Galatians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Alternatives: The Curse and the Blessing

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," Robert Frost tells us in his poem "The Road Not Taken." He took "the one less traveled by," and that "made all the difference."

But choosing a road only because it is less traveled seems to be a risky basis for navigation through life. How can we be sure that we are on the road to blessing?

When we read Galatians 3:10-14 we are struck by the antithesis of two words: curse and blessing. In this section Paul describes two alternative roads: the first leads to a curse (v. 10), the second to blessing (v. 14).

Faced by this fork in the road on their journey, the Galatian Christians had difficulty knowing which way to take. Some Jewish Christians were pointing to the well-traveled road that had been taken by the Jewish people for centuries. "Join us in the Jewish way of life," they said. "Only if you identify yourselves with us and come with us will you find blessing." They emphasized the noble, distinctive traditions of the Jewish nation.

But Paul argues in this passage that identification with the Jewish nation by observing the Mosaic law is not the way that leads to blessing. In fact, the claim that blessing depends exclusively on national identity leads to a terrible curse. Identification with Christ is the only way that leads to true blessing.

Four quotations from Scripture are used as signposts at this fork in the road to indicate which way leads to a curse and which way leads to blessing. We may label these four signposts with four words: curse (v. 10), faith (v. 11), law (v. 12) and cross (vv. 13-14).

Of course today we do not face pressure to turn to the Jewish way of life. But there are people similar to the intruders in Galatia who want to map out for us the way that leads to blessing. The road they point to is defined in terms of cultural customs.

The signposts that Paul placed in the fork of the road for the Galatian believers can direct us today.Signpost 1: Curse (3:10)

The first signpost issues a harsh warning to all who rely on observing the law. They are under a curse. The warning is based on a quotation from the law itself: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (see Deut 27:26). In Deuteronomy a long list of terrible curses concludes with severe warnings of complete destruction (Deut 30:11-20). Since the curse is the result of failure to do the law, it must be assumed by Paul that all who rely on observing the law fail to do the law. In fact, Paul explicitly asserts at the end of his letter that "not even those who are circumcised obey the law" (6:13).

In the context of the Galatian dispute, when Paul refers to all who rely on observing the law he is speaking about those who are persuading the Galatian believers to enter their circle by keeping the law. Paul seems especially concerned to prove to the Galatians that the very ones who are inviting them to join the group of lawkeepers are under a curse, since they actually are lawbreakers. If the lawkeepers themselves are under a curse for having failed to keep all the law, then the risk of incurring a curse is even greater for Gentile believers who accept only certain items of the law in order to identify with the Jewish nation. An acceptance of requirements such as circumcision and sabbath keeping obligates them to keep the whole law (5:3). And if all who rely on observing the law cannot keep the whole law (see 2:14 and 6:13), then surely the Galatian believers will not be able to do so either. Hence they will surely come under a terrible curse for failure to keep the whole law. Paul points to this curse to dissuade Galatian believers from seeking membership among those who rely on observing the law and so placing themselves under the curse of the law.

If you join a group known for untainted fundamentalism and uncompromising separatism in order to be sure of God's blessing, beware! Since no one, not even the most saintly, ever kept the whole law, even the members of this group are under a curse for failure to keep the whole law.Signpost 2: Faith (3:11)

On the second signpost at the fork in the road we find an inscription from the prophet Habakkuk, The righteous will live by faith (v. 11, from Hab 2:4). Since faith is the way to righteousness, law cannot be the way. So, Paul says, clearly no one is justified before God by the law. This signpost tells us that faith and law are not the same way, but two different ways.

The Galatian believers were turning to the way of law because they thought by keeping the requirements of the law they could gain entrance into the Jewish nation and thus be assured of acceptance as God's people. But clearly acceptance by God, justification before God, cannot possibly be found through the law: according to the Scriptures, righteousness comes by faith.Signpost 3: Law (3:12)

Paul must have realized that his readers would find it difficult to understand why faith and law are two different ways and why only faith, not law, leads to righteousness (acceptance by God). So he sets up a third signpost that repeats the antithesis between faith and law and supports that antithesis by a quotation from Leviticus 18:5 regarding the nature of the law: The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them."

The fundamental nature of law is that it requires doing. When Paul refers to law here, he cannot mean the whole of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses). The whole of the Pentateuch (law in the broad sense) is primarily concerned with faith in God. Paul has already quoted from Genesis 15:6, which describes the way of faith exemplified by Abraham. In Galatians 3:12 law must be taken in the narrow sense as a reference to the specific divine requirements given to the Jewish people through Moses. In the context of Leviticus 18 the things to be done are the "decrees and laws" God gave Israel at Mount Sinai so that the Israelites would be distinguished from the Egyptians and Canaanites (Lev 18:1-4). In the Galatian dispute, the law refers to a set of requirements (specifically circumcision, food laws and sabbath laws) imposed on Gentile believers which would identify them with the Jewish nation and set them apart from Greeks and Romans.

Paul is not making an abstract, absolute contrast between believing and doing. His rebuke is aimed at the folly of doing the works of the law as a means of participating in the life and blessing of the covenant people of God. The law is not of faith, because it demands doing the works of the law as the way to life, whereas it has just been demonstrated (v. 11) that righteousness by faith is the way to life. The law demands perfect obedience (v. 10) and offers life on the basis of this perfect obedience (v. 12), but in itself the law is incapable of imparting life or righteousness before God (v. 21). So Paul puts up a stop sign in front of those who want to follow the law as the way to life. You can't get to life that way. Life is found only through faith in Christ.Signpost 4: Cross (3:13-14)

On the fourth signpost we see the cross of Christ. The only way to be delivered from the curse of the law is to turn in faith to the cross of Christ. In large letters this signpost announces the fact that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. How Christ became a curse for us is explained in the citation from Deuteronomy 21:23: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.

Cursed is everyone . . . the first signpost reads in its proclamation of condemnation on all for failure to keep all the law. Cursed is everyone . . . the fourth signpost reads in its proclamation of redemption by the One who hung on a tree. By hanging on a cross, Jesus came under the burden of the curse that all deserve for failure to keep all the law. By bearing the total burden of the curse himself, Jesus set us free from the terrible weight of the curse.

The Jewish Christians who were pestering the Galatian believers had drawn two circles: the circle of blessing for Jews and the circle of the curse for Gentiles. The Galatian believers were moving from the circle of Gentiles to the circle of Jews so that they could be free from the curse and obtain the blessing. But Paul has demonstrated from the law itself the surprising fact that the circle of Jews is also under a curse for failure to keep all the law. Transferring from the Gentile circle to the Jewish circle is no way to escape the curse of the law. The only way for Jews and Gentiles to escape the curse of the law is to turn to Christ.

The fourth signpost points toward the blessing of Abraham and the promise of the Spirit. Verse 14 tells us that the reason Christ set us free from the curse of the law was to open the way for us to participate in the promised blessings to Abraham. The parallelism of the two phrases in verse 14 indicates that the blessing given to Abraham is equivalent to the promise of the Spirit. When the Galatian believers received the Spirit by faith in Christ crucified (vv. 1-2), they were recipients of the blessing promised to Abraham. The reference to the Spirit brings the argument back full circle to the beginning of the chapter. Since the Galatian believers are already recipients of the promised blessings to Abraham but are now trying to keep the law in order to obtain the blessings they already have, they deserve to be called foolish (v. 1).

Why would you be so foolish as to take the road toward a curse when you were already on the road to blessing?

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Identifying the Children of Abraham

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Understanding the Promise

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