Why, Then, the Law

SynopsisIf a man is not justified by the works of the Law, what was the purpose of the Torah given at Sinai? – Galatians 3:19.

Sinai by Youhana Nassif - Unsplash
Sinai by Youhana Nassif - Unsplash
In reaction to some Jewish Christians who claimed that Gentile believers must be circumcised, the Apostle Paul declared that a man or woman is set right with God from the “faith of Jesus Christ,” NOT “from the works of the Torah.” In fact, if justification is based on performing the deeds and rituals required by the Mosaic Law, then Jesus “died in vain."

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul presents scriptural arguments to validate his proposition. If keeping the “works of the Law” does not put one in right standing before God it raises the question:  Why, then, the Law or Torah? What was its purpose? The Apostle answers this question in the third chapter of Galatians:

  • (Galatians 3:18-19) – “For if by law is the inheritance, it is no longer by promise; but unto Abraham through promise hath God favoured it. Why, then, the law?
Paul’s opponents in Galatia had a readymade argument from the Hebrew Bible -  Circumcision was given by God to Abraham as the sign of His “everlasting covenant.” Any male who was not circumcised, by definition, had “broken my covenant.” And circumcision was NOT optional under the Law (Genesis 17:7-14).

Paul compiled a series of arguments to demonstrate it was a mistake for the Galatian Christians to submit to circumcision. Anyone who underwent circumcision would find himself obligated to keep the whole Law, for example:
  • (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 unto you, that, if ye receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothingYea, I testify again to every man that receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”
The underlying question was how are Gentile believers to become members of the covenant community - From the “faith of Jesus” alone, or from faith PLUS the “works of the Torah,” at least some of them?

The issue in dispute was a specific category of works, the “works of the law,” not good works or human effort in general, especially circumcision and calendrical observations (Galatians 4:9-115:1-3).

Purpose and Duration 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 oneIs 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 lawBut 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.”
Paul provided several explanations for the institution of the Law. First, it was “added” after the covenant promise to Abraham. The Law was subsequent and, therefore, subsidiary to the original promise. Further, the promise was distinct from the Law. The Law came after the promise and, thus, could not add or subtract anything from it.

Paul identified the Law as a covenant confirmed by God (“a covenant confirmed beforehand by God, the law…does not void the promise”). In other words, the Mosaic legislation was a separate covenant that was “added” after the promise.

Second, the Law was given “until the seed should come.” This indicates the temporal status of the Law.  “Until” translates the Greek preposition achri.  When used with a place, it connotes “as far as.” When used with time the sense becomes “until” or “up to” a termination point. By arguing that the Law was “added until the promised seed came," Paul placed the jurisdiction of the Law under a time constraint.

Hourglass - Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash
by Aron Visuals on Unsplash
Paul identified the promised “seed” as Jesus. The arrival of the seed was the Law’s termination point. Paul operates with an understanding of two distinct eras of Salvation History. The first ends when the second begins.

Third, the Law became necessary “because of transgressions.” The Greek term, parabasis (Strong’s - #G3847), means, “an overstepping, trespass, transgression.” It refers to deliberate or conscious acts of disobedience (Galatians 3:19Romans 5:14).

Sin had existed since Adam, but the law turned sin into “transgression” by making known that it violates God’s standard. The sense of the preposition rendered “because of” (charin) can be understood one of two ways - Either the Law was given to identify transgressions, or, to increase them. The first option fits best the context and Paul’s theology. 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’s role as a “custodian” in verses 24-25.

Fourth, the Law was “given in charge through angels by the hand of a mediator.” The book of Deuteronomy describes Yahweh coming from Sinai “with myriads of holy ones; from his right hand went a fiery law for them.” The Greek Septuagint version renders the last clause, “on his right hand his angels were with him.” A later Jewish tradition claimed that angels delivered the Law into the “hand of” Moses ( Deuteronomy 33:1-3, Acts 7:51-53Hebrews 2:1-4).

By the “hand of a mediator,” most likely, Paul meant Moses (the Septuagint - the Law was “by the hand of Moses” (e.g., Leviticus 26:46Numbers 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, the Law was delivered 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 involved in a transaction.  In contrast, God is one. In His promise to Abraham, He acted unilaterally without any intermediary, further stressing the priority of the earlier promise made by God. In contrast, the Law was given later and through an intermediary.

Fifth, the Law was not contrary to 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 later and is subsidiary to the promise, it is necessary to demonstrate that the Law is 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, righteousness cannot be based on the Law. The purpose of the Law was for something other than the impartation of life. Moreover, if the Law could 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 (Galatians 2:21).

Sixth, the “Scripture confined all things under sin,” so that the promise “from the faith of Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.” All those “under the Law” are under its curse, and this included Israel. More broadly speaking, all humans are "confined under sin."

Moses with the Law
Moses with the Law
The Apostle did not say the “Law” confined “
all things” but, instead, the “scripture,” singular. Elsewhere, when Paul used “scripture” in the singular and with a definite article, he was referring to a specific passage (e.g., Galatians 3:8, 4:30, Romans 4:3, 9:17).

Most likely, Paul was referring to the key proof text already cited in the letter’s proposition (Because from the works of the law shall no flesh be acquitted”). No flesh could be acquitted from the "works of the law" because all men were confined under sin, whether Jew or Gentile (Galatians 2:16, Psalm 143:2).

Confined” translates sungkleiō (Strong’s - #G4788), meaning, “to shut together, confine, hem in, imprison.” It denotes something that is shut up on all sides, such as a school of fish caught in a net. A similar idea is expressed in Romans 11:32, “For God has confined them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.” 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”).

What Paul meant is not that Scripture was the agent that confined humanity, but all flesh was under sin and, therefore, unable to be acquitted before God. This idea is confirmed by the next verse: “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). Most probably, this is a cryptic reference to the faithful obedience of Jesus in his death (cp. Galatians 2:20-21).

The Law as Guardian
  • (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 revealedSo that the Law has proved our custodian training us for Christ, in order that from faith we might be declared righteousBut 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 Christ.” 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 the faithful obedience of Jesus, especially in his death on a Roman cross. Once again, the temporal termination point is stressed.

Paul next used the analogy of a “custodian” or “guardian” assigned to safeguard the nation of Israel.  This translates the Greek noun paidagōgos, which does not refer to an educator but to someone with supervisory or custodial responsibilities (Strong’s - #G3807).

A “pedagogue” in Greco-Roman society did not refer to a tutor but to a servant with custodial and disciplinary authority over an underage child until the child reached adulthood. 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 the custodial role. That function ceased when the child reached adulthood. Likewise, the supervisory role of the Law was to last until the “faith is revealed,” a faith defined as, the “promise from the faith of Jesus Christ given to those who believe.”
With the coming of the promise, believers are no longer under the custodianship of the Law.  The analogy emphasizes the temporal purpose and function of the Law. Since the Law is compared to the custodian, to say that the heir is no longer under the authority of the custodian is to say that the believer is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Law.
The purpose of the Law was not to acquit and justify sinners before God but, instead, to guide and protect Israel until the promised “seed” of Abraham arrived. The Law that was given by Yahweh at Mount Sinai was “added” later as a provisional measure. But the original covenant that God made with Abraham retained its priority and found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, not in the Law. Since the “seed” has arrived, the jurisdiction of the Law with its requirement of circumcision has reached its intended goal.



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