Galatians 3:1-14

The Righteous Will Live by Faith: Galatians 3:1-14

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 26, 2009

Craig Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this second Sunday in the season of Easter. I want to give a shout out to Katie Pfohl who is now 101 years old. I first met Katie when I was the chaplain at Salem College. She remembers how my great-grandfather used to bring milk and butter in his horse-drawn cart to Salem when she was a girl. It is hard to imagine the changes she has seen over the past century. Things are changing here at Home Church. We’re worshiping in the fellowship hall now while the sanctuary is being remodeled. I’ve never seen the fellowship hall look so nice. This will the last Sunday that Pastor Harris will be with us until October, and we wish him well on his sabbatical. Scott, Christy, and Carl will be preaching over the summer, and we wish them well, too. I hope it was a good week for you. A high point of the week was having lunch with Jimmy Carter. It was nice to hear him describe himself as a Sunday School teacher. I’ve been grading papers this week, and so I may not be as lucid today as normally. I think I’ve read over 500 pages of student work in the last two weeks. Thankfully, some of the papers were gems. One of my students did his senior project presentation on Thursday night. He has been working in a homeless shelter and decided to talk with the homeless about their understandings of God. It was amazing what some of those men have to teach us all about faith, love, and hope in the midst of hardships.

This week we are continuing our study of Galatians. We’ll be looking closely at the first part of chapter three.

Read 3:1-14

Before your eyes:                        Paul is clearly frustrated and angry with the Galatians. We will never know the whole story about the church in Galatia, but I think we can safely assume that these people were precious to him. If Paul did not care so much for them, I doubt he would have been so exasperated. That is one of the paradoxes of love. Sometimes we angry because we really do care about someone and their welfare. Paul had given a lot of attention to the building of the congregation in Galatia, and he had probably been proud of the way they had lived out the gospel, but now he feels that all of this work is threatened.

Paul simply can’t understand what has been going on in his absence, and he asks the Galatians if someone has bewitched them. This is the only time this word appears in the New Testament. It normally refers to someone giving the “evil eye” or casting a malevolent spell. Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been periods when fear of malevolent forces erupted in violence, such as the period of witch burnings in Europe. It is helpful to recognize that this in the only reference to bewitchment in the NT, and we should not magnify fears about witchcraft. Even more important, we should recognize that Paul is talking about the temptation to use religion to divide people. Rather than worrying about bewitchment, we should be concerned about how we use religious symbols and authority to hurt people.

Christi Crucified:                        Paul contrasts the evil eye with the way Christ was presented to the Galatians as one crucified. The word Paul uses is prographo, which can mean “written beforehand.” This may indicate that Paul had used the Psalms and prophets in the OT to explain the death of Jesus to the Galatians. Or the word could mean that he had preached on this theme so much that the Galatians could visualize the crucifixion for themselves. That Christ was crucified before their eyes. Many centuries later, Zinzendorf talked about the need for preachers to “paint” Christ before the congregation. It is possible that Paul was referring to a type of mystical experience in which the Galatians had seen Christ. Such visionary experiences are well-documented in the history of Christianity.

Though we do not know for sure what the Galatians had experienced through Paul’s preaching, it is clear that the image of Christ as crucified was central to their life as Christians. This does not diminish the importance of the resurrection in Paul’s theology, but it is interesting that he does not talk about the resurrection in Galatians. It was important for the Galatians to remember the cost of their redemption. He warns the Galatians that if they adopt the law, then Christ will have died in vain. In secular society we use similar language when we say that we do not want our soldiers to have died in vain. You’ve seen bumper stickers that say “If you value your freedom, thank a Veteran” which is a good sentiment. But more than gratitude is needed. We should also make sure that we do not give up the freedoms for which others died. Paul believed that the Galatians were in danger of giving up the spiritual freedom they had found in Christ and this would nullify his sacrifice.

Spirit:                        Paul is not content to talk only about the work of Christ; he reminds the Galatians that they also received the Holy Spirit through their faith in Jesus. Paul closely connects the work of Jesus Christ with the reception of the Spirit. In Paul’s writings, the Spirit is always associated with the Father and the Son, which is why we have the doctrine of the Trinity here. He is reminding the Galatians that they had already experienced God’s Spirit at work in their lives and in their church. Once again, Paul frustrates historians because he does not tell the Galatians what they already know. He merely asks them to remember what had happened when they believed in Christ.

It is possible that Paul is describing the gift of the Spirit in the waters of baptism. Or he may be talking about a Pentecostal event when the Spirit was poured out on the Galatians with signs and wonders. We have descriptions of such experiences in the Book of Acts and Paul’s other letters, and in verse 5 he mentions works of power or miracles. Whatever happened, we can safely assume that the reception of the Spirit was a life-changing experience that confirmed the faith of the individuals involved and united them in an intimate community of faith.

Some churches today place a great emphasis on dramatic displays of the Spirit, but many times those expressions of the Spirit lead to conflict and division rather than harmony. Other churches downplay the Spirit so much that it seems to be little more than the ghost of idea. In many historic Protestant churches, the Spirit is talked about, but rarely experienced, and we have trouble understanding Paul’s argument here. Richard Hays, in the Interpreters Bible, points out that modern churches may lose more than our appreciation for Paul. “Unless they have a living experience of the power of the Spirit, they are likely to be acutely susceptible to various non-gospels that seek to define their identity on the basis of race or nation or gender or economic class or some other marker of social status. For such communities, the text of Gal. 3:1-5 can only stand as a tantalizing glimpse of a living spiritual experience to which the gospel beckons them.” (p. 254)

Faith and Spirit:                        Paul knows that the Galatians received the Spirit and were transformed into a church of Jesus Christ. The question he asks them is not whether, but how. How did they receive the seal of the Spirit?  What transformed their lives? Was it by observing the Law or was it through faith in the crucified Messiah? The answer, Paul knew, was that they received the Spirit through the Gospel. The phrase he uses is very hard to translate and scholars disagree over whether he is focusing on the Galatians’ belief in the message or the message itself. We should not separate the message and its reception. The message of the cross is life changing only when people believe it and trust in it.

This leads up to Paul’s crucial point. Why would the Galatians start with Spirit and end in flesh? By flesh, he is making a pun on circumcision, which is lost in some translations. He accuses the Galatians of reversing the arc of the history of salvation. The OT prophets pointed to a day when the Spirit of God would be poured out on all flesh. Under the old covenant, obedience to the law of Moses might (hopefully) lead to the gift of the Spirit and the blessings of God, but the Galatians already have the blessings and the Spirit.  If they had received the Spirit without binding themselves through circumcision, why go back to an earlier understanding? It would be like Americans having won a revolution going back to a monarchy; or having written a Bill of Rights, allowing the government to violate those rights.

Suffering:            Verse 4 has posed difficulties for translators and interpreters. Paul uses the word Pascho, which means either experienced or suffered. The ancient commentators interpreted Paul as saying that the Galatians had suffered much because of their faith in Christ, but many modern translations say that they had experienced much. The question is whether Paul is talking about the experience of the Holy Spirit and accompanying acts of power or if he is introducing a new idea of suffering. I think he is probably talking about things the Galatians have suffered because of their faith in Jesus.

Paul doesn’t go into detail, but we can assume that the decision to believe in Jesus meant a radical change in the lives of the people he was writing to. Those who were Jews would have been expelled from the synagogue and treated as traitors to the covenant. Those who were pagans would have broken relations with friends and separated themselves from many aspects of their society. We are so accustomed to Christianity being the social norm that we forget that many people in the world today suffer because of baptism. Even if none of the Galatians had suffered physically, they experienced the suffering that comes whenever a person changes their identity and way of living. They also experienced in their own minds and spirits the suffering of Christ. But it was worth it because they also received the Spirit of Christ and experienced salvation. They experience new life. Paul begs them not to render their own suffering meaningless by going back to old ideas.

Abraham                          After this impassioned opening, Paul draws on his training as a Pharisee to try to persuade the Galatians from the Torah itself that his view of the law is correct. He makes an argument that he will refine further in his letter to the Romans. He writes like an ancient rabbi, playing texts against each other. He portrays Scripture itself speaking and pronouncing a blessing on Abraham. Paul shrewdly goes back to the beginning of Israel and the covenant; back to the father of the covenant people. There is little doubt that his opponents were using Abraham in their argument for circumcision since it was Abraham who was circumcised in Genesis 17. But Paul goes further back and quotes Gen. 15:6, which says: “Abraham believed the LORD and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

For Paul, Abraham is the father of the faith, not simply the father of a nation. Paul offered a radical reinterpretation of the story of Abraham and the covenant. The important things were not a promised land or progeny. The true meaning of God’s promise is found in Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 where God promises that all of the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham. Paul wants the Galatians to know that by faith they are descendents of Abraham, too. They are not descendents through birth. Circumcision will not make them children by adoption. They are descendents of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. It is Christ who brought them into the new covenant of grace.

Curse of the Law?                        This leads into what one scholar calls “one of the most difficult passages anywhere in his letters” (Hays, 257).  There are two major difficulties for translators and interpreters alike. The first is that those who live by the law are cursed by the law, which seems to turn the teaching of the Bible upside down. Paul loves paradox and shocking language, but this passage has been particularly hard for people to accept. How can someone be cursed by observing the law? Martin Luther and others argued that Paul was claiming that the law reveals to us that we cannot observe the law. Our efforts to live righteously are doomed to failure because of human sin. Thus we feel we are cursed by God because we are unable to be righteous. Luther based his interpretation of Paul on his own experience of trying to live perfectly as a monk. The fact that the Mosaic law provides for forgiveness and atonement did not abolish the existential reality that we cannot fulfill the demands of the law any more than the sacrament of penance brought peace to Luther’s soul. However, many scholars think Luther overstated the case, and that he was harder on the law of Moses than Paul was. The phrase Paul uses to describe those living under probably refers to those who define themselves according to the law. Paul does not condemn the Law, but he does tell the Galatians that the Law itself includes a curse on those who fail to observe the law. Paul urges the Galatians to avoid the issue of blessings and curses based on the law entirely by relying on faith in Christ. We should not read this to say that the law itself is a curse or that Judaism is a curse. Paul is saying that the law pronounces a curse on those who do not follow it, and this is the curse that Christ saves us from.

The Righteous Shall Live by Faith                        Here in Galatians and again in Romans, Paul lifts out a line from the prophet Habakkuk to summarize his point. Since the law cannot justify people before God, the truly righteous will live by faith. Notice that Paul does not contrast righteousness and faith; it is by living in faith that we are made righteous before God. Paul unites the concepts of life, faith, and righteousness. It is our faith in God’s promises and the work of Christ that allows us to live fully and freely in the world. It is our faith in Christ and the experience of the Holy Spirit that allows us to become righteous and just. Faith is life-giving. Rather than seeking salvation through observance of the law, salvation comes through Christ.

Paul does not go into detail on this point. In fact, it appears that he is reminding the Galatians of what they already. Some scholars speculate that verses 13-14 are actually part of a very ancient Christian creed. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” In 2 Cor. 5:21 Paul went further and said that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin.” This line remains so shocking that every time Zinzendorf quoted it in his sermons, censors tried to remove it. I’ve quoted this verse in my writings, and every proof-reader thinks I’ve made a mistake. How could Jesus have been made a curse or sin?

Paul quotes from Deuteronomy again to indicate that the death of Jesus was cursed according to the law. It is possible that the opponents of Christianity had used this verse to condemn those who worshiped Jesus as the Messiah. It was not simply that Jesus had failed to reclaim the throne of David, but the way he died was evidence that he was abandoned by God in the eyes of many. Paul may have this argument in his former life, but now he takes it and uses it to shock the Galatians back to their senses. If they are going to embrace the law of Moses by being circumcised, then they will have to view Jesus as having been cursed because of his crucifixion.

Paul uses the scandal of the cross to shock us into a different way of understanding our lives. Yes, Jesus voluntarily became a curse according to the law of Moses precisely to fulfill that law and redeem us from the curse. He took on the curse of the law and in doing so made it possible for Gentiles and Jews alike to live in a new spirit; a new reality. Jesus is the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 who became the scapegoat for the sins of the nation, but his suffering and death make possible the messianic vision of the prophet Isaiah. Paul extends Isaiah’s vision to include all people in God’s saving work in Christ.

Conclusion:            Paul reminds the Galatians that they are part of this new covenant through faith in the crucified Messiah. They have received the Spirit of Christ and he warns them not to give up that new freedom and new way of life by reverting back to old forms of condemnation and curses. Perhaps one reason we do not experience the Spirit in our lives and congregations today is because we are trying to live by the law instead of living by faith in Christ. 

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