This morning’s passage is not one that we normally associate with Christmas. It’s also one that we usually avoid, or at least that we don’t read fully, because it’s a one that takes a bit of work. But this morning we’re going to plunge into it.
As you know, Christmas is all about Jesus coming to earth. It’s about the Christian belief that God himself sent his Son. But the question is: why? This morning’s passage is one of the most theologically rich passages that explains why Jesus came to this earth. This passage will help us understand Christmas, as well as helping us to understand the problem that Christmas solves.
So let’s look at four things from this passage. First: what we want. Second: why we won’t get it. Third: how Christmas changes everything. Finally: what difference this makes.
Let’s look first at what it is we want.
The place where this passage begins is actually with the need that caused Paul to write this letter. And the need points to something that is deeply ingrained in all of our hearts. Somebody’s said that it’s the default mode of the human heart. We find hints of it all throughout this book:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– which is really no gospel at all. (Galatians 1:6-7)
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? (Galatians 3:2-4)
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)
Here is the basic problem that these people faced. At some level they believed in Jesus Christ and understood what he accomplished through his life and his death. But when it came to being justified before God, they were looking to something else other than Jesus. And this reveals something about each one of us here that we really need to be aware of.
We all long for what these people longed for. They wanted to be able to stand confidently before God knowing that they had been approved and accepted. We long to know that we are okay, that we are loved, that our lives count, that they are more than waves on a beach that are there and then gone with nothing left to show for them.
But we see in Galatians that there is something in us that tries to earn this for ourselves. It’s a danger for all of us, even those of us who understand who Jesus is and what he came to do. The default mode of the human heart is self-justification. We think that if we do something that our lives will really matter. Probably nobody put it better than theologian Madonna, the pop singer:
My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.
I want you to understand that this includes everyone here today. Everybody drifts toward self-justification. The things we look to are different. We think that if we look a certain way, or achieve certain accomplishments, or get a particular title, then we will be able to stand before God and others and be able to hold our heads up high. One or the greatest dangers is when we do this with God. We think that we can live in a certain way, and God will accept us.
This is the first thing we need to see in this passage: that we are all into self-justification. We all tend to drift toward earning our standing with God and with others based on our accomplishments.
The second thing this passage shows us is that it will never work.
There’s something very interesting in this passage. If you know the Bible, you know that a good part of the Bible is comprised of God’s Law. You know the Ten Commandments and the other passages in the Old Testament that teach us how we should live. It’s very tempting to look at those and think that if we only keep these laws, then God will accept us.
But in the passage that was read this morning, Paul gives us three images of the law to show us that the keeping the law will never make us right with God. We will never be able to obey God enough to be accepted. What are the three images?
In Galatians 3:23, Paul says that the law is like a prison warden, keeping God’s people in protective custody until Jesus Christ could be revealed:
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.
This is fascinating. If I asked you this morning what your dreams are for 2010, nobody here would say, “I hope that I can spend some time in jail, under guard, in protective custody.” But Paul here says that this is exactly the position we’re in when we try to justify ourselves by keeping God’s law. This is the condition of all the people who lived before the coming of Jesus Christ.
What does this mean? It means that the law is restrictive. It has a restraining influence on us that keeps us from doing the evil we would probably do otherwise. Theologians speak of this as being one of the uses of the law: curbing us from doing what we would otherwise do, putting some restraint on us so we’re not as bad as we would be. But it’s nobody really wants to live under protective custody.
Paul gives us a second image of living under the law: that of a student under a tutor. Galatians 3:24 says, “So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.” The image Paul uses here is of a pedagogue – a slave in those days who was responsible for a child’s care and training. In those days, parents would have one of the household servants tutor children and help to bring them up. They would impose discipline and tutor them, often correcting the child when necessary. But it wasn’t a permanent arrangement.
But you see, the problem is that the law can tutor us only so far. It can’t do what a parent can do. It can point out our faults, but it can’t change us. So it’s not very satisfying to think of living this way as well. We need a parent, not just a tutor who points out what’s wrong.
There’s one more image, and it’s the one that we read this morning. It’s that of a trustee who oversees the assets of a child before they come of age. That’s what we see in Galatians 4:1-3. Imagine that you are rich. You’re fabulously rich. But your father has set things up so that you don’t receive the assets that are yours until you reach a certain age. You want to go shopping and you have all this money, but the trustee says, “Sorry, you can’t have that yet.” In reality, even though you’re wealthy, you’re no better off than one of the slaves. You have to do exactly what the trustee tells you. Paul says that’s exactly how we live when we try to justify ourselves using the law. We have to do what the law says, and even though we have a large fortune of blessings that have been promised to us, we’re answerable to the guardianship of the law. We’re really no better than slaves.
And here we see the problem with how many of us live today. When we obey, we feel good, and we think that God must accept us. But we’re trapped because we’re never good enough. We wake up grumpy some days. We snap at our kids. We make gestures to other drivers. We carry grudges. We’re selfish. We lose our tempers. And the law can do nothing more than keep us from being worse than we already are. It can restrain us; it can point out our faults; but it can’t do what we really want it to do. It can’t justify us before God.
This is a big problem for us, because this is how most of us live. A young man once said, “It’s like a heavenly bank account. As long as I make more deposits than withdrawals, I’m in good shape.” But the biblical teaching is much worse than that. The very first time we make a withdrawal, the account goes into overdraft and is closed forever.
The problem is that as long as we’re trying to make our own way, and stand on our own two feet before God, we have to realize there’s really no hope. We don’t have freedom. We’re under bondage. The law can hold restrain us and point out where we’re wrong, but it can’t give us life. It doesn’t give us access to the standing before God that we long for.
This is the picture that Paul gives us here. For most of human history, God’s people have been underage minors under the guardianship of the law. You can almost hear Paul say, “Why in the world would you want to return to that?”
But then Paul explains the solution.
So third, let’s look at how Christmas changes everything.
Galatians 4:4-5 says: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
For most of history, Paul is saying, people lived under the guardianship and supervision of the law. They were like minors who couldn’t access the wealth that was rightfully theirs. They were no better than slaves. But the coming of Jesus Christ marks the coming of age of God’s people, so that they receive all the wealth that has been promised to them. God sent his Son at the right moment in human history so we could become sons instead of slaves.
Paul says this happened at the right time. God providentially saw to it that it was exactly the right time for the coming of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel. There was peace, the Pax Romana, a long period of relative peace which allowed for the spread of the gospel. There was a common language for communication. There were roads so that people could travel with the gospel. But even more than that, it was the time that God decided that his people should come of age and receive the money that was being held in trust for them.
Paul says that God sent his Son, born of a woman. In other words, God himself became one of us. He is like us in every way, fully human, except with one difference: he has no sin nature. He’s born under the law, Paul says, so he identifies with what it’s like to live under the law. Unlike any of us, he kept the full obligations of the law in his life, and he took all the curse of the law in his death. He kept all of the law for us perfectly as the representative man so that we are freed from the obligations of the law.
John Ortberg tells the story of a priest who moved into a small village in Hawaii that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony. For 16 years, he lived there. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity. Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.
The priest was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him.
Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers….” Ortberg says:
Now he wasn’t just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward, he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin. First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together.
One day God came to Earth and began his message: “We lepers….” Now he wasn’t just helping us. Now he was one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together.
Then Paul says explains why all of this happened. He says, “…to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4). The word that Paul uses here is adoption. In those days, wealthy men – even emperors – adopted men not related to them by blood with the intention that they would succeed them. At the moment of adoption, the son was in all legal respects equal with those born into the family.
Because Jesus came to earth, you have been adopted into God’s family. You have the intimacy of relationship with God. You are fabulously wealthy, because everything that Jesus accomplished has been transferred to you. The Bible says that you will share all the glory that belongs to Christ. You are an heir of all of God’s blessings. It means that you are loved just as Christ was loved. Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
The Father wants to say, more than with his touch than with his voice, good things of his children. He has no desire to punish them. They have already been punished excessively by their own inner or outer waywardness. The Father wants simply to let them know that the love they have searched for in such distorted ways has been, is, and always will be there for them. The Father wants to say, more with his hands than with his mouth: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son)
We’ve seen what we want: to stand justified before God; to know that we matter; to hear his well done. We’ve seen that we can’t justify ourselves. But then we’ve seen that this is the very reason that Jesus came. He became one of us and kept the law perfectly, and took the curse for our violations of the law. His coming marks our coming of age, so that we are now children of God rather than servants.
Let’s finish this morning by asking what difference this makes.
Do you notice verses 6 and 7?
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.
Paul really gets personal here. He says “you” over and over again – you! You are not a slave. You are a true child of God. You are a heir of God’s promises. Everything that belongs to Jesus is now yours. You are full-grown sons and heirs of God.
This means you have nothing to prove to God. One of my favorite quotes says, “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there.” (C. John Miller)
If you want to ask what the meaning of Christmas is, that’s it. God sent his Son at the right moment in human history so we could become sons instead of slaves. And to everyone who trusts what Christ has done for them, he says, “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.”
Father, forgive us for trying to justify ourselves. This morning we thank you for sending Jesus. We thank you that because of him, we have come of age, and we are now adopted, and everything that belongs to him is now ours too.
Help us to see that we have nothing to prove. Help us to see that it’s not, “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.” Instead it’s, “I’m accepted, therefore I obey.” May we truly understand why you sent Jesus to come into this world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.