It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
"Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds."
In the above passage from Galatians, Paul instructs the church that those who become circumcised will be henceforth cut off from God’s grace. A strange declaration: prior to Jesus’ entry into the world, circumcision is what showed you to be a part of God’s Kingdom – it was the sign that you were effectively “in”. Now, Paul seems to be indicating the opposite. Circumcision now means, what, that you’re out?
Well, no. Circumcision, established as part of a covenant with Abraham, was a symbol. A symbol of what? Something deeply personal and intimate, I think, an inner-relationship with God that was meant to go beyond the rites and incantations practiced by the Hebrews' pagan neighbours. God could have chosen any symbol that he wanted, a tattoo, an earring, and in some cases He did; tassels and phylacteries served as outward symbols and reminders of the Israelites' identity as people beholden to the Lord. But in establishing His covenant, God not only chooses the most vulnerable and sensitive part of a man, He chooses an outward symbol that can’t be displayed without considerable embarrassment.
God is demonstrating, I think, what is required for us to have a relationship with Him: for us to allow Him into the most vulnerable areas of our lives, to change us from the inside out, to “circumcise our hearts”.
The Israelites had a lot of outward symbols to display their unique relationship with Yahweh, many of these established by Yahweh Himself. The problem in Jesus’ time was that these outward symbols had taken over and became ALL that was required. People became so focused on the outside that the condition of the heart (which is/was the whole point) became effectively ignored.
Further, as it was considered particularly righteous to do more than scripture required, more and more responsibilities got tacked on by the religious leaders of the day as they engaged in a game of spiritual one-upmanship. About this sort of self-indulgence, Jesus had plenty to say, none of it particularly nice:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others…
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness”.
Jesus' problem here is not only that these religious leaders have swapped out a legitimate change in heart for performance art, but that they are preventing the children of the Kingdom from taking their rightful place by turning faith into a massive burden. Christ came to set us free from this sort of nonsense; His burden is light (Matthew 11:30), and that’s what Paul is getting at here.
Does Paul care one way or another about the literal practice of removing a foreskin? Clearly not, in the book of Acts he argues vehemently against imposing the right of circumcision on the gentiles; only one chapter later he himself circumcises Timothy to establish Timothy’s street cred as a Jew (he was half-Jewish). Why? So he could move past a useless impediment to their ministry (having to constantly fight with the religious authorities to get Timothy allowed into the synagogues) and get on with preaching the Gospel: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” …
No, the point is not whether foreskins should be removed or left alone, but that we are not to allow our freedom to be compromised by trading an intimate, personal and life-changing relationship with God for a set of religious activities or practices that serve to boost our egos, rather than humble our hearts.
The literal debate about circumcision is, for all intents and purposes, dead. But the temptation to replace a real relationship with Jesus with religious showmanship goes on; it exists in every church, and likely in every Christian heart, including my own.
It is therefore my responsibility to be on guard at all times. Yes, I must protect my soul from the more obvious sins of the flesh, and yes, I must be careful to ensure that the righteousness of Jesus shows through my daily activities; people who encounter me should be able to tell from my actions that I’m not living by the world’s rules of hedonism and pride. However, I must be equally careful to ensure that my own religious activities don’t become a snare for me. How do I know when this has happened? Typically, when I turn it into a snare for others.
It’s good to give generously to one’s church, but have I made tithing a point of pride for myself and a point of shame for others? It’s good to read the bible passionately; in doing so, however, have I set myself in judgement over those who don’t? Do I hold myself and others to standards that can't even be found in the bible, let alone in the teachings of Jesus?
Remember where this debate started in the first place: But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1 – NIV)
We mustn’t forget, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
I had no idea... what a fantastic testimony.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Most of us know how this story ends. Stephen gets stoned by his enemies, asking God to forgive his murderers in the process.
What’s interesting about this story is that Stephen begins his discussion with the Sanhedrin with a lengthy polemic on the history of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham and leading up to Solomon. Then suddenly, as if the Holy Spirit gets fed up with having to give a history lesson to a group of religious leaders who full-well know their history, Stephen changes gears: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” (Acts 7:51). It’s as if the Lord of Heaven has finally run out of patience and decides to skip the rest of the story and get right to the heart of the matter: the Messiah came; not only did you miss it, you killed him, and now you’re persecuting His servants.
Just imagine Stephen’s point of view here. He’s filled with the Holy Spirit and waxing a theological eloquence that would put most bible school professors to shame. Do you think he’s a bit swept up in the moment? Maybe a little freaked out? A little surprised by the brave and articulate words flying out of his mouth? I would be.
Then imagine how he feels when, suddenly, he sees the fabric of space ripped apart, and Jesus standing on the other side.
I can’t begin to imagine everything that’s going through Stephen’s mind here; certainly, he understands that he’s about to die. Do you think he gets the value of his suffering though? Do you think he knows that he’s going to go down in history as the first Christian martyr? Do you think he knows that not only will his name will be remembered, it will be forever recorded in God’s holy scripture? Do you think he knows that his example will serve as an encouragement to countless others? No, likely he understands only that he has been honoured to suffer as Christ has, that his reward will be great, and that this is going to hurt, a lot.
Suffering of one kind or another is pretty much a guarantee for Christians – “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20) – and suffering is suffering, it’s not fun. I often wish that it didn’t come with the territory, but it does.
What also comes with the territory, though, is a promise that even clumsy attempts to serve the Gospel will have a lasting impact. Our works will “become manifest” (1 Corinthians 3:13), surviving whatever the world can throw at it.
Ages ago my wife, Gail, invited a friend to church. The invitation was declined or ignored, and Gail resigned herself to offering up some prayer and getting on with her life. Just this last week, she found out that both the friend and her husband have accepted Christ, and that the husband is to be confirmed in their local church this coming Sunday. The friend told Gail that her invitation is what got the ball rolling. The friend (a lapsed Christian) and her husband were not comfortable with the invitation to come to our church, but they were able to make the journey to the church she'd spent time in as a youth. So that's where they went.
Of course, we don’t know this conversion wouldn’t have occurred without Gail’s help (I’m sure Jesus would have found a way), but her invitation had an incredible impact. That family will go on to plant their own seeds, and her one act of simple obedience – having the courage to invite someone to church, something I have a hard time with most days – turns out to be a work that will have ripples in eternity.
We don’t always get to see the results of the work we do. One sows, another reaps, and so on. And oftentimes we suffer shame, pain or worse without the comfort of seeing where all this is going. All the more pleasant the surprise will be, then, when we get to see the finished product in Heaven.
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
No pretense or wearing masks. No cliques. No hidden agendas, backroom deals, betrayals, secret ambitions, plots, or schemes.
We are going to judge angels. Which angels? Doesn’t say: the fallen ones, I’m guessing. It’s only fitting, given that they’ve been our unrelenting tormenters since the beginning. If our Heavenly Father is going to share this important work with anyone, why not us?
More pertinent than the sense of status this imparts on us, at least for the sake of this argument, is the following detail that we might be tempted to miss: in Heaven, we’ll have work to do.
We oftentimes imagine that Heaven will be boring. If there’s no pain, no grief, no sadness, no fear, then there will also be, it stands to reason, no adventure. In the movie Star Trek Generations, Captain Picard tracks down Captain Kirk in something called the nexus: a nebula of sorts where people get all they ever wanted – a science-fiction heaven. Picard needs to persuade Kirk to leave the nexus with him to go fight bad guys. He finally succeeds when Kirk, being pursued by Picard on horseback, makes a particularly dangerous jump and notices a fearlessness that had never accompanied that same manoeuvre in real life. If there’s no fear, Kirk remarks, then this must not be real. If it’s not real, it’s meaningless.
Kirk here is expressing a truth that most of us have pondered once or twice at least: if Heaven truly is a paradise that offers each of us everything we ever wanted without the nuisance of work, the inconvenience of conflict, or the fear of evil, we will quickly become disenchanted with the whole thing. For Kirk, leaving this nexus thing to go fight bad guys is the perfectly rational choice.
This idea of Heaven, however, doesn’t come from the bible. It’s cheap and malnourished, missing the point and offering the absurd notion that evil is the real source of our happiness (the possibility of falling off a horse and breaking one’s neck produces fear, fear produces excitement, excitement produces happiness). But as much as the occasional adrenaline rush might indeed produce a limited boost in pleasure, it will not produce lasting contentment.
So what does? I agree with the Westminster catechism that the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”, yet those who study their bibles carefully will note that human beings were created with a very specific purpose in mind:
“there was no man to work the ground…the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it”.
Being created in the image of our Creator, we are to work; we are to create.
Theodor Roosevelt once said that “the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”, and he was exactly right. Each of us has the innate urge to work, to create, which is precisely why work can be so painful.
We were cursed when we disobeyed; and thorns grew up to choke out the real produce. Our sin has jinxed the very activity with which we are supposed to find our meaning. Whether it’s in building, farming, parenting, advising, whatever, we were put on this earth to make it better. Not only are our efforts hindered in this endeavour, oftentimes, the opposite is achieved; we make it worse. Everything we do is an uphill battle. While not always destined for failure, our projects always miss the mark to some extent.
I’ve worked in Human Resources for over twelve years now, and the formula for making happy employees is so simple and obvious that it’s almost embarrassing given the number of research dollars that have been sunk into the subject. Happy employees believe that they are able to make valuable, positive and lasting impacts on the organizations or communities they serve. Unhappy employees believe that their companies couldn’t care less about them, and that their contributions are ultimately worthless.
Now, imagine the best job you’ll ever have. Your boss not only values your contributions, He revels in them. Your contributions are not only valued, they’re celebrated. Your impact is not only lasting, it’s eternal. If you build a deck for a house, it will never rot. If you’re a chef, the food you work with will never spoil. Money won’t be your reward because you won’t need money. The work itself will be your reward.
Whatever your Heavenly calling is going to be, you’re going to love every single minute of it. As I write this, my wife is outside putting mulch down around her carefully tended perennials to help keep out the weeds. Will there be mulch in Heaven? Maybe, but it won’t be necessary. (FYI, if your business on earth is pesticides, you’ll need a new profession in Heaven, sorry).
They say these days that you should make a career out of whatever it is you love doing. And while that’s certainly good advice for those able to take it, even such vocational work can’t escape creation’s curse. Show me a successful entrepreneur and I’ll show you someone who has had to scratch, claw and fight every step of the way. Some of what we do on earth, I think, is blessed, and some eternal remnant of it will be retained and carried over to the new earth, providing it is work done unto the Lord. But imagine work on the other side; imagine work without the curse.
If you have Jesus, one day you'll be able to do more than imagine.
"But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body… So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
The word spiritual here is an adjective describing body, not negating its meaning. A spiritual body is first and foremost a real body or it would not qualify to be called a body. Paul could have simply said, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spirit,” if that were the case.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Let’s just wrap our heads around this one piece of information for today. It’s a lot to take in. What an acorn is to an oak tree, your current body is to your future body. No, you are not going to be a semi-transparent spirit floating upwards through the clouds playing a harp into infinity. If you have truly and sincerely given your life to Christ, you are in for a physical upgrade beyond your imagining. CS Lewis puts it like this:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare."
Jesus says that we’ll be like “Angels in Heaven” (Mark 12:25). This is hardly impressive if you take your idea of angels from popular culture; but have you read the Old Testament? Angels are terrifying creatures; Daniel turned white as a sheet when encountering one (Daniel 10:8), paralyzed with fear; and he’s not the only one.
By far the greatest thing about Heaven will be that Jesus is there. The King returns, justice is restored, and the curse that now lies on creation is lifted... but you have to admit, this thing with our bodies is pretty cool.
Remember, Jesus was raised in the flesh. His disciples could touch Him, He could eat and drink, He even had scars to mark His time on the cross. He didn’t do this so that we could one day turn into forest nymphs with no corporeal substance; He did this so that we, too, can be resurrected in the flesh – each one of us a seed that finally turns into a tree.
It’s no wonder so many Christians struggle with guilt over their failure to look forward to such an eventuality as Heaven. Popular culture paints a dreary and uninspiring picture of eternal boredom; and a great many of us have bought into that picture, part and parcel. What the Bible has to say, however, is all-too intriguing, and not in the least bit boring.
“A team of international scientists used several of the world's most powerful telescopes to study the energy of the universe and concluded that the universe is slowly dying.”
“For dust you are and to dust you will return”.
What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
Everything is dying. Everything, disintegrating, falling apart. Every living thing that you encounter will die. Every atom in your body will, eventually, be ripped apart and come to nothing. Scientists agree, this universe will eventually fragment into a soupy mass of individual particles, dust.
Death rules our cosmos; decay is the only constant.
The Bible has an answer for why this is: sin. Human beings became convinced that their only Creator was holding out on them. They selfishly tried to snatch what was not theirs by right, finding out the hard way that He wasn’t lying when He said, “you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:10). A reckless act of self-centredness put a curse on humanity; and creation was cursed right along with us (Genesis 3:17-19).
Death is natural, they say, a part of life. But we know that’s not true, don’t we? Somewhere, deep down, we know that it’s wrong. Organisms are not supposed to get sick and die; the cosmos is not supposed to rip itself apart. We weren’t created for destruction; yet destruction is our lot, our only lot. Everything that we achieve or gain is ultimately nullified by this ghastly aberration called death.
What is God’s response to all of this? We know Jesus died for our sins, but did He die so that creation could end up in the scrap heap, and so that those who call Him Lord could be sent to a palace in the clouds to partake in a church service that will never end? Did Satan win; is the universe his now, at least until it dies?
Not even close. Creation is the first thing in scripture, and it’s the last thing.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.
Jesus didn’t die to rescue our spirits from a sinking ship so that we could spend eternity floating in ethereal wonderment. He became human so that He could restore creation, end the curse, resurrect our bodies and abide with us forever (Revelation 21:3). This curse under which you and I suffer, under which creation groans (Romans 8:22), will end. We will dwell in the house of the Lord, on earth, forever.
Look at the world around you. Do you see a write-off? Don’t.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.