Things just got real

Things just got real

Darth Vader is rightly regarded as one of the best villains in movie history, in the same league as Maleficent and Hans Gruber. In the original Star Wars trilogy, his fiendishness was less a product of his skills in single combat, and more about his ruthlessness and the way he killed subordinates by choking them to death with “the force.” He was more a sinister administrator than a warrior. Still, it was clear Vader was a frightening individual.

“I’m not afraid!” Luke Skywalker told Yoda at one point.  

“You will be,” the Jedi Master replied cryptically. “You will be …”

Vader is not depicted as a fighter until Rogue One (the direct prequel to the 1977 film A New Hope) was released in 2015. In the climactic battle scene,[1] Vader and a force of stormtroopers disable and board a Rebel command ship which has stolen data for the first Death Star (still under construction). This information cannot fall into Rebel hands, and Vader’s goal is to personally ensure that it does not.

The Rebel sailors fall back into one portion of the ship. They point their weapons into the darkness, gasping for breath. They hear deep breathing.




Then, out of the darkness a red lightsaber comes to life, illuminating Vader standing in the corridor, menacing in black.


The sailors open fire. Vader quickly kills them all. This scene has become infamous because of the sudden, startling ferocity of Vader’s attack and the sailor’s inability to do anything about it. They fall before him like so much chaff before a bulldozer. They scream in fear, knowing they’re doomed. They fight anyway, even as they know it’s hopeless.

Something similar happens here. Jesus returns, the people of Babylon scream, panic, mourn. They fight back, but it’s all over in an instant. You’ll have to read Revelation 19 to get the full impact, but it’s all hinted at here.

This is a series of articles on what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. This article covers Matthew 24:29-31. You can read the introductory article which discussed Matthew 24:1-3, and the article on Matthew 24:4-14, and the one about Matthew 24:15-28. You can also read the entire essay as a single unit here. You may need to read the previous articles to follow the train of thought.

Here’s where we are in the passage:

Figure 7

Jesus explains …

Immediately after the distress of those days “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven”

Matthew 24:29-30; quoting Isaiah 13:10

The timeline skews at this point—if vv. 15-28 describes the destruction of Jerusalem as a type or foreshadowing of the great tribulation to come, then how can Jesus return immediately after those days? We’re still waiting, even now!

The best answer seems to be that here, in vv. 29-31, the typology (the events of AD 70 and the tribulation) now fades. We are now squarely at the end of the great tribulation, when Jesus returns. His second advent terminates the tribulation.[2] Jesus describes this by quoting from Isaiah 13:10, which describes an otherworldly phenomenon in the atmosphere—a plain and terrifying indicator that all is not well with the world.

Some Christians believe the “sign of the Son of Man” is a cross appearing from on high which heralds Jesus’ arrival.[3] There is merit to the idea of (1) a sign of some sort appearing first, (2) and then the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of heaven.”[4] We just don’t know what this “sign” is—perhaps it’s simply Jesus appearing?[5] Whatever it is, it’ll be obvious and clear to everyone.

It’s no accident that this Isaiah quotation is from a passage about judgment on Babylon—that symbol of wickedness and evil (Rev 17-18; cf. Zech 5:5-11). It is the king of Babylon who seems to double as Satan in Isaiah 14:3-20—“How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn!” (Isa 14:12). Now here, Jesus describes His return by quoting judgment against Babylon—precisely what the Apostle John shows us in Revelation 19, just after Babylon is fallen (Rev 17-18).

What is the unmistakable sign that the Son of Man has come?

And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.

Matthew 24:30

Jesus will arrive on the clouds of heaven—He’s alluding to His coronation scene from Daniel’s vision (Dan 7:13-14). The people who don’t belong to Jesus (the unbelievers) will be sad—they’ve already given their allegiance to another king, Jesus’ evil counterpart (as it were)—the Antichrist (Rev 17:1-8; cp. 13:1-8).

And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

Matthew 24:31

This is the great sifting of the wicked and the righteous. The image seems to be that of Jesus arriving to earth on the clouds while sending His angels to speed on ahead to gather the saints from all corners of the earth. The Apostle John describes the same event as Jesus returning to earth with “the armies of heaven,” (Rev 19:11-17). Trumpet blasts announce His coming, as they often do when God comes to earth (see Ex 19:16; 1 Thess 4:16). It is also a divine bugle call for the faithful (Isa 27:13). The trumpet blast in Scripture is a universal signal that can mean only one thing—God has arrived—just as when military bands play “Hail to the Chief” to welcome the U.S. President.

Earlier, Jesus spoke of this identical scene in His parable of the wheat and the weeds (Mt 13:40-43; cp. Lk 3:13), wherein “at the end of the age” the Son of Man sends forth His angels to sift the kingdom (i.e. the world, cp. Mt 13:38, 41) and sort out the righteous from the wicked. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43), because the world has been cleansed of wickedness.

All told, Jesus leaves us with a basic outline which depicts:

  1. Jesus beginning His return trip from heaven, terminating the tribulation, and fulfilling His second advent promise.
  2. Jesus sending His angels out ahead of Him to gather the believers from all over the earth.
  3. Then, presumably, Jesus “arriving” in Jerusalem to inaugurate His kingdom, bringing His saints along with Him.    

These believers are from all over the world, because “Gospel saturation” has been achieved. These events are strikingly like what Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.[6]

[1] See  

[2] Even Chrysostom now sees the events of AD 70 fading, and Jesus skipping ahead to the second coming (“Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 458). Alford remarks, “From ver. 28, the lesser subject begins to be swallowed up by the greater, and our Lord’s second coming to be the predominant theme, with however certain hints thrown back as it were at the event which was immediately in question: till, in the latter part of the chapter and the whole of the next, the second advent, and, at last, the final judgment ensuing on it, are the subjects,” (New Testament, p. 1:162).

A.B. Bruce writes, “… it appears that the coming of the Son of Man is not to be identified with the judgment of Jerusalem, but rather forms its preternatural background,” (“Synoptic Gospels,” in Expositors Testament, p. 1:296).

Bengel, however, suggests “immediately” covers the period between the destruction of Jerusalem and the second advent. “We must, however, keep to our first interpretation, so indeed that the particle εὐθέως be understood to comprehend the whole space between the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and the end of the world,” (Gnomen, p. 1:428).

[3] Chrysostom, “Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 459. See also Alford, New Testament, p. 1:168.

[4] The Greek temporal adverb τότε here could indicate sequence (“and then this happened”) or contemporaneous time (“at the same time …”). Context must be the judge about whether this sign is different than the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Bengel sees this sign as “the triumphal train of the Son of man coming in His glory,” (Gnomen, pp. 1:429-430).

[5] Hendriksen, Matthew, p. 864. Barbieri speculates “Some believe the sign may involve the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, which may descend at this time and remain as a satellite city suspended over the earthly city Jerusalem throughout the Millennium (Rev. 21:2–3),” (“Matthew,” in Bible Knowledge, p. 78). This is incorrect.

[6] Chrysostom sees Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as the same event (“Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 1:460). Ed Glasscock is representative of dispensationalists who argue this event is not a post-tribulational rapture (Matthew, pp. 474-475). He offers no meaningful argument himself but refers the reader to Paul Benware (p. 475, fn. 22), whose arguments are deminimis and weak (Understanding End Times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach (Chicago: Moody, 1995), pp. 209-210). 

Gangsters and Abominations of Desolation

Gangsters and Abominations of Desolation

Prophecy is powerful because it tells a story in a very impactful way. Strange images, bizarre sayings, odd symbols—it’s all there, ready to fire the imagination. The medium is so much different than a narrative like Acts, a poem like Song of Solomon, or a lawyerly argument like Romans. It captivates and draws you in, even despite yourself. What does it mean? What’s it saying?

We’re drawn to epics, myths,[1] sweeping origin stories. You might have had to read Iliad and Odyssey in high school, but have you read it since? The modern myth largely exists on film—in the multiplex or via streaming from your couch. Sagas like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy captivated an entire generation of people around the world. They’re self-contained universes that tell tales of good v. evil, of darkness v. light, of heroes and villains, and of diabolical figures vanquished by good.[2]

In these modern-day myths, there is always a climatic showdown. This is never simply an individual contest (unlike Rocky v. Ivan Drago or Luke Skywalker v. Darth Vader),[3] but rather the fulcrum of an existential struggle against the evil system. Thus, the Lord of the Rings film saga ends with the battle at Minas Tirith and then at the black gates of Mordor. The original Star Wars trilogy ended with the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star.

The Christian story has its own epic finale, and it occurs at the end of the great tribulation. Jesus tells some of that story here, in our passage (Matthew 24:15-28). But He also tells another story—actually two at the same time; the first foreshadows the other. Star Wars does something similar.

The Rebel Alliance did indeed destroy a Death Star battle station in the original 1977 film, A New Hope. The Empire has been shattered! Surely, it won’t ever be able to replicate this fearsome weapon. Yet, the opening crawl for the 1983 film Return of the Jedi tells us that “the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star …”

You see, that first Death Star was but a foretaste of the more fearsome second Death Star to come. It pointed to it, foreshadowed it, gave a taste of what was ‘comin ‘round the mountain. Something like that is going on here.

This is a series of articles on what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. This article covers Matthew 24:15-28. You can read the introductory article which discussed Matthew 24:1-3, and the article on Matthew 24:4-14, and the one about Matthew 24:29-31. You can also read the entire essay as a single unit here.

Here’s where we are in the passage:

Figure 6.

Jesus speaks of two things at once; a terrible ordeal which will happen soon and another, more definitive contest which occurs much later. I’ve said too much already, so I’ll let the text speak for itself from here on out.

So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Matthew 24:15-16

Now we’re into the difficult part of Matthew 24. Some take this whole bit (Mt 24:15-22) to refer to the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. Others see it as completely future, indicating the start of the great tribulation. Still others see a blending of both perspectives—usually with the former as a type for the latter. Some minimize Daniel’s context and speculate this “abomination” is a general reference to “every heresy which finds its way into the church.”[4] One scholar suggests this was the desecration of the temple by the Zealot faction during the Jerusalem siege of AD 66-70.[5]  

We ought to lay out the evidence, analyze it fairly to let it speak for itself, and set systems aside when they don’t fit that evidence. Two pieces of evidence are critical here:

  1. What Daniel said. Jesus even inserted a plea for us to read Daniel (“let the reader understand”) to get His point,[6] and
  2. What Mark and Luke say. Either they contradict each other, or we can harmonize them together to form a complete picture. 

The first thing we must do is figure out what “the abomination of desolation” is, so we can figure out what Jesus is saying. He’s likely either referring to Antichrist, or to events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The phrase occurs three times in the prophet Daniel.

The first of these is in Daniel 9:24-27, where the prophet provides a broad sketch of history to come:

  • A period of time which the angel Gabriel identifies as “seventy sevens” is the complete span during which God’s plan will be completed (Dan 9:24).
  • This period of time is triggered by the decree to rebuild Jerusalem by the Persians. There is a dispute about when this precisely happened, but that isn’t important for our purposes here. At this point, the exiles began to return to Israel from Babylon.
  • From the decree to rebuild the temple until the Anointed One (Jesus) arrives on the scene, 69 “sevens” will elapse. The temple will be rebuilt during this period, but in troublesome times (Dan 9:25).
  • After the 69 “sevens,” the Anointed One will be killed, and have nothing. The “people of the ruler who will come” will then destroy Jerusalem and its sanctuary. War will rage on like a flood during this time until it’s all done (Dan 9:26).

Because it happened within a generation of Jesus’ death, this last part seems to refer to the sack of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (cf. Mt 24:1-2). The “people of the ruler” who will destroy the temple would then be the Romans, with the emperor representing a future Antichrist-like figure and the Romans Empire as a type for the kingdom of darkness—Babylon.

  • This sinister ruler will then confirm a covenant with many for one “seven.” In the vision, we’ve now transitioned from the Roman context to the kingdom of darkness—the ruler is the Antichrist and the time period of the great tribulation. In the middle of this last “seven,” Antichrist will stop religious practices in Jerusalem and erect an idolatrous figure of some sort—an “abomination that causes desolation”—inside the temple for about three and a half years (cf. Dan 12:11-12). This will continue until the Antichrist gets his just desserts and is cast into hell (Dan 9:27; cp. Rev 19:19-20).

Thus ends this great vision which sketches the decisive events of human history in four verses. Because this vision is comprehensive, capturing the entire sweep of history from the announcement of the temple’s reconstruction, through atonement for sin and unto the new tomorrow, this last “seven” is the final act. But, a whole lot of time has passed since the end of the 69th “seven,” whereas this final “seven” hasn’t yet happened—no sinister ruler has yet established a covenant with “many.” It seems Daniel hints at a “gap” between the 69th and 70th “sevens.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that when Daniel refers to “an abomination which causes desolation” here (Dan 9:27), he’s referring to the intentional desecration of a sacred space by the Antichrist.

Daniel mentions this phrase in two other places (Dan 11:31; 12:11). The first of these refers to a Syrian king named Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jewish people terribly in the last quarter of the 2nd century BC. He erected a pagan altar inside the temple and prefigured the coming Antichrist in his cruelty and hatred (read 1 Maccabees 1). This action sparked the Jewish revolt and resulted in a quasi-independent Jewish kingdom until Rome came onto the scene. The second reference seems to leap forward and refer to the Antichrist himself.

Let’s return to our Matthew passage:

So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Matthew 24:15-16

So, to which “abomination of desolation” reference is Jesus referring? He’s looking forward to the future, so Antiochus IV Epiphanes is out. It seems Jesus must be referring to Antichrist, and that would mean Jesus is telling Christians to flee when the tribulation begins. But, we must now bring in evidence from Mark and Luke to see if the evidence still points that way:

Notice what Luke does. He wrote his Gospel last, and he’s apparently interpreting Matthew and Mark for his readers.[7] Luke records Jesus as meaning that the “abomination that causes desolation” was the Roman armies which surrounded Jerusalem.[8] The “abomination” would then be Roman military standards invading the city, especially the temple proper. These pennants bore the image of the Roman emperor, who claimed a divine status. This is blasphemy, of course. It is Jerusalem’s desolation to which Luke refers, and this means it’s what Mark and Matthew meant, too.[9]  

Some might object that Luke could just as easily be referring to Antichrist’s armies encompassing Jerusalem to destroy it, but this event just doesn’t occur in any reasonable timeline. Antichrist does indeed gather an army to meet Jesus at his second advent but is defeated in quick order—Jerusalem is not destroyed (Rev 19:19). Likewise, Satan later raises an army to have a go where his minion failed but he is incinerated by a divine fireball (Rev 20:9). Again, Jerusalem is untouched.

Luke said Jerusalem’s “desolation was near,” (Lk 21:20). The word means destruction of the city—it will be laid waste.[10] This is precisely what both Antichrist and Satan will later fail to accomplish, yet it is exactly what Titus accomplished in AD 70. Josephus tells us:

There was no one left for the soldiers to kill or plunder, not a soul on which to vent their fury; for mercy would never have made them keep their hands off anyone if action was possible. So Caesar now ordered them to raze the whole City and Sanctuary to the ground … [a]ll the rest of the fortifications encircling the City were so completely leveled with the ground that no one visiting the spot would believe it had once been inhabited. This then was the end to which the mad folly of revolutionaries brought Jerusalem, a magnificent city renowned to the ends of the earth.[11]

So, we’re left with the conclusion that Jesus refers to the Roman sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. It’s also more than just that, but we’ll get there in a bit.

Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.

Matthew 24:17-20

When the Romans attack Jerusalem, Jesus says everyone must run. Immediately. Get out. Don’t stop to grab some valuables. Just flee. His reference to the Sabbath supports a reference to AD 70—“Jesus clearly expects these events to take place while the strict Sabbath law is in effect.”[12] Some Jews would be reluctant to help on the sabbath, fearful of incurring religious condemnation even as Rome’s armies massed against the city.[13] Some Christians believe this “Sabbath” reference points to some future time when the temple has been re-built, but Matthew says nothing about that.

Why does Jesus say this? Why such dire warnings?

For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

Matthew 24:21; cp. Daniel 12:1

This sounds pretty bad. But, God has said things like “this has never happened before” when, in fact, it had happened (cp. Josh 10:14 with Ex 8:13, Num 14:20; 2 Kgs 6:18)![14] This suggests Jesus’ words here don’t have to be literal—it may just be a colloquial way of saying “this will be really, really bad.” We do similar things when we tell someone that a certain thing was “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.” We say that, but is it really the craziest thing? Probably not. Some interpreters suggest Jesus is using hyperbole for deliberate effect, but this is unlikely.[15]

If Jesus is primarily referring to the events of AD 66-70, when Jerusalem was destroyed, then was this really the worst period of time “from the beginning of the world until now”? The Jewish historian Josephus was present with the Roman armies at the siege of Jerusalem and tells us all about it.

It was a terrible time. Civil war had torn the city into three Jewish factions (a “suicidal strife between rival gangsters”)[16] and war broke out during Passover when the city was filled to the brim with Jewish pilgrims. One faction controlled the temple courts, while two others held the city and the larger temple complex. Josephus tells us terrified worshippers were cut down by a hail of projectiles as they ran for the sanctuary. Blood collected in pools in the courtyards. The city became “a desolate no man’s land” as guerilla warfare raged on.

The Romans did not show up as evil conquers, but arrived under the aegis of, as it were, the “Federal government” come to restore order to a city within its jurisdiction that was destroying itself. Bit by bit, the Roman general Titus conquered Jerusalem in a multi-year siege. Josephus tells of one Jewish woman named Mary, driven mad by hunger, who killed her infant son, roasted him, ate one half of him and saved the rest for later[17] (cp. Deut 28:53-57). The temple itself was destroyed by fire in a frenzy of rage by Roman legionnaires who ignored their commander’s orders.

All the prisoners taken from beginning to end of the war totalled 97,000; those who perished in the long siege 1,100,000 … No destruction ever wrought by God or man approached the wholesale carnage of this war.[18]

By all accounts Josephus wasn’t the most honorable man in the world, but he was there. He witnessed the whole thing. But, can we fairly say the sack of Jerusalem was really the worst event in the world? One thinks of the German siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. For a time, the city’s only supply line to friendly Soviet forces during the brutal Russian winter was across a frozen lake. The siege lasted nearly 900 days and, by some accounts, perhaps 1,500,000 people perished. Just as during the siege of Jerusalem so many years before, it’s likely that starving citizens resorted to cannibalism—stories were whispered about children disappearing.

While Titus’ siege of Jerusalem lasted longer, we’re at least speaking of comparable tragedies. It seems reasonable to take Jesus’ words in Mt 24:21 as referring to Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans armies.[19] But, Jesus’ pivot to His own second advent a few verses hence suggest Titus and his Romans legions don’t exhaust vv. 15-21’s meaning.[20]

In other words, Mt 24:15-21 refers to both (1) Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans, which squares with Jesus’ announcement of the temple’s destruction that started this entire conversation (Mt 24:1-2), and (2) the Antichrist’s brief reign as the ruler of the kingdom of darkness (Rev 13), later depicted by the Apostle John as Babylon (Rev 17-18). There is both a near and far fulfillment.[21] Jesus began with (1) birth pangs of persecution against the church, (2) then told of sharply escalating hostility because the church represents Jesus, to (3) the fall of Jerusalem as a type for the coming kingdom of evil via the Antichrist.

This typology is the best way to understand Jesus’ unmistakable pivot to the distant future in vv. 29-31.

If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

Matthew 24:22

Some say “those days” Jesus speaks about here refer to (1) the specific events in vv. 15-21,[22] or perhaps (2) the entire chain of events stretching from the birth pangs to the end of the Antichrist’s brief reign (vv. 4-21; cp. v. 29).[23] I believe it’s easiest to continue the typological theme and say v. 22 refers to the siege of Jerusalem in AD 66-70, which foreshadows the seven year great tribulation in the future.

On False Alarms and Bogus Messiahs (vv. 23-28)

At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time.

Matthew 24:23-25

Jesus warns that during this this awful time—the Jerusalem siege of AD 66-70 which foreshadows the tribulation—everyone will surely die … unless He preserves His community through it all. This suggests Christians will endure the tribulation at some point in the future. There will be false sightings of the Messiah. Charlatans and Satan-empowered teachers will lead people astray.

“So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

Matthew 24:26-28

Jesus words are just a continuation of the same, with a folksy analogy for good measure. Just as circling vultures unmistakably mark the spot of a dead creature, so too will Messiah’s coming be obvious and clear. It won’t be necessary to speculate about when Messiah will arrive, because it will be as unmistakable as lightning in the night sky. It’s no accident that Jesus refers to Himself here as “the Son of Man.” This is the figure whom the Ancient of Days crowns as eternal king in Daniel 7 just after the beast (i.e. Antichrist) is slain and tossed into the burning fire (Dan 7:7-13; cp. Rev 17:11-14). Likewise, in Jesus’ own chronology the Son of Man will appear to destroy Antichrist and establish His kingdom (Rev 19:19-21) just as the great tribulation plumbs new depths of evil.

The typology or prefiguring still holds. This is advice both for the residents of Jerusalem about 40 years hence, and for believers enduring the great tribulation sometime in the distant future.

Notice again that there is nothing here about Jesus returning twice, once to rapture the Church out of this world, and again to establish the kingdom. Jesus only tells of one single return.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary (online), s.v. “myth,” noun, no. 1a, (accessed March 11, 2023). “A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”

[2] One theologian suggests the popularity of these stories is a Gospel echo from people who otherwise have no “script” into which to slot deeper human themes. See Joshua Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020). 

[3] See Rocky IV and Return of the Jedi, respectively. 

[4] This is from an anonymous commentator. See Simonetti, Matthew, in ACCS, pp. 191-192. 

[5] Alford, New Testament, p. 1:165.

[6] I think Carson is correct to see the “let the reader understand” as Jesus’ remark for folks who read Daniel to pay close attention (Matthew, p. 500). However, many see it as Matthew’s editorial insertion. 

[7] Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1962), p. 492. 

[8] Robertson, Word Pictures, Mt 24:15; Johann Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, vol. 1, ed. M. Ernest Bengel and J. C. F. Steudel, trans. James Bryce (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1860), p. 1:420. A.B. Bruce writes, “The horror is the Roman army, and the thing to be dreaded and fled from is not any religious outrage it may perpetrate, but the desolation it will inevitably bring,” (“Synoptic Gospels,” in Expositor’s Testament, p. 1:292). Bruce doesn’t see the Roman military standards themselves as the desolating sacrilege, but he’s on the same basic page as me.

[9] R.T. France suggests this abomination cannot be the Roman military standards invading the temple, because by then it would be too late for people to flee (Matthew, p. 913). It’s unnecessary to see the abomination as being actuated the very moment the ensign enters the temple compound. It’s enough to see the phrase as referring to the general siege and conquest of the whole city.

[10] See (1) G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), s.v. “ἐρήμωσις,” p. 179, (2) Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), p. 172, (3) Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker (et al), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), p. 392.

[11] Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G.A. Williamson, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1969), 7:1 (p. 361). Chrysostom suggests, “And let not any man suppose this to have been spoken hyperbolically; but let him study the writings of Josephus, and learn the truth of the sayings. For neither can any one say, that the man being a believer, in order to establish Christ’s words, hath exaggerated the tragical history,” (“Homily 76,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 457).

[12] Carson, Matthew, p. 501. 

[13] See Grant Osborne, Matthew, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010; kindle ed.), KL 23617, and Chrysostom, “Homily 75,” in NPNF 1.10, p. 457. 

[14] Keener, Bible Backgrounds, p. 108. Broadus, writing in 1886, suggests the siege of Jerusalem really was the worst thing which has ever happened (Matthew, p. 488).

[15] France, Matthew, p. 915.

[16] From G.A. Williamson’s introduction to Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G.A. Williamson, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1969), p. 7. 

[17] Josephus, The Jewish War, 6:199-219 (pp. 341-342). 

[18] Josephus, The Jewish War, 6:420f. See ch(s). 13-21 (i.e. 3:422 – 6:429).

[19] Broadus, Matthew, p. 486.  

[20] Ridderbos, Kingdom, pp. 493-497. Henry Alford remarks, “Our Lord still has in view the prophecy of Daniel (ch. 12:1), and this citation clearly shews the intermediate fulfilment, by the destruction of Jerusalem, of that which is yet future in its final fulfilment: for Daniel is speaking of the end of all things,” (New Testament, p. 1:166).

[21] Osborne, Matthew, KL 23639. Broadus remarks that vv.15f “apparently refers both to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the final coming of Christ,” (Matthew, p. 485). Glasscock, a dispensationalist, also agrees (Matthew, pp. 468-471).

[22] Osborne, Matthew, KL 23639.

[23] D.A. Carson, Matthew, in EBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), pp. 502-503; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, in Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 605-606; contra. Broadus, Matthew, p. 488. Craig Blomberg defines this entire period as the “great tribulation.” He writes, “Far from this age being a millennium, as in traditional amillennialism, the New Testament era in which we have been living is better characterized as tribulation for believers,” (Matthew, in New American Commentary, vol. 22 (Nashville: B&H, 1992),p. 359).

On Two Ladies and Their Two Jerusalems

On Two Ladies and Their Two Jerusalems

Henry Knox personifies the perennial American virtues of dependability and ingenuity.[1] He was George Washington’s chief artillery commander during much of the Revolutionary War. Knox was nobody’s version of a dashing soldier. A 1784 portrait shows a chubby, round-faced man with at least two chins. His shoulders slope downward as if he’s slouching for the portrait—one can just imagine the belly that must be there, despite being over six feet tall.

Knox had no formal military training. He was a bookseller who liked to read, and devoured tomes on military history and eventually artillery. Washington promoted him to the post over the head of an older, much more experienced professional soldier. He must have seen something in the guy.

One of Knox’s greatest feats was to seize 55 artillery pieces from captured Fort Ticonderoga, at the southern end of Lake Champlain, and transport them to Cambridge, MA to participate in the siege of Boston. This is a distance of approximately 220 miles on modern roads, and Knox’s achievement was “one of the most impressive examples of perseverance and ingenuity in the war.”[2]

Artillery pieces in that day were extraordinarily heavy—Knox’s 55 guns weighted over 60 tons. He and his team successfully hauled this captured artillery across waterways, over hills and down into valleys and lost not a one.

Knox later served in Washington’s first administration as Secretary of War. This is an extraordinary, self-made man—a guy who taught himself his own profession and helped win the Revolutionary War. He was a guy who “made it happen,” and his successful capture and transport of 60 tons of artillery pieces to the outskirts of Boston one cold winter is exhibit no. 1.

In that brief description, I took a historical figure and made him represent something bigger, something beyond himself. Does Henry Knox really embody dependability and ingenuity to the nth degree? Perhaps nobody really can, but that one incident surely illustrates the point.

This article is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 4:21 – 5:12. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:15-22, and Galatians 3:23 – 4:7, and Galatians 4:12-20.

Paul does something similar, in Galatians 4:21 – 5:12. He grabs a historical incident and says, “this is a great illustration for something deeper—something important.” He hopes this will make an impression on the Christians in Galatia, because it’s important they get this. He explains …

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?

Galatians 4:21

Now, in a tone of exasperation—like that of a frustrated person to a particularly dense friend—Paul asks if they’re really aware of what it means to put oneself under a system of works righteousness. This echoes what he’s mentioned earlier, in Galatians 3:7-14. “You really want to go that way?” he asks. “I’m not sure you understand what you’re doing!”

Anytime you add something to Jesus’ “repent and believe” (Mk 1:15), you destroy the Gospel. False teachers are claiming the equation is “Jesus + obey the Mosaic law = salvation.” This is why some of these “foolish Galatians” (Gal 3:1) want to “be under the law.” They’ve been fooled to believe in that false equation.

“Do you not listen to the law?” Paul asks.[3] He explains what he means …

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

Galatians 4:22-23

“This is what I mean,” Paul says,[4] and then lays it out. He grabs an incident from the book of Genesis (ch. 16) to make his point. He uses allegory, which basically means one thing is really a symbol for some hidden other thing.[5] This means the point he’s about to make doesn’t come right from Genesis, but he uses the incident from Genesis 16 as an illustration for something else. It’s a capstone to the same long argument he’s been making since Galatians 3.

For as painting is an ornament to set forth and garnish an house already builded, so is an allegory the light of a matter which is already otherwise proved and confirmed.[6]

You’ll have to read Genesis 16 to understand what Paul’s about to say—why don’t you do it right now?

There are two children from Abraham: Ishmael and Isaac. One was born to a slave woman, Hagar—whose mistress was Abraham’s wife Sarah. The other was Sarah’s child, whom they named Isaac.

Ishmael was born because Abraham and Sarah tried to fix things their own way. God had promised them more offspring than could ever be counted—that Abraham would be the genesis of all God’s people. Well, the years passed, and no child came. We gotta do something, they figured. Gotta take matters into our own hands. So, Sarah declared, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her,” (Gen 16:2). Abraham was only too happy to oblige and slept with Hagar. Thus Ishmael was conceived.

Isaac, on the other hand, was born according to God’s promise. Sarah conceived a child in her old age, and they had a new baby boy of their own.  

This contrast—going your own way vs. going God’s way—is what Paul highlights throughout the example. Hagar represents “going your own way,” when Abraham and Sarah decided to solve the problem “according to the flesh.” Sarah represents “going God’s way,” and so she is a “free woman.”

This “according to the flesh” (Ishmael) vs. “as a result of a divine promise” (Isaac) suggests two very different paths:[7]

Children of the flesh → Ishmael → focus on human effort → unbeliever

Children of the divine promise → Isaac → focus on God’s grace → believer

Paul continues …

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.

Galatians 4:24-26

These two women and the two very different paths they represent stand for two covenants. These are the Old and New Covenants,[8] symbolized by two cities, and two women, and two very different “children.”

Old Covenant from the Old Jerusalem → Hagar → slave children

New Covenant from the New Jerusalem → Sarah → free children

Paul’s language is a bit shocking—he compares the Old Covenant to slavery! Did Jesus think that way? Did the man who wrote Psalm 119 think that way (“Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors,” (Ps 119:24))?

They didn’t.

So, in what way are the “children” from the present Jerusalem “in slavery”? Paul must again be referring to the wrong interpretation of the Old Covenant that he’s been arguing against all along. That’s the best explanation.[9] The Mosaic law isn’t oppressive or evil (“Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight,” (Ps 119:35)). It is not a tool for slavery—“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts,” (Ps 119:45)). Nor is it a vehicle for salvation—it has nothing to do with that.

This suggests it can only be compared to slavery if it’s twisted into something it’s not meant to be. The Mosaic law can become a form of “slavery” if you twist it into a means of salvation. “For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die!” (Gal 2:21, NLT).

You have a choice of two “mothers,” each corresponding to a particular path:

Go your own way → Hagar as “mother” → slavery

Go God’s way → Sarah as “mother” → freedom

Paul now quotes a passage from Isaiah to strengthen his point:

For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”

Galatians 4:27 (quoting from Isa 54:1-3)

In Isaiah’s book, this follows right on the heels of the great prophecy about the Lord’s suffering servant (Isa 52:13 – 53:12). In that passage, God promised that His servant would justify many people, and would see His “offspring,” who are the true believers whom He’ll rescue. After that assurance, Isaiah then says the bit which Paul quotes here in our text—the “barren woman” who has been longing to bear “children” will have her wish, but not in the normal fashion. She won’t bear the children or ever suffer labor pains, nonetheless this “desolate woman” will have multitudes of them.

This is poetry, metaphor—it hints about something deeper. God often refers to his community as a woman (Isa 61:10; Isa 62:4-5; Jer 3:14; Eph 5:25-27)—sometimes an unfaithful woman (see Ezek 16, Hos 1-3). So, this woman to whom God speaks is likely Israel—His covenant family. She is “barren” because the glittering promise from Mt. Sinai (“… you will be my treasured possession … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Ex 19:5-6)) seems to be nothing but a pipe dream when compared to the crucible of reality—a fantasy.

Children are a sign of God’s blessing—but where are her “children”? Well, God promises that she’ll have them. God’s community will one day be complete, made whole, elevated to that splendor she never really achieved. Isaiah looks forward to the new covenant, when Jesus will make all those promises to Abraham come true.

Why does Paul quote this passage? He connects the “good mother” with Sarah, who waited upon God even through apparent barrenness. Sarah will have more children than the “other woman,” Hagar.[10] The Galatian Christians are children of the free woman, symbolized by the new Jerusalem (“she is our mother,” Gal 4:26)—they’re Israel’s “children.” Anyone who shares Abraham’s faith is a child of Abraham, and an heir in God’s family (Rom 4:16-17; Gal 3:26-29). Every new believer is a precious “child” given to that barren woman, Israel, who once thought she’d blown it and would never have offspring.

Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.

Galatians 4:28-29

Christians who trust Jesus, through the simple Good News He preached, belong to Sarah and are “children of promise.” What happened between Isaac and Ishmael? Ishmael harassed his younger stepbrother (Gen 21:9). “It is the same now,” in that the other “children” (those who belong to the slave woman—the Old Jerusalem) harass the true children who are free.

Children of promise → free → true believers

Children of the flesh → slaves → false believers

These “slave children” are the false teachers and all who believe in the equation “Jesus + something else = salvation.” Some bible teachers believe they are the Jews and the Old Covenant, but this is wrong—the Old Covenant (properly interpreted) isn’t evil and doesn’t produce slavery. Instead, Paul has been arguing against the “works righteousness” crowd and he continues that here.

But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”

Galatians 4:30

When Ishmael harassed Isaac, Sarah told her husband to send Hagar away. “She has no part in any of this!” What’s the connection to the situation in Galatia? Well, just as Sarah (the “mother” of freedom in this analogy) sent away Hagar (the “mother” of slavery), so too should the Christians in Galatia “get rid of” these false teachers and everyone else who believes in that fraudulent salvation equation. They have no share in Abraham’s inheritance. They aren’t children of the free woman—they belong to someone else entirely. Send them packing, and don’t fall for their tricks!  

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

Galatians 4:31

And there it is.

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.

Galatians 5:1

By accepting Christ, the Galatian Christians escaped from slavery. They were in bondage to the “elemental spiritual forces” of works righteousness (Gal 4:3, 8-10), but that’s all in the past. Paul spoke of Sarah and “freedom.” Well, it was for freedom that Christ has set us free. So, don’t go back to prison!     

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.

Galatians 5:2-3

If they decide to go down the “Jesus + Mosaic law = salvation” road, then they’re spitting in Christ’s face. We can’t be perfect, and so that’s why Christ came. But if, knowing that, you still want to try to obey the Mosaic law as if it were a way of salvation then Christ is worthless to you. If you want to go that way, then you’d better be willing to be perfect and obey the entire law.

Good luck with that.

Again, Paul is arguing against the common misunderstanding of the Mosaic law that the false teachers are peddling—the same confusion that Jesus dealt with. The Mosaic law was never intended as a vehicle for salvation—it was simply a code for holy living while God’s people waited for the Messiah. Centuries of tradition had crusted over top of the Old Covenant and turned it into a burdensome thing—a yoke of bondage.

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

Galatians 5:4

The word which the NIV renders as “have been alienated from Christ” means to be “parted from” or to “abolish.”[11] This is a moment of cosmic significance. If you choose that false equation of “Jesus + something else = salvation,” then you’ve chosen a false message. That means you’ve been parted from Christ, separated from Him. The union that once was is severed, abolished.

The people don’t do the severing—God does it. The text (and the Greek words behind it) don’t read “you’ve alienated yourselves from Christ.” It reads “you’ve been alienated/parted from Christ.” Why has this happened? Why has God cut them loose from Christ? Because they “have fallen from grace.”[12]

Some Christians today might interrupt and ask, “is Paul saying they’ve lost their salvation?” The answer is that Paul’s not addressing that question here, and we shouldn’t pretend he did—even in the interests of theological tidiness.[13] He’s issuing a frustrated warning. In real life we know we must balance one statement with another. Say your husband tells your child, “I’ve had it with you and your phone. All you do is stare at it. You don’t do anything else all day!” Should you then wonder, “Does my husband hate telephones? Will he sell his phone? Will I have to buy him a retro pager, instead?” The truth is that your husband isn’t really talking about telephones at all. He just thinks your son spends too much time staring at it. He’s worried about him and spoke harshly to get his point across.

Paul is doing something similar—he isn’t addressing salvation, he’s just issuing a harsh warning. If you choose that wrong route, you’ve fallen from grace and God will sever you from relationship with Jesus—because that’s the choice you made. This is very dangerous. Stop it now and come to your senses! He says all this to make them reflect, to think about what they’re doing (see v. 10).

For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Galatians 5:5-6

This passage should probably begin with “but” (see the New Living Translation here) because it’s expressing a contrast—you can either choose works righteousness and thus fall from grace, or you can eagerly await final righteousness through the Spirit. Y’all can do that, but we will do this (etc.).

Jesus is all that matters. Not circumcision. Not tithing. Not your job. Not your automobiles. Not your family pedigree. Not your education. Not how smart you are. In union with Christ, all of that is now useless (see Ecc 1-2)—all that really matters is faith proven by love (see 1 Cor 13). “If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing,” (1 Cor 13:2, NLT).

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 5:7-8

What happened to you all? You used to understand. You used to get it. You used to know the truth. Where did you go wrong? This teaching didn’t come from Jesus—it came from someone else.  

“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view.

Galatians 5:9-10

Paul quotes a line from one of his letters to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 5:6). Just a little yeast will make the entire loaf of bread rise. In the same way, just a little bit of falsehood will ruin the entire Christian message. But, he says, I’m confident that you’ll correct your course, come to your senses, and tell those troublemakers to, “Hit the road, Jack—and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more …”[14]

The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty.

Galatians 5:10

Paul reminds us that troublemakers will pay, in the end. “The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion,” (Ps 11:5).

Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.

Galatians 5:11

Verse 11 is difficult. The best explanation seems to be that these false teachers are spreading lies about Paul, suggesting he really preaches “Jesus + Mosaic law = salvation” elsewhere, but has abridged his message to them for sinister reasons.[15] This doesn’t make any sense, Paul says, because he’s hated and persecuted everywhere by these same people! If he preached the false message, the Judaizers would have much less of a problem. Christianity’s great offense is that it requires people to admit, “I’ve been wrong about everything, and nothing I do myself can ever fix my relationship with God!”

There’s a reason why Jesus’ death makes people so angry—because it means we’re criminals and that Jesus was executed in our place. Our salvation hinges on us admitting this to God and choosing to love Him rather than ourselves. It asks us to admit that we’re no good, but that Jesus was voluntarily indicted and executed in our place, for our crimes, as our substitute. That’s what the Christian story says as soon as someone looks at the cross and asks, “why did that have to happen?” It makes us humble ourselves and exalt Him. That offends us, and so the cross makes people angry. We don’t naturally want this, and that’s why in order for anyone to respond to the truth, God must first remove that dark veil so the Gospel light can shine in (2 Cor 4).    

As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.

Galatians 5:12

These people are so obsessed with circumcision, why don’t they just cut their penises off? “What could be more fitting?” Paul chortles. Prove the depth of your commitment to God—off with the penis! Nobody can suggest Paul lacked a sense of humor.

In the next part of the letter to the Christians in Galatia, he explains how to properly use this “freedom” from legalism.

[1] The account which follows is largely from John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York, OUP, 2007), pp. 101-104. 

[2] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, revised ed., in Oxford History of the United States (New York: OUP, 2005; Kindle ed.), p. 314.   

[3] This is literally what he asks in Greek; the NIV tries to smooth it out. 

[4] The conjunction is explanatory, and need not be a formal “for,” like the NIV renders it. 

[5] “The use of symbols in a story, picture, etc., to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one; symbolic representation,” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “allegory,” noun, no. 1. OED Online. March 2023. (accessed April 14, 2023)).

[6] Luther, Galatians, p. 416. 

[7] Hendriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, pp. 180-181. In a similar vein, Martin Luther wrote, “Therefore the children of the flesh (saith he) are not the children of God, but the children of the promise, &c. And by this argument he mightily stoppeth the mouths of the proud Jews, which gloried that they were the seed and children of Abraham: as also Christ doth in the third of Matthew, and in the eighth of John,” (Commentary on Galatians (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), p. 415).

[8] It could well be the Old Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant, but the latter is the well-spring from which the New Covenant springs. I prefer Old and New Covenants, but I don’t see how it really matters, one way or the other. It’s not worth arguing about. 

[9] Ronald Fung explains that Hagar and the present Jerusalem “stands by metonymy for Judaism, with its trust in physical descent from Abraham and reliance on legal observance as the way of salvation,” (Galatians, in NICNT, KL 2571-2572).

John Calvin notes, “What, then, is the gendering to bondage, which forms the subject of the present dispute? It denotes those who make a wicked abuse of the law, by finding in it nothing but what tends to slavery. Not so the pious fathers, who lived under the Old Testament; for their slavish birth by the law did not hinder them from having Jerusalem for their mother in spirit,” (Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Bellingham: Logos, 2010), p. 138).

[10]  Paul’s analogy breaks down when you try to connect too many dots (Hagar was not married), but his point stands. It’s an imperfect allegory to make a point, and we should take the point and not quibble over tidiness.

[11] See (1) LSJ, s.v. “καταργέω,” no. II, p. 908, (2) Louw-Nida, Lexicon,s.v. 13.100, and (3) Abbott-Smith, Manual Greek Lexicon, s.v. “καταργέω,” p. 238.

[12] This particular phrase is epexegetical, meaning it explains a statement just made. “You have been severed from Christ, you all who want to be justified by the law—you have fallen from grace!” (κατηργήθητε ἀπὸ Χριστοῦ, οἵτινες ἐν νόμῳ δικαιοῦσθε τῆς χάριτος ἐξεπέσατε).

[13] “We should not try to diminish the force of these words, in the interest, perhaps, of this or that theological presupposition,” (Hendriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, p. 196). 

[14] See

[15] See Richard Longenecker, Galatians, in WBC (Nashville: Word, 1990), pp. 232-233. 

On Humphrey Bogart, Devil’s Island, and Prison

On Humphrey Bogart, Devil’s Island, and Prison

In 1956 Humphrey Bogart starred in one of his quirkier movies, a comedy titled We’re No Angels. The year is 1895, it’s Christmas morning, and Bogart and two others are convicts on Devil’s Island, the notorious French penal colony. They escape that awful place and make their way to a coastal city in French Guiana and plot their next move.

Through a series of bizarre circumstances, Bogart and company find themselves tied up in the affairs of a storekeeper and his family. High jinks and hilarity ensue, complete with Christmas dinner, a pretty girl, a sinister relative, and a pet snake named Adolph. At the end of the movie their boat awaits, they have civilian clothes, they have luggage, and look like respectable gentlemen (except for Adolph). Everything is working, and freedom awaits. All they have to do is get on the boat.

And yet, in the gathering dusk, the three convicts make a crazy decision—they decide to go back to prison! Bogart ponders the suggestion for a beat, gestures with his hat, and nods his head. “Well, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll do it all over again next year,” he says.

This isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s a comedy. But, we are meant to get the absurdity of the decision—who in his right mind would go back to prison? Crazy, right?

This article is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 4:8-20. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:15-22, and Galatians 3:23 – 4:7.

And yet, this is exactly what the Christians in Galatia are doing. Jesus has set them free but they’re choosing to go back to prison, to slavery, to bondage. The danger is that they don’t realize it. Paul explains …

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces?

Galatians 4:8-9

Paul likes to compare salvation to liberation—which is what “redemption” basically means. Jesus “saves” us, yes, but that word seems to have lost a bit of its sparkle because it’s so familiar. Terms like “rescue” or “liberate” or “set free” help explain. The “ransom” language (see Mk 10:45; 1 Tim 2:6) gets across something similar—we were slaves to Satan, but now Jesus has set us free!

The Christians in Galatia, Paul says, used to be slaves to things that weren’t God. But now, all that has changed. Now they know God, or—Paul hastens to clarify, perhaps with a flash of irritation—they’re known by God, how on earth could they then turn back to what they’ve left behind? This clarification (“known by God” instead of “you know God”) stresses God’s divine gift. We do choose God, but underneath all that we only choose Him because the Spirit has first lifted the dark veil from our eyes so the Gospel can shine in (2 Cor 4:3-6).

This makes their potential betrayal all the more inexcusable. God has done this, so you repay Him by doing that? You’ve walking back into slavery! Crazy!

With all the talk of the Old Covenant and the Mosaic law, we can make the mistake of thinking Paul’s audience is a bunch of Jewish people. This ain’t true. He’s going on and on about Jewish stuff because false teachers are stalking the land, teaching Christians they must become Jewish (that is, the false teacher’s fraudulent idea of what “Jewish” means)in order to be real believers. They’re wrong—that’s why Paul is writing this letter.

But, Paul’s audience is a mixed group of Christians in modern-day Turkey. This isn’t exactly Jerusalem! He focuses on Jewish law and the Old Covenant because that’s the false teaching that’s gotten them all so confused. What’s so wild is what Paul does next. He equates the false teacher’s perverted version of the Mosaic law with pagan cults. One is just as bad as the other! This is why Paul said, way back at the beginning of the letter, that there is one single Gospel—any deviation is fatal (Gal 1:6-9). It doesn’t matter if the deviation is towards the legalism so common in Jesus’ day and Paul’s day, or towards a kind of “we can do whatever we want, ‘cuz grace rules!” vibe (see Rom 6:1-2). A deviation is a deviation, and it’s always fatal.

Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

Galatians 4:10-11

If you stop following Abraham’s example (to believe and trust God, and be counted as righteous in response), then you’re choosing slavery. The Galatian Christians are observing Jewish holidays, special occasions, and the like. It’s not that they simply prefer to observe Old Covenant rituals as aids to faith—Messianic Christians today do something similar. The problem is that they’re following the perverted ideas of the false teachers—they think they need to observe these special days (etc.) in order to gain salvation.

This is why Paul throws up his hands and suggests he’s wasted his time on them. They’re so confused that they seem hopeless—did they ever understand who Jesus is and what salvation is about? Maybe not!

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.

Galatians 4:12-14

After the shock of this suggestion (“did I waste my time on y’all?”)—Paul had time to ponder it before he wrote it, so he likely did it on purpose—Paul switches to a softer tone. He seems to say, “Look guys—put yourself in my place and see where I’m coming from!” He loves them. They never did anything to hurt him. Paul has their best interests at heart. The false teachers are trying to throw them into confusion (Gal 1:7), but don’t they remember Paul’s heart towards them? They used to trust him—what happened?

Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Galatians 4:15-16

Have they changed their minds about Paul—become suspicious, distrustful, cynical—because they don’t like what he’s telling them? “You trust these bozos over me?” Paul asks. “Really?”

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.

Galatians 4:17

The false teachers don’t have good motives. They want followers. They want clicks. They want celebrity. They want fame. Paul stands in the way, so he must go. Don’t listen to them!

It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.

Galatians 4:18

The Christians in Galatia are zealous. They want to do right. They want to be right. But, their zeal is leading them off a cliff. They’ve transferred their zeal from the truth to a lie, and disaster awaits.

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

Galatians 4:19-20

Paul sounds anguished. At wits end. Frustrated in a compassionate sort of way. He’s like a mother in childbirth, waiting for a baby to enter the world. Will these “believers” in Galatia turn out to be real Christians, after all? Paul wishes he were there so he could understand. He’s perplexed, confused. He wishes he could speak in kinder tones—if only he could chat with them in person! What Paul wouldn’t have given for Zoom!

In the movie We’re No Angels, the escaped convicts decide to go back to prison because the outside world is so dark. “You always know where you are in prison,” one of them says, wistfully. Things are simpler. Easier. The real world is so devious, so complicated, so twisted. It’s better in prison. So, they go back. The movie fades to black as halos appear over each of their heads—even Adolph’s. It’s a clever riff on the title. Perhaps they really are angels, after all …

In contrast, the situation in Galatia isn’t a joke. Things aren’t easier back in the prison of works righteousness. They’re worse. It’s a treadmill from hell that leads nowhere. We shake our heads as Bogart and company decide to go back to prison, even as we realize it’s a silly comedy. How much more unbelievable is it if we forsake Abraham’s example of simple faith and trust in God’s promise for a false gospel?  

In the depths of his confusion, Paul tries out an analogy—maybe that will express his point better. Maybe then they’ll understand. We’ll see about this analogy in the next article.

The Map is Not the Territory

The Map is Not the Territory

In 1998 Robert DeNiro starred in one of his better action movies, a film titled Ronin. It’s about a gang of mercenaries recruited by a shadowy Irish woman to steal a case intact “from several men who will be intent on preventing us.” The small team seems to be comprised of ex-military and espionage types. At one point, the team settles on a proposed ambush site. They’ve surveilled the target, mapped the area, the routes, and have a good idea of what they’re going to do. DeNiro’s character stares at a map, a cup of coffee in his hand, scowling. “The map, the map, the map …” he mutters. “The map is not the territory.”[1]

He puts the coffee down, grabs his car keys, and decides to walk around the target’s hotel. He’s tired of talking about the route, the hotel, the target. He wants to see the ground for himself. And see it he does. It’s fair to say that Ronin features some of the best car chase scenes in movie history.

My point is that while it does some good to talk about passages like Matthew 24, there is no substitute to working through it yourself—to seeing it. The map is not the territory. At some point, you have to grab the keys and drive out to see the ground for yourself. Still, we have to map the issue a little bit, so we’ll talk about the passage before we dive into it.

This is a series of articles on what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. You can read the entire essay as a single unit here. This is the first of the series, providing an introduction to the chapter and vv. 1-3. You can also read the article on Matthew 24:4-14.

Matthew 24 is a hard passage. One Baptist theologian suggested it was “the most difficult problem in the Synoptic Gospels.”[2] So, don’t be discouraged if it seems like there’s a lot here—there is! But, if we can capture at least the broad sweep of Jesus’ message here (the details would be nice, too!), and the main thing He wants us to do with this information, then we’ll be in good shape.

Lots of people write lots of material on prophecy. Some of it is irresponsible, much of it is too dogmatic, and a whole lot of it is click-bait. It misses the “so what” at the expense of the allegedly sensational. At the congregation where I’m a pastor, I once discovered an old book in the church library[3] in which the author declared that Saddam Hussein was re-building Babylon, hinted Hussein might be the Antichrist, and strongly suggested this event was therefore a sign of the end (cf. Rev 17-18). Of course, Saddam Hussein never recovered from the first Gulf War, he did not re-build Babylon, he was not the Antichrist (unless he springs to life sometime in the future), and the book is now an embarrassment.

We can do better.

There are three general approaches to this passage that you’ll need to understand. It’s almost impossible to come to Matthew 24 as an impartial, blank slate—what you’ve decided about other passages will effect what you do with this passage.[4] This means each of the three perspectives brings very different presuppositions to the table. It’s hard to not fall into the familiar rut of adopting the system with which you’re most familiar, dusting your hands off, and calling it a day. We should try our best to not do that!

Three Different Grids for Understanding Matthew 24

Here are the three different interpretive grids. I intend these descriptions to be broadly representative—not precise descriptions:

  1. The first option is to say Matthew 24 is about the great tribulation, and only the great tribulation. Everything here is about the Jewish people struggling against Antichrist in the age to come. The Church is not here, because God raptured the Church away before the tribulation began. It must be this way, because the great tribulation is “a time of trouble for Jacob” (Jer 30:7)—that is, for the Jewish people specifically.[5] The Church has nothing to do with the tribulation, so Matthew 24 is not directly applicable. However, we can glean principles to apply to this Church age. This view relies heavily on the assumption that Israel and the Church are two distinct peoples of God, on parallel but separate tracks.[6]
  2. Another view is that most or all of this passage is about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Some believe Matthew 24:29-31 is not about Jesus’ second advent at all—it simply quotes the prophet Daniel and shows us Jesus being enthroned after His ascension.[7] This perspective tends to minimize data which suggests Jesus’ second coming and maximize all references to Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city from AD 66-70.
  3. The third position is that the passage largely operates on two levels at once—(1) it’s basically about the siege and capture of Jerusalem in AD 66-70, but (2) those awful events prefigure and foreshadow the great tribulation during some unknown future time.[8] This perspective tries to have it both ways, because it sees Jesus as often speaking about two things at once.

I believe the third grid presents the fewest problems, is the best explanation for the evidence, and best comports with the rest of Scripture.

How to Weigh the Evidence? Rules of Affinity to the Rescue

The scriptures are the supreme or highest channel of religious authority;[9] the “supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.”[10] This means that, while tradition, reason, and experience are important, they are not the final court of appeal. That means we need to pay attention to what Scripture says.

I’ve been an investigator for 20 years, in both Federal and State contexts. I’ve done both criminal and regulatory investigations. You may substantiate two cases, all while knowing one has better evidence than the other. It’s the same with Scripture—there are degrees of certainty based on the weight of evidence. An acquaintance of mine, Dr. Paul Henebury, has developed a system which he titled “rules of affinity” to explain how we can weigh probability of evidence in Scripture.[11] If we can correctly assign evidence a probative value, then we’ll know how dearly we ought to cling to a certain doctrine.

What’s the point?

The point is that when you come to Matthew 24, you likely arrive with preconceived ideas about what Jesus is saying. Maybe you’re right. Maybe you aren’t right. Be willing to fairly weigh the evidence, assign it a category from the rules of affinity chart, and adjust your “passion level” for your preferred interpretation accordingly. If you won’t do that, then you’ve already made up your mind and are simply after confirmation that you’re “right.” That’s the opposite of truth.

Here is a short slide deck which is largely inspired by Henebury’s scheme—the examples are not his (I suspect he would disagree with some of them!).

Are we willing to weigh the evidence fairly? Remember this chart in future articles as we work our way through Matthew 24.

Some Tricky Issues

There are five key issues in Matthew 24 which need an answer. Most people will provide an answer which fits with their preferred “grid” for understanding the passage. Here are the issues, along with my answers. Justification and support for my positions will come in the commentary itself—you’ll have to wait!

  1. Abomination of desolation—what is it? Jesus mentions this at Matthew 24:15. I believe it refers to the Roman army besieging Jerusalem from AD 66-70, which prefigures the great tribulation when the Antichrist will desecrate a holy space in Jerusalem at some future date.
  2. “Let the reader understand”—what does this mean? This is also at Matthew 24:15. I believe it’s Jesus remark (not Matthew’s) which directs folks who read the prophet Daniel to pay close attention to the specific events which will come within the generation that was alive when Jesus spoke.
  3. “[G]reat distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now”—what is this? Jesus mentions this phrase at Matthew 24:21. I believe it refers to both (1) Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans, which squares with Jesus’ announcement of the temple’s destruction that started the entire conversation (Mt 24:1-2), and (2) the Antichrist’s brief reign as the ruler of the kingdom of darkness (Rev 13), later depicted by the Apostle John as Babylon (Rev 17-18). There is both a near and far fulfillment.
  4. The coming of the Son of Man—when will it happen? Jesus describes this at Matthew 24:29-31. It refers to his second advent, a single-stage event wherein He returns at the end of the great tribulation to gather his elect (both alive and dead) from the four corners of the earth, destroy Babylon and establish His kingdom (Rev 19).
  5. “[T]his generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened—to what is Jesus referring? He’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, which means Jesus is referring here to Matthew 24:4-26 (or possibly up to v. 28)—He isn’t talking about vv. 29-31 at all. “This generation,” then, is referring to people alive in Jesus’ day who will still be around to see the Romans destroy the temple.

One other issue that piques curiosity is the timing of the rapture—when will believers be snatched up to meet the Lord? (Mt 24:31; cp. 1 Thess 4:13-18)? I believe this passage suggests a post-tribulational rapture, and that the Apostle Paul refers to this passage when he describes that same event in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (“according to the Lord’s word,” 1 Thess 4:15). This is a relatively unimportant issue, but I note it here because Christians often want to know about it.

Outline of the Passage

Here is an outline of the passage as I understand it.

Here is my attempt to depict the passage in graphic form, especially the foreshadowing aspect and Jesus’ focus shifting between the near (the Romans destroying Jerusalem) and the far (Antichrist and the great tribulation).

Figure 1.

Now, at long last, because the map is not the territory, let’s get to Matthew 24.

Mic Drop in Jerusalem (vv. 1-3)

Our passage opens when Jesus has just finished his jeremiad against the Pharisees (Mt 23). He capped it all with the pronouncement, “your house is left to you desolate!” (Mt 23:38). This could refer to Israel, to the temple itself, or to Jerusalem as the symbol of God’s place on earth. It’s probably a general reference encompassing lots of things, basically meaning “things as they are are gonna change.” Jesus then turns on His heels and walks away. This is likely Tuesday of Passover week, and Jesus never enters the temple again.[12]

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (Matthew 24:1-2).

We can imagine the disciples staring at the Pharisees, an unbearable tension filling the silence. They then hurry after Jesus, anxious to escape this awkward situation. They believe Jesus is referring to the temple complex itself, which is a huge structure. It was the size of several football fields, a massive feat of engineering. Herod the Great expanded the temple which the exiles rebuilt upon their return from captivity. He expanded the site by erecting massive retaining walls, filling them in to create an artificial plateau. He then added numerous exterior courtyards and other odds and ends, with the original temple at the center. This ambitious project was underway for nearly 80 years. It was finished shortly before the Romans sacked the city in AD 70.                                         

Figure 2. Herod’s temple, from Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps, and Reconstructions (Nashville: B&H, 1993), p. 153.

How could this structure be left desolate?[13] So, they call Jesus’ attention to the buildings—just look at them! Desolate? Deserted? Really? Jesus tells them the whole things would be rubble one day. That wasn’t what they were expecting to hear!

This is a great time for some clarification.

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Matthew 24:3

The disciples have two questions; (1) when will the temple be destroyed, and (2) what will be the sign that lets us know? The “sign of your coming and of the end of the age” is actually one question, not two—the disciples assume they are the same event.[14] They seem to assume the two events will happen at roughly same time—the temple will be destroyed, and Jesus will return.

These two simple questions, uttered on the Mount of Olives as they stared across the Kidron Valley at the temple complex, is the impetus for one of Jesus’ most sweeping descriptions of history. He begins to answer their questions in v. 4-14, which we’ll examine in the next article.

[1] I know this phrase did not originate with the movie Ronin, but work with me here, please …

[2] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1933), Mt 24:3. A.B. Bruce notes, “This chapter and its synoptical parallels (Mk. xiii., Lk. xxi.) present, in many respects, the most difficult problem in the evangelic records,” (“The Synoptic Gospels,” in Expositor’s Greek Testament, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910), p. 287).

[3] Charles Dyer and Angela Hunt, Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1991). See also Peter Steinfels, “Gulf War Proving Bountiful For Some Prophets of Doom,” NYTimes. 02 February 1991, pp. 1, 10.

[4] The answer to “when shall Christ return?” is “so comprehensive a question that each theory is in fact an entire eschatological scheme, complete with detailed exegesis and sweeping synthesis,” (D.A. Carson, Matthew, in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 490).   

[5] See John Walvoord, The Rapture Question, revised and enlarged (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), pp. 42-44. 

[6] For a representative view of this perspective, see John Walvoord, Thy Kingdom Come: A Commentary on the First Gospel (Chicago: Moody, 1974; reprint; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998). 

[7] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 920f.

[8] An anonymous patristic author noted, “We never saw the destruction of the temple, nor did they see the end of the age. It was expedient therefore that they hear about the signs of the temple’s destruction and that we learn to recognize the signs of the world’s consummation,” (Manlio Simonetti (ed.), Matthew 14-28, vol. 1b, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), p. 188).

A 19th century Baptist theologian agreed and wrote, “But if the destruction of Jerusalem was itself in one sense a coming of the Lord, why may we not suppose that the transition from this to the final coming is gradual? Then much in 24:3-36 may be taken as referring both to the former and the latter topic, while some of the expressions may refer exclusively to the one or the other,” (John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew, in American Commentary(Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p. 480). William Hendriksen said, “Our Lord predicts the city’s approaching catastrophe as a type of the tribulation at the end of the dispensation,” (Matthew, in New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), pp. 846-847).

Perhaps the foremost Greek scholar of the 20th century, a Baptist named A.T. Robertson, suggested “It is sufficient for our purpose to think of Jesus as using the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem which did happen in that generation in A.D. 70, as also a symbol of his own second coming and of the end of the world or consummation of the age,” (Word Pictures, Mt 24:3).

[9] See James Leo Garrett Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, 4th ed., vol. 1 (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014), pp. 206-209.

[10] 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1—On the Scriptures, in Phillip Schaff (ed.), The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), p. 742).

[11] See Paul Henebury, “The ‘Rules of Affinity’ Simplified.” 27 July 2021.

[12] Broadus, Matthew, p. 479.

[13] An famous 3rd-century Egyptian Christian scholar named Origen suggested that the physical temple had to be destroyed so the mystical temple of holy Scripture could be erected to take its place as the locus of authority. This will preach, but it isn’t what Jesus is saying! (Simonetti, Matthew 14-28, in ACCS, pp. 186-187).

[14] πότε (at what time) ταῦτα ἔσται (will this happen?) καὶ τί τὸ σημεῖον τῆς σῆς παρουσίας (and what will be the sign of your advent) καὶ (and—the singular “sign” comprises two events which occur at the same time) συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος (the end of the age?).

See also Chrysostom, “Homily 75,” in NPNF 1:10, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), p. 450.

On “Real Children” and British Spies

On “Real Children” and British Spies

I recently watched a detective show. One character sat in a restaurant next to a British spy, a senior MI-6 official, who happened to be a traitor. A gun half concealed in his pocket, he asked the Brit why he’d done it. The spy calmly ate his food and smirked at the weapon as only British spies can do.

He explained that MI-6 was populated by posh types—the sort who went to the right schools, the best universities, who had the right connections. “I came up hard,” the spy rasped, resentment smoldering in his eyes. “They let me in the club, you see, but never fully …”

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out so well for the Brit. He was murdered by the NSA, as a result of a deal brokered by the other guy, who was framed for murder by the British guy, who was secretly working for the Iranians … It’s complicated! But, we can understand the British spy’s resentment. Americans often don’t like social class as a status marker. We like to believe anyone can earn a place at the table if he works hard. These two paths, class vs. merit, seem contradictory.

And yet, in a strange way, the dominant religious context in Israel in Jesus’ day held that both social class and hard work were paths to righteousness. If you were a Jew, then you were born with immense privilege. The popular sentiment was to really hate the Gentiles as the other, the inferior. The poor MI-6 spy wouldn’t have approved. And yet, the New Testament also shows us that former Pharisees kept pushing a “obey the Mosaic Law + Jesus” formula as the path for Gentile salvation (Acts 15:1-2; Gal 2:11-21). Secular Americans might appreciate this—if you work hard, you get your reward!

In this section, Paul tells us this is all a lie. Who is a child of God? The one who is born into the right class? Or, maybe the one who works hardest? Neither. I’ll let him explain …

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 3:23 – 4:7. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:15-22, and Galatians 4:8-20, and Galatians 4:21 – 5:12.

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.

Galatians 3:23

The NIVs translation might give the impression that, before Jesus came, believers were imprisoned by the Mosaic Law. It sounds negative, harsh—a terrible burden to be endured. But, we can also translate both phrases here (“held in custody” and “locked up”) in a positive sense (see the NLT translation here). If so, we have a statement that reads something like “… we were guarded by the law—hemmed in until the faith that was to come …”

Because Paul doesn’t see the Mosaic Law as an evil thing (when properly understood), he’s probably writing in a positive sense. The Mosaic Law was a guardrail that hemmed us in until the Messiah arrived with the New and better Covenant in hand. It was a positive thing, a protective shield.

  • Its ceremonial laws told us how to maintain relationship with God, teaching us about Jesus’ coming sacrifice by way of repeated, living object lessons.
  • Its moral laws codified principles of right and wrong.
  • Its civil laws helped maintain social order in the messiness of real life.

In Galatians 3:22 (“Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin”) we saw Paul refer to Scripture in general as teaching no hope for “righteousness by works.” But here, he’s talking about something different.[1] He’s saying that, because we can’t be good enough to earn salvation ourselves (cp. Gal 2:21), God gave us a guardian, a watcher, a custodian to protect us while we waited for the Messiah. That custodian was the Mosaic Law.

So, the law didn’t lock us away for a millennium while we pined away for Jesus to set us free—the Psalmist certainly didn’t feel that way (“the precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart,” Ps 19:8)!

What did the law do, then?

Well, just like parents do with their own children, our Heavenly Father set boundaries and standards to govern our lives until the time came for our childhood to end. It ended when Jesus revealed Himself and His mission—“until the faith that was to come would be revealed,” (Gal 3:23). Now, “faith in God” means faith in Jesus Christ and everything He came to accomplish.

It wasn’t a new thing in the sense of being a “bolt from the blue.” No—it was simply the fulfillment of all the old promises. This is why Jesus didn’t start at the beginning (“Hi. My name is Jesus. There is only one God, and lemme tell you about Him …”). He didn’t have to explain as if He were a Martian who crash landed in a flying saucer. Instead, He assumed His audience would understand Him when He said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15).

So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:24-25

The faith about Jesus has now been revealed. The law used to be our guardian, but its time has now passed. The word for “guardian” here was often used to describe a servant who led a boy to and from school—a watcher and guide. That was the Mosaic Law’s purpose—not a vehicle for salvation, but a set of guardrails to keep our brothers and sisters from the Old Covenant headed the right way “until Christ came.” It “kept us under discipline, lest we should slip from his hands.”[2] This guardian’s purpose[3] was to make us long for a better way to deal with our sinfulness, a permanent solution. And, “now that this faith has come,” the law can be put away.

We’d be wrong to think “this faith” means salvation as we know it didn’t exist before, or that “justification by faith” was a new concept. This is just Paul’s shorthand way of saying “explicit faith in Jesus as the agent of salvation,” (cp. Simeon’s words in Luke 2:30). Abraham was justified by faith, too (Genesis 15:6)! But, God has filled in the details about“this faith” more and more as the bible’s storyline has gone along.   

Now that Paul has clarified what the Mosaic Law’s purpose was (to be a guide, a watcher, a guardian for us), he explains the implications of the New Covenant.  

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Galatians 3:26-27

If you are in union with Christ Jesus—bonded to Him, joined together by faith—then you are a child of God. Not just you, but you and everyone else who has done the same. As we saw earlier, Paul loves this metaphorical picture of “union,” and he deploys it in many ways. Now, he asks us to picture a baptism, an immersion under water, a submersion which joins us to Christ. It’s as if, by faith, we’re fused to Christ by way of this baptism which plunges us beneath the waves and joins us to Him. Now, as we emerge from these metaphorical waters, we’re clothed with Christ Himself. He is us and we are Him. We’ve been made new. Paul will elaborate at length about this same picture in Romans 6.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

In Christ’s new covenant family, this world’s ethnic, socio-cultural, and gender barriers are breached and torn down. This doesn’t mean those distinctions cease to exist in real life. It just means the corrupted value markers these distinctions represent in our fallen world have no cachet in God’s kingdom family.

  • If you’re a Jew who believes Jewish people are inherently superior, then you’re wrong. This was a common prejudicial assumption by some in Jesus’ day—but no more![4] Babylon’s culture is upended in Christ’s kingdom family.
  • If you’re a slave who believes you’re somehow less than a free brother or sister, Paul wants you to know that’s all wrong. Those class markers are obliterated—God doesn’t care about them at all.
  • If you’re a woman who is told patriarchal[5] norms are the way things are supposed to be, then Paul says this is all wrong. Those cultural prejudices are gone—men and women are equal in God’s family.[6]

The Judaizers would have the Galatians become their (wrong) kind of Old Covenant Christian as a pre-condition for entering the family—a “Jews vs. everyone else” kind of attitude. Paul says, “No!” For good measure, he tosses the socio-cultural and gender categories into the mix and says they’re also fake preconditions. The only thing which makes you a child of God is faith in Jesus—“the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (John 6:29). And, once a child of God, the racial, economic, and gender distinctions which this world abuses so much are relativized into proper proportion.

We are all one in Christ Jesus. Our collective diversity isn’t abolished but relativized and integrated into the one mosaic that is Christ’s family. “In other words, it is a oneness, because such differences cease to be a barrier and cause of pride or regret or embarrassment, and become rather a means to display the diverse richness of God’s creation and grace, both in the acceptance of the ‘all’ and in the gifting of each.”[7]

In short, Paul shows us a radically re-shaped social world. “The unavoidable inference from an assertion like this is, that Christianity did alter the condition of women and slaves.”[8]

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:29

Who is a true child of Abraham? The one who belongs to Christ—the penultimate son of Abraham (Mt 1:1). Anyone who says Jewish people are the “real” children of Abraham are wrong. This has never been a genetic identity marker, but an ideological one—the true believer is the real son or daughter of Abraham and an heir according to the promise.

What promise is this? It’s the covenant with Abraham summed up as a single “promise bundle.” Once again, here they are:

Paul is saying that anyone who belongs to Christ is a child of Abraham and therefore an heir to all these promises. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” (Gal 3:26). There is no Jew v. Gentile distinction, now or forever. Elsewhere, Paul said a mystery that has since been revealed is that “Gentiles are heirs with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus,” (Eph 3:6). Jesus has made these two groups into one, creating “one new humanity out of the two,” (Eph 3:14, 19). Gentiles are “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” (Eph 3:19).

Why is Paul saying this? Because he wants his audience to know how wrong the Judaizers are. They don’t understand what the Mosaic Law is about. It was a guardian, a guide, a guardrail to keep God’s people true until the Messiah arrived.

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.

Galatians 4:1-2

Jesus has now come and gone, and so the training wheels can be put away. The time set by our heavenly Father has arrived—that’s what Jesus said (“the time has come!” Mk 1:15)! Any believer is a child of Abraham, an heir according to the promise, and it’s all by trust in Jesus—not by a legalist “checklist” view of the Mosaic Law.

So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.

Galatians 4:3

The analogy is easy—an underage heir might be an heir, but he doesn’t have any of the rights until he actually inherits the estate. But, when he does inherit, the guardians go away. So far, so good.

Paul says it’s similar with us before Christ saved us. But, what he says here is hard to understand. It’s difficult enough that I’ll spill a few ounces of ink spelling it out. What does the phrase behind the NIVs translation “elemental spiritual forces of the world” mean? The word means “the basic components of something.”[9] This could refer to anything—the physical world, physics, Star Wars, a decent espresso. It could also refer to the transcendent powers that control this world. So, for example:

  • Paul warns the church at Colosse to not be fooled by hollow and deceptive philosophy, “which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces,” (Col 2:8). This seems to mean the components which make up the false teaching from which they ought to run away. Or, it could refer to the demonic forces which rule this present evil age.
  • The person who wrote to the letter to the Hebrews said that by now they ought to be able to teach others about the faith, but instead “you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again,” (Heb 5:12). Here, the word means the ABCs of the Gospel—the rudimentary first principles they should have mastered long ago.
  • Peter said that one day, when the day of the Lord arrives, “the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire …” (2 Pet 3:10). This means the components of the natural world will melt away to make way for the new creation.

But, what does Paul mean here? Because Paul hasn’t spoken about evil spiritual forces at all in this section, it probably means the “basic components” of some kind of teaching or doctrine. He’s been talking about the Mosaic Law[10]—warning against a false understanding of it. His audience is the Christians in the various churches in Galatia—some are Jewish and others are Gentile. He seems to be talking to both ethnic groups as one body (see Gal 4:8). So, it’s probably best to see the NIVs “elemental spiritual forces of the world” as referring to the false teaching, axioms, and principles we believed in before we come to Christ.

As we see it, the passage has reference to definite principles or axioms, according to which men lived before Christ, without finding redemption in them … And since the apostle speaks of being held in bondage under these rudiments, we shall probably have to think of the prescriptions and ordinances to which religious man outside of Christ surrendered himself, and by means of which he tried to achieve redemption.[11]

For the Jewish people, that false teaching was that wrong view of the Mosaic Law—the idea that God gave it as a vehicle for salvation. For Gentiles, it was whatever “spirit of the age” we followed. There are many teachings like this floating about today. Be true to yourself! Live your truth! Don’t let anybody tell you who you really are, inside! You do you! The times change, but the song remains the same.

So, Paul basically says (referring here to Jewish Christians like himself who have since seen the light), “so also, when we were underage, we were in slavery to this wrongheaded ‘follow the Law to earn salvation’ idea …”

For, even though the law itself was of divine origin, the use that men made of it was wrong. Those who lived under the law in this unwarranted way lived in the same condition of bondage as that under which the Gentiles, for all their exertion, also pined.[12]

But now, Christ has come and set the record straight. He’s the light which brings revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to Israel (Lk 2:30-31)—sweeping aside all false teaching and wrong ideas and drawing a line in the sand. He’s made these two groups into one, “for through him we both [i.e. both groups] have access to the Father by one Spirit,” (Eph 2:18).

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Galatians 4:4-5

The time came. Jesus arrived on Christmas morning. He was born under the authority of the Mosaic Law to rescue us from the law’s curse. The word “redeem” here means liberation from captivity in a slave market context. The idea is something like “rescued us from slavery for a really steep price.” Earlier, Paul said Christ had “redeemed us from the curse of the law,” (Gal 3:13). He means the same thing here. Christ came to set us free—all of us, Jew and Gentile—from the penalty of capital punishment that the Mosaic Law imposed because of our sinfulness. Jesus did this so we’d be adopted as sons and daughters in God’s family. Again, adoption has nothing to do with who your parents are. It has to do with faith in Jesus.

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

Galatians 4:6-7

If you’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit, you’re a son or daughter of the King. You’re not a “slave” or underage heir waiting for title to the estate (see the analogy at Gal 4:1-2). Now you’re God’s child. The adoption metaphor is beautiful—an adopted child isn’t born into a family; she’s simply brought into it because the parents decide to show love. This is what God has done with we who are His children—we’re each adopted from Satan’s orphanage. And, because you’re His child, you’re also an heir—no matter who you are or where you’re from.

The Judaizers are peddling such a different message! They say, “do this, do that, follow these traditions, and you’ll be saved!” That’s why Paul called it “a different gospel,” (Gal 1:6). Our MI-6 spy might be confused, but he’s dead so I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s not by merit or class that you enter God’s family. It’s simply by faith.

[1] Galatians 3:22 refers to the Scripture as being condemnatory, but in Galatians 3:23 Paul depicts the Mosaic Law as supervisory (Richard Longenecker, Galatians, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 41 (Waco: Word, 1990), p. 145). This observation is more inspired by Longenecker than a direct attribution—he saw Galatians 3:22 as referring to the Mosaic Law (Galatians, p. 144), whereas I disagree and believe it is Scripture in general.  

[2] Bengel, Gnomen, p. 4:30. 

[3] The Greek is a purpose clause (ἵνα ἐκ πίστεως δικαιωθῶμεν), explaining why the guardian was what it was. 

[4] If you’re interested in more about this attitude and how it shaped the actions of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day and the time period from the Book of Acts, see Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1876), ch. 2 ( There are more up to date and scholarly books available, but this one is available for free to anyone with an internet connection, is short, and is accurate.  

[5] I mean “patriarchy” in this sense: “The predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural values and norms favouring men,” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “patriarchy,” noun, no. 3). 

[6] Paul’s statement has obvious social implications for how Christian men and women ought to relate to one another in marriage, in the New Covenant family, and in a Babylon society. However, Paul does not elaborate on that here, so neither will I.

[7] James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1993), p. 208.

[8] Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition., vol. 2 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 343.

[9] See (1) Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker (et al), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), s.v. “στοιχεῖον,” p. 946, (2) Henry George Liddell (et al.), A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 1647; (3) Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 357.

[10] “… certainly what Paul has primarily in view here is the law, and that as an instrument of spiritual bondage,” (Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatian, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988; Kindle ed.), KL 2263).

[11] Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), pp. 153-154. See also (1) Henriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, p. 157, and (2) Hovey, Galatians, p. 52.

[12] Ridderbos, Galatians, p. 154. 

On Lady Tremaine and God’s Promise

On Lady Tremaine and God’s Promise

The stepdaughter was essentially a slave in her own home. But, what could she do? Her father had died, and the cold and cruel stepmother wasted no time in forwarding the prospects of her own two homely daughters. And so, bit by bit, the poor stepdaughter became no better than a servant—forced to sweep, clean, cook, and tend to the very home in which she had known such joy and carefree light when she was a little girl.

I’m speaking, of course, about Cinderella. There is a moment early in the film when word comes from on high that there was to be a royal ball in honor of the Prince. The boy hadn’t yet married and so the King and the Grand Duke had decided enough was enough—“it’s high time he married and settled down!”

The stepmother, Lady Tremaine, saw her chance. What an opportunity for her daughters! If she could marry one of them off to the Prince, her life’s work would be nearly complete! Cinderella, lurking in the corner, sidled over bravely and declared she could go to the ball, too! Her stepsisters mocked her. How ridiculous! Never!

But Lady Tremaine, never one to miss an opportunity to twist the knife into the odd back, said she could go. “I see no reason why you can’t go… if you get all your work done.”

Cinderella is ecstatic, and rushes away to dig out an old dress from a closet. The stepdaughters descend upon their mother, aghast. How could she agree to such a thing! Outrageous! Didn’t she realize what she’d just said? Lady Tremaine smiled like an evil cat and purred, “Of course. I said, ‘if.’”

There is a moment of silence. Then, they all begin cackling. Cinderella won’t go to the ball—not if they can help it! They’ll make sure she doesn’t get her work done.

Lady Tremaine and her schemes are a helpful way to picture Paul’s point in our passage (Gal 3:15-22). God made a promise to Abraham—a promise based on faith and trust, not merit. Jesus is the ultimate “child of Abraham,” the one who makes all these promises come true. So, who partakes in these promises? It’s the ones who believe in the true “son of Abraham,” Jesus.

The alternative is to see God as a bit like Lady Tremaine, putting a theoretical “if you do this, then I give you that” out there all while knowing we can’t pull it off. This is basically what the Judaizers are proposing (see Gal 3:1-6). It’s a warped twisting of the Old Covenant, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Cinderella wouldn’t have made it to the ball without a divine intervention from the Fairy Godmother, because she was trapped in a cycle she couldn’t break. So too, we can never complete a “follow these rules and I’ll give you salvation” program—it’s an escape room from hell from which we won’t ever find our way out.

Paul says there is a different way—a better way. The way it was supposed to be from the beginning. A way Abraham understood. He wants us to understand that, so he begins with an analogy about Abraham.

This article is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 3:15 – 22. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:23 – 4:7, and Galatians 4:8-20, and Galatians 4:21 – 5:12.

Let’s see what Paul has to say.

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case (Galatians 3:15).

Galatians 3:15

Sometimes it’s helpful to put things in everyday terms. Suppose you have a contract or some other legal arrangement.[1] We all know that, once the signatures are on the dotted line, then the deed is done. It’s sealed. You can’t add to or delete anything. It is what it is. Well, Paul says, it’s the same in this case with God and His arrangements with us!

“How so?” you ask. Paul answers …

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.

Galatians 3:16, quoting Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 24:7

God made a promise—an irrevocable contract—with Abraham and his descendant. But Paul points out something pretty curious. The promise was to Abraham and his descendant—singular. It wasn’t to all Abraham’s offspring, but to one descendant in particular, who is Christ.  

What does this mean?

If you’re a believer, then you’re metaphysically fused with Christ—made one with Him on an invisible level. Your bible translation probably has the phrase “in Christ” a lot in Paul’s letters, because it’s one of his favorite expressions. We’re “baptized into Christ,” “buried with Him through baptism into death,” “crucified with Him,” and “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” (Rom 6:1-11). All this language is expressing that, when we trust in Jesus, we’re made one with him in an unseen way. Perhaps the closest thing I can compare it to is a marriage; there’s a oneness that happens in marriage that’s unseen, hidden, but very real. What Paul is saying is these promises were to Abraham and His crowning descendent, Jesus—along with everyone else who has been made one with Him (see Gal 3:29).

God made several promises to Abraham (see Genesis 22:17-18), and all of them are fulfilled through Christ—including the promise of the land. Paul wrote, “Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ,” (Galatians 3:16). This “and to your seed” quotation is from the Greek version of Genesis 17:8, which refers to that land promise. Paul is saying that all the promises to Abraham—even the one about “the whole land of Canaan” (Gen 17:8)—are fulfilled by Christ as the representative son of Abraham (Mt 1:1).

This suggests that Abraham and his physical descendants are a foreshadowing of Jesus and His spiritual brethren.[2] If so, then we can understand all the precious promises to Abraham as shadows of a greater fulfillment—maybe something like this:

So, back to the point.

Paul is saying that, if God made unbreakable promises to Abraham and his descendant—a promise based on faith and trust—then God certainly hasn’t changed the terms of the promise later on. “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring (singular—Jesus) received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith,” (Romans 4:13). So, the Judaizers who are peddling the “work to earn your salvation” message are wrong. They have to be wrong. If they’re right, then God changed the terms of the agreement.

Darth Vader once said, “I’m altering the deal! Pray I don’t alter it any further …”[3] Well, God doesn’t alter deals. Unlike Vader, he’s trustworthy.   

What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Galatians 3:17-18

The Mosaic law didn’t change the terms of the deal. If we have faith like Abraham, then we’re children according to the promise. Things didn’t change at Mt. Sinai. Instead, it’s the wrong ideas of relationship with God that has warped the common understanding of the Mosaic law by Jesus’ day, and Paul’s, too. Inheritance of the promise isn’t based on effort, but on faith.

Why, then, was the law given at all?

Galatians 3:19

That’s a fair question. If the Mosaic law was never a vehicle for salvation, then what was it?

It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.

Galatians 3:19

Notice that all the promises to Abraham are summed up as one package (“the promise”—singular), and that Paul attributes this whole bundle to one representative “seed”—Jesus (see the same at Romans 4:13).[4] The Mosaic Law was a tool to hem us in until Christ would come. It told us how to live, how to act, how to maintain loving relationship with God and with each other. It told us how to be God’s people, for a particular time in a particular place, until Christ would arrive on the scene. Picture God’s people from the Exodus to Pentecost as being in a plane, circling the airport, waiting on clearance to land. They know they’ll land, but they aren’t yet there.

So, God told us how to live until He “landed the plane.” We break the law, we feel guilt, we confess our sin and perform the ritual to atone for that sin. We go on. It’s in this way that the Mosaic law “hems us in” and keeps us on the right track, until the Messiah arrives in the First Advent.

The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

Galatians 3:19-20

The Mosaic law was entrusted to a mediator—Moses. But this new arrangement, this new covenant, is different. Now, there’s only one party. God Himself makes the contract and obligates Himself to carry it out. There is a straight line starting from (1) when God chose His people by promise with Abraham, (2) connecting right to His promise to David of a perfect king, and from there (3) on to God’s pledge of perfect peace through a new and better arrangement. Along this track, the Mosaic law is just a guardrail keeping us on the trail. It isn’t a different trail at all.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Galatians 3:21-22

So, then, what does the Law have to do with God’s promises to Abraham? Well, first, if righteousness could have come by way of following the law, then it would have (cf. Gal 2:21). But, in the second place—and here is the crux of it all—the Mosaic law showed us our sin, reminded us of it all the time, so that we’d be ever more ready to embrace the permanent solution Christ offered when He came.

Paul uses a strange phrase. He says the Scripture “locked up everything under the control of sin,” (Gal 3:22). He seems to mean that, although it’s theoretically possible that a perfect person could come along, obey the law in every respect, and receive righteousness as a reward—it’ll never happen. Why not? Because Scripture (the entire Old Covenant canon) shows us we’re not that good. We never will be. It shows us that everything is “locked up” under sin’s power.[5] The original imagery is that of a school of fish swept up in a fisherman’s net—caught! We’re all trapped, as if the door of a great dungeon has swung shut on us.[6] So, that “perfect person” won’t ever come along in this world … unless that person comes from outside the bubble.

When we see God’s rules, then consider our own constant failure to live up to them, then we’re driven to put faith and trust in the promised Savior—the One who loved God perfectly and obeyed the law completely, in our place, as our substitute.[7] That dungeon swings shut … but why? “So that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe,” (Gal 3:22). “It was to make them understand their real inner life, their alienation from himself, and their need of his grace.”[8]

All those promises to Abraham—which Paul once more sums up as one bundle of blessings (“what was promised”)—are given to those who believe and have faith in Jesus Christ. Once more Abraham, his physical descendants, and the literal promises in the land corresponded to and prefigured something much better.

That was the Law’s purpose. It wasn’t a vehicle for salvation. It was tool to make us look forward to the Messiah so Abraham’s offspring—the true offspring (cf. Luke 3:8)—would recognize Him when He came.  

[1] The Greek word here is the same one we often translate as “covenant,” and some translators assume Paul is referring to a will. It doesn’t matter—Paul just wants you to imagine a legal contract in your mind. 

[2] See especially Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, in ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), at Galatians 3:16a-d.

“… if the blessing promise includes a reconstituting of the “seed” with a global identity in Christ, then one should be cautious to separate the land promise from this same transformation. Indeed, within the argument of Galatians 3, the eschatological fulfillment of the land promise appears to stand behind Paul’s argument,” (Jason DeRouchie, “Counting Stars With Abraham And The Prophets: New Covenant Ecclesiology In OT Perspective, in JETS 58:3 (Sep 2015), p. 480)

[3] See

[4] For the typological implications of Paul’s declaration that Abraham and his offspring would receive the promise (singular) that he would be heir of the world, see especially (1) Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 273-274; (2) John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, combined ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 141-142; and (3) Emil Brunner, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 36-40.

[5] The preposition in this statement conveys authority: ἀλλὰ συνέκλεισεν ἡ γραφὴ τὰ πάντα ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν.

[6] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), Gal 3:22. Johann Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, ed. M. Ernest Bengel and J. C. F. Steudel, trans. James Bryce, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1860), p. 29.

[7] “But, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the prisoners’ very consciousness of their galling bondage and of their total inability to burst their chains, causes them to yearn for a divine Deliverer and to shout for joy when they hear his approaching footsteps,” (William Hendriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, combined ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), p. 144).

[8] Alvah Hovey, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, in American Commentary (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1890), p. 48.  

On Bad Checks, “Mirror Reading” and the Mosaic Law

On Bad Checks, “Mirror Reading” and the Mosaic Law

Have you ever listened to just one side of a conversation? You know the kind I mean—someone near you is talking on the phone, you can’t hear the other person, so you try to figure out what’s going on by listening closely to what the person next to you is saying. If you’re able to ask the person about it afterwards, you might discover you figured it out right, or you might have got it all wrong!

We do stuff like this all the time. In my other life, I run an investigations team for a State agency. In one case, we had an insurance agent whom we suspected had stolen lots of money from commercial clients. These companies would write the agent checks for property and general liability insurance for one-year terms. The agent would then alter the payee field to say the consumer wrote the check out to his own personal, unrelated business account. He’d then deposit the checks, and provide fake certificates of insurance to the companies. He never placed the insurance. Nobody knew a thing—until someone tried to file a claim. Oops.

But, there was something weird. The agent also wrote a few checks out to his agency from that same unrelated business account, but he’d falsify the payer field to say it was from a commercial client. We had no idea why he did this—he refused an interview with our investigators. So, we had to do what theologians call “mirror reading.” This means we have to guess at the context which prompted the action—we have to speculate, just like you did with that one half of a phone call you listened to.

In this case, we guessed the agent felt pressured to send at least some of the money he stole along to the agency, so people wouldn’t grow too suspicious. There were smarter ways to do it, but that was our best guess. Nobody ever said this guy was a genius!

My point is that when we read ch(s). 3-4 from the Book of Galatians, we also have to do a bit of mirror reading. We have to take what we know about God, the Gospel, salvation, and relationship with God, and bring it to bear to decipher what Paul is saying. Here, we’ll see why the “key question” I mentioned before is so important.  

This article is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 3:7 – 14. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:15-22, and Galatians 3:23 – 4:7, and Galatians 4:8-20, and Galatians 4:21 – 5:12.

This passage (Galatians 3:7-14) is perhaps the most difficult portion of Paul’s letter–the relationship of the Mosaic Law to saving faith. Before we begin, I’ll restate some principles from the first article that will help you understand the position this commentary takes. Here they are:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the Scriptures!

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.”

Galatians 3:7-8

Who is a child of Abraham? Well, it certainly isn’t about biology. About genetics. About who your parents are. John the Baptist understood that (Mt 3:7-10). No, it isn’t about race or ethnicity—it’s about common faith in Jesus. If you have Abraham’s faith, then you’re one of his children. Easy. Simple.

In fact, Scripture foresaw that the “child of God” concept wasn’t really an ethnic thing at all. God announced the Gospel to Abraham in advance when He announced that “all nations will be blessed through you,” (cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).

This is extraordinary. The false teachers skulking around the area are Judaizers—folks who push the rules-based legalism we noted, before. The apogee of their “faith” is to be as Jewish as possible which, in their warped understanding, means to follow the rules and traditions of the elders very strictly (cf. Phil 3:4-6). Thus, you violate the Sabbath if you put spices into a pot, but all is well if you add spices to food served on a dish![1] 

Not so, says Paul. Your pedigree before God has nothing to do with this. It only has to do with whether your relationship with God is based on faith and trust in God’s promise, and love—just like Abraham’s.

So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians 3:9

Paul is making a conclusion based on what he’s just said. It could be translated as something like, “this means, then, that those who rely on faith are blessed with Abraham.” If you want to be one of Abraham’s children, then follow his lead and rely on faith!

Now, we get down to the hard part. Remember that question about which I said you must have an opinion? Let’s ask ourselves again:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

The answer is no. Never.

This means that, however difficult Paul may be to follow from here on out, he cannot be agreeing with the false teachers that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. Never. It isn’t an option. God doesn’t change the terms of salvation. It’s always been by faith.

So, remember this question and the right answer, because here we go …

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.”

Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26

If the Mosaic Law was never about salvation, then Paul is not seriously suggesting the Mosaic Law means this. He can’t be. Rather, his point relies on you understanding everything he just wrote, in vv. 7-9.

  • Salvation is by faith—always has been.
  • Abraham had faith and was counted righteous.
  • That’s how you become one of Abraham’s children—faith in the promise.

The “for” at the beginning of the sentence is explanatory. It’s translated a bit stiffly, as if Paul is a Victorian gentleman—and he ain’t one. It could be rendered as something like, “so, this is what I’m saying—everyone who relies on the works of the law …”

He means, “look, if you wanna go that route and try to earn your salvation, then have at it—here’s a quote from Moses that you can chew on!” He accurately quotes the text of Deuteronomy 27:26, but must be deliberately subverting the meaning. Moses didn’t preach salvation by works. When he asked the people to swear that promise in Deuteronomy 27:26 (along with a bunch of others), he presupposed that everyone understood that love was the driving force behind relationship with God (Deut 6:4-5; 10:12-16). I’m saying Paul misapplied Deuteronomy 27:26 the same way the Judaizers were doing. Paul is saying, “if you want to go that way, have fun trying to accomplish this …”

So, the “curse” Paul mentions isn’t the Mosaic Law as it really was. Instead, the “curse” is the impossible burden of trying to adopt the Judaizer’s perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law. Some Christians imagine Old Covenant life as an oppressive burden, a millstone dragging the believers to a watery grave … until Christ came! How absurd. They believe this because they take Paul literally in vv. 10-12—they believe he’s describing the Mosaic Law as it really was. They’re wrong.

As I mentioned, Paul adopts the Judaizer’s arguments to show how bankrupt they are. Read Psalm 119 and see if the writer is being crushed by the law! “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” (Ps 119:18). He isn’t! He loves God and loves His word (including the Mosaic Law). The Law is only a millstone if you think it’s a vehicle for salvation. But, it ain’t one, so it ain’t a millstone.

I’m comfortable suggesting this, because Paul then sweeps this silly idea of “earning my salvation by merit” aside.

Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4

The law can’t make you righteous. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, which indeed says that “the righteous will live by faith.” So, when he quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 27:26, he can’t really be saying Moses meant it that way. Paul just adopts the arguments from the Judaizers, or from similar sources floating about in the 1st century interwebs, and suggests they have fun trying to do the impossible. He now continues in that vein:

The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”

Galatians 3:12, quoting Leviticus 18:5

This accurate quote from Leviticus is ripe for misunderstanding. Again, he rightly quotes the text but suggests the wrong meaning. When Paul says “the law is not based on faith,” he assumes the perverted form of their argument. The “law” he mentions here is the wrong understanding of the Mosaic law, not that law as it really is. “You wanna have eternal life?” he asks. “Then, make sure you do everything in the law—just like it says. Have at it, boys and girls!”

Remember our magic question—did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation? He did not. So, whatever Paul is saying, he cannot be suggesting the Mosaic Law has anything to do with salvation. This magic question is the key to understanding Paul’s argument. Some Christians fail to ask it, and so their explanations of this passage make little sense.

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.”

Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

I think we’re making a mistake if we think “curse of the law” is the Mosaic Law. The Law isn’t a curse. It isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a burden, because it has nothing to do with salvation. The Mosaic Law is simply a vehicle for holy living, while God’s people remained in a holding pattern waiting for Christ. We’ve always obeyed from the heart because He’s already rescued us—not the other way around. “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your laws and obey it with all my heart … I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees,” (Ps 119:34, 48). The man who wrote this didn’t think he was “under a curse.”

So, to return to our verse (Gal 3:13), from what “curse” did Christ redeem us, then?

I think it’s the curse of the capital punishment waiting for every one of us, because (in our natural state) we’ve rejected God. That’s what Deuteronomy 21:23 is about—a person guilty of a capital offense is to be hanged on a pole. We’ve each committed the “capital offense” of rejecting God, so we’re under that death sentence, but Christ has come to free us from that. After all, we can’t free ourselves—we can’t be good enough (cf. Gal 2:21).

So, rather than try and dig our way (i.e. “earning” salvation by merit) out of a situation from which there is no escape, we should rely on Jesus. He became a curse for us. He suffered for our capital crimes by being hanged on a pole. The word “redeem” has lost its original force, in English. It means something like “buying back from slavery.” We can’t bribe our way out of our mess, so Jesus gave Himself to buy us out of Satan’s clutches.   

So, Paul isn’t making a negative assessment of the Mosaic Law at all. The “curse” here isn’t even about the Mosaic Law. But, if we think Paul is talking about that, then I ask this—are we really to suppose that God “cursed” His people from Sinai to Pentecost with a system whose design was to crush their souls? Is that the “average Christian life” vibe you get from Psalm 119? Is that what a circumcision of the heart is all about (cf. Deut 10:16)? Was the average Israelite like poor Pilgrim, struggling with that loathsome burden on his back?  

No! Paul’s not even talking about the Mosaic Law. He’s just suggesting another way, a better way, the true way—“because if we become righteous through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose,” (Gal 2:21, CEB). You can (1) go the Judaizer’s route and try to earn your way into the kingdom, or (2) you can rejoice and trust that Christ has already redeemed us from our death sentence for rebellion (“the curse of the law”).

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.

Galatians 3:14

Why did Christ buy us back from slavery? So that Christ could be the channel for the blessings to Abraham to flow to the rest of the world. We receive the promise of the Holy Spirit by faith. Always have. Always will.

[1] Shabbat 3:5, in Mishnah.  

Christus Victor as atonement

Christus Victor as atonement

This sermon presents a Christus Victor model for the atonement through the Resurrection. While the work is not included here, I’ve done extensive word studies on the “ransom” and “redeem/redemption” word groups and translated excerpts from the relevant passages ― all of which is background to the approach that frames this sermon. In short, I’m convinced that (notwithstanding the valid penal substitution angle) Christ’s death was a ransom to Satan which Jesus then took back after three days.

The analogies of the fishhook and the mousetrap are not mine, but were suggested by great theologians over 1,400 years ago. The Christus Victor model was the dominant view in the Church until the 12th century. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor (ca. 1930) is a paradigm-shifting little book that I suspect many modern theologians cite more than they actually read. If you have questions about this model for the atonement, I suggest Gregory of Nyssa’s discussion in his catechism (ch. 22-26, see the footnotes) along with Aulen’s book. Above all, for pastors who read this, I encourage you to read beyond the narrow and “safe” lanes of your particular ecclesiastical orbit.

Seeing the Resurrection Through New Eyes

God paints reality in shades of black and white. Spiritual life or death.[1] Salvation or damnation. Rescue or prison. Liberation or slavery. Adoption or eternal exile. Cosmic victory or defeat.

This last one is how I invite you to view the Resurrection. It’s one way Jesus viewed it. Not just payment to God for sins. Not just satisfying God’s justice and a cosmic sense of “rightness.” But a divine victory for you over the forces of real darkness.

There is darkness in this world and in our souls, you know. Why do we do bad things? Why did a madman kill a Capitol police officer two days ago? Why did a guy murder six women in Atlanta, last month? Why did Hitler exist? Stalin? Mao?  Why did the U.S. government engineer and carry out forced deportation of Indians to the West in the early 19th century―something even Hitler is on record as drawing inspiration from?[2] Why did some churches in the antebellum South own slaves?[3] Why has there been a military coup in Myanmar? Why is this world so dark? Why is Starbucks espresso so bitter?  

These are existential questions that cry out for answers. Why is there “evil” in this world, and inside me, too?

Well, because we’re sick. This world is sick. This whole creation is sick. We need to be rescued from ourselves, liberated, delivered, bought back and led to safety. Shown the way by the God who made us. Who’s working to reverse what’s gone wrong.

We’re in trouble. We’re lost. We’re without hope. We’re criminals in God’s universe. We have a prison sentence hanging over our heads … But God has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! And, He does it here, on Easter Sunday, through the resurrection.

Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son, came here to rescue us. In return, He asks us to change our allegiance. To repent. To turn. To acknowledge our insurgency against God. To apologize and mean it, and to believe He really can rescue us.

That’s what the resurrection is about. Rescue. Liberation. Being ransomed and set free from a kidnapper.   

You’ve put together furniture. You know about those assembly kits. They come with pre-packed screws, Allen wrenches, washers, all that stuff. The bible’s portrait of Christ’s ministry is like that. We’re used to using only the #3 screw and the Allen wrench (penal substitution). We’ve forgotten there a #5 screw, and a different Allen wrench, and a washer or two that we can also pick up. Now, you can use the same screws for everything, and the thing will still “work.” But, it’ll work better if you use all the tools.

And so, we’ll understand Christ better if we look at all the facets of this diamond. We’re stuck on the Cross. We hardly mention the resurrection when we think of the Gospel. It’s time to redeem the empty tomb as Christ’s victory over Satan for us.

The Parable of the Strong Man―Christ as Victor

Jesus paints His interaction with Satan as a battle that He wins. In Luke 11:20-23, in the context of rejecting the accusation that He’s an agent of Satan, Jesus offers this little analogy:

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

The blanks aren’t hard to fill in. Satan is the strong man guarding his home. Picture him patrolling his front yard with a shotgun and a scowl. Jesus is the stronger man who attacks Satan, overcomes him, tosses his weapons and armor aside, then takes everything that belongs to him. Mark, in his version of the same parable, records Jesus saying:

But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house (Mark 3:27).

In order to go into the house, Jesus first has to destroy, tie up, overcome, hog-tie, defeat the strong man in single combat. Then, he can plunder, steal, take by force, rob the guy’s goods from his home.

This is a battle, a combat. Jesus will crush Satan, beat him down in his own driveway, then go inside and rob everything he’s got. He’ll back a pickup up to the front door and loot everything Satan has. As Satan lies in the flowerbed moaning, Jesus will kick him in the face once more for good measure.  Then, He’ll hop back in the truck and drive away with Satan’s goods in the back.  

But, how does it happen? What does it look like? Jesus paints an exciting picture, but it’s a metaphor―He doesn’t mean it literally―so we wonder. Will it be a frontal assault (a la Pickett’s charge or Normandy)? Or, will it be more crafty, more sneaky, more delicious and hilarious in its victory?

Winning the Victory―The Great Payoff

I want you to think of two words: “ransom” and “redeem/redemption.” Both these terms appear in your bibles, but we’re so used to seeing them that they’ve lost their force. They’ve become Christianese, not English.

“Ransom” means what you think it means.[4] It’s the payment that rescues someone.[5] In the New Testament era, it usually meant the price paid to free a captive from a captor.

Let me share an example.

On 03 March 1932, someone kidnapped Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s 20-month old baby from their home in New Jersey. The mother was taking a bath and the baby was alone in the crib. When they discovered the child missing, Lindbergh grabbed a gun and searched the house and the grounds. He found a ransom note on the window sill:

Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care.

The kidnappers eventually raised the ransom to $70,000. Intermediaries met with the kidnappers to negotiate, and they provided articles of the poor baby’s clothing to prove they were for real. Lindbergh paid $50,000 of the ransom. But, the parents never got the child back. People found the baby dead in the woods near the Lindbergh home on 12 May 1932.

“Redeem” or “redemption” means the act of buying back the slave; setting the captive free. These words are two sides of the same coin. Ransom is the price Lindbergh paid, and “redemption” is the rescue Lindbergh hoped to achieve with that ransom. They’re near synonyms―different words with almost the same meanings.

Now, once we get that set in our minds, I want you to think about what these passages mean:

Mark 10:45: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Ransom means paying money to a kidnapper―who’s the kidnapper?

1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Ransom means the price to buy a hostage back from a captor―who’s the captor?

Titus 2:14: … who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Redeem means the act of buying our freedom from a hostile agent―who’s the hostile agent?

1 Peter 1:18: you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

Christ’s death was the price to buy off someone to let you go―who’d the payment go to?

Romans 3:24: … and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

How does God make you righteous? By the redemption, the purchase from slavery, that’s because of Christ Jesus―but purchase from whom?

1 Corinthians 1:30: And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

Jesus is the Wisdom, the Righteousness, the Sanctifier … the Redeemer,  the Liberator who bought us back from the slavemaster―who’s the slavemaster?

Ephesians 1:7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,

Redemption is the great purchase and rescue from bondage―rescue from whom?

Hosea 13:14: I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?

God buys us back from death, who’s kidnapped us. Death is a force that needs to be paid off so it’ll let us go―how does Jesus pay death off for us?

Jeremiah 31:11: For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him

God buys us back from our captor; buys him off and rescues us from hands too strong for us to break―how does this ransom drop happen?

Who’s the Payoff To?

As strange as it might seem at first glance, God paints Christ’s death and resurrection as Jesus ransoming us from Satan.[6] My own translation of 1 Timothy 2:5-6, keeping in mind the real meaning of “ransom,” is this:

For there is one God, and one mediator between God[7] and men―the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a payoff[8] for the benefit[9] of all people …”

Why do I say this? Well, a ransom goes to the kidnapper and God isn’t the kidnapper! Satan is the kidnapper. He’s kidnapped unbelievers, he controls them, they naturally “belong” to him―are you still his captive? God made us for Himself in the beginning, but now that’s all reversed. The Apostle Paul says we’re all born as “sons of disobedience” and are “children of wrath,” (Eph 2:1-3). The Apostle John writes “we are from God, [but][10] the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” (1 John 5:19). This is why the scripture says when we become believers, we’re rescued (that word is not an accident!)[11] from the “domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:13-14). There’s a transfer of ownership.

So, this “payoff,” this ransom, must go to Satan. It’s what “ransom” means. It’s what “redemption” means. So, it’s what had to have happened. “The Son of Man came … to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45). This doesn’t displace “paying for my sins, as my substitute,” but augments it―Christ’s ministry is a diamond with different facets.

But, we wonder, didn’t Satan try to stop Jesus from going to the Cross?[12] There’s the temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). There’s Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to the Cross. “Get behind me, Satan!” and all that (Mark 8:33). It seems like Satan did try to stop Jesus at first, but he apparently changed his mind.

After the Lazarus miracle, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin decided Jesus had to die, but quietly, discreetly (Jn 11:45-53). Then, on Palm Sunday, we see the uneasiness among Sanhedrin (Jn 12:9-11, 19). Satan sees this and senses opportunity. We know this, because on Wednesday during Holy Week (cf. Mark 14:1), Satan decides to go all in for force:

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them (Lk 22:3-4).

Satan changed his tactics―why?

Why Did Satan Switch Tactics?

The scriptures tell us:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Jesus’ death destroys Satan. Then, Jesus delivers, releases, sets us free. We’re the “goods” and “spoil” that Jesus plunders from Satan’s house, from that analogy from Luke. The resurrection is when He triumphs over Satan. God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [Christ],” (Colossians 2:15).

The resurrection is when Jesus points His finger and laughs at Satan, mocking him. If this were a bad movie (that is, one of those movies that are so bad they’re actually good), we might imagine a scene like this:

  • SATAN: “No! It can’t be! It can’t … !”
  • JESUS: “Yep, it’s me! Surprise, sucker!”

But, again, why did Satan accept this “payoff?” Why did he orchestrate it? Isn’t he crafty enough to avoid this mistake? Satan isn’t stupid, so Jesus must have deceived him, and He must have done it by attacking Satan’s great weakness.

How’d he do that? Well, Satan has great pride. He wants to replace God and rule over all. He’s been trying to kill Messiah from the beginning. Revelation 12 gives us a dramatic picture of all that. Then we think about Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. The temptation in the wilderness. He attempts to kill Jesus in His hometown synagogue (Luke 4:29-30). Then the machinations with Judas.

Satan originally tried to tempt Jesus away from the Cross. To divert Him, offer a shortcut. Satan’s afraid of the Cross. But, Satan changes his mind sometime between Lazarus and Palm Sunday. He thinks he can handle the Cross.

So, like a gambler, Satan spins the roulette wheel and puts all his chips on the Cross, figuring He can handle it. Because he has great pride

Why would Satan change his tactics and push events towards an outcome he’s tried to avoid for nearly three years? Jesus must have bluffed Satan―tricked him.

How’d He do it? How did he trick Satan?

The Devil’s Mousetrap―”It’s a Trap!!”

During the last week of Jesus’ life, He declared: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out,” (Jn 12:30-31). It’s as if Jesus said, “By my death this Friday, and my resurrection on Sunday, I’ll defeat Satan and leave him lying broken and beaten on his own front porch!”

The Cross is a deliberate trap―a trojan horse, a subterfuge, a divine false flag operation meant to fool Satan into making a bad bet.[13] Satan thought he’d win―why else would he try it? You think he thought he’d lose, and was just going through the motions? Of course not. Jesus knew He’d win―why do you think He went through with it?

The Cross is actually the greatest double-cross in history. At the end of the last supper, just as they got up from the table to head to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus declared:

I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me (John 14:30-31).

Jesus knows Satan’s got nothing on Him, but goes ahead―and that’s the point! Jesus fooled Satan by cloaking Himself in humanity.[14] “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,”[15] (1 Corinthians 2:8).

His new and real humanity made Satan “forget” who He is, to underestimate Him, to think He’s weak (cf. Isa 52:13-53:12). Why else would Satan even try the temptations? He knows who Jesus is, but always thinks he can get him, trick him, tempt him, outwit Him.

And so, Jesus made Satan believe he could actually pull this off―and does it from within this broken system. He uses Satan’s own weaknesses against him and defeats him by craft―not by brute force,[16] but by “fair play,”[17] by playing the game from within the sinful system and winning.

Satan has no claim on Jesus. None. Jesus has no sin, so He’s not under any penalty. He’s out of bounds. It’s against the rules for Satan to take Him. Yet, Satan takes Jesus anyway―he kills him. He thinks he can get away with it. He thinks he can handle it.

But, by taking an innocent man against the rules,[18] Satan loses everything he has. His power is broken. He’s ejected the magazine from his own weapon just as Jesus comes walks up the driveway. He’s defenseless!

If you imagine a scene from that same “so bad its good” TV movie, it might look something like this:

  • Satan (defiant, smirking): “These criminals are mine, and I’m in charge here!”
  • Jesus: “Yeah, well … you just killed me, and I never sinned, so you actually have no power over me at all. You have no claim on me. You had no right to take my life.”
  • Satan (licking lips nervously): “What do you mean?”
  • Jesus: “It means you just fell for it, buddy. I let myself be captured by you. I let myself be killed to pay for everything bad anyone’s ever done. I tricked you into letting me inside your gates, and I’ve broken your power. And now, I’m gonna prove it to everyone by heading back in three days. How do you like them apples?”

And so, to continue the scene, the resurrection is when Jesus punches Satan in the face, beats him down in his own front yard, steps over his body and goes into the house to grab all the folks out of the basement and bring them to safety―do you want to come along? Or, do you want to stay in the bad man’s house?

It isn’t surprising that Jesus paints His victory in violent terms, because “[t]he reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” (1 John 3:8).

Exhortation―Victory in Jesus!

Jesus’ death and resurrection is like a fishhook[19] with Christ as the bait. He dangles there, tantalizing, irresistible. Satan gobbles Him down and is poisoned. He vomits up everything he has. Then he perishes; dead because of his own pride.

Or, you could think of it like a mousetrap.[20] Satan goes for the tasty Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese. The trap snaps, breaking his neck. His power over his slaves is gone. He knows about the trap, knows it’s dangerous, but thought he could beat it. And so he dies like a fool.

Jesus pays the ransom with His life, then takes it right back once He locks away the kidnapper. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again,” (John 10:17-18).

He picks up the ransom bag from beside the mousetrap where Satan dropped it. “Thanks for watching this for me, I’ll take it back now!” Satan’s legs are still spasming as Jesus walks away, bag in hand.

This is the truth. The hook, barb, or poison dart that death uses to sting every one of us is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56)―which is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). We commit divine crimes by breaking God’s law, and sin’s power is that it brings death. It accuses us, “Look what you’ve done! This means death is coming for you pal, ‘cuz it means you belong to me,” (1 Corinthians 15:56) But, as the Apostle Paul says, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

The resurrection is Jesus’ battle cry of victory, and it’s supposed to be ours, too. A victory over evil. A victory over the Accuser. A victory over everything that’s so wrong in this world. Satan ain’t dead yet, but he’s that mouse, choking with a broken neck in that trap. Kicking his legs and fading out. He’s the fish caught on the hook, gasping in the bottom of the boat. Growing weak, dying.

And so, in light of this, Jesus says to you and I, “Come with me if you want to live!”[21] Have you done this? Pledged allegiance to Him? His victory is why we have hope! Come to Jesus and take the victory He’s won for you.

[1] See also the Didache 1.1: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways,” (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, revised by Michael Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), p. 149).

[2] Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York: Norton, 2020), p. xvi.

[3] Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021), pp. 117-118 (esp. fn. 57).

[4] The word group is λύτρον, ἀντίλυτρον, ἀπολύτρωσις, λυτρόω, λύτρωσις, λυτρωτής.

[5] Alistair McGrath summed up three implications that go with “ransom” idea from the New Testament scriptures; (1) liberation or rescue, (2) a payment, and (3) someone to whom the ransom is paid (Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), p. 415).

[6] “For being free from debt, He gave Himself up to that most cruel creditor, and suffered the hands of the Jews to be the devil’s agents in torturing his spotless flesh. Which flesh he willed to be subject to death, even up to His speedy resurrection, to this end, that believers in Him might find neither persecution intolerable, nor death terrible, by the remembrance that there was no more doubt about their sharing His glory than there was about His sharing their nature,” (Leo the Great, “Sermon 72,” in NPNF 2.7, pp. 184-185). Emphasis mine.

[7] The genitive in μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων is a genitive of space.

[8] Lest anyone think I’m being blasphemous, you’ll see “payoff” as a suggested synonym for the noun “ransom” in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2012), p. 723, and the Oxford definition for the noun “ransom” is in line with the Greek lexicons I’ve cited, above (see New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2011), s.v. “ransom,” n., p. 1445).

[9] I take the preposition ὑπὲρ to be expressing benefaction.

[10] I believe the conjunction καὶ expresses contrast (cf. NEB, REB), but the point is made even with a translation of “and.”

[11] The relevant word here (ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους) means “to rescue from danger,” (Louw-Nida, 21.23; cf. BDAG (907)). I’d render it as “… who rescued us from the power of darkness.”

[12] This objection is common. Representative examples are James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 328, and Friedrich Büchsel and Otto Procksch: “It is by no means commensurate with Jesus’ powerful concept of God that the many should have to be rescued from bondage to Satan. This concept demands that they be liberated from indebtedness to God,” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v. “Λύτρον,” B.4, p. 344).

R.C.H. Lenski objects that the offering cannot be to Satan, because Jesus said He committed His spirit into the Father’s hands; Lk 23:46 (Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Columbus: Wartburg, 1946), p. 465). However, this citation from Ps 31:5 is simply an expression of absolute trust. As the representative man, Jesus trusts the Father completely. And, Jesus surely knows the whole plan (cf. Jn 10:18). Lenski’s objection does not stand.

[13] On the fairness and justice of this subterfuge, see Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” ch. 26, in NPNF 2.5 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), pp. 495-496.

[14] Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, in NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” §3.1, in NPNF 2.9 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 45).

[15] This is likely a deliberately vague reference to both human and demonic “rulers.” David Garland blithely dismisses this understanding at 1 Cor 2:6 based on the phrase’s usage in the NT, and remarks it only refers to Satan when it’s in the singular (1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 93-94). This is an unpersuasive analysis―the context can suggest either. C.K. Barrett is correct to see spiritual forces (The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 72).

[16] “He overcomes evil, not by an almighty fiat, but by putting in something of His own, through a Divine self-oblation,” (Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A.G. Herbert (London: SPCK, 1931; reprint, Crossreach, 2016, Kindle ed.), p. 43.

[17] “The background of the Latin theory may truly be called legal; but in the Fathers the essential idea which the legal language is intended to express is that God’s dealings even with the powers of evil have the character of ‘fair play,’” (Aulen, Christus Victor, p. 43).

[18] The Christus Victor model stumbles badly here because it can’t articulate how, exactly, Jesus’ death and resurrection wins victory for His people. It can’t describe the mechanics of this victory. It has no concept of substitution, of satisfaction, of justice. Chrysostom’s attempts to explain fall flat (John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Gospel of St. John,” Jn 12:31, in NPNF 1.14 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 249). This is where the penal substitution model excels. It’s necessary to cross-pollinate the two models. I realize my brief sketch here has some logical holes, but I think it’s faithful to the best aspects of both models.

[19] This is from Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus (“Orthodox Faith,” §3.27, NPNF 2.9, p. 72).   

[20] Augustine, “Sermon 261.” Excerpt from Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, §5.10, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 352-353.

[21] I know I’m channeling Reece from “The Terminator,” but if it works, it works …