Galatians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Understanding the Promise
My parents set up irrevocable trust agreements for each of us seven children. Once the trust papers had been signed, they could not be annulled or changed. These irrevocable trusts demonstrate our parents' generous, unconditional love for us.
In Galatians 3:15-18 Paul uses a similar legal document to illustrate the nature of the Abrahamic covenant: Brothers, 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 (v. 15). This "irrevocable trust agreement" that God made with Abraham is described in terms of the beneficiary of the trust (v. 16), the date of the trust (v. 17) and the condition for inheritance (v. 18). Our study of these terms of the Abrahamic covenant will enable us to appreciate the gracious, unconditional nature of God's love for us.
Paul carefully examines the terms of the Abrahamic covenant and notes that the promises of this covenant were made to Abraham and to his seed. The term seed, Paul explains, is not plural but singular. Therefore the covenant designated one person, not many people, to be the recipient of the promises. That one person, says Paul, is Christ.
Except for the lawyers among us who enjoy the minutiae of legal arguments, Paul's discussion may seem to be over our heads. But if we understand Paul's hidden agenda, we will be able to grasp the reason for this technical argument about one term in the Abrahamic covenant. We have to realize that Paul's definition of seed contradicts the Jewish nationalistic interpretation of this term. Jews were convinced that the term seed referred to the physical descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people. Therefore they believed it was absolutely necessary to belong to the Jewish nation in order to receive the blessings promised to Abraham.
In Jewish literature the generic singular seed was usually interpreted as a collective singular, referring to the nation of Israel. But seed was also understood by the rabbis to be a specific singular, referring to an individual--for example, Isaac or David or Solomon. Paul's attention to the grammatical form of this term is very much like the rabbinic practice of exegesis. But Paul's interpretation is based on his conviction that Christ is the sole heir and channel of God's promised blessing. So while he uses common Jewish methods of exegesis, Paul's messianic interpretation of seed restricts the reference to Christ and negates the common nationalistic interpretation. It is no longer necessary to be in the Jewish nation to be a recipient of the promises; it is necessary to be in Christ.
Paul is just as exclusive as his Jewish counterparts, but his exclusivity is not based on ethnic identity. Since Christ is the heir of the promises, all those and only those who are in Christ by faith are beneficiaries of the irrevocable trust agreement God made with Abraham (v. 29).
We can see by the way Paul uses the term seed in verse 29 that his emphasis on its singularity in verse 16 does not restrict the seed to one individual person. Christ, the one seed of Abraham, includes within himself a new community of all believers where there are no racial, social or gender divisions. Just as the seed is one (v. 16), so "you are all one in Christ" (v. 28). So the emphasis on the oneness of the seed in verse 16 prepares the way for the emphasis on the unity of all in Christ in verse 28. Whereas the law made a division between Jews and Gentiles, Christ, the promised seed of Abraham, is the center of a new unity of Jews and Gentiles. The people of God are no longer identified by ethnic origins, but by union with Christ.
Legal documents are signed and dated. Dates establish the precedence of one document over another. In the case of a will, a subsequent codicil or new will can annul or change the terms of the previous document. So lawyers search to make sure they have the document with the latest date which overrides all previous documents.
In the case of an irrevocable trust agreement, however, subsequent documents cannot overturn the terms of the original document. Paul has this type of document in mind. He carefully notes that the date on the irrevocable trust agreement made with Abraham places that covenant 430 years before the Mosaic law. If the Mosaic law and the Abrahamic covenant had the same date, then one might suppose that the Mosaic law should be included in the understanding of the terms of the Abrahamic covenant. But the fact that the Mosaic law came 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant indicates that the two should be clearly distinguished from each other and that the terms of the Abrahamic covenant should not be confused with or changed by the terms of the Mosaic covenant.
This distinction between the time of the confirmation of the promise to Abraham and that of the giving of the law stands in stark contrast to the rabbinic claim that Abraham knew and kept even the minutest details of the Mosaic law. In Jewish tradition the Mosaic law had been inseparably linked with the Abrahamic covenant. Influenced by this perspective, the Galatian believers had come to think that it was necessary to keep the Mosaic law to inherit the blessings promised to Abraham. In Paul's view, those who seek the inheritance through the law have failed to recognize the precedence of the promise in salvation history. They have failed to realize that because the law came 430 years after the promise it could not annul or be attached to the promise as a condition of inheriting the promised blessings.
Since Paul equates the promise and the gospel, the distinction he sees between promise and law is also a distinction between gospel and law. Those who minimize or deny this contrast between gospel and law need to consider the radical nature of Paul's distinction.
When my parents set up the trust agreements for their seven children, we were all very young and could not have possibly fulfilled any conditions to merit the gift of inheritance that they provided for us. It is true that we grew up in a home marked by high standards and strict discipline. But if someone supposed that our inheritance depended on living up to the high standards set in the home, we could easily demonstrate that such a supposition was ridiculous. In the first place, none of us has been able to keep all the high standards set for us. In the second place, the irrevocable trust agreements were established for us before the standards were communicated to us. So we are beneficiaries by sheer grace.
Paul is concerned to demonstrate the unconditional nature of the promises made to Abraham. He points out the incompatibility between receiving the inheritance as a gift on the basis of a promise and receiving it as a payment for keeping the law: For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. The categories of payment and gift are mutually exclusive. Since the gift character of the promised inheritance is clearly established, the inheritance cannot be received as a payment for keeping the law. This logical argument is developed by Paul to drive home his rebuke for the foolish error of viewing something as a payment which had already been received as a gift.