The Apostle Paul is continuing his explanation of the truth of the gospel; namely that salvation is a free gift of God received through faith in Christ crucified, without any human merit. The Judaizers were insisting that Gentiles needed to obey the ceremonial laws such as circumcision in order to be truly saved. So they were including “works of the law” in addition to faith in Jesus. Here Paul continues to forcefully demonstrate that salvation is by faith without works using arguments from the Old Testament. In order to understand Paul’s flow of thought, we need to know both the history and the theology behind his reasoning.
Paul takes us back to Abraham, who lived 2000 years before Jesus. If you recall, God called him out of the land of Ur of the Chaldees to make an almost 1600km journey to Canaan. He gave him an unconditional promise in the 12th chapter of Genesis: “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-4). God confirmed it through an unconditional covenant in the 15th, 17th and once again in the 22nd chapter of Genesis: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen 22:17-18).
Abraham had a son as promised by God, named Isaac. God confirmed his promise to Isaac: “I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 26:3-4).
Isaac had a son Jacob, to whom also God confirmed his covenant with Abraham. “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 28:13-14).
Notice the repeated phrase in God’s promise: “in your offspring shall all the nations/families of the earth be blessed”. Paul uses this phrase in his argument.
As we trace Jacob’s life, we find that Jacob died in Egypt and not in the promised land. He and his descendants continued to live in Egypt for 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41). The Israelites grew into a great nation but they were enslaved in Egypt until the time of Moses, where God miraculously delivered them out of Egypt. He led them through the wilderness to Mount Sinai where He gave them the law through Moses. They eventually possessed the promised land.
The key point to note is that God’s dealings with Abraham and with Moses were based on completely different principles. To Abraham it was a promise, and to Moses it was the law.
|The Promise||The Law|
|God says “I will …”, “I will …”||God says: “You shall .. “ You shall not”.|
|Grace||Obedience to commands|
Paul is going to convincingly demonstrate that Christianity is based on the way God dealt with Abraham (promise), not the way God dealt with the Israelites through Moses (law).
God’s Covenant with Abraham was By a Promise (Gal 3:15-18)
Paul makes a volley of points here.
- In verses 15-18, Paul uses the example of a “Last Will and Testament” that a person makes (the word “covenant” in some translations could be better rendered “will” in this context). Such a will can never be modified once it has been established. In fact in ancient Greek Law, it could not be modified even when the person making the will was still alive. So if this is true for a human will, how much more immutable would be a promise made by God. It can never be rescinded. When God gives the law through Moses 430 years later, Paul’s point is that this can never annul the promise God made earlier to Abraham and make it void (Gal 3:17). The covenant with Moses would imply that the inheritance comes by the law. But if so, it no longer comes by a promise, but God gave it to Abraham through a promise (Gal 3:18).
- Paul makes a note that the promise of the blessing of the nations would be through Abraham’s offspring (singular) and not “offsprings” – plural (Gal 3:16). This points to a single future Savior, who Paul identifies as Jesus Christ.
- The promise was made directly by God, but the law came “third-hand” to the Israelites. It was delivered through God’s angelic agents to Moses the mediator and then to the people (see Acts 7:53 and Heb 2:2). I.e., God -> the angels -> Moses the mediator -> the People (Gal 3:19-20). How could something which was delivered “third-hand” to the people be more important than something that was given directly and was also given hundreds of years earlier?
Paul Answers Objections (Gal 3:19-22)
You can almost imagine the Judaizers bristling with indignation with Paul’s passionate arguments here. This was the cause for Paul’s arrest that was instigated by the Jews in Jerusalem: “This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place” (Acts 21:28). They would blurt out in indignation: “Paul, you have made a direct leap from Abraham all the way to Jesus and have completely skipped over Moses and the law. According to you, what is the purpose of the law”?
So Paul answers these objections
- Why then the law? (Gal 3:19). Paul’s answer is: “It was added because of transgressions”. This is hard to understand as it stands, but most likely it means that the law was necessary to define sin. It is explained in more detail in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). He also says: “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). And he then gives himself as an example to say: “If it were not for the law, I should not have known sin” (Rom 7:7)
- Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? (Gal 3:21). This is Paul taking on the offensive, and asking this question of his detractors. He then goes on to say that they were being very theoretical. They were saying “keep the law and you will gain life”. So Paul shoots back: “if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal 3:21). However, in practice no one can keep the law. So rather than giving life, “Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise of faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:22).
Under the Law and In Christ (Gal 3:23-29)
Paul has now given us a survey of 2000 years of history. Having answered anyone among the Judaizers who might have objected, he now completes his thought by contrasting two groups of people. Those who are “in Christ”, and those who are “under the law”.
|Those who are Under the Law||Those who are In Christ|
|Law held us captive (vs 23)||We are sons of God (vs 26)|
|Law imprisoned us (vs 23)||We are one (vs 28)|
|Law was our guardian (vs 24)||We have “put on” Christ (vs 27)|
|We are Abraham’s true offspring (vs 29)|
|We are heirs according to promise (vs 29)|
The reason Paul says that the law held us captive and imprisoned us (Gal 3:23) is that those under the law have no way of escape. Since we cannot keep the law, we are sinners, and can never please God. This is our prison. We are under condemnation apart from Christ. This is why John says: “Whoever believes the Son is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18). Many of us are familiar with John 3:16, which speaks of God’s love for the world which was so great that He sent His only Son. However, John goes on to say that those who do not believe in this Son, Jesus are “condemned already”. Everyone is already in a state of condemnation apart from Jesus. This is the prison every human being is in, and their only hope is Jesus.
Paul also says the law was our guardian (Gal 3:24-25). It provided some level of protection against anarchy until the time of Christ, when the promise was fulfilled. There were also punishments when the law was not kept. Transgression needs punishment. But once Jesus came, this guardian is no longer necessary.
Paul goes on to say, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith” (Gal 3:26). Please note that Paul says “sons” and not “children” because in that culture sons received the father’s inheritance. This is not a sexist comment. Legally we are like “sons” before God. The word applies to both men and women in that all those who believe in Jesus are heirs of God as His sons. Paul makes this crystal clear a few verses later, in Gal 3:28.
God is no longer the judge who through the law has imprisoned us and condemned us. God is no longer our guardian, who through the law restrains and chastises us. God is now our Father who has accepted us and forgiven us in Christ. We no longer fear Him, dreading the punishment we deserve, but love Him with deep devotion. We are neither prisoners awaiting our final judgment, nor are we minors constrained by a guardian, but we are now adult sons of God and heirs of His glorious inheritance.
Here is another opportunity we have to address some wrong thinking in our culture and also among Christians. God is not a universal Father. That concept is foreign to the Bible. He is the universal Creator who brought all things to existence, and He is also the universal King who rules the entire universe that He created. But He is only the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and of those who are adopted into His family through faith in Jesus Christ. He is Father to the believer, and Judge to the unbeliever. He accepts the believer with great love as our Father, and condemns unbelievers to hell as the absolutely righteous Judge. Let us not squander any of the precious promises of God that are only for His children, to those who do not believe in Him. Those promises do not apply to them. J I Packer says that being a child of God is one of the distinctive characteristics of being a Christian, and our greatest privilege. More on this in our next study.
Paul then says we have “put on” Christ in baptism (Gal 3:27). He is saying that when the believers identified with Christ in baptism, they had in a sense “put on” Christ.
Paul then goes on to draw the logical conclusion if we are all sons of God:
- We are one (Gal 3:28)
- We are heirs, and Abraham’s true offspring (Gal 3:29)
“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” (Gal 3:28).
- There is no distinction of race
- There is no distinction of rank
- There is no distinction of social class
- There is no distinction of sex
In Jesus Christ we are all brothers and sisters, and this supersedes every conceivable human boundary possible.
And Paul concludes this thought with a flourish. Those who are in Christ are Abraham’s true offspring, and also heirs of God according to promise (Gal 3:29).
Paul has made a grand sweep of human history in today’s text. It is a powerful antidote to the “philosophy of meaningless” in today’s culture. Today it is fashionable to say (or believe) life has no meaning or purpose. If this were true, what is there to live for? An increasing number of people identify themselves with the “no religious affiliation” category. Such people have no goal in life and are headed nowhere. In biblical terminology, such people are “lost”. They do not realize that this life is not all there is. They will one day have to face their Creator as their Judge, and will be condemned to spend an eternity in Hell, away from fellowship with God forever.
However, in Christ we find ourselves. We have a significant place in eternity. This gives us infinite three-dimensional significance:
- Height – we are children of God and heirs with Christ of the promise
- Breadth – the gospel breaks every possible barrier between human beings.
- Length – we join the vast line of believers through the entire history of the human race in this relationship with God.
So let me ask each of you here. Are you “in Christ”? As you can see, the chasm between those in Christ and those who are not, is very, very wide.
I would like us to look at these truths through two lenses. One which looks at the grand purposes of God, and the other that looks at why we are here.
The grand purposes of God: Some people seem to think the Bible is a vast trackless jungle, very confusing and full of contradictions. However, the glory of the Bible is that it is extremely coherent. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation tells the story of God’s sovereign purpose of grace. It reveals His master-plan of salvation through Christ. This is why God created the world. He wanted to display his glory to the fullest extent possible to a group of people who were made in His image. This is our inheritance – to know the infinite God of the universe as our Father and enjoy Him and His creation, completely free of any limitations for all of eternity.
What we studied today, sweeps through the entire Old Testament and into the New Testament. He brings together Abraham, Moses and Jesus and spans a period of about 2000 years. This is a satellite survey of the entire Old Testament landscape. There are some mountain peaks like Abraham and Moses. Then there is mount Everest – who is Jesus Christ, who towers over all of Scripture. God’s promise to Abraham was confirmed by Moses, and fulfilled by Jesus Christ. It shows us the unity of the entire Bible.
There is a great need today, for us to have a biblical view of ourselves and of history. We get so distracted with our current problems in the 21st century that we do not care much about the past or the future. We need to take a step back and view the whole counsel of God. His everlasting purpose was to redeem a people for Himself through Jesus Christ. We need to look back. Even before Abraham was Adam through whom sin and judgment entered the world. We also need to look forward to the final consummation when Jesus returns with power and great glory to reign forever. Our God is systematically working out His plan. And through the Bible, he allows us to have a glimpse of it, and invites us to become a part of it.
Why do we exist? After God gave the promise through Abraham, He gave the law through Moses. Why? Because He needed to allow things to get worse before they could get better. The law exposed sin, provoked sin and condemned sin. The purpose of the law was to unmask our veneer of respectability and expose what we are really like underneath – sinful, rebellious, guilty, under the judgment of God and completely helpless to save ourselves.
The law must be allowed to complete its God-given duty. One of the faults of the contemporary church is to soft-pedal sin and judgment. This does people a great disservice. It is only when we know we are sick that we recognize our need for healing and seek it. It is only when we know that we stand guilty and condemned before God that we know that we are hopeless apart from our Savior. We must never bypass the law and come straight to the gospel. To do so goes against God’s own plan of biblical history.
This is why the gospel is so unappreciated today. Some ignore it, and others ridicule it. It is only in the inky blackness of the night sky that stars appear. No one has appreciated the beauty of the gospel until the law has exposed his own sin. It is only in the background of sin and judgment that the glory of the gospel shines forth.
We see this truth in the parable of the Prodigal Son. There were two sons. Both were lost in different ways. The first by open rebellion against the father, and the second who expected to earn his father’s approval by being good. The story ends with the father embracing the prodigal son (Luke 15:22-24), while the older son is angry and resentful (Luke 15:25-32). He never experienced the depth of his father’s mercy and love, because he thought he was self-sufficient. This truth is also illustrated by Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).. The Pharisee prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). But the tax collector “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’: (Luke 18:13). Jesus ends by saying: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18:14). Remember, we saw that the word “justified” means that God’s verdict on this man was “righteous, not guilty”. The tax collector understood his sin and his desperate need of God, and therefore God was delighted to declare him righteous and to save him. That is the power of the gospel!
“Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit our need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell, will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven” (John Stott).
Note: I was very blessed, and have liberally used content from John Stott’s commentary on Galatians, “Essential Freedom” (IVP, 1988)