The Jewish Curse and Blessing
The Jews had an intense desire to be found pleasing to God. They were the chosen people of God - the nation of promise and the descendants from their great ancestor, Abraham. The Jewish boys would have been raised with all the stories of the Old Testament, all of their great victories, and even the reason for their greatest loss and captivity. The Jews understood the measure of righteousness required to be found pleasing in God’s sight, and this lofty achievement never detoured them from reaching for their highest gain. The apostle Paul, speaking from his time as a Jew, said this concerning his righteousness and the Law – “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:6). The Jews were willing to sacrifice everything in order to be found faithful in the sight of God, but the guilt of their sin continually followed them in every pursuit. The Jews were simply unwilling to acknowledge that justification by Law was impossible. The Jews were cursed because their only way of justification required more than they were able to give.
The apostle Paul was called by God from the pursuit of righteousness based on works and was transformed into journeying toward God based on faith (Acts 9). This was a radical transformation, because it challenged Paul to see the route he had first chosen as impassable. As the Lord told him on that fateful day – “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). The Master was calling for His servant to come and follow Him. The servant had the freewill to choose to walk away from this moment and not serve the Lord, but Saul understood the magnitude of the moment and it changed the course of his life forever. The servant did not resist to further pain, but rather faith saved him from the guilt of sin which had grown in his life. Paul would never forget the actions nor the guilt from his earlier life, but rather it motivated his faithfulness toward God and he would later write – “even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief…It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15; emphasis mine, bcj).
This transformation of the apostle Paul would prove fruitful for all of mankind, both to the Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles were richly blessed from his conversion, because Paul served the Lord as the evangelist/apostle to the Gentiles. While Paul’s influence may have never been as successful with the Jews, he still held great sway in the manner of life chosen by the Jews. Paul wrote many of his epistles to the churches throughout the Gentile world, but almost in each epistle was Paul’s continued concern for his Jewish brethren and their faithfulness to God. One of Paul’s more intense letters written to brethren who had neglected their allegiance to the gospel, is Galatians. The book of Galatians is Paul’s appeal for the truth and stern warning against turning from it. Certainly, the background of Paul’s earnest plea toward his brethren was him own remembrance of the Lord’s words – “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
The book of Galatians covers a variety of issues and arguments from the apostle Paul regarding the Jew and Gentile relationship with the Old and New Covenants. It is here that Paul introduced two curses for the mind of his reader to contemplate. The first curse Paul wrote, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them’” (3:10). Paul never doubted the desire of the Jews who wanted to be found righteous and pleasing in the sight of God. The apostle was simply trying to have them realize, no matter the intensity of their pursuit, without the gospel nothing was ever gained except the curse. This curse was not based upon the Law, because it was bad or sinful, but rather it required of the Jews more than they could offer. The Law required perfect obedience! Paul wrote – “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith’” (3:11). Justification was no longer found in the pursuit of works, but rather it was by faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Jews were lost and Paul was making an earnest plea for them to see the curse that was following them.
The Jews redemption, their justification, came in the form of a man named Jesus. Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law…” (3:13a). The curse of perfect obedience was no longer the sole method of salvation, but now a new and better way was made possible through Jesus Christ. This was the gospel of the New Covenant and what Paul had preached to them, but it was also what the Galatians were guilty of abandoning (1:6-9). How was Jesus able to accomplish such a feat? Jesus did not suffer from the curse of the Law, because He obeyed every commandment and fulfilled every requirement. Paul went on to write, “…having become a curse for us–for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hands on a tree’”– in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (3:13b-14). Not that Jesus became cursed by the same curse of “perfect obedience,” but rather He took on the curse of being hung upon a tree. Jesus’ death on the cross was able to accomplish the feat of fulfilling the promises given to Abraham, fulfilling the requirement of the Old Law, and bringing all men together under one gospel and offer of salvation. Mankind would no longer be divided, but all can be made one through Jesus Christ.
The Jews’ pursuit of righteousness based upon their “perfect obedience” was no longer a curse which prevented their entrance to heaven. The Jews were now able to be saved by the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. Their imperfections were made perfect through faith and the grace of God. The apostle Paul was having to remind his Jewish brethren of this great blessing in his epistle to the Galatians. The Jews were no longer instructed by the Law of “perfect obedience,” but rather were now guided by the perfect law of liberty in Jesus Christ. May we learn from their lesson that we too are not saved by our merit and works of righteousness, but rather we are saved by the grace of our God. May God bless our efforts to learn and faithfully serve Him all the days of our lives!