A Word in Edgewise

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Getting into the Kitchen

Dr. Philip G. Ryken, President of Wheaton College, reflects upon when it might be valuable for a minister to invite listeners into the “kitchen” of original language study when preaching. He does so via illustration from Galatians 5.Philip Ryken

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The Curse of the Law

There is a phrase in Galatians 3.13 which is often misunderstood:

 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree– . . . “ (RSV)

The phrase I’d like to consider is “the curse of the law.”  What did Paul mean by it?  How did/does Christ redeem us from it?  All this talk of blessing and curses probably strikes you as kind of strange.Torah scroll

Well, let’s back up to consider the broader context of the letter. 

Not long after Paul left the churches he founded in Galatia false teachers moved in and started teaching a form of the gospel which was not good news at all. These false brothers were insisting that non-Jews live like Jews in order to get in on the benefits of Christ.  What does it mean to live like a Jew?  Well, several things.  They would have to observe Sabbath as a day of rest, keep certain dietary rules and regulations, celebrate Jewish holidays, promise to uphold all of God’s law, which included men being circumcised.  Paul referred to these as “the works of the law.”

When Paul heard his churches had been infiltrated by these Judaizers (as we call them), he fired off the letter we call “Galatians.”  His essential argument is this: no one—Jew or Gentile—is put into a right and proper relationship with God by doing “the works of the law.” Instead, the faithfulness of Jesus has made it possible for those who put faith in Jesus to be made right with God.

In Galatians 3 Paul argues that faith all along has been what made rightness with God a reality.  It started with Abraham and his covenant.  It’s evident in the message of the prophets as well.  Those who trust in “the works of the law”—remember, dietary rules, Sabbath observance, circumcision—soon find they are living contrary to the law.  For Paul, it is clear the law is not the means of salvation. To try to make the law into something it was never intended is foolish.  The law does not justify.  It never did.  It was never meant to. 

So here is where our phrase “the curse of the law” comes in.  Jesus, God’s Anointed, has redeemed us from the curse of the law.  What did Paul mean?  To some degree it depends on what “of” means? You need to know that the word “of” is not found in Greek.  It is commonly supplied in English to express the relationship between two words (e.g., the love of God, the friend of sinners, the rock of ages).  In Galatians 3 the words are “curse” and “law.” So what is their relationship? In large measure it has to do with how the Greek genitive case—now I’m getting really technical—is interpreted.  Let’s start with what Paul did not mean.  Paul did not mean that the entire law is a curse.  That would be what is known as an epexegetical use of the genitive.  So: “Christ redeemed us from the curse, namely, the law, . . . “ Some have taken this approach and unfortunately missed Paul’s point altogether.  No Pharisee like Paul would have ever thought of the law as a curse.  If you want to know what Jews like Paul thought of the law, read Psalm 119.  The longest chapter in the Bible is a celebration of the law, its goodness and its benefits.  After that, notice that even before he came to Christ Paul felt confident before God precisely because he was  blameless before the law (Philippians 3:4-6). I think we can safely rule out the epexegetical genitive.  Well the best candidate for understanding what “of” is may be found in the partitive genitive.  The partitive genitive expresses the relationship between a part and a whole.  For example, in the phrase “one of my friends”.  The set is “my friends.” The subset is “one.”  The “one” is part of a whole, “my friends.”  This is probably the best way to read the phrase “the curse of the law.”  The set is “the law.” The subset is “curse.”  The phrase “the curse of the law” could be rendered “the part of the law that pronounces curses.”

“OK,” I can hear you saying, “now in English.”  If you haven’t noticed, there are places in the law—especially Deuteronomy 27-28 (part of the law)—where curses are pronounced against those who violate the terms of the covenant.  Ancient treaties and covenants always included a list of blessings and curses, announcing what would happen if one party kept or broke their promises.  It’s much the same today in modern contracts when a lawyer spells out the trouble you’ll be in if you violate the agreement you made.  In those days the penalties for breaking a promise were called “curses.” I suggest the best way to read Galatians 3:13 is this way: Now Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, has redeemed us from that curse-part of the law. How? He did it by becoming a curse for us, that is, becoming subject to the law that said “everyone who hangs on a tree is under the curse of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23).  Since Jesus hung on the cross, he fell under the curse. Now how did the cursed one—Jesus—liberate us from the part of the law that pronounces curses?  In a word, resurrection.  When God raised Jesus from the dead, he vindicated him as His Messiah and effectively reversed the curse, not just the single curse which affected Jesus but the entire system of curses which affected all of humanity.  In the resurrection Jesus became the curse-buster. As a result, the curses associated with the first covenant have been rendered null and void through Christ’s faithfulness. This apparently had been God’s purpose all along.GhostbustersLogoLarge

I’ve met Christians who question why we read the Old Testament.  “The New Testament has all we need,” they say.  “Jesus did away with ‘the curse of the law.’”  Well, yes and no.  He did away with that part of the law that pronounces curses, but he didn’t do away with honor your father and mother, or do not steal, or do not murder.  He didn’t do away with love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  In fact, Jesus repeats these directives, affirms them, and makes them central to his own teaching.  Yes, Jesus reversed the curse so that blessing might extend to all people who put faith in Him.  But the law in all its beauty and goodness remains.

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