Notes for teaching on Galatians 3:1-14, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 3.


Paul argues against the Mosaic Law as necessary to acceptance before God in various ways.

The passage is applicable today because it invites readers to consider the graciousness of God and the sufficiency of Christ.

Notes on the Text

(Quotations taken from the NIV)

3 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

In chapter 3, Paul’s argument takes a turn. Whereas chapter 2 relied on his own life story to establish the independence and agreement of his gospel, chapter 3 moves to the Galatians’ story and scriptural/theological reflections on the truth of his gospel of grace. This opening line of this new section takes the Galatians to task. Paul calls them foolish and says that they have been bewitched. Neither of these descriptors is particularly flattering. According to the first, the Galatians aren’t too bright. According to the second, they are gullible and capable of being led astray. By engaging in this kind of speech, Paul signals the seriousness of his argument by using rhetorical barbs. As Scot McKnight explains, “The ‘header’ for this section, ‘You foolish Galatians!’ is not intended to make friends, but neither was it perceived as a personal insult and therefore unworthy of an apostolic leader … the latitude for acceptable speech in debate was much greater then than it is today.”[1]

The cornerstone of Paul’s argument can be found in the second part of 3:1. For Paul, Christ crucified negates the Galatians’ present direction toward circumcision and Law.

I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the Law, or by your believing what you heard?

As Paul’s argument progresses, he appeals to the Galatians’ own experience. His point here is that the introduction of the works of the Law (as seen particularly in the act of circumcision) came late in the game. Indeed, they received the Spirit and witnessed miracles before the Law ever became an issue. Faith and not Law had been the operative theme.

Not only was the idea of the necessity of the Law late in coming, it also represented a departure from the original scheme. For Paul, the Spirit is the defining aspect of the Christian life. Moreover, the Spirit is the wellspring of Christian virtue. The Galatians had received the Spirit through faith, but now they were turning to the flesh. NT Wright explains the import of this flesh/Spirit terminology: “Now, Paul says, if you get circumcised you are saying that it isn’t the spirit that matters but the flesh—the flesh of your foreskins, and ‘the flesh’ as the whole sphere of existence of humanity in rebellion against God.”[2] By entertaining the idea that circumcision was necessary to salvation, the Galatians were actually moving in reverse. In effect, they were exchanging the Spirit of the new age for the flesh of the old age. If this was really the case, then they had “experienced so much in vain,” meaning that they were negating their own experience of grace by turning to another way.

In short, the idea that the Law was necessary to the Christian life amounted to a late addition to and problematic deviation from Paul’s gospel, which was already verified in the Galatians’ own experience.

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.  Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Paul’s argument now shifts to salvation history, which began with God’s covenant with Abraham. Abraham’s first experience of God is found in Genesis 12, where God calls him to leave his home and family. Also found in that passage is the great promise that God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;

I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;

And all the peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

Notice here that the blessing God promises is intended to flow to Abraham and through Abraham. Abraham and his descendants will be richly blessed by God. However, that blessing will lead ultimately to the blessing of “all the peoples of the earth” (or nations, depending on your translation). Paul brings up this story to show that the Gentiles (read here the “nations” or “peoples of the earth”) have always been part of God’s plan. In fact, Paul says, this promise concerning Gentile blessing is actually “the gospel in advance.” Since the time of Abraham, the Gentiles have had a place in God’s story!

This in mind, the question becomes just how the Gentiles will take their place in God’s story. Paul’s opponents in Galatia have been arguing for circumcision as a prerequisite to inclusion in God’s people. In the story of Abraham, the rite of circumcision first appears in Gen 17, where it is named as “the sign of the covenant.” While Paul agrees with this history, he points to a piece of the same story that his opponents have failed to notice. Yes, circumcision shows up in Gen 17, but faith shows up in Gen 15. There, God promised Abraham many descendants and “Abraham believed [read here “had faith in”] the Lord, and [the Lord] credited it to him as righteousness.” Even in the story of Abraham, faith came first!

For Paul, then, faith was primary even in Abraham’s relationship with God. Moreover, all “who have faith are children of Abraham.” It is faith – and not circumcision – that is the mark of God’s people.

10 For all who rely on the works of the Law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the Law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The Law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 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 hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Having established faith as the key identifier of God’s people via Abraham’s story, Paul now moves to explain why the Law itself is deficient for one’s standing before God. His argument moves in three phases:

  1. V 10 – The Law cannot be kept and therefore leads to a curse rather than righteousness before God.
  2. Vv 11-12 – Even if the Law could be kept, it would not lead to the life of faith required for righteousness before God.
  3. Vv 13-14 – The work of Christ on the cross dealt with the curse of the Law, which brings us to a new place beyond the Law.

Let’s take a moment to break down each of these assertions.

  1. V 10 – The Law cannot be kept and therefore leads to a curse rather than righteousness before God.

While Paul takes a decidedly negative view of the Law in this argument, Frank Thielman argues that Paul would not have viewed this point as particularly controversial. This is so because of the real-life experience of Israel under the Law. Deuteronomy 27:26 , which Paul quotes in v 10, is part of a larger section that pronounces blessings and curses on Israel dependent on their observance of the Law. Among the curses is the threat of Israel’s defeat and exile. Much of the Old Testament tells the story of how this curse became a reality. Israel was indeed defeated and her people exiled to various parts of the world. Even in Paul’s day, when Jerusalem had been rebuilt and repopulated, the Jews still found themselves under Roman rule. That the Law resulted in curse was proven by Israel’s own history, even to the time of Paul’s writing. Moreover, because Israel’s history led to curse, the ability to keep the Law becomes suspect. As Thielman says:

[Paul] is instead reminding the Galatians and his Judaizing opponents that membership in the people of God, as it is defined by the Mosaic covenant, is membership in a people with a plight – they are cursed by the very Law that defines them as God’s people, because, they, as a people and individuals, have not kept the Law.[3]

  1. Vv 11-12 – Even if the Law could be kept, it would not lead to the life of faith required for righteousness before God.

In vv 11-12, Paul tells the reader what is required for righteous standing before God by quoting Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous will live by faith.” This in mind, he then shows that life under the Law does not lead to faith by quoting Leviticus 18:5: “The person who does these things will live by them.” The point of this quotation is that life under the Law is lived according to performance of the Law rather than faith. Paul says as much directly before his Leviticus quote when he states, “The Law is not based on faith…” Paul’s logic here goes something like this: (1) Faith is required for righteous standing before God; (2) The Law is not based on and does not lead to faith; (3) Therefore, the Law cannot produce righteousness before God.

  1. Vv 13-14 – The work of Christ on the cross dealt with the curse of the Law, which brings us to a new place beyond the Law.

In vv 13-14, Paul returns to the curse that the Law brings. Here he quotes Deuteronomy 21:23 (“Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”) to show that Christ’s crucifixion amounted to Christ taking the curse of the Law on himself, thereby redeeming the Jewish people, who were living under the curse of the Law. In doing so, he opened the way for Gentiles to receive the Spirit and thereby join God’s people through faith.

Note that with this third argument Paul ties things back to v 1. There, he was incredulous that the Galatians were turning away from the gospel of grace after Christ had been clearly portrayed to them as crucified. Number 3 (just discussed) explains why the crucifixion for Paul excludes the Law as necessary for righteous standing before God. In the crucifixion, Jesus overcame the Law’s curse, which had fallen on all who followed the Law. This in mind, a new page has turned in God’s dealings with the world.

Some Notes on the Law

Paul is obviously pretty hard on the Mosaic Law in this passage. He argues:

1)      The Galatians own experience of receiving the Spirit and miracles shows them that the Law is not required for right standing before God.

2)      Even in the life of Abraham, who received the rite of circumcision, faith was primary before circumcision came into the picture. This is doubly true of the Mosaic Law, which was not given for several hundred years after Abraham received God’s promise.

3)      Scripture has always pointed to Gentile inclusion, and Gentiles are connected to Abraham by their faith.

4)      Acceptance of the Law leads to a curse because the Law cannot be perfectly followed.

5)      Even if the Law could be followed perfectly, it would not lead to the faith required for righteousness.

6)      Jesus has taken the curse of the Law on himself and has thereby brought the people of God to a place where faith, and not Law, is the key identifier of God’s people.

It’s pretty clear that Paul does not accept the view that observance of the Law is necessary for membership in God’s people! However, this does not mean that Paul’s view of the Mosaic Law was completely negative. The Law served a purpose in its time, and Paul was happy for Jewish Christ-followers to continue living under the Law. Paul’s vehemence against the Law comes when people put it on the same level as Jesus. Yes, his opponents said, accepting Jesus is good, but accepting the Law is also necessary. For Paul, Jesus alone is the ground for salvation, and faith has replaced Law as the mark of God’s people. We might say that the Law was good for what it was for, but making it necessary for salvation, as his opponents argued, was a dangerous overreach that warranted significant push back. We need to keep this in mind as we talk about the Law. There is sometimes a tendency among Protestants to paint the Law as all bad when Paul’s point is to put the Law in its place rather than give it a bad reputation.

Notes for Teaching

Paul’s discussion in this text concerns observance of the Mosaic Law and not “works-righteousness” in general. This does not mean, however, that works-righteousness should not enter the conversation. For Paul, anything that challenges faith in Jesus for supremacy deserves major pushback. This would include a view that seeks to gain God’s approval through personal effort. This topic is especially appropriate in a culture that views heaven and hell as contingent on how “good” a person was in life.

Also of interest is Paul’s look at the story of Abraham. His use of Gen. 12:1-3 reminds us that God’s plan has always been to bless the whole world. This is called “the scandal of particularity” in theological circles. While it seems scandalous for God to choose to have a special relationship with one man (Abraham) out of all the people of the earth and one people (Israel) out of all the peoples of the earth, this “particularity” was always meant to flow beyond Abraham and Israel. The one was chosen for the sake of the many.

In the actual teaching of the text, I would recommend breaking up Paul’s arguments and handling each one individually.

A Possible Teaching Plan

Opening Discussion


  • What do we remember from last week?
  • What do we know about the Jewish Law?
  • What happened to the Law after Jesus?

Strong Words

Read: Gal 3:1


  • What tone of voice do you imagine Paul using when he says these words?
  • Why do you think Paul speaks so harshly? Is it appropriate for him to do so?
  • What was the situation that Paul was addressing in Galatia?
  • Why do you think the crucifixion is so important to Paul’s argument?


Read: Gal 3:2-5


  • How would you summarize Paul’s argument in these verses? Can you think of an analogy?
  • What do you know about receiving the Spirit? What is Paul referring to here?
  • For Paul, why does the Galatians’ experience disprove the necessity of the Law?

Read: Gal 2:6-10


  • How did the Jerusalem apostles receive Paul?
  • What does this tell the Galatians about his gospel?
  • Why does Paul downplay the authority of the apostles in Jerusalem (see v 6)?
  • What do we learn about Paul’s particular calling in these verses?

o   Answer: He is called specifically to share the Gospel with Gentiles.


Read: Gal 3:6-9


  • What do you know about Abraham? Why is he an important figure in the Jewish faith?

Read: Gen 12:1-3


  • How would you summarize God’s promise to Abraham?
  • Is it fair for God to choose to have a special relationship with one person out of all the people on the earth?
  • Why is the part about “the nations” important for Paul?


  • What do you know about the rite of circumcision in Judaism? How did it come about?

Read: Gen: 17:9-14


  • Why would Paul bring up Abraham to argue against circumcision if Abraham was the guy who received instructions for circumcision?

Read: Gen 15:1-6


  • What is righteousness, and why is it important to Paul’s argument?
  • How does Paul use this text as he tells the story of Abraham?


  • For Paul, how are non-Jewish believers connected to Abraham?
  • What is faith?

The Law Comes Up Short

Read: Gal 3:10-14

  • What do you think Paul means when he says that the Law leads to a curse? Does he have good grounds for making this argument?
  • Beyond the curse, why else is the Law insufficient for righteousness before God?
  • How does Christ deal with the curse of the Law? What does the crucifixion mean for non-Jews?



  • Why does this passage matter today?
  • What does this passage mean for how we treat Christians of different races and backgrounds than our own?
  • Can you think of anything that we allow to supplant faith in Jesus today?

Resources Consulted

Scot McKNight’s Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary series
NT Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians
Explore the Bible curriculum
Frank Theilman’s Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach


[1] McKnight, S. (1995). Galatians (p. 136). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (pp. 29–30). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[3] Thielman, F. (1994) Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (p.127). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press