Sermon: The Covenant of Abraham

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Galatians, chapter 3, beginning in verse 1. Galatians 3, beginning in verse 1. Galatians is in the New Testament – Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians. If you don’t have a Bible with you this morning, please feel free to take one from the pew in front of you and leave it open as we read and study God’s word together. This morning it will be especially important to have a Bible in front of you, as we will be going back and forth to a few different passages in hopes of better hearing what God has to say to us this morning. Galatians 3, beginning in verse 1.

But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me:

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit are you trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain – if it really was in vain? So again I ask: Does God give you his Spirit and work his miracles among you by the works of the law or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and proclaimed the gospel in advance to Abraham: “all nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith and blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

For those who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith, on the contrary, it says, “the person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance were depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise, but God in his grace gave it to Abraham though a promise.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Has anyone ever gotten a new car? Or, at least, a new-to-you car? As soon as people find out, they always want you to tell them about it. Pastor Olga and I got a new van a couple months ago. With a growing family, my little blue Jetta was not cutting it on long road trips. We purchased a 2010 Honda Odyssey. Metallic Grey. More bells and whistles than we wanted – back-up camera, power doors, DVD player, something like 47 cup holders. It’s fun and we’ve really enjoyed it.

Vern – I remember hearing that you had quite a car on your first date with Sue? What was it? (’69 Corvette, Green, Automatic, ~$5000)

Ron – you guys have a convertible right, a mustang? (yes) year? (2005) Stick or Automatic? (Automatic)

Notice what neither Ron, Vern, or I said in our descriptions of our vehicles. Vern didn’t say, “You know what I loved about my Corvette, it had 4 tires, made of rubber, too.” And Ron didn’t tell us that their mustang has one pedal on the right that makes the car go, and one next to it that makes the car stop. And you didn’t hear me get all giddy to tell you that not only can our van go forward, but it can go backwards. Wow.

You are all looking at me a little funny, because no one would say that. No one would say that because we have all been in a car before. Everyone around here knows they have four wheels, pedals, reverse. Because we assume that ‘that’s how a car works,’ we never had to mention it.

We don’t regularly talk about the things we assume. We simply assume it and talk with more detail about other things. We talk about make, model, color when it comes to a car. If we are knowledgable, we might go into the type of engine and various other specifications the car has. But we don’t talk about the number of tires, because we have all been in a car before.

The passage we heard this morning in Galatians, and a fair few other passages in the New Testament, can feel a bit like someone talking about the engine of their Corvette, but we’ve got our learners permit. Paul assumes that we, just like the original readers, are intimately familiar with the Old Testament. He throws out Scripture references like a motorhead throws out facts about an engine and it is easy to feel a little overwhelmed and confused. Especially when, if we are honest, we don’t know the Old Testament near as well as we might.

How do we understand Galatians 3, when Paul references 7 scripture passages in 10 verses?

I want us to do this together. We are going to walk through this passage together and when we get to the passages Paul is referencing, we are going to chase the passages down. No, you are. I need some help. Lindy, would you mind being my helper for a bit? I have the handheld microphone here and I’m going to give it to you. When I ask us to look up a passage, I’m going to ask for volunteers to simply read the passage for us. Would you be willing to hand out the microphone so I don’t have to be running back and forth around the sanctuary? Thanks, Lindy.

You heard that right. You may be asked to read. You will be okay. We are all in this together.

Okay, so let’s start in the first five verses of Galatians 3. Paul is upset. In the first few chapters, we heard how false teachers had made their way into the Galatian church and taught them that in order to be a Christian, they needed to be fully obedient to the law of Moses. Paul has already argued against these teachings, but he continues that argument in our passage this morning in two ways. First, he appeals to the experience of the Galatians in coming to Christ, and second, he roots their experience in God’s grand plan of redemption as stated long ago in the Old Testament.

First, he appeals to their experience of coming to Christ. Verse 2: I would like to know just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard?

Paul is asking the Galatians, and in turn, us, to remember how we came to know Christ. Did we become Christians and receive the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit living in us by obeying all the rules of the Old Testament or by believing that Jesus died for us? Even if you have grown up knowing God your whole life, I hope you know that we, just like them, become Christians by believing in Jesus Christ. As a side note, Paul is telling us that everyone who believes in Jesus receives the Holy Spirit. Everyone.

This was the experience of the Galatians, this is our experience. We come to know Christ, to receive eternal life, receive the Holy Spirit, receive the blessings of God, by believing in Christ who was crucified for us. It was not by doing right, but by trusting in Jesus.

And the whole rest of our passage, Paul is showing us from Scripture that this experience of salvation is how God has always done things.

Verses 5 and 6:

So again I ask: Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Paul tells them – us – that we came into faith by believing, we share that experience with our father Abraham. He does this by quoting Genesis 15. Let’s look it up. Stick a finger in Galatians and flip back with me to the first book of the Bible – Genesis. Genesis 15.

Genesis 15:1-6

After this, the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the Word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Excellent. Quick note: When the Bible quotes the Bible, it almost always has the context in mind. So that is why it is helpful to look up the original verse and look at what is around it. Again, Paul assumes we have been in a car before, so he doesn’t have to say everything. Plus, paper was extremely expensive, so if he could communicate the whole passage with just a few words, all the better. It’s a bit like saying ‘One small step for man’ and expecting your hearers to finish in the rest. If you don’t that one, ask someone during coffee.

So when Paul say that Abraham “believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” he has the whole passage in mind. So what happens in Genesis 15. At the beginning God does what? (Makes a promise to Abram).

Then what does Abram do? (First, questions, God repeats promise, then Abram believes)

When Abram believes, what happens? – God credited it to him as righteousness. Abram received a promise from God. He received this promise and God’s blessing by what? Believing. Just like us. Flip back to Galatians. That is why the next thing Paul says is:

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. If we believe, we join in the promises God gave to Abraham. God as our shield, we as his children. Just as in our world, God’s blessing and salvation are an inheritance that is passed down to the family of Abraham. But that family is not only or primarily biological. Look at the next verse: Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “all nations will be blessed through you.”

That Gospel promise comes from Genesis 12. Put a finger in Galatians and flip there with me if you will. Genesis 12.

Genesis 12:1-3

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.”

This is God’s initial call to Abram/Abraham – the first promise he makes and it includes that the nations – that is, those who are not-biological descendants of Abraham – will be blessed through him. This promise and the other promises to Abraham were known as “the covenant of Abraham.” These promises of blessing and inheritance, which ultimately point to God’s salvation, were given to Abraham as a promise by God. This promise established a relationship between God and Abraham and Abraham’s descendants. This relationship was known as a covenant. And Paul reminds us that Abraham entered this covenant by believing.

But the promise to Abraham was not the only time God established a covenant. He also made a covent with Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai – a covenant of the law. This covenant promised that the people would live as a nation in the land God had promised if they lived according to God’s ways. This was given out of love and God’s desire for Israel to be a light to the nations. But it was a covenant relationship that centered on obedience. And disobedience forms a breach in the relationship – a curse.

The next passage Paul references comes in the context of a series of curses, we will only get the last few for context. It is Deuteronomy 27. Again, stick a finger in Galatians and let’s flip there. 5th book in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy – Deuteronomy 27.

Deuteronomy 27:23-26

“Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his mother-in-law.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

“Cursed is anyone who kills their neighbor secretly.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

“Cursed is anyone who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

“Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

In the Sinai Covenant, the Law Covenant, obedience brings blessing and breaking any part of the law brings curse – separation from God.

Paul sets up a contrast between two ways, two covenants – faith and law – Moses and Abraham – the Covenant Promise entered into by faith and the Covenant on Sinai that requires obedience. These covenants are given by the same God. God is not schizophrenic and next week we will look at the connection between these two more deeply, but today, Paul wants us to ask which covenant we entered when we became a Christian.

Paul quotes two Scriptures that highlight the differences.

Habakkuk 2:4

See, the enemy is puffed up;

his desires are not upright –

but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness –

The rest of us, let’s look at Leviticus 18. Third book in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus.

Leviticus 18:1-5

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord.”

In Habakkuk, we live by faith. In Leviticus, we live by obedience.

The contrast between law and faith, between believing and obedience is the same fundamental question as last week:

Are we saved by being a good person and doing the right thing or by believing in Jesus?

But this time Paul argues in the context of God’s overarching plan of salvation through his covenant relationship with his people. It is the same question put in a different way: Are we brought into the covenant with Abraham or on Sinai?

Only one of them is a covenant that brings salvation. Becoming children of Abraham is not about biology, but about faith. We inherit the promises of God’s blessing and salvation the same way Abraham did, by believing God, which means believing in Christ crucified, Christ who became a curse for us, to free us from having to enter through our obedience.

The only way to enter the blessing of Abraham, to enter salvation, to be free from the curse of the law is through the one who became a curse for us. Last reference to look up, I promise. Deuteronomy 21 – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 21.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23

If someone guilty of a capitol offense is to be put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

When Jesus went to the cross, he was hung on a pole, a tree, a piece of wood. And in doing so, he took on our curse and freed us from from it. And we are told that Jesus did all this so that the Gentiles, so that we, could receive the blessings of Abraham, could enter into eternal relationship with God by believing in Jesus Christ and his death for us.

Which covenant do we enter by believing in Jesus? We become children of Abraham. We are brought into the covenant through which God brings salvation, through the one true heir of Abraham, Jesus Christ. And if we enter by Abraham, we are not saved by Sinai. The promise to Abraham was first and God doesn’t break his promises. If Abraham was saved by faith in God, then we are all saved by faith in God.

That was a long and complex journey for us. Thank you for taking it with me. I think this journey tells us at least two things. One, the better we understand the whole Bible, the better we understand the whole Bible. And second, we are saved by faith in God, just like our father Abraham. And this has always been God’s way and God’s plan. It was always and will always be through faith in Jesus Christ, crucified for us, that we enter into God’s promised salvation.

Believe this good news and be at peace. Please pray with me.

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