The epistle to the Galatians is the text which Browning’s monk “in a Spanish cloister” was hoping to use to tempt his enemy into heretical
Certainly this letter stands out among the letters of Paul as presenting the contrast between faith and legalism.
Over the first couple of chapters, Paul was explaining to the Galatians his reasons for unwillingness to compromise on the gospel.
In the third chapter, he goes on to explain why the gospel of Christ needs to be centred upon faith.
He found the first reason in the Christian experience of knowing the Cross and receiving the Spirit.
Then he turns to the original covenant with Abraham, on which his opponents depend, and begins to show that this covenant itself is based upon
The starting point is the episode in which Abraham complains that he has no offspring (Genesis ch15 vv1-6)
In response, his God shows him the stars of heaven and promises that his descendants will have similar numbers.
Then, as Paul reminds them, Abraham believed the Lord “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (ch3 v6)
Paul is not twisting or straining the words.
That is exactly what we find in Genesis.
Abraham trusts God, and the state of trust itself is defined as “righteousness”; that is, being in a right relationship with God.
For the rest of the argument, this is understood as the definition of Abraham’s character.
He is the one who trusts.
Therefore the true “offspring”, the true sons of Abraham, are those who have the same character.
That is, they are the men who have faith (v7).
This understanding of Abraham is then applied to a previous declaration;
“In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis ch12 v3).
Once the character of Abraham has been defined as “the one who has faith”, then “in you” can be taken as “in faith”.
So the blessing promised to Abraham is promised to “the men of faith”. It amounts to a pre-announcement that the Gentiles, the nations of the
world, would be justified by faith (vv8-9)
The opposite of the blessing is the curse.
The law pronounces a curse on anyone who fails to live up to everything that is written in the Law.
The exact words are “Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy ch27 v26).
Paul’s argument really needs an intermediate stage; “Everyone who relies on works of the law also
fails to do everything that is contained
in the words of the law”.
The point is spelled out in Romans ch3, but here it’s only implied.
Once the intermediate stage of the argument is established or assumed, Paul’s conclusion is valid;
“All who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (v10).
One of the curses imposed by the law is “A hanged man is accursed by God”, because hanging is the normal death-penalty for criminals (Deuteronomy
But Christ himself hung on a tree, or the nearest equivalent, and therefore comes under that same curse (v13).
I’m inclined to think that Paul is familiar with that curse because he used to quote it in his persecuting days.
His argument then would have been that the followers of Jesus were following one who was accursed, according to the statement of the law, and that was
enough to justify their condemnation.
Once he became a Christian, he found this way of turning the argument right round.
“Yes, Christ came under a curse, but that’s exactly how he saved us”.
Paul needs to mix metaphors to explain the effect of the Cross on the curse imposed by the law.
He says that Christ became a curse (or an accursed thing) “for us” [HYPER HEMON].
This implies a “scapegoat” image, taking the curse upon himself in order to carry it away from us.
But he adds that Christ “redeemed” us from (“bought us out from”) the curse.
“Redemption” suggests release from a state of slavery.
It also brings in the thought that a “price” was paid, in terms of the self-offering of Christ.
Paul may have spelled out these connections more clearly in his previous teaching amongst the Galatians.
It was necessary to employ these metaphors, because the Old Testament does not seem to offer any language relating to what we call the “lifting”
of curses (based on the image of the curse as a burden that weighs people down).
The nearest thing I could find was “turning the curse into a blessing”, which is what happened to the curse of Balaam (Deuteronomy ch23 v5).
And that is exactly what Paul is describing here, when the curse of the law is turned into the blessing of Abraham.
This has already been defined as “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (v14).
But is the promise to Abraham not superseded by the law, which came later?
No, because the promise came by covenant, and a covenant cannot be annulled.
Even a human covenant is treated as unchangeable, so the same must be true of a covenant which God himself has ratified (v15, v17)
The Greek word DIATHEKE, like the English word “testament”, can also mean “last will and testament”.
That’s why some modern translations use the word “will”, which seems to be supported by the word “inheritance” (v18)
But the word KLERONOMIA, though translated as “inheritance”, can simply mean “an allocation of property-rights”. It is the word used in the
Septuagint for the allotments of land to the twelve tribes.
So it is not necessary to assume that someone must die before the inheritance can be received.
Indeed, the “will” metaphor stumbles over the fact that the one who died also rose from the dead, and hasn’t relinquished his own rights.
The real point here is the security of God’s word, making “covenant” the better translation.
Finally, the law cannot combine
with faith in providing the inheritance, because they work on a different basis, making them incompatible.
The difference can be spelled out more clearly in terms of two quotations from the Old Testament (vv11-12).
On the one hand, the basis provided by the promise; “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk chv2 v4).
On the other hand, the basis provided by the law; a man shall live “ by doing my statutes and my ordinances” (Leviticus ch18 v5). Incidentally,
the man who relies on this approach is not called “righteous”.
One approach is a form of rest, trusting in God, and the other is a form of activity, which makes it impossible to be in both states at the same
Therefore (coming back to v18), if the inheritance could be achieved through the law, on the basis of obedience, it would not have been achieved on
the basis of promise.
There would be no need for the promise at all.
But Paul has established that the promise cannot be voided.
So if the inheritance must
come through the promise, it cannot also
come through the law.
The message is that “Faith” as the way to reach a right relationship with God is proved and secured by the promise to Abraham.
edit on 29-1-2016 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)