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“Cursing and Blessing”

Galatians 3:10-14
Bob DeGray
February 25, 2018

Key Sentence

Jesus received the curse so that we might receive the blessing.


I. Cursing (by the Law) (Galatians 3:10-12)
II. The Work of the Curse-Bearer (Galatians 3:13)
III. Blessing (in Christ through the Spirit) (Galatians 3:14)


Wednesday morning we learned that Billy Graham, the leading evangelist of the 20th century died peacefully in his sleep, nine months short of his 100th birthday. Graham famously said “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

Among many things being recalled about Billy Graham, the one that I want to focus on is that in his lifetime he preached Christianity worldwide, to more people than anyone in history. Graham preached to live audiences of nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. Through television and other media it’s estimated that 2.2 billion people heard Billy Graham’s message. Though he only spoke English, his impact in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia is almost equally astounding. He truly was an evangelist to the nations. In fact the only time I ever heard Billy Graham live was at the Intervarsity Urbana 76 conference, “Declare His Glory Among the Nations.”

We just studied Galatians 3:8 “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Billy Graham was one of thousands over centuries who brought God’s blessing to the nations, the Gentiles, including you and me. But today in Galatians 3:10-14, we can’t begin with blessing, because Paul briefly turns to the alternative: cursing, being cursed by God.

For context, remember that just after Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan and conquered Jericho and Ai, they enacted one of the most fascinating scenes of the Old Testament. Joshua chapter 8: At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal . . . and there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded, to bless the people of Israel. 34And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law.

Moses had prescribed this reading of the Law, blessings and curses, in Deuteronomy 27. After they crossed the Jordan they were to build an altar on Mt. Ebal and write the words of the law on stones that had been whitewashed with plaster.

Then the people were to be divided in half, six tribes on Mount Gerizim to bless the people and six on Mount Ebal for the cures. Deuteronomy 27:14 “And the Levites shall declare to all the men of Israel in a loud voice: 15‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’ 16‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ These two represent the ten commandments, but then a diverse set of ethical and social commands represent the rest of the law. Verse 17 ‘Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor’s landmark.’ Verse 19: ‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ But Moses can’t list all the laws, so, verse 26 ‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

Deuteronomy 28 then lays out what it looks like to be cursed, or blessed. 28:15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all the following curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” Then he gives examples. Deuteronomy 28:20 “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. 21The Lord will make the pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 22The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish. 23And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron.”

The other half of the chapter details the corresponding blessings, but Israel and Judah utterly failed to keep the law and earn the blessings. This is why Israel, the northern kingdom, was destroyed by Assyria, and Judah, the southern, was sent into exile in Babylon. Even after that they couldn’t keep the whole law. Remember Peter in Acts 15 called it “a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear.” Which is why the Gospel of Galatians, of rescue by Jesus as a free gift taken hold of by faith is such good news. In Galatians 3 Paul lays out the scope of these terrifying curses but then tells us the good news that Jesus received the curse so that we might receive the blessing.

Let’s read the text, Galatians 3:10-14. 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.” 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—14so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

In verses 6-9 Paul introduced Abraham, who believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. This gift was meant for all nations: “through you all the nations of the world will be blessed.” But for generations Abraham’s descendants were not a source of blessing, and were not fully blessed by God themselves. Why? Because most did not learn the lesson of believing God for righteousness. Instead they embraced what every other religion believes, the trap most people fall into, that God will reward those who are good enough.

So in these verses Paul turns to those who want to be saved by their works and says “You know what? It’s true. God will only reward those who are good enough. So let’s look to the law and see what good enough means.” Verse 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.” He’s quoting what we read earlier in Deuteronomy 27, a verse that summarizes the diverse selection of laws Moses listed in that chapter. The idea of the summary is that you have to keep all of them. If you don’t obey all the laws you receive the curses of chapter 28 rather than the blessings.

As James puts it in the New Testament, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” I caught a little of the Olympic women’s downhill ski races earlier this week and it reminded me of James. Skier after skier stumbled at some point and lost it. They flew off the course, they were out of the race. You can’t get up and just keep going in a downhill race and hope your time, even with the stumble, is good enough. No, if you stumble at just one point you’ve lost all of it. That’s the law’s standard.

So, verse 11, it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law. Justified, righteousified, made right with God, put in right relationship with God. Paul says no one gets that right standing with God by obedience to the law. And he gives two reasons, one positive, one negative. On the positive side he says again that it’s not law but faith: “the righteous shall live by faith.” He’s quoting the Old Testament again, Habakkuk 2:4. The prophet Habakkuk complains to God about the unrighteousness of his people, Judah. But God answers and says “I know.” “Look at the nations and watch-- and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6I am raising up the Babylonians.”

Habakkuk is appalled “Wait a minute! Not the Babylonians! Do you know their reputation?” Habakkuk 2:2 And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” He then describes the Babylonians, “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him.” Then comes a parenthesis, an important side comment, “but the righteous shall live by his faith.” Then God goes back to describing the Babylonians “Wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.” So what is the purpose of the parentheses? It is to say to Habakkuk and others in Judah that if they trust in the Lord, live by faith in the Lord, they’ll be OK. You don’t survive this Babylonian trauma by might or by power, but by faith. Faith leads to life, and only those with faith are the righteous, the ones who are justified and made right before God. The law condemns you, sinner, but, positively, you are saved by faith.

And, negatively, the law can’t rescue you. Verse 12: But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” This is a third Old Testament quote, from Leviticus 18:5. Right in the middle of the law God pauses to say “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” This is only one of many places God links obedience to blessing. When Moses re-gives much of the law Deuteronomy he says “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.” The whole commandment. So the promise is that there is a good enough: perfection is good enough. But this is a yoke that neither the Jews of Moses’ day nor the Jews of Habakkuk’s day nor the Jews of any other day nor the Gentiles have been able to bear.

And every attempt at moralism, every attempt at legalism, every attempt at salvation by good deeds runs up against this same rock, that people do not do the good they intend, but rather, the evil they abhor. Sometimes in our culture we call this addiction. “I don’t want to go back to that drug, I don’t want to go back to that porn, but I do.” Even if you’re not an addict you know the gap between your good intentions and your deeds. You ‘ve sworn you’re going to be patient with your children – and you lose patience. You’ve sworn you’re going to start reading your Bible more. But you sleep. You’ve sworn you’re going to save your money. But you spend it. Why? Because no system of moralism ever works. No one can perfectly do the good that they know to do. Where it appears to work for somebody you almost always see the sin they are blinded to, usually hypocrisy or pride, just as Paul said of Peter earlier in this letter.

There is a good enough in moralism, in law keeping. Simple standard: perfection. The underlying idea of this whole paragraph is what Paul states explicitly in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” a conclusion he reaches after quoting from at least six different places in the Old Testament, starting with David in Psalm 14 “there is none righteous, no not one.” Paul’s intention, both in Romans and in Galatians is to leave us between a rock and a hard place: We are told we need to keep the whole law, but we can’t keep the law, and to break the law, even at one point is to receive this horrible load of curses, misery for this life and the next. In Romans 7 Paul puts it this way “O wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this body of death?” His answer there, and here, and always is Jesus Christ. Romans 7, he says “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In Galatians 3 he gives the same remarkable solution, for me one of the most moving phrases in Scripture, verse 13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

Let’s take the last part of that first. It’s a quote from Deuteronomy 21, and it’s worth reading the paragraph. “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” Hanging the body, as was done at times in the Old Testament, showed publicly that the criminal was under the curse of God, that is, under the indictment of death by God's judgment.

Paul is saying that Jesus received the law's curse because of the particular means by which he was executed, crucifixion. The New Testament refers to this as death on a tree. Thus, having violated the law at this one point he became guilty of all of it. More than that, though, he bore the punishment of God's wrath for every human violation of the law. In other words, this isn’t just a technical argument, a way of tying Christ into the discussion of the curse. God’s judgment is real and Jesus bore this curse on our behalf, became a curse.

James Montgomery Boice says we see this principle at work in the Old Testament, in the sacrifices for sin and in the ritual of the Day of Atonement, where the sins of the people are symbolically placed on the head of the scapegoat and carried away into the wilderness. It is this becoming a curse, becoming sin that led to the awful but redemptive moment where the Father turned from the Son and Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus became in his own eyes, in the eyes of the Father and of the Spirit, as doomed, reprehensible and deserving of punishment as any law-breaker. But by becoming cursed himself, judged by God, he redeemed us from the curse.

“Redeemed” is a key word that means to buy out of slavery by paying a price. In the Old Testament it’s used this way from the very beginning. In Exodus 6:6 God tells the people of Israel “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” It’s used of the sacrifices which redeem people from the guilt of their sin. It’s used especially in Isaiah of God as Redeemer, applied both to God the father and to the promised Messiah. “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” I’ve often said that if I ever have a gravestone I want one word on it: redeemed. Bought back from slavery by the life of my Redeemer. 1st Peter 1:18-19 “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse for us.

The result? Blessing. Verse 14: “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” So now we’ve come full circle, back to blessing. This blessing comes “in Christ Jesus.” We’ve talked about ‘in Christ’ many times, most recently just a couple of chapters ago, but I always find it a wonderful and fascinating and comforting phrase. It’s more than through Christ Jesus, it’s in him, somehow located not only in his work but his person. A little further on in this chapter, Paul will say that “in Christ” you are all sons of God through faith. In 2nd Corinthians he will say “if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.” In Ephesians he tells us we have every spiritual blessing “in Christ.”

The second key thought in this verse is that in Christ the blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles. What is the blessing of Abraham? The key one is what we saw last week. God promised Abraham that through him and through his offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed. We’ll see next week that his offspring was uniquely Jesus. Yes, there was Isaac, Jacob and all the others, but the one through whom this blessing would reach the nations was Jesus. So in a very real sense we could stop right there. The blessing of Abraham has been poured out on the nations. We receive salvation because God has kept this promise through Jesus. The work of Billy Graham in 185 countries and countless others around the world is part of a continuous thread of blessing that extends back 4000 years to Abraham and runs all the way through God’s big story and reaches its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his great commission to his followers: “go and make disciples of all nations.” Bring all nations the blessing promised to Abraham.

But it doesn’t stop there. The first phrase of verse 14 said Jesus became a curse for us so that in him we might receive the blessing God promised to Abraham. But the last phrase says Jesus became a curse for us so that we might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith. The two phrases are parallel, both the reason Christ became a curse, both the blessing we receive. We talked last week about the Holy Spirit, how He witnesses to the reality of grace. Simply by his willingness to be “God with us,” he is the free giver of eternal blessing. We talked about his witness through miracles that he continues to work among us, and we talked about the witness of his fruit, that he produces love and joy and peace and patience in us even in hardship or in hard choices.

All this is the fulfillment of promises not made to Abraham directly but throughout the Old Testament in passages like Ezekiel 36: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put my Spirit within you, and enable you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Jesus promised this in John 14 “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17even the Spirit of truth.” Later “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

We also saw last week that every believer is sealed with the Holy Spirit. Paul says that we receive this incredible blessing ‘through faith.” God the Holy Spirit comes to us as we trust in the salvation of Jesus. He himself is the gift, and through him all the promises of God with us begin to be fulfilled. It’s through him that we are in Christ. It’s through him that Christ is in us.

And it’s through him that all other blessings flow to us. Back in Deuteronomy we found the people standing on Mt. Ebal hearing the consequences of failing to keep the law, cursed in every aspect of their daily lives, from livestock to weather to a blight on their own offspring to defeat in war and conquest by oppressors and famine and drought and everything else. But those standing on Mt. Gerasim heard the opposite message, of blessing in all these areas and more. That blessing the Scripture calls shalom. More than peace, it is well-being, it is God’s goodness extended to all of life and to all relationships, to the physical, mental and emotional health of his people and his world.

We don’t see full blown shalom yet, but we see the first fruits of that Shalom through the Holy Spirit in our lives even in a fallen world. We see a huge amount of blessing on our relationship with God and our relationship with others. I mentioned Ephesians 1 which in one long sentence attempts to pour out a description of the blessing we now receive as sons and daughters of Abraham.

Listen to a bit of this: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession--to the praise of his glory.” Jesus Christ became a curse for us, embraced the misery we deserved, so that we might receive all this blessing and look forward to an eternity of shalom.

That was the message that Billy Graham brought to the nations for nearly eighty years. His first best-selling book was called “Peace with God.” I don’t recall if he uses the word shalom in there, but that’s what he was talking about. And he would be the first to tell you that this peace was a fruit of the promised Holy Spirit, who was given not only to bear fruit in our lives but to bear fruit among the nations. Billy Graham did not operate in his own power and he was not in himself “good enough” to be an effective evangelist, to be a moral example, or any of the other things he was to my generation. Billy Graham would want me to say that he was a recipient of grace through faith.

And it was through that grace and through the spirit that he lived the tremendous life he did, of obedience and faithfulness. God’s blessing was poured out on him in ministry and in life, and now it is being poured out as he stands in the presence of Jesus. The very first thing I thought when I saw the notice of his death Wednesday morning was “well done good and faithful servant.” And a refrain of the stories I’ve read since then has been “well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” That’s the blessing we long for. Christ became a curse for us so that we might receive every blessing in Him.