A well-known Christian journalist recently commented that the supporters of the Ten Commandments monument in Alabama forgot the book of Galatians. Didn’t they realize that anyone who wants to be under the law is under a curse?
Galatians is often referred to as Paul’s “Emancipation Declaration” from God’s law. However, what if the law itself was not the problem? What if the law actually expressed a freedom to minister to others’ needs while trusting in the Lord for our own needs? Paul would then be celebrating a new liberty that enabled God’s people to fulfill the law in love. Could Galatians actually be Paul’s “Emancipation Declaration” to God’s law?
The Messianic Age
The law coupled with the Spirit, not apart from it, is the chief characteristic of the Messianic Age.
Paul begins his letter announcing to the Galatians that the Age of the Messiah has rescued them from the “present evil age.”1 “Now that faith has come,” they were liberated from the “curse of the law.” They were no longer “children” enslaved “under the elemental things of the world,” “under guardians and managers.” The gift of the Spirit promised to Abraham has made Gentiles “sons of Abraham” along with the Jews.2 Paul finishes the letter celebrating the “new creation” where Jew and Gentile alike worship the one God of heaven and earth, freed to “fulfill the law in love.”3
But there is a problem: Paul’s opponents want the Galatians to live in a way that denies the dawning of the Messianic Age!
The primary issue concerns the relationship between the law, which is the central characteristic of the old covenant, and Spirit-given faith, which is the central characteristic of the new covenant (Gal. 2:15-4:31).
However, Paul contrasts faith and law in the context of two functions of the law, namely that of the old covenant and that of the new.4 Israel was blessed by God and given His law calling them to trust His promises and provisions.5 Israelites were not to steal because they were to trust God to meet their needs. Trusting in the provisions of God meant being free to meet the needs of others (as expressed in commandments 5-10, gleaning laws, Sabbath and Jubilee years, etc.). Israel would be a nation characterized by citizens who loved God and their neighbors.
After the golden calf incident, God veiled His Spirit-presence from Israel’s hard heart, demonstrating that law apart from the outpouring of the Spirit can only condemn.6 The old covenant shut up the whole world under sin and brought Jerusalem into exile and bondage.7 Having God’s law while His presence remained veiled required a new covenant, one that would remove the veil between God and His people.8
The old covenant order served as a “tutor” to the Messiah’s worldwide gift of the Spirit. Christ’s atoning death brought the Abraham-promised Spirit to all the nations, writing God’s law on the heart and thereby removing the veil.9 Now that the reality of the Spirit has come, the law no longer functions as it did under the old covenant.10 With the veil removed, God’s people are free to fulfill the law in love by the power of the Spirit.
Christ exemplified love as the fulfillment of the law. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. The cross symbolized law-fulfilling love for His disciples. As Jesus met the needs of humanity, trusting in the Father to meet His own, so His people were to trust in God’s provisions for their lives while considering more important the needs of others.11
“Faith working in love” trusts God to meet our personal needs while we meet the needs of others. The Galatians recognized that obedience was a fruit of the Spirit, and so were to “bear one another’s burdens and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” Self-giving love is what the law pointed to all along: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”12 This is why “love,” “kindness,” and “gentleness” are among the fruit of the Spirit.
With the veil removed by the Spirit, the law continues as the definitive expression of love in action as it pertains to all areas of life (Mt. 5:17-19) for all nations (Mt. 28:18-20): for example, defining responsibilities of children in the home (Eph. 6:1-3), paying of wages (1 Tim. 5:18), restraint of societal evil (1 Tim. 1:8-10), and church government (2 Cor. 13:1).
How could the Galatians be so foolish as to want to go back to covenant conditions set up around the bondage of a veil? Did not Israel’s history teach them to hope for the liberty of Spirit-given faith to come with the Messianic Age? Now that such an Age had dawned and given them law-abiding faith, how could the Galatians want to live in a way that denied the dawning of that Age?13
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not an “Emancipation Declaration” from the law. It is the grand pronouncement that we have been rescued from the “elemental things of the world” to the law. This is not a contrast between law and grace. It is a contrast between the law with and without the Spirit, the former being the chief characteristic of the Messianic Age.
“Righteousness exalts a nation.”14 A society endowed by the Spirit of God has been liberated to law-fulfilling love: trusting in His promises and provisions and meeting the needs of others as more important than their own. A monument representing such a society once stood in an Alabama courthouse. May our reading of Galatians serve our nation to see that day again.
1. Gal. 1:4. According to Ezekiel 37, the end of the world’s exile from the garden-presence of God (“the present evil age”) would be heralded by two events: the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of the Davidic kingship. In announcing that Jesus Christ (the Davidic Messiah) has been raised from the dead, Paul is declaring the end of the worldwide exile (cf. Gal. 1:1).
2. Cf. Gal. 3:10-14, 23-29; 4:1-11.
3. Gal. 6:14-15; 5:13-14.
4. This eschatological contrast with the law serving as a metonymy (the part for the whole) for the old covenant and faith as a metonymy for the new covenant is argued by Scott J. Hafemann, God of Promise and the Life of Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 245-6, and “Paul and the Exile of Israel in Galatians 3-4” in J.M. Scott, ed., Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian Conceptions (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 329-71.
5. God’s relationship with Israel mirrors the relationship in Eden. God’s first word to Adam and Eve was not a word of command but blessing and provision. God’s second word was a command, serving as a call to trust in His promises and provisions (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2:4-17).
6. Ex. 32-34; Rom. 6:23a; 2 Cor. 3:6a.
7. Gal. 3:10 , 22; 4:21 -5:1; cf. Rom. 3:19-20.
8. This is the hope of Habakkuk 2:4. Israel’s own history of disobedience and subsequent exile, as well as her failure to be a light to the nations (Rom. 2:1; cf. 2:24), and the need for the Jeremiah-promised new covenant, demonstrates that she did not have a heart oriented toward keeping God’s covenant stipulations and therefore was not dwelling in the presence of God, but instead was falling short of who she was called to be (Ex. 19:1-6; cf. 2 Cor. 3; Rom. 1:18-3:20). Moreover, because the law both blesses and curses (Dt. 28), their possessing the written expression of God’s will without the circumcised heart put them in the very same position as Adam in Genesis 3, in that they had God’s expressed word but not His presence, which for Paul, is the sine qua non of heart obedience (Gal. 5:13-25; cf. Rom. 2:25-29).
9. Gal. 5:13-25; cf. Rom. 2:25-29; 2 Cor. 3:4-18.
10. The ritual purity laws and Jewish food laws, which Jesus argued all pointed to the need for a Spirit-purified heart (Mk. 7:1-23), also were evidence of the veil. Circumcision, calendars, and religious festivals pointed to the Age of the Spirit, and were thus no longer in force with the inaugurated reality (Gal. 4:8-11; 5:6; 6:15).
11. Mk. 10:45; cf. 8:34-38; Phil. 2:5-11.
12. Gal. 5:14; cf. Mt. 5:17-7:28.
13. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul compares the Galatian situation with a prior incident at Antioch when Peter (Cephas) withdrew from Gentile table-fellowship. According to Ps. 22:25-31, a key characteristic of the Messianic Age is worldwide Gentile table-fellowship in the presence of God. For Paul, Peter’s withdrawing himself from such fellowship at Antioch was nothing short of a denial of the sufficiency of the cross to inaugurate the Messianic Age (Gal. 2:15-21).
14. Pr. 14:34.