“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.” (Galatians 5: 1-8)
We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you.” If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector. If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching. It's just business. It’s entirely conditional. If I don't like the product, I move on. This is what we know – and in America we are very good at it.
This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when we begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. We say to our friends, family or spouses:“If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good.” It’s a consumer approach to relationships. It’s entirely conditional. If people don’t give us what we want, we dump them and move on.
The Gentiles were coming from a religious system in which their gods were consumer gods. They basically said, “If you please me, I will reward you.” They had to impress their gods constantly so that the product – in this case, the worshipers – pleased them. If Zeus tired of them sufficiently, he would dump them and move on. Even worse, they weren’t entirely sure what pleased the gods, so there was the tremendous insecurity, which lead to desperate work to please as many gods in as many ways as possible so that they would be rewarded.
Paul had told them that God does not relate to us as a consumer God. We are not obligated to earn God’s blessing. Unfortunately, the teaching of the Judaizers was leading them back to their old way of thinking about God. Apparently, something about their understanding of God was flawed as well even though they were pulling from the Old Testament. To correct this misunderstanding with both parties, Paul needed them to understand what it means that God is a covenant God.
God always relates to people through covenants. In the Old Testament we see a suzerain covenant in which the stronger party – the suzerain - initiated the covenant with the weaker party. Multiple records exist that show a common format in the nations of that time. In every other nation, lords or kinds made suzerain covenants with ordinary folk. In this case, God made a covenant with His people.
- Identify the suzerain
- Historical prologue
- Stipulations (tributes, obligations, etc.)
- Public readings
- List of witnesses
- List of blessings and cursings
- Ceremony of agreement
- Sealing the Oath. A covenant was sealed with a ceremony (the weaker party walking through the parts) as a way of saying, “If I break this covenant, may this be done to me.”
We read in Deuteronomy a reference to the ceremony when the Children of Israel entered into Covenant with God through the Mosaic Law.
“You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 29:12-13)
The stipulations (or laws) were written in Deuteronomy already, but so we read the “blessings and cursings” next:
“Keep the words of this covenant and do them so that you may prosper in all you do…When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. The Lord will never be willing to forgive them; his wrath and zeal will burn against them.” (Deuteronomy 29:9, 19-20)
In other words, God will uphold his end of the covenant. But you must continue to choose to be the kind of person you said you would be in the covenant if you want to live under the blessing. If you don’t, you will live under the curse. This is the essence of the Mosaic Covenant that the Judaizers were looking to for their salvation and righteousness. When the Judaizers read this, what stayed with them was the fact that they could screw up so badly that God would never forgive them.
It was good to have a God who wanted to covenant with you, who wanted to bless you. It was good to know the terms and conditions. But if they failed, the cursings (or the punishment) were overwhelming. No wonder obeying the law was a big deal to the Jewish converts. And yet there was more – they were building an understanding of God based on only part of the text.
“Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 30:7-8)
Here we read that God will never break the covenant even if the Israelites don’t live up to their end of the deal. No matter what they do, God will in a sense overlook it. God will not enforce the very consequences that he said just a couple chapters earlier. Do you see the tension here? How are we supposed to view God?
On the one hand, God cannot bless disobedient people. Justice can’t simply overlook guilt. But if God just punished them and walked away, then He was not a faithful God. So they had to work as hard as they could to please God. On the other hand, God said He would never leave, never give up, and never forsake them. But if God just gave in and accepted everything they did without consequence, then He was not a holy God.
What are we to think when it comes to a question of our relationship to God today? The Bible lets this tension hang all throughout the Old Testament. In order to resolve this, we have to look more closely at God’s covenant with Abraham.
When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 (and following), He used the standard form of suzerain covenant-making I mentioned earlier. Abraham killed some animals, cut them in pieces, and arranged them to walk through. But then God, the stronger party, passed through (as a fiery pillar) – but never made Abraham, the weaker party, do the same.
By passing through the slaughtered animal, God was saying that if He didn’t bless Abraham and honor the covenant, God – the stronger, initiating party - would have to pay the penalty. That alone would be unusual, but that wasn’t the most incredible point. God was saying that if Abraham doesn’t keep the covenant, God would pay the penalty for Abraham.
This was unprecedented. God was clearly not a consumer god, paying attention and blessing us because we made him happy. God was a covenant god, but completely different from the wealthy, powerful lords of earth. He gave the rules, established the penalty of rule-breaking, then committed to paying that penalty for everybody.
What kind of God would do that? A God who arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the covenant by paying Abraham’s penalty. We commemorate this every time we partake in communion – His body broken, His blood spilled. The covenant must be honored. Someone must pay for breaking the agreement.
Jesus’ death and resurrection paid the penalty of covenant breakers so that God could see them as covenant keepers.
If we break the law, we deserve punishment. We have to take the law as seriously as God does, and He thought it was so serious that death was the appropriate punishment. Fortunately for us, the One who kept it perfectly paid for those who couldn’t.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse by becoming the curse so the blessing of Abraham could come to us all by Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:13)
God himself paid the penalty of our broken covenant. God’s love is a love that is offered freely to us in spite of who we are, not in response to us because of what we bring to the table. “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Obedience to the law is not what we offer to impress God; it's what we are free do to express our faith through love (Galatians 5:6).
The law is not our savior; it is a gift from our Savior.
The law is not our lord; it is a gift from our Lord.
The law does not set us free; it shows us how to live freely.
The more we grasp the beauty of God’s covenant, the more we are driven by love and gratitude to do good for the privilege of delighting God and loving. The law is not a roadmap for earning salvation or righteousness, but it is a manual for how to properly express love for God and others.