Saturday

06 October 2012

"So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God." (v. 7)


Background

Imagine you are a refugee, and living with a family who have taken you under their roof free of charge and welcomed you into their family life. This has been for you a complete joy, and you are immensely grateful. It is the new start you've been longing for. It was through friendship with one of the sons of the family that you were invited in. But after a few months, your friend has to go away, and soon afterwards a couple of other children return home for the summer vacation to find you living there scot-free. You are still getting on well with the family, but the returning children tell you that (as well as the normal good manners) there are certain other things you need to do if you are to be truly accepted by the parents. They insist you get your hair cut like them, you should stop eating sweets and sugary drinks, except on weekends, and you must be in bed with lights off no later than 10.00pm. They tell you that their parents are very upset you're not doing this and want you to sit in another room during meals, until you've learned the family way. The friendship that got you into the house was only the beginning - now come the conditions. Of course, with nowhere else to go, you accept the conditions as 'reasonable' - it is, after all, about being part of a family.

 

This, roughly speaking, is what happened to the Galatians! (Not haircuts and curfews, but circumcision and food laws…) The jealous and confused "false-believers" have been saying the new Christians are not 'children of Abraham' unless they behave and look like the rest of Abraham's family. Paul, meanwhile, was the friend who invited them in to God's family in the first place, and now he's trying from afar to put an end to this confusing and divisive nonsense. His argument so far has been that they are part of God's family only through faith in Jesus Christ, and Christ's faithfulness to them. This is the same whether you've been part of the 'old family' or whether you were previously an outsider; the ethnic marks of Judaism are irrelevant. It is faith that's the basis for the true relationship with God. And now he gets to the heart of the gospel (the good news of Jesus) - the actual (and amazing) nature of that relationship.

First, Paul speaks about life in the 'old family': the children were "imprisoned and guarded" (v. 23) by the law, like a babysitter or a housekeeper, or the rules of parents to discipline children. The arrival of Christ into the family has meant that the age of maturity has dawned - now there are new possibilities for the fullness of relationship with God that was never achieved in those 'childhood' days - 'faith' has come into the equation. Then Paul switches quickly to the non-Jews of Galatia: "for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (v. 23). (The word 'children' doesn't mean a state of immaturity, like 'minors', but is rather 'sons' - they have the status of being sons and daughters.) This is the amazing good news: those who were previously his children now have a renewed relationship with God, and those who were previously outsiders are now adopted as children: baptized into Christ; clothed with Christ; one in Christ (verses 27-28). And so, with faith in him, regardless of what they were in the past, their identity(which is what this letter is all about) is now the same as that of God's previous 'chosen family'. All of the old distinctions have been dissolved; the barriers have been broken. The refugees are welcomed to the table as sons and daughters, and the old children have grown up too - all sharing the same new relationship: They are not merely children of Abraham, but children of God!

"When in the fullness of time had come" (v. 4), God's only true Son was sent into the world, coming among his younger brothers and sisters to set them free from their childish ways. At the same time, Christ opened up the family to others who were far off and slaves to all sorts of strange things. By trusting in him, they too could find that mature relationship with God. And, wonderfully and ironically, faith opens the way for the Spirit to enter and to fill the human heart with love, so that we cry out like infants in our parents' arms: "Abba, Father" (v. 6) - 'Dadda' - wholly dependent and trusting, and ready to receive love, almost like a new born baby. You could say mature faith is about being child-like, not child-ish.

There is still much more to this letter still to come, but we pause now on our journey with the passionate and fiery young Paul, now hopefully well-on-the-way to rescuing the Galatians from the blind alley they were heading down. May his timeless words serve to always remind the Church of what is truly important, as we walk on as God's people, with faith in Christ alone.

By thine own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all-sufficient merit
raise us to thy glorious throne.
(StF 169, Charles Wesley)


To Ponder

  • Can you think of a time when you have been welcomed into a group or family? What made the biggest impact for you?
  • In what ways do we sometimes, as God's family the church, welcome people into our fellowship 'on condition'?
  • What does it mean to you to call God "Father"?
  • How can we nurture a child-like faith and dependency on God? And how do we recognise when we're being child-ish instead?


Bible notes author: 
  The Revd Andrew Murphy

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