III.B.v. The Law’s role temporary (3:19-25)

19 “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. 22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

Paul has some explaining to do. The Law, given by God, communicated by Moses, hallowed by the patina of 1500 years, honoured and elaborated by debate and tradition: if faith was now the thing, as Paul insisted, what purpose had it served? Was that 1500 wasted years? Or had there been a point to it all?

19. So Paul puts that very question: “Why then was the law given?” (net). The Greek is even more terse: “Why then the law?”

“It was added because of transgressions,” Paul explains. is is in line with his teaching elsewhere. Those who love God and love their neighbours, deeply, truly, need no laws telling them what to do and what not to do. Laws are to keep potential law-breakers in line, and to provide a just basis for restraining and disciplining those who do not love God and neighbour: “The law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for men-stealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Tim 1:9-10).

Even then, it was strictly time-limited, “till the seed should come to whom the promise was made”: that is, until the coming of Jesus Christ. Now that the son of Abraham and son of David had arrived, the Law had been decommissioned. God has a different way of dealing with sinners. For law-breakers, the Law stands; but for those who accept the New Covenant, its place is taken by faith and grace, by the example of love and the response of love. But Paul, content with this sideways glance, sticks to his line.

“It was ordained by angels”: this detail is not provided in the Old Testament record, but Stephen makes a similar statement: Israel “received the law by the disposition of angels” (Acts 7:53 cf also Heb 2:2). Josephus also states the Jewish tradition: “we have learned from God the most excellent of our doctrines, and the most holy part of our law, by angels or ambassadors” (Antiquities of the Jews, 15.5.3).

But the angels did not communicate directly with Israel, except very briefly; and Paul makes something of this, saying, “It was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.” The promises of God to Eve, to Abraham, to David, were given by grace, and received in faith and joy. The Law, on the other hand, was written down, carved in stone by angels, and put into the hands of Moses so that he could pass it on to Israel; who received it with fear and trembling. It is true that there had been a moment, a day, when God spoke directly to His people; but Israel were appalled and repelled by such a close encounter with the living God. They shrank back, putting as much distance as they could between themselves and the presence of God. They begged Moses, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exod 20:18-21 cf Deut 5:4-5, 24-31). No recipient of a promise ever made such a request: Adam celebrated God’s promise by giving his wife a new name; Abram went forth, drew near, worshipped; David went in and sat before God. But the Jewish people speci cally asked God not to speak to them, but to Moses only.

20. Paul continues, “Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.” This rather elliptical statement has been interpreted in many different ways, but the context explains. Paul is underlining the inferiority of the Law: it did not provide positively for righteousness; rather, it was put in place to limit transgression. It was temporary, “till the seed should come” to inherit the promises (v19). Apart from that first awe-full day, it was not given directly by God to Israel but, at their request, handed on via angels to the mediator, Moses. The fact of a mediator implies two parties alienated from each other, who can be reconciled only by the go between. The promises, on the other hand, were expressions of the grace of God to men and women whom He loved and sought to redeem and bless. The promises were expressions of God’s grace; they brought true righteousness, the righteousness which is of God by faith; they were given by the one God to people at one with Him; they were eternal. They were notably superior to the Law.

21. The obvious question arises, “Is the Law then against the promise of God?” We are as prone to assume some inevitable conflict between promise and law as the Judaists of the first century; but it is just as great an error today as it was then. The Law was “holy, and just, and good” (Rom 7:12-13, 16). Within a certain society, for a defined time, for particular purposes, it revealed the righteousness of God in a limited way and pointed to a greater righteousness above and beyond and outside of itself (3:21-22). But it never cut across, still less cancelled out, the promises of God. The Law was never intended to be the pathway to righteousness and life. That was always the purpose of God’s promises.

Three metaphors for the Law

22. Paul introduces the first of three metaphors – the judge: “The scripture hath concluded all under sin.” Paul does not provide any proof here, but in Romans, a fuller statement of the same truths, he provides ample proof, stringing together Psalms 14 and 53 and 5 and 140. These provide ample evidence, says Paul – proof, in fact – with respect to “both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin” (Rom 3:9). “All under sin,” therefore; and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). There is only one way to escape such a terrible sentence: a comprehensive pardon and an absolute transformation. And that has been God’s purpose all along: “that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.”

23. The second of Paul’s metaphors is closely related – the prison warden. “Before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” Scripture has pronounced one verdict on all humanity: they are sinners. Their punishment? To be locked up under law. This is obviously true of Israel; but when we remember that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die,” we recognise that the law of sin and death has always applied to all, regardless of whether they know God’s law or not. But suddenly into our darkness came the Lord’s Anointed, preaching good news of blessing, healing, freedom from the shackles and the prison house – the Lord’s year of grace (Isa 61:1-2).

24. Paul’s third metaphor follows at once – the guardian slave: “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” The term schoolmaster suggests a teacher but that is the wrong idea. Barclay puts it well: “In the Greek world there was a household servant called the paidagōgos. He was not the schoolmaster. He was usually an old and trusted slave who had been long in the family and whose character was high. He was in charge of the child’s moral welfare and it was his duty to see that he acquired the qualities essential to true manhood. He had one particular duty; every day he had to take the child to and from school. He had nothing to do with the actual teaching of the child, but it was his duty to take him in safety to the school and deliver him to the teacher. That – said Paul – was like the function of the law. It was there to lead a man to Christ. It could not take him into Christ’s presence, but it could take him into a position where he himself might enter” (Daily Study Bible). We enter Christ by faith, of course; and we are justified by God when we believe Him and put our trust in Him, not for a moment, but for a lifetime.

25. The time comes when the judge, the prison warden, the guardian slave are no longer needed: “After that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” The time has come for us to grow up: to step away from the Law, to step out of the prison, to graduate from school, to come of age and embrace the life of faith. For many verses Paul has been commenting on the past; but now he turns to the present.

III.B.vi. Now we are sons! (3:26-29)

26. ”For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. 27. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

26. The reality is that we are no longer convicted prisoners or immature children: “ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”

27. How so? “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The underlying metaphor of the covering garment goes back to the Garden of Eden, where God recognized the faith of Adam and Eve in His promise, and provided them with a skin to cover their nakedness, provided by “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”. The metaphor was prominent in the Law, where the term “to make atonement” is the Hebrew kâphar, ‘to cover’, “atonement” is kippûr, ‘a covering’, and the mercy seat, the lid for the ark that was also the place of atonement, is kappôreth. But the intention is not to conceal sin, as if it might fester away beneath. Transformation is God’s purpose; and so the saints are given “the garment of praise” (Isa 61:3), the wedding garment that all who are called should wear (Matt 22:12), the fine linen, which is the righteousness of saints in Jesus Christ, given by God at baptism to those who believe Him and commit themselves to a life of discipleship in the way of the Lord, leading to the ultimate goal, the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9).

28. “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Obviously baptism does not change our ethnicity or our cultural background, our social situation or our sex. Paul’s point is not that these things disappear; rather, that salvation in Christ is for every person, without prejudice, without distinction. That salvation creates one people, with one history and one future.

29. And so he concludes, “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”.

The Judaisers had argued, ‘If ye be circumcised as Abraham was, and keep the Law, then and only then are ye Abraham’s seed’. But Paul has shown convincingly that the Law was limited in its purpose and scope, and temporary; and now the time had come for Jew and non-Jew to put these things behind them and step forward as mature children of God in Jesus Christ, living in faith, rejoicing in grace, living in the Spirit.