By Pastor Glenn Pease
The war between the states ended as it did in large measure because of Stonewall Jackson's defeat by his own men. Jackson was fighting brilliantly, and he had the entire Eleventh Union Corps on the run. He then planned his strategy for the final blow. He was within half a mile of the one road over which Hooker's whole army must retreat. He was in a position to destroy the main Federal Army, and it looked like nothing could stand in his way.
Riding forward with a few officers, his own men mistook the party for enemy cavalry, and they fired. Jackson was hit and carried back to a field hospital where he lay unconscious. He was unable to share his plans for a glorious victory, and so the chance for it passed and never returned. It has been true time and time again through history that men have been their own worst enemies. This has been true for the church as well. Very seldom has the church been injured or stopped by outside forces. Usually outside opposition has helped the church to grow. The real enemy of the church has always been division within.
Religious wars have been the most fierce, and more Christians have died at the hands of other professing Christians than by any other group. All of God's prophets were killed by God's own people, and finally they even killed His Son. The majority of the great martyrs in Christian history were killed, not by atheists or unbelievers, but by those who professed to believe in the God of the Bible. It is a paradox, but the fact is, Christians have suffered their greatest defeats at the hands of other Christians.
Quite often it has been the case that powerful unbelievers, or hypocritical believers, have been able to stir up Christians against one another. Hitler was able to get many thousands of Christians to fight against other Christians. The point of this is to introduce us to the perplexing issue of just who the Judaizers were who were disturbing the Galatians, and just what did Paul mean when he called a curse down upon them? Paul uses the strongest language he ever used in this passage, and we need to ask some questions about it. We need to ask if Paul is consigning the Judaizers to eternal damnation by this curse. He says, "Let them be anathema. What is the meaning of anathema?
Paul used it of himself in Rom. 9:3 where he expresses deep emotion. "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsman by race." Obviously Paul had no real desire to be accursed, but he expressed just how deeply he loved his own people and longed for their salvation. If Paul was willing to be accursed for the sake of unbelieving Jews, then it is likely that his curse upon the Judaizers is not a wish for their damnation. If it is so interpreted, then Paul is so mad that he is not being consistent with his own teaching. He wrote in Rom. 12:14, "Blest those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." Paul goes on just a few verses later and tells of how he persecuted Christians and tried to destroy the church. It was only by the grace of God that he was not accursed, for no one deserved it more than him. But God forgave him, and we cannot doubt that Paul would rejoice in other Jews repenting of their folly and trusting in Christ for their salvation.
It must be possible to be accursed and yet still repent and be free of the curse. If not one could make one mistake and be in a hopeless state. In Gal. 2:11 we see that Peter stood condemned, and even Barnabas. Paul's great friend and companion were persuaded by the Judaizers to compromise the Gospel of grace. We know these two were true believers, and yet they were persuaded to become enemies of themselves and of the Gospel. It is likely they were persuaded because the Judaizers were very godly Christian men who had compelling arguments. It is hard to believe they would be willing to listen to non-believers.
They would argue that Jesus was circumcised, and if we follow the Lord in baptism, why not in circumcision? Lets be consistent they would argue, and they were able to get even these strong believers to waver and be confused. The point is, these Judaizers were not godless men with no interest in the church. They were believers who were out to save the church from Paul's Gospel, which abandoned the law and let the Gentiles into the kingdom of God all too freely by grace. The battle was an internal one among believers, and this makes a big difference in how we understand Paul's curse.
If you have any doubt about the Judaizers being true Christians, all you have to do is to study Acts 15. That whole chapter deals with the great controversy of believers over grace and law. The Judaizers lost the controversy, but there is no question about their being believers. Verse 5 says, "But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, 'It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.'" It is possible to be a believer who is still a legalist who tries to modify grace with the law. This was not a gathering of leaders to consider the views of non-Christians. It was to considers the views of those who were sincerely convinced that they were defending the will of God by trying to impose the law on the Gentiles.
So what does this mean in the light of being accursed, as it applies to believers? Paul included himself, Peter, the angels, and anyone who preaches a different gospel. Is Paul hoping that all who disagree with him will go to hell and be damned forever because of this curse? Not at all. He is not hoping to populate hell by these strong words. Their purpose is to prevent both abuse of the Gospel and acceptance of any abuse or perversion of it. Jesus had to get severe with Peter once and said to him, "Get thee behind me Satan," right to his face. Peter was allowing himself to be a tool of Satan to oppose the will of Christ. Believers can fall into dangerous error, and they can be used by Satan to hinder the truth.
Paul's purpose in Acts 15 and here is to get the Judaizers to fully grasp what the Gospel of grace is all about, and to get them to stop perverting it with legalism. The use of anathema here needs to be seen in the light of the three degrees of its meaning. 1. It can refer to the being cast out of the synagogue as a warning to repent. 2. It can mean a death sentence, which is a taking of their physical life. 3. It can mean the infliction of God's wrath in the day of judgment. Any one of them can apply to a believer, and Paul may have had all three in mind here.
In the synagogue it meant that one was excommunicated, and it came to have this meaning in the church. By the fourth century anathema meant a heretic was excommunicated from the church. This is likely the meaning Peter had in mind when he used anathema in connection with himself in Mark 14:71. "But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, I do not know the man..." In Acts 23:12 it is used in connection with a strong oath. "..the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul." Both Peter and these Jews failed and brought on themselves their curse. Obviously they were not condemning themselves to hell.
In the light of this usage of the word, Paul, no doubt, meant that the Judaizers were not to be welcomed into the church. They were to be excluded, cut off, and rejected as men bearing a message that contradicted the Gospel. Let them be anathema, or keep them out of you fellowship, for they will pervert your faith. They were to be rejected because they were contaminating the Gospel. John says something like this in II John 10, "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting." In other words, we are not to give ear to, nor support to, those who pervert the Gospel with legalism, or any other perversion. Let them be anathema. Let them be excluded from fellowship and support.
If this person is a believer, they will have to change when they see they are rejected, or they will have to face the judgment of God in the final day. They are condemned, but not damned. It can be so serious that the death sentence can be involved. Paul writes in I Cor. 5:5 about one who was perverting his sex life, and it was known in the church. He said, "You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." He would be ultimately saved, but he was to lose his life in judgment for his perversion. He suffers the curse of anathema and is cut off from the church and life, but he is not condemned to hell.
Paul's point here in Galatians is that anyone who perverts the Gospel is to be accursed. They are to suffer the condemnation of the church so that they will repent. If they do not do so, they must suffer the judgment of God. Does this happen to believer? Yes it does, and there is a whole history of believer who have had to suffer this curse because of their perversions of the Gospel.