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Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: Galatians 3:15-22

Has the Spirit come by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the works of the flesh? The antithesis here is not “the Law is bad or makes me feel bad” versus “the Gospel is good.” Paul himself rejects such a notion elsewhere (Romans 7:7 ff.). The works of the law which Paul rejects is a focus on one’s own performance of the Law, which, not incidentally, excludes God from the picture. To begin in the Spirit and end in the flesh is to begin with God and end in the self, something which even Abraham did not do.

Justification comes by faith, and Paul reminds the Galatians that God Himself preached the Gospel to Abraham, long before Sinai. “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3). Even in the particular blessing of Abraham, the Lord has a greater purpose in mind. Israel, through Abraham, will be the means of blessing the whole earth. Israel is the vehicle of a greater blessing, and the peculiar holiness of Israel serves as a witness to that end.

This is what Israel failed to understand. Israel is called to be holy so that all the nations would come to know the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5, 1 Kings 4:20-24, Psalm 72:8-11, among others). Yet Israel had perverted her witness to the world into something else entirely. Faith was no longer needed, because they regarded their own separation from the world as their righteousness. Without faith, such separation could only produce hypocrisy and wickedness. “To the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips’” (Psalm 50:16; also Jeremiah 7:4, Amos 8:4-6, etc.)?

But the righteous shall live by faith. These words of Habakkuk show that the promise made to Abraham has not been set aside. Mamre has not given way to Sinai. Faith is not perfected by the flesh. The promise made to Abraham finds its end in Jesus, through Whom the blessing of Abraham comes also to the whole earth. The Gospel preached to Abraham does not end in Israel, as if the uniqueness of Israel was the whole point. The Gospel goes out to all by faith.

Paul uses a couple of examples to drive his point home here. No one changes human covenants after they have been ratified. If no one tampers with human ones, how much less ought we to tamper with divine ones, especially the one ratified in Genesis 15? More than this, Paul points to the text of Genesis 12 directly, noting that the offspring of Abraham is singular, which can only mean Christ. Were this single word plural, the argument of his opponents might have some weight. Then the inheritance of the physical land, the peculiarity of Israel, might very well be the whole point. But it is not plural, but singular. The scope of the promise made to Abraham is worldwide. The promised inheritance depends on faith and faith alone.

But the Law given at Sinai was put in place because of “transgressions” and also as a “guardian.” Israel broke the covenant when she broke faith with the Lord, setting up the golden calf. The Lord departed from the camp, separating Himself from Israel (Exodus 32-33). Following the intercession of Moses, the Lord remakes the covenant with Israel, but now the veil of Moses covers his face. The transgression of Israel required that veil, because the external letter brought with it the curse (2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Deuteronomy 28-29). But in Jesus Christ, the veil is taken away, because He is the promised offspring. Moses, the intermediary, served to put this into place, but now the promise by faith puts an end to all intermediaries.  Delighting in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1), the Christian inherits the promise of Abraham through the inward working of the Spirit.

Fourth Sunday after Trinity: Romans 8:18-23

Because sin, working through the Law though not being a part of it, brings death, the Christian engages in an internal, personal war.  The holy and righteous Law of God is his delight, but sin works in his members against it.  To be in Christ is to suffer with Him, because being in Christ means being a new creation, wholly distinct from the old.  How, then, does God call His creation to live in Him?

Paul emphasizes in the reading just before the pericope for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity that Christians live according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh.  Christians follow after the Spirit of God as sons, not as slaves of the flesh.  Sin is not a necessity, in that sense, for the Christian.  He will sin, of course, because of his great weakness, and sin remains ever at the door, desiring entrance.  But he is no longer ruled by sin, but by Christ.  Being in Christ means suffering with him in order to be glorified with Him, for the Christian is being remade in His image.

This suffering is not meaningless, nor is it worthy of serious concern.  It is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).  Being glorified with Christ will show these present sufferings for what they really are:  fleeting and temporary, meant for building us up and not for our destruction.  “Weeping may tarry for the night” (Psalm 30:5), and a dark night that might be, wherein “I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6)!  Even the most intense trouble now will give way to joy, but not in a trivial way.  Christ’s own suffering was far from trivial.  Who has suffered like He suffered on our behalf?  Yet His suffering came to an end and the Father has bestowed on Him a glory far exceeding any earthly glory, “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

On that day will come “the revealing of the sons of God,” the moment in which our glory in Christ will no longer be hidden.  “We know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).  The sheep will be distinguished from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).  It will be the day of the fullness of our redemption, the resurrection from the dead, the hope toward which we press.  Salvation is both now and yet to come, because while our assurance comes in this moment, the fullness of our redemption will come when Christ finally brings all things under His feet.  Sin will be no more in that day, and all of the former things will pass away, never to return again.

Even creation awaits this revelation.  It too is in bondage, because Adam’s sin frustrated its original purposes.  Adam is, after all, the head not only of the human race, but of all creation.  He holds dominion over it, given to him by the Lord (Genesis 1:28).  His sin causes the earth to fail in bringing forth the fullness of its strength (Genesis 3:17-19).  Even more to the point, not only does creation undergo the judgment of the Flood because of man’s sin (Genesis 6:7), it also falls under the covenant made with Noah (Genesis 9:8-11).  Therefore, man’s sin means the creation suffers with him.  It longs to be set free from this slavery and return to its original state, just like the restoration of man in Christ.

If the world longs to see the great day of redemption, how much more do we as Christians?  We must wait, of course, and such patience is a fruit of the Spirit.  Yet, as Paul goes on to say, “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).  Even if we must suffer, we suffer with Christ.  Even if we must wait for the fullness of our salvation, we wait with Christ.  Even if we must die, we die with Christ.  Our war with sin is not fruitless or pointless, but part of separating us from the body of death and making us heirs of eternal life.

Fifth Sunday in Lent: Hebrews 9:11-15

The carefully organized argument of Hebrews seeks to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. Those who saw the things of the old covenant as the epitome of God’s revelation have not yet understood their purpose. “They serve a copy and show of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). When the new has come, the old must pass away, not because it was evil, but because it always pointed toward what was to come.

Hebrews 9 opens with a description of the Tabernacle, drawing on details from passages like Exodus 25-28, Leviticus 16:12-13, Exodus 16:33-34, and Numbers 17:10. “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:5), but they figure into the overall picture. These things are not there to make the Tabernacle look nice, as if they spruced up the room or made it more conducive to devotion. They, like the Tabernacle, looked forward to the coming fulfillment in Christ.

The primary focus, however, is on the curtain that seperates the Holy of Holies. There is nothing barring entrance for the priests into the first section, but the curtain sets the inner section apart. Into this section, only the high priest may enter but once a year “and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Hebrews 9:6-7). So long as the first section remains, the way into the second section is not yet open. As long as the God-given commandments regarding the old covenant were still in force, the curtain remains standing. The fulness has not yet come. Everything within the first section applies to the old regulations “for the body,” thing which cannot perfect the conscious. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).

I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that we can easily miss the point of this passage if we assume that the entire point of the first section is in its “looking forward.” If the Tabernacle only has meaning within the New Testament, then why would God command it, since the Old Testament Church could not understand it? Their knowledge was incomplete, of course, but the ark as a way of showing God’s presence among His people had meaning also in its own day. The argument here in Hebrews is not that the first section only has meaning in the new covenant, but that the old covenant taught through these types about the coming Christ. The old covenant is not the whole of God’s revelation, as the unbelieving Jews thought, nor are types limited in their meaning to only what is prefigured!

When Christ the Great High Priest appeared, however, He entered into the heavenly Tabernacle of which the earthly one was a copy (Hebrews 8:5). Like the high priests of the earthly tent, He also entered carrying blood, His own. What had been prefigured was now a reality. Animal blood could “sanctify for the purification of the flesh,” making one eligible for worshipping the Lord, but it could not clear the conscience. Only the blood of Christ, offered once and once only, purifies the conscience, because only the perfect blood of Christ could wash away sin. The constant repetition of the sacrfices of the old covenant showed that they were incapable of forgiving sins, because they were incomplete. Sin is not a matter of balancing the checkbook once a year, because sin is not a matter of line items. We are not guilty of a certain, albeit large, number of sins to which we continually add, but we are guilty of sin, because a failure in one point of the Law means becoming guilty of breaking the whole Law (James 2:10). The repeated sacrifices could not forgive sin, therefore, because either sin is forgiven or it is not forgiven. It cannot be partially forgiven. Christ, offering up His blood once only, covered over sin as a whole.

Therefore, because Christ’s death covers over the “transgressions committed under the first covenant,” the old covenant has come to an end. There is no longer a need to continue those things, because the imperfect and partial has given way to the perfect and complete. The things which belonged to the first section have served their God-commanded purpose, and therefore are no longer needed. We no longer need fear, because the way through the curtain has been opened by Christ (Hebrews 10:19-20). “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:22-25).