Proper 6 • Galatians 2:15–21; 3:10–14 • June 16, 2013

By Thomas Egger

Proposed theme: The sermon focus developed here highlights the language of curse and blessing in Galatians 3. No power of our own, but only Jesus Christ, has delivered us from the God-sized curse of sin and death. Through Jesus, we receive the God-sized “blessing of Abraham.”

General notes: This pericope continues from Paul’s confrontation of Peter in 2:11–14. Although the Jews have the law of God and may be conscientious to keep it, Paul reminds Peter of what every Jewish Christian should know: (sinful) man cannot be justified in the sight of God by acts of obedience but only through trust in Christ’s love and self-giving (2:20)—his righteousness-securing (2:21), redeeming, curse-removing, blessing-bringing death on the tree (3:13–14).

In 2:16, where the ESV translates “a person is not justified by works of the law” and “by works of the law no one will be justified,” Paul’s Greek has ἄνθρωπος (a man is not justified) and πᾶσα  σάρξ (all flesh will not be justified). Man and flesh connect with Paul’s overarching theme in Galatians: salvation must be from God, in Christ, through the Spirit—not from the power of man or the power of flesh: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being completed by the flesh?” (3:3). Throughout Galatians, Paul constructs antitheses along this radical fault line: man, flesh, works, obedience, circumcision, etc. on one side, and faith in God, the cross of Christ, and the work of the Spirit on the other (1:1, 10, 11–12; 2:20; 3:1–9, 14, 22–24; 4:4–7, 23, 27, 29; 5:2–6, 16–26; 6:3; 6:12–15).

Old Testament language and theology drive Paul’s thought here. Isaiah 31 is instructive: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help. They rely on horses. They have put their trust in chariots . . . But they have not looked to the Holy One of Israel, nor Yahweh have they sought! . . . Yet the Egyptians are man (אָדָם) and not God (אֵל); their horses are flesh (בָּשָׂר), and not spirit” (vv. 1, 3a). Jeremiah 17:5 uses similar “Pauline” language: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man (בָּאָדָם; LXX: ἐπ’ ἄνθρωπον) and makes flesh (בָּשָׂר) his strength (LXX: “who leans his arm of flesh (σάρξ) upon him [man]”), and whose heart turns away from Yahweh.” With this background, the ESV’s rendering of Galatians 3:10, while interpretive, expresses Paul’s sense well: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” (See also Is 2:22; 40:6–8, 38–30.)

Developing the theme: “Curse” and “blessing” are world-shattering and world-restoring terms in the Bible’s account of creation, fall, and redemption in Christ. In popular usage, however, the terms “curse” and “blessing” have been diminished and obscured. “Cursing” refers to vulgar language in general, or to harsh statements such as “Damn you/it” or “Go to hell.” But such statements are not usually intended to involve divine powers or to actually impact eternal destinies. More often, they simply express the strength of the speaker’s hatred or displeasure. The concept of a “curse” also appears in fairy tales or in films: a “curse” may fall upon a character as a “hex,” a kind of vague, harmful power. “Blessing,” likewise, is commonly used as a mere expression of the speaker’s own sentiments, e.g. gratitude (“Oh, bless you, honey!”). Or I may name something a “blessing,” not really meaning that it came from God, but only that I view it as a positive thing. In its overuse, the word “blessing” now sounds quaint or even sappy.

The sermon could dust off these biblical expressions, reconnect them with the biblical story (assumed by Paul in the text), and proclaim the removal of the curse and the bestowal of “the blessing of Abraham” upon your hearers—not by any human effort, but in Christ’s death. The aim would be threefold: first, that hearers perceive the radical scope and consequences of God’s curse on human sin; second, that hearers believe and marvel at the depth of Christ’s love, who “became a curse” for us (2:20b; 3:13); and third, that hearers long more fervently for the restoration of all creation in Christ, the promised “blessing of Abraham.”

God’s blessing begins in Genesis 1, and God’s curse enters the story in Genesis 3. Old Testament saints longed for relief, longed for rest, and restoration from this curse (e.g., Gn 5:28–29). God declared that blessing would return to humanity and to the creation, and that God’s blessing would come through Abraham and through his seed (12:2–3; 22:18). Luther writes, “The curse is a kind of flood that swallows up whatever is outside Abraham, that is, outside faith and the promise of the blessing of Abraham . . . All nations before, during, and after Abraham are under a curse and are to be under a curse forever, unless they are blessed in the faith of Abraham . . .” (AE 26:248). (See also Jn 3:18, 36; 1 Cor 15:17.)

Luther notes how large this promised blessing is: “The prophets preach about this blessing everywhere . . . the sort of blessing that belongs to the imputation of righteousness that avails in the sight of God, that redeems from the curse of sin and everything that follows sin . . . [The sayings of the prophets] all flowed from these promises, in which God promised to the fathers the crushing of the serpent’s head (Gn 3:15) and the blessing of the nations (Gn 12:3)” (LW 26:246).

In Galatians 3, then, Paul is speaking about ultimate, cosmic, eternal blessing or curse from God. The profound depth of the gospel is that Jesus himself received the curse, even “became a curse” for us, in his death on the cross. Through faith in Christ, the “blessing of Abraham” now comes also to us (Gentiles). This blessing of a restored, untainted human life within a restored, untainted creation is described vividly in the final two chapters of Revelation. “And there shall be no more curse” (Rv 22:3).

Suggested Sermon Outline
God’s Curse and God’s Blessing
I. God’s curse over all (Gal 3:10–12)

  1. Such little “curses”—popular uses of the term
  2. God’s great curse

II. God’s curse upon One: Christ Jesus (Gal 3:13)

III. Through Christ, the “blessing of Abraham” comes to us (Gal 3:14)

  1. Such little “blessings”—popular uses of the term
  2. God’s great blessing

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