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“But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” Galatians 3:23
Did you know that I am free to keep the Law? Did you know that God won’t condemn me one little bit for obeying anything in His word? I’m not Jewish, but if I want to abide by any of the holy days , or be circumcised (well, if I were a man), or refrain from eating pork and other foods, I can do it and I would not be a legalist. I wonder where we ever got the idea that You, Lord, didn’t give it all for our good? I wonder when we ever came to start believing that “the Law” was sin? And that couldn’t be further from the truth but it is one of the greatest hindrances to our testimony as believers and to the furthering of Your Good News.
What does it mean when Paul says, “before faith came”? We treat it as though Paul is saying, “Before Jesus came.” But that’s so not it. Before faith came means…hold out for it…it’s coming…before faith came. Faith, that word “pisteuo.” It’s that idea in Hebrew of listening and hearing and doing all being combined in one. Now, I’m going to look at Abraham again today because Paul points us back to Abraham. Abraham is thought of as the father of faith. Why? Because he not only exhibits it for us but he was the God chosen example and seed carrier of the promise. You, Lord, chose Abraham to be the father of faith and our covenantal forbear.
We see Your unconditional covenant to Abram established in Genesis 12:1-3. “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” But the point isn’t that all of the families of the earth are blessed because of what Abram does. We can be blessed because of the faithfulness of Your word and Your actions through Abram because through his seed, Your promise of Jesus was fulfilled. So Abram trusted in Your truth and Your promise. He lived in it. He walked in it.
But the truth is, before Abram was walking in Your truth and living in it, he was “kept under the law, shut up unto the faith…” The ESV version says “we were held captive under the law.” What law? Did God’s law hold us captive? Really? Or were we captive and held under our own law? If Scripture says that the “law” identifies our sin and shows us our need for God, that I can’t do it on my own, then does it really hold me captive? Or is it that there is another “law following” that keeps me from believing? What if there is this other law I can choose to follow that keeps me from knowing the truth, from believing in You, and living and walking in You?
The fact of the matter is that God’s way, that law, His word, His instructions, is seen as perfect. “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:25 ESV ) So maybe there is a “perfect law” and an imperfect law. Maybe there is one law that leads to life and another that leads to death. Maybe, when I follow Your ways, it’s labelled faith, and when I follow my own way or the world’s way I am shut out because I have no idea what living in faith is and it’s only by living in the truth of YOUR WORD and YOUR WAYS that I’m free. “Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. “ (Romans 7:13) Paul follows this by reminding us that the “law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.”
Now, the word for “law” here is “nomos.” And Paul calls it good. But nomos means different things in Scripture and you have to look at the context. Sometimes it’s used like law in “the laws of the land.” This is in the legislative sense. It can also mean “a rule or principle. The New Testament writers often use it to set forward standards and rules. But it is also used to mean the Torah, the written word of God that the New Testament writers would refer back to. So which meaning is used when? I mean, Jesus was accused of breaking Roman nomos by calling himself a king. Hmm. That would be legislative. Then there are other places where we know the Torah is being referred to directly. But lots of the time, Paul is using nomos to establish “a rule or principle”.
So what if it’s not about the Old Testament being the bad thing, or the archaic thing. What if it’s that the Old Testament and it’s principles are good, but there is this other rule that’s not good. What if there is this “law” in me working against me? And what if I don’t understand that this law is working against me until I start to understand Your law, Your commandments. Because then is when I realize I’ve been disobeying You. I’ve been setting my own “rules.” I’ve written my own “torah.” And Your Torah and mine aren’t the same. Your rule of practice and my rule of practice start out diametrically opposed. Your Torah is full of grace and mercy and You. My torah is just full of me, that’s it.
So the works I wind up doing, or that the Jews were guilty of, weren’t the works of obeying Your word. What we wind up being guilty of is living our own way, rewriting our own principles, and not living by Your law at all. It’s when I live by a twistedly human version of the “law” rather than by Your divine version. It’s when I make my own way of earning righteousness instead of Yours. That’s legalism. There were Jews who lived by their own form of legalism and there are people of every nationality today who live by their own form of legalism. See, God’s word isn’t grace. Grace is a gift we may receive. But Your word, Lord, in both the Old and New Testaments, Your precepts and principles only become realized as the gift they are after I receive Your grace.
The whole point is that when I want to run my life, I wind up twisting God’s “perfect law,” Your perfect instructions into something perverse, my own twisted principles. And so I think they prevent me and keep me from blessing. But the truth is that obedience leads to blessing because in Your instructions is the opportunity to come into relationship with the Source of Life. It’s not just about theology but it’s about relationship. It’s all about trust. Who will I trust? Do I really trust You? Or am I trusting myself? When Your word really becomes real for me, when I begin to see things Your way, sin becomes real for me. Sin becomes not only sin but disgustingly sin for me. Why? Because I start to agree with You and see things Your way. I’m not blinded to the truth and held back from it any more and taken captive by a lie.
I have some principles and rules set up in my house. And they’re not set up to make people’s lives harder. They’re set up to help things run smoothly, so that we can depend upon each other as a family. But some of those rules have to do with work, like washing the dishes, taking out the trash, cleaning up after yourself or pitching in for others. They aren’t just arbitrary rules. They help us be responsible for one another and show we care for each other. Ultimately, to obey the rules is a form of love for one another, you know, to show I care by making things nice for those around me. I wish that’s how those rules were looked at.
But they aren’t. They are looked at as chores, just tasks in a busy schedule. And since they are looked on as chores, often they are done quickly or not done at all, or they are done, but not from the heart. The whole concept is twisted. It’s just not understood. Therefore, we don’t reap the benefits of my law. I’m just seen as a taskmaster. And folk just live their own way without having to think of the next guy except when convenient. So something is lacking.
So am I trying to manipulate God’s favor or will I do what He’s commanded out of shear love for Him? Is it really a chore to love His principles and to follow them or learn about them? Is it a greater risk to not obey and follow than it is to obey? Is it worth not having a real relationship with You, Lord, just to do things my own way? I think that would be a tragedy.
“Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5;18) Yep, that’s “nomos.” Here it is about the first five books of the Hebrew Bible known as the Torah or Pentateuch. But it’s about Your instructions to us about how to live. They are all important to understanding Your values, Your heart.
So how do I look into God’s perfect law of liberty as James suggests? This “nomos eleutherias” or God’s instructions for living that set us free from slavery needs to be looked at in the right way. Remember who they were written for first? People who had grown up in slavery. They didn’t know how to be free. So now, God is teaching them and us how to live as free people. But we can’t just take a superficial look at Your word, Lord. It’s “parakypto”. That means to look intently from close by and it implies to bend closer to see. This is how You want me to look into all of Your word.
But it was never just about looking and observing only. Remember, the Hebrew idea is to pair what we see and learn then with what we do. “To study is to do.” No one learns by just hearing. We learn by doing and applying, even if that includes making mistakes along the way. It’s the doing that brings the blessing, not just the hearing or the seeing. I mean, I’ve seen pictures of beautiful mountain views, but when I’ve completed a really hard hike and gotten to the pinnacle of the mountain and look down on the view myself, that is a whole other story. That is experience. That is a different delight altogether. But I wouldn’t receive that blessing unless I had taken the steps to get there. Obedience is like that. The real blessing comes after we take the steps.
But the real blessing comes to the one who looks intently into Your word, into Your principles, and walks in them, and perseveres in them, who abides in them. It’s the word “parameinas.” It “also carries the meaning of surviving, not perishing, enduring or remaining alive.” (Skip Moen) So it’s not just that I keep myself faithful to Your word but that Your principles, that obedience in You, that trust in You, that faith being exhibited in You and Your word, keeps me. You give me life through them.
So if there are so many people looking for You, why don’t they find You? If there are so many people looking to find the truth, why don’t they find it? Why are so many people continually searching and never finding? Paul puts it well in Romans 9:31-32a “but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.” Israel and us nowadays have the same problem. We’re pursuing our own law of righteousness, not Yours. “If I’m good enough, God will accept me.” Hmm. Find that in Scripture for me. God says, “by FAITH you are saved.” Faith is the seeing and hearing and believing by acting upon God’s word and principles. See, You never change, Lord. And neither has Your word. We just need to drop our own perspectives and take up Yours in Christ. I can’t pick and choose what I need to obey or what I like to obey. Faith is trusting it all. Faith is dropping my way as the best and picking up Yours and running with it. And trusting in Jesus is the whole way to that faith. And Israel wouldn’t begin at the beginning with Jesus. What about me?
The contrast to this statement about Israel is in verse 30. Paul says that the Gentiles “not following righteousness have taken on righteousness, a righteousness but out of faith.” Israel was trying to be righteous their own way, using God’s law the way they wanted to. The Gentiles didn’t have God’s law to go by but somehow they took on a way of life that met God’s standards. They hadn’t started out pursuing God’s righteousness, but by trusting in faith, they found it! What they understood of God they obeyed. This is “emuna,” trust. It was a commitment to obey what they found out about God’s righteousness by committing both their hearts and hands. And where did they find this righteousness? In Jesus. And then the Holy Spirit taught the rest. The truth that the Israelites had been prepared for through Scripture was received more readily by some of the Gentiles than those it had been preached too for centuries!
I guess it all comes down to what I see as sin. Is sin just the bad stuff I do or the direct commands I disobey? Or is sin acting contrary to Your character, Lord? I tend to think that Your word supports the latter notion. John believed that “every one who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4) Remember that “nomos” meaning “law” or God’s word or principles and such? Any one who isn’t living by Your way, living according to Your principles, which are established according to Your person, Your character, is outside of Your way, outside the law, living their own “law”, their own set of principles, designing their own character to live by, but it’s not Yours and to You it just doesn’t count as law at all. But Paul tells me some good news in Romans 8:2, “…the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
I wasn’t set free from anything You said in Your word. I’ve been set free from my own way that leads to death and separation because it leads me further from You. See, there are laws that apply to everyone. Like gravity. Let me share how Skip Moen shares this. “’For the universal rule of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the universal rule of sin and of death.’ What does this mean? Paul is saying that, as a result of the resurrection, the general rule-application of the God of life, exemplified and executed in Yeshua [Jesus] the Messiah, has overthrown the general rule-application of sin and death. Where once sin always resulted in death (a general rule), now Yeshua’s act has overthrown that rule. Sin can lead to repentance and repentance leads to life. Sin no longer has a final grip on you.” I don’t have to live by my character and my rule. I can live in and under the rule of God, in and under Your character!
Grace, working in me through Your character in me by the resurrection of Christ, does what no set of written laws could do. They could show me You and my need for You but no law is powerful enough to change me. But as I understand the treasure of Your laws and allow them to work in me, they open me up to see my need and desperation for You. I still have rules for living by but now I follow Your Kingdom rules. I’m learning to understand them. I don’t have to twist them or throw them away. The whole law still matters. “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) Hmm. That appears to be more than one word. What if that one word is the word “like”, “kamoka” if we go back to the Leviticus verse this is referring to? What if we are to act in parallel to how we’ve been acted upon? And if the One who demonstrated love to us said that He did not come to abolish the law but that it would be fulfilled, then maybe I ought to follow His example. And it wasn’t just an example of head knowledge. Jesus, You lived out Your word. All of it. You showed us what a righteous perspective looked like and acted like and thought like in real life. And that’s want I want to live out and live in.
All I know is that as I trust in You and live according to Your leading and Your ways, sin doesn’t have to be master over me. I don’t live under that law, under my own law, any more. I live according to Your law and it is covered by grace and overflows with it. I love living under the rules of Your Kingdom. Your promises are comforting and encouraging and strengthening. Your rules breathe hope and life and love and truth and so much more. They all burst with a deeper knowledge, a deeper experience of You.
Well, Lord, I just spent three or four days thinking about the value of living by and in Your law, Your principles, Your rules, Old and New Testament. And I love the thought. And I’m so glad for the times You’ve had me find out things and learn more about Old Testament holy days and the things I’ve never experienced because I’m not Jewish. Because every time I dug in, I learned more about You, and You drew me deeper in love and relationship and obedience. And it became joy to obey and not a chore. And there is never a day in any of our lives where we won’t have the opportunity to grow deeper in Your grace and learn more about You. I am grateful beyond words that You saw fit to give Your life so that I might have life in You. And life in You is a life of obedience, because obedience is showing that I am like You in every way.