All in this together – Galatians 6. RBT Notes, 23rd December

People of the Spirit? People called to express their faith in love? Then those people need to know the specifics of Spirit-led loving. Here, Paul gives us four:

1. Hold out grace to the broken sinner (v.1). Paul has restoration in view. That is only possible where there’s repentance. Where there is after sin, we need to work out how to bring that believer back into fellowship with the church, and that’s not highhandedly, but sensitively and carefully. Do we harbour grudges, or are we, as our Master taught us, willing to forgive seventy times seven times?

2. Serve each other (v.2). Kingdom life is shared life. Don’t be lazy, or exploit others (carry your own burdens, if you can, v.5), but don’t remove yourself from others’ needs. You were saved to serve. Are you serving?

3. Stay humble (v.3). Nothing has the temptation to puff us up like service. We serve, and we are tempted to feel smug and important. Servants are nobodies, and they never will be anybodies, at least, not this side of heaven. Remember this.

4. Thank the preacher (v.6). Go on, do it.

This is the Cross-centred life. Avoid it, and you will end up serving yourself, affectively sowing for this world’s uncertain and fleeting rewards. Such efforts come with a massive health warning (v.8). Instead, invest your life in serving other people in the name of Christ – that alone is work guaranteed to blossom in eternity (vv.9-10).

Paul closes with a final appeal, and a final warning (vv.11-18). These Galatians need to make a decisive break with their false teachers and their false message. They need to embrace the Cross: persecution will come with it, but Jesus will be theirs. Life will be hard, but it will be real life, given and guided by the Holy Spirit, a world away from empty religion.

The Letter to the Galatians is a gift. Through it God calls His church to stay close to Jesus, and to Him alone. In Him is life, and that life is the light of men.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Father, thankyou for the gift of Your radiant, triumphing Son. Please show me where I am tempted to slip into the rules of men, away from the freedom of Your grace. And may His life-giving death mean more and more to me as the years go on. Amen.

 

Grace for Change – Galatians 5, RBT Notes, 22nd December

The Gospel brings freedom, the Law brings slavery. Paul is challenging the Galatians to make their choice, and to have the integrity to live in the light of their decision. We must do the same, too.
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Firstly, we need to be clear in our minds that trying to be justified by law and receiving justification through faith in Christ alone are opposites. Like oil and water, they do not mix. We must choose our salvation (v.4). And our choice will become clear to all: we will express our faith in love (v.6), or we will live bitter, fruitless lives.
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Paul doesn’t let up on the challenge he’s presenting us with. False teachers are a deadly menace (v.10). Paul’s Gospel, on the other hand, could not be more different from the message of these false teachers. It is in essence a message of love: the love of God in Christ which saves us through grace, and the love of God in Christ which empowers us to live new lives. Only as we grasp this Gospel can we love our neighbour as we love ourselves (v.14). Abandon this Gospel and we will destroy ourselves, and others (v.15).
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So, the call is to live in the Spirit (v.16). That is not some easy, floaty existence, but the gritty moment by moment choices of saying no to the sinful nature. Yes, we have to live in the conflict, but there is a victory, and it’s ours to win as we fight the battle (vv.16-18).
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How do we win? We know what the targets for our efforts are, the liberating beauty of love, joy, peace and so on (vv.22-23). We also reckon with the ugly destructiveness of what our sinful nature wants and does, and where it will lead us and others (vv.19-21). By the Spirit we grow more to hate sin, and to see the beauty of righteousness. We train ourselves to be godly, working out how to live loving and self-controlled lives, and praying seriously for the Spirit’s help to do so. Progress is often slow, fraught with many setbacks, but real, and ultimately glorious.
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Can do you it? Dare you not?
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A Prayer to Pray
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Lord, I love this picture of a life set free by Christ. To my shame, I am too in love with what my sinful nature wants. Teach me to study Jesus, the God-man filled with righteousness. Fix my sight on Him for my holy living, and equally on Him, when I fail. May I know that the One who calls me forgives me over and over, also has the grace for change. And may I truly be changed. Amen.

The Father’s Children – Galatians 4. RBT notes, 21st December

Are you a son or daughter, enjoying the privileges and responsibilities of your  Father’s house? Are you enjoying His love, and living with His smile? Or are you more like a servant, or even a slave, hedged about by rules, and by do’s and don’t’s? Paul is explaining in vv.1-5 that that is stark challenge of the Gospel. Embrace the Law, strive to keep it in your own strength, and you are still a slave. Embrace Jesus, and you discover you are made a child of God through grace alone. In that adoption you discover God’s Spirit, who enables you to claim the Father as your own. And this God has made you an heir with Christ (vv.6-7). Gospel grace offers nothing less.
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This is all that the Gospel brings you. And so, if this is all that the Galatians are rejecting, then you can understand how Paul can be so indignant and so concerned for them. They are turning away from pure  Gospel grace to “weak and miserable principles” (v.9). Paul reminds them that he has given himself to serving them with the gospel (vv. 12–14). He also reminds them of the joy and the sacrifice which marked their own lives, including friendship with Paul (vv. 15–16). Sadly, that looks like it’s all in the past. And then he warns them that these new favourite teachers, who teach no Gospel at all, are not friends, but actually wanting to influence the Galatians ” for no good” (v.17).
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We need to watch our hearts, and to be continually vigilant about what and who will listen to, and what we believe in the Christian life. Paul gives a picture to illustrate the mess the Galatians are in, in vv.20-31. His point is that for all of the favour the Galatians claim to have from God, their convictions find them no closer to God. They are like Hagar, and her offspring Ishmael, their lives characterised by slavery and fear (vv..24-27). They need to discover all over again the freedom which the Spirit brings through the Gospel (vv.28-31). They need, in other words, to face up to that Gospel all over again.
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Maybe we need the courage to look at ourselves, and to see whether we are really enjoying freedom with God, or are living more in fear of Him, and at a distance from Him. Let Galatians be your Gospel guide. Allow its truths to challenge, and allow them to sink in. Above all, see the freeness of grace in Jesus. He is your Redeemer. And all of His children are free.
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A Prayer to Pray
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Lord, how quickly I leave Gospel freedom for a tangle of rules, habits, false assurances and endless frustration and guilt. I claim Your Son! I cast all my sins and failure on Him. His triumph is given to me, and I am welcomed home. How beautiful, and how simple. Teach me, Father. Amen.

The Freedom of Grace – Galatians 3. RBT Notes, 20th December

Now, the fireworks. Paul has shown the explosions of the Gospel In his own life. He has described how Jesus Christ took hold of him, and turned upside-down everything Paul used to give value to. Now, knowing Christ has taken Him into an entire new world. And no man or creed will distract him from Christ and His service.

That is why Paul is so furious that the Galatians have been so bewitched by false teachers and their Law-based “Gospel”. As Paul shows them, the Galatians began with Christ and His Spirit, so how on earth can they transfer their faith and confidence to a message which depends upon their own efforts (vv.1-5)? And how could we?

To reinforce his argument, Paul references two great heroes of the Jewish nation, Abraham and Moses. Abraham, he points out, knew fellowship with God through faith alone (v.7), and thereby establishes a line for all who believe in God’s promises (vv.6-9).

The second hero is Moses. Referencing Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Paul shows how Moses condemns those who trust in keeping God’s Law, and therefore, salvation is found in Christ alone (vv.10-14). And yes, Law and Gospel agree perfectly. Christ is our great hope and confidence. In fact, He is the hope the Law was always preparing God’s people for. Understand the Law properly, and you discover that it is given to lead our guilty hearts all the way to the only One who can set those hearts free – Christ (vv.15-24).

Effort doesn’t bring you to know God as Father. Religion won’t, nor will nice, play-it-safe moral living. Christ alone will, and does. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (v.26). Mess about with religion, and you’re messing about with Jesus, and run the risk of losing Him. Jesus brings life, religion brings death. Trust in Christ, and discover God’s electing, saving love,

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A Prayer to Pray

Lord Jesus, You are the Father’s joy, gift and salvation. I am the Father’s object of pity, grace and love, as I turn my eyes to You. Give me a single eye, and an undivided heart to look to You, and to keep all my trust in You. Amen

Fool’s Gold – Galatians 2. RBT Notes, 19th December

What fool could take the inestimable riches and beauty of the Gospel and trade it in for something cheap, fake, powerless and totally worthless? I could, and probably so could you. There is something about our hearts which is so foolish that we could take God’s best and give it away in order to take something else. Those in the Galatia were doing just that. Paul writes this chapter, and this letter, to get our hearts valuing what is God’s precious truth for us. And that is the Gospel.

And so, he carries on with the story of his own Gospel journey. This is a crucially important part of that journey: Paul goes to meet with the other leaders of the church, and his concern is about whether they have compromised on the Gospel, and given to the pressures of a merely cultural religion (vv.1-5). To his relief, the meeting is a happy one, and the brothers recognise that Paul is a bona fide apostle to the Gentiles (v.7). They endorse his ministry, and all is well (vv.8–10). Why is he telling the Galatians this? Because he wants them to reflect on the fact the the Apostles themselves have recognised that he is as a minister of the true gospel.
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That means, therefore, that he will fight for the true gospel, even if the most surprising and influential people go soft on it. Look at Peter’s hypocrisy (vv.11-13). Peter’s Gospel seems to be only for the Jews, something Paul cannot countenance. This is obviously no Gospel at all, and it’s having a damaging influence (v.13). Paul bravely challenges Peter, that he is not “acting in line with the truth of the Gospel”(v.14). And Paul is right: no amount of law-keeping saves anyone. The Jews are as much in need of the Gospel of Jesus as the Gentiles, and the Gospel is exactly the same for both. We are justified alone by faith in Christ (v.16). Even if Peter should lose sight of that, Paul has the integrity to challenge him, and thereby to try to stop the rot in the church.
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Here is the heart of the gospel, then: we die to the law because Jesus has kept the law in our place. He gives us a brand new life through our faith. We live out that life every moment through faith in Him. He is our good news, our confidence, our life. There is literally nothing God is asking for from us except faith in Jesus and faith-driven living for him (vv.17-21).
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This is the glorious Gospel, powerful, free and true. A fool would swap it for a squalid, effort-based message and life. The Good News is that God offer his Gospel to those who are fools. Have you taken it? Are you holding onto it? If you are, never, ever let it go. By God’s grace you won’t.
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A Prayer to Pray
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Father, what an amazing Gospel. What an incredible plan You have revealed through Your Son, to give forgiveness and new life in Him. Thankyou for such a Saviour. Teach me to know and love Him more, and to fear ever disowning Him. Amen.

God’s True Community – Nehemiah 11. RBT Notes, 13th December

It’s all well and good building a city wall, and building the city, but it’s in vain unless people live there. Don’t picture Nehemiah’s Jerusalem as a hub of commerce and leisure. This city is just getting on its feet again. Life there is hard. Community, business, leisure, all will need to be started over. You could say, it would be easier to be a farmer living in one of the towns outside of the city, with your land and the opportunity to make money from it all close at hand, than a man working out how to survive in Jerusalem. This explains why it is that they had to call for volunteers to live in the city (v.1), and why those who did were commended by the people (v.2).
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Reflect on this a little. These men and their families who are listed throughout the chapter are putting people over profit. They are putting the needs of building God’s kingdom above their natural desire for personal comfort and their own ambitions. They are saying no to the natural and entirely justifiable desire to earn a better living from the land, and are opting for the hard life of building a community according to the purposes of God.
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Challenging? It should be to us as Christians. The parallels are clear with our discipleship, aren’t they? The kingdom depends on the sacrificial living of its servants. We can choose to live lives focused on personal gain or convenience – the Spirit will allow us to do that, but that is not His will, nor is it the work He delights to fill with His guidance and power. And on the last day, what will be giving account for? A life lived for others, or a life jealously guarded for ourselves, even for ourselves and our family? Heaven help us to trace the beauty of the servant life of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to beg for his Spirit to empower us for living for Him and His kingdom.
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One man stands out in particular in this list: Mattaniah is the director who led the people in thanksgiving and prayer (v.17). His job, you might say, was joy, and urging others to find and sing out their joy in God’s covenant grace. As priests of the new covenant, we have the same commission: joy is there in Christ. Joy is discovered in serving Him, putting ourselves at a stretch for Him, and seeking to enrich others through our self emptying. This is the upside-down kingdom we are privileged to belong to. Make sure that you long to find grace in Christ, so that you may share  the riches of that grace with others.
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A prayer to Pray
Lord, You were rich beyond all splendour, all of love’s  sake became so poor. And Your Word says that You left me an example, so that I may walk in Your footsteps. Fill me with a desire to bring lost people to Yourself, and to help to build a people into one body. Give me a driving ambition to serve Your people. Empower me to make that sacrifice. Amen.