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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Galatians 3

 

 

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Verses 1-3

‘Oh foolish Galatians. Who has bewitched you before whose eyes Jesus Christ was set forth as crucified among you? This only would I learn from you. Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing (or ‘preaching’) of faith? Are you so foolish. Having begun in the Spirit, are you now perfected in the flesh?’

Paul’s powerful feelings come out in his opening words. Rarely does he speak so strongly. And yet there is a tenderness underlying his words. He comes like a hurt but tender father to his erring children (compare ‘brothers’ - Galatians 3:15 ; ‘my little children’ - Galatians 4:19; ‘with my own hand’ - Galatians 6:11).

The Galatians are behaving like ‘the foolish’ (anoetos), like those who have little intelligence, like those who do not recognise God for what He is (compare Psalms 14:1). The inhabitants of that part of the Roman world prided themselves on their depth of rational thought and understanding, but Paul chides them that they are demonstrating neither. They were not using their brains. Jesus Christ as crucified had been set forth before them and they had experienced the power of the Spirit of God to such an extent that miracles had been wrought among them (Galatians 3:5). What then did they think had brought this about? Was it their seeking to keep the Law that had brought it about, or was it through their hearing the Gospel of the grace of God which had resulted in faith and the work of the Spirit? Did they really think that by aping Judaism, rather than by putting their trust in the Spirit’s working, they would be made perfect?

‘Foolish.’ The word means ‘unintelligent, lacking in understanding’. They are behaving like those who have been put under a spell or bewitched.

‘Before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been set forth as crucified among you.’ Jesus Christ was set forth as ‘the One Who has been, and is now, the One Who has been crucified’. They had heard the preaching of the cross which is the power of God to those who are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:17). Indeed they had experienced it so vividly that it was almost as though they had seen it with their own eyes, for the Holy Spirit had brought it home to their own hearts. It had been ‘Set forth’ (prographo - placarded publicly), portrayed publicly before them. And they had responded and had received the Holy Spirit, evidence that they were now justified (counted as righteous) in the sight of God. What then did they think had caused this?

‘Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by the hearing of faith?’ They had only to think about it. What had resulted in the coming of the Spirit in power to them. Was it when they responded in faith to the message of the crucified and risen Christ, and His justifying power? Or was it when they began to observe Jewish ritual and had begun to struggle to keep the Law? Were they so foolish as to think that they had a better chance of becoming perfect by struggling in the flesh to keep the Law and observe the ritual, than by the response of their own spirits to the Spirit’s power?

Note that Paul is here thinking of their progress towards perfection, and knows that they are too. And never does he say that that is not important. He is simply pointing out that the best way to achieve it is by response to Jesus Christ and the Spirit, by looking to the indwelling Christ within, rather than by a hopeless struggle against the impossible odds of the Law. If I try to struggle to keep the Law I go back to my chains and my burdens. But if I allow Christ to live out His life through me by His Spirit I cannot help but succeed. For the man who perseveres is the one who has confidence in Christ crucified and knows that He is living within and through him by His Spirit.

‘The hearing of faith.’ The word can mean ‘hearing’ or ‘the thing heard’. Here then it can mean ‘the hearing that springs from faith’, ‘the hearing that results in faith’ or ‘the preaching that results in faith’. But the basic point is the same. The point is that it is the response of faith and not the doing of works that results in the work of the Spirit within. It is the result of the co-operation of man’s spirit with God’s Spirit in response to the gracious approach of God that enables us to live rightly.

Note that receiving the Spirit parallels being declared righteous by faith. The one goes with the other. One is not a later blessing than the other. This is positively demonstrated by the link with Abraham. The whole point about Abraham was not that he received the Spirit but that He was seen as righteous by God (Genesis 15:6). To be declared righteous was to have received the Spirit, and to have received the Spirit was to have been declared righteous. Christians who have been declared righteous are therefore people of the Spirit (see Galatians 3:14).

‘Having begun in the Spirit are you now perfected in the flesh.’ The contrast between Spirit and flesh is typically Pauline. Elsewhere flesh is usually that which drags a man down into sin (Galatians 5:16-21). How ridiculous it is then to think that it will lead us to perfection. Thus here he is pointing out that the flesh can indeed cause religious activity, but that then it is just as sinful as everything else man is involved in, because it is not spiritual or Spirit inspired. It is of man, not of God. Having received the inflowing of the Spirit, they are now allowing the lusts of the body or of the mind to take over. Instead of looking only to God, they are seeking to gratify themselves and to gratify others.

‘Having begun in the Spirit’. The Holy Spirit had stirred their spirits and brought forth a spiritual response. They had looked to God and known His presence. They had been accepted as righteous in His sight. And now His work of perfecting them had begun. He was already working within them to will and do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Did they now think that by turning from Him and His working within them, to mere fleshly activity, to a dogged attempt to keep a set of rules and regulations and rituals, they could achieve this perfection? No! It is the Spirit who changes us from glory into glory, and it is as we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18), not as we look within ourselves. We must therefore look to Him for His continual work of the Spirit within us (Philippians 2:13).


Verses 1-9

Paul Confirms What He Has Said By Pointing Out That Every Blessing They Have Received Was Received Through Faith (Galatians 3:1-9).

Paul now reminds the Galatians of how they first came to Christ, and what had been their experience then. They had responded to the working of the Holy Spirit. They had believed in Christ as their Saviour and Lord. They had accepted free forgiveness through the cross. Surely then they will not now try to be saved by their own actions and by following someone else’s ritual requirements?


Verse 4

‘Did you suffer (or experience) so many things in vain? That is if it is indeed in vain.’

It is possible that the Galatian Christians had suffered persecution as a result of their response to Christ (Acts 14:22). If so, he is pointing out that they would not have suffered like that if they had simply become Jewish proselytes, for that was acceptable and even admired by some. Their suffering arises from the fact that they are following Christ. Thus if they now go back to Judaistic practices their suffering will have been in vain. They will have gained nothing.

But while the word used here means ‘suffer’ in most New Testament uses that is because the context regularly demands it. It originally strictly meant ‘experience’, and the context seems to require this here. There is no suggestion of suffering in the remainder of the context. Thus he may simply be saying, ‘have you had all these experiences to no purpose, if indeed it is to no purpose?’ (However, the word did certainly develop at some time into being used almost solely in its bad sense of suffer, so the other is possible).

‘If it was to no purpose.’ He adds this as a rider. He still cherishes hope for them.


Verse 5-6

‘He therefore who supplies to you the Spirit, and works powerful works among you (or ‘within you’), does he do it by the works of the Law or by the hearing of faith? Even as Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness.’

The example of Abraham is now cited as evidence that God’s gifts come in response to faith. How did Abraham become a participant in God’s blessing? It was by ‘believing God’, and taking Him at His word. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6). This would confirm that the ‘hearing of faith’ here means the response of faith to God’s words. God had supplied them with the Spirit and worked ‘powerful works’ among them. But what had been the basis of this? Certainly not their observing of the Law for they had not had time for that. It was clearly their response of faith, just as in the case of Abraham.

‘He therefore who supplies to you the Spirit.’ The ‘He’ must mean God or Christ. The present tense indicates a continual supply. Paul is speaking of the continual supply and activity of the Spirit. The Lord continues daily to supply them with the continuing experience of His Holy Spirit, not necessarily in a way that can be felt, but certainly in a way that can be experienced and be effective in their lives. As they face each day they can drink continually of the Spirit, and know that out of their innermost being will flow rivers of living water (John 7:38-39).

(Some have seen ‘he’ as referring to Spirit-filled men - compare Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6 - but this would not really affect the argument. However, it is very questionable whether Peter or anyone else would have described themselves as ‘supplying the Spirit’, and certainly not as supplying the Spirit continually. What they ‘did’ in those two examples was identify themselves with those to whom they had gone. It was God Himself Who sent the Spirit on them. What they did was something that was once for all not something that they could do for believers continually, But it was not actually they who did anything. It was God Who did it. The wind blows where it wills, and no man can say ‘here it comes’ or ‘there it goes’. So is every one who is born of the Spirit - John 3:7).

‘Works miracles (or powerful works) among you.’ Again he is speaking about a continual activity, which was apparently still occurring. The Greek means literally ‘powers’ but it regularly means ‘miracles’ wrought by the power of God in the New Testament. The period of the early church was one in which outward miracles abounded. This revealed that God was among them in power. But they appear to have happened spontaneously and immediately, not in the long drawn out way of many so-called healers today, and they are not generally cited as a reason why men should turn to God. Jesus had no confidence in those who believed because of miracles (John 2:23-25).

However it is probable that here inner miracles are also to be seen as being in mind, by translating as, ‘He works powerful works within you’. Consider how on Paul’s visit to them Luke speaks of them as being ‘filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 13:52) as evidence of His working. That was an inner miracle. And in Galatians 5:22-23 the fruit of the Spirit is declared to be the evidence of the Spirit’s working in the inner miracles of love, joy, peace, and so on. These are equally miraculous, indeed one may say more miraculous. So the miracles were both outward and inward.

‘Even as Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness.’ This is cited from Genesis 15:6. Abraham took God at His word and this pleased God and He responded accordingly. It made Abraham totally acceptable to Him as a ‘righteous’ man, one who looked to Him, depended on Him, and was ready to obey Him. This too, says Paul, is the basis on which Christians should approach Him.

The mention of Abraham is important. The Judaisers no doubt laid great stress on the fact that they were children of Abraham, and this comes out in their stress on circumcision. But here Abraham’s faith, and its resulting response from God, is seen to have come prior to him being circumcised. It was clearly therefore primary (Romans 3:10). Circumcision was not even thought of at the time. That was something that was added later for a totally different reason, as a seal of the later covenant, a seal now replaced by the ‘seal of the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13) and our participation in Christ’s crucifixion, through the bloodshedding of Christ.


Verse 7

‘Know therefore that those who are of faith, those are the sons of Abraham.’

Thus the true sons of Abraham are those who like him exercise faith in the promises of God and are accounted righteous accordingly (John 8:39), and they then live accordingly. But the way that they live is the result of their salvation, not the cause of it. The cause of it is the work of the Spirit within through the gracious mercy and favour of God. They walk in faith, they walk in the Spirit. Compare also Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8 where John the Baptiser says that those who claim to be sons of Abraham in the flesh are not superior to anyone else, simply because God is able to raise sons to Abraham from the very stones around them. Being a son of Abraham was nothing special. It was having the faith of Abraham that was special. Whatever claims the Judaisers made, then, they were not behaving like sons of Abraham, for they looked to themselves and their own works to establish their righteousness, rather than to God in faith, while Abraham did nothing except believe, and simply looked to God, and receive from Him whatever He wanted to give him.


Verse 8-9

‘And the Scripture, foreseeing that by faith God accounts as righteous the Gentiles, preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “in you shall all the nations be blessed”. So then those who are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.’

Furthermore the Scripture make crystal clear that the Gentiles will be accounted righteous by faith for it says that it is in Abraham, in believing Abraham, that all the nations will be blessed. So the blessing of God comes on all those who, like Abraham, believe. They then share Abraham’s blessing which was that he was accounted righteous because of his faithful response, which was his response in faith to the promises of God.

‘The Scripture, foreseeing -.’ Here we have a personalisation of Scripture, meaning, of course, God speaking through the Scriptures, thereby emphasising that the Scriptures are the word of God.

‘By faith.’ This is in an emphatic position in the sentence. It is central to what the Scripture foresaw.

‘Preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham.’ The kernel of the Gospel was known throughout past ages, that man by faith should respond to God in trust and repentance (Genesis 15:6; Psalms 51:17; Isaiah 57:15) and thus be accepted as righteous in His sight.

‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ This was continually emphasised to Abraham at one time and another (Genesis 12:3; Genesis 18:18; Genesis 22:18; see also Genesis 26:4). It was always God’s final purpose that all the world would be blessed through Abraham and his seed. And it would come from God’s gracious working, not by a world working itself into a frenzy of activity. Thus would the Gentiles become ‘sons of Abraham’. Note that they will be blessed as nations, not by becoming Jews. Rather they would become one with many Jews as a consequence of believers from all the nations uniting in a new nation (1 Peter 2:9), by becoming part of God’s concept of the true Israel (Galatians 6:16). They are not required to come within the Jewish Law for this blessing, for that Law was given to the old Israel alone at a later time than Abraham (Galatians 3:17). But we must look to Abraham as our model. And he believed God’s word, and, because he believed it, it was reckoned to him for righteousness. So is the blessing of the nations connected with the righteousness which is by faith.

‘Those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.’ By paralleling Abraham in believing they will share his blessing. We translate this as ‘believing’ rather than as ‘faithful’ because that is the idea here. He was not so much blessed for his faithfulness as for his faith which produced that faithfulness (Genesis 15:6). Clearly true faith always produces faithfulness, which is why James can say, ‘faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself ’ (James 2:17). But the faith comes first. No one can be faithful without first believing. So by coming to God through the route of faith we are aligning ourselves with Abraham and receive the blessing promised through him, and this will result in our being faithful.

Thus the receiving of the Spirit is paralleled with Abraham’s ‘believing God’ and being accounted as righteous. Both experiences are in parallel.


Verse 10

‘For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things that are written in the book of the Law, to do them”.’

Now, he says, let us now consider the Law. The first thing that the Law requires is total obedience. And as with the law in any country one failure of the Law means that a person becomes a lawbreaker (James 2:10). And in the case of the Jewish Law this is especially important because it puts them under a curse. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things that are written in the book of the Law, to do them”. The quotation is from Deuteronomy 27:26 (compare Jeremiah 11:3) slightly amplified to bring out its meaning, while in the main keeping faithfully to the meaning of the original. So, as no one who strives to keep the Law can claim to have fulfilled it completely, every one of them who tries to keep God’s law is subject to God’s curse. This demonstrates that those who are now seeking to use ‘keeping the Law’, both the moral law and the ceremonial law, as their means of salvation, will find in it only the means of being cursed. And the more they dedicate themselves to keeping it the more they will be cursed, for the more they will fail.

Why then did God give the Law? It was not in order to be a means of achieving salvation. It was to act as a mirror in which we could look so that we could find out the truth about ourselves. It was in order to show us our sinfulness (Romans 7:10). It was to point Israel to the sacrifices, and to point us and the Galatians to the One Who was the one great sacrifice for sin for ever. ‘The Law is our tutor to bring us to Christ’ (Galatians 3:24). It was to make us aware of God’s total requirements. And that was all it could do. It shows us up for what we are, and then it leaves us stranded.


Verses 10-15

The Law Can Only Condemn Us But We Have Been Redeemed from the Law (Galatians 3:10-15).

Paul then points out the folly of trying to become acceptable to God by our own works.


Verse 11-12

‘Now that no man is reckoned as righteous by the Law in the sight of God is evident, for “The righteous shall live by faith”. And the Law is not of faith, but “He who does them shall live in them”.’

For not only does Scripture teach us that the Law brings us under a curse, so that no man is finally reckoned as righteous by the Law, which is the negative aspect of it, it also teaches us positively that ‘the righteous shall live by faith’ (Habakkuk 2:4). This is the positive side. Indeed the only ones who can be truly righteous are those who so live, for they rise above the Law as they look to God. They are not constantly pummelled by the Lord, (although He may pummel them some time), they rather let Him live through them. The Law looks at our lives and marks our failures, but God looks at our hearts and accepts our response of faith and trust. And then we daily live by faith, faith in the One Who loved us and gave Himself for us (Galatians 2:20). But what if we become conscious of sin? Then as we admit them to Him the blood of Christ daily cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Are we conscious of weakness? Then we ask Jesus Himself to live through us. We yield the reins of our lives to Him.

In Habakkuk the verse signifies that the truly righteous will survive all that comes on them because of their faith in God. They will look to God to see them through, and as a result He will. This too is the Christian message. As Christ fills their sight, and fills their hearts, the Law will slip away ashamed. For it has been replaced by a Greater. And He will live though them and enable them to do what the Law with its curse could not do, live by confident trust in God.

‘And the Law is not of faith, but ‘he who does them shall live in them’. This is cited from Leviticus 18:5. There the point is made that man must keep all God’s laws and statutes. And if he achieves it then he will live in them, that is life will result from his actions. But as Paul has indicated (Galatians 3:10), no one does keep them all, and so no one in the end obtains life through them. The Law fails in that aim, and will continue to do so, because of the continual weakness of man.

But now comes the Good News of the Gospel. Of course, originally Leviticus was referring to those who had believed and had responded to the covenant through the shedding of blood. For them the Law was now a way of life following salvation, not a way of salvation. But it was later ages who had begun to see it as a way of salvation. And they had begun to believe that somehow as they strove to keep the law it would give them life. But it did not. Nor would it ever do so. Faith in Christ must come first, and then He will begin to fulfil the Law through us.


Verse 13

‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, “Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree”.’

And now Paul gets to the essence of the salvation provided in Jesus Christ. It comes about by Christ taking our place in order to set us free. It is by Christ acting in power to redeem us because of what He has done for us. By His very dying on the cross Christ has revealed Himself as bearing a curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 refers to those who hung on a tree, which was the fate of criminals, but the Jews of Jesus’ day also applied the idea to anyone who was crucified. To be crucified was clearly evidence that they had come under the curse of God. (That is why later they referred to Jesus derisively as ‘the hanged one’). The Jews, and no doubt Paul himself in earlier persecuting days, made much of the fact that Jesus died on a cross and had thus come under a curse.

But Paul now seizes on the fact and makes it something glorious. This curse, he points out, did not arise from His own deserts. Rather it arose because He went to the cross to take our curse upon Himself. Through His death on the cross He has ‘redeemed us’, bought us out from under the curse by the sacrifice of Himself. He became our substitute, taking our place. He acted as our representative, going there on our behalf. He went as the One Who represented us to die on our behalf and in our stead. And because He died we can live, for the curse of the Law has been removed from us and has been borne by Himself. As Paul says elsewhere, ‘He who knew no sin, He made to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Some do not like the idea of substitution but it is written plainly here (and in Mark 10:45). And it is unavoidable. Not as sometimes put crudely by some, but certainly as a reality. For we have sinned, and He the sinless One has suffered for sin in our place, and we are redeemed precisely because He took our place. On the one hand He was our representative, going there for us, and on the other He was our substitute, taking our place.

‘Christ has redeemed us.’ That is, He ‘has given Himself for us that He might redeem us from all iniquity’ (Titus 2:14). Redemption in Scripture always results either from the expenditure of special costly effort or from the payment of a ransom. In this case Christ has done both. He has given Himself as a ransom ‘instead of’ (anti) us (Mark 10:45), redeeming us through His blood (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 1:18-19), and He has exercised His power at great cost in defeating the forces that are against us, triumphing over them in the cross (Colossians 2:15) and bearing our sin as He became a sacrifice for sin. He has taken what is on record against us and has nailed it to His cross, evidence that it has been paid. Indeed He has blotted out the Law (the handwriting of ordinances) which condemned us (Colossians 2:14).

The clear result is then that we are no longer under the Law’s jurisdiction. Neither Jew nor Gentile who is in Christ is any more responsible to struggle to keep the ordinances of the Law. For they have been crucified with Christ. They are therefore set free to live to God by the power of the indwelling Christ (Galatians 2:20), using that Law as a guide and not as a judge. It is no longer a fearful condemning finger, but a guide book to life (as it was originally meant to be).


Verse 14

‘That on the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.’

And the purpose of His being made a curse for us was so that through faith we might be accounted as righteous, receiving the blessing of the Spirit. For we can only receive the Spirit because of what He has done for us. Paul here links the blessing of Abraham, which will come on all nations (Genesis 12:3) with the giving of the Holy Spirit. He is linking Abraham’s responsive faith, which resulted in him being seen as righteous, and in his willingness to sacrifice his own son, receiving him back as it were from the dead (Genesis 22:18), with the giving of the promised Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit was to be poured out on the people of God in so far as they looked to Abraham as their father and walked in the same way as he did, by true faith in God (Isaiah 44:1-5 with Isaiah 41:8; Isaiah 51:1-3). The Holy Spirit was to be poured out on ‘all flesh’, that is on all kinds of people, not only on the people of Israel, but on servants and handmaids as well (Joel 2:28-29), and the One on Whom is the Spirit is the One Who will bring forth justice to the Gentiles as well as to Israel (Isaiah 42:1).

Thus it is through His death on the cross that the promised Holy Spirit can come, coming to those who respond in faith. For the new birth of the Spirit (John 3:5) is linked with the lifting up on the cross (John 3:14), through which those who believe receive eternal life.


Verse 15

The Blessing of Abraham Precedes the Law (Galatians 3:15-18).

‘Brothers, I speak after the manner of men. Though it is but a man’s covenant, yet when it has been confirmed no one makes it void or adds to it.’

Paul looks first at the general idea of covenant ‘from men’s point of view’. Let them consider their day by day ‘covenants’ and ‘contracts’. Once a solemn covenant or contract is confirmed it is irrevocable. It cannot be added to, and no one can cancel it. That is the basic purpose of a covenant. It is permanent and fixed. It would often be confirmed by the shedding of blood as a sign that death was to come on the one who broke its terms.

(In practise this obedience to a covenant did not, of course, always happen, but that was in spite of what a covenant was, not because of it. That was because men are shifting and dishonourable. But, like the marriage covenant, its basic idea was irrevocability.

However, we may alternately see Paul here as referring to that special form of covenant which takes the form of a Will or an irrevocable settlement of property, for this kind of covenant, which is made sovereignly by one person, provides an ‘inheritance’ (Galatians 3:18) and is firmly linked with ‘the heir’. In Greek law once such a covenant was confirmed and registered with the authorities (in order to be valid it had to be registered with the authorities) no one could make it void or add to it. It was unalterable. Here there was no mediator. It was the act of one and one only, and he too was permanently bound by it.

(While in Old Testament terms ‘diatheke’ means ‘covenant’ its use among the Greeks was of irrevocable ‘wills and settlements’, and here he was speaking ‘after the manner of men’. It was Roman law that allowed wills to be kept secret and alterable to suit the testator).

Paul now applies this fact to the Old Testament. Once an irrevocable covenant has been made, he points out, it cannot be set aside. This means that the covenant promises made to Abraham cannot be set aside by the later giving of the Law when Abraham was no longer alive to accept it. God is unchanging and will not alter His covenant. And as it is made by Him and Him alone it is irrevocable.


Verse 16

‘Now to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed. He does not say ‘and to seeds’, as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your seed’, which is Christ.’

Notice also, he says, that the covenant is made with Abraham and ‘his seed’ (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:15; Genesis 24:7). Then he reminds them that the word for ‘seed’ is a singular collective noun, and can mean one (e.g. Genesis 4:25) or many, but even when referring to the many it means the many seen as one. We can see from this, therefore, that God deliberately avoided a word that could be used in the plural and chose a collective noun (that is what Paul was saying by his seemingly inaccurate grammar). And that was because in this case, while God had a collective seed in mind, He also had a final single seed in mind. He had in mind the Messiah (Christ) as ‘the seed of Abraham’ who would bring blessing to the world.

This argument is not quite as unreasonable as some have suggested. To Paul the whole human race could be summed up in one man (Romans 5:19). In the same way, he suggests, Abraham would also think of his descendants as one seed. Thus the ‘children of Israel’ called themselves ‘Israel’ because they were the seed of ‘Israel’ (i.e. of Jacob - in theory if not in fact).

Actually, humanly (but not grammatically) speaking, there were ‘seeds’ because Isaac alone became the bearer of the covenant seed (Genesis 17:19), while the seed of Ishmael, (while included later in a wider covenant), was excluded. So what a collective noun means is the summing up of everything in one example, and as we see this could be narrowed down. For regularly one man could represent the whole. Thus when David fought against Goliath as Israel’s champion it was not just he who fought, it was as though the whole of Israel fought with him. And when Goliath was beaten the Philistines recognised that in their champion’s defeat they too had been beaten, and they fled. The many were summed up in the one, and this was how the participants actually saw it. Isaiah uses this idea with regard to the Servant. The Servant was initially Abraham (Isaiah 41:1-8), and then the seed of Abraham (Isaiah 41:8 and regularly), and then because of the unfaithfulness of the whole the faithful of the seed of Abraham, his true seed (Isaiah 49:3), who was to ‘raise up the tribes of Jacob’ (Isaiah 49:1-6), and finally it was the One Who was par excellence the seed of Abraham, the One Who gave Himself for the sins of His sheep (Isaiah 53). The one became the many, and then became the One, all incorporated in the one seed, the seed of Abraham.

So Paul saw Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of all that Israel was called to do. He was God’s Champion, God’s seed. The children of Israel were one seed, but they failed. However, from that one seed would come one man, God’s Messiah, and through Him, and through those of the seed who would follow Him, would go God’s blessing to the nations. In ancient thinking one man could represent a nation, and a nation could be represented in one man. That is what Paul is saying here.

And again in Daniel 7 Israel is like ‘a son of man’ in comparison with the four wild beasts. It is ‘human’ rather than being ‘beastly’. But this ‘son of man’ also comes before God to receive his kingdom in a way which clearly represents one who stands for the many (Galatians 3:13-14). Their representative and king receives the kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14), and in him they receive it too (Daniel 7:27). This sums up Paul’s argument as well. It is misrepresenting it to say that it is just playing with grammar.

Comparison may be made with the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent in Genesis 3:15. The seed of the woman certainly represented mankind and the seed of the serpent the snakes that would be the curse of mankind. But behind the serpent lay a deadlier, mysterious foe. And he too, far more importantly, would be defeated by the seed of the woman, and we could add like Paul, ‘and that seed was Christ’. Indeed the defeat of that Serpent by Christ is one of the themes of the Book of Revelation.

So what Paul is signifying here is that it in the end it is to the one seed of Abraham that the promises were given, the One Seed Who represented the collective seed and in Whom they were summed up, just as the Servant is the One Man and is yet the many (Acts 13:47, for example, represents Christian preachers as the Servant). This included both past seed (Romans 3:25) and future seed. It is all summed up in Christ. For Paul certainly intends us to see that the promises of Abraham include the church of Christ as well as Christ Himself, although received through the One (compare Galatians 3:29 where he says so). That is the whole purpose of his argument.

Note that the whole argument also assumes that the church is now the seed of Abraham, the true ‘Israel of God’.


Verse 17

‘Now this I say. A covenant confirmed beforehand by God, the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years after cannot disannul, so as to make the promise of no effect.’

To put it another way. God, in His unmerited love and favour, gave the inheritance to Abraham and his seed by irrevocable promise. He promised that through them all the nations would be blessed. This was confirmed by God (repeatedly) and, as it were, put on record by Him. The Law came four hundred and thirty years afterwards (see Exodus 12:40 in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint). It cannot therefore set aside this irrevocable promise made to Abraham, for such a covenant is irrevocable. And the promise was established long before the Law was given, so its fulfilment cannot depend on fulfilling the Law, for the Law was another, later, covenant made in another context with another man, who also represented a whole, the whole of Israel.

Indeed Moses himself differentiated the two covenants in Deuteronomy 5:3. For he said, ‘Yahweh did not make this covenant (of the ten words at Sinai) with our fathers but with us, even us who are all of us here alive this day’. The covenant of Abraham had reference to the whole world. The covenant of Sinai had reference to the people gathered at the Mount and their seed. It was therefore more exclusive, and not so all-embracing.


Verse 18

‘For if the inheritance is of the Law, it is no more of promise. But God has granted it to Abraham by promise.’

The later inheritance, to be obtained by fulfilment of the Law, was dependent on fulfilling the Law. If that fulfilment failed the promise failed. But the promise to Abraham was given a long time before the Law ever existed, and at the time when it was given, it was not dependent on anything but the faithfulness of God. It was a free unfettered promise, and it included the nations of the world. Thus it has nothing to do with the Law, and can be enjoyed without recourse to the Law. It preceded the Law and transcends the Law.


Verse 19-20

‘What then is the Law? It was added because of transgressions until the seed should come to whom the promise has been made, ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not of one, but God is one.’

What was then the nature of the Law? It was a temporary measure, put in place to control sin until the promised Seed should come, who would bring God’s promised blessing to the world. Indeed it must be seen as inferior because intermediaries were involved. The Law came through angels (this is what the Judaisers taught), to Moses and the people, whereas Abraham received his promise directly from the one God. So the latter is a pure, irrevocable promise from God, while the former is a transaction carried out through intermediaries, which demonstrates its inferiority.

‘What then is the Law?’ That is, what is its nature and purpose?

‘It was added because of transgressions.’ There were of course customs and traditions that determined the behaviour of members of the tribe in the days of the patriarchs. But God had decided that because of man’s weakness and failure, and because of his disobedience and rebellion, and in order that He and they might have a standard by which men could be judged, and in order to give guidance to judges in that judgment, this had to be put into legal form as a direct command from God. This then removed any argument and gave the laws absolute authority.

For whereas in a family tribal situation (as in a family) the patriarch represented absolute authority, and could be appealed to personally, and could give his guidance personally, in a nation composed of a number of tribes (which also included a large number of foreign components - Exodus 12:38) it was different. This absolute authority had to be established by other means. Thus the Law was given, laying out and declaring how men should behave, and providing a standard against which they could be judged, so as to control transgression and reveal it for what it was.

So the Law had a number of effects because of what men were, and ‘because of transgressions’ can be seen from these different aspects.

· Firstly it can be seen as given to restrain transgressions. That is one main purpose of Law. All law has a restraining effect, seeking to persuade men not to sin. That is also indeed one function of a childminder (Galatians 3:23-25). So God wanted the Law to control men’s behaviour.

· Secondly it can be seen as given in order to reveal transgressions. Here the thought is that it makes clear to all that something is wrong and sinful. This was certainly one of Paul’s views of it. It results in man being guilty before God (compare Romans 3:20; Romans 4:15; Romans 5:13; Romans 7:7).

· Thirdly it can sadly result in provoking transgressions. This was another of Paul’s views of it, closely allied with the previous one (Romans 7:5; Romans 7:8). It was not given in order to provoke men to disobedience, but because of their perverse nature, there is nothing that more provokes men to disobey, than the injunction ‘you shall not --’. For they ask themselves, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ Thus it again reveals their sinfulness in a different way. It makes them ‘exceeding sinful’ (Romans 7:13) and thus reveals to them how needy they were

· But there is also one thing more that the Law does. It results in men being cursed by God. For as men transgressed that Law they became liable to the curse of God (Deuteronomy 27:26 compare Jeremiah 11:3). And the Law then also provided ways by which the curse could be diverted, by sacrifices, by washings, by observance of feasts and feast days and so on. But these could only be temporary. They could only delay sentence. For they could not take away sins (Romans 3:25).

‘Until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.’ But these stipulations only applied until the One Who was promised came, the One Who would bear the curse on Himself (Galatians 3:13). They were temporary until a greater Authority arrived. One Who could say, ‘But I say to you’ (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:28; Matthew 5:32; Matthew 5:34; Matthew 5:39; Matthew 5:44) and introduce a better Torah (‘Instruction’), a better Law. Then they would cease to apply. For now those who believed in Him would no longer be guilty before God. And they would have an Example to follow. And what was more they would have One Who lived within them. They would not longer need the Law.

‘Ordained by angels through the hand of a mediator.’ The Jews believed that the Law was mediated through angels (Hebrews 2:2; Acts 7:53). While God Himself declared the covenant which included the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the whole Law was seen as mediated through angels. These were seen as having acted as the mediator between God and men. Now, says Paul, where there is a mediator a covenant is transacted by three parties, the two participants and the mediator. But the promise to Abraham was not mediated in this way, nor did he have any direct part in it. It came directly from God. Thus it was more immediate.

‘Now a mediator is not of one, but God is One.’ Where there is a mediator to a covenant more than one party must be involved. That is why mediation takes place. Thus there are three parties connected with such a covenant, any one of whom may seek to introduce changes. And this indeed was what the Rabbis did (although they did not see it in that way) as they expounded the Law and laid down their differing determinations of its meaning. They were acting as mediators. That was true also of the covenant of Sinai and the giving of the Law. They were mediated through angels. But in the case of the promises to Abraham there was no mediator. It was like a will, or an irrevocable settlement. God said, and it was done. Only God was involved, and God is One. So that covenant with Abraham was a purely divine transaction, totally unalterable and irrevocable, and thus far superior to any other. For God is the unchanging God (Malachi 3:6), the One in Whom is no variableness, nor shadow resulting from His moving His position (James 1:17). He does not alter in what He has promised.


Verses 19-24

What Then Was the Purpose of the Law? (Galatians 3:19-24).

He now raises the question as to what the purpose of the Law is.


Verse 21

‘Is the Law then against the promises of God? God forbid. For if there had been a Law given which could make alive, truly righteousness would have been of the Law.’

Is the Law then in opposition to the promises of God? Not at all. No one will pay more reverence to the Law than Paul. There is no fault with it. It reveals sin. It is holy (Romans 7:7-12). Indeed had it been possible to give a Law that could give life, that is how righteousness would have been provided for us. But the trouble is that we are too sinful (Romans 7:14). All that the Law can do is mediate death to us, for, try as we might, we cannot keep the Law. Its final act, then, is to reveal to us our sinfulness and condemn us. It is not, however, the Law that is at fault, but us. Thus it fails as an instrument of salvation, not because of its weakness, but because of our weakness.


Verse 22

‘But the Scripture has shut up (concluded) all things under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.’

Indeed the Scripture declares that through the Law’s teaching, and through ‘the Law written in the heart’ (the conscience - Romans 2:14-16), the whole world, indeed the whole of creation (Romans 8:20-22), is imprisoned by sin (Romans 3:10-23). It is shut up in darkness. It stands condemned. And this was so that what was promised, which is given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given, not to those who keep the Law, but to those who believe in Him and receive the promise. That is, it is given to those who receive the promised Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; Acts 1:4; Acts 2:33) and the promise of salvation through Christ (Acts 13:23; Acts 13:32; Acts 26:6; Romans 1:1-2; 2 Timothy 1:1; 2 Peter 1:4). They come from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:18).

Old Testament passages that demonstrate that man is utterly sinful and ‘imprisoned’ by sin are abundant. See for example Psalms 130:3; Psalms 143:2; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 1:5-6 compare Psalms 142:7; Isaiah 61:1 Isaiah 42:7; Zechariah 9:11-12). And that is why in the end One had to come Who was without sin, so that He could bear the sin of the guilty (Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12).


Verses 23-25

‘But before faith came we were kept in ward (kept under restraint) under the Law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed, so that the Law has been our custodian to bring us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a custodian.’

Before this faith came then, we were kept in restriction under the Law, held under restraint like young children, until the way of faith should be revealed. The Law was like a pedagogue, a slave custodian, given responsibility to watch over a child’s conduct, discipline him and take him to and from school and generally watch over him. But he could not make him do what he ought to do. And he was often someone from whom the child longed to escape.

But now things have changed for the faith has been revealed, and the Law as our moral tutor and disciplinarian has brought us to Christ so that we could be reckoned as righteous by faith. And now his task is finished. For having come to Christ we no longer require a moral custodian, for He is now our all and we are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10).

Note the continued reference to ‘faith’ or ‘the faith’. The latter is the message of the Gospel, the former the response to that message. It is not always clear which idea is prominent, but the two always tie in together.

‘Kept under restraint.’ In Galatians 3:22 it is sin that keeps us under restraint, here it is the Law. But this is because sin receives its power from the Law (1 Corinthians 15:56; Romans 7:13).

‘But now that faith has come we are no longer under a custodian.’ This does not indicate a new dispensation. It rather reverts back to the time of Abraham. The Law was a temporary measure for Israel, which did not apply before the time of Moses, and which now no longer continues to apply in its judicial form, although still valid as an example. Now that Christ has come man can go back to the way of faith. The schoolmaster is no longer required for it has been replaced by the Master. As Abraham could look to God, Christians can look to Christ and be declared righteous by faith. The Law’s main function has ceased. It has been replaced in the crucified One in Whom the Christian lives, in Whom he is declared righteous, and through Whose power and example he now walks before God.


Verse 26

‘For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.’

For having responded to Christ we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight and are thus adopted as full grown sons, sons who have reached maturity, a sonship received ‘in Christ Jesus’, through faith. This will be expanded on shortly (Galatians 4:4-7). We are thus free from all restraint except the restraint of sonship. We are no longer children subjected to rules and regulations, but like Abraham full grown sons who respond to the Father, because we are ‘in Christ’ and through faith have become one with Him. We no longer need restraints. As grown up sons we want to please our Father.


Verse 27

‘For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ, have put on (‘clothed themselves with’) Christ.’

The whole context forbids us as seeing this as suggesting that baptism mechanically results in ‘putting on Christ’. It demands that this means ‘you have responded in faith (that is what the passage is all about) and that is why you have been baptised, and have put on Christ.’ At that time those who responded to the message of the cross were immediately baptised, separating them off from the unbaptised world, and signalling their reception of the Holy Spirit. Their baptism was the sign of their response of faith in a heathen world, and revealed that they had died with Christ and had risen with Him to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). At the same time they were ‘incorporated by an overwhelming experience (baptizo) in the Spirit into the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). Thus Christ now dwells within them (Galatians 2:20) and they have ‘clothed themselves’ (enduo) with Christ.


Verse 28

‘There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

And as all who are His are ‘sons of God’ there can be no difference between them. Being a Jew or a Gentile (thought of by Jews as ‘dogs’) has been done away in Christ, a full answer to the Judaisers. The Gentile does not have to become a Jew because in Christ he stands in an equal position of acceptability before God without doing so. (But he does become a member of the new Israel, the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) which incorporates both Jews and Gentiles. That is the central message of Ephesians 2:11-22. ‘Jew’ does not equal ‘Israel’, it is Jewish distinctiveness that is in mind here). Furthermore being bond-slaves or free makes no difference for they are now brothers (Philemon 1:16), of equal standing before God and in each others eyes. Many saw slaves as mere chattels, not as persons (Aristotle called them ‘animated tools’), but Christ has changed all that for in Christ they are brothers. Even the distinction between male and female has been done away. No longer should the male arrogantly lord it over the female. They should recognise their equal worth before God. For ‘in Christ’ all are equal, of equal honour and of equal standing. For they are all ‘sons of God’ and united as one in Him. This relates, of course, to their standing and status before God, not to their inter-relationships within the world.

In the Christian world the difference between Jew and Gentile ceased because every individual became of equal worth. In Christ such distinctions cease. So the Law no longer affects them. Master and slave becomes a relationship between two brothers, a revolutionary concept, even though one still legally had rights over the other. And the female gains a position of equality with the male. This latter was especially important in view of the low opinion of women held by many, especially by the Pharisees, who would pray, ‘I thank God you have not made me a woman’, but they were not alone in their opinion.

But while this will affect the behaviour between these different functionaries in society it is not describing how that behaviour will be conducted. Many slaves of benevolent Christian masters would not want to be freed. There were worse things than slavery under a benevolent master. And women were still to recognise the ‘lordship’ of their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33), and be ‘in subjection’ to them. There were still masters and servants. But in Christ they were all of equal value.


Verse 29

‘And if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.’

The idea of being ‘clothed with Christ’ and indwelt by Christ is now connected back with the promise given to Abraham (Galatians 3:7-8; Galatians 3:16) and connected forward with the reception of the promised Holy Spirit (Galatians 4:6-7). Once a person is ‘in Christ’, and Christ is in him, he is a child of Abraham and inherits the promise of blessing. He becomes the heir of Abraham’s blessing. Christians become ‘the seed of Abraham’ towards whom all the promises were made. They become the true Israel.

And it is Christians and they alone who do so. The corollary is that those who are not in Christ are not children of Abraham. Thus do we see the significance of the single seed (Galatians 3:16). In the final analysis the seed of Abraham comprises Christ and all those redeemed in Christ, whether of the Old Testament faithful or of the New. The church is the new Israel, the ‘Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16; Romans 2:28-29; Romans 11:17; Ephesians 2:19-20), replacing the old who had disqualified themselves by refusing to enter into the blessing (although they are still welcome if they will return through Christ).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Galatians 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/galatians-3.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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