by Jason Micheli
Galatians 3.15-23 (click to see Scripture text)
In 1916, the silent filmmaker, D.W. Griffith, directed an epic three and a half hour movie entitled Intolerance that spanned a timeline of over two thousand years and juxtaposed four parallel storylines, including the Passion of the Christ.
An image of God, depicted as a Mother rocking a baby in a cradle, serves as the segue from one storyline to the next.
Upon its release in 1916, critics noted that one of the unusual characteristics of the film was the fact that none of the fictional characters had names.
Griffith wanted the characters to be not particular people but general types; that is, they represented all of us.
And Griffith wanted the characters to represent every one of us because each of the four vignettes in the film portray how, in the absence of mercy, intolerance and self-righteousness and moralism beget suffering and violence and sin.
In the second storyline of the film, the Passion of Christ, Griffith focuses in on how those who are obedient to the Law react when Jesus of Nazareth pardons a woman caught in adultery.
After the Pharisees have all dropped their rocks, Jesus recklessly refuses to condemn her.
In the film, it’s that moment of un-condemnation that provokes Christ’s Passion.
In their zeal for God’s Law, God’s People cannot tolerate God-in-the-flesh so they push him out of the world on a cross.
At the end of Intolerance, D.W. Griffith shows this same crucified Christ returning in glory, and Jesus comes not to the good or the righteous but rather to those the good and the righteous can least tolerate.
Christ comes to the Big House full of hardened, guilty-as-hell convicts dressed in black-and-white prison stripes.
As the prisoners look up at the crucified Christ descending to them— for them— the prison walls begin to fall, their chains come unbound, their stripes fade away, and they emerge, every last single prisoner, into the absolving light of a graceful God.
In one of his sermons to the inmates at the Basel prison in Switzerland, Karl Barth preached that the Christian who knows the Gospel of grace is like a freed man running up and down the jailhouse halls hollering to his fellow prisoners that the cell doors have been thrown open, the guards have all gone home, and the warden has been put into permanent retirement and is now fishing in Florida.
“The Law imprisoned all things under the Power of Sin…Now before Christ came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the Law…”
Here’s the question:
If Jesus is the getaway driver God sends to tunnel under the fence, dynamite the doors, and bust us all out of the prison, then why does God give the Law in the first place?
Why does God bother giving all those commands if Christ comes to set us free from them?
If Law-keeping is not at all what it means to be a Christian, then why do the Father and the Son do so much Law-laying?
“Why then the Law?”
To those who insist that believers must add the Law onto the Gospel, today Paul argues that rather than go back to Moses, you should go back to the very beginning of covenant history.
It starts with Abraham not with Moses.
And the covenant with Abraham, Paul notes, is not an If/Then, conditional contract like the covenant with Moses on Mt. Sinai.
The covenant with Abraham is more like an irrevocable last will and testament.
There are no Thou shalts or Thou shalt nots in the covenant with Abraham.
There’s only God’s I will, I will, I will.
It’s an unconditional promise to which the only response is trust— faith.
Faith in the promise of Abraham’s seed, and today Paul claims that seed refers not to all of Abraham’s innumerable descendants but to the incarnate deity.
Jesus Christ is the singular seed through whom God will bless the whole world.
That’s the promise to Abraham, Paul says today.
And Abraham believed God’s promise, the Book of Genesis reports, and God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness.
You see, Paul’s arguing, you don’t need to go back to Moses, you don’t need to muddle the Gospel with the Law, you don’t need to accrue righteousness by keeping the commandments. Go back to the beginning— faith alone in the promise of Christ has always been how God has worked righteousness.
And this is the point at which Paul anticipates the false teachers’s rebuttal.
Why then the Law, Paul? You’ve so fused Christ with Abraham that you’ve squeezed out Moses. There’s no room for the Law in your Gospel.
Paul responds to their anticipated question with a surprising answer.
The purpose of the Law is not to make righteous.
The purpose of the Law is to reveal.
For a number of years, I was involved heavily in the United Methodist mission in Cambodia, helping to plant churches across a country relatively untouched by the Gospel.
Because of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has one of the world’s youngest populations, many of whom first come to Christ through the English classes offered by churches.
About ten years ago, I was sitting in my supposedly moisture-wicking REI wardrobe on the floor of an open-air sanctuary hours into rural Cambodia.
Rice paddies and water buffalo surrounded the church.
Sweating in the cold shower earlier that morning I had cursed my decision to come to Cambodia and, now, I was so hot I could feel my heartbeat in my teeth but I was supposed to be teaching a Bible class to a horde of twenty-something new Christians.
“My name is Jason,” I’d said as simply as I could for these fledgling English speakers, “I’m a Pastor in America, and I’ve come all this way to Cambodia, and further still to your village, well, because Jesus commands me to go and make disciples and commands me, even, to serve the poor.”
Next, they went round and each gave their names and shared how long they’d been a Christian.
And then, I started teaching them, as best I knew, about the Sermon on the Mount— my assignment.
I unpacked the context for them and pointed out the parallels Matthew draws between the Sermon on the Mount and Mount Sinai and finally I started working my way with them through Jesus’s sermon.
I’d read a verse, rephrase it for them, and ask what they thought it means.
So I read Matthew 5.16, “Let your light shine before others,” rephrased it, asked what they thought it meant for them, and someone raised their hand and took a stab at understanding it.
I read Matthew 5.23, “If you’re about to make an offering at the altar and you remember that you’ve sinned against a brother or sister, lay the offering down, go reconcile with them, and only then come back to offer your gift.”
I rephrased it, asked what they thought it meant, and waited for a hand to go up.
I did that verse by verse by verse without a hitch.
Until we got to what Jesus says about adultery, “You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.”
Evidently, they’d not yet learned the word adultery in their church-sponsored English classes so I awkwardly defined it for them using animal husbandry as a safe illustration.
Then I rephrased the command for them and, before I asked them what they thought it meant, I told them to look at it again.
“Notice,” I said, “notice how Jesus expands the command from action to intention. Jesus says you’ll be judged by God not simply on the basis of what you do or fail to do. Jesus says you’ll be judged for what’s in your heart when you do it. It’s not just your outward obedience that matters; it’s your inward motivation too.”
“What do you think that means?”
A young man with parted black hair and a Justin Timberlake t-shirt raised his hand and answered, tentatively, “It mean…if you (and he pointed at me) only come to Cambodia because Jesus tell you to and not because you really want to, then Jesus say it like you not come here at all. Jesus say you will be judged.”
“Do you think that right? What do you think?” he asked me.
“I think you speak very good English,” I said.
Just then another student raised her hand.
I nodded in her direction and she asked, “Have you ever…”
And I could see her turn the strange word over in her mouth like a brand new Rubik’s Cube.
“Have you ever lusted in your heart?”
“Have you seen my wife?! Of course not.” I lied.
Class time ran out before we got to the very worst law in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, the most terrifying command in all of the Bible, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
The purpose of the Law is not to improve you.
The purpose of the Law is to accuse you.
To indict you and convict you.
As John Stott writes, “Satan would have us to prove ourselves holy by the Law which the Lord gave to prove us sinners.”
“Why then the Law?”
The Apostle Paul gives two answers:
The Law was “added because of transgressions.” Or, as Paul puts it in his Epistle to the Romans, “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” In other words, the Law functions like the CT scans I undergo every quarter. The Law makes a visible transgression out of our invisible rebellion.
The Law is like a plumb line from heaven.
It cannot make straight the walls.
It can only reveal the crookedness of them.
My friend and mentor, Will Willimon, told me this week that when he’s teaching his students at Duke about grace he likes to challenge them to commit that during the course of the semester they will not have sex with anyone to whom they’re not married.
I laughed and he explained.
“When it comes woke, well-behaved, inclusive, self-actualized, social-justice minded Bernie Bros and Gals, I just don’t know any better way to acquaint them to the reality that they’re sinners other than by telling them it’s unlawful for them to have sex outside of marriage.”
The Law is like a plumb line from heaven.
Number Two— Paul’s second answer:
The Law is like a Holy Hand Grenade, an almighty molotov cocktail, an accelerant.
The Law doesn’t just illuminate your sin.
The Law intensifies your sin.
As Paul puts it in Romans 5.20, “When the Law came in, the trespass multiplied.” “The Law aroused sin in us,” Paul writes in Romans 7; “in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the Law might become sinful beyond measure.”
This is what Paul means in verse twenty-three today that, “before Christ came, the Law imprisoned everything under sin.”
Martin Luther summarized this verse by saying that “the purpose of the Law is to make us not better but worse.”
Before his 1916 silent film, Intolerance, D.W. Griffith directed the 1915 box office hit, The Birth of a Nation. The Birth of a Nation was condemned by many critics, protested by the NAACP, and boycotted by some theaters for the racist tropes Griffith used in depicting African Americans and for the heroic light he seemed to cast upon the Ku Klux Klan.
D.W. Griffith made no bones about telling people that he intended his 1916 silent film, Intolerance, to be, essentially, a celluloid middle finger to all those who had protested and condemned The Birth of a Nation.
Griffith not only denied the criticisms, he used his follow-up film, Intolerance, to argue that those who protested Birth of a Nation were the real bigots.
In fact, he financed the record-setting budget of Intolerance himself, which broke him financially for the rest of his life.
And long after everyone had stopped caring about his 1915 film, Griffith kept on justifying himself and his problematic production; so much so, he eventually lost his marriage.
And then his family.
He died alone.
And no one— no family or friends, no cast-members or business partners— attended his funeral.
The Law, like a plumb line, revealed the crookedness in him.
But then the Law, like an arsonist’s gasoline, accelerated it.
The trespass multiplied.
“Why then the Law?”
But, but, but— why?
Those answers just elicit a bigger question.
Why would God give commands for righteousness if those commands only reveal and replicate our unrighteousness?
Prior to the pandemic, I liked to do much of my work at coffeeshops.
Exactly eight years ago, I sat down at a little round table at the Hybla Valley Starbucks and I started to sketch out a funeral sermon.
At the table to my right were two middle-aged women.
They had Bibles in zippered carrying cases on the table along with a copy of the Mt Vernon Gazette.
I don’t think I could properly be accused of eavesdropping considering just how loud the two women were talking.
Like they wanted to be heard.
Their “Bible study,” or whatever it had been, was apparently over because the woman by the window closed the Bible and then commented out loud: “I really do need to get a new Bible. This one’s worn out completely. I’ve just read it so much.”
Not to be outdone, the woman across from her, parried, saying just as loudly: “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t spend time in the Word every day. I don’t know what people do without the Lord.”
“They do whatever they want,” her friend by the window said.
They continued chatting over their lattes as the woman by the window flipped through the Mt Vernon Gazette. She stopped at a page and shook her head in disapproval. Whether she actually said, “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” or I imagined it I can’t be sure. The other woman looked down at the paper and said, “Oh, I heard about that. He was only thirty-one.”
“Did you hear it was an overdose?” the woman by the window said like a kid on Christmas morning.
And that’s when I knew who they were gossiping about.
I knew because I was sitting next to them writing that young man’s funeral sermon.
“Did he know the Lord?” the woman asked.
“Probably not considering the lifestyle,” the woman by the window said without pause.
They went on gossiping from there.
They used words like “shameful.”
They did not, I noticed, use words like “sad,” or “tragic,” or “unfortunate.”
It wasn’t long before the circumference of their conversation spun its way to encompass things like “society and what’s wrong with it,” how parents need to pray their kids into the straight and narrow, and how “this is what happens when our culture turns its back on God.”
After a while they came to a lull in their conversation and the woman opposite the window, the one with the gaudy bedazzled cross on her neck, gazed down at the Mt Vernon Gazette and wondered out loud, “What do you say at a funeral like that?”
And without even looking at them, and with a volume that surprised me, I said: “The same damn thing that’ll be said at your funeral.” They didn’t even blush. But they did look at me awkwardly. “I hardly think so,” the woman by the window said, sizing me up and not looking very impressed with the sum of what she saw.
And so I laid my cards down, “Well, I probably won’t be preaching your funeral, but I will be preaching his.”
And then I pointed at her worn Bible, and I said, “I don’t know that as well as I’d like, but I do know it says, “Judge not lest ye be judged” just as I know it says, “There is no distinction between any of us, for all fall short…”
“In fact, I said, “That book says that apart from Christ’s work for you, you’re no better than that guy over there,” and I pointed to a homeless guy who reeked of dope and booze and was nursing his coffee and muttering to himself.
They both stared at me indignantly and then rose, shoving their chairs out from the table, turned up their noses at me, zipped up their Bibles, and stormed out, muttering something about how preachers are supposed to be nice.
About a week later, though, I got a card in the mail— I still use it as a bookmark.
I’m the woman you spoke to at Starbucks last week. I hope that rings a bell. I hope you don’t spend every day eavesdropping on people and then laying the Law on them like you did me, but, in my case, I’m so grateful you did.
I want to thank you for blaming me, for showing me my sin. When you’ve gone to church your whole life and when you never stray very far from the flock, it can be easy to miss just how horribly you still fall from the glory of God. I think I’ve always subconsciously justified myself, telling myself, “Well, at least I’m better than that person.” Or, I’ve told myself, “I’m basically a good person.” But better is not perfect. And basically good is still not good enough to go before a holy God.
What I mean to say is this:
I’ve been a Christian my whole life, but I never knew what it meant to throw myself on his mercy— I believed in him, sure, but I never clung to him as my only righteousness— until you held the mirror up to me. Now I feel free and I realize that, before, I felt anything but. Thank you for not being nice.”
God’s grace begins where you end.
But God’s grace does not begin until you end.
It’s not that we can’t improve.
It’s that better is not perfect.
For the Living Water of Jesus Christ to do its work, it needs a vessel that knows it’s empty.
Before Jesus can be your gracious getaway driver, you need to wake up and accept that you’re all but dressed in black and white stripes with a ball and chain around your ankle.
The purpose of the Law is to drive you to total despair; so that, you will yield once and for all to total dependence because what God has wanted from the very beginning of it all is relationship.
The Protestant Reformers called Law and Gospel “God’s two words.” The first word, Law, kills; so that, the second word, Gospel, can make alive. God’s Word is like a hit-man and a midwife.
The Law of God says:
Do not misuse the name of the Lord.
The Law also says we misuse his name every time we praise him in here when there’s poverty or injustice out there…
Remember the sabbath and keep it holy— how many of you were not here last Sunday?
Honor your father and your mother.
Do not kill.
Do not steal or lie or covet.
Do not gossip or talk about another behind their back— how do you score on that one?
Welcome the illegal immigrant in your land and love them as you love yourself.
Love your enemies.
Turn the other cheek.
Forgive upwards of seventy times seven.
Sell everything you own and give it to the poor.
Do it all with nothing but pure motives.
Be perfect— as perfect as your Father in Heaven.
Do you hear that as a doable Honey Do List?
Or do you hear it as exposing how you fall short?
If it’s the former instead of the latter, I’ll pray for you.
And I’ll be back here at it again next Sunday.
But if it’s the latter, hear God’s other word.
Hear the good news:
The Law can only condemn those who rely on their performance of it.
If you know you’re a sinner and have no hope but the blood of Christ, then you are righteous. If you put your trust in him, if you dare to step out into the absolving light of this gracious God, then you will be holy even in your sin.
15 To give a human example, brethren: no one annuls even a man’s will,[b] or adds to it, once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many; but, referring to one, “And to your offspring,” which is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one.
21 Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed.
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