The ancient Roman province of Galatia was home to a number of churches that began following the Apostle Paul’s missionary work in that region (see Acts 16:6 and Acts 18:23). But in the wake of Paul’s departure from that area, others infiltrated the Galatian churches with a “gospel” that was far different from the one they received from Paul. These false teachers taught that faith in Christ alone was not enough for salvation. Instead, one could only find acceptance with God by obeying the Old Testament Law as well.
Paul spent much of the first third of this letter addressing this issue from his own experience. Here now in Galatians chapter three, Paul will continue with a series of doctrinal teachings that will occupy much of the next two chapters of this epistle. Yet even in the midst of these lessons, his personal concern for the Galatian Christians will never stray far from his thoughts.
But for now, Galatians chapter three opens in a rather unexpected manner…
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?” (Galatians 3:1).
To modern-day audiences, “You foolish Galatians…” (CSB) may seem quite insensitive. In fact, some translations render this portion of Scripture in a manner that may come as a surprise to those who are accustomed to a spiritual message that is far more positive, inclusive, and affirming…
“You stupid Galatians!” (CEV).
“You irrational Galatians!” (CEB).
“O you dear idiots of Galatia…” (Phillips).
As startling as those characterizations may seem, this was not an indictment of the Galatians’ intelligence. In fact, it was quite the opposite. From Paul’s perspective, the Galatians were in a position to know better. Their defection from the truth was so inexplicable that it was almost as if someone had cast a spell over them to make them act in such an unwise manner,
The experience of these Galatian churches provides us with a valuable lesson. You see, a heretical doctrine that is presented in a persuasive, eloquent, and compelling manner may sound convincing to someone who should know better if he or she is not diligent to check it against the Word of God.
In the New Testament era, the Galatians received God’s Word through the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Today, a person who prayerfully commits to reading the Scriptures on a daily basis is someone who has an opportunity to hear from God directly through His Word and identify those teachings that fail to align with sound Biblical doctrine.
“Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of His death on the cross” (Galatians 3:1 NLT).
Given the clear Biblical admonitions against witchcraft, sorcery, divination, and the like, it may seem unusual to encounter the phrase, “Who has bewitched you?” here in Galatians 3:1. But as one commentator explains, this term does not necessarily refer to occultic practices…
“In verse 1 Paul uses the Greek term anoetos (NIV foolish) to denote the improper thinking of those who, otherwise, should be expected to perceive things correctly. They are not incapable of proper thought. Thus, their uncharacteristic foolishness must be the result of some ‘magical spell’ (as indicated in the sarcastic rhetorical question, ‘Who has bewitched you?’).” (1)
Paul the Apostle’s sense of exasperation was highlighted by the knowledge that he had clearly portrayed the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death before the Galatians, much like the first-century equivalent of an advertising billboard. Unfortunately the false teachers who worked their way into the Galatian churches had taken the genuine gospel message of salvation by grace through faith and driven it off the road of good doctrine.
It was that kind of attitude that surely prompted the warning given to us in the Biblical epistle of 2 John…
“Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9 NIV).
This portion of Scripture directs us to exercise caution with those who seek to “run ahead” of the Scriptures with teachings that are not Biblically supported. Much like an athlete who is disqualified for running off the designated lanes of a racetrack, it is possible to run so far “off the track” in our spiritual beliefs that we advance right out of Biblical Christianity. That’s what the false teachers in Galatia were doing and makes the following admonition worth considering…
“It is quite possible for one to have been truly converted and to have begun with a clear, definite knowledge of the saving grace of the Lord Jesus, and then because of failure to follow on to study the Word and to pray over it, to come under the influence of some false system, some unscriptural line of teaching. And so often when people do come under some such influence you find it almost impossible to deliver them. They seem to be under a spell.” (2)
(1) McClelland, S. E. (1995). Galatians. In Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, p. 1011). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
(2) H. A. Ironside, Expository Messages on the Epistle to the Galatians, [pp. 88-89] quoted in Constable, Thomas. DD. Notes on Galatians 2017 Edition [3:1]. https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/galatians/galatians.htm#_edn135
“This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?—Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” (Galatians 3:2-4).
The idea that non-Jewish Christians had to submit to the Jewish ceremonial law to merit salvation evoked a common-sense response from Paul the Apostle here in Galatians 3:3. We can paraphrase Paul’s question from this passage in the following manner: “Think for a moment- did you receive the Holy Spirit by adhering to a set of rules and regulations?”
Of course the answer was “no” and the Living Bible paraphrase of this passage highlights Paul’s apparent frustration with the Galatians’ failure to grasp such an obvious truth: “…have you gone completely crazy? For if trying to obey the Jewish laws never gave you spiritual life in the first place, why do you think that trying to obey them now will make you stronger Christians?”
Paul will enter a more detailed discussion concerning these “works of the law” a little later in this chapter. But the act of presenting these interactive questions now would assist the Galatians in applying the abstract concepts he will develop later. You see, the Galatians did not receive the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit by following a set of regulations. In like manner, they could not lift themselves to a greater degree of spiritual maturity through the works of the Law.
Of course, what was true of the Galatian churches remains true for us as well. One commentator provides us with the following insight in this regard…
“The word perfect (Gr epiteleo) most certainly does not mean sinless, but complete, spiritual maturity. The middle voice implies ‘making yourselves perfect’ by means of self-effort… Spirit and flesh indicate the two spheres of moral and spiritual influence, one divine and one human. Turning from the divine to the human is not the way to spiritual maturity. No man can ever do the work of the Holy Spirit.” (1)
Finally, the prospect of suffering for Christ would only be made worse if the Galatians abandoned the One for whom they had suffered in favor of a works-based relationship with God. Having earlier warned the churches of Galatia concerning the difficulties they would encounter for their decision to follow Christ (Acts 14:21-22), Paul was left to wonder if those sufferings were now in vain.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2383). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Galatians 3:5).
In addition to his rhetorical arguments, Paul the Apostle brought some external evidence to support the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. That external evidence consisted of the miraculous works that accompanied the gospel message that Paul brought to the people of Galatia. One such miracle is recorded in the New Testament book of Acts…
“In Lystra sat a man who could not use his feet, lame from birth, who had never walked. This man was listening to Paul as he was speaking. When Paul stared intently at him and saw he had faith to be healed, he said with a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man leaped up and began walking” (Acts 14:8-10).
This formed the basis for another of Paul’s common-sense questions here in Galatians 3:5. These miraculous works and the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Spirit did not result from a system of religious observances. Instead, they came about through the genuine salvation message of God’s grace through faith in Christ.
When the Galatians were given an opportunity to revert to a works-based relationship with God, they should have been able to identify and reject that approach simply on the basis of their own experience, So while these false teachers brought something different to the churches of Galatia, “different” did not mean “better” in this instance. In reality, it was much, much worse.
This provides an important consideration for modern-day Christians who are seeking to evaluate different spiritual trends within the church. For instance, some new trends (no matter how Biblically questionable) may be embraced by those who live in the frequent pursuit of a “fresh anointing” or a “fresh baptism” of the Holy Spirit. However, one commentary offers a thought-provoking observation that we would do well to consider before we endorse anything that allegedly represents a “fresh move” of the Holy Spirit…
“The Holy Spirit gives Christians great power to live for God. Some Christians want more than this. They want to live in a state of perpetual excitement. The tedium of everyday living leads them to conclude that something is wrong spiritually. Often the Holy Spirit’s greatest work is teaching us to persist, to keep on doing what is right even when it no longer seems interesting or exciting.” (1)
(1) Life Application Study Bible NKJV [3:5] Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
“just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:6-7).
To further illustrate the concept of “salvation by faith and not of works” Paul the Apostle turned to one of the greatest examples of faith within the Scriptures: “Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham” (NIV).
The Scriptures tells us that God called Abram (as he was then known) at age seventy-five to leave his home and travel to another land that God would later reveal to him (see Genesis 12:1). In addition, God told Abram, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2 NIV). Although Abram and his wife were well beyond normal child-bearing age, we’re told that he took God at His word and “…departed as the Lord instructed him…” (Genesis 12:4).
Abram continued his journey until he finally reached the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:4-8), a region that generally encompassed the area we know today as the modern-day nation of Israel. Although Abram was quite wealthy by that time (Genesis 13:2), the truth was that he was an elderly man in an unfamiliar environment with few friends and many prospective enemies. Those enemies included a number of potentially hostile neighbors such as the Canaanites and another local people group known as the Perizzites (Genesis 13:7).
So other than his servants, his possessions, and a nephew named Lot (who would later make an ill-fated decision to leave his uncle and establish a new residence in the region of Sodom), Abram had little more than a promise from God- a promise he accepted and believed by faith. Because of this, Genesis 15:6 tells us that “(Abram) believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (NIV).
One source summarizes the purpose behind this narrative with the following observation…
“Paul’s utilization of the Abraham story is basically designed to make two major points: (1) Abraham’s righteous standing before God occurred prior to the institution of circumcision and the Mosaic law; (2) Abraham’s righteous standing before God was made possible through a gracious declaration of God, in acceptance of Abraham’s belief. Thus, the prototypical Jew is to be viewed as one who received his place in sacred history by grace through faith!” (1)
(1) McClelland, S. E. (1995). Galatians. In Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, p. 1012). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
“Consider the experience of Abraham; as the scripture says, ‘He believed God, and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous.’ You should realize, then, that the real descendants of Abraham are the people who have faith” (Galatians 3:6-7 GNB).
The false teachers who were involved with the first-century churches of Galatia are known to us today as the Judaizers. The Judaizers were Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah but taught that it was necessary to observe the Law of Moses in order to receive salvation through Christ.
But despite Moses’ prominent standing in Israel’s national history, there is one figure of greater historical importance. That person is Abraham, the one from whom the nation of Israel descended. Beginning here in Galatians 3:6 and continuing into Galatians chapter four, the Apostle Paul will compare and contrast the legacies of these important Biblical figures and examine their places in the history of salvation.
One way to illustrate the issue with the Judaizers’ doctrine involves the use of a book or novel. For instance, let’s consider the example of a person who begins to read a novel at its halfway point. A person who begins reading a novel in the middle is someone who is sure to encounter difficulties with the narrative of that book. He or she may fail to grasp the meaning of the references contained within the book or may draw the wrong conclusion regarding the characters or the plot. However, a person who starts where the author intended -at the beginning- is someone who is best equipped to understand, appreciate, and correctly interpret the author’s work.
In a similar manner, the Judaizers pressed the churches of Galatia to “start in the middle of the book” in regard to salvation. Unfortunately, their history of salvation only reached back to the Mosaic era. Because of this, the Judaizers began from an incorrect stating point that ultimately led to the wrong destination (salvation in Christ plus the works of the Law).
Just as we would not begin to read a novel at its midway point, Paul encouraged the Galatians to start from the beginning when it came to this question of salvation. In this context, that meant reaching beyond the Law of Moses to the example of Abraham. Abraham did not find acceptance with God through the works of the Law for the Law had not yet come into existence during his lifetime. Instead, “He believed God, and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous.”
So just as Abraham was justified by faith, his spiritual descendants are justified in the same manner.
“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham” (Galatians 3:8-9).
Its often been said that the Bible is the best commentary upon itself. We can demonstrate the accuracy of that statement in regard to Galatians 3:8-9 by turning to selected portions of Romans chapter four. That chapter provides us with a helpful commentary on Abraham and the relationship between faith and the works of the Law…
“Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, He would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, ‘Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith’…
Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!
Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith… So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe.
That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, ‘I have made you the father of many nations.’ This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing” (Romans 4:1-3, 9-13, 16-17 NLT).
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’” (Galatians 3:10).
Galatians 3:10 identifies an important issue for those who are seeking to find salvation through the Old Testament Law. That problem is outlined in the Biblical book of Deuteronomy: “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out” (Deuteronomy 27:26 NIV).
In this respect, the Old Testament Law has been compared to the links in a bicycle chain. If one link in a bicycle chain suddenly breaks, the entire chain is useless no matter how good the rest of it may be. In a similar manner, a person who fails to keep one aspect of the Law is guilty of violating the entire Law- or as we read in the New Testament epistle of James, “…whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:9 ESV).
We can also express this idea with the example of a person who is driving an automobile above the legal speed limit. If a speeding driver is apprehended by the authorities, that motorist should not expect to be excused on the basis that he or she has always been a good citizen, has never stolen anything, or volunteers to help the poor.
You see, no amount of good conduct in other areas of life can make up for the fact that the person in our illustration has broken the law. The same can be said for those who enter a works-based relationship with God. The person who seeks to find acceptance with God on the basis of his or her good works is placed under the obligation of keeping the entire Law- and a person who is guilty of breaking the Law in one area has effectively broken all of it.
One source illustrates this idea with the following anecdote…
“Suppose I had kept all of the laws of Pasadena, which is my home city, for twenty years. Then I wait at my house for the officials of Pasadena to come and present me with a medal for keeping those laws. Let me tell you, they do not give medals for keeping the law in Pasadena. If I had kept every law for twenty years and then stole something or broke a speeding law, I would be arrested. You see, the law does not reward you. It does not give you life. The law penalizes you.” (1)
(1) J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, [5:168] quoted in Constable, Thomas. DD. Notes on Galatians 2017 Edition (3:10). Copyright © 2017 Thomas L. Constable. https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/galatians/galatians.htm
“But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11).
Galatians 3:11 contains one of the best known statements in all Scripture: “the just shall live by faith.” This quote is taken from the book of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk and appears two additional times within the pages of the New Testament (see Romans 1:17 and Hebrews 10:38). It also served as the verse that inspired Martin Luther and ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.
We can gain additional insight into this passage by examining the societal conditions of Habakkuk’s day and the events that led up to this famous declaration…
“How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But You do not listen! ‘Violence is everywhere!’ I cry, but You do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery? Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence. I am surrounded by people who love to argue and fight. The law has become paralyzed, and there is no justice in the courts. The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted” (Habakkuk 1:2-4 NLT).
Here was God’s response to the prophet’s lament…
“…I am doing something in your own day, something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it. I am raising up the Babylonians, a cruel and violent people. They will march across the world and conquer other lands. They are notorious for their cruelty and do whatever they like” (Habakkuk 1:5-7 NLT).
The idea that God would use the violent Babylonians to discipline the Israelites was something that Habakkuk found difficult to accept. But God’s explanation was not long in forthcoming…
“Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
Much like the prophet Habakkuk, we may find it difficult to discern God’s purpose behind the events that occur in life. When we are challenged by things we cannot easily explain, we would do well to remember that “the just shall live by faith” and keep the following passages in mind…
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV).
“If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask him, and he will gladly tell you, for he is always ready to give a bountiful supply of wisdom to all who ask him; he will not resent it” (James 1:5 TLB).
“Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them’” (Galatians 3:12).
Unlike some portions of Scripture that may be challenging to interpret, Paul the Apostle’s argument here in Galatians 3:11-12 is straightforward and easy to grasp. First, Paul quoted the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk in reminding the Galatian churches of an important Biblical truth: “…the just shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11).
However, a person who follows a set of rules and regulations in an effort to find acceptance with God is not someone who walks by faith. Instead, he or she is focused on adhering to a set of standards- and it takes very little faith to follow a set of rules. But this leads us to another issue: no one can live up to God’s standards with 100% accuracy.
So when Paul says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life” (NLT), he is stating a Biblical truth but one that is realistically impossible to achieve. Once source ties these concepts together with the following observation…
“Law and faith are mutually exclusive. The basic principle of the Law is found in Lev_18:5: The man who does these things will live by them. Only perfect performance could win divine approval under the Law, but since that was not achievable the Law could only condemn a person (cf. Jas_2:10) and cause him to cast himself on God in faith.” (1)
Another commentator carries this idea to its ultimate conclusion: “Only Christ could fulfill all the law (Matthew 5:17), so it is imperative that we receive His righteousness by imputation, and this can only be received through faith.” (2)
Finally, Paul offered a summary statement on the relationship between faith and the Law in the Biblical book of Romans…
“Moses said that a person could become acceptable to God by obeying the Law. He did this when he wrote, ‘If you want to live, you must do all that the Law commands.’ But people whose faith makes them acceptable to God will never ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven to bring Christ down?’ Neither will they ask, ‘Who will go down into the world of the dead to raise him to life?’
All who are acceptable because of their faith simply say, ‘The message is as near as your mouth or your heart.’ And this is the same message we preach about faith. So you will be saved, if you honestly say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and if you believe with all your heart that God raised him from death” (Romans 10:5-9 CEV).
(1) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Bible Knowledge Commentary [p.598]
(2) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes Galatians 1:19 https://www.icr.org/bible/Gal/3/12
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14).
In explaining how “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law” Galatians 3:13 refers to the important Biblical concept of redemption. For many, the idea of “redemption” is often synonymous with a type of transfer or exchange. For instance, a person who takes part in a consumer rewards program will often receive points or credits that he or she may redeem (or exchange) for something of value.
However, a closer look at the original language of this verse reveals that the word “redeemed” carries a more expansive definition: “(The) payment of a price to recover from the power of another, (or) to ransom, buy off.” (1) Another source clarifies this idea in addressing the question of how Christ redeemed humanity…
“The answer is by becoming a curse for us. This is a strong declaration of substitutionary redemption whereby Christ took the penalty of all guilty lawbreakers on Himself. Thus the ‘curse of the Law’ was transferred from sinners to Christ, the sinless One (cf. 1Pe_3:18), and He delivered people from it.
The confirming quotation from Deu_21:23 refers to the fact that in Old Testament times criminals were executed (normally by stoning) and then displayed on a stake or post to show God’s divine rejection. When Christ was crucified, it was evidence He had come under the curse of God. The manner of His death was a great obstacle to faith for Jews until they realized the curse He bore was for them (cf. Isa_53:1-12).” [bkc]
So Jesus’ death on the cross ransomed (or recovered) us from our state of separation from God. As our judicial substitute, Jesus delivered humanity from the judgment associated with a Law we could never completely fulfill. To put it another way, “…Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law’s condemnation, by himself becoming a curse for us when he was crucified” (Phillips).
However, this does not mean that the Old Testament Law holds no further importance. On the contrary, the Mosaic Law holds a great deal of value as the latter portion of this chapter will demonstrate. Nevertheless, it does mean that the Law cannot ultimately redeem those who follow it- only Christ’s substitutionary atonement could accomplish that.
See related study here
(1) G1805 exagorazo https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g1805
(2) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Bible Knowledge Commentary [p.598]
“Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:15-16).
To help explain the concept of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, Paul the Apostle turned to an illustration from everyday life here in Galatians 3:15-16. The instrument chosen for that illustration was a contract or a “covenant” as we read in the Scripture quoted above. This should serve as a familiar analogy that needs no special explanation for modern-day readers of this passage.
For example, we see this concept in action whenever a person or company negotiates an agreement to provide goods or services. Once those negotiations are complete, the parties will often sign a contract to formalize their arrangement. The “covenant” mentioned within these verses was like a modern-day contract in that it involved a legally binding promise between two groups or individuals. And just as the terms and conditions of a 21st century contract cannot be altered without prior approval, the terms and conditions of a Biblical covenant could not be changed or annulled without the consent of the parties involved.
Nevertheless, Paul anticipated a potential objection to the idea of salvation by grace through faith in Christ and proactively addressed it within this passage. You see, some might argue that the Mosaic Law superseded God’s arrangement with Abraham from Genesis 15:6: “(Abraham) believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (NLT). The idea was simple: since Abraham’s life pre-dated the Mosaic Law, the “new” way of finding acceptance with God through the works of the Law supplanted the “old” way of salvation by grace through faith.
However, Paul closed off that argument with a compelling response: even though the Mosaic Law followed God’s covenant with Abraham, the Law could not alter that original covenant. Just as a modern contractual agreement cannot be modified without the consent of both parties, God’s earlier arrangement remained in force with Abraham and his descendant (CEV) was well.
So just as a police officer might establish a roadblock to eliminate a means of escape for a fleeing suspect, Paul neutralized this objection and established another pillar to support the concept of salvation by grace through faith in Christ here in Galatians 3:15-16.
“And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Galatians 3:17-18).
For the Jewish people of first-century Israel, the act of becoming a Christian meant more than simply accepting Jesus as the Messiah. It meant giving up their attempts to find acceptance with God by keeping the Old Testament Law. It meant accepting Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross as the sole basis of their justification. It also meant leaving centuries of cultural and spiritual tradition behind to find salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Its difficult to understate the revolutionary nature of that first-century gospel message, and this helps explain why Paul the Apostle has spent so much time discussing the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant here in Galatians chapter three. One key point in Paul’s argument was the Law did not annul God’s righteousness-by-faith covenant with Abraham: “The law, which came 430 years later, does not revoke a covenant that was previously ratified by God and cancel the promise” (HCSB).
You see, any attempt to find acceptance with God through the works of the Law meant that Jesus’ sacrificial death was insufficient. It also meant that Jesus made a mistake when He said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). In the words of one commentator, “Works added to faith would annul the entire covenant since any dependence upon works means that it is necessary to abandon faith. That means that any sinner who claims to be saved on the basis of works plus faith is still a lost sinner.”
This same commentator also went on to make an important point…
“The Judaizers not only attempted to retain the Mosaic institutions for the Jews, but tried to impose them upon the Gentiles, to whom that law was never given. This was what Paul was fighting. Paul’s argument therefore is as follows. If a covenant once in force cannot be changed or rendered void by any subsequent action, God’s covenant with Abraham cannot be changed or rendered void by the subsequent law. If this principle holds good in a human covenant, much more is it true when God makes the covenant, since God is more certainly true to His promise than man.” (1)
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (3:17) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one” (Galatians 3:19-20).
The ceremonial portion of the Old Testament Law prescribed the manner in which an individual could approach God under the Old Covenant sacrificial system. But if the Law did not represent the ultimate way to salvation, then what purpose did it serve? That is the question that Paul the Apostle will begin to address starting here in Galatians 3:19: “What, then, is the purpose of the laws given to Moses? They were added to identify what wrongdoing is” (GW).
Many translations of this passage use the word transgressions to describe the particular form of sin that is illuminated by the Law. Although the word “transgression” seems to have fallen out of common use, it represents a key Biblical concept that is important to know and understand. You see, this word refers to a deliberate or intentional act of wrongdoing. In other words, a transgression occurs whenever someone consciously, knowingly, or willfully commits a misdeed.
To put it another way, this word describes the actions of a person who has deliberately crossed a line and purposely violated a law. One commentary offers a further definition of this word in the context of Galatians 3:19-20…
“Transgressions (Gr parabasis) mean a step beyond a fixed limit into forbidden territory. It is a willful act of violating an explicit law, overstepping what is right into the realm of what is wrong. The law was added much later to make men conscious of the existence and the extent of sin (Rom 3:19; 5:20). The law was added to reveal sin, not remove it. To show men the need of righteousness, not to be a means of securing righteousness.” (1)
With these things in mind, we can say that the Law functions as a benchmark that identifies moral and immoral behavior. That would include sins of omission (or those instances where we have failed to do what is right) as well as transgressions (those instances where we have knowingly, intentionally, and deliberately done something wrong).
Thus the Law serves an important purpose- it exposes us to the inappropriate attitudes that exist within our lives and directs us to the Savior who can effect real change in our thoughts, motivations, and behaviors.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2387). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come. The law was put into effect through angels by means of a mediator. Now a mediator is not for just one person, but God is one” (Galatians 3:19-20 HCSB).
Galatians 3:20 illustrates the difference between salvation by grace through faith (as revealed through God’s covenant with Abraham) and the works of the Law by examining the way these covenants were enacted. The first covenant found its origin in God’s direct interaction with Abraham as detailed in Genesis chapter fifteen. The second involved a form of mediation between one party (God) and another (the nation of Israel).
To appreciate these differences, it helps to understand the role of a mediator. We can start by defining a mediator as someone who arbitrates the conflicts that exist between two groups or individuals and works to reconcile them. With this in mind, let’s consider the mediators who were involved in establishing the Old Testament Law.
The nation of Israel was the first party to this agreement. Israel was represented by Moses who served on behalf of the nation as a whole. Moses explained his role in this process when he said, “I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up the mountain…” (Deuteronomy 5:5).
The other party (and the initiator of this covenant) was God. He was represented by His angelic messengers in delivering the Old Testament Law to Moses. While the Biblical book of Exodus does not mention the presence of these angelic beings in its record of this event, (1) we know from other portions of Scripture that they had some sort of involvement in this process.
For example, Acts 7:38 tells us, “Moses was with our ancestors, the assembly of God’s people in the wilderness, when the angel spoke to him at Mount Sinai. And there Moses received life-giving words to pass on to us” (NLT). Acts 7:53 later goes on to say, “You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels” (NLT).
So the presence of these mediators implies a degree of separation between the parties. On the other hand, there were no mediators involved in God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendant who is Christ. Thus, to borrow the words of Hebrews 7:22, “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant” (ESV). (2)
(1) See Exodus chapters 19-34
(2) See Hebrews 7:19-8:13
“Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:21-22).
One function of the Old Testament Law was vividly illustrated by a commentator who observed that the Law is much like a mirror. While a mirror might reveal the need to clean your face, you do not wash your face with a mirror- you need soap for that. (1) In this analogy, the Old Testament Law is the “mirror” that reveals our sinfulness before God. The “soap” is “…the blood of Jesus, his Son, (that) cleanses us from every sin” (1 John 1:7 CSB).
But what does it mean to have “faith in Jesus Christ” as we read here in Galatians 3:22? Well, the Biblical book of Hebrews answers that question in the following manner…
“What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead. Men of God in days of old were famous for their faith. By faith– by believing God– we know that the world and the stars– in fact, all things– were made at God’s command; and that they were all made from things that can’t be seen” (Hebrews 11:1-3 TLB).
However, “faith” should never be confused with “blind faith” or faith that has no basis in reality. Genuine Biblical faith involves the belief in a God who has proven Himself within the Scriptures and the lives of those who sincerely follow Him. Former homicide detective and Christian case-maker J, Warner Wallace addresses this difference with the following explanation…
“Blind Faith: Believing in something WITHOUT any evidence. We hold a blind faith when we accept something even though there is no evidence to support our beliefs. We don’t search for ANY evidence that either supports or refutes what we are determined to believe.
Reasonable Faith: Believing in something BECAUSE of the evidence. We hold a reasonable faith when we believe in something because it is the most reasonable conclusion from the evidence that exists
The Bible repeatedly makes evidential claims. It offers eyewitness accounts of historical events that can be verified archeologically, prophetically and even scientifically. We, as Christians are called to hold a reasonable faith that is grounded in this way.” (2)
(1) Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 1:703. Quoted in Constable, Thomas. DD. Notes on Galatians 2017 Edition. Copyright © 2017 Thomas L. Constable. https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/galatians/galatians.htm#_edn183
(2) J. Warner Wallace, Is the Christian Faith Evidentially Reasonable? https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/is-the-christian-faith-evidentially-reasonable/
“But the scripture imprisoned everything and everyone under sin so that the promise could be given — because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ — to those who believe. Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed” (Galatians 3:22-23 NET).
In addition to what we read in the Biblical books of the Law, the wisdom literature of the Old Testament also acknowledges the reality of human sinfulness…
“Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9 NIV)
“Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 NIV).
“If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” (Psalms 130:3 NIV).
As uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge this, Paul the Apostle referenced a number of similar Old Testament quotes in the New Testament book of Romans…
“As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.’ ‘The poison of vipers is on their lips.’ ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ (1)
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:10-20 NIV).
We can summarize the relationship between faith and the Law with the following question and answer…
“But if the Law is not opposed to the promises, if there is no conflict between them, how can their harmony be demonstrated? By recognizing that while the Law could not justify or give life, it did prepare the way for the gospel. What part then did Law play in this respect? It declared the whole world… a prisoner of sin…
When people recognize this and give up attempts to please God by their own works, the way is prepared for them to receive the promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” (2)
(2) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Bible Knowledge Commentary [p.599]
“Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:23-24 HCSB).
The first five books of the Bible are known as the Pentateuch, the Law, or the Torah. The word Pentateuch means “five volumes” and it comprises the Biblical books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. For the purpose of our discussion here in Galatians chapter three, we should recognize that there are three aspects to the Old Testament Law. Those aspects are represented by the civil, ceremonial, and moral components of the Mosaic Law.
The civil law defined lawful and unlawful activities and various types of contractual arrangements for the people of Old Testament Israel. The ceremonial law prescribed the manner in which an individual could approach God under the Old Covenant sacrificial system. The moral law explained the difference between right and wrong.
Unlike the false teachers who had entered the Galatian churches, the New Testament books of Romans and Colossians tell us that the ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law were fulfilled in Christ….
“For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God” (Romans 10:4 NLT).
“So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality” (Colossians 2:16-17 NLV).
While these New Testament Scriptures tell us that we are no longer under the ceremonial requirements of the Old Testament Law, we still maintain a moral obligation to honor God in our personal behavior. Since the Law provides us with the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), the moral principles found there are just as valid today as they were when they were originally written.
One Biblical scholar explains how these realities should inform our thinking in regard to these aspects of the Old Testament Law…
“A ‘guardian’ was a slave responsible for a child’s training, especially for pointing out and punishing misbehavior (see 4:1, 2). Like a guardian, the law pointed out sin and punished it. Another important function of guardians was to separate and protect the child from the influence of outsiders. The law functioned in a similar way to separate Israel from the Gentiles. That function of the ceremonial law has also ended.” (1)
Portions of this study originally appeared here
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (pp. 2079–2080). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:24 ESV).
An earlier portion of Galatians chapter three revealed an important objective of the Old Testament Law: “It was given to show that the wrong things people do are against God’s will” (Galatians 3:19 NCV). Galatians 3:24 now identifies another important function of the Law: “…the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
With this in mind, we can say that the Law teaches what is right as well as what is wrong. For instance, let’s consider the first three of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20:1-17. The first (“You shall have no other gods before Me”) teaches that its right to give God the primary position of respect and honor in every area of life.
The next is this: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). From this, we learn that its right to accept God as He has revealed Himself within the Scriptures and not how we might fashion Him to be.
Following this, we read, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…” (Exodus 20:7). Unlike those who use God’s name in a frivolous manner (as in “ohmigod” or other, similar expressions), this tells us that its right to treat God’s name with reverence.
These examples (and others like them from the Old Testament Law) teach us important lessons about God’s holiness. Since human beings often fail to do what is holy and right, the Law thus demonstrates our need for a Savior- or as Galatians 3:24 tells us, “…the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ…” (KJV).
One source concludes this thought with a look at the original language of this passage…
“The Greek term means ‘custodian’ or a person who attends a child. In Greek households a faithful servant was given the responsibility of taking care of a boy from childhood to puberty. The servant kept him from both physical and moral evil, and went with him to his amusements and to school. Paul used the word to say that the law functioned as a child-custodian. The law acted as an outward check on desires, thus making the consciousness of sin more acute. And since none of us is able to deal with sin by ourselves, the law guides us to Christ, our only Rescuer and Savior.” (1)
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1522). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
“Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24).
Various translations of Galatians 3:24 identify the Old Testament Law as a teacher (CEV), guardian (ESV), custodian (CEB), or guide (AMP) that leads us to Christ. One paraphrase of this verse captures the idea behind this passage in the following manner: “The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for” (MSG).
However, the Law does not merely serve as an external check on inappropriate behavior. We can turn to another Biblical paraphrase to illustrate the internal function of the Law: “…No man can justify himself before God by a perfect performance of the Law’s demands—indeed it is the straight-edge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are” (Romans 3:20 Phillips).
For instance, we might adhere to the external demands of the Law but what about our thoughts, attitudes, and motivations? What do those internal qualities say about our obedience to the Law of God? Consider the following portion of Jesus’ message from the Sermon on the Mount…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that if a man looks at a woman and wants to sin sexually with her, he has already committed that sin with her in his mind” (Matthew 5:27-28 ERV).
Notice that Jesus incorporated the internal desire to commit sexual immorality into the Law’s definition of adultery. This is more significant than it may appear. For instance, a person with an internal desire to engage in an immoral relationship might be restrained by the cultural, social. legal, or professional consequences that could result from acting on that desire. But what would happen if those external restraints were removed? For some, the only thing standing between the internal desire to commit sexual immorality and the outward expression of that desire is a safe opportunity to do so.
We can also look to various forms of social media to illustrate this reality. Unmoderated social media platforms offer an opportunity for participants to express other forms of immorality through personal attacks, hostile criticisms, racial slurs, and malevolent comments. This brings us to another quote from Jesus: “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matthew 12:34-35).
Therefore, we can use the Law as a tool to gauge our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors and prayerfully seek God’s empowerment to correct those areas where we are falling short.
“The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:24-25 HCSB).
The Gospel of Luke records a conversation between Jesus and an expert in the Mosaic Law that helps illustrate the message behind Galatians 3:24-25…
“And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested (Jesus), saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’ So he answered and said, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” And He said to him, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live’” (Luke 10:25-28).
To his credit, this lawyer didn’t respond to this question with his opinions, ideas, or beliefs; instead, he based his answer solely upon God’s Word. So in reply to Jesus’ question, he rightly said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27 ESV).
While it may be easy to overlook this response in light of the famous parable that follows, this portion of Scripture is tied to Galatians 3:24-25 in an important way. You see, the Law tells us that we are responsible to love God continually with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Our second priority is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus endorsed these standards and commended the lawyer by saying, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life” (Luke 10:28 CEV).
This brief interaction should prompt us to make a make a personal assessment: “Do I love God continually with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind? Do I love my neighbor as myself?” If the answers to these questions are “no” then we have failed to meet the standard for eternal life- just like every other member of the human race with One exception.
So much like a signpost that directs us in the way we should go, the Law points us to our need for a Savior who can deliver us from our failure to meet these standards. It is in this manner that “…the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).
One of the time-honored strategies of false teachers involves the act of taking a Biblical passage (or portion of a verse) out of context to support a non-Biblical doctrine. One example can be found in a publication distributed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organization entitled The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom or simply, The Watchtower. The December 1, 1981 edition of that publication contained an article that made the following statement…
“Unless we are in touch with this channel of communication that God is using (i.e. the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organization), we will not progress along the road to life, no matter how much Bible reading we do” (page 27).
This article went on to reference Acts 8:30-40 to support that premise. That portion of Scripture relates the account of the Apostle Phillip and his encounter with a representative of the Ethiopian government. Phillip heard this high-ranking official reading aloud from the Biblical book of the prophet Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian official replied, “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31 NET).
Some religious organizations may reference this passage to assert the belief that others cannot understand the Scriptures without the aid of their teaching materials. But before we accept that claim, we would be wise to consider the portion of Scripture that precedes this passage. There we find that it was the Holy Spirit who directed Phillip in this encounter. Philip was simply the vehicle by which the Holy Spirit communicated the truth about the Scriptures to this man (see Acts 8:26-29).
So when taken in context, this passage doesn’t say that we need the aid of an individual or organization to understand the Scriptures. Instead, it tells us that we cannot fully grasp the meaning and application of God’s Word without the direction of the Holy Spirit.
In a similar manner, some may view this statement from Galatians 3:26 (“For you are all sons of God…”) as a pretext for universalism, or the belief that everyone will eventually find salvation. Unfortunately, that view is not supported by the context of this passage. You see, it is not all who are children of God but “…we are all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (TLB).
This reminds us that it is important to establish a good contextual basis for interpreting the Scriptures. If we fail to do so, it’s possible to make the Bible say some very unbiblical things.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
There were many potential areas of division among the members of the Galatian churches, just as there are many things that can divide us today. For instance, divisions can form along racial, cultural, or geographic lines. There are class distinctions, social idiosyncrasies, or contrasts in dress or appearance that can breed differences between various people groups. Some may even divide over financial matters, political affiliations, or allegiances to a favorite sports team.
While some of those differences are more serious than others, Galatians 3:28 contains a foundational truth that applies to every Christian: “…you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We can understand and apply this passage in two different ways. First, we can say there are no racial, cultural, social, or class distinctives that can prevent anyone from finding salvation in Christ. In the words of one commentator, “All people equally can become God’s heirs and recipients of His eternal promises…”. (1)
Next, this passage teaches that our human differences have been broken down in Christ. This does not mean that these distinctions are irrelevant or they have ceased to exist. Nor does it imply that there are no differences in our roles or functions. However, it does mean that we are positionally equal in Christ regardless of such differences.
One source provides us with the following explanation…
“All those who are one with Jesus Christ are one with one another. This verse does not deny that God has designed racial, social, and sexual distinctions among Christians, but it affirms that those do not imply spiritual inequality before God. Nor is this spiritual equality incompatible with the God-ordained roles of headship and submission in the church, society, and at home. Jesus Christ, though fully equal with the Father, assumed a submissive role during His incarnation (Php 2:5–8).” (2)
Unlike the positions of privilege granted by ancient and modern societies to those in possession of wealth, prestige, beauty, or other such characteristics, God does not afford preferential status based on such things. And while many seek the elusive goal of “unity in diversity” today, Jesus made true unity in diversity possible through His life and sacrificial death on our behalf. In the words of one Biblical paraphrase of this verse, “Gone is the distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female—you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Phillips)
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1523). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
(2) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ga 3:28). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.