15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:15-29 ESV
As a former Pharisee, Paul had a scholarly understanding of the Old Testament. But it was after his conversion, when he had received the indwelling Holy Spirit, that Paul truly began to understand that the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Post-conversion, his comprehension of the Scriptures was both magnified and clarified. Familiar passages took on a whole new meaning when he was able to view them through the lens of the gospel. In the case of Genesis 13:15 and 17:8, where Moses records God’s covenant with Abraham, Paul exegetes these all-too-familiar passages by revealing that through them, God had been promising the coming of Christ.
He was the “seed” or “offspring” through whom all the nations would be blessed. God’s promise to Abraham would ultimately be fulfilled through Jesus. But what is Paul’s point in bringing to light this new interpretation or understanding of God’s promise? He was attempting to answer the argument that the Mosaic law, which came after the giving of the promise by God to Abraham, somehow superseded or supplanted it.
But Paul argues that God had made a binding covenant with Abraham and his “offspring.” This God-ordained agreement could not be nullified or broken. It was a unilateral covenant, made by God and could only be annulled by God. But Paul argues that at no point did God revoke or replace the covenant, even when He had given Moses the law some 430 years afterward. In fact, Paul points out that the inheritance tied to the promise of God could be received only through the promise of God. It was not accessible any other way, especially not through the keeping of the law. And the inheritance of which Paul speaks is tied directly to the idea of justification by faith. This was the crux of the problem taking place among the Galatian believers.
They had been told that their justification was tied to the keeping of the law, most specifically to God’s command regarding circumcision. In other words, they were being sold a bill of goods that promised them a right standing before God through law-keeping and self-effort, not faith in Christ alone.
Paul wrote to the Colossian believers:
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:11-14 ESV
He prayed for the Ephesian believers…
…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints… – Ephesians 1:17-18 ESV
For Paul, the promise of God made to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, was all about the wonderful reality of a restored relationship with God, for both Jews and Gentiles. And this incredible gift was only available through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. It could not be attained through self-effort. Paul went on to tell the Ephesian believers that he wanted them to understand “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:19-20 ESV).
Our salvation, justification, sanctification, and glorification are all tied to the work of Christ on our behalf. Our righteousness comes from Christ. Our right standing before God is a result of His shed blood. Our future inheritance is tied to His sacrificial death on the cross. All that we are and all that we hope to be is based on the finished work of Christ, and for that, we have much to be grateful.
So, what is the role of the law? If it is not necessary for salvation, why did God command the Israelites to keep His lengthy list of commands and regulations? Paul knew these questions were on the minds of his audience, so he chose to provide the answers.
It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. – Galatians 3:19 NLT
Once again, Paul stresses the presence of the promise as being separate from the law. They were not inextricably linked as the Judaizers claimed. Keeping of God’s law was not a mandatory or non-negotiable requirement for receiving the promises made to Abraham’s “offspring.” Paul brings up this word again to stress the role that Jesus played in fulfilling the promise made by God.
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made. – Galatians 3:19 ESV
Until Jesus came and provided a better way to achieve a right standing with God, the law would serve as a temporary guardian or guide, assisting the Israelites in living up to God’s holy standard of righteousness. Paul makes that point in verse 24.
…the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. – Galatians 3:24 ESV
Paul continues to unpack the true meaning behind the promise that God made to Abraham. According to Paul, the offspring to whom God referred was Jesus, and the law was given by God after He had made the promise to Abraham to expose the full extent of mankind’s sinfulness. God gave His chosen people the law “because of transgressions.”
The law was given by God to reveal or expose man’s sin. It clearly articulated God’s holy and righteous expectations, and there could be no debate. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7 ESV). Before the giving of the law, man could have rationalized away his sin or simply claimed ignorance. But the law removed that option for God’s chosen people.
Paul goes on to say that the presence of the law acted as an impetus to sin, not causing man to sin, but provoking man’s sinful nature to rebel against it. When the law said, “Do not…”, man’s sin nature automatically and reflexively responded, “I will…”. Paul went on to say, “sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Romans 7:8 ESV). Indwelling sin, which opposes God, stands opposed to His holy law. It rejects it and entices man’s fleshly, sinful nature to disobey it. Like a parent telling their child not to touch a hot stove, the prohibition creates in the child an even deeper desire to do that which has been denied.
In verse 19, Paul says the law “was put in place through angels by an intermediary.” Moses provides us with some insight into the meaning behind Paul’s statement. Just before his death, Moses gave a blessing to the people of Israel, saying, “The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deuteronomy 33:2 ESV). Angels played a mediatory role, while Moses played an intermediatory role. The law was given and it placed responsibilities on God and upon man. God was obligated and committed to bless when men obeyed His law.
And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV
But He was also required to curse or punish when man disobeyed.
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV
In contrast, when it came to the Abrahamic covenant, the promise God made regarding his “offspring” was solely the responsibility of God. There was no intermediary. The promise was made by God and would be fulfilled by Him alone. No angels played a part, and Abraham was not required to do anything to earn the fulfillment of the promise. He was simply required to trust God, and Paul describes Abraham as having an unwavering faith in God.
No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” – Romans 4:20-22 ESV
The law did not stand opposed to or somehow replace the promise of God. It was not intended to be a replacement for the promise. And it was never designed to produce in man a righteousness that would restore him to a right relationship with God. What it did was reveal the depth of humanity’s sinfulness and helplessness. Whether motivated by a genuine love for or fear of God, men were incapable of keeping His righteous decrees. The law simply confirmed that they were lawbreakers.
The law was designed to be temporary in nature. It was to be in effect until the promise was fulfilled and “the offspring” came. With the coming of Jesus and His death on the cross, the law’s binding hold on man was released. Jesus became the fulfillment of the law, having obediently kept every single requirement. He did what no other man had ever done, and His sinless perfection made Him the perfect, blameless sacrifice that God required to atone for the sins of mankind. Jesus paid it all. His sinless, unselfish sacrifice of His own life satisfied the just demands of a holy God.
In Romans, Paul writes of the unbelievable impact of Jesus’ death on our behalf:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. – Romans 5:6-9 ESV
Law-keeping is not the answer to man’s sin problem. The law was never intended to provide salvation. It was designed to show man his sin and place him under God’s holy and just condemnation. The law was not even capable of driving men to God. As Paul indicated, it actually inflamed man’s sinful nature and drove him further from God. Law-breakers hate the law; they look for ways to disobey it and get around it. They see the law as oppressive and unnecessary. But Jesus came to free men from the law. He came to provide a means by which they could be made right with God apart from the law. And Paul makes it very clear that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners. We didn’t see our need for a Savior and then run to Him. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. We were blinded by our own sin natures and by Satan himself. And yet God, in His grace, opened our eyes to see the glory of the offer of the gift of His Son’s death. The scales fell off our eyes and His Spirit gave us the supernatural ability to say yes to that which we had previously rejected.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV
Even our faith is a gift from God, otherwise, it would be of our own doing. Paul wants us to understand that our salvation is the sovereign work of God, from beginning to end. As when Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, shouting, “Lazarus, come forth!,” God calls us out of the death and darkness of sin, providing us with not only life but the capacity to obey. That is why Paul refers to the gospel as “so great a salvation.” It needs no add-ons or addendums. God’s plan is perfect because it is all based on Him alone.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.