Galatians 3: 1 – 14 Faith or works of the law
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain – if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham ‘believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, ‘The person who does these things 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 is hung on a pole.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
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Let’s start with the easy bit. When it comes to the heart of this passage, Paul’s own words are perfectly straightforward: “did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?”
Paul’s experience was that it was obvious when believers received the Holy Spirit. They spoke in tongues, they prophesied and miracles of healing happened through them. This clearly happened with the Galatians because in verse 5 Paul writes, “…does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you have heard?’”
For Paul to write in this way, the answer must have been obvious; we receive the Holy Spirit by believing what we have heard.
And yet he feels the need to make his point even more firmly. Why would he do this? Here’s where we must use a little imagination.
The circumcision group must have cast doubt on the very argument that Paul uses. Perhaps they said something like, “Ah, yes, God worked miracles through you when you received the Holy Spirit, but he wants you to stop sinning as well. The law says you must be circumcised (or any other requirement of the law) and you must obey that.” This argument seems to be solidly based on Scripture, but Paul says, “No! That’s wrong! That completely undermines the good news. If you bind yourself by the law, you are making Jesus’ sacrifice worthless.”
To emphasise his argument, Paul points to the example of Abraham. “So also Abraham ‘believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” Abraham lived well before Moses; the law hadn’t been given – indeed, the nation of Israel didn’t exist. Abraham had a direct experience of God. In response he left his home and his extended family and became nomadic. He had further experiences of God, and showed his faith through his obedience to God’s direct instructions and it was this obedience based on faith that was “credited to him as righteousness.”
Paul argues that the Gentiles are in the same position as Abraham; they must respond directly to God’s Holy Spirit. Thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus, that is all they need to do.
He then continues by pointing out that, “The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, ‘The person who does these things will live by them.’” The enormous (and essential) difference between obedience to the law and living by faith in Jesus is this: If you could be justified by following the law, you wouldn’t need any experience of God. You might never know him; you might even believe he doesn’t exist.
The very heart of Paul’s good news is this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
I find this hard to understand. When he says ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole,’ Paul is quoting from the Old Testament. “If someone guilty of a capital offence is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21: 22 – 23)
This quotation seems to me to be about ritual purity, in this case the purity of the land in which the Israelites are to live. Yes, it does indeed say that “because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse,” but what exactly does this mean? I believe that Jesus died for me and was raised from the dead. I believe that the Holy Spirit is active in my life. But I don’t understand what Paul means when he writes that Jesus became a curse for us.
If anyone has any good ideas, please feel free to describe them in a comment on the post!
Finally, these arguments from scripture would have been typical of the ‘proofs’ that Paul used when bringing the good news to the Jews in the synagogue. They are very different from the beliefs he held before his conversion.
Paul’s personal experience of the work of the Holy Spirit has completely changed his interpretation of the Scriptures! Praise the Lord!
You are great, you are good, you are our loving heavenly Father. Help us to understand what we need to in order to do your will and experience your love as fully as possible.
In Jesus’ name, Amen