For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law 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 hangs on a tree” — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.Galatians 3:10-14
Every one of us knows someone – or maybe we ourselves fit into the category – who can never let go of something until they determine that it is “perfect.” The will not give up on a task or on a project until it has met their rigorous standards. Often that means that they will never complete the project, because after every little bit of tinkering, every little change, they discover that something else is still missing that certain special feature that keeps the whole thing from being perfect. No matter how hard they try, whatever it is they are trying to accomplish simply doesn’t live up to the perfection that they strive for.
You could almost say that they are cursed with an affliction that keeps them from ever attaining what they seek, simply because nothing quite measures up. Even when everyone else around them is convinced of the merits of the project or task.
It is this struggle to live up to an unattainable goal that Paul is trying to point out, starting in verse ten. In verse nine, he had only just said that all who are of faith are blessed with believing in Abraham. And then he immediately contrasts that with those who are cursed because they are trying to keep the Law of Moses. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27, where the Levites are to proclaim “in a loud voice” those who will be cursed, specifically verse 26, where they state, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” The idea of being able to keep the entirety of the law is simply unattainable. Paul, who had been a Pharisee, an ardent adherent of the Law, knew that it was impossible to keep all of the laws. Even Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that they neglect the weightier parts of the law, like justice, mercy, and faith (v. 23), and instead rely on their own understanding of righteousness, an understanding of righteousness that is only an outward show (v. 28) (verses from Matthew 23).
For those listening – knowing Paul’s history as one of those considered righteous according to the law – and hearing him state that it is impossible to completely keep the law, no matter how badly you want to, or how hard you try, must have been confusing enough to give Paul the effect he was looking for. The effect would be this: “Look, I was a Pharisee, I stood for the full and robust keeping of the Law, but even I couldn’t keep it completely. And now, I have something better to tell you. A means to seek God through your faith, and not through something unattainable. Salvation is unattainable through our own works. We are cursed if we do not keep it all, so what we need instead is one who takes on that curse for us. That, my friends, was Jesus. Christ became the curse for us, to bring the blessing of Abraham to all of us, through his own cursed nature, hanging on a tree.”
While the argument makes sense even without knowing Paul’s history, I think that the argument is much more effective for those who knew of Paul’s history as one who persecuted the church because of his ardent adherence to the Law. And, I think this is where we can also look to our own lives. Evangelism is never just a simple recounting of the academic points of what Christ did for us, but an active, tangible display of what Christ has changed in us, in our lives. People may remember the academic bullet points, but still not believe because they haven’t seen a drastic change in the lives of those sharing the message. I believe that sometimes those who have come from darker histories have a greater example – and therefore a greater opportunity – to share the message of Christ’s redemption, because people see the metamorphosis that they have undergone. Those who have always managed to fit into society’s “approved circles” will never really have the same context to declare the good news as those who have walked through the radical transformation that this message brings.
Brothers and sisters, I give an example from daily life: once a person’s will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise.Galatians 3:15-18
I think most of us, when first reading this passage, can be excused for cocking our heads to the side and wondering out loud, “Could you be any more esoteric, Paul?” What exactly is he driving at with this comment about someone’s last will and testament? People change their wills all the time, don’t they? At least before they die, so why bring this up here? It seems, that Paul wants to again make the point that God had made a promise to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through Abraham. And so, this discussion about a will is really about the ultimate provider of salvation – the law, or faith.
Or, those things that come from clear cut definitive words on paper, and those that come from a relationship. Those pushing for the gentiles to become Jews first, before following the Messiah, were arguing that the Law was the ultimate result of the Abrahamic covenant. But Paul points out that God had promised a global family to Abraham long before the law was handed down. So, if the inheritance of a global family came from the law, then there would be no need for the promise. And, since God had promised this to Abraham before the law was delivered, then the promise of this vast number of descendants can only be fulfilled with an action beyond the law. Again, this action is Christ’s death on the cross, through whom even the Gentiles are added to Abraham’s lineage, fulfilling the promise that through Abraham, all nations would be blessed.
N.T. Wright defines this whole conversation as those who wanted to convert people to the law before allowing them to become a part of the family of Christ as trying to re-interpret the will of a dead person, by claiming that “It’s what he would have wanted.” 1 But, Paul says, what God wanted was already clear, so this desire to make people adhere to the law is nothing more than trying to put words into God’s mouth.
Important Words and Phrases
ἐπικατάρατος, -ον – Accursed, execrable – only has Ecclesiastical and biblical uses, and only appears in Galatians 3:13. Another form of the word, επάρατοσ, used in John 7:49, expresses the scorn of the scribes for the unlearned; those that do not know the law are “cursed.” 2 Does the idea of “ignorance of the law is no excuse” express a similar idea to the scorn of the scribes?
σπέρμα – Something sown, i.e. seed, including the male “sperm.” figuratively, descendents, offspring. In Paul, both the idea of plant seed as well as the male offspring. Sometimes it refers to Christ (Galatians 3:16), or to the church (Romans 9:8).3
ἐπαγγελία – Promise.4 Paul links the word promise to the gospel, and looks at “promise” from the standpoint of επανγέλεσθαι (middle voice for “I announce myself”) with the implication being that one announces oneself with the intention of providing one’s services to others. It seems that the idea of a promise to Paul includes the idea of service. The gospel includes the service of Christ to the people of the world, through his death. How does viewing a promise as service to others affect the definition of the word?
- N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone – Galatians and Thessalonians, pp. 35-36
- Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1 volume (TDNT), pp. 76
- TDNT, pp 1066-1067
- TDNT, pp 240-241
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He will attend Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022.