B. An argument from Scripture and history (3:6-29)

Paul continues his argument from Scripture and history. In His promise to Abraham, God offered righteousness and blessing to all who believe. The promises were, therefore, ‘the gospel in advance’.

What of the Law promoted by the Judaists? Paul now contrasts the Law with the Promises. The Law demands righteousness in the form of flawless obedience but this puts man in an impossible situation! Man cannot attain righteousness: it can only be gifted by God. It is not something that can be won by the dedicated few who struggle down the long and difficult path of perfect obedience. Rather, God gives freely His grace to those who believe: who trust in Him, His promises and His salvation in His Son.

As Paul argues, the Law cannot confer righteousness. It can only bring down a curse. It offers no solution to man in his quest for the righteousness; that can come only from God.

III.B.ii. The Law curses; but there is an alternative (3:10–12)

10 “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, the just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, the man that doeth them shall live in them.”

3:10. Paul drops his bombshell: “As many as are of the works of the Law”— Paul means the Judaists, of course — “are under … the curse.” What?! The Judaists must have been outraged by this assertion; but Rabbi Paul has all the proof he needs at his fingertips: “It is written, cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”

This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 27:26, and the context is powerful. Moses designed a ceremony to be conducted by the tribes as soon as possible after they entered into the land promised to their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. The ceremony symbolised the end of the Amorite occupation and the beginning of a new era, with a holy people worshipping and serving a holy God in a holy land.

At Shechem, in the very centre of the land, Joshua was to erect great stones, plaster them, and write upon the plaster the provisions of the Law. When that task had been completed, Israel divided into twelve tribes. Six tribes, including Simeon, Levi, and Judah, stood on Mount Gerizim, on the southern side of the vale of Shechem. They were to announce the blessings promised to those who obeyed the Law. The other six tribes stood on Mount Ebal, on the northern side, a slightly higher peak. They were to announce the curses threatened for those who disobeyed the Law.

These blessings and curses would largely be outworked by God on the land they had inherited. If they were faithful, the land would yield its fruits, they would have many healthy children, and the nation would prosper (28:1–14). If they were unfaithful, the land would withhold its fruitfulness, they would struggle along under an expanding series of disasters and catastrophes, climaxing in the capture and destruction of Jerusalem and their exile from the land (28:15–68). This situation would only be reversed, Moses warned, when they turned back to God, who would then graciously return them to the land. Only then, when they served God with circumcised hearts, would they finally experience His blessing in all its fullness (30:1–10).

The ceremony appears to be in balance until we look more closely. The blessings, for example, are sandwiched between a battery of curses and terrible premonitions of ultimate disaster. Was God sending a message to Israel? Indeed He was; and within days He had told Moses the sober truth. They had been a rebellious people even with so great a shepherd. After his death they would certainly depart from God and His Law and the sword of judgment would fall (31:16–29).

And so the last of the series of curses to be recited states, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them” (27:26). The requirement is comprehensive. They must assent with their mouths to “all the words of this law,” and they must “do them.” And no doubt they would assent. They had been very ready to declare at the foot of Sinai, “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Exod 24:7): only to craft the golden calf and abandon themselves to orgiastic worship within 40 days!

3:11–12. Paul adds another quotation, this time from Leviticus 18:5: “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgements: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord (small caps).” This was what we might call the Performance Principle. Keep the Law, and live. Break it, and die. Keep the Law, and be blessed. Break it, and be cursed. How had it fared?

Even a quick review of Israel’s history demonstrates that Israel had failed utterly to honour the Principle. After entering the Land they had failed to consolidate their early successes and expel the Canaanites. The consequences God had warned them of followed swiftly and inevitably. They embraced the ways of the Canaanites and suffered disaster upon disaster. Revival under Samuel had been followed by failure under Saul. David restored true religion; his son Solomon corrupted it. The nation broke in half. The northern half followed unremittingly the artificial religion of Jeroboam, from which it deviated only to do much worse: worship the Canaanite god, Baal. Brief periods of reformation in the southern kingdom brought occasional bursts of sunlight into an otherwise gloomy winter of apostasy, moral corruption and social injustice. Eventually, the nation was thrust out of the Land, first by the Assyrians, then by the Babylonians.

After a generation a remnant returned to the Land under God’s grace. Within another generation they were back at it: marrying into the nations round about them and adopting their ways. The priests, the custodians and teachers of the Law, were among the worst offenders. As Greece followed Persia and Rome followed Greece, the priests imitated the philosophies and the practices of these ‘cultured’ nations and used their privileged position simply to consolidate their political power and feather their own nests. The popular reaction of the Chasidim, the ‘righteous ones’, fossilised into the spiritual elite of the Parisim, the ‘separate ones’.

Yet even these were far from obedient. Jesus knew the terrible reality behind the smooth face presented by the Pharisees to the world. They were “a wicked and adulterous generation” infested with the demons of spiritual madness and infected with the cancer of hypocrisy (Matt 12:45; 16:4; 23:1–33; Mark 12:38–40; Luke 11:26; 20:45–47). Paul, “an Hebrew of the Hebrews” and “a Pharisee of the Pharisees,” would later confess that the Law’s prohibition of covetousness had only served to fan the ame of desire into life (Rom 7:7–24).

Peter summed up the stark reality of Israel’s experiment with Law-compliance when he challenged his contemporaries and especially the Judaists, “Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).

It must have been dreadfully hard for them to hear and accept Peter’s summary statement; but what he said was undeniably true. Even those who, like Paul, had sincerely endeavoured to keep the Law in all good conscience knew that they had failed. For most of Israel’s history the great majority of its people had never really tried at all. The Performance Principle must be judged a failure. And the awful consequence was that they were, therefore, cursed by the very Law they had been charged to keep.

But, marvellously, the situation was not hopeless. Israel had been blind. There was a way to be right with God but Israel had been so preoccupied with the path of Law that it had taken a serious wrong turn. Righteousness had always been possible but on a completely different basis: not one’s own actions, to establish one’s own righteousness in one’s own right but in the other direction completely: faith in God as the Giver of righteousness. And so Paul quotes another passage: “The just shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4).

The plot of Habakkuk’s brief but brilliant prophecy is well known. In the face of rampant corruption all around him, Habakkuk appeals to God for judgment and justice. God assures him: it is coming in the shape of the armies of Babylon. The prophet is shocked. Surely God would not employ those corrupt idolaters and notorious imperialists? Where is the justice in that? God assures the prophet that Babylon will meet its doom in turn, as would all the proud nations, and the day would come when the Lord would return to His holy temple and all the earth would be reverently silent before His majesty. His confidence in God’s justice and mercy restored, the prophet concludes with a song of triumph and unwavering hope. Despite the unpromising present, he is certain that God’s promises will be fulfilled.

In the middle of this advancing national catas- trophe, God reminds Habakkuk and those who will listen to him how they can be certain of salvation: “The just shall live by faith.” The passage must have been rather a favourite with Paul, as it is also used in Romans 1:17 and Hebrews 10:38. The principle is right through Scripture. In fact, the word “faith” is first used in Genesis 15:6, a passage that illustrates this same principle: Abraham “believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” The words of God’s promise to Habakkuk are quotable because they are so succinct.

It is “evident”, Paul concludes, that nobody is justified by the Law but cursed by it. There is a solution: those who seek righteousness can find it by believing God.

III.B.iii. Christ accepted the curse of the Law, to take it away (3:13–14)

13 “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 at the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith”.

3:13. A terrible curse! A hopeless situation! Ah, but there is a solution to the situation! And that solution comes not from the Law but from the very one sidelined by the Judaists: Christ, who took upon himself the curse of the Law, clearing the way for the promised blessing to come upon those who believe.

In another place, Paul would say that God “hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). In this place, he speaks of Christ having become a curse for us, a man who had been only a blessing, “who went about doing good,” who deserved not a curse, but a blessing. “He made his grave with the wicked,” though they could nd nothing to charge him with and he was, in fact, perfect in faith, hope, love and righteousness. What a gracious act, to join the infamous company of the five Canaanite kings, the hateful sons of Saul, the genocidal Haman: “Being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:8).

“Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree,” writes Paul, paraphrasing Deuteronomy 21:22–23. Again the context is remarkable. The provision begins, “If a man have committed a sin worthy of death.” Yet Pilate testified, “Nothing worthy of death has been done by him” (Luke 23:15). The hanged man was deemed to be “accursed of God”; and Israel considered Jesus to be “stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isa 53:4). Yet he was, in reality, God’s beloved Son, in whom He was well pleased. The body was to be removed from the tree and buried before sunset so that the land would not be defiled. Yet the blood of Jesus brought atonement, the remission of sins, righteousness, redemption and reconciliation. Indeed, he “made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).

At every point the terms of the provision are contradicted; and yet the provision is finally fulfilled when Joseph and Nicodemus, the Temple custodian and the Teacher of Israel, sadly and sorrowfully take the Lord’s lifeless body from the cursed tree and lay it to rest in a virgin tomb. It is as if God deliberately set up this particular provision for failure. It would be fulfilled, yes; but in the course of such a gross injustice that nobody could miss the signal. Having cursed the only man who ever kept it perfectly, the Law was obviously broken. Its time was up.

And so, by his extraordinary and selfless choice, moved by his love for his Father, for his wavering disciples and the very sinners who bolted him to the cross, the Lord Jesus brought a final end to the framework and fabric of the Law. Types were fulfilled. The power of sin was crushed. Sentences were annulled. Sins were forgiven. Penalties were remitted. Regulations were voided. Debts were paid. Captives were ransomed. Slaves were redeemed and unchained. The dead were raised. New life and righteousness became suddenly and marvellously possible.

With a terrible grinding of gears, a shriek of brakes and a final sigh of escaping air, the great machinery of the Law shuddered to a halt after an epic journey of 1,500 years: “It is finished.” As an old, much-loved, much-revered scroll is rolled up and laid away in the synagogue genizah, so the Law was not destroyed but laid to rest. A new and better covenant, established on better promises, inaugurated by a sacrifice that was fully and finally effectual for guilty consciences trapped in sinful lives, upheld by an ever-living intercessor, worked upon the heart by the Spirit of God: these things took its place.

3:14. And so the way was cleared for God’s larger purpose: the blessing of all peoples, Jew and Gentile, in Abraham; and this in turn, “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

We are foolish to despise the concrete tokens of the promise; but the promise is far more than the Promised Land. At the heart of the promise is the intervention of God to bless His people by turning them from sin to righteousness, as the apostles declared at Pentecost and after (e.g. Acts 2:38–39; 3:25–26; 10:43; 13:38–39; 26:18).1

Years before, God had promised His rebellious people that the day would come when He would “sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you … And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses” (Ezek 36:25–29).

Through Jeremiah also God declared, “Behold, the days are coming … when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31–34).

The Law could not defeat the diabolos: history had demonstrated that conclusively. Despite the fact that the Law was “holy, and just, and good,” while it endured, sin also reigned and death by sin. But Christ had crushed the diabolos. He had risen from the dead. The power of the Promises had replaced the shackles of the Law. New life in the Spirit was now possible for those who put their trust in God.

It will be a while until Paul spells out the practical implications of new life in the Spirit (chapters 5–6). He still has the falsehoods of the Judaists in his sights; and he will not be content until he has demonstrated that the Promises pre-date the Law and will outlive it; that the Law had only a temporary life and a transient purpose and that was to prepare us for the Promises. And also a consideration of faith: that the Law is for the spiritually immature, while faith is for the full-grown sons and daughters of the living God.

While we trace his logic carefully, let us not miss the thrust of his message: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Let us give ourselves to him with all we have and all we are.

References:

  1. In fact, inheritance in the Land positively requires this spiritual activity of God, as the following passage from Ezekiel shows. See also Deut 30:6.