Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson 9: Galatians 3:19-25 (video)
God’s Valuable Law
The word law stirs up different ideas depending on what’s being talked about. We know there’s nothing we can do about the so called, “Laws of Nature“. Gravity pulls things together because of the effect of their mass in space. That’s why we’re careful to avoid falling down and dropping breakable things. Inertia keeps things still until something moves them, then they tend to keep on moving. That’s why we have to start our engines before the car goes somewhere, and why we have to be sure our breaks are working once we get going. We call these laws of nature because it’s how we see things which God created operating. We write mathematical formulas that help us use these laws profitably.
There are also laws of economics that describe how we come to own things. If you have something another person wants, they can give you something you want in exchange for it. The more something is wanted or needed, the more it’s worth.
There are laws of governments too. They tell us who’s in charge, and set limits on how we live together. These laws define our responsibilities and liabilities. They also tell how we determine guilt, and what penalties are appropriate when the law is violated.
Unlike the principles we call laws of nature or laws of economics, the laws of governments are made up by people, and therefore they can be changed. Sometimes self-serving people pass self-serving laws that take advantage of others. Often situations change when new dangers come along and old ones pass away, so these laws have to change too.
But above all these things we call law, there are the laws of God. The New Testament word translated as “law” here is the Greek word “nomos” (νόμος). In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for “law” is “torah” (תּורה). Basically the words mean “instruction” or “direction” – as in stating what’s to be done, nor not done. In the Bible, as in every language, these words for law are used in a wide range of ways.
There are moral and redemptive principles that reflect God’s eternal and holy nature. Those laws are built into creation and they can never change because God never changes. For example, it’s always wrong to worship false gods, lie, murder, or steal.
God also imposed temporary laws to represent what’s true and what he promises at particular times. These laws prepared his people for the next stage of his eternal plan. Those temporary laws were primarily given in the time of Abraham, and in the time of Moses. They were designed to prepare us for the birth, life, and death of our Savior. The rituals and detailed regulations may have been temporary, but they aren’t unimportant.
The main point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was to correct a misuse of these temporary laws. The distortion was a different gospel that kept God’s people from living for God’s glory.
As we saw in our earlier studies, Judaizers were teaching that the new Gentile believers had to submit to the ceremonial laws of Moses. But those laws were only given for Israel for the time before Christ.
Paul made it clear that the Judaizers were wrong. Since the ritual laws were given to teach about the coming Savior, when Jesus came, the original purpose of those temporary rituals was fulfilled.
This doesn’t mean they don’t have important lessons for us today. While there are changes in how God regulated the lives of his people at different times, there’s also a unity in his work all through human history. We have one unchanging God, with one unchanging plan that moves all things toward one unchanging goal and glorious end.
While correcting the error of the Judaizers, Paul didn’t want to diminish the value of God’s law. The struggling churches in Galatia were not just having debates between scholars. There were ordinary people trying to learn how to live out their Christianity day-to-day.
Today there’s still serious confusion about God’s law. Some think of religion as earning our way to heaven. Christianity is thought of by many as a religion of rules, popes, priests, and mystical rituals. Some imagine that by doing good works God will be convinced to let us go to heaven when we die. Some turn their attention to obeying strict rules, social reforms, and priestly incantations. Some don’t accept that Jesus Christ paid our debt and completed what the Old Testament laws prefigured.
Others want to throw out all the Laws of the Old Testament as if they all only applied to the Jews. They replace it with a poorly defined idea of “love” — what it is and what it’s not. They promote faith in a poorly defined Jesus. They replace God’s moral laws with rules defined by culture or a sub-culture of their own. Often worship just plays to the emotions, and ignores the present by just focussing on the end times.
Both extremes miss the main stream of what the Bible is telling us here. The Galatians were being mislead about God’s law, and it was having an effect on their daily lives. It wasn’t just a fine point of theology — it isn’t just that for us either.
To correct these confusing abuses, Paul asks this important question in Galatians 3:19.
19. What purpose then does the law serve? …
We have to keep in mind what point Paul was making here. Remember the context: The ceremonial laws of Israel couldn’t do away with God’s original promise. Paul said in 17-18, “And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise.”
The promise of the coming Christ, and the way of salvation by grace through faith, was explained to Abraham 430 years before the ceremonial laws were given by Moses.
The Reformer Martin Luther makes a good illustration here in his commentary on this passage. He tells of a wealthy man who adopted a son out of kindness alone, then he made the adopted son the heir of his entire fortune. After the son grew up he did favors for the man. Certainly the adopted son can’t then say that the favors earned him his inheritance. Then Luther says, “How can anybody say that righteousness is obtained by obedience to the Law when the Law was given four hundred and thirty years after God’s promise of the blessing?”
So the temporary rituals given in the time of Moses were signs telling more about God’s plan. The signs can’t possibly replace the covenant promises themselves. We are made right with God because God kept his promise, not because we preform some rituals or abstain from what’s currently popular in our culture.
So then, what good are these ritual laws the Judaizers said were necessary for salvation? Paul’s answer helps us unravel the confusion.
19. … It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator.
20. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one.
The particular laws being confused in Galatia were the temporary laws given to Israel at the time of Moses. They included the priestly order, the sacrifices, the annual feasts, cleansing and purity rituals, dietary laws, and other regulations designed to separate Israel out as God’s special people.
God’s laws had a very clear purpose. The various laws were added because of transgressions among the Covenant People. They expose sin, show our need for God’s grace and discipline the covenant community. They were to apply to Israel until the promised Christ came. Jesus is the promised seed of a woman God promised in Genesis 3:15. He would ultimately crush the head of Satan and rescue the fallen race.
In these verses, notice the italicized words which appear in most of our translations. They are words added in English by the translator, words that aren’t in the original Greek text. They are added to smooth out the translation, but they can also influence the interpretation. Translating this portion very literally you get this:
19. Then why the law? It was put in place because of the transgressions until the seed came to whom it had been promised, having been appointed through messengers by a mediator’s hand.
20. but the mediator is not of one, but God is one.
Without getting into all the technical points, the idea here seems to be this: Mediation is always to settle differences between two parties. It doesn’t normally just deal with one, but two equal parties. But the “mediation” here was not between two equal parties to reach some compromise. It was a one-way communication as God alone restores fallen sinners back into his family.
The word angels “angeloi” (ἄγγελοι) simply means “messengers”. It sometimes describes human messengers in the New Testament. At times God used spirit beings (angels), but he also used men as messengers (for example the Prophets). The same word is often used. God used messengers to reveal his plan to his people. They mediated between God and man. Moses was one of these messenger prophets, who stood between God and his people.
But God’s covenant promise was a sovereignly imposed promise. It was not a deal struck between humans and God. God is one – the promise is entirely his work. There’s no input from us at all. God, by his messengers, gave Laws to show our obligations, to reveal our lostness, and to teach God’s plan. Therefore the law given to explain our lostness and the plan of redemption could never replace the sovereignly imposed promise it represented. Promise existed before the law was given.
The covenant of grace is all that actually ever redeemed and reconciled anyone. The law only reveals sin, depicts the promise, but it does not reconcile or redeem.
However, as our teacher it’s important, and it has great value to us. The ritual laws still demonstrate our lostness, our inability to earn salvation, and the uniqueness of God’s people. They display how Jesus would become the only real substitute sacrifice for our sins.
So there’s no conflict between the concept of grace and the teachings of God’s law. They fit perfectly together.
21. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.
22. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed.
The contrast in Galatians 3 isn’t between Moses and Abraham, or between Moses and Christ. It’s between the belief that there can be righteousness by the regulatory laws and the fact of Scripture that righteousness has always come by faith in God’s promise – and by grace imparted faith alone.
No law can bring life to what’s already dead. That was never it’s purpose. The law exposes our dead condition by showing us that we aren’t innocent before God. But until the coming of Christ, before the fullness of the promise could be understood, the ritual laws narrowed the path to direct God’s people toward what was to come. God’s promise – not the law – is and always was the basis for our blessings.
In the next two verses, Paul shows that the law is a teacher.
24. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
25. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
The law is our tutor – our school master to bring us to Christ. So to demand rituals or any type of human works to add to our salvation denies that Jesus Christ fulfilled the promise made sovereignly by God long before the laws were laid out. It says we are no longer under a tutor, or “teacher”. But this doesn’t mean that what the teacher taught could now be forgotten. It means that the lesson has now been fully taught so the teacher had now completed his job.
So if the law doesn’t justify us is it good for nothing? No! It had a unique purpose from the beginning. We still benefit by it’s lessons about our need for a Savior, and about the Savior’s work.
So, what’s the value of God’s law for us today? The Judaizers were not causing a problem with the moral laws of God. They are always binding on everybody. Paul never criticized them for avoiding idols, keeping the Creation Sabbath, preserving marriage, telling the truth, and so on – he openly promoted those moral principles as eternal and always important. He also made it clear that as sinners, no one can earn his way to heaven by being moral.
Jesus alone kept the moral laws perfectly. By grace he clothes us with his righteousness. So the moral commandments of the Bible are always valuable to us as guides. We still learn from them that it’s wrong to improperly worship the one true God. We know from them that it’s wrong to disrespect authority, to be unfaithful to our spouses, to steal, murder, lie, and to covet what God doesn’t give us.
The problem in Galatia had to do with those ritual laws given to Israel by Moses. Some were insisting that those shadows of what was to come were still binding. That was an open denial that Jesus fulfilled what they stood for. The final and fully effective sacrifice for sin had been made on Calvary. The sacrifices of bulls and lambs had to stop. Their lesson was completed. The Lord’s Supper replaced Passover because the true Lamb of God was slain. The purity of God’s people had been secured by our Savior. Baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of God’s Covenant People. The other sprinklings and dietary rules had completed their job. We are washed in the blood of the Lamb, and set apart to be lights to the world.
With the coming of Christ, the lessons were completed. School was over. Christianity isn’t working our way to heaven. It’s about the finished work of Christ earning heaven for us. Those who think that our deeds fit us for God’s blessings, live with an irrational burden nobody can bear.
After graduation from our schooling we aren’t supposed to forget all we learned. The levitical laws are still there to teach us to rest in Christ as the substitute for our deserved penalty. They show our need for purity in our lives as we stand in the presence of God. They show that we are to be separate from the world as those saved by grace.
Now we need to take what those ritual laws taught us and get to work. We have a job to do as God’s children. His law points us to our own inability to live as we know we should. It helps us appreciate how much we need our Savior who paid our debt in our place. It also reminds us that we’re to stand out as different than those still lost and without Christ.
This isn’t just a scholarly matter for theologians to debate. It’s an important lesson for us as we read the Old Testament, and as we go about our work and family life every day. It should humble us and make us thank God all the more for his amazing grace that alone adopts us and keeps us as his own dear children.
(The Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)