“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:23-26).
Galatians 3 might seem like an odd passage with which to begin a New Year’s message, even though it is traditionally read on the Sunday after Christmas. But its message is very much on point to what many of us are thinking about at the start of the new year.
Verse 23 says that the Law “was our guardian” to lead us to Christ. The Greek word translated by that phrase is paidagogos. The paidagogos was a slave whose job it was to take the young son of the master to the tutor. The paidagogos taught the child manners and kept him from wrong behavior, but he was not the real teacher. I think the best word in English is “chaperone.” The Law is a chaperone who guards our behavior and leads us to the true teacher, who is Jesus Christ.
The Law works externally. It is an outside authority that tells us what we should and should not do. That is not a bad thing; the New Testament makes clear that the Old Testament Law was righteous, holy and good (Romans 7:12).
But God offered to His people something better, something that would be in our hearts. As John’s Gospel puts it, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
God’s people had been told of this centuries before Jesus through the prophet Jeremiah. Moses gave a law at Mount Sinai that was written on tablets of stone, but a time would come when God would put the law within us. No longer would God’s will be an external “ought,” something we begrudgingly do because we have to. No, God would put His law, His will, within us, in our hearts and minds, so that we would desire to do the very thing God commands us to do.
Jeremiah 31 says, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
It’s the difference between something that is externally motivated and something internally motivated. Catherine Booth, who, with her husband, founded the Salvation Army, put it this way, “What the law tried to do by a restraining power from without, the gospel does by an inspiring power from within.”
As we enter the New Year, many people in our culture are thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. New Year’s Resolutions are usually things that are externally motivated; that is, they are things we feel we ought to do, but which we haven’t really owned, we haven’t really counted the cost and chosen them with our whole heart and mind and strength. And so when it gets tough to keep them, we fall away. Think of our under-used work-out equipment or fitness club memberships, half-done projects, partly-read books, abandoned hobbies and neglected honey-do lists!
My concern is not to get you to finish those projects—it is rather to exhort you not to treat Jesus that way. Don’t let your relationship with Jesus be just one more thing you began because you thought you ought to, and then drifted away from, lost interest in, stopped working at.
It’s all too common to have an unrealistic expectation of instant intimacy with Jesus. After all, it’s the way of our culture to expect things to come to us at the snap of our fingers. You can indeed have a relationship with Jesus in a moment when you made a decision to surrender your life to Him. But the deeper intimacy that comes with spiritual maturity takes time.
Yet spiritual maturity is worth it! As you grow in Jesus, you will show forth godly character in your life, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, as that short-temper fades away and patience grows, as impulsiveness gives way to self-control, as discouragement wanes and joy rises up, as selfishness declines and goodness and generosity become the norm, as anxiety is replaced by God’s supernatural peace in the “new you,” with Jesus as the center of your life.
All of that is the fruit of maturity and it takes time. Maturity grows as we spend time with Jesus each day in prayer, in reading the Bible, in obeying Him and serving Him sacrificially.
So as you begin this year, don’t make the mistake of thinking of your relationship with the Lord as simply the subject of yet another New Year’s resolution, something you will do for God because you ought to. Instead, acknowledge that apart from Jesus you can do nothing (John 15:5) and ask Him to do in you what you cannot do yourself. Ask Him to give you the desire for what He commands and to help you forge a godly discipline in your daily devotional life. Ask Him to help you become a disciple who is like Him (Matthew 10:25) and ask Him to bring forth in you greater maturity in Him and greater fruitfulness for His Kingdom.