The Third Sunday of Advent December 14, 2014
2 Peter 3:8-14
68, 63, 400, 50
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who came to redeem us from our sins so that we might become the children of God, dear fellow-redeemed:
“Christmas is a time for…” How would you complete that phrase? As a Christian, you would no doubt answer first, “Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.” That is the most important answer, but after that what might you say? Christmas is a time for decorations? Christmas is a time for lights, presents, and cold weather? These may be true too, but my guess is that the second item on your Christmas-is-a-time-for list would be family. Christmas is a time for family. Wouldn’t you agree?
Parents watch their children open presents with wide-eyed wonder. Sons and daughters come home from college. Grandparents visit. Meals, trimming the tree, singing hymns, and attending Christmas worship services are even more enjoyable with family. For many people, Christmas is also a time when we miss family the most, whether they have moved away or the Lord has called them home.
In today’s text, the apostle Paul talks about family too, namely, the family relationship we now have with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our family relationship is with the Father who sent his Son, the Son who came to redeem us, and the Holy Spirit who works faith in our hearts through the Gospel. How thankful we can be that we are part of GOD’S FAMILY PLAN.
Paul thought of the Galatians as “family in Christ.” He calls them “brothers” in 4:12. In a way, he also thought of himself as their “parent” in Christ. He had personally founded the Galatian congregations on one of his missionary journeys. Interestingly, however, he does not use the analogy of a father in this letter, but that of an expectant mother. He writes, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19 NIV).
“Until Christ is formed in you” is another way of referring to faith—the coming of Christ into the sinful human heart. As strange-sounding as Paul’s analogy of labor pains may be, we perhaps have all felt these same sort of labor pains when we’ve shared the Gospel with an unbeliever or with a believer who has become disillusioned in his faith. “Oh, Lord, please work a miracle in this person’s heart. Please lead them to believe in Jesus.” These types of labor pains are particularly anguishing when they concern the faith of a family member—a parent, spouse, child.
Paul’s labor pains for the Galatians lay in his concern that they were being robbed of their faith, and with it, their salvation. It’s impossible to read his letter to these Christians without feeling his anguish. He says “I am astonished” (Galatians 1:6 NIV), “You foolish Galatians” (Galatians 3:1 NIV), “I plead with you” (Galatians 4:12 NIV), “I am perplexed about you” (Galatians 4:20 NIV), and as we’ve already heard, “I am again in the pains of childbirth” (Galatians 4:19 NIV).
So great was Paul’s concern over conditions in Galatia that he omitted the expression of praise and thanksgiving that he included in every other New Testament letter he wrote to a Christian congregation: Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Instead, he says this in the introduction of his letter to the Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:6-8 NIV).
What was happening to these Christian congregations? False teachers had come to Galatia and were “throwing the Galatians into confusion and trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ.” Their perversion was not obvious. It was subtle and subtlety is always more dangerous to faith than a blatant, outright lie. The essence of their false teaching was, “Yes, Jesus died for you. Jesus did good things for you. But He didn’t do enough for you. If you want to be saved, you must still do a few things yourself.”
We learn from Paul’s letter that these “few things” included being circumcised and observing religious festivals. But in the end, the nature and number of these things are immaterial. The false teachers in Galatia could just as easily have said, “If you want to be saved, live a good life. If you want to be saved, be nice to other people. If you want to be saved, keep the Ten Commandments, give ten-percent of your income to God, say ten “Hail Mary’s” and a hundred “Our Father’s.”
Do you see the problem, the danger? Any time we are told to believe in Jesus as our Savior, but also that we must still do something to be saved, we no longer have Gospel but a perverted Gospel. A perverted Gospel, as Paul declares at the beginning of this letter, is really no Gospel at all (cf. Galatians 1:6b-7).
When we condition our salvation upon doing something in any way, shape, or form, we are placing ourselves under the Law By placing ourselves under the Law, we are placing ourselves back under the very curse from which Jesus Christ redeemed us.
We cannot keep the Law—not in the perfect way God demands that we keep it, not in thought, word, and deed. Paul writes in Galatians 3:10: “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”
“But wait!” someone might say. “I’m a good person. I lead a decent life. I keep the Ten Commandments. I’ve never killed anyone, robbed a bank, or cheated on my spouse.” True, Mr. Someone, but have you ever hated another person? If so, according to God’s Law, you are a murderer. Have you ever coveted, Mr. Someone? If so, according to God’s Law, you are a robber. Have you ever lusted, Mr. Someone? If so, you have committed adultery. Have you always loved perfectly? Have you helped everyone you had opportunity to help? Have you ever been rude, laughed at a filthy joke, wanted to run another driver off the road?
Paul tells us that choosing Law as a means to salvation makes us slaves. It places us under the most demanding of taskmasters. It beats us down with the knowledge of our sin. It condemns us because we can never do enough. It reminds us over and over that we are sinners.
Would anyone of us enjoy being slaves? Would anyone of us want to return to slavery after being set free? Of course not. Yet, by trying to save themselves instead of trusting in Jesus for salvation, this is exactly what the Galatians were doing. Did God want them to be slaves? Had Christ come into the world to enslave them or release and redeem them?
In verse 4 of our text, Paul writes first of God the Father: “But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son.” [v.4 NIV] “When the time had fully come” is a very descriptive phrase. The obvious meaning of the phrase is that God the Father sent God the Son into the world at just the right time. In fact, Paul uses similar words in Romans saying, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6 NIV). “Fullness of time” creates the image of time adding up day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, until exactly the right time for the Savior’s birth came. Think of time being poured into a measuring cup until the line marked “Full” is reached.
But it’s not as if God the Father simply stood by and watched all those years fill the measuring cup. No, as the years ticked by from the first promise of the Savior in Eden to the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem, the heavenly Father was preparing the world for the arrival of his Son. This was all according to plans He had made in eternity before the world and time even existed.
Just last week a clerk at the grocery store asked me, “So, how far along are you with your Christmas preparations?” I answered, “Nowhere close to where I should be.” “I understand,” she smiled, and went on to tell me that her Christmas cards, Christmas decorations, Christmas lights, Christmas tree, and Christmas gifts had all been tended to by the second week in December.
I admire people who are like this young clerk, but sadly I have never been and never will be one of them. No matter how hard I try, I never manage to send Christmas cards on time, if at all; and if I buy gifts instead of writing checks, I always find myself fighting crowds and picking through department store shelves two days before Christmas. It’s sad, I know. But aren’t you happy I wasn’t in charge of preparing for the First Christmas? Aren’t you happy that God the Father in His infinite power and wisdom was in charge?
The preparations God made for the birth of Jesus are too many, too wondrous, and too complex for us to count, or even understand. The persons, places, nations, conditions, and interactions that God brought into existence to create the ideal time for the birth of Christ and to fulfill the myriads of promises made about that birth in the Old Testament were all in place at just the right time—the time was full and the Savior was born.
Think of how the Christmas narrative begins in Luke 2: “And it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar ordered a census. Do we think this decree of Caesar was just a coincidence or an accident? No, it was not. As a direct result of this census, Joseph—who was of the house and lineage of King David—was required to travel with his pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem his ancestral home. Where had the Old Testament promised the Messiah would be born? In Bethlehem.
When Jesus was born, the Romans ruled the world. They had established order and peace and built magnificent roads that crisscrossed their massive empire. All of this facilitated the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.
When Jesus was born, the common language throughout the empire was Koine Greek, a precise, yet easy-to-understand, language. It was also the language in which God caused the New Testament to be written. Do we really think any of these things are mere coincidence? Or do we rather see the mighty hand of God the Father moving kings, empires, events, and individuals to ensure the birth of Jesus happened at just the right time? God always acts at the right time. This is as true of our lives as it was true of the birth of Christ.
Paul next describes the work of the God the Son in accomplishing God’s Family Plan: “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” [vv.4-5 NIV]
These two things, “born of a woman” and “born under law” are true of every human being. It’s our humanity that places us under the Law of God—a Law, which Paul states repeatedly in Galatians, sinful human beings cannot keep. Because we cannot keep God’s Law, it curses and condemns us. To repeat the words of Galatians 3:10, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything in the Book of the Law.’” (NIV). But as Paul immediately adds in 3:13: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law having become a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” This is a reference to Christ’s death on the cross—made of a tree. In one of those wondrous parallels of Scripture, the tree in Eden led to sin, death, and condemnation, but the tree on Calvary led to forgiveness, life, and redemption.
I understand that expressions like “substitutionary atonement” and “Jesus took our place” may seem dry and dogmatic, but what blessed facts they are. Not long ago I saw a video online that presented substitution in a striking way. A condemned criminal was strapped into an electric chair. The warden’s hand was on the switch. At the last minute, a father gently led his young, wide-eyed son into the room. He released the prisoner and let him go, then placed his own son into the electric chair and attached all the wires. Then the father himself flipped the switch. This is substitutionary atonement. This is what God the Father did by sending his only Son into the world to suffer and die in our place.
Jesus sharing in our humanity means that you and I can never rightly say “God doesn’t get it” or “God doesn’t understand what I’m going through.” What does God know about sickness? Isaiah 53 says of Jesus, “Surely He has borne our griefs (literally: sicknesses) and carried our sorrows (literally: pains)” (Isaiah 53:3). What does God know about suffering? Remember Gethsemane? Remember the cross? What does God know of sin? He is sinless, but whose sins did Jesus carry to the cross? They were our sins, the sins of the whole world. What does God know about being betrayed? Remember Judas Iscariot? What does God know about know about being rejected by people you love? He knows plenty, as the Gospel of John testifies: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Jesus did all this for us, as so that in God’s Family Plan we might receive “the adoption as sons.” [v.5]
The Bible uses many tremendous images to show the nature of our salvation in Christ—how God rescued us from what we were to make us what we are in Christ. The “what we were” and “what we are” are completely opposites. We were darkness, now we are light in the Lord. We were dead in transgressions and sins, now we are alive in Christ. We were lost, now we are found in Christ. Once we were not a people, now we are a people of God in Christ. But of all these biblical analogies, my favorite is the one found in this text: “the adoption of children.” This is my favorite analogy, because I myself am adopted.
Many years ago, I mentioned my adoption during a sermon. After the service, one of the members—a sweet, elderly woman—caught me by the sleeve and pulled me aside. “That was a nice sermon, Pastor,” she said, “but do you think you should have mentioned your adoption?” I understood what she meant. For many years, adoption was treated in a hush-hush manner. This was partly for the sake of the adopted child and partly because adoption implied something unfortunate had happened—the death of birth parents, illegitimacy, and perhaps other reasons too.
But as I explained to that parishioner, for me adoption has always been the source of great joy and never a cause for shame. Adoption meant I was wanted. Adoption meant someone chose me. Adoption meant I was given a real family, a real name, and a real inheritance. Did I deserve this? No. But that is precisely what makes my adoption all the sweeter.
God has adopted us as well. He has given us a family name: Christian. He has made us joint heirs of a heavenly inheritance with His Son, Jesus Christ. Do we deserve this? No. But doesn’t that make our adoption all the sweeter and all the more reason for thanking God for Christmas?
We are made a part of God’s family by the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel, as Paul writes in the final verse of the text. The Spirit leads us to see God as a loving, tender-hearted Father instead of an angry God. The Spirit teaches us to say, “Abba, Father.” [v.6] Abba is an Aramaic word that means exactly how it sounds: “Abba,” “Da-da.” It is the simple, trusting expression of the little toddler who knows his Father will protect him, provide for him, and love him forever.
At Christmas God sent his Son. At Christmas Jesus, God’s Son, became truly human in order to redeem us. Through God’s Spirit Christmas lives on in our hearts despite the season—the Spirit who adopted us into God’s family and teaches us to cry out “Abba” amid all our heartaches.
This is God’s Family Plan. Each of you are part of the family. From eternity each of you was part of the plan. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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