The Seed of the Woman in the Fullness of Time

If you think the Christmas story begins in the Gospel of Matthew, you missed it by only 39 books.  The Christmas story begins in Genesis.  The unfolding narrative in the Bible’s opening chapters makes clear why Jesus had to come, and it is here we glimpse the first promise of his coming.

The cosmic canvas of Genesis 1 gives way to the smaller, more intimate stage of Eden in Genesis 2, and there God puts Adam to work and guard a sacred place (2:15)—a place where certain choices can change everything for everyone.

God’s Words to Adam

In the sanctuary of Eden’s garden, the first recorded words of God to Adam were about bountiful provision and a single prohibition: every tree of the garden is for food except one (Gen 2:16-17), the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And God’s last words to Adam in the garden were also about the forbidden tree, but this time they were words of chastisement.  Because he ate from that tree, the ground is cursed, and the dust he came from will one day welcome him back (3:17-19).

What happened between those first and last words to Adam in the garden?  God’s voice had been clear, but Adam had listened to another voice, “the voice of your wife” (Gen 3:17), to be precise.

What did Eve say to Adam?  The text doesn’t tell us.  When we look in Genesis 3 at the scene where Adam and Eve ate the fruit, it’s clear she ate first (3:6).  Then the narrative says “and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”  Not a word between them is recorded, yet God’s words to Adam in 3:17 make clear that tasting the fruit wasn’t carried out in silence.  Adam “listened to the voice” of his wife, so she said something.

Perhaps we have an idea what she said to Adam.  She later told God, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13), so the reader is reminded that another voice had been speaking in the garden, and to her specifically.  The crafty creature sowed seeds of doubt with duplicitous insistence: “You will not surely die” (3:4).  Is this what she repeated to her husband, whom we know was there at least when she ate the fruit?  Did she assure him, “We won’t surely die.  God knows we’ll be like him, which is why he’s kept this fruit from us”?

They ate, their eyes were opened, and God subjected the whole world to futility (Rom 8:20).

God’s Words to the Serpent

After Adam and Eve disobeyed, God addressed them one at a time, starting with the man (Gen 3:9-12).  Adam pointed his finger at his wife, so God focused on her next (3:13), but Eve blamed the serpent who tricked her.  Thus God began his decrees of judgment (3:14-19) with the instigator (3:14-15).

It’s remarkable the serpent even stuck around in the garden after his scheme succeeded.  Why not just deceive Eve and let things unfold?  Why not head out the same door he slipped in through?  Maybe he wanted to watch.  Did he stay in the garden to relish the tragic effects of his ruse and gloat with victory that he had ensnared God’s image-bearers?  He had front-row seats.

And to this deceiver God now turns.  Instead of a blessing, God speaks something not yet heard in his good world.  Inside the boundaries of Eden, within the luscious garden that Adam was to work and guard, God pronounces a curse (Gen 3:14).

But that wasn’t the only word to the serpent.  God didn’t proceed to his judgments upon Eve and Adam (Gen 3:16-19) until he followed his curse with a prophecy known as the protoevangelium, the first glimpse of the good news fulfilled by Jesus: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (3:15).

Note that the serpent receives these words, not Adam and Eve.  This first word of salvation for sinners is also a promise of judgment on the serpent.  The woman will have offspring, and a singular Seed will be victorious over the serpent, a triumph pictured by head-crushing.

Genesis 3:15 is both a declaration of war and an assurance of victory: war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and victory for the woman’s offspring over the serpent.

As millennia passed, the seed of the serpent continued to oppose the people of God through cycles of exile and captivity.  Would the Victor ever come?  Would God keep the promise to raise up Someone who would lift his foot at just the right moment and take aim?

In the Fullness of Time

The hope of Genesis 3:15 swells to new heights of expectation when the angel Gabriel visits a virgin named Mary.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Remarkably, Jesus will be the seed of a woman because of a conception accomplished by the power of God.

The long-awaited moment had arrived.  Or in the words of Paul, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman…” (Gal 4:4).  This would be no merely human offspring but God’s Son taking on flesh.

The ancient prophecy was coming to pass, but the battle was only just beginning.  Jesus had come to announce and inaugurate a kingdom not of this world, the saving reign of God that would be as light to darkness.

According to the prophecy, the promised victor of Genesis 3:15 doesn’t defeat the serpent unscathed: his heel is bruised—or, in the events of redemptive history in the first century, Jesus casts out the prince of this world by dying on a cross (John 12:31-33).

Jesus’ death is temporary since he rises on the third day, but his blow to the Enemy’s head is decisive.  Jesus disarms the rulers and authorities and shames them with his triumphant resurrection (Col 2:15).

The mission of the manger had a destructive purpose: “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” (Heb 2:14).  It is finished.

Man-Pleaser or a Slave of Christ?

Sometimes you can’t be both of something, and Paul makes that reality unmistakably clear with this statement: “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10c).

These words present a real dichotomy: you will either be a slave of men or of Christ, but you will strive to please one or the other.

Evidently Paul’s life as an unbeliever was characterized by striving to please man.  The word “still” indicates that Paul’s focus has since changed, but clearly, before conversion, Paul was not serving Christ or honoring God.

Paul’s man-pleasing ways certainly didn’t lack passion.  Before his conversion, Paul demonstrated fervent zeal: “…I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.  And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:13-14).

But Paul’s zeal dishonored God because it opposed Christ.  Paul was in bondage to sin, a slave to human advancement and approval, a captive in chains to the badges of pedigree and morality (see Philippians 3:4-6).

Upon his conversion, Paul’s aim changed: he now desired to please the world’s true Lord, Jesus Christ.  Significantly, he doesn’t say, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be able to please Christ” (which would have been true, of course).  Instead, he uses an image of slavery: “…I would not be a servant of Christ.”

The word “servant” denotes bondage and is better translated here as “slave” or “bond-servant.”  In Paul’s day, slaves lived to please their masters.  Slaves did their master’s bidding, prioritized their master’s will, and needed–more than anything else–to carry out their master’s agenda.

By calling himself a “slave,” Paul has aptly communicated his allegiance to Jesus.  The apostle still lives to please, but now the object of his affections is the world’s Messiah and Redeemer.  Paul is a slave to Jesus, living to please him (Ephesians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1).

An evidence of new birth is new allegiance.  Are you a slave of the unworthy masters of men?  Or are you a slave of the worthy Christ?  You can’t be both.

Preaching to Please God or Man?

Not all preaching pleases God.  Some preachers will incur God’s end-time wrath because of what they preach (Galatians 1:8-9), for God is dishonored when the gospel is distorted.

When Paul wrote Galatians, he found himself falsely accused of preaching a watered down gospel when he actually upheld the true gospel revealed to him by Jesus Christ.  His opponents in Galatia didn’t like his grace-centered message.  Imagine being labeled a man-pleaser because you herald the riches of radical grace in Christ!

Paul is probably countering an accusation against him when he asks, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?  Or am I trying to please man?” (Gal 1:10a-b).  Apparently some intruders in the Galatian churches were spreading a rumor that Paul was a man-pleaser.  While the reason for the accusation is not described in the letter, possibly it pertained to the content of Paul’s preaching.  He proclaimed that God saved by grace alone, excluding human works as playing any role in justification.

On the other hand, the intruders promoted works of the Mosaic Law as integral to a sinner’s status before God (see Gal 2:4-5, 16, 21).  Therefore, according to the intruders, Paul omitted the works of the Law of Moses in his preaching because he wanted to sway his Gentile listeners with what sounded too good to be true (that grace, apart from works of the law, saves sinners).  The intruders insisted that his omission was rooted in his desire to please his audience with what they wanted to hear.

But Paul is no man-pleaser.  As proof, the opening “For” of Galatians 1:10 points back to the curse-language of 1:9: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

That doesn’t sound like something a man-pleaser would say.  Calling down a curse on false teachers is the polar opposite of telling people what they want to hear.  But Paul tells the truth, fearing God more than man.  He boldly declares the judgment of God upon anyone who preaches a different gospel than his.

Our aim must be to please God by preaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ.  As demonstrated by the rumor in Galatia about Paul, preaching the gospel of God’s grace in Christ doesn’t always please men.  In fact, the true gospel may anger and offend men (see 1 Corinthians 1:18)!  Not all listeners will be pleased when preachers exalt the law-free gospel of God’s grace, but God will certainly be displeased when a false gospel is proclaimed.

We mustn’t be ear-ticklers, no matter how great the temptation.  But neither should we shrink from heralding the incredible message of God’s radical grace offered to us in Christ, grace that cleanses us from sin and reconciles us to a holy God.

To some, this gospel sounds too good to be true.  Don’t we have to do something to warrant this grace, to merit this mercy?  Our sinful flesh may want to assert its efforts and point to its achievements, but no one’s obedience accomplishes redemption except that of Jesus Christ on the cross.

We must preach to please God, not man, because tickling people’s ears doesn’t help their souls.  We are most helpful when we are most truthful.  And here’s the truth about the gospel: Christ, who had no sin, became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

If that sounds too good to be true, then obviously the gospel is even more glorious and amazing than you imagined it to be.

Not Paul, Nor An Angel from Heaven…

No one has the authority to change the message of the gospel.  To assume such liberty is to incur God’s fearsome judgment.

Paul said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).

Notice Paul included himself in this curse.  Not just “even if you” but “even if we.”  Not even the apostle Paul had heavenly clearance to alter the message of the gospel.  The good news was his to announce, not amend.

What about authorities other than Paul?  Could someone greater than an apostle tweak the content of God’s revealed message?  What about…say, heavenly authorities–angels?  Not even them.  Paul denied that “an angel from heaven” could ever be authorized to change the content of the gospel.

In Galatians 1:8, the “one we preached to you” was the gospel he proclaimed in Acts 13-14 to the churches established in southern Galatia.  Those churches received the true message, so for Paul to change it would be to spread a false message, one contrary to what they had initially received.

The seriousness of Paul’s warning is clearly perceived in the consequence.  False teachers are accursed.  The word “curse” refers to the end-time judgment of God.  Paul has no patience for people who propagate a false gospel.  They are under God’s curse.  Their words may flatter and tickle the ears of many, but God will crush them with righteous wrath.

Paul is excluding not only himself and angels from others charged to amend the gospel.  His next statement universalizes his warning: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).

Same threat (curse), same issue (gospel), but now everyone is included in his statement (if anyone).  Paul is talking about you and me.

Christians, then, are responsible to proclaim the truth of the gospel.  Paul clarifies what the gospel is: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4).

God revealed the gospel to man, and His revelation is not subject to improvement or abridgment.  Those who seek to distort the truth of the gospel will assuredly face the just judgment of God.

The penalty for false teachers actually underscores the preciousness of the gospel.  Put another way, the judgment of false messengers highlights the worth and significance of the message.  What would we perceive about the gospel if false teachers could treat it like silly putty, molding it and remaking it into whatever they wished, without any consequence?

Truth matters.  Getting the gospel right matters.  Lord, help us love the Truth, and guard our minds from deception.

No Other Gospel of Christ

When Paul expressed astonishment that the Galatians were turning to a different gospel (Gal 1:6), he didn’t want them to wrongly conclude that he was actually acknowledging other gospels as legitimate.  This concern led him to quickly add, “not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (1:7).

For Paul, the gospel is the message about Christ, and there is no other legitimate gospel for sinners.  Other messages distort the true gospel.  Put another way, other messages lead to a false understanding of Christ and salvation.

Christians must beware of falsehoods that smell good and look genuine.  Our five senses do not detect deception, so we need to pray for discernment from the Holy Spirit and cultivate a love for the truth of God’s Word.

There is no other legitimate gospel other than the good news about Jesus Christ.  All other messages are illegitimate and powerless to save–thus, those messages are bad news masquerading as something worth believing.

Other Gospels Lead Away from God

Paul told the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).

Two observations about this verse:
(1) The phrase “him who called you” refers to God the Father.
(2) They are (literally) “turning from” the Father “to another gospel.”

Now we can draw three conclusions:
(1) Other religious messages do not lead to more knowledge of God.
(2)  Turning to other gospels is simultaneously desertion from God, or apostasy–because other gospels aren’t actually legitimate (1:7a).
(3) If the Father called them in the grace of Christ, then turning away from God is also a departure from His grace.

Underlying Paul’s concern is this truth: other gospels aren’t legitimate messages that save sinners but, instead, are deceptive messages that distort  the way of salvation, lead away from a true knowledge of God, and substitute a system of works for divine grace.

Like the Galatians, we need the reminder to hold to the biblical gospel about the grace of God displayed in the cross of Christ on behalf of sinners.

The Exalted Status of Jesus in Galatians 1:1-5

The opening of Paul’s first letter, Galatians, has a high view of Jesus.  I see five christological points to make:

(1) Jesus is more than a mere man.  Paul contrasts his apostleship as being “not from men nor through man” but “through Jesus Christ…” (Gal 1:1).  Paul certainly believed in the humanity of Jesus (see Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7-8; Col 2:9), but he believed that authority from Jesus was different from the authority of people who were men only.  Jesus is both divine and human.

(2) Jesus is risen from the dead.  The Father is the one “who raised him from the dead” (Gal 1:1).  This vindication is something no other dead person has received.  Jesus received a glorified body when the Father raised him, while all other dead people await their resurrected bodies (see 1 Cor 15:23).

(3) Jesus is a source of grace and peace.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:3).  Jews believed that grace and shalom came from God, and here Paul–a Jew!–says that they come from the Father and the Son, a dual source.  Paul did not abandon monotheism when he became a Christian.  Rather, his understanding of God’s being now included the exalted person of Jesus.  For Paul, saying grace and peace came from God was the same as saying that they came from the Father and the Son.

(4) Jesus and the Father are united in purpose.  Since the Son is exalted with the Father, it makes sense that they are not persons with different plans.  Rather, there is harmony and unity between the Father and Son.  Paul’s authority came from Jesus and the Father (Gal 1:1), grace and peace came from the Father and Jesus (Gal 1:3), and Jesus died for our sins in obedience to the Father’s will (Gal 1:4).

(5) Jesus is Lord.  Paul calls Jesus “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:3).  Paul doesn’t use that title in 1:1, but its use in 1:3 further bolsters his exalted view of Jesus.  Jesus is the ruler, the sovereign, the king.  He is Lord of all.

The exalted status of Jesus was no late invention of the early church.  It is clear that the introduction to Paul’s first letter demonstrates a high christology.  As a representative of the early church’s teaching, Paul believed Jesus was the risen Lord who was united in glory and power with the Father.

The Earliest New Testament Interpretation of the Cross

I have been persuaded for some time that Galatians was Paul’s earliest letter, written approximately AD 49-50.  This is significant because, according to some conservative scholars, Galatians 1:1-5 contains the earliest written interpretation of the death of Jesus in the New Testament.

The four Gospels were written after Galatians, as were the other letters (with the exception of James), Acts, and Revelation.  So although Acts reports some early church history after the ascension of Jesus and before Paul was every converted, the book was still written after Galatians.

Put another way, Galatians 1:1-5 was the earliest New Testament record of what leaders–Paul in particular–were teaching about the cross (the letter of James does not provide any explicit teaching about Jesus’ death).

“Paul, an apostle–not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead….Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:1, 3-4).

Four observations can be made.  According to the earliest New Testament record of the interpretation of the cross,

(1) Jesus’ death was voluntary (“gave himself”)
(2) Jesus’ death was substitutionary (“for our sins”)
(3) Jesus’ death was planned (“according to the will of our God”)
(4) Jesus’ death was vindicated (“who raised him from the dead”)

The earliest New Testament testimony about the cross is worth our reflection.  In summary, the early church taught, proclaimed, and wrote about a risen Lord who had freely borne our sins on the cross in fulfillment of his Father’s plan.