Galatians 3 – The Law and The Curse

The first two chapters of Galatians dealt directly with the relationship of Paul and the Jerusalem Church. In these chapters Paul has claimed that he was commissioned directly by God to preach his gospel to the Gentiles (1:1-2, 11-12) and that he is not under the authority of the Apostles in Jerusalem (1:13-24). In fact he consulted Jerusalem only when his success among the Gentiles raised the question of circumcision of converts (2:1-10). The pillars of the church at Jerusalem agreed with Paul that Titus ought not be circumcised. Later, Paul confronted Peter publicly for breaking from table fellowship with Gentiles. Clearly Paul is independent of the Jerusalem church.

Beginning in Chapter 3, Paul will begin to create an argument from Scripture which shows that God is doing something new in the Gospel. While the prophets of the Hebrew Bible often foresaw the salvation of the Gentiles, they described this salvation as a “conversion” to the God of Israel. The nations will come to Zion to worship, but (presumably) they will keep the Law as members of Israel. In the present age, however, Paul argues that Gentiles are able to be right with God apart from the “works of the Law.” This is Paul’s contribution to salvation history, something which he has already called a “revelation from God” in 1:11-12.

Paul packs together several texts from the Hebrew Bible to make this point, and requires a great deal from his readers. They need to now only know what these verses say, but also the context in which they are found. That Abraham believed is important, but when he believed is critical to Paul’s point: it was before the sign of the covenant was given (Gen 15, not 17) or before his great demonstration of faith in Gen 22. The model of Abraham’s faith shows that it is only through faith that one can be accounted as righteous.

The reader of Galatians needs to know the whole flow of the Abraham story in Genesis 12-24 in order to understand the full impact of Paul’s argument. Similarly, the quotation of Habakkuk 2 calls to mind a whole collection of events: the fall of Jerusalem and the Exile are the context of Habakkuk’s “complaints.” In response to the obvious fact that Israel and Judah have fallen under the curse of the Law, in Habakkuk they “righteous” must live by faith. Even to say that those under the Law are “under a curse” requires more of a reader than the single line from Deuteronomy cited by Paul. Paul’s argument is based on the whole deuteronomic theology of curse and blessing.

The density of this argument leads to a question concerning what is happening in Paul’s Galatian churches. If Paul is addressing pagan converts to Christianity, then would they appreciate the rhetorical impact of this scriptural argument? Possibly. But based on Paul’s speech in Acts 14 and 17 (clearly pagan audiences) and the letter to the first Thessalonians (with very little reference to the Hebrew Bible), it appears that Paul would not have made an argument based on the Hebrew Bible to a recently-converted from paganism congregation.

Two possibilities remain to explain Paul’s scriptural argument in Gal 3, although they are not mutually exclusive. First, Paul could be addressing God-fearing Gentiles, people who were already practicing a form of Judaism and were now being advised to fully convert to Judaism in order to be right with God. Second, Paul may be using these scripture because they are the texts used by the agitators in his churches. If Abraham were a proto-typical Gentile convert to Judaism, then perhaps one could argue that the sign of the covenant with Abraham was circumcision, therefore a present-day Gentile convert ought to following in Abraham’s faith and fully convert.

How does understanding the “curse of the Law” as an allusion to Deuteronomy’s “Blessing and Cursing” change the way we understand Paul in this passage?

9 thoughts on “Galatians 3 – The Law and The Curse

  1. Indeed Galatians 3 may be one of the most important Pauline chapters in understanding Law and Gospel!

    “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” (Gal. 3:1, NIV’11 Update)

    Once again, as always, St. Paul stands central in the Death & Crucifixion of Christ! But, he does not do so at the loss of the depth and reality of the Law itself, though that Law really gives a “curse”, Christ Jesus Himself, both crucified & risen has fulfilled that curse and reality! And HE now stands as Victor! (Rom. 4: 24-25)… Glory!

    “Now that this faith has come (the faith of Christ, Gal. 2:20), we are no longer under this guardian.” (Gal. 3: 25)

  2. By reading Deuteronomy 28 my eyes were really opened to what all this cursed stuff is talking about. For 53 verses Moses is telling the people of Israel all the horrible things that will happen to them if they “don’t carefully follow all his commands and decrees” (Duet. 28:15). Everything from having bad crops and herds to losing your fiancé to someone who is going to “ravish” her, are going to be effects from this curse. Anything that could possibly go wrong for these people will if they cannot completely obey God’s commands. As we already know we can’t. We can’t even obey God for one day. Paul goes on to quote Habakkuk in verse 11 by saying, “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, the righteous will live by faith.”
    I think this is where by looking at the blessings and cursing of Deuteronomy 28, lets us understand what Paul is trying to get across. Paul stresses that righteousness comes through faith over and over because we cannot live up to the expectation of “fully obeying God” (Deuteronomy 28:1)
    P. Long also mentions that we need to know the full story of Abraham to be able to see more of the whole picture of what Paul was saying. I would have never caught it if P. Long didn’t bring it up but he said, “That Abraham believed is important, but when he believed is critical to Paul’s point.” Polhill talked about how the Judaizers were arguing that the Galatian people should be cut off if they didn’t keep the circumcision law. Polhill then says, “Paul responded with Genesis 15:6 to argue that Abraham’s standing with God was not based on circumcision or any other work but solely on faith” (148). We had to look at a lot of different scripture but I think that by going through Habakkuk, Deuteronomy, and Genesis we can see a lot clearer that why Paul was all about justification by faith rather than the law.

  3. Galatians 3 is definitely one of the most important sections of the Bible. Paul says, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified (Gal. 3:1). Paul later explains this as it is by faith that we accept the Spirit into or heart and life; not by the works that we do. Anyone of us can do great “works” in or community; but not have the faith in or heart. That’s why I feel that when one serves is it about doing it for the glory of God; not about doing it for ourselves just to gain posterity/recognition of others.

  4. In order to get across his message that Gentiles are not bound by Jewish law, Paul uses Deuteronomy 28 to illustrate how futile it is to try and follow the law in its entirety. In Galatians 3:10 he references the Old Testament text by stating that “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law”. Breaking even one part of the law brands a man cursed without any hope of righteousness. Righteousness, then, cannot be accomplished through the law but must come completely separate. This separate righteousness can only be found through faith. Just as the patriarch Abraham was counted righteous by faith (before the law was given), Gentiles too can be counted righteous by faith (after the law has been made known). Gentile redemption comes through faith in Christ Jesus who took on the curse of the law and fulfilled it in his death on the cross (Gal. 3:13). By faith we have the ability to enter the covenant promise given to Abraham through Jesus Christ, freeing us from the curse of the law.

  5. “How does understanding the “curse of the Law” as an allusion to Deuteronomy’s “Blessing and Cursing” change the way we understand Paul in this passage?” Paul really hit me hard when he spoke in Galatians 3:3-5, “…because you have observed the law, or from what you have heard?” that part really hits me, because even though Paul was speaking to the Galatian church, it still continually speaks to anyone who reads it and are looking for God to speak to them through his words. This passage of scripture is detrimental to a Christian’s faith, because often times we just go off of what we hear, or what we have heard about God’s law. I do not dig deep into the message of the scripture’s, I just scratch the surface while reading, I skim over the contents and I do not meditate on the words. I think that is what Paul was getting at when he was speaking to the Galatian’s; he was confronting them, and challenging them at the same time.
    Understanding the curse of the law is to fully accept all aspects of God, all parts of his word and not just the parts we want to look at, while Paul was referring back to Deuteronomy, the Blessings and Cursing. I like Paul’s message in this part of the reading, and I like how we can really take something out of this for future study.

  6. It doesn’t seem all that unusual that Paul required the reader or listener in those days to understand the context of the passage of the Hebrew Bible if in fact the Galatians were Jews. It does say in Galatians 4:12 that “formerly, when you did not know God you were slaves to those who by nature are not Gods.” This must mean that they were Gentiles who worshiped other pagan gods. Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles during this time. Why did Paul do this if the Galatians were primarily Gentiles?
    Paul used contrasting things to highlight the points that were being made. Paul “began the chapter by contrasting Spirit and Law” (p.148). The Spirit proved that the Gentiles are not under the Law while many of the Jews held with all their might that the Law was still in effect. Like most teachings in the Bible we can understand them better if we know the context. Knowing the Hebrew Bible scriptures and using them to understand the full meaning of the New Testament is no different. In this case knowing the teaching of Deuteronomy reveals the urgency of the point Paul is making. It seems similar to the way a speaker can get people’s attention with a sobering remark after they cause the audience to laugh.

  7. Just as Greg says the curses in Deuteronomy 28 are quite horrible and show just how terrible sin is to just and wrathful God. The law served a purpose but that purpose as Paul says, “was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Gal 3:19). Because Jesus had come they no longer needed the law and by relying on the law to save them they were actually damning themselves. I love how Paul uses Abraham to show that Abraham was counted as righteous even before the law. And in Hebrews 11 it is shown that Abraham and other great men of God did not rely on the law to save them but it was because of their faith that they were called righteous by God. And by God’s Seed He made a way to save them. Understanding the blessings and the curses even better shows us clearly the danger the Galatians were putting themselves in. They weren’t just having bad theology but were in danger of finding themselves against the very God they were trying to serve. Matt 5:23 is a great example of what could have happened.

  8. Deauteronomy 28 has to be one of the scariest chapters for law followers. The curses set up for those who do not adhere to all the words of the law are abundant while people who can live up to that are… well, no existent. The law shows us how incomprehensible flawed we are in comparison to an infinite and holy Godhead, but we are free from the law now. We are still sinners. That hasn’t changed, but we are removed from the covenant of law and ushered into a covenant of grace. This frees us from bondage and fear of these curses. God’s perfect love has cast out our fear of punishment. We will have consequences for sin and still be held accountable, but no longer will we or our descendents be cursed. Christ died on the cross. He is redeedimg the whole world, not just us as individuals. If Christ’s is restoring the world and making it right, cursing the generations to come seems a bit counterproductive. But, we ust also look to the Old Testament saints. Were they cursed for being sinners. No! They were blessed, but this blessing didn’t come from perfectly following the law as Deauteronomy 28 says. It comes from faith. It is by faith we have been saved just as it is by faith that they have been saved.

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