Within the New Testament are nuances that must be noted. More than noted, they must be digested. Why use a certain phrase, or a certain wording, when such a wording seems to bring cloudiness rather than clarity? There absolutely must be some reason for why Paul is saying the things he is saying in this passage, and a reason for why he says them the way he does.
So, here are the questions that I ask when I come to this passage:
Why does Paul speak of Leviticus and Deuteronomy as being law (quoting from them in verses 10, 12, and 13), and yet then say that no one can annul or add to it (verse 15)? If it be law, which is not good, then why can’t it be annulled?
How can Christ have redeemed us from the curse of the law (verse 13), and then Paul go on to explain how we’re not a part of something new, but rather something from before the law (verses 17-18)?
The chapter in general seems to bring confusion, at least if we take it to simply mean what many have conventionally taught it to mean. I say this because if Paul is saying that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are obsolete, then why do we still have them in the Bible? And why would Paul then quote from these books as though they are authoritative? Doesn’t it seem counterintuitive to use the books to prove that you don’t need these books?
What Paul is explaining to us is something of the eternal covenant.
In Genesis 3:15, God says that there will be enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Then, almost immediately after this, comes Genesis 4 with two sons of Eve. You have Cain, and you have Abel. Cain slays his brother, which is an obvious clue that he is an embodiment of the seed of the serpent. Another son is born to Adam and Eve, and his name is Seth. From Seth comes the righteous lineage of Noah. Here we have the seed of the woman. These two seeds are exemplified between two cities: Babylon and Zion. In Genesis 4, Cain builds a city and calls it Enoch. When you compare the character of Enoch with Babylon in the prophets, you find that the root of Babylon seems to be this city of Cain (please note that Babel is synonymous with Babylon).
So, when we find these two seeds, we find the elementary statements of them in the Garden of Eden and the city Enoch (and later Babel).
Moving on in our understanding of the eternal covenant in the book of Genesis, we find after the flood the first mention of brit olam (eternal covenant). 1 Peter 3:21 speaks of the flood as a metaphor of baptism. Thus, we see baptism, the sacrifice of Noah, and the sign (rainbow) of the covenant. We move onward into Genesis 12 and we find Abram called out of nation, kindred, and father’s house. He is promised the land of Canaan to his descendants. The covenant is confirmed through a sacrifice (Gen 15), and we see the sign of the covenant to be circumcision. What we don’t see is baptism. We do, however, find the eucharist (Gen 14:18). It is important to note here that the sacrifice of Abram has great meaning and significance.
In Genesis 15, Abram cuts up sacrifices. This is a normal practice in his day. The two parties of the covenant would stand on opposing sides, and walk through the middle of the sacrifices to meet one another in the middle. The idea is to say, “May it be unto me as unto these sacrifices if I don’t hold my end of the covenant.” Yet, what does the text say? Abram falls asleep. He wakes up to find God walking through the sacrifices without him. It is not based upon Abram, but upon God and His faithfulness alone, to uphold the covenant. The sign of circumcision, then, is not a ‘law’ in the sense of burden, but more like a signet, a sealing of the covenant.
So, we see baptism, sacrifice, and a sign with Noah. We see eucharist, sacrifice, and a sign with Abram. Jumping forward to Sinai, we find in Exodus 19-31 mention of a mikveh (Jewish term for baptism – Ex 19:10), the Lord’s table (Lev 10:16-20), sacrifice and consecration through sprinkling of blood (Ex 24:5-6), and the sign (Sabbath – Ex 31:17). Even of the Tabernacle and the sacrifices it was said to Moses that they are patterns, reflecting the heavenly reality, and are not the reality in themselves (Ex 25:9).
So, to come back to Galatians, what is it that Paul is going on about?
Paul’s point is that none of this happened because the people obeyed God. Why did God call Noah to build the ark? Did Noah show God his righteousness through his deeds, and therefore God was indebted to preserve Noah? No, for it is written, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen 6:8). Did Abram receive the call to be made into God’s nation – as opposed to Babel and the nations that gathered in the plains of Shinar against God – because of his works, and therefore God owed it to Abram? Of course not, for we know Hebrews mentions it was by faith that Abram was called and received the promise (Heb 11:8-16). And what about Israel? Was it because of Israel that God heard their cry, as if they had the magic formula to make God hear? Once again, we read it was not because of Israel, but Ex 2:24 tells us that “God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”.
That is Paul’s argument. It is not through law, as if the letter of the law is the magic formula for God to hear you and answer your cries, but through faith that God has ever and always established and upheld the eternal covenant. It is through Christ Jesus that we have access as Gentiles, originally being afar off and enemies of God. Please read Galatians 3:14-16 very carefully. The point is not that Abraham’s seed is Jesus, and not Israel, but that it is through the seed of the woman, the seed of promise – through Isaac instead of Ishmael, Jacob instead of Esau, Judah instead of the other tribes (Gen 49:10), through David instead of Saul, through Solomon instead of Absolom or Adonijah, through Zerubbabel (even though Jehoiakim was rejected in Jer 22:24 – see Hag 2:23) instead of Shimei (1 Chronicles 3:19), and eventually all the way unto our Lord Jesus rather than the several other ‘messiahs’ of His time.
The argument is powerful when it is properly understood. It is entirely based in the Hebrew Scripture, that the ‘seed’ of Abraham is not simply the people Israel, but ultimately that one who would be born as messiah – of whom all the saints of all generations have hoped in. This isn’t a swift kick to the curb for Israel, but as Isaiah also continuously claims Israel to be the “servant” that would bring redemption, he also then focuses upon one singular man who is called the “servant”, that would redeem Israel. (This is found over and over through Isaiah’s ‘servant songs’ in chapters 42-55 or so.)
In summary, then, I wanted to leave you with a list of Scriptures to read. These are probably what Paul is thinking in his mind when he says, “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (verse 14). The inheritance (verse 18) is of faith, as it always has been, which the prophets declared numerous times to come with the redemption of Israel, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the restoration of the Land of Israel.
Isa 32:15, 44:5, Jer 31:33, Eze 11:19, 36:27, Joel 2:28, Zech 12:10, John 7:39
(In your leisure, also look at the general context of these verses)