In this passage, Paul gives “the purpose of the law”. You see, as we’re reading through Galatians 3, it doesn’t take long before certain questions begin to arise. We begin the chapter with Paul asking who has bewitched the Galatians, because they are beginning to stray from the faith that is indeed of faith, and beginning to in its place cling onto a faith that is of works, specifically the works of the law. Now, in my series, I’ve left the door open on purpose here. With Paul, he is explicitly talking about Leviticus and Deuteronomy (truly, he is speaking of the entirety of Torah and the commands that the Jews believe to be the covenant). I, however, have attempted to point out that “law” goes beyond just the Torah and unto any and every tradition that we’ve developed to vouchsafe our righteousness.
From that first statement, Paul then goes on in explaining how Abraham was not considered righteous because of circumcision, but because of his faith. The argument is powerful and subtle. You are required as the reader to go back to Genesis 12-17 (which Paul assumes you already know well enough for him to just quote and make allusion to), for if you don’t go back to Genesis 12-17 you will not understand the arguments that Paul is making. It isn’t enough to just clap our hands and say Paul is telling us we’re allowed to eat pork, because law is not of faith, and that is bad, and we’re not under that oppression. There is an argument that is being made here, which doesn’t annul the law, but rather all the more embraces it.
Read Romans 2:28-3:5. Paul here as well is expecting the same question. If it is of faith, and if we’re seeing that the promise to Abram was before the covenant established (whether in Genesis 15 or in Genesis 17), then why did God even give the law? Is it now obsolete and we can just throw it away? In both places Paul is telling us, “No; may it never be!” Look carefully at Romans 3:31 (which is reflecting again back upon Romans 2:28-3:5). What we expect is that Paul would say the law is no longer of effect, but instead he proclaims boldly, “On the contrary, we establish the law.”
So, when we come to this particular passage in Galatians, it is important to know that Paul is not telling us to eat, drink, and be merry. He isn’t saying that we are now allowed to neglect the law of circumcision, or the Ten Commandments, or the laws of cleansing, or any of the other commands in the Torah. Rather, Paul is explaining to us that there is a law – given in the form of a promise – that is transcendent of the Sinai command. When we go back to Genesis 17, we see that God promises Abraham an heir through Sarai (soon to be called Sarah), and that it is Isaac who shall be the bearer of the eternal covenant.
Notice Genesis 17:7-8. It is not mentioned anywhere here that Abraham is to circumcise himself or those with him. No, rather a few verses later God says to Abraham that they shall keep His covenant, and here is the covenant: “Every male child among you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Now, I have a question. Is circumcision the covenant, or is it the sign of the covenant? The difference is paramount. It says quite clearly that the sign is circumcision, but the covenant itself is declared a few verses earlier: that Abraham’s descendants will eternally be God’s people (God’s nation in the midst of nations), and that they shall dwell in the land of Canaan.
So, in Galatians 3, Paul is intent upon focusing around Abraham. When we go back to Genesis 12-17, we find over and over again that the covenant is confirmed to Abraham that his descendants shall be God’s people, and that they shall dwell in the land of Canaan. That is the covenant – the eternal covenant even. It is about God’s Kingdom established upon the earth, through the seed of Abraham, where Paul’s argument of “seed” versus “seeds” is pointing back to Genesis 3:15 (that there should be one man who will deliver humanity from the curse, and not an entire people), and that one seed is Christ. Yet, Paul is not negating Israel. He is establishing over and over again by pointing back to the promise that it is Israel who are the people of God, and that the covenant was not made at Sinai.
I’m sure you’re now wondering about you and I, who are Gentiles, and how we fit into this. Truth is, we fit perfectly. Remember in Genesis 17 that Abraham is called a father of many nations. This promise is given again to Isaac (both in Genesis 17 and later), and we then see in Genesis 48 that Ephraim (the son of Joseph) is called to be “a fullness of nations”. Thus, we conclude quite evidently that the nations are not apart and separate, but that just as Ruth, Rahab, Bathsheba, Uriah (the husband of Bathsheba), Solomon (who was half or quarter-Gentile), and the many more examples of the Old Testament were accepted as God’s people (even though they be Gentile instead of Israelite), so too are we Gentiles in Christ accepted as the people of God – the Israel that God has always intended and embraced (which is not just Israelite or Jewish, but consists of many nations).
To get into the question at hand, the purpose of the law, let us examine Galatians 3:20. “Now a mediator does not mediate only for one, but God is one.” What the heck does that have to do with the law? Again, look at Abraham. In Genesis 15, God made a covenant with Abraham. Here we see the sacrifices cut in half, which was a regular way in which you strike covenant with another party. The two parties would stand opposite one another at either end of the sacrifices. They would then walk through the middle of the sacrifices, and would meet in the middle. It is essentially saying, “Let it be unto me as unto these sacrifices if I don’t uphold my end of the covenant.” Yet, in Genesis 15, Abraham doesn’t walk through. He falls asleep, wakes up, and behold God is going through the sacrifices without Abraham.
Thus, when talking about Moses, we see that a mediator must be between two parties. So, Moses stood between God and Israel as mediator. Yet, in regard to the eternal covenant, God was the only one to go through, hence God being “one” and truly the only party of the covenant. Israel, the descendants of Abraham, is not a part of the covenant who walked through the sacrifices. Rather, the basis of the promise is solely upon God and His faithfulness. As such, we see Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, is God incarnate, mediating to the one party (God) in order to reconcile not just Israel, but all of humanity to Himself (see Gen 12:2-3).
The law, therefore, served as tutor in the sense that it was not mediated by God, but had a different mediator (Moses – Deut 5:5). The law was purposed as a means of covenantal relationship between God and Israel – which was to then go beyond Israel to the nations (Ex 19:6) – through the mediator Moses. It was not the final statement, but a progression toward that final statement when the true mediator, the seed promised to Adam and Eve (Gen 3:15) and Abraham (Gen 17:19) would arise. In Exodus 19-31, we have all the signs of a good Jewish wedding. Sinai was the wedding of God unto Israel (thus making Israel the Bride of Christ). However, Israel instead told Moses to mediate, and that the themselves did not desire to hear from God anymore. Do you see what happened? The law was not intended to be what it was. Rather, Israel desired a mediator other than God Himself, thus being clothed with a set of ‘fig leaves’ called ‘the commandments’.
It held all in sin, because no one is able to uphold all 613 commands in totality. Yet, they who live by faith uphold all these commands through the eternal Spirit, just as Jesus was perfect and sinless (Rom 2:28-29, 3:31, Heb 4:15). It is not that we are commanded to uphold the Torah in Christ, but that through Christ we are again brought back to that Mountain of God to be married unto God. The commands are revealed to us as they were originally intended – not as “law”, but as a revelation of God’s heart. As Jesus taught in Matthew 5-7, so too are we able to go back to these books and understand God’s heart through the law. It is in that way that we keep the law, not by the letter of the law, but by the Spirit of the Law (namely, Christ).