That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God…
The solutions that have been offered of this difficult text group themselves under one or other of the three following alternatives.
I. IF HIS JEWISH KINSMEN COULD ONLY THEREBY BE SAVED, PAUL COULD HIMSELF SUBLIMELY CONSENT TO BE FINALLY DAMNED. Many have so understood him, and applauded the sentiment as the climax of the morally sublime, as exhibiting " a love stronger than death," because stronger than even hell. But is this a Christ-like love? When did Christ consent to be made a curse in a sense so vile, or incur a doom so final? For me to wish myself accursed from Christ for any end whatever, would be to wish not only doom, but sin. So far from glorifying God, it would but dishonour and contradict Him, for it would be to choose as a means of good what God brands as the very quintessence of evil.
II. A QUALIFIED AND SOFTENED SENSE THAT FALLS SHORT OF FINAL DOOM.
1. Some have taken the phrase, "accursed from Christ," to mean temporal death, in proof of which appeal is made to the prayer of Moses in Exodus 32:32. But Moses' expression for temporal death presents no parallelism whatever to the apostle's expression. Moreover, if Paul meant temporal death, what could he mean by "from Christ"? Temporal death, so far from separating the believer from Christ, cuts short all seeming separation. Anathema originally denoted the act of depositing gifts in temples, and also the votive offerings themselves. These were of course sacred and irrevocable. When the gift was a living creature, beast or man, the life was devoted in sacrifice. Hence "devoted " stands for "doomed." In the spiritual sphere the doom thus expressed was utter and final. As "anathema from Christ" the life, what less could it be? This we find to be its intensity of meaning in all the other places in which the word occurs in the New Testament (Acts 23. 14 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8, 9). Thus the words "accursed from Christ" refuse to be softened down. Whatever final damnation may mean, all that they mean. Nor will it in the least help the matter to resort to the forms of Jewish excommunication, for in its milder form of expulsion from the synagogue, the phrase before us is far too strong, and is never once so employed: while in its direr form of thorough Jewish malediction, it embraced all the terrors of "eternal judgment."
2. Turn we now to the opening expression "I could wish." The tense in the original is the imperfect: and the explanation given is "I was wishing, only it was no use." But if Paul wished, in any degree and for any reason, to be "accursed from Christ," he wished what was wrong. If he wished, or professed to wish, an acknowledged impossibility, he simply trifled with his readers, and with his tragic theme. And if he did not really wish at all, then his words reduce themselves at best to a simple extravagance. That be far from our apostle (see ver. 1).
III. THE HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION REMAINS.
1. The tense used is the imperfect, and the most literal rendering would be, "I wished." In Galatians 1:13 the same tense occurs, and that, too, in an affirmation very parallel to the one before us. Had our translators rendered that imperfect tense there as they have done here we should have had, "I could persecute."
2. Again note that the word "myself" stands connected with the word "wished." "For I myself used to wish to be accursed from Christ." This makes it clear that he takes us back to his unconverted past. It is as if he had said, "I myself used to hurl those curses which you are now launching at the Nazarene. I, even I, once dared the doom you now defy, and it is because I once did so, and now see the terrible doom I incurred, that I feel such sorrow for my kinsmen."
3. But how Paul could be said to wish this dreadful anathema for his brethren's sake? Granting that the connection is the true one the answer would be, Paul did all this as a zealous Jew, devotedly attached to his nation, and thinking that he was doing them, as well as God, service by those dreadful maledictions. But the clause is clearly parenthetical. The sorrow, not the wish, is for his brethren.
4. But if the words "accursed from Christ" mean nothing less than final doom, how, even in his unconverted state, could Paul have wished that? The answer is that the Jewish anathema was double-edged. It might be launched directly at Jesus, and doubtless it often was by Paul amid his breathings of "threatening and slaughter." But it might also take the more indirect form of imprecating direst anathemas upon himself if he espoused the cause of the Nazarene.
5. But while recalling the past he cannot forget the present. To his unbelieving sense the anathemas at that past period meant one thing. To his now Christianised sense they are seen to have meant infinitely direr things than he then conceived. He now saw that the Nazarene was no false Messiah, but the true; hence the significant use of the article in the original, "accursed from the Christ." He wished, and willed, that rejection of Christ which leads to the curse of utter and irremediable woe.
1. Let the reckless dealer in common oaths beware. His lightly uttered blasphemies may have more momentum than he thinks. Your oaths may fasten on your soul a lasting curse.
2. Be not hasty in your conclusions. Paul once allowed himself to be borne away by the current. He had need to "save himself from that untoward generation." So have we from ours. We may have to breast the current that would else float us past Christ, and drift us to ruin.
3. See how remote Christianity is from Pharisaism. The Pharisees scowled on Jesus because He was the friend of sinners. They cared for no man's soul. Now, if we want a picture the very opposite of that, we may behold it here in Paul. But that same Paul was himself once a Pharisee. And lo! here he stands stripped of the last shred of his Pharisaic cloak, and dissolved in tender tears for the souls of his fellows!
4. We have here a splendid example of love to our deadly foes. This word "anathema" may remind us of what dire anathemas those very Jews pronounced over this same Paul (Acts 23. 14). And how does he repay them? By returning blessing. So well had he caught the spirit and conned the lesson of his Master (Matthew 5:44, 45).
5. We have also here a spirit-stirring example of love to souls as souls. It was the spiritual condition and prospects of his Jewish kinsmen that wrung his heart; but Gentiles drew forth this tender concern no less than Jews.
6. How solemn is human life! How tragic is human ruin! How saddening to reflect that such tragedies are hourly enacting themselves under all the sheet-lightning play of laughter and shallow merry-makings of the world! "Life is real, life is earnest."
7. How vitally indispensable is the gospel; for is it not implied in our apostle's statement that there is life only in Christ? Separation from Christ is here assumed to be separation from bliss, and to be identical with curse.
8. And how free is that gospel! No reprobating decree; else these tears of Paul, if tears of sympathy for men were tears of antipathy and even treachery in relation to God. The grace of God that hath appeared "brings salvation unto all men." It is brought to our very door. It is pressed upon us, but not forced. The issue rests with our own free will. Paul the persecutor acted out his "wish," or choice; and so with equal freedom did Paul the preacher (Deuteronomy 30:19, 20).
(J. Guthrie, M.A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.