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Galatians 3:6-18

April 25, 2016

Paul’s main argument with the Galatians (who have been influenced in a different direction by missionaries advocating circumcision) is that we are made right with God through identifying with Jesus’ faithfulness to God. Or to put it more simply: we are saved by trusting in Jesus’ faith. In 3:1-5 Paul tries to prove his argument through experience: it was by your response to this message of faith that you received the Spirit– the enthusiastic feeling of freedom and joy, gratefulness and spiritual power. Now, in verses 6-18, Paul seeks to proved his argument through scripture.

6-9. For Paul the critical proof is Genesis 15:6 in which Abraham responds to God’s promises with trust (faith), and God counts Abraham as being in right relationship (righteousness). Righteousness, or right relationship with God, comes through trust. Since Abraham is the origin of all Israel, whatever is true for Abraham is true for all Israel. Thus, anyone who responds to God’s good news with trust is doing the same thing Abraham did, and so becomes a “child” of Abraham–a part of God’s people, Israel. This means that even Gentiles–those who are not Jews by birth–can become part of Israel. All they need is faith in what God has done. Paul believes this has been predicted by scripture since in Genesis 12 God promises Abraham that through him all nations will be blessed.

What makes this scriptural argument so perfect for Paul is that the promise given in Genesis 12, and trusted in in Genesis 15, comes before Abraham is circumcised in Genesis 17. Circumcision is a later ritual. So one can become right with God through trust/faith without circumcision.

10-12. But those who are relying on following the Mosaic Law for being made right with God are following a fatally flawed system. They are “under a curse.” It has been common for Christians to read verse 10 to mean that following the Law puts one under a curse because the Law demands perfection, and since everyone fails to be perfect they are therefore cursed by the Law. This misreading of Paul goes back to Augustine and was intensified by Martin Luther. But this is certainly not what Paul meant.

Paul considered himself blameless before the Law–not because he never sinned but because he fulfilled the Laws requirements. The Law consists not only of regulations for behavior, but also of rituals and sacrifices for forgiveness. It is ridiculous for Christians today to deride the Mosaic Law (and by extension Judaism) as a religion that requires perfection, and which is unable to provide forgiveness for sin. That is simply untrue.

So what, then, does Paul mean when he says that those who rely on the Law are under a curse? I think what he means is simply this: the Law comes with the prospect of blessings as well as curses. If you live by it you will be blessed, and if you do not you will be cursed. Israel, through its history as a nation, failed to live by the Law. That is why it was cursed and lost its land and its freedom. In other words, Paul’s argument is to say: “Look at how things turned out for those who were relying on the Law–they wound up being cursed for failing to live by it.” So Paul does not mean that individuals cannot fulfill the Law, but the people of God, as a whole, cannot. The inevitable result is national curse.

Although Paul does not explicitly make this argument in this letter, I think he would also agree that relying on the Law puts one under a curse in another sense: self-righteousness. Living by the Law means living by our own efforts and achievements–and taking credit for it. This does not nurture a healing relationship with God (or others).

No, the only way to have a healing relationship with God (and others) is by humble trust in what God has done. Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk to prove his essential point: “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” In contrast, the Law militates against humble trust; its thrust is simply doing–with the threat of punishment if one does not. This does not bring the power of God into one’s life.

Is Paul being entirely fair about living by the Law? Certainly rabbis today would strongly disagree with him. To live by faith, and to live by the Law, are not mutually exclusive. That may indeed be true for Jews, but is that true for Gentiles? Paul sees in Christ a new breakthrough for Gentiles, as well as Jews.

13-14. The most shocking and potentially discrediting fact for followers of Jesus to deal with was that he was crucified. Not only was this a humiliating and shameful death, but according to Mosaic Law, it also made Jesus cursed. This was “foolishness to Gentiles, and a stumbling block to Jews” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Even Paul persecuted the early church, trying to destroy the Jesus movement. For him, Jesus’ crucifixion would have discredited Jesus as the Messiah. But then, God “revealed his Son to me.” And Paul, along with the disciples who had also experienced the risen Jesus, came to a radical realization: by being cursed on the cross, Jesus took the curse from all of us. Behind this thought are images such as what is found in Isaiah 53 of a servant who innocently absorbs afflictions and punishments, thereby healing us.

This is not meant to be a logical or judicial process. This is a deep, intuitive embodying of love and forgiveness that changes who we are. This is a mysterious act of God that we do not “figure out,” but experience. Jesus is faithful to God all the way to death. He absorbs the curses that always hang over our lives. In his story we are shaken out of our pride and amazed by grace, and in humility we turn ourselves over to God through Christ. The result is a new Spirit in the center of our lives.

15-18. In this paragraph Paul uses the analogy of a will that makes little sense to us today, but which presumably made more sense in his own context. His argument is that the covenant with Abraham (by faith) came long before the covenant of the Law; so the earlier covenant is the most basic and binding one. And the terms of the first covenant already presumed the coming of Christ who would fulfill its promises (the offspring who will bless all). Thus God’s great action in Christ, though a new breakthrough, was always inherent.

But if it was always God’s intent to bring us all into fellowship through trust, then what was the purpose of the Mosaic Law? Why was that given to the people of Israel? That is the question Paul takes up next, and which I will address next week.



From → Galatians

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