Faith or Law

Today’s reading is Galatians 3:1-14Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Rob.

You’ll remember from earlier weeks, that the overall context for the letter to the Galatians is Paul responding to false teachers, trying to get the Galatian gentiles to get circumcised, and follow the ‘works of the law’.

This is Paul’s response, reminding them of the gospel of grace, and imploring them to stay faithful to his message.

In many ways, Paul could have finished the letter to the Galatians at the end of chapter 2. He has made his point, the Galatians would understand his argument, he could move on.

However, he chooses to return the charge for a second time, and this time it’s personal. You will remember from Richard and Ian’s double act last Sunday, that Paul’s argument was more about theory, and focusing on his disagreement with Peter, but in chapter three he addresses the Galatians directly, and instead of arguing his point from his personal spiritual experience, he turns to scripture.

This could be because it was a normal Rabbinic technique, to prove a point from scripture or it could be that the false teachers he was teaching against also used scripture to make their arguments, and Paul therefore wanted to take them on at their own game.

Today we will look at the passage in three parts:

  1. The role of the spirit
  2. The blessing on faith, initiated by Abraham
  3. The curse of the law

Just before we look at the spirit, I would like to draw attention to how Paul’s entire argument revolves around Christ, and him crucified. In the last verse of chapter 2, we read ‘I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.’

In the first verse of chapter 3, we read ‘It was before your eyes that Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!’, and in verse 13 we read ‘cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—for Paul, his argument rests on Christ crucified, without which the debate is meaningless.

The Role of the Spirit:

Paul begins the chapter by questioning them ‘You foolish Galatians, who bewitched you?!’ —note that he doesn’t call their actions sinful, but he does call them foolish, or stupid, that a lack of logical reasoning has allowed them to accept this theological inconsistency.

And why would they be foolish to accept the false teaching?

Because of the work of the spirit.

The scholar, David DeSilva writes, ‘the indisputable sign for Paul of the efficacy of Jesus’ work is the Galatians’ reception of the Holy Spirit.’ He goes on: ‘This should have been enough to show that God had approved them as part of God’s family.’

I don’t know whether you have been involved with an Alpha course, we are running a couple here at St Matthew’s at the moment. My experience is that it is when we ask the Holy Spirit to move on the weekend away that the teaching seems to make sense, as though a lightbulb comes on. When the Holy Spirit moves, He affirms the teaching from the weeks before, about who Jesus is and what he did on the cross.

So I would like to ask a question—How much should we expect the movement of the Holy Spirit and accompanying miracles to be a mark in our lives, proving what Jesus did for us on the cross?

The Blessing of Faith

This is where Paul really starts to build his argument from scripture, and to do so, Paul goes right back to Abraham, in Genesis 15Open Link in New Window, where God promised that he would be the father of a great nation.

Paul is showing here, how his message to the gentiles isn’t a new fad, but it was what God intended all along. How?

Firstly, in verse 6, Abraham believed God and was therefore reckoned righteousness. As a direct result, Paul tells the Galatians that those who believe, now, are also descendants of Abraham. The promise given to him, also included gentiles—we read that in verse 8—‘forseeeing that God would justify the gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you’.

This goes back to Genesis chapter 12, where God said that all the nations would be blessed by Israel. Paul therefore connects these together, making the powerful argument that God’s intentions hadn’t changed. That through Jesus, this has been fulfilled, the gentiles, the Galatians, we—are already included in the promise, we have been adopted into the family of Abraham, by the grace of God, and faith in him.

The Curse of the Law

Paul now pits this gospel of grace through faith, against the law, and using emotive language slams those who follow ‘the works of the law’ as cursed. What does this mean?

It is possible that Paul is using the arguments of the false teachers and turning it against them. He is after-all quoting Deuteronomy, and using the curse section, warning Israel against disobeying the agreement between them and God, as the reason why the ‘works of the law’ should not apply to the gentiles. But what is actually going on here, how does this fit with the rest of the passage?

Lets take a step back, and imagine that you are on a long journey, but you’re stuck in a huge traffic jam. The seconds turn into minutes, which turn into what seem like hours with no end in sight—until suddenly, the traffic starts to move and you’re able to proceed with your journey. A couple of miles later you see the accident which caused the traffic jam, or road block which has now been cleared to the side of the motorway.

The nation of Israel would have been well known for the various rules that they followed, they kept the sabbath, they refused to eat certain types of food, male children were circumcised etc. This law marked Israel as being different, and what Paul is saying, is that this law has become a roadblock for God’s original intention we see earlier in the passage, that like Abraham, the whole worlds would be blessed by the Jewish nation, and ultimately saved by grace through faith.

The law itself isn’t the problem, but humanity is. We are unable to keep the law, and because of that, we are cursed, because we are unable to keep the rules of the covenant relationship.

Paul now brings the entire argument back to the cross, showing the Galatians (and us), how by being crucified, Jesus became a curse for us, defeating the power of sin and death, fulfilling the law, and ending the requirement for there to be a dividing wall of hostilities between the Jews and the gentiles.

The Galatians are accepted, the gentiles are accepted, we are accepted, by grace, through faith.

As we end, I would like us to reflect on these couple of questions—

  1. What roadblocks are there in the way of God’s blessing reaching the world today?
  2. How can the fact of the cross and the gift of the spirit be applied to them?

There will be a video version of the service.

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