Galatians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Understanding the Law

Paul suddenly stops the flow of his argument and asks a question: What, then, was the purpose of the law? (v. 19). This question reflects Paul's awareness that his argument so far would lead his readers to wonder whether he has denied any purpose to the law. If the inheritance of the promised blessing does not depend on the law, as Paul has just declared (v. 18), then why was the law given by God? Paul's answer is important for us as we wrestle with similar questions regarding the application of the Mosaic law. How should Christians relate to the Mosaic law today?

In this section Paul first asks his major, initial question regarding the purpose of the law and replies briefly (vv. 19-20), then asks a supplementary question regarding the relation of the law to the promise of God and supplies an explanation (vv. 21-22), and finally presents two images to illustrate more fully God's purpose for the law (vv. 23-25).What Was the Purpose of the Law? (3:19-20)

Paul's brief reply to this question points to (1) the negative purpose of the law, (2) the temporal framework for the law and (3) the mediated origin of the law.

1. According to Paul, the law has a negative purpose: It was added because of transgressions (v. 19). Paul has already demonstrated what the law does not do: it does not make anyone righteous before God (v. 11); it is not based on faith (v. 12); it is not the basis of inheritance (v. 18). So if the law is divorced from righteousness, faith and inheritance of the blessing, to what is law related? Paul says that the law is related to transgressions. A transgression is the violation of a standard. The law provides the objective standard by which the violations are measured. In order for sinners to know how sinful they really are, how far they deviate from God's standards, God gave the law. Before the law was given, there was sin (see Rom 5:13). But after the law was given, sin could be clearly specified and measured (see Rom 3:20; 4:15; 7:7). Each act or attitude could then be labeled as a transgression of this or that commandment of the law.

Imagine a state in which there are many traffic accidents but no traffic laws. Although people are driving in dangerous, harmful ways, it is difficult to designate which acts are harmful until the legislature issues a book of traffic laws. Then it is possible for the police to cite drivers for transgressions of the traffic laws. The laws define harmful ways of driving as violations of standards set by the legislature. The function of traffic laws is to allow bad drivers to be identified and prosecuted.

2. The temporal framework for the law is clearly established by the words added . . . until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come (v. 19). Paul has already emphasized that the Mosaic law was given 430 years after the Abrahamic promise (v. 17). The word added implies that the law was not a central theme in God's redemptive plan; it was supplementary and secondary to the enduring covenant made with Abraham. As the word added marks the beginning point for the Mosaic law, the word until marks its end point. The Mosaic law came into effect at a certain point in history and was in effect only until the promised Seed, Christ, appeared. There is a contrast here between the permanent validity of the promise and the temporary nature of the law. On the one hand, the promise was made long before the law and will be in effect long after the period of the law; on the other hand, the law was in effect for a relatively short period of time limited in both directions by the words added and until.

As we shall see in our study of the next few sections of the letter (see 3:23-25; 4:1-4), Paul's presentation of the temporal framework for the law is a major theme of his argument for the superiority of the promise fulfilled in Christ over the law. This theme differs radically from the common Jewish perspective of his day, which emphasized the eternal, immutable nature of the law. But Paul's Christocentric perspective led him to see that Christ (the promised Seed), not the law, was the eternal one.

3. Paul designates the origin of the law in his statement that the law was put into effect through angels by a mediator (v. 19). By this Paul does not mean that the law was given by angels rather than by God. He is merely pointing to the well-known Jewish tradition that God gave the law through the agency of angels as well as by a mediator, namely Moses. References to the agency of angels in the giving of the law can be found in the Greek version of Deuteronomy 33:2 and Psalm 68:17. We can also see this tradition about angels in Acts 7:53 and Hebrews 2:2.

The presence of angels and the mediation of Moses in the giving of the law were understood by the Jewish people to signify the great glory of the law. But Paul argues that the giving of the law through a series of intermediaries, angels and Moses, actually demonstrates the inferiority of the law. His argument is cryptic and enigmatic: A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one (v. 20). Literally, this sentence reads, "But a mediator is not one, but God is one." A contrast is being made between the plurality of participants in a process of mediation and the oneness of God. In the larger context of Paul's argument here, there is also the implied contrast between the promise given directly by God to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, the seed of Abraham, and the law given through numerous intermediaries.

By faith the Galatian converts have already entered into the experience of the Spirit (vv. 1-5), which is the fulfillment of the promise (v. 14). Evidently they are now being persuaded that if they observe the rituals of the Jewish people, they will experience new dimensions of spiritual life and blessing--that if they become members of God's people, the Jews, they will be guaranteed intimacy with God. Paul warns them that the circumstances of the giving of the law demonstrate otherwise. The law had a mediated origin. Thus the law does not provide direct access to God. Only the fulfillment of the promise in the bestowal of the Spirit to those in Christ guarantees direct access to God (see 4:4-8).

Paul's affirmation of the common confession of all Jews that God is one (v. 20) implies a contrast between the universality of God and the particularity of the law. The particular focus of the law is specified by its mediation through the angels and Moses to the Jewish people. The preachers of the false gospel in Galatia limited the sphere of God's blessing to the Jewish nation. Their message implied that God is the God of the Jews only. But the unity of God means that he is the God of the Gentiles as well as the God of the Jews (see Rom 3:29-30). The universality of God is clearly expressed in the promise for "all nations" (Gal 3:8). The bestowal of the Spirit on Gentiles who had not become Jews was irrefutable evidence for the universality of God.

Moses, the mediator of the law, brought in a law that divided Jews from Gentiles; therefore he was not the mediator of "the one," the one new community promised to Abraham (v. 8) and found in Christ (v. 28). Christ, not Moses, is the mediator of the unity of all believers in Christ--Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.

These arguments against the supremacy of the Mosaic law should not be interpreted to mean that Paul is antinomian, totally against the law. He is, after all, showing that the law had an important place in the redemptive plan of God. But the giving of the law was not the final goal of God's plan. The law was an essential step, but only a step, toward the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises in Christ. Christ is the beginning, end and center of God's plan.

In the churches in Galatia the law was supplanting the central place of Christ. The churches were becoming law-centered. It was necessary, therefore, to put the law back into its rightful place. Its purpose is negative: to point out transgressions. Its time is limited: 430 years after the promise, until Christ. Its origin is mediated through angels and Moses: it does not provide direct access to God, and it divides Jews from Gentiles.Is the Law Opposed to the Promises of God? (3:21-22)

This question is an understandable response to Paul's stark contrast between the law and the promise (vv. 15-18) and his confinement of the law to a limited role in God's historical plan (vv. 19-20). People who were preoccupied with the supreme value of the law must have been stunned by such a devaluation of it. How could Paul speak against the law? Was the logical conclusion of his line of reasoning the position that the law stood in opposition to the promise? Absolutely not! says Paul. Since both the law and the promise were given by God, they must be complementary rather than contradictory in the overall plan of God. Paul explains the relation of the law to the promise in a two-part answer to the question. First, he presents a contrary-to-fact hypothesis that ascribes a positive role to the law (v. 21). Second, he turns from hypothesis to the reality of the law's negative role (v. 22).

In order to clarify the relation of the law to the promise, Paul poses a contrary-to-fact hypothesis: If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law (v. 21). The very way that Paul phrases this hypothesis (as a contrary-to-fact conditional statement) indicates that he does not for a moment think the law can impart life. By life Paul means living in right relationship with God (see 2:19: "that I might live for God"). If the law could empower one to live in a right relationship with God, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. This was in fact the position of the rival teachers in the Galatian churches. They were promoting the law as the way to live for God. It was actually their position that set the law in direct opposition to the promise; it contradicted the gospel. For as Paul has already said (2:21), "if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!"

It is only when the law is given a positive role that it is directly opposed to the promise fulfilled in Christ. You are faced with an absolute contradiction if you are told that only by believing in the cross of Christ will you be able to live in a right relationship with God and then you are told that only by keeping the law will you be able to live in a right relationship with God. And that is precisely what the Galatian believers were being told by the rival teachers. But Paul does not accept the false hypothesis of a positive role for the law. Since believing the gospel has already been proved to be the only way to receive life in the Spirit and righteousness (3:1-18), such a positive role for the law is excluded.

The strong adversative conjunction but at the beginning of verse 22 indicates that Paul is turning from the unreal hypothesis of a positive role for the law to the reality of the negative role of the law: but the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin (v. 22). In reality, the law has the negative function of condemning everyone. Literally, Paul says that "the Scripture imprisoned all under sin." Probably Paul has in mind Deuteronomy 27:26, the specific Scripture he quoted in verse 10: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." This citation from the law summarizes the purpose of the law: to demonstrate that all are sinners and to put all sinners under God's judgment. Paul's emphasis on the universality of human sin (v. 22) and the universality of God's judgment on all sinners (v. 10) reduces Jews to the same status as Gentiles--the whole world is a prisoner of sin. So identification with the Jewish people by circumcision and observance of the Mosaic law does not remove one from the circle of "Gentile sinners" (2:15) and bring one into the sphere of righteousness, blessing and life. Rather, it leaves one imprisoned under sin.

But we are not left as condemned sinners under the curse of God. The law was given to show that all humanity is held under the bondage of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe (v. 22). Now we can see how the law and the promise work in harmony to fulfill the purpose of God. The law puts us down under the curse; the promise lifts us up in Christ. We are left with no exit under the condemnation of the law so that we might find our freedom only by faith in Christ. The law imprisons all--both Jews and Gentiles--under sin to prepare the way for including all believers in Christ--both Jews and Gentiles--in the blessing promised to Abraham.

So the law should not be viewed as contradictory to the gospel. By reducing all to the level of sinners, the law prepares the way for the gospel. But neither should the law be viewed as if it were the same as the gospel. The law has a negative purpose: it makes us aware of our sin. But it does not, indeed it cannot, set us free from bondage to sin. The promise of blessing comes only through faith in Christ.The Law Is a Jailer and a Disciplinarian (3:23-25)

Paul expands and dramatizes his explanation of the negative function of the law by personifying the law as a jailer and a disciplinarian. In his portrayal of the roles given by God to the law, Paul shows that these negative roles are a necessary part, but only a temporary part, of the entire drama of God's plan of salvation.

The law took the part of God's jailer on the stage of history: before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed (v. 23). Notice the important shift of focus from universal to particular: in verse 22 the whole world is declared by Scripture to be a prisoner of sin, but in verse 23 Paul says we were held prisoners by the law. In the first case the law is related to all people without distinction, Jews as well as Gentiles. All are condemned as sinners by the law. In the second case the law is related to Jews. For a certain period of time, Jews in particular were held as prisoners under law. When we read the Mosaic law we can see how every aspect of Jewish life was restricted, restrained and confined by the law. In this sense the law was a jailer over the Jews.

It is essential to distinguish between these two functions of the law: the universal condemnatory function and the particular supervisory function. Every person in the whole world of every time and every race is under the condemnation of the law given in Scripture. The law makes it clear that everyone is a prisoner of sin in order that it may be absolutely clear that the salvation promised by God can be received only by faith in Jesus Christ (v. 22). That is the universal condemnatory function of the law. The condemning sentence of the law against all humanity can never be overturned. It stands as a permanent indictment of the sinful rebellion of the whole world against God.

The Mosaic law was given not only as a permanent standard for all humanity but also as a temporary system to supervise a particular people. As we read through the Mosaic law we are impressed with a complex system of laws that were set in place to guide the conduct of the Jewish people. According to Paul's imagery in verse 23, the law functioned as a jailer to lock up the Jewish people in a vast system of legal codes and regulations. But that lockup was meant to be only temporary. Verse 23 begins and ends with clear references to the time when the imprisonment within the system of Mosaic law would end: before this faith came . . . until faith should be revealed. Of course Abraham had faith in God long before the Mosaic law, as Paul emphasized in 3:6. But the specific nature of this faith that Paul has in mind has just been stated in verse 22: faith in Jesus Christ . . . Before this faith came, we [the Jewish people] were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith [in Jesus Christ] should be revealed. The function of the law as a jailer is not permanent; it is limited to a certain period in history.

The temporary function of the law is also described by the image of a disciplinarian. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ (v. 24). The NIV here is more a loose paraphrase than a word-for-word translation. The NRSV is an excellent, literal translation of this phrase: "Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came." Behind the English word disciplinarian is the Greek word paidagogos, from which we derive pedagogue. The first meaning listed in Webster's Third New International Dictionary for pedagogue is "a teacher of children or youth"; the second meaning given is "one (as a slave) having charge of a boy chiefly on the way to and from school in classical antiquity." In Paul's day the pedagogue was distinguished from the teacher (didaskalos). The pedagogue supervised, controlled and disciplined the child; the teacher instructed and educated him.

A fascinating dialogue between Socrates and a boy named Lysis highlights this distinction. Socrates begins the conversation by asking Lysis, "Do they [Lysis's parents] let you control your own self, or will they not trust you in that either?"

"Of course they do not," he replied.

"But someone controls you?"

"Yes," he said, "my pedagogue here."

"Is he a slave?"

"Why certainly; he belongs to us," he said.

"What a strange thing," I exclaimed: "a free man controlled by a slave! But how does this pedagogue exert his control over you?"

"By taking me to the teacher," he replied.

Josephus tells us of a pedagogue who was found beating the family cook when the child under his supervision overate. The pedagogue himself was corrected with the words: "Man, we did not make you the cook's pedagogue, did we? but the child's. Correct him; help him!"

These examples of the use of the term pedagogue in Greek literature point to the common perception of this figure in the Hellenistic world: he was given the responsibility to supervise and discipline the conduct of children. He did not have the positive task of educating the child; he was only supposed to control the behavior of the child through consistent discipline. The point of Paul's use of this image in depicting the law is that the law was given this supervisory, disciplinary role over the Jewish people. But the supervisory control of the law was only "until Christ" (to Christ in NIV). This phrase has a temporal meaning, as we can see from the parallel phrase in the previous verse: until faith should be revealed. In the outworking of God's plan of salvation in history, the period when the Jewish people were under the supervisory control of the law was followed by the coming of Christ. The supervisory discipline of the law over the people of God came to an end when Christ came.

The purpose of the disciplinary function of the law was to demonstrate that God's people could only be justified by faith: that we [the Jewish people] might be justified by faith (v. 24). Under the constant discipline of the law, the Jewish people should have learned how impossible it was to keep the law. The law constantly beat them down like a stern disciplinarian, pointing out all their shortcomings and failures. The pain of this discipline was designed to teach them that they could only be declared righteous by God through faith.

In verse 25 Paul draws a conclusion that demolishes any argument that Christians ought to live under the supervisory control of the law: Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. The Galatian believers were evidently succumbing to arguments that their life in Christ should be lived under the supervisory discipline of the Mosaic law. But to live under the supervision of the Mosaic law is to live as if Christ had not come. Now that Christ has come, we live, as Paul has already affirmed in 2:20, "by faith in the Son of God." To live by faith in Christ sets us free from the supervision of the law.

Since Paul is still speaking here in the first-person plural (we) his primary reference is to the freedom that Jewish believers now experience from the supervision of the law because they have put their faith in Christ. If Jewish believers are no longer under the supervision of the law, then it is surely foolish for Gentile believers in Christ to put themselves under the law's supervision. No wonder Paul began this chapter with the rebuke "You foolish Galatians!" They have received the Spirit by believing the gospel, but now they are trying to make progress in their spiritual life by observing the law. But their attempt to observe the law as if they were now under the supervision of the law is not progress; it is retrogression to the period in history before Christ came.

We have some friends who immigrated from a country under dictatorship to North America. Their move to the States marked a turning point in their history. They no longer live under the tyrannical government of their former country. Now they are under a new government. It would make no sense for them to start living again as if they were under the supervision of their former government.

Similarly, Paul sees the turning point in his life to be the time when he put his faith in Christ. Before that time he lived under the supervision of the Mosaic law. But after he put his faith in Christ, his life was lived by faith in Christ, under the supervision of Christ. He had immigrated (see Col 1:13) to the kingdom of Christ.

Of course those friends who have now immigrated to America cannot assume that they are now free to do whatever was forbidden in their former country. Although they cannot be prosecuted under the laws of their former country for murder or theft, they are now bound by the laws of their new country not to murder or steal. Our new life in Christ is not under the supervision of the law; it is under the rule of Christ by his Spirit. Freedom in Christ from the supervisory rule of the Mosaic law empowers us to "live for God" (2:19).

Previous commentary:
Understanding the Promise

Next commentary:
The Unity of All Recipients of the Promise

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