Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?
During the COVID pandemic, my family has discovered reruns of the game show, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? The kids on the program are great, with fun personalities and lots of knowledge. The adult contestants may be equally winsome, but so far, not one has been smarter than a fifth-grader.
This week, one of the questions was in the category of first-grade geography, which asked, “If you cross the United States northern border, which country would you enter?” The contestant had to ask a fifth-grader for help. Another participant on the show received a multiple-choice question: “Which state is farthest to the west: A) Alaska, B) California or C) Nevada?” He chose California!
I wondered out loud, “How is this possible that these folks can be so ignorant of such basic U.S. geography?” The next question involved third-grade math. Yeah, I missed it. I guess we all have our areas of intellectual deficiency.
This brings me to a question for you. It has nothing to do with geography or math. Instead, it is a Bible question. In which book of the Bible do you find this passage, “God helps those who help themselves.” Is it in the Old Testament or the New Testament? If you answered “neither,” you would be correct. That statement is not in the Bible!
Such a quote not only is not in the Bible; it is entirely antithetical to everything the Bible teaches. God does not help those who help themselves.
God helps those who can’thelp themselves.
That is the heart of the Bible in general and the focus of the Apostle Paul’s message in particular.
In the ancient world, seafaring navigators and caravans that traversed the continents on land would use the North Star to guide their travels. That star is known as Polaris. As its name suggests, the northern, polar axis of the earth points to this specific star. What makes this star unique is that while others rotate in the night sky, Polaris, which is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor, remains fixed, and thus became a trustworthy navigational guide for sea and land travel (as GPS technology had not yet been invented).
We may not be global explorers, but we will need a North Star nonetheless. For us, our guide is not a star. It is a cross, which stands in history as an unfailing guide for disciples of the Savior.
As we begin our journey through Galatians, Paul identifies himself as the author of the epistle and lays the groundwork for everything that will come in the next six chapters.
For a bit of context, it may be helpful to know that Paul started a number of churches around 47 A.D. in the region of Galatia (which is modern-day southern Turkey). These are the churches to whom he writes the New Testament letter we call Galatians. He knows these folks and they know him.
By the time he writes this letter, it is now the following year—48 A.D. Paul is no longer in Galatia. He is most likely writing from Antioch in Syria while visiting his home church from where he had been sent as a missionary to Galatia the previous year.
Paul has heard that there are problems in the Galatian churches. However, before he addresses his concerns, he establishes a gospel foundation upon which to stand and speak. So, let’s read Paul’s introductory remarks in Galatians 1:1-5.
1 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers and sisters with me. To the churches in Galatia: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
On August 5, 2010, the San Jose mine collapsed in northern Chile, trapping thirty-three men 2,300 feet underground with no communication with the outside world. They had a limited supply of food and water, which they rationed among themselves to survive. The circumstances were dire.
If you know the story, the rescue attempt that ensued comprised three drilling teams, multiple Chilean government agencies, NASA, and about a dozen private corporations. After sixty-nine days trapped underground, on October 13, over a billion viewers around the world watched as all of the men were raised to the surface, one at a time in a specially built rescue pod.
It is hard to imagine being in their shoes, isn’t it? Trapped under two-thousand feet of rock. No communication and limited resources. When would a claustrophobic panic set in?
Maybe it is not that hard to imagine. After all, the miners’ condition is analogous to the kind of predicament every human faces. Obviously, we were not trapped in a mine. Our dilemma is far worse.
Paul speaks to this crisis in verse 4, noting that every human stands in need of rescue from “the present evil age.” With the fall in the garden, the perfect world God has created collapsed and was buried under rubble that no drilling team could reach. Our condition was as grave as a caterpillar encircled by a ring of fire.
There is no way to save ourselves. If a rescue is going to succeed, it must come from above. Just like the Chilean miners.
We know how they were rescued. Remarkable engineering with drills, wenches, chains, and a capsule that could descend and ascend thousands of feet. Now, in his introduction to Galatians, Paul makes it clear how we are rescued from our condemned human condition.
What we observe is not the genius of mechanical engineering but the commitment of a sacrificial offering. In the gospel, Jesus doesn’t just pull us up. He takes our place.
Who Gave Himself
In verse 4, Paul writes that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us.” The Galatians would have known what this meant, as Paul was known to have a centerpiece doctrine to which he connected everything else. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, he put it like this, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
This doesn’t mean that Paul only preached about the cross but that everything he taught was related to the cross. We can say it this way. For the Apostle, the crucifixion was the hub of his theological wheel to which everything must be connected— every doctrine, theme, and topic.
Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, follows a number of characters through the tumultuous events of the French Revolution of the late 18th century. Two of the main characters are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton.
Darnay is a French aristocrat and a target of the revolutionaries. Carton, once an orphan, is a barrister from England—a foreigner on French soil. The two men have little in common, except they share an uncanny physical resemblance. They are practically twins. They also share a love for the same woman—Lucie Manette.
Lucie loves the Frenchman, Darnay, who, by the end of the story, is imprisoned and awaiting execution by guillotine. Just hours before his scheduled death, Sydney Carton shows up at the prison with a plan, but not the conspiracy you’d expect.
Rather than secure his rival’s demise, Carton drugs Darnay and changes into Darnay’s prison rags, clothing the knocked out aristocrat in Carton’s outfit. Having taken Darnay’s place on death row, Sydney Carton has Darney carried outside to a waiting carriage.
But why? Why would Carton give himself unto death when he didn’t have to? The answer is simple but profound.
Sydney Carton loved Lucie with such totality that he sacrificed himself as a substitute on the guillotine so that she could be reunited with the man she loved.
Darnay couldn’t save himself. But Carton could. And did.
From Rags to Reconciled
This is a lot like what Jesus has done for us. Taking our place before the law as the condemned on death row, the Savior took our rags of sin upon himself and clothed us in his own garment of perfect-righteousness. Not by guillotine but through the cross, we are set free from condemnation and reconciled to God as Father, the one who has loved us from eternity past and designed the divine conspiracy of grace to rescue us. As Paul says in verse 4, the plan of the cross was “according to the will of our God and Father.”
Do you see how God does not help those who can help themselves but helps those who can’t help themselves? This is the consistent message of the gospel from the Old Testament to the New. Even King David knew he needed a greater King to rescue him, writing in Psalm 40:1-4a,
1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. 2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him. 4 Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD.
The same is true for each disciple of Jesus. We have been rescued out of the pit of condemnation from which we could never escape. Jesus has taken our place and positioned us on solid, immovable ground. He has taken our rags and reconciled us to God.
What a Real Rescue Feels Like
Let’s reflect back on the rescue of the Chilean miners. It was an extraordinary feat of engineering. But more than the science behind the accomplishment are the emotional reactions of the miners themselves. When one of the miners, Esteban Rojas, stepped out of the rescue capsule, he immediately knelt on the ground with his hands together in prayer then raised his arms above his head in adoration, weeping with thankfulness to be above ground and reunited with his family.
That is what real rescue feels like. Not the kind where somebody gives you a hand to help you up but a rescue out of desperation—the 2,300 feet underground version.
I wonder if I’ve been adequately affected at the emotional level of my own rescue or if I have taken the blood of Jesus for granted, unlike Paul, who explodes with praise and adoration to God in verse 5, which I don’t think is a formality to Paul’s introduction.
My take is that having described—even in a nutshell—the redemptive work of Jesus, Paul, just like Esteban Rojas, was overwhelmed with gratitude. In the wake of being mindful of his rescue from above, mindful of the strong love of the Father to reconcile us to himself, Paul exults, “To whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
This is a man on his knees, with hands lifted high and tears in his eyes because he once was in darkness and now lives in the light. He was condemned but now is free. He was blind but now sees the glory of the cross, a vision that activates worship to erupt from the heart and through the lips.
What will it take to motivate that kind of response in your life and mine? Not a command or a law or guilt or fear. Only the grace, kindness, and mercy of undeserved rescue and reconciliation.
If you have never looked to the cross of Jesus with the kind of faith that sets your heart free and compels a similar expression of worship, let me invite you — no, I implore you — to look now and believe.