Most people who know anything about the Bible are aware that it has two parts — the Old Testament and the New Testament. They may know that the Old Testament (at least for non-Catholic Churches) is simply a translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Bible of the Jewish people. They may also know that the New Testament is ‘newer’ in time at least and it contains the story of the life of Jesus Christ and his first followers.
Beyond these few facts, it seems that the majority of people are not clear on the what the relationship is between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
It seems to be commonly thought that the Old Testament tells of an angry, vengeful God while the New Testament speaks of a loving, gracious God. As pervasive as that idea is, it isn’t upheld by the Bible’s content — Jesus spoke about hell more than all of the Old Testament combined.
It also seems to be a commonly idea that Old Testament taught people are saved by their obedience while the New Testament teaches that we are saved by grace, not by obedience. But read carefully, this one also is proven to be false — both testaments have a lot to say about faith and obedience.
And it seems that many have the idea that, for Christians, only the New Testament is really important — the Old Testament provides some interesting but mostly non-essential background information.
None of those ideas are correct.
This book of Galatians that we are looking at is about the distinctive message of the gospel that is technically called ‘justification through faith.’ As I noted two weeks ago and Devin underlined last week, this is the basic teaching of the Christian faith. In fact, the last five weeks it has been referred to every week. You might think, ‘Okay, so you’ve said it and made it clear; let’s move on. There has to be something else in that book to talk about!’
Well, there’s more about this topic we need to know. The passage this morning sets out that this distinct teaching — so different from the common understanding of religion — is not something the apostle Paul made up when he became the true founder of Christianity (which is commonly taught in universities). It isn’t even simply a message that Jesus made up and taught the apostles. It is the message of the Old Testament completed and made clear.
Before we consider that, let’s think for a moment why that even matters. Why did Paul find it so important to seek to prove that his message was in line with the clear teaching of the Hebrew Bible on which he had been raised? Why should it matter to you that this is the message of the whole Bible, not just of the New Testament?
Too many people today have this tendency to only read those parts of the Bible that they like, or that they find easy to accept.
‘I like Jesus’s teaching about loving my neighbor’ people say. ‘That’s beautiful. But I don’t like his sayings about forgiving our enemies, even those who harm us. That just doesn’t seem right; I could never forgive someone who killed my child.’
‘I love the Bible — except for the parts about sexual morals. I don’t think they make any sense in a modern world.’
That approach leads to a truncated kind of Christianity, a faith that is misshapen and incomplete.
When you take those parts you like, reject the rest, and construct a way of thinking and living that fits you and your needs, you end up with a Frankenstein like Christianity that is concocted from different sources.
But the Christian faith, revealed in the Bible and taught by Jesus, and is a complete, robust, fully-satisfying way of thinking and living. It is comprehensive and embraces all of life; it is a complete worldview. If key ideas are put to one side, it is incomplete. That means that true Christian faith will challenge each one of us at some point. The New Testament tells us:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Any teaching must conform to the message of the whole Bible, not just to some favorite passage in the New Testament that is easily understood.
What that means is that, when we’re talking about justification through faith, we are talking about the message of the Bible on which our eternal destiny depends. This is the key doctrine of the Christian faith — this book makes it clear that those who are justified by faith are accepted eternally by God, forgiven of their sins, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live for God. Those who reject this message, or confuse it for another message, are lost eternally.So, don’t give up on this one too early. Be sure you understand and experience this teaching in every way possible!
The gospel in the Old Testament. It’s important to start by saying that the Old Testament is often called by a shorthand word, ‘the Law or Torah.’ While the majority of the Old Testament does represent the time period of the covenant made with Israel, a more nuanced understanding shows that the law itself — the covenant instruction that was given to Israel — doesn’t really appear until Exodus chapter twenty. All of the book of Genesis and nineteen chapters of Exodus occur before the law.
So, the Old Testament divides into two parts — the time before the giving of the law and the time after the giving of the law.
The point of the section read this morning is about both of those time periods. And the burden is to demonstrate that both parts of the Old Testament story underline the concept of acceptance with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
The Bible opens with eleven very important chapters of what we would call ‘pre-history.’ They record events that occurred before history as we know it began to be written. But in chapter twelve, Abraham appears; this is the first event we can date with some certainty to about 2166 BC, and the unfolding story of redemption begins. The book of Genesis is about Abraham, his son, and his grandson and his family. The second book, Exodus, opens 400 years later when that family has become a great multitude. In the book of Exodus, the family is formed into a nation and given the law. So, you have two periods — before the law and after the law.
First, before the law was given, in the life of Abraham himself, the gospel was first revealed in the promise that was given to Abraham. Look at Genesis 12.1 (page 8) but keep your finger on Galatians 3:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This promise is like a jewel with at least seven facets but the last is the one to notice here: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
This sevenfold promise is what the Bible unfolds — the families, later 'nations,' of the earth will be restored to God’s blessing through Abraham. This is the promise that the covenants of the Bible will unfold.
And this is what Paul refers to in his careful reading of the Old Testament. Long before the law, Abraham received a free promise of God. Later (Genesis 15; page 10), Abraham has the promise repeated, especially the promise of a multitude of descendants through which the blessing of the nations will come. God leads him out of his tent to look at the stars and says, “So shall your offspring be.”
Then Genesis 15.6:
“And he (Abraham) believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Righteousness, that is right standing with God, acceptance by God, was credited to Abraham by faith in the promise of God. This is what Paul refers to in Galatians 3:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And 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.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3.7–9)
Here’s the first point: The promise to Abraham reveals the gospel that blesses us with salvation by faith in the gracious promise of God. Abraham didn’t obey the law — there was no law in place to obey! Abraham received the free promise of God; he believed it, and God credited righteousness to him on the basis of faith. And that promise to Abraham is the Old Testament revelation of the gospel message of salvation by faith in the gracious promise of God.
So, Abraham is the first example of a sinful person being accepted by God on the basis of faith; he then becomes the spiritual father of any person who hears God’s promised blessing of the world through Abraham and believes it.
“So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (v 9).
Why is it called a “blessing?” Why not say, ‘saved,’ or ‘accepted?’ Because the promise to Abraham was the blessing of the nations—all the families of the earth—through Abraham and his offspring. It tells us the message is about more than individual salvation — it is about the blessing of people from all over the earth, the restoration of the earth itself.
Now, the whole Old Testament isn’t about Abraham — his story is at the beginning and is foundational. But many years later, God took his physical descendants and formed them into a great nation. The covenant of the law was a part, a stage, in the unfolding of the promise. At that point, he gave them the law as a standard of life.
So, what about after the law was given? If before the law, Abraham was justified by faith, what about people after the law was given? Well, the law offers blessing as well — but it offers its blessings only to those who obey it. For those who break it, it offers only a curse. In fact, in Deuteronomy 27, there is a long statement of the curses of the law. They end with this sentence:
“Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the law, and do them” (Deut 27.25).
If before the law, Abraham receives the free promise of God and is accepted by faith in that, after the law, the law reveals our sin, curses us for our failure, and points us back to the promise. The law only blesses those of perfect and complete obedience — “all things written in the law” must be done.
Move on to the next step in the argument in Galatians 3. Verse 11:
“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.”
How is it evident? Well, he says, let’s lay two Old Testament passages side by side and see:
“The righteous shall live by faith.”
This is a quotation from Habakkuk chapter two (2.4). If you note at the bottom of the page, there is an alternate way of translating this sentence — I go with the alternate: “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.” A clear statement of justification through faith from the prophets. Even the prophets, Paul says, knew what Abraham experienced. This was clear in the Old Testament — righteousness, acceptance with God, justification and acquittal of sin, is by faith in the promise of God.
“But,” he says (v 12), “the law is not of faith.”
In other words, the law isn’t about believing; it’s about doing. It says (in Leviticus 18.5):
“The one who does them shall live by them.”
He’s simply comparing two verses — the prophets tell us that justification is by faith, believing the promise of God. The law, Torah, tells us that life is given to those who obey; only the one who keeps the law will have life by the law.
That’s because the law was a preparation for the gospel, and the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. So, he goes on:
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”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (verses 13–14)
The law brings a curse by demanding perfect obedience. If you wish to be accepted on the basis of the law, you must obey perfectly; any disobedience results in rejection, curse. The law can’t justify because it demands doing rather than believing. The bad news is, you can’t do it perfectly. But the good news is that it is right at that point that the gospel comes in. Jesus Christ took the curse in our place when he was hung on the wood of the cross. He literally fulfilled a curse stated in the law. Deuteronomy 21.23:
“Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
In Deuteronomy, this refers to capital punishment — a person who suffers the ultimate penalty of public death whose body is hung up for all to see is one who is under the curse of God. He has broken God’s law and, under that law, society has carried out the sentence of his punishment. This was done with Jesus Christ — he was hung up before a watching world in the agony of death. But he was guiltless, having no sin of his own to die for. He kept the law perfectly as even his detractors admitted.
But in Christ was found the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham — “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” He was the offspring of Abraham who fulfilled the promise. Jesus Christ, took the place of guilty sinners and paid the penalty in their place so that God could open his arms wide and welcome them into his blessing. And, the extent of God’s grace will call people from every tribe, and language, and people, and nation to the blessings of the whole earth.
Christ redeemed us by taking the curse for us, in our place, so that God’s blessings might be given to us.
The whole Old Testament underscores the gospel message of acceptance with God on the basis of faith in Christ. Abraham, before the law, was accepted by faith in the free promise of God. This promise was meant from its very beginning to extend to the Gentiles, indeed all the nations, God’s blessings.
The law, on the other hand, was given to underline the curse that falls on lawbreakers. To show us our need and our inability to obey perfectly on our own.
The gospel is the fulfillment both of the promise to Abraham and of the curse of the law. Therefore, both Abraham and the law underscore the blessings of the gospel. Both the period before the law and after the law point to the gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone.
Now, what does this mean? Why does this matter?
Well, first: The gospel tells us that we are accepted by God — forgiven, blessed, cleansed, empowered — solely on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done. Don’t confuse faith as having some power in itself to accomplish something. Only Christ can save.
I say this because sometimes I hear people talk about faith — ‘I have a lot of faith’ they might say — as though their faith is the reason for their hope. But when I listen carefully, I’m not sure what their faith is in. It is the object of our faith that accomplishes salvation, not the quality of our faith, how strong it is. Your faith must be in Christ. In a cold Michigan winter, you can crawl out fearfully on the ice when it is a foot thick, and it will hold you up. But if the ice is only a thin skim on the surface of the lake, you can run out confidently onto it, but you'll get very cold and very wet very quickly. It is the content of your faith, the object of your faith, that matters, not the quality of your faith.
Second, our faith is ultimately in the promise of God, just as Abraham’s was — the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. Faith is not relying our obedience or our good intentions or our feelings. Faith is trusting Jesus Christ to save and cleanse us. Faith is trusting Christ and, on the other hand, the forsaking of all other sources of trust. This includes ourselves and our obedience. Faith rests on Christ alone.
And, a faith that is rooted in the promise of God can withstand any onslaught in life. The promise remains true no matter what else happens in life — nations will rise and fall, people will die or fail us, wealth will come or leave, life will bring both joy and sorrow. But at the end of any day, no matter what that day may bring, the promise of God in Christ will never change until it is fulfilled.