This is the second installment of a three-part New Year’s Hear the Music series on Paul’s coming-of-age images in Galatians 3:23–4:11. You might want to read that Scripture first. You can read the first installment here.
Ringing hand bells in high-school ended up being the last time I was taken in by my participation in music-making. By college, I might have been obeying the score, but I couldn’t hear the music anymore.
Apparently, neither could the Christians in Galatia. Paul had led the Galatians to faith in Jesus, but now he’s hearing some disturbing news. Jewish believers are teaching Gentile converts to practice Judaism, to obey the Jewish law.
On the face of it, this makes sense. If you’re going to believe in the Jewish Messiah, how should you behave? How better than to practice the Jewish law that he himself was born into?
The problem is that practicing Jewish law, like practicing any other kind of law, mostly functions to point out what you should and should not do. Obeying the law doesn’t really call forth from you the person you should be. Through faith in Jesus, God had redeemed the Galatians to righteousness. This wasn’t the small matter of keeping God’s laws, impossible though that is. This was the vast matter of hearing the call of his heart.
Paul explains it this way. God wants his children to be like him and so to act like him. But as any parent—or former child—knows, children have to be taught to behave. So God hired a nanny for his people, a set of rules called the law. Nanny Law continually redirected his children from their bad behaviors back to Godly behaviors. She taught the children the rules for acting like their Father. And she kept them from running into traffic and other self-destructive behaviors until the day Dad decided they were of age to inherit the family business and the family fortune.
However, while Nanny Law could teach them right from wrong, she couldn’t generate God-like motivations because she couldn’t give them their Dad’s spirit. So Nanny Law’s job was to release the children into the Child, the Son of God, which made them inherit faith without making them pass the ABCs of Judaism.
Still, when Paul says, “If you’ve clothed yourselves with Christ, you are Abraham’s heirs”—that is, faith’s heirs—he is, nevertheless, alluding to two Hebrew traditions. The first one involves changing clothes to demonstrate a change of spirit. You probably remember the chorus from Isaiah 61:10, “He gave us, beauty for ashes; the oil of joy, for mourning; a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness.”
The second Hebrew tradition is similar, a derivative, but less obvious. It involves the inheriting child, usually the first-born son, donning a garment that his father gives him as a sign that he is heir. You remember how irritated Joseph’s brothers were because of the “coat of many colors” that Jacob gave him? Joseph’s older brothers didn’t plot his murder and eventually sell him into Egyptian slavery because Dad gave Joseph stripes, and they only got polka-dots. No. They hated him because their father gave Joseph the family inheritance coat. It signaled that when Jacob died, Joseph would receive a double portion of Jacob’s wealth and Joseph would rule the family.
So when Paul suggests that the Galatian believers clothed themselves in Christ, put on Christ with their baptism, he’s claiming more than initiation. He’s claiming investiture, with all the honors, rights and privileges pertaining thereto. Putting on Christ is the outward sign that believers have inherited Christ’s character, his ability, his joy in doing the family business.
Jesus, not only did the Father’s will by obeying Nanny Law’s rules, he lived his Father’s life as well. Because Jesus reached his majority and was released from the regency of the rules, we DO too, through faith in what he accomplished.
It doesn’t matter if we’re Jews or even Jew-ish by obeying the laws of Judaism. We might be Jews. We might be Gentiles. Those distinctions don’t disappear at baptism. It’s just that they don’t define whether or not we inherit Christ’s own character in the eyes of our Father or his family.
Think about it. When someone puts on a purple choir robe and climbs into the choir loft, we don’t care if you’re Swedish or Somali. We stop thinking about whether you’re a sewage-treatment specialist or a CEO. What we want to know is, “Can you sing the music?” We came to church to hear some “Herald Angels Sing.” Male and female doesn’t even matter. If the choir director need tenors to round out the sound, and you can sing tenor, then you sing tenor—whether you’re a man or woman.
You put on the purple robe, you get to sing the song.
Now anybody who’s every stood next to me in worship will be thinking, “Girl, you can pile on all the purple you want; you’ll never have a singing voice.”
No more than a bath washes away your sin. Or donning the little white gloves helps you hear the music. Or wearing an Elsa costume insulates you from the dead cold of winter. Or, for that matter, dressing up like Dale Earnhardt fits you for speed.
You can dress up all you want; you ain’t drivin’ no Thunderbird unless Daddy give you the keys. And then you still have to obey the speed limit or else Nanny Law be hauling your backside back home.
Paul’s aware of this. Later in the book, he’ll point out, “You were called to freedom. Only don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence (5:13).
Too much freedom is hardly the problem here, though. In an effort to look the part, the Gentile Galatians have simply traded their pagan rules for Jewish rules. They started out religiously obeying the expectations of their society—keep their curbside clean, drive cautiously, work hard—but now they’ve added the religious expectations—attend Wednesday night church, dress their boys in bathrobes for the Christmas pageant, and serve on church committees.
But as far as Paul’s concerned, it all amounts to the same thing. Their New Year’s resolutions read like a list of soulless rules they won’t keep. Instead of living the deep, substantial, robust life of the Spirit, they’re ticking off boxes on a to-do list. He taught them to read Shakespeare and they’ve gone back to reciting their ABCs. When he left, they were ringing “Carol of the Bells,” but now they’ve bought a Chevy. He laments, “I’m afraid I labored over you in vain.”
Think about a time last year when your faith devolved into a task-list or your attempts to do the right thing felt like vain labor. During those seasons, what was the longing of your heart? How does your inheritance of Christ’s character and power and joy impact both the longing and the labor?
Check back tomorrow for Hear the Music, part 3: Sing the Song.