The question here is about who are the eschatological people that God is calling to fulfil his promises of renewal in the world? This is the question Galatians three is addressing. The Spirit marks out these people as the end-times people of God. How did he mark them out in Acts and in the Galatian church, even when Paul did miracles among them?
It wasn’t because of circumcision. When Paul preached in Galatia, the Spirit was given to all, whether Jew or gentile, regardless of the ceremonial laws of the Jews. The Spirit was given simply because they believed the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Spirit brought them together in a unity of faith. This is the point: the unity of faith.
Family Promises Fulfilled
“Having begun in by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” What does this mean?
What was the perfection they were seeking? Perfection is about fulfillment. How are the promises of God to Abraham, about a world renewing family, going to be fulfilled? Was this going to happen through the Jewish law, or by them continuing as one family by faith? God was going to continue with them as a family, the same way he started, by faith. Only faith can make them a family.
The perfection they are speaking of here isn’t a question of our personal sanctification. Paul isn’t asking, “Having begun by faith, are you now sanctified in your personal lives by observing laws?” Sanctification is important in our lives, but this isn’t the issue at the front in Galatians. Paul wasn’t addressing personal sanctification at this point, but who the believers should eat with.
The question, from the Jewish perspective is, how can they move on to fulfil God’s promises about his kingdom coming to this world? Is it by the Jewish law forming our community, or is it by God’s free acceptance through the unity of faith? How are they going to be one body, reflecting Christ to the world? This is the question Paul is answering.
“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
Next, Paul brings in Abraham. This isn’t just a proof text showing how we are saved on an individual level. The text is about the gentiles being included in the family of God. It is about God’s promises to Abraham, about a world renewing people that would come from him. Paul is asking in Galatians three, who was this family. Who does this family come together? How was God fulfilling this promise to Abraham about one family, eating together and serving each other?
Paul starts to answer, showing that it isn’t by the law. He said, when we rely on the works of the law, as the community were then seeking to withdraw towards, we come under a curse. Let’s explain this curse. Like in Genesis three, when Adam and Eve sinned, they came under a curse. It wasn’t that God punished them, it was the consequence of their slavery they had chosen, about which God had warned them earlier.
To understand the curse, we need to look at the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This father wasn’t angry or offended at the son. He only cared for the son’s welfare and forgave him freely. The curse was what the son brought on himself by his own attitude and actions.
This is like the curse of the law. It is something we put ourselves under. Adam and Eve put themselves under it. Israel, when they came out of Egypt, also put themselves under it. Mankind all chose the law, because in it we accused others and justified ourselves. We thought the law made us look better than others.
God worked within this context, with our human condition, when he called Israel and gave them the law through Moses. He really called them to Sinai to worship him, not to give them law.
Now, the Jews at Galatia were choosing the law once again. They were wanting to revert to what their fathers had chosen, again to justify themselves against others, rather than serve them. This is the reason we chose the law in the Garden of Eden, and used it at first to accuse God. We thought the law, accusing others, would make us free to serve ourselves. This is where the curse came from and how it entered our lives.
What we are dealing with here isn’t religious matters. Paul uses religious terms, because this what the people knew. They explained everything in religious terms, about sacrifice and scapegoats, and the curse of the law, which a substitute would carry, because this is what man was happy with. The religious terms gave us a kind of canopy to hide behind, like Adam and Eve hid behind the bush and covered themselves in leaves. Religion is a cover. God even accommodated this in the Old Testament tabernacle system as well.
The Prophets of the Old Testament showed this. The people spoke of religious things and the Prophets rebuked them and spoke of social things, or serving their neighbour and helping people who suffer. We don’t want to do this, so we revert to a religious cover. We have said things like the curse of the law is God punishing us, but it is not. It is something that happens within our own thinking and then behavioural patterns.
When we seek to live by law, as a way of shielding us from community and from helping others, we find that the law does the opposite to what we hoped. Instead of justifying us, and giving us a sense of comfort, it accuses us within our hearts. That which we seek to do to others through the law, accuse them, we end up doing to ourselves. When we set others free form the law, we set ourselves free from it. This is the curse Paul is speaking about. In plain human terms, it is the voice of judgment within our own conscience.
This voice is a burden. It is too much for us to bear within our hearts. So, we try to relieve ourselves of this condemnation. One way is to pass it on to others. This is where scapegoating comes from. By scapegoating, we can blame others, and serve the punishment of the law upon them. Then we have a sense of righteousness in ourselves. But this relief doesn’t last. Because we have lived by the law, we will die by it. It will come back to bite our own hearts even more.
This is what tears community apart. We flee to the law, thinking it will give our community definition and refuge, but it ends up becoming a curse within our relationships. We end up living in hostile relationships, as we continue to pass on our sense of inner disquiet to those around us. We are always seeking to pass on blame. This is the curse that ends up ruining community. Paul was warning the Galatians about the law for this reason. It promotes destruction, not righteousness.
Free from the Curse
But thank God there is relief for us finally. The law that we look to for relief provides it. It’s says, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” This means we can find relief in Christ. Our heavy conscience can have relief, because we can transfer the guilt of the law from our conscience onto Christ.
It wasn’t God who did this, but we ourselves, when we turned on him, like we did with the woman caught in adultery. Christ stepped in and took the place of the sinner, against our own human wrath, our inner wrath of the law. This becomes the wrath of God to us, the punishment of sin upon the sacrifice. God did it to himself, in the sense that he allowed it, as his gift to us.
God came in Christ to bear our guilt, in the sense of to give us an escape. He took our grief and our sense of estrangement from God. He carried it for us. This was God’s rescue mission, his ransom that he paid to free our conscience from sin. This was God’s self-giving service, that he calls us to follow in our grace relationships with others, setting them free from debt, as God did for us freely. Only this grace builds family and community in love. It’s death to the accuser, and then the community can learn to love and live in God’s gift.
Spirit Renewed Motive
This doesn’t mean the law is bad. It is our inner motive that is bad. The law, in as far as it represents God’s heart, and not his allowance of our own hardness, is good. Especially those parts that speak of God’s heart for the weak, the Jubilee and other laws for the poor.
These are the laws, the love of neighbour, that God seeks to fulfil in the new community, as we live out service towards each other, filled and motivated now by the Holy Spirit, instead of by our own righteousness. This now gives community hope of becoming a light to a divided and oppressive world, which still labours under the law in their conscience, longing for the liberty that the sons of God may reveal through community.
As we look down through church history and see how the church has divided, from the Nestorians, from the Orthodox, in the Reformation and then continually within Evangelicalism, we see the reason. It isn’t because of righteousness, because righteousness is serving. We have used the law, what we call gospel law, as a pretext for going our own ways. Instead, we should be working to sort out our differences in the context of love and service, even when we are wronged, as Paul later explains in Galatians six.
It’s something like the case in some nations when a man dies. The man’s family are supposed to look after the widow. But if they can claim she was a witch and somehow was responsible for the husband’s death, then they can carry away the husband’s assets and leave the widow destitute.
They can claim they did it justly. This is the reason we accuse and withdraw from fellowship with others. This is what we use the law for. If we can be more righteous than the gentiles, we can shun them, and keep the loot to ourselves. But we rarely know that this is what is motivating us.
Just to bring this home to ourselves today: this is what we do to refugees and to other people made destitute by this world.
In Paul’s time, Jews were expelling gentiles from the church because they didn’t keep the traditions of the law, to maintain a nationalist control over the faith of Yahweh. But the faith of Yahweh isn’t a nationalist faith. It’s for all the world, through the promises to Abraham. This is how the faith of Yahweh has its fulfillment in the world, not through Jewish nationalism. But church history often tells the same story of political divisions.
And because we have chosen our divisions, we have turned Galatians into a message about our “personal faith and private sanctification,” instead of seeing it for what it is, depicting a renewed community including us all. We have all followed the path of the Rich Young Ruler Jesus spoke to, who used the law to establish his own credentials, rather than use what he had to feed the poor.
Wall of Partition
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Christ has set us free from the curse that we brought upon our relationships. Since Christ has set us free from the law, the middle wall of partition between Jew and gentile, the principalities and powers that formerly controlled us, the traditions of the law, are no longer a determinative factor in our relationships. The gentiles are admitted into the family by faith and the Spirit alone.
When Acts and Paul speak of faith and the Spirit, they mean a new life, characterised by faithfulness to one another in the body, no matter our background. The way of the Spirit means the way of love, as distinct from the way of traditions that separated us in self-centredness. This new way fulfils the law, by drawing us into an agape/ love family of care and service. This is what Paul means in Galatians three, by being made perfect through faith. Paul means that the Spirit brings us into maturity as one family in love.
Family not Marked by Law
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.” Paul explains the family of God is not marked out by the traditions of the law. The family promise was made to Abraham before the law was given. The seed that would fulfil the promise isn’t the Hebrew nation in the flesh, but one seed of Israel, who is Christ, and all who are in him by faith. The law came by a mediator, but the promise was from God himself. The law is inferior to what the Spirit is doing in Acts, marking the true family of God from both Jews and gentiles, by faith/fulness.
Just to reiterate what faith means to Paul. It isn’t just believing something. It is a grace that ushers us into transformed hearts, whereby we love each other in service. It is a faith that means faithfulness, to fulfil the law of love in community, receiving those of all backgrounds in care.
Insisting on the traditions of the law doesn’t lead us into this faithfulness of service, but leads us away from it, into division and destruction. The full sense of faith in the Greek – pistis – means to trust, to believe, to be faithful. It is faithfulness to the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the law of love written on our new hearts of faith. When Paul uses the term faith, he means faith that works through love. The faith has works, it is active in love, enlivened through grace by the Spirit.
Paul explains that the letter of the law was given to Israel because they lacked faith/fulness. They lacked faithfulness because their hearts were hard, they had shut themselves up under the law in self-righteousness. It took God coming in the flesh, and his death and resurrection to expose this hardheartedness, not just in Israel, but in all humanity.
Paul didn’t mean that God kept them under the law by his own will, and that Israel wasn’t responsible for this. Israel kept themselves under the law and kept their hearts hard, which is why the Prophets rebuked them for their blindness and sin. If it was God who did it to them, then the Prophets would have had no basis to rebuke them.
Now Faith Has Come
But in the fulness of time, God came in the flesh to reveal our hardness, after years of the Israelite’s experiment, showing their failure. God gives humanity a chance to prove their ways and wisdom, before we are ready for him to show his cure to those who want it.
As Paul uses the traditional sacramental language of Israel, it may sound like Israel had no choice.
Israel were kept under the law, till faith came. Then they were cursed for breaking the law. It doesn’t seem fair. If God hadn’t given them faith, why were they being cursed for breaking the law? Did they have a choice before they had faith? How are we to understand this language?
The choices Israel made about faith and law came from their own childishness. As with all human cultures, we cover these choices with religious terms. We invented these terms, long before Moses, but God, and Paul, use them to bring us to a new reality. This reality isn’t religious, but human, about a renewed social life from a new heart. This is God’s aim and real project. In Christ, we see the slavery we made for ourselves in our religious systems. We felt the traditions made us holy, but when we had perfected them in the Pharisees, we still killed Christ.
This revealed the bankruptcy of our religious practices. We use these practices to shun and scapegoat others, even the innocent. They don’t end up renewing our hearts, or building a loving family to renew the world. They don’t work. So, God comes in Christ to expose and then strip away our false religions, to bring us to what he really wants, renewed caring relationships Even the verse below is couched in sacramental language. It simply means God has brought us into a mature view, by showing us his true self in Christ. By believing in and following Christ, we embrace the rest of humanity in the way of love, the way Christ forgave and embraced us, throwing off our former selfish patterns that divided our lives.
“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
So Paul ends the chapter, by defining once again how the family of God is made up. We are sons, meaning members united in one family, God’s end-times rulers of a transforming world, not by selfish dominion in division, but by agape service. Hierarchy and superiority are broken, and faithful love has taken over. This was the promise made to Abraham.