Words by Phil Burggraff // Image by Autumn Kern
A couple of weeks ago, Harry, one of our longtime members at our church, passed into eternity. Having reached the age of 98 and almost 76 years of marriage to his wonderful wife, he lived a long and fulfilling life. I only knew Harry during the last years of his life, but he exuded a joy that I have only seen in a few people. He did so despite losing an eye to cancer and all the trials that went along with that. Even as he lost his mobility and grew weaker, he could not stop talking about his love for Jesus. He expressed such excitement over finally getting to be with his Lord in heaven. Harry's example stands in stark contrast to the response of the vast majority of those facing death. Why? The answer is found in what the work of Jesus accomplished on that first Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.
Over the past months, I have had the privilege to preach through Paul's letter to the Galatians. While most pastors will not be asking their congregations to turn there this Sunday, Paul addresses the resurrection of Jesus and its implications in three prominent places within the letter.
Paul opens the letter by stating the basis of his authority to write what he does in the letter's body. He did not receive his authority from some important person, agency, or church. He received his authority from Jesus Christ and God the Father (1:1). As a zealous Jew striving to uphold the authority of the Old Testament Law, Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2). He truly believed that he was doing God's will because he thought that relationship with God came through law-keeping. Through a miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–9), Jesus Christ revealed himself to Paul and revolutionized Paul's view of how one came into a right relationship with God. As he states at the beginning of Galatians, Paul's authority comes directly from the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead (1:1). Yet God's work in Jesus' resurrection is predicated on what he accomplished through Jesus' death (1:4b). Jesus Christ submitted to the will of his Father by giving himself as our substitute. He stood in our place to pay the penalty for our sins so that we could be rescued from this evil age (1:4a). Paul begins his letter this way because he wants his readers and us to remember that no one can achieve right standing with God through their own efforts or accomplishments.
Paul brings up this truth concerning right standing with God at a critical point in the letter, as he teases out an important implication of Jesus' resurrection. After recalling his own preparation for ministry and defense of the Gospel (1:11–2:14), Paul shows the futility of trying to achieve right standing with God through the works of the law (2:15–21). The law can only bring about death because no one can meet its demands. Yet Paul finds in this good news, not bad news. Through the law, the believer in Jesus Christ actually dies to the law (2:19). The law demands death for the sinner. So, as a believer in Jesus Christ, I have been crucified and died (2:20a). Therefore, the life of the believer now is no longer theirs. Their subsequent life after their death in Jesus' crucifixion belongs to him because of his resurrection (2:20b). The believer continues to live this life of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ (2:20c).
Stemming from this truth concerning our death and resurrection with Jesus, Paul challenges his readers and us throughout the rest of the letter with the reality that believers in Jesus Christ should no longer live their lives under the authority of the law, flesh, and sin but by the Spirit of God. He concludes his letter with a final aspect of the work of Jesus' death and resurrection—the new creation, the assured hope that awaits those who persevere in faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit. While false teachers have been trying to convince the Galatian believers that salvation is accomplished through works of the law, Paul has demonstrated that they are doing this in order to impress others and avoid persecution (6:12–13). While performing works in obedience to the law might look impressive and satisfy self, the true believer can only boast in one thing: the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross, the believer has been crucified to the world, and the world's authority over the believer has ended (6:14). Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection brings to an end all racial and religious distinction that the law established and initiates a new creation in which any and all can have right standing with God.
As seen in Galatians, the resurrection of Jesus Christ established apostolic authority from men like Paul, ends the authority of the Law, sin, and the flesh over the life of believers, and ushers in a new creation as we await Jesus’ return. Only the resurrection of Jesus Christ can produce the hope and joy that I witnessed in Harry. Death is nothing to fear because it only brings us closer to the reality of the new creation. It ushers us into the very presence of the one making all things new.
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