because of the death of Jesus Christ we can be freed from slavery to false gods and embrace the free grace of God.
Or: An exercise in imagination to help see the importance of Paul’s letter
Imagine if you will:
Paul has come your way through the region of Galatia, and you think you understood what he has taught. But he wasn’t the only one who has come talking about Jesus, and what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection mean for us.
Some of what Paul said sounded radical, such as complete dependence on God’s grace, not on what we do. But others came along to you adding to his teaching.
Yes, God is gracious, but don’t we still need to earn grace? God has given you the law, right? Shouldn’t we then follow it? Why would he give it to you if you couldn’t follow it? And if you can uphold the law, then you must.
Should we be concerned? Did Paul just emphasize some parts of the gospel and other teachers emphasized other parts? Are they teaching the same thing? They all sound pretty smart, how can I make heads or tails of this? Are they all right in some way? How should we react?
If only Paul would write to us to help clear things up…