The Gift of Belonging
Passage: Galatians 4:4–4:7
The Gift of Belonging
Way of Grace Church
December 28th, 2008
I'd like you to consider with me this morning the consequence of Christmas. No, I'm not talking about a house that needs to be clean, or a waistline that needs to be minimized, or thank you notes that need to be writte, or decorations that need to be packed away.
I'd like us to consider the consequence of Christmas by consider the word "belong". Consider the meaning of this word. If I said, "to whom does this book belong?", you'd understand exactly what I meant, wouldn't you? If I told you, "you don't belong here", again, you'd understand what I was trying to say.
This past week as my children played with the new toys they'd received for Christmas, we were using the word belong quite a bit. "No, no, no, that doesn't belong to you. Let him see it, or, give it back to her."
But what if I asked a child, "To whom do you belong?" How do you think he or she might answer? But what if I were to ask this very same question to a slave, "to whom do you belong?" Is my question the same? Well, technically yes. But is the meaning of the word ‘belong' the same in both instances? Well, in some sense yes.
The difference here, with the child and the slave, lies not necessarily in the word ‘belong' , but in the person being addressed. But even the difference in this lies not in the distinctiveness between people. The difference comes from the fact that only one is being addressed as a person.
You see, a slave is a piece of property. And so, as would be the case with any piece of property, whether it be your car, or your TV, or even your toothbrush, the question, "to whom do you belong", is always a question about ownership. Nothing more, nothing less.
But with the child, the question, "to whom do you belong", is a question concerned with identity.
The difference here is between an object and an offspring. Between chattel and a child. Between being bought and being begotten. Between having a possessor and having a parent.
And so the difference ultimately lies in the reality of one's circumstances.
To whom do you belong?
II. The Passage: "So You Are No Longer a Slave" (4:4-7)
I'd like you turn with me in your bibles to Galatians 4:4-7.
Follow along with me as I read:
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
We find here that the Apostle Paul is using in this passage, the two images with which we began, the child and the slave. And what he says here about these two, even though they are words penned almost 2000 years ago, in another time, place, language, and culture, what he says is extremely significant even for us today.
Let's first go back and understand the original context in which these thoughts were composed. We need to ask why these words were written to the churches in Galatia, and how they fit into the flow of all that the Apostle has written in this letter.
Galatia was a large region in central Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. We know from Acts that Paul helped established churches in this region.
Paul is compelled to write to these new believers because as he says in chapter 3, verse 1 of this letter, it seems they had been bewitched! It seems that certain men, certain teachers had infiltrated the church after Paul's departure and were, as Paul puts it in chapter 1, verse 7, they were disturbing the faith of the believers in Galatia.
Here was the issue: The Galatian believers were beginning to embrace the first real heresy to confront the early church, a heresy that arose because of the church's origins within Judaism.
You see there were certain Jews who had claimed to believe in Christ and His gospel, but who were in effect saying to the Gentiles, "If you want to become a Christian, then you must first become a Jew. You must keep the Law of Moses."
Now we might ask, if Paul and Barnabas were Jews themselves, why did they oppose this teaching so strongly?
Well, Paul and Barnabas understood the true gospel of Jesus, and because of this they understood this simple formula: A salvation that arises from [faith in Christ] + [anything else]= no salvation at all; it is simply a false teaching, a distortion of the truth.
Eternal life is gained only through faith, by grace. Nothing else! Not even through the Law of Moses. This of course doesn't make obedience to God irrelevant, but instead makes obedience the fruit of heart transformed by grace, not a prerequisite for it.
Starting back in chapter 3, Paul begins to show that for Abraham, before the law, righteousness came through faith. And if you are in Christ, and if Christ is the ‘seed' of Abraham, the foretold recipient of Abraham's blessing, then you are heirs to that promise.
Paul tells them that the Law was ultimately given, not as a ladder to help us reach God, but as restraint on humanity's sin and a device to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that men and women were incapable, because of sin, incapable of complete obedience to God's laws, the very righteousness God requires. The Law given to show us how much we need a savior!
And all of that brings us to our chapter this morning.
III. The Temptation to Go Back
In these opening verses of chapter 4 Paul begins to introduce an image by which he hopes to convey to the Galatians the danger of the choices they've made. That image is the image of the slave.
Now to understand how Paul uses this image of the slave we need to be aware that the churches to whom Paul is writing were composed of mixed congregations, that is, they were made up of both Jews and non-Jews, the Gentiles. But the Gentiles were probably the majority.
If we keep this mixture in mind, it makes it a little easier to follow Paul's argument in these verses. Notice that Paul begins the chapter with an illustration, an illustration that he'll apply in verse 3. Paul writes in verses 1 and 2:
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.
Now in v. 3, notice that the personal application of this illustration is discussed with the first person plural, ‘we'.
In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.
What Paul is saying here is this: When God's people Israel were in their spiritual immaturity, they were kept under the bondage of the Law. And thus the child was very much like a slave in that respect. He says, we as Jews were held in bondage under the elementary principles, the basic principles of this world. Now we have to ask here, "why in the world does he describe the Law in these terms?" Good question!
Well, take a look down to verse 9. Do you see the same phrase there? But look at the context here of verses 8-11:
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
Who is he addressing now? He's now talking to the gentile converts. He says, "You were once slaves to all these false gods, Zeus and Aphrodite and Artemis. Do you see what he's trying to say here? He's saying to the Galatians, "Would you subject yourself once again to these false gods? Of course not. But you're doing the exact same thing by subjecting yourself to the yoke of the Law!"
Now wait a minute you're probably saying "How can you compare the Law of God to the worship of false idols?" Another good question! Let's clarify. The issue here is not the Law itself, it is the yoke of the Law, that is, the Law when it is used as a device for salvation. Listen to what Paul said at the end of verse 9:
Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? To what? The pagan gods? No, to these elementary principles of the world.
Now we have to stop here and ask, how does this connect with us? Have you been tempted to worship pagan idols? Or have you felt drawn to adhere religiously to the Law of Moses? Well, that's not really the point, is it? What Paul is saying here is that there is a problem common to all men and women, Jew and Gentile. There is a problem with you and me. There is a problem with the human heart.
No matter where you are with God this morning, all of us have one thing in common: we've all been influenced by the ‘elementary principles' of the world; all of us have.
So what are these principles?
They are those basic principles found in every human heart, and thus, found in every human culture. Wherever people are found, you will find these principles.
Specifically, they are those principles that shape how you and I deal with ultimate things. These principles might be seen in how we think about God. They might be seen simply in how we think about the meaning of our life.
But in the end, all of these thoughts are untied by one word. Actually one letter: "I". The elementary principles of the world revolve around our human impulse to be the center of our universe. And when we are the center, we develop and embrace steps and methods and rituals and deeds and affirmations that make it possible for us to deal with that longing inside of us, that longing that we just cannot shake. A longing for ultimate things: ultimate love, ultimate peace, ultimate significance.
Of course, the Bible tells us that longing is our longing for God.
You see, the elementary principles of this world, of the human heart, drove both Jews and Greeks to embrace the idea that if I just follow the rules, these rules, my rules, I will be right...I will be at peace...I will find nirvana...enlightenment...heaven.
It all comes down to what WE can do. Whether it was offering a sacrifice to the God of Israel or offering a sacrifice to Zeus, it was all the same when the human heart was using such acts as a ladder to heaven.
What Paul is telling the Galatians here is, "Don't be fooled by the yoke of the Law. Yes, the Law is good because it was given by God. But the yoke of the Law, the idea that the following the law will make you right with God, that's the same old pig dressed up in different clothes. That's the very thing you rejected when you first heard the message of Jesus. You once came to the end of yourself. So why do you want to go back to the beginning?"
Where are you this morning when it comes to ultimate things? Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, the question is the same: "To whom do you belong?"
It's easy for us to depend on steps and methods and rituals and deeds and affirmations, isn't it? Even when you are a follower of Jesus, you find yourself tempted to go back, don't you?
Like the Israelites who wanted to go back to Egypt when things got tough in the wilderness, after God has redeemed them from slavery through Moses, we are often tempted to go back to living in our own strength.
If and when we live in that mindset, that it all comes down to WE can do, then even though we imagine ourselves to be in charge, we are in fact...slaves.
We are slaves to those elementary principles of the fallen human heart. Yes, we belong, but we belong as a piece of property.
IV. The Gift of Belonging
But remember what we saw in verses 4-7:
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we (1st person plural) might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you (second person plural) are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our (third person plural) hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
I suspect all of us experienced gift-giving a few days ago on Christmas. And I suspect that many of us talked about the gift that God gave to us: Jesus Christ. But that gift was given, Paul tells us, so that another gift could be possible: the gift of belonging.
Paul, in trying to convince the believers in Galatia of the foolishness of their choices, he makes the contrast as black and white as he can. He doesn't simply say here, "Don't be a slave, be free!" He says instead, "you're not slaves, you are children of God". You are sons and daughters of the Creator of the Universe. Don't forget that. Why would you want to be a slave again?"
Paul tells his readers, at just the perfect time, the first Christmas was celebrated. God sent His son into the world. A Son who was to be like us, born of a woman like you and me. Born under the elementary principles of this world, like you and me.
But unlike you and me, this one was without sin. Unlike you and me, this one was sent to redeem us, literally to "buy out of", that is, to buy you and me out of slavery, whether Jew or Gentile.
And if we are in the Son, simply by who we trust, not what we do, then we partake of His sonship as well. Look how explicitly Paul states the reason for Christ's birth, His suffering on the cross, and His resurrection. He did it that we might receive the adoption as sons.
I'm sure all of us have heard, at one time or another, all of humanity described as ‘God's children." Well that's simply not true. We have to be adopted by God, because apart from Him, we are nothing but orphan slaves who are content to live in our own darkness, but miserably lonely at the same time, destined for an eternity where this misery is only intensified.
But God offers us adoption through faith in His Son. He offers us belonging.
We all know as human beings, that our desire to belong is one of the most basic desires we possess. It drives so much of what we say and do and think. Just consider how much it hurts to be rejected by others. How much it hurts to be unloved. All of us want to belong.
Conversely, consider how it feels, or how it felt, to be held by your mother or father. To be appreciated by a friend. Consider how it feels to hear "I love you" from a spouse. We search for a sense of belonging in so many places: in the context of family, in the context of romance, in the context of friendship, even in the context of vocation.
And yet all of these contexts are filled with the passing things of this world, the shifting sands of human character. Even the richest relationships cannot satisfy that longing for ultimate things, the spiritual hunger that lies within each of us. They're not supposed to.
In the end, all of us will find, you haven't already, that what all of us are longing for is just to go home. What we have been searching for all along is that gift of belonging that only God the Father can give. For God gives us more than just the forgiveness of our wrongs, he gives us more than eternal life, he gives us His name. He makes us His own; not because of anything we've done. We deserve death for living for the elementary principles of this world, for living for ourselves, for our selfishness, for our faithlessness. But God, because of Jesus' sacrifice, offers us the gift of adoption. He calls us to be His children.
Remember what the Apostle John exclaimed: See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (I John 3:1)
Paul is equally astounded as we see here in Galatians 5. For the Apostle Paul, a Jew trained in the finest rabbinical circles of first-century Judaism, to address God as ‘abba', literally, "papa", would have been simply astounding. But if we belong to Christ, through faith in Christ, then we cry out according to the Spirit of Christ.
So Paul brings our situation down to these two contrasting images. He warns us: "Do you want to be enslaved again? Do you want to be simply a belonging? Or do you want to belong to God?"
Listen to how the English author C.S. Lewis expressed this contrast:
"If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
I pray that this morning, all of us will know the joy of belonging to God as His children. That is the ultimate consequence of Christmas.