OVERVIEW – If a man is not justified from the works of the Law, what was the purpose of the Torah given through Moses at Mount Sinai? – Galatians 3:19.
In his Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul declared that we are set right with God from the “faith of Jesus Christ,” and not “from the works of the Law.” But if keeping the “works of the Law” does not justify us before God, logically, this raises the question: Why, then, the Law? What was the purpose of the Torah? Paul answered this question in the third chapter of his letter.
His opponents had a ready-made argument from the Hebrew Bible. God gave circumcision to Abraham as the sign of His “everlasting covenant.” Any male who was not circumcised, by definition, had “broken my covenant.” Moreover, circumcision was NOT optional under the Law.
Paul compiled a series of arguments to demonstrate to his audience why it was a mistake to submit to circumcision, since they responded to the message of Jesus in faith. Anyone who underwent circumcision was obligated to keep the whole Law.
- (Galatians 3:10) – “For as many as are from the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written: Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.”
- (Galatians 5:2-3) – “Behold, I Paul say to you, that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I testify again to every man that receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”
The real debate was over how Gentile believers become members of the covenant community – from the “faith of Jesus” alone, or from faith AND the “works of the Law,” or, at least, some of them. The dispute was over a specific set of works required by the Mosaic Law, not good works in general, especially circumcision – (Galatians 4:9-11, 5:1-3).
PURPOSE AND DURATION OF THE LAW. Paul provided several explanations for the institution of the Law:
- (Galatians 3:19-22) – “Why, then, the Law? It was added because of the transgressions until the time when the seed came for whom the promise was given, and it was given in charge through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not mediator of one, yet God is one. Is then the law against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given which was able to make alive, then righteousness would be from the law. But the scripture confined all things under sin, in order that the promise from the faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them who believe.”
The Law was “added” after the original covenant promise to Abraham. It was subsequent, and therefore, subsidiary to the promise. And the promise is distinct from the Law, which came after the promise, and thus, could not add or subtract anything from it. Moreover, the Law was a covenant confirmed by God (“a covenant confirmed beforehand by God, the law…does not void the promise”); the Mosaic legislation was a separate covenant “added” after the promise.
The Law was given “until the seed should come,” indicating the temporal status of the Law. “Until” translates the Greek preposition achri. When used with a place, it signifies “as far as”; but with time, the sense becomes “until” a termination point. Thus, Paul placed the jurisdiction of the Law under a time constraint. The promised “seed” was Christ, and the arrival of the “seed” was that termination point.
The Mosaic Law became necessary “because of transgressions.” The Greek term, parabasis (Strong’s – #G3847), means “overstepping, trespass, transgression.” It refers to deliberate acts of disobedience – (Galatians 3:19, Romans 5:14).
Sin existed since Adam, but the law turned sin into “transgression” by making God’s requirements known. The preposition “because of” (charin) can be understood in one of two ways: either the Law was given to identify transgressions, or to increase them. The first option best fits the context. The notion of increasing sin makes little sense considering his next statement, “until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” The idea of identifying transgression fits the analogy of the Law as “custodian” in verses 24-25.
The Law “was given in charge through angels by the hand of a mediator.” Deuteronomy 33:1-3 describes Yahweh coming from Sinai, “with myriads of holy ones; from his right hand went a fiery law for them.” The Greek Septuagint version rendered the last clause, “on his right hand his angels were with him,” and a later Jewish tradition claimed that angels delivered the Law into the “hand of” Moses – (Acts 7:51-53, Hebrews 2:1-4).
By “the hand of a mediator” likely refers to Moses (the Law was “by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 26:46, Numbers 4:37-49). To claim the Law was given by angels does not disparage it. But it was given by the angels into “the hand of a mediator”; that is, into the hands of Moses, who then mediated it to Israel.
“Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, yet God is one.” A mediator implies a plurality of persons, but God is one. In His promise to Abraham, He acted unilaterally, and without any intermediary. Thus, the priority of the earlier promise made directly by God.
And the Law does not contradict the promise (“is the Law against the promises of God?”). Since there are discontinuities between the Law and the promise, and since the Law was added after the promise, it was necessary to demonstrate the Law was not contrary to the promise.
“If a law had been given that was able to make alive, then righteousness would have been on the basis of law.” The Law is incapable of imparting life; therefore, justification could not be based on the Law. The purpose of the Law was for something other than imparting life. Moreover, if the Law could make alive or acquit sinners, “Christ died in vain.” The Law was not contrary to the promise, but it lacked the means to deliver it.
The “Scripture confined all things under sin,” so the promise “from the faith of Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.” All those “under the Law” were under its curse, including Israel. Paul did not say the “Law” confined “all things,” but instead, “the scripture,” singular. When Paul used “scripture” in the singular and with the definite article, as here, he was referring to a specific passage. Most likely, he had the key proof text in mind that was cited in his main proposition:
- (Galatians 2:16, Psalm 143:2 – “Because from the works of the law shall no flesh be acquitted.”
“Confined” translates the verb sungkleiō (Strong’s – #G4788), meaning “shut together, confined, hemmed in, imprisoned.” The same verb occurs in the next verse:
- (Galatians 3:23) – “But before the faith came, we were kept under the law, confined until the faith.”
Scripture was not the agent that confined humanity, but all flesh was under sin, and therefore, was unable to be acquitted before God. “Before the coming of the faith, we were kept under the law, confined until the faith that should be revealed.”
“From the faith of Jesus Christ.” “From” translates the preposition ek or “from, out of, on the basis of.” The clause points either to the “faith” of Jesus himself, or to his “faithfulness” (the Greek term can mean either sense). Probably, this was a cryptic reference to the faithful obedience of Jesus in his death – (Galatians 2:20-21).
THE LAW AS GUARDIAN. Next, Paul used the analogy of a “custodian” or “guardian” assigned to safeguard the nation of Israel.
- (Galatians 3:23-25) – “Before the coming of the faith, however, we were being kept in ward under the Law, being confined until the faith, which was going to be revealed. So that the Law has proved our custodian training us for Christ, in order that from faith we might be declared righteous. But the faith having come, no longer are we under a custodian.”
“Before the coming of the faith, however, we were being kept in ward under the Law, being confined until the faith”. “The faith” refers to the “faith/faithfulness of Jesus.” We were kept in custody until the faith of Christ was revealed. “Faith” as a human act, generically speaking, has existed since the creation of Adam. However, the “faith of Jesus” did not become a reality until the obedience of the Son of God; humanity remained confined under sin until his faithful obedience. Once more, the termination point of the Law’s jurisdiction is stressed.
“Custodian” translates the Greek noun paidagōgos, which does not refer to an educator, but instead, to someone with supervisory and custodial responsibilities – (Strong’s #G3807). In Greco-Roman society, “pedagogue” did not refer to a tutor, but to a servant with custodial and disciplinary authority over an underage child. His job was to protect the child, accompany him to school, provide moral instructions, and to discipline the child when needed.
The metaphor stresses the minority status of the one under the “custodian” and the temporary nature of that role. That function ceased when the child reached maturity. Likewise, the supervisory role of the Law lasted until “the faith was revealed…the promise from the faith of Jesus Christ given to those who believe.”
With the coming of the promise, believers were no longer under the custodianship of the Law. The analogy stresses the temporal purpose and function of the Law. Since it is compared to the “custodian,” to say that the heir is no longer under that authority is to say that the Jew who believes in Jesus is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Law.
The purpose of the Law was not to acquit sinners before God, but instead, to guide and protect Israel until the promised “seed” arrived. The Law given at Sinai was a provisional measure “added” later. But the original covenant made with Abraham retained its priority and found fulfillment in Jesus, not in the Law. Since the “seed” had arrived, the jurisdiction of the Law with its requirement of circumcision had reached its intended goal.