Jesus takes out the Law’s curse.

Galatians 3.10-20.

So the legalists among the Galatians (and legalists today) thought of the Law as how we get right with God: We obey his commands, and because we’ve racked up all that good karma, we’re righteous and God owes us heaven. Problem is, God works by grace, and if we were hoping to be justified by merit, the Law indicates we have no such merit. We’ve broken the Law repeatedly. We got nothing. We’re cursed.

But we weren’t meant to be righteous by obeying the Law. Righteousness comes through faith in God. Through trusting Jesus’s self-sacrifice. Through the good news that God’s kingdom has come near.

God promised Abraham he’d bless the world—both Abraham’s “seed,” his descendants; and the gentiles, all the non-Hebrews not descended from Abraham—through Abraham. Ge 12.3, 18.18, 22.18, Ga 3.8 Pharisees presumed God’s 613 commandments was this blessing: If only the world would follow the Law, they could be blessed! But Paul recognized this makes no logical sense. Because Abraham was blessed—yet he didn’t have the Law. The LORD hadn’t yet handed it down. Wouldn’t even be a Law for another four centuries.

Now Paul wasn’t the first Pharisee to notice this problem. Plenty of Pharisees had. So they invented stories where the LORD actually did hand down the Law prior to Moses. Pharisee fanfiction took that weird little story about the Nefilim and claimed the “sons of God” Ge 6.2 were heavenly watchers, sent to the Adamites to teach ‘em Law. They claimed Noah somehow had a copy of the Law, somehow handed it down through his descendants to Abraham, so Abraham knew it. And Abraham’s descendants lost it in Egypt, which is why the LORD had to give it to Moses—again, apparently.

If Paul believed any of these stories he wouldn’t bother with this line of reasoning. But he knew better. Abraham’s relationship with God wasn’t defined by any Law, but entirely by Abraham trusting God. Abraham didn’t know the Law, couldn’t possibly be justified by the Law, and God promised him blessings regardless. Abraham’s trust in God is what justified him. And Abraham’s spiritual descendants are likewise those who trust God—and are likewise justified by our faith.

Whereas not only does the Law not justify us, nor anyone; it actually curses us. And kinda hinders any promise God made to Abraham, because it exposes deficiencies in our relationship with God. Deficiencies our trust in Jesus can overcome—if only we’d trust him.

Galatians 3.10-12 KWL
10 Whoever works the Law is under its curse, for this is written:
“Everyone who doesn’t persevere in doing all this book of the Law’s writings, is cursed.” Dt 27.26
11 Clearly no one’s justified under the Law: “The righteous will live by faith.” Ha 2.4
12 And the Law isn’t based on faith, but “One who does them must live by them.” Lv 18.5
13 Christ Jesus frees us from the Law’s curse by becoming a curse for us,
for it’s written that anyone who’s been hanged from wood is cursed. Dt 21.23
14 Thus Abraham’s blessings might come through Christ Jesus to the gentiles;
thus the Spirit’s promise might be received through faith in Christ.

Verse 12 tends to get translated like the KJV’s “Cursed [is] every one that hangeth on a tree,” though ξύλου/sýlu properly means “wood.” It’s because the Deuteronomy passage Paul was thinking of, refers to a tree.

Deuteronomy 21.22-23 KWL
22 When it happens that a person’s sin is judged worthy of death, and you hang them to death on a tree,
23 don’t leave their corpse on the tree overnight, but bury, bury them that day. For God’s curse is on the hanged.
Don’t defile your ground which your LORD God gave you as an inheritance.

A cross isn’t a literal tree, but when the Persians first invented crucifixion they used trees—and crosses became a substitute ’cause there weren’t always enough trees. Applying the Deuteronomy passage to Jesus is a little bit of a stretch—isn’t God’s curse more about the convict’s sins than the hanging itself? But Jesus, who had no sins of his own, He 4.15 took away our sins like a sacrificial ram, Jn 1.29 so that’s how he freed us from the Law’s curse.

And in so doing, also give us free access to Abraham’s promise. Legalism is wholly unnecessary: We don’t have to be good to inherit Abraham’s promise. We’re good. Jesus took care of it.

Nothing gets nullified. But our sins are dealt with.

A common, problematic interpretation of this passage is the idea Jesus’s death cancels out the Law: We’re under grace instead of Law, we’re in a dispensation of grace instead of Law, we no longer need to follow the Law ’cause Jesus did away with it. Even though Jesus said he did not nullify the Law, Mt 5.17-20 they’re gonna insist “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” Mt 5.17 KJV sorta kinda means he did come to destroy—it’s what “fulfil” really means.

No it doesn’t. Jesus fulfilled the Law by following it to a T. First he obeyed it, which is the only possible way he can be said to have never sinned: The Law defines sin, Ro 7.7 and if Jesus broke the Law it’s sin. But he never did. Broke Pharisee customs like crazy, but never the Law itself.

And second, he died as our sacrifice under the Law. Sin causes death, Ro 6.23 so when humans sin, something’s gotta die. Pigeon, sheep, goat, cow; the sinner’s guilt was ritually transferred to that animal, and it was killed to represent their sin meriting death. But it doesn’t really take out our sins; He 10.4 it’s a representation of what Jesus would someday do for humanity. In actually dying for our sins, Jesus took care of that part of the Law. It’s why Christians don’t do ritual sacrifice anymore. Nowadays we only kill animals to appease our gluttony… which is another issue altogether.

So sins are still sins, and the Law still defines sin. But Jesus died for sin. So nothing need hinder our relationship with God… except we ourselves, and our backwards ideas about sin and karma and merit. Our legalism will be a serious problem if we seriously think we need to earn God’s favor; if we seriously think Jesus hasn’t granted us access to Abraham’s promise.

Galatians 3.15-20 KWL
15 Fellow Christians, I’m speaking as a human: As with humans, when a formal relationship goes into effect,
nothing annuls it nor gets added to it.
16 The promise was spoken to Abraham and his seed. Ge 13.15
It doesn’t say, “And to seeds,” as if to many, but as if to one: “And to your seed”—who’s Christ Jesus.
17 I tell you this: The relationship with God, which came 430 years previous to the Law,
isn’t canceled, so as to nullify the promise.
18 For if the inheritance comes from Law, it’s no longer from the promise—
and God has given it to Abraham by his promise.
19 So why the Law? It was added because of human disobedience—until “the seed” who was promised might come.
It was arranged by God’s messengers, in a mediator’s hands.
20 There hasn’t been only one mediator. There’s one God though.

God’s promise to Abraham was that he and his seed would possess Canaan and bless the world. Since זְרֹעַ/zrohá, “seed,” is singular in these promises, Paul took that literally and presumed the promise applies to a specific descendant of Abraham, namely Israel’s messiah, namely King Jesus. It’s not a corporate promise, for the people of Israel; it’s only for Jesus. But through our union with Jesus it becomes corporate: It applies to him, so it thereby applies to everyone who calls Jesus our Lord.

So if this promise has nothing to do with following the Law, why the Law? Why’d God even create it? Well like I’ve been saying—and here’s where Paul finally says the same thing—it’s because humans sin. It’s to mitigate sin. Humans will do what feels right, which isn’t necessarily what God wants, so he has to spell out his will for us. Humans who love God wanna know what he wants of us, so he told us what he wants of us. (Whereas humans who claim they love God, but don’t really, will pretend he doesn‘t really expect us to uphold Law anymore, and invent handy excuses why not. Like dispensationalism.)

So until Jesus arrived to instruct us in person, the Law instructed us—through messengers, like Moses, who wrote the Law down; through mediators, the prophets, who reminded the Hebrews what Moses wrote. And while there have been plenty of spokespersons for God since, there’s always been the one God behind it all, urging us to stop sinning and live.

The KJV interpreted verse 20, “Now a mediator is not [a mediator] of one, but God is one.” Ga 3.20 KJV Historically this has confused Christians like crazy: We keep trying to figure out who “the mediator” was, and what he’s supposedly mediating. Maybe it’s Moses, handling disagreements between God and the Hebrews; maybe it’s Jesus, who intercedes for us to the Father; maybe the angels, or the prophets, or today’s Christian ministers. The confusing translations don’t help. I render μεσίτης ἑνὸς οὐκ ἔστιν/o mesítis enós uk éstin, “the mediator is not from one,” as mediation not solely from one person—“There hasn’t been only one mediator.” The bible tells us of plenty of mediators: Prophets, judges, kings, poets, sages; and of course Jesus is all these things in one. And he’s the best mediator between us and God, ’cause he’s God. What he’s like, God’s like. What he thinks, God thinks. Know him; know God.

If you’ve read the Sermon on the Mount, you’ve seen Jesus’s interpretation of the Law. It’s his Law, after all; he‘s the LORD who gave it to Moses in the first place. His commentary on the Law is definitive. If we’re to follow the Law, we’re to do it Jesus-style. That means no loopholes, like the Pharisees invented, and like Christians create all the time: God doesn’t do loopholes, but grace. We’re not to bend the rules and arrogantly defend this behavior; we’re to humbly confess our sins, and be forgiven.

So we’re to follow the Law with Jesus’s fruit—the Spirit’s fruit—namely his love, patience, humility, and grace. If we don’t observe the Law graciously, of course we’re gonna turn legalist; it’s inevitable. So don’t! Do as Jesus does. Pay attention to our definitive mediator.

Apostles.

Legalism.