You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?
Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would reckon as righteous the gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is reckoned as righteous before God by the law, for “the one who is righteous will live by faith.” But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:1-14).
Paul is coming to the end of his ‘I confronted this person… I went to Jerusalem… so that you might be free…’ Now he turns his focus directly to his hearers. ‘You are stupid for even listening to these people who are calling for you to submit to the Jewish law’. He suggests they have been subject to witchcraft (control, manipulation etc.) and goes on to point out the path that these Judaizers have set before them will far from be a blessing but a curse.
A couple of notes: the miracles being done among them is not past tense but present tense. It is not referring to when Paul was with them, but that they had an ongoing charismatic experience.
The works of the law are not the typical understanding that we do good works and so will be saved (as per Martin Luther who lived with intense guilt and then discovered that Paul said we were justified by faith and his guilt was relieved). That understanding leads to a contrast between law (Jewish faith) and grace (Christian). The contrast though, in Paul, is not that of law and grace but it is of eras. Pre-Christ ‘salvation’ was also by grace (covenant), and those who were saved by grace were marked out by being ‘led by the law’, the law being the guiding path for them. One could tell who was of the ‘chosen people’ by their Torah observance. They did not obey the law to be accepted, but because they were accepted (covenantal grace) they followed the law. In Paul those who are the children of God were those who were led by the Spirit. Jewish faith (then and now) was not a faith of works in order to be accepted, but the works of the law were simply the markers that set them apart as those who were accepted by grace. The contrast was not law and grace, but law and Spirit. It is a contrast due to eras.
Both the Jewish faith and the Christian faith were based on grace. This does not mean there were not Jews who twisted the faith and in effect their acceptance was (in their minds / hearts) based on doing what was right, in obedience to the law. In the same way (then and now) there are those of the Christian faith who reduce their faith to ‘doing what is right’ and never embracing acceptance.
The works of the law are understood to be observance of the food laws, observance of the Sabbath and circumcision. Here in Galatians there is certainly a spill over to a legalism, but the argument that was being presented to these Gentile believers was along the lines of – your faith takes you so far; Christian faith is not non-Jewish, so to be truly descendants of Abraham you have to embrace the faith he had and so you have to submit to the Jewish law.
There are of course implications in this with regard to an embrace of grace, and an implication for what the Gospel means for Jews as well as what it means for Gentiles. The law in this era has nothing to do with acceptance before God (‘salvation’ if we want to use that term). If one (a Jew) wishes to abide by it it cannot be used to elevate them to a higher level, and cannot be used as a proof that they are ‘chosen’. Faith (in Jesus) is the only criterion, and faith without any law element; if faith is embraced then that person (Jew or Gentile) is descended from Abraham. Paul himself, a Jew who believed in Jesus, did not insist on others keeping the law and clearly based his personal life on a law-free expression.
All of this emphasis is from someone who had an impeccable background as a Jew. The change of era, something truly apocalyptic had taken place in the coming of Jesus. Nothing was the same again.
If these Gentile believers were to go back and seek as Gentiles to live under a former era something would kick in at a very significant level. It would no longer be adopting acceptance through grace but expressing the outworking by obedience to the law, it would mean they were to be judged by their obedience to every part of the law (and not simply the three markers above of ‘the works of the law’)! The shift was because of the change of era.
In verses 10-14 we come to the cross, and there is a very strong Jewish element to the cross. Take the law out of the context of covenant and then any reliance on the law is doomed to failure, and in reality historic Israel had indeed failed. The sign of it was the exile (to Babylon) and the ongoing bondage / exile to Greek powers and subsequently to Roman oppression. They were no longer a free people for the sake of the nations, but had become but one of the nations (confessing we have no king but Caesar); they too were under the condemnation alongside all other nations, locked up under the power of sin. This can be summarised as Israel is under ‘the curse of the law’, they were no longer the head but now the tail. They were suffering everything that Deuteronomy said they would suffer should they become disobedient.
Jesus, therefore died in Israel’s place, he became a curse for us (Paul often using ‘us’ when he is identifying himself among Israel, and ‘you’ when he is drawing out the contrast of the ‘Gentiles’).
He seems to set it out in three steps. First for ‘us’ Jesus became a curse, and it is clearly for ‘Israel’ for it is not some general curse but it is the curse of the law:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us
This was one of the reasons the cross was a ‘stumbling block for Jews’. How could someone cursed be the Messiah? To claim that would be nothing less than a blasphemy – little wonder Paul was blind for three days. Three days… that was the journey time he needed to go from cross to resurrection, the resurrection being God’s affirmation that Jesus was marked as the son of God by power (Rom. 1:4). ‘Son of God’ not being a term denoting divinity but being a term associated with humanity and in particular with Israel. If Israel was to be the nation that brings light to the world, but had descended into darkness, into bondage there was no hope for the world. Hence Jesus dies as a Jew, born under the law, to deliver Israel. He becomes Israel, so that Israel might be redeemed (and redefined, not as all in Abraham are Israel, but all in Jesus are descendants of Abraham).
The second element then comes in to view:
in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles
God chooses Abraham / Israel for the Gentiles, the purpose was so that the blessing of Abraham would be present throughout the world (hence ‘salvation’ is not to be thought of in a narrow way of a ‘ticket out of here’ but of being set apart for the world; to be a doorway from heaven to earth. Israel as we have suggested are now far from that, hence the need of the cross (more will follow in Chapter 4). Now that Jesus has become the curse and that God has vindicated him the blessing of Abraham can be released. What was locked up, the original promise can be again set in motion, and that setting in motion is defined for Paul in the summarising phrase:
so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
And now Paul uses ‘we’ because the ‘we’ is everyone, Jew or Gentile. In this era there is only one ‘we’. (Later as we will read ‘neither Jew nor Greek’.) In this new era (and Paul began the letter with freedom from the powers of this present evil age / era) Jesus is the doorway in, the door for Jew and for Gentile.
If we drop the question related to ‘who then is saved’ in the sense of ‘I have my ticket so am saved’ and understand salvation is ‘salvation from powers’ and ‘salvation to purpose’; if we put Jesus at the centre and then accept that there is only one people in the new era, hence they must eat together (please remember this Peter… and Barnabas) we will understand Paul’s fire. The new era is here. There are loose ends for the old era is still around us; but in this letter he is not looking to tie up loose ends he is calling for a break with any and all aspects of the former era. The loose ends do not clarify the central element: live by the Spirit, and all who do are descendants of Abraham.
Only ‘new creation’ now counts for anything (Gal. 6:14).