The covenant roots of Christianity, which are intrinsically Jewish, help connect the Testaments in our thinking. Keeping the Testaments connected is essential for us to grasp how God's Word operates, and how it shapes in us a one-of-a-kind worldview.
Christians need to understand the big picture of the Bible
as the story of God
rescuing His creation
by saving individuals
who become his people
to bear his Spirit-presence in the world
and assist him in his redemptive project.
Can these big picture ideas really help us read and live the Bible? Let's use a familiar verse in Galatians 3:6 as a test case; Abraham "believed God, and it was counted [reckoned, accounted] to him as righteousness."
Paul's letter to the Christians in Galatia, would find its way to other congregations in Asia Minor and eventually to us. It is a treasure chest of historical detail, containing some of his most autobiographical sketches. His writing is chock-full of memorable quotes about being a disciple like this one near the end, "far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."
However, overshadowing everything else is a doctrinal dual between the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles and several Jewish-Christian teachers disrupting the fledgling churches. The issue is whether non-Jewish believers were to live according to the Torah as interpreted in Second Temple Judaism. Depending on how one dates the Galatian letter, the “works of the law” controversy had already or would soon be settled by the Apostles in Jerusalem (see Acts 15).
More importantly for us, Paul reasons out why he is against this approach as a means for the justified ones to grow in grace; it can create an artificial barrier between the Father and his children which hinders the freedom necessary for ongoing regeneration (5:1). It amounts to a subtle but significant shift from Jesus as the source, to someone else (6:13). Paul both refutes this “different gospel” (1:6) and answers the sanctification question by citing our text concerning Abraham.
"So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." (3:5-6)
Look carefully, and you will notice that textual translators use tools like quotation marks, all caps, or footnotes, to indicate that Paul is quoting, in this case, from the Torah. By putting this text back in its Genesis 15 context, we begin to discern that he is not just using a Bible verse to support his point; the verse is his point! Paul wants his readers then (and now) to grasp a simple but profound truth. To see how it works, we need to go back to the original story.
The Book of Genesis is a literary masterpiece designed in two major parts: the first half (1-11) recounts human origins and the downward spiral of sin, the second half (12-50) reveals what God intends to do about both the problems and their source. The divine call of Abram and the promises given to him in chapter 12 serve to connect and give purpose to both halves of the book, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3)
After several adventures and confirmations of the original promises, we find our hero at night, plagued by fear because he has no son to help further the work of El-Shaddai. In an unforgettably intimate scene, our good Father initiates a conversation, the first in which Abram speaks directly to him. Moving the discussion outside of the tent, God says to the patriarch, "'Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.' And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness." (Gen 15:5-6)
Skimming the surface of the text leaves us with the impression that Paul wants Christians to believe in God like Abram. Belief in God is certainly necessary and implied here. But a more informed reading reveals that Abram believed something specific about God, something that Paul finds compelling and relevant to those in the New Covenant.
The problem is not childlessness but what being childless meant to Abram in light of God’s promises. Having no male heir caused Abram to despair because God’s plan to include him as part of the solution to the sin problem would be derailed. The Father restates and reinforces the good news and Abram heard it with faith (Gal 3:5). As he gazed upon the myriad of stars hung by a faithful Creator, he again glimpsed the heart of the Holy One who so loves his world that he had enacted a plan—both merciful and just—to redeem fallen humanity. And on that night Abram believed, again, that somehow his family had a part to play.
"Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.' So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." (Gal 3:7-9)
The crucifixion of Jesus, says Paul, is the core of the Gospel and the only means of salvation (1:3); he justifies those who believe in him (1:16). But wait, he goes on to say, there is more. Our crucified Lord, now risen, is the source of the sanctifying Holy Spirit, "so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles—so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith!" (3:14)
So how are New Covenant believers to grow in the grace and knowledge of our heavenly Father? For Paul, Jesus is the answer. He is the sole source of both our salvation and sanctification.
By the Spirit, Jesus—as he was with his original disciples—is here to lead and instruct us according to God's Word now written upon our hearts. "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh." (5:16)
The Spirit who gave Jesus the power to do good and heal those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38) now indwells us and wants to do the same through us. "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (5:14)
If you look with eyes of faith, you will see that these kingdom realities are taking place around the world under the same stars in which Abram foresaw us. Here is one such example.
I heard the following account first-hand from the missionary involved in the events. The story still moves me after fifteen years. Trained by Brother Andrew (of Bible smuggling fame), teams planted churches throughout Russia after the Iron Curtain fell in 1991. My missionary friend stood preaching in one such church when a woman interrupted the gathering by rushing to the front and falling before him. Holding onto his shoes, she wept uncontrollably.
He stopped speaking and gazed around the congregation who stared back at him with universal disdain. No one moved. One of the local church leaders motioned to him and said that he should not let her touch him, she is a prostitute. Flooded with compassion, he knelt down, lifted her tear-stained face in his hands and said these words, "Daughter, Jesus forgives you and frees you from your sins." The crowd gasped and gossiped as she hugged him in gratitude and hastily fled the scene.
Years later his travels brought him back to minister amidst the same congregation. After the last meeting, when almost everyone had gone, a woman approached him shyly. She had been at every gathering, but up close he was touched by the softness of her eyes and the beauty of her bearing. After exchanging pleasantries, she said, "You do not recognize me, do you?" Before he could answer, she identified herself as the weeping woman from his previous visit. He was delighted that she had been responsive to the discipleship efforts of the church. "Oh no," she said, "they wanted nothing to do with me, can you blame them?" Tears now filled the missionary's eyes as he listened to her explain how, ever since that night, the Spirit of Jesus had walked and talked with her, teaching her what it means to be a woman, a daughter, and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. The change was so complete that she now attended the congregation and cared for the needy in the community without being recognized.
“For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Gal 5:5-6)
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