O Foolish Galatians! (Galatians 3:1-14)

In Galatians 1:6 Paul expressed astonishment over the Galatians turning quickly from the one who called them to another gospel, that of Jewish Christians who told them that they had to be circumcised and obey the Mosaic law, in addition to believing in Jesus Christ, in order to be saved. Now Paul suggests a reason for the Galatians listening to the Judaizers–they’d, figuratively speaking, had a spell placed on them by the Judaizers.

1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

“O foolish Galatians” expresses Paul’s frustration over the Galatians’ accepting the Judaizers’ gospel, his finding it incomprehensible that they’d do so after he’d portrayed so clearly to them Jesus Christ as crucified for their salvation. Similarly, the risen Jesus had addressed the two on the way to Emmaus as “O foolish ones” for their lack of spiritual discernment (Luke 24:25).

Paul goes on to give three arguments why justification is by faith in Jesus Christ rather than by observing the law:

– argument from the experience of the Galatians (3:2-5)
– argument from the promise to Abraham (3:5-9)
– argument from the curse of the law (3:10-14)

The Experience of the Galatians (3:2-5)

2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith[?]

In the house of Cornelius, Peter recognized that God’s giving the Holy Spirit to those gathered there showed that He’d accepted them (Acts 10). Later he told the Council of Jerusalem, “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:8-10)

Paul expresses a similar idea here. By listening to the Judaizers’ gospel, the Galatians were in effect denying their experience of having received the Holy Spirit upon believing the gospel that they’d heard from Paul. Thus that experience may have been in vain. Noting the change in tense from the past to the present, I think that Paul is referring in verse 2 to the indwelling of every believer by the Holy Spirit when he or she believes and in verse 5 to God’s ongoing provision of the Holy Spirit to the church.

The Promise to Abraham

6 [J]ust as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (The quotations are from Genesis 15:6 and 12:3.)

The Judaizers seem to have made a lot of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3–“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”). Doubtless they argued that all the covenant blessings come through Abraham; that they are inherited only by his descendants, the Jews; and that God’s appointed sign of the covenant is circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14). Thus for Gentiles to receive covenant blessings they must become children of Abraham by being circumcised.

Paul responds by using Abraham as an example of righteousness by faith. “[I]t was counted to him as righteousness” because he believed God’s promise that, although he was as yet childless, his offspring would be as numerous as the stars he could see in the night sky (Genesis 15:5-6; later, in Romans 4:10-12, Paul points out that this occurred before Abraham was circumcised). Assuming that God deals with everyone on the same basis, Paul infers that this established the principle of justification (being declared righteous by God) by faith. Foreseeing that He was going to justify the Gentiles by the same principle, God promised Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3). Thus it is those who exercise faith who are the children of Abraham and blessed with him.

The Curse of the Law (3:10-14)

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”– 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Next Paul presents two reasons why no one can be justified by the law. The first reason that he gives is that no one can observe the law perfectly, which would be necessary for a person to be justified by it. He cites Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them,” and Leviticus 18:5, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them,” to support his claim that a person would have to observe the law perfectly to be justified by it.

The second reason that he gives is that according to Habakkuk 2:4 (“the righteous shall live by his faith”) justification is by faith, but faith and the law are mutually exclusive. Thus, Paul claims that, instead of saving a person reliance upon the law puts him or her under the curse of God referred to in Deuteronomy 27:26 (quoted above).

However, Paul continues, Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He cites Deuteronomy 21:23, “a hanged man is cursed by God,” to show that Christ was cursed by God; ironically, Paul probably cited the same passage before his conversion to refute the early Christians’ claims of a crucified Messiah. The result is twofold: (1) the blessing of Abraham, which verses 6-9 have shown to be justification by faith, is given to the Gentiles and (2) we who have faith receive the promise of the Holy Spirit spoken of in verses 2-5.

By referring to the crucifixion, in both the beginning and the closing of Galatians 3:1-14 (verses 1 and 14), Paul makes clear to the Galatians and to us that receiving the promised Holy Spirit and having the hope of eternal salvation come not from observing the law but by trusting in what Jesus Christ did for mankind on the cross of Calvary.

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