Galatians 3:15-20

May 2, 1999

We are now well into Paul’s biblical/theological argument against the judaizers’ doctrine of justification by faith and works and for the ancient doctrine of justification by faith alone. He has so far argued that the Bible itself has always taught that justification comes by faith and that, even according to its own premises, the judaizers’ doctrine fails the biblical test because it must require not a partial obedience but a complete obedience, which no one in fact offers to God.

Now, in a very difficult passage that has prompted immense discussion and a great deal of confusion through the ages, Paul continues his argument that it is the promise of the gospel embraced by faith that is the sinner’s hope, not the law as providing opportunities for obedience.

v.15     He begins with a simple point. The promise — he is speaking of the promise made to Abraham which he has already called the gospel — came first, the law came after. And, it is a matter of common knowledge that once a covenant has been ratified one cannot change the terms. Well, so here. God made a covenant with Abraham that offered peace with God in return for faith in God. That is the arrangement and it cannot be modified by anything that comes after it — even the law of Moses, as Paul will soon say. If his opponents persist in appealing to the law, then let them ponder the fact that the gospel of promise was given long before the law and cannot be annulled or modified by the law that comes later. As you may know, the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew “berith” (“covenant”) ordinarily meant “last will and testament.” Paul may be using it in its more ordinary sense here for the purposes of illustration because it is even clearer in the case of a will that once made and the testator has died — the assumed minor premise — no one can change its stipulations.

v.16     The promise embraced not only Abraham, but his posterity, a point Paul has already referred to in 3:8. The point seems a bit forced to the modern reader. The noun “seed” in both Hebrew and Greek is a collective, whether singular in form or not, it can refer to a single seed or many seeds. Paul knows that, of course. All true believers are Abraham’s seed, as he says later in this same chapter, v. 29; but, it is also true that Abraham’s seed par excellence is Jesus Christ, the seed through whom the promised blessing comes to all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. It is precisely because “seed” is a collective, that it can do this double duty. Paul’s point is simply that the promise God made to Abraham was based, from the beginning, on the work that Christ would do as Redeemer and that, therefore, from the beginning it dispensed forgiveness and peace with God according to one’s relationship to Christ — which is another way of saying “by faith.”

v.17     What Paul means is that the promise was complete in itself, it contained within itself the entire cause of salvation; it did not need something to be added to it.

            The 430 needs some explanation, for, by any reading, it is certainly more than 430 years between the covenant God made with Abraham and the giving of the law at Sinai — actually it is more like 645 years. The 430 is taken from Exodus 12:40 which is the length of time Israel is said there to have sojourned in Egypt. Add the 430 to the 215 years that we are told separated Abraham’s call from Jacob’s descent into Egypt and one gets 645 years from promise to law, as the terms are being used by Paul here. There are various acceptable solutions. Paul may be understating on purpose. Taking just the longest period during that interval and leaving his opponents to note that it was even longer than Paul says. Or, he may be taking “the promise” to be the covenant made with the patriarchs, thus he dates the interval not from Abraham but from Jacob, with whom, of course, God renewed the covenant he had first made with his grandfather. The Bible, of course, does this same thing a great deal — treating Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a unit, almost as if the were one.

v.18     Paul’s conclusion of this little bit of reasoning. The promise came first; it was constitutive of the nature of man’s relationship with God, and it was published not only for Abraham but for his descendants. Hence, the law which came hundreds of years later cannot affect this.

v.19     Paul is going to say there were two great purposes the law served. The second he takes up in vv. 21ff. and we’ll leave that for next time. But, in the first place, the law was given “for the sake of transgressions” which is what Paul literally wrote. The parallel statement is Romans 5:20: “the law was added that transgressions might increase.” That seems very strange (and it is hardly the whole reason for the law as Paul himself teaches), but it is Paul’s point.

            The law increased transgression in various ways: 1) by its specific requirements, it produced many more specific violations; 2) by its laws it provoked the rebellious spirit within man and produced a more vigorous disobedience — tell your child not to do something; it is the best way to draw his attention to a possible disobedience that he might not have thought of otherwise!; 3) it increased sin as well in the sense that it disclosed it, like a magnifying glass that does not increase the number of dirty spots but does show you ones that you hadn’t seen before [“through the law comes the knowledge of sin”]; and 4) it created in a far more complete way the opportunity for man to assert himself over against God by thinking of himself as his own savior; it gave sophistication and impressiveness to man’s natural theology of works righteousness. And that, of course, is historically exactly what the law produced in Israel, as the entire ministry of the prophets, of Jesus, and of Paul testify.

            “until the seed should come” — we will return to this later.

            “administered by angels.” Another problem here. This is not explicitly taught anywhere in the OT itself, though we find it also being taught as common knowledge by Stephen (Acts 7:53) and by the author to the Hebrews (2:2). Perhaps the closest we come to evidence from the OT itself is Deuteronomy 33:2 which says only that the Lord was accompanied by angels at Sinai.

v.20     “mediator” The reference is best understood as a reference to Moses (Deuteronomy 5:5 “At that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare the word of the Lord…”). But v. 20 is perhaps as difficult a verse to understand as any in Paul. William Hendriksen begins his comment on this verse by saying, “Instead of vexing the reader with the four hundred and thirty different interpretations to which this passage has given rise, I shall immediately state the one which appears to me to be the most consistent with the context.” Well, I’ll do the same. Paul is making the point that the promise has a greater priority in part because it came to Abraham directly from the mouth of God himself; while the law came to Israel from God through both angels and Moses. He apparently is saying that in a different way in v. 20. A mediator is a third party, his presence suggests a certain distance, whereas the promise was spoken directly from God to Abraham; no intermediary, no steps or stages.

Now, our great interest is 3:19 and the statement “until the seed to whom the promise referred had come.” Does Paul mean that the law was valid only for a time and now that Christ has come it is valid no more, it has no authority any longer, no role to play in the world or in the church or in the Christian’s life? Some Christians have thought so. They have thought that Paul couldn’t be clearer.

Well we cannot take that view for many reasons. Paul teaches elsewhere the continuing authority and role of the law, even the obligation of Christians to obey it. He even teaches that here in Galatians (5:14-15). What is more, he is going straight on to argue that the law proved vital in leading the Gentiles in Galatia to faith in Christ, two or three decades after Pentecost. The law was, for them, the handmaiden of the gospel. It is a short form of the argument developed at length in Romans 1-3. And all of that is without saying anything about the OT’s own view of the law as one of God’s great gifts not only to Israel but to the world, as one day to be written on the heart of the whole world and published abroad throughout the world, or about the Lord Christ’s teaching about the law and its abiding authority in the world, indeed, until the end of time.

Rather, what seems to be at work here is a polemical need to deflate the law in the sight of those to whom he is writing this letter.

We see that, for example, in the reference to the angels and Moses. It is very interesting that when Stephen and the author of Hebrews make reference to the angels being the agency of the revelation of the law of God at Sinai, they both use that fact to underline the authority and the sanction that must, therefore, attach to the law. (“For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?”)

Paul uses the same fact to make precisely the opposite point. The law does not have the authority or the majesty of the promise because God did not deliver it without some kind of angelic agency. But, clearly, Paul doesn’t view the law as less the word of God than Genesis 12, 15, and 17. He’s already quoted from it twice in making his argument for justification by faith in the immediately previous verses. Elsewhere in his letters it is the law of God period, and there is no thought of its majesty being reduced by the involvement of angels or a mediator in the revelation of it to Israel.

In the context of the judaizers misuse of the law and their inflation of its role, he is bringing it down in their eyes. “until the seed should come” is just another one of those statements in the series with “put into effect by angels” and “by a mediator.”

There are, after all, some ways in which the law was only until Christ came, for example, in its making a division between Jew and Gentile. It is temporary also in the form it gave to sacramental worship (circumcision and sacrifice). Both of these issues are, of course, central to the dispute in Galatia. There are ways in which the law of God maintains its authority and its functions in the world and the church. But here Paul is talking about the law insofar as it is temporary, as a divider between Jew and Gentile. Some of this will become clearer in future studies as we take note of the role the law plays even in Gentile lives.

Now, lest you think that I am simply not taking with full seriousness what Paul has said here about the law being added “until the seed should come…” let me remind you that Paul is hardly the only biblical writer who, for polemical purposes, treats features of God’s revelation and covenant with what might seem to be unduly negative, even unfair characterizations.

The OT prophets are famous for this. Isaiah 1 is a typical passage. “I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and goats,” says the Lord to Israel. “The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me?” Liberal scholars used to collect the many passages like that in the prophets and concluded that the prophets were in favor of an ethical religion that didn’t include sacrifices and offerings. They were rejecting the ancient worship in favor of something more like the social gospel!

In the NT the author of Hebrews does the same thing. He refers to the OT sacrificial ritual, the priesthood, the temple as all “weak and useless.” That is extraordinary language for a biblical writer to use of rites and ceremonies commanded in the law of God. They weren’t able to clear the conscience, they couldn’t take away sin. What good were they, really? You hardly know reading Hebrews, he never says a good thing about those ceremonies and rites. (Of course, no one ever should have thought the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.)

But in both of these cases the manner of speaking is determined, is shaped by the polemical context. In both cases the sacrifices and rituals of the OT law were being considered from the viewpoint of the people who misunderstood them and who were trusting in them for their peace with God. Hebrews writes about the sacrifices from the vantage point of those who held that they were, in fact, God’s definitive provision for the salvation of mankind. In that sense, they were weak and useless; they couldn’t take away sin or cleanse the conscience. The pious in the OT knew that! Hebrews says nothing about the good and holy uses of these rites because in the circumstance he is facing he needs to destroy the confidence of people in those rites. The prophets represent the sacrifices as nothing to God, even disgusting to him, because the people making those sacrifices were using them to obtain, what they thought was, freedom to sin the rest of the time. Used that way they are worthless. And you don’t hear Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos talking about the great importance of the sacrifices and their blessing to the people of God, as you read in Deuteronomy, for example. They didn’t want any confusion over the point they had to make — viz. that sacrifices by themselves, without living faith, were not only worthless as a means of saving grace, but worse than worthless — use in that way they were an offense to God.

For example, I would speak very differently about the Lord’s Supper if I were preaching to people who thought that just by participating in the Supper their sins were taken away and they were free to live their lives afterward however they pleased. I might speak quite sarcastically about the absurd notion that a little piece of bread and little cup of wine could take away sins. Like the author of Hebrews I might remind them that if the Supper had such power, how come you had to take it over and over again. I might say that the Supper never saved anybody and that most of the people who participated in it were worse off for it.

And I would say nothing about its rightful uses, the blessing it is to God’s people, how salvation in the broader sense is, in fact, mediated through it, and so on. I want to break this people’s confidence in the Supper not build it up. In other words, polemical arguments are not the same thing as the calm and considered teaching of a doctrine.

You often have truth put this way in the Bible. “I desire truth and not sacrifice.” Well, yes and no. Of course God desired sacrifices too, he commanded them, but not without truth. “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God.” Well, yes and no. Circumcision is not nothing. Paul elsewhere says it is the seal of the righteousness that is by faith. But in certain contexts, viewed in certain ways, from certain vantage points, it is nothing.

You must read the Bible carefully, contextually, listening to all that it says.

Now there is a lesson in all of this. A very important lesson. And it is this — that the issue is always finally the state and condition of the heart. The problem is not the law, the problem is the view of the law held in human hearts, the use to which the law is put by proud and self-confident people. The problem is not circumcision or sacrifice, it is the false place given to it in human hearts that are in rebellion against God. The problem in many places today is not baptism or the Lord’s Supper but the misplaced confidence people invest in them at the expense of a living faith in Jesus Christ. These things — the law, circumcision, the Lord’s Supper — must be run down, made little of, even in some places in the Bible in order to destroy the confidence that people are placing in these things themselves as a substitute for living faith in the Lord Jesus.

Over and again, in one way or another, the Lord says “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” “It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out. The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart and these make a man unclean.” [Matthew 15:18-20] Jesus made that statement in the context of his having been criticized by some Pharisees for not baptizing his hands before a meal.

We are constantly in danger of putting our emphasis at the wrong place. Circumcision is important, but one could be saved without it, even in the OT. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are important, but they are not essential to heaven.

And so, it ought always be to our hearts that we are looking. What do we find there? A living faith in Christ that is shaping our daily lives? Love for God? Gratitude for his saving love that motivates us to do this or that? And when we come to worship, is our heart in that worship, in that Lord’s Supper, in that baptism, in that confession of sins, in the singing of that hymn? It is so easy for us — sensually determined as we so much are — to think the act of singing or praying or eating at the Lord’s Supper significant in itself — but it is not, not without the heart’s engagement and involvement and sincere agreement.

This was precisely the failure of the Pharisees and their Christian children the judaizers. They substituted the inward for the outward. The outward is important — we can’t solve the problem as some Christians have tried to by simply eliminating the outward; that is inhuman and unscriptural — but we must know always, must remember always that the outward is worse than useless if it is not the expression of true and living trust in Jesus Christ and love for him. Israel was baptized in the Red Sea and it did her no good at all, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 10, because she did not have true faith in God.

This is the issue, always and everywhere. And it is the question you must answer concerning yourself. Are my religious and moral works the expression of true faith in and love for Jesus Christ? That is the key.

Or, as Paul puts it so solemnly, in a letter sent to professing Christian people, people who did all the right things, engaged in all the right practices, “A curse on all those who do not love the Lord Jesus Christ.”

You often cannot tell the difference between a true Christian and a hypocrite because the difference lies in the heart. They both do the same things; the hypocrite might actually do them better. But one does them from the heart the other does not; one does them from life, the other does them to life. In the one case it is the expression of a genuine commitment within to Christ, in the other it is a case of filling the square and checking the box. For the first person the law is wonderful and a mighty help toward everything precious and important; to the other we say the law is something that wasn’t directly given by God but was administered by angels through a mediator; and was only until the seed should come; weak and useless really, nothing at all compared to the promise!