George turned up to the house of his friend, Henry, to find him going through a clubbing routine on his back lawn. ‘Henry,’ he said. ‘What are you doing?’ Henry was holding a magnificent two-handed whale bone club, beautifully weighted, intricately engraved, dressed in a bear skin. Henry and the club seemed at one as he swung it in wide majestic moves. ‘I am practising my mammoth hunting techniques,’ replied Henry. ‘Why?’ George asked incredulously. ‘When Marian and I were married, I promised I would defend and provide for her for the rest of my life.’ ‘But’ George said, ‘There are no mammoths left.’ ‘You don’t understand,’ Henry answered, ‘These skills have been passed down by my ancestors, they perfect balance, timing and centre the mind. If I didn’t do them every day my marriage might collapse.’ Marian was looking out of the living room window gently shaking her head with despair in her eyes.
Comic as this image is it illustrates how one can be deceived into becoming trapped by ritual and tradition when they have ceased to have purpose. Henry’s desire was to fulfil his marriage vows but the way he set about it was deeply misguided and was actually driving a wedge into the marriage. In a modern phrase the ritual was no longer fit for purpose.
Paul was deeply disturbed that the young church in Cyprus had been infiltrated by people who taught practices that were worse than not fit for purpose, they lead people away from the truth and on into sin. He termed them, ‘empty talkers and deceivers, especially those from the circumcision party.’ Titus 1.10 For the disciple of Christ physical circumcision was neither right or wrong but reliance on it for salvation was a deception. Paul addressed this directly in Galatians, ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.’ Gal 5.6 Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants Genesis 17.10-13 and later enshrined in law. Leviticus 12.3 It was an outward sign of what should have been an inward spiritual reality. ‘And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.’ Deuteronomy 30.6
If circumcision was part of God’s law, why then was Paul so condemning of those continuing to teach it? It was because if one is relying on obedience to the law for salvation one has to perfectly obey the whole law, in spirit as well as in rituals, and that is not possible for sinful people. ‘I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.’ Galatians 5.3 At that point one is rejecting who Jesus is and what he did through his sacrifice on the cross. It is a rejection of the grace of God, Paul terms it a, ‘falling away from the grace of God.’ Gal 5.6 He describes the teaching of the circumcision party as, removing the offence of the cross. Gal 5.11
Paul wants to be clear, ‘By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of your own works, so that no one may boast.’ Ephesians 2.8-9 It is only through reliance on Jesus through faith that we receive the gift of salvation, Colossians 2.11-14 any other teaching will lead us away from the freedom of the Spirit.
This provokes the question, what constructs in our life do we rely on that prevents us from trusting solely in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus?
The heart of worship – Matt Redman