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Bible study

Bible Study – The End of the Law (Galatians 3:10)

Today’s Reading: Galatians 1-3

Today’s Reflection: Galatians 3:10

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.”

What is this text saying?

In this text, the Apostle Paul is beginning to explain that people who attempt to earn salvation by their own works and by the keeping of the law can only fail.

Why is it important?

Paul wrote this book as a letter to the churches in Galatia (part of what we know today as the country Turkey) to address a controversy that had arisen among them.  Should covenantal practices, like circumcision, be requirements for Gentiles who desired to become followers of Jesus?

As you may recall, circumcision of male children was a part of the covenant made by God with Abraham.  This sign was to be a reminder of God’s promise to establish Abraham’s descendents as a nation in the Promised Land (see Genesis 17:1-14).  Other covenantal practices included keeping the 10 Commandments and the judgments and statutes (Exodus 20-23), the ceremonial laws regarding sacrifices (Leviticus 1-6) and the feast days (Leviticus 23).

Even though the kingdom of Israel had first been divided and then had fallen under the oppressive rule of other nations, Jews continued the practice of circumcision and continued to see it as a sign of faithfulness to God.  The Jewish Christians in Galatia earnestly believed if Gentiles wished to follow Jesus (who was Himself a Jew) they too had to follow this covenantal practice.

But Paul convincingly argues otherwise throughout Galatians.  The essence of his message is that salvation is not a matter of keeping laws, rules or covenants, rather it is a matter of freely receiving the gift of grace offered to each of us through Jesus sacrifice on the cross.  In Galatians 3:10 Paul warns against relying on one’s ability to keep the law to earn salvation, because if one fails to keep the law perfectly they are subject to the curses that came upon man when Adam and Eve first sinned (Genesis 3:16-19) and the penalty of the curse, which is death (Romans 6:23).

Here’s the problem: no one can keep the law perfectly.  All have sinned and come short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23).  This means no matter what effort man makes to keep God’s law, the best outcome he can earn for himself is eternal death.  This is what made Jesus sacrifice necessary.  He was the only man who ever lived and did not sin, making Him the only sacrifice worthy of paying the price for the sins of mankind (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 1:18-19).  All who receive Jesus gift are no longer under the curse of sin and its death penalty.  Just as the curse came to all through the sin of one man, Adam, the promise of eternal life comes to all through one man, Jesus Christ the righteous one (Romans 5:17; 1 John 2:1).

This does not mean that the law and striving to keep it are no longer important, as Jesus and Paul repeatedly make clear (John 14:15; Romans 7:12).  It does mean that the law is no longer the means to gaining salvation.  In truth it never was.

We have the tendency to oversimplify spiritual matters for our own understanding.  And one of these common oversimplifications it the idea that in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant (Exodus 19:1-9), man was saved by works and through obedience to the law; and that in the New Testament, under the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:8-13), man is saved by grace through Jesus sacrifice.  But Paul makes it clear that salvation has always been by grace.  He uses no less than Abraham, with whom much of the Old Covenant was established, to demonstrate that righteousness is accorded not due to works, but because of faith in God’s promises (Galatians 3:6).

How can I apply this?

1) Know God’s Word

One of the reasons we get caught up in debate over the source of salvation (works, or grace?) is because we tend to focus on the traditions of our churches and assume they are accurate reflections of God’s Word.  The reality is traditions and practices can become separated and distorted from their true intent, purpose and meaning over time.

In the scriptures we see God establish a series of ceremonial feasts and sacrifices for Israel to observe (Leviticus chapter 23), then hundreds of years later we see God say He hates Israel’s keeping of these same ceremonies (Isaiah 1:11-14).  Contradictory?  No.  Israel’s keeping of the ceremonial laws had become a vain ritual completely separated from a living relationship with God, which was the purpose they were originally intended to serve.

We cannot rely on a church body, a small group, a Christian author, an evangelist, pastor or teacher alone to ‘know’ the Word for us.  We are each responsible to read, study and understand scripture for ourselves, to return to the source and hear God’s instruction afresh on our own.  It is this personal devotion to the word (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16), testing our understanding through fellowship with other believers (Proverbs 27:17), and submitting to the teaching of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) that will enable each of us to discern truth from error.

2) Understand the purpose of the laws, rules and covenants

Part of the issue the Galatians had was they believed salvation could be found in their practices and observances, that their keeping of the law gave them the status of righteousness above other men.  Jesus defeated this thought when He stated unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees (the supreme law-keepers of the early church’s day and age) we will never see the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:20).  But if law keeping is insufficient for salvation, just what purpose does the law serve?

For the answer to this we return to the words of Jesus, who also said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).  In this all-important statement Jesus reveals a truth we often miss.  The true purpose of keeping the law is to help us maintain loving relationships with God and with other people.

The love spoken of here is not a flighty or fuzzy emotional concept.  It is 1 Corinthians chapter 13 love.  It is the love that drove Jesus to the cross for our sakes (John 3:16).  It is a love that seeks the best for others, whether in blessing (James 1:12) or in discipline (Hebrews 12:6).  It is the love that God Himself is (1 John 4:8).  This love is not an option for believers, or just one of many possible ways of living a Godly life.  It is the ONLY way to live a Godly life.

Just as marital vows help a husband and wife sustain their relationship, God’s law, and the principles in His statutes and covenants help us maintain our commitment to Him and reflect that commitment in our relationships with other people.  And relationships are of utmost importance, because ultimately God is saving people to be in relationship with Him and with each other for eternity, just as Adam and Eve were in relationship with Him and with each other before sin.

Romans 13:9 – For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

3) Understand what freedom in Christ really means

Now that we’ve established the true purpose of the law, the idea of freedom in Christ which Paul writes of here should be more clear.  The effort to impose one institution’s idea or standard of righteousness—whether it be circumcision, keeping of certain days, the attire one wears, or the kind of music used in worship—becomes a potential obstacle to those seeking to follow Jesus.  These barriers are in effect a form of oppression (Galatians 2:4).  But this begs the question how free is free?  Clearly some commitment is required before someone can join a church or become a part of the body of Christ.  What should that commitment be?

The example of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts offers a perfect answer to this challenging question.  In Acts 8:26-39 Philip encounters the eunuch reading the book of Isaiah and prophesies to him about Jesus.  After the Eunuch makes a profession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah and son of the living God, Philip baptizes him in a body of water and thus inducts him into the body of Christ.  Philip knows little about this man, just that he reads the word, has accepted Jesus as His personal saviour and lord, and desires to follow Him.

The role of a church or a community of faith is to bring new believers into their own relationships with God as disciples of Christ.  As each new member begins their walk with God, they will come to fully understand the importance of His laws and see the benefits and blessings of keeping them.  This happens to a new believer as they are lead into an understanding of all truth by the Holy Spirit, our teacher (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).

1 John 2:3-6 makes a connection between knowing Jesus and keeping the commandments.  If one who does not keep the commandments does not know Jesus as verse 4 says, how can that person rise to the standard of perfect commandment keeping before being allowed entry into the church?  They can’t.  The example of the Ethiopian eunuch shows us that understanding and keeping God’s laws is not a prerequisite to enter the community of faith, rather it is a process that happens as someone grows within the community of faith.  In other words one does not keep the law to be worthy of following Christ; but by following Christ one will in time be taught by the Holy Spirit how to keep the law.  The allowance to learn the ways of God over time, through a relationship with our Creator, is freedom in Christ.  We should resolve to help new believers come to know Christ, first and foremost by reflecting Christ and extending to them the grace He has already extended to us.

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