Sunday School: Freedom and the Law
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Today’s lesson is on a section of Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia. It is part of Paul’s argument against the dangers of so-called Judaizers, who were teaching that Christians must continue to rely on the Old Testament law in order to be children of God, despite the fact that Christ had come. For us, it is a warning that, even though we want to live as godly lives as possible, we should not see adherence to rules as the foundation of our faith. That is only and always the result of faith in Christ and what God did for us through him.
The following prayer, slightly edited, is from the website Knowing Jesus.
Heavenly Father, thank You that Jesus took the full punishment for our sins on the Cross. We are so thankful that our salvation is not based on the good things that we do to please You, but on the good work that Christ did on the Cross on our behalf. Keep us from trying to add to Christ's finished work on the Cross, but may weI live our lives in a manner that is pleasing to You, as we die to ourselves and live for Christ. In Jesus' name, Amen.
This week's lesson is on Galatians 3:18-29.
Today’s lesson from Galatians 3:18-29 is about a heated disagreement that took up a lot of energy and passion in the early church. It is a question that we might not think much about today since the great majority of Christians have no direct connection to the Jewish faith, but the apostle Paul knew that it was a debate that would determine the direction of Christianity from that time to this.
It is not hard to imagine why some Christians of Jewish background would argue for requiring Gentile Christians to observe the Jewish law in order to become part of the community of faith. It is hard for most of us to accept change, and obedience to the Law had been the hallmark of the Jewish faith for nearly 1,400 years. That included requiring males to go through the ritual of circumcision, which began with Abraham, 400 years before the law as given through Moses.
But Paul argues that what happened in Jesus Christ was so pivotal that it required an entire rethinking of the foundations of the faith. God had done something so central in Christ’s life, death and resurrection that the faith could not continue as it had. Instead, it required a seismic shift in how people understood their relationship to God.
Salvation did not come through the law. In fact, Paul says, the law was never intended to make people righteous before God. It was always about faith, but the Old Testament law showed us what a life of faith should look like. Now, in Jesus Christ, everyone who has faith in Christ, no matter what their background, is part of God’s family.
1. Inheritance (verses 18-19a)
Before our lesson passage begins, Paul had been writing about the inheritance God’s people always had throughout the history of faith — the inheritance of righteousness before God and eternal life. What was the basis for that inheritance? It was not for people who kept the law of Moses. That is obvious because those laws were given hundreds of years after Abraham. No, that inheritance was always for people who believe God’s promise, just as Abraham did.
2. Law (verses 19b-21)
It is not that the law did not have a purpose. It was given as a standard for people of faith to use in their daily lives. It also revealed just how sinful even the most faithful people are.
Paul writes that the law was added “because of transgressions,” meaning that it revealed just how often and how much human beings transgressed the boundaries that God set for our lives. As the Sunday school author points out, “the law’s application was limited as it served to reveal, rather than heal, transgressions.
Paul also notes that the covenant of faith established through Abraham is superior to the covenant of the law established through Moses. The former was a promise made directly to Abraham and to anyone who would believe God as he did. The latter was a covenant made with the people through Moses, whom Paul refers to as “a mediator.” Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that everyone on earth — both Jews and Gentiles — would be blessed through him.
It is not that the law is not good or holy. Both the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant are from God. However, the nature of law is that it can only reveal to us where we fall short. It cannot give life. If there were a law that could lead to eternal life, God would have given it, but that was not possible. Therefore, God sent Jesus into the world to do what the law could not.
Those who were trying to get people to believe in Jesus and continue to rely on the law for their salvation were misunderstanding the purpose of the law. Even more, they were trying to nullify the work of Christ.
Question: In what ways do Christians use good behavior to earn favor with God and with others? What should be the role of good behavior and good works in the lives of believers?
3. Faith (verses 22-23)
As a whole, the Old Testament scriptures serve to show us that we all are guilty of sin. Gentiles were guilty because they did not even have the law to follow as a guide for their lives. Jews were guilty because, even though they had the law, it ended up only pointing out that no one could do it perfectly, that all were guilty, that all were subject to sin and judgement.
However, in Jesus Christ all equally have the opportunity to be counted righteous and receive eternal life. And for everyone, faith is the requirement.
Paul compares the law to a schoolmaster or a guardian who teaches and guides a person throughout their youth in the way they should live. Paul is referring to certain servants in the ancient Greco-Roman world who supervised the education of the heirs and guided them, disciplined them and shaped their character until they became adults.
When they became adults, it is not that the lessons learned can be forgotten and pushed aside. They were still valid, just as the law was still valid and good. But now, as adults, now that Christ has come, they no longer require their schoolmaster to teach them. Through Christ, God has called us to follow him and to trust in what he has done for us.
4. Unity (verses 26-29)
Now that Jesus Christ has come, a new era of faith has begun. It is an era that is no longer marked by physical ancestry or adherence to the law. It is an era that is marked by faith in Jesus Christ.
Those who believe in him, whether Jews or Gentiles, signify their faith by the rite of baptism. That not only brings spiritual transformation for the individual. It also is a unifying act that signifies those who are part of this community of faith in which all the earthly barriers are broken down.
As Paul says, in Christ, ’There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave or free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Regardless of any differences, through faith everyone can become God’s children and part of Christ’s body. Everyone who has faith is a child of the promise God made to Abraham. And everyone who is a child of promise also has God’s Spirit present in his life.
It was time for the Galatian church to mature. First, they needed to acknowledge that they were no longer under the law as the way to attain God’s righteousness. They were heirs of God with full familial rights to God’s promises.
Second, they needed to realize that following the Law of Moses no longer marked the children of God. Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female — all could inherit God’s blessing.
Is there something in which we place our faith that is other than the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Embrace Christ and live confidently as sons and daughters of God! When it comes down to it, do we stand with Paul on the bedrock that all believers are one in Christ Jesus?
Our Father, thank you that we are your children through faith in Christ Jesus. Help us to live in the freedom that we have as heirs according to the promise of your Son. Show us how to live in unity with all of your children. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Today's benediction is from the Revised Standard Version.
Next week's lesson is on Galatians 5:1-15.
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