Why, then, the Law?
If a man is not justified from the works of the Law, what was the purpose of the Law given at Sinai? – Galatians 3:19.
In Galatians, Paul declares 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, what is the purpose of the Torah?
The Judaizers at Galatia that were promoting circumcision had a ready-made argument from the Hebrew Bible. Did not God give circumcision to Abraham as the sign of His “everlasting covenant”? Did not Scripture stipulate that any male who was not circumcised had “broken my covenant”? Moreover, circumcision was NOT optional under the Mosaic Law.
In response, Paul compiled a series of arguments that demonstrate why it is a mistake for Gentile believers to submit to circumcision. For starters, anyone who undergoes circumcision is 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 question at Galatia 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”? And the dispute was over a specific set of works required by the Mosaic Law, and not good works in general – (Galatians 4:9-11, 5:1-3).
In his argument, Paul provides 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 promise to Abraham. It was subsequent and subsidiary to it. And the promise is distinct from the Law that came after the promise, and it cannot add or subtract anything from the promise.
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 institution “added” after the promise.
UNTIL THE SEED
The Law was given “until the seed should come.” This points to 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 places the jurisdiction of the Law under a time constraint. The promised “seed” is Christ, and the arrival of the “seed” is that endpoint.
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 has existed since Adam, but the law turns 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 increase them. The first option best fits the context.
The notion of increasing sin makes little sense considering Paul’s 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 a “custodian.”
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 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, without any intermediary. This demonstrates the priority of the earlier promise made directly by God to Abraham.
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 for Paul 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 cannot be based on it.
The Law’s purpose is for something other than the impartation of life. Moreover, if the Law cannot “make alive” or acquit sinners, then “Christ died in vain.” The Law is not contrary to the promise, but it lacks the means to deliver it.
CONFINED UNDER THE LAW
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 does not say the “Law” confines “all things,” but instead, “the scripture,” singular. When he uses “scripture” in the singular and with the definite article, as here, he refers to a specific passage.
And most likely, he had the key proof text in mind that was being cited in his main proposition - “Because from the works of the law shall no flesh be acquitted”- ((Galatians 2:16, Psalm 143:2).
“Confined” translates the verb sungkleiō (Strong’s - #G4788), and it means “shut together, confined, hemmed in, imprisoned.” The same verb occurs in the next verse - “But before the faith came, we were kept under the law, confined until the faith” - (Galatians 3:23).
Scripture is not the agent that confined humanity, but all flesh was under sin, and therefore, could not 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).
Next, Paul uses 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 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.”
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 never to acquit sinners before God, but 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” has arrived, the jurisdiction of the Law with its requirement of circumcision has reached its intended goal. And with his arrival, sinners are justified before God “from the faith of Jesus Christ.”