The Letter to the Galatians was written before Acts 15 Church Council.

Excerpt: Galatians was written after the great disagreement between the believers in Antioch (Acts 15:2; Gal 2), but before the Church Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15; therefore somewhere in AD48-50.  The letter to the Galatians, therefore, represents Paul’s argument before the Church Council, and the Church Council decision substantially made an end to the dispute in the letter to the Galatians. 

SUMMARY

Both Galatians and Acts 15 mention a visit by Paul to Jerusalem and a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch, but the two cities are mentioned in reverse sequences:

The visit to Jerusalem in the letter to the Galatians was a private meeting with a small number of important people, while the visit to Jerusalem in Acts resulted in a large public meeting with a formal church council decision.  For this and other reasons, these were two different visits to Jerusalem.

But the two disputes in Antioch are the same.  Both were caused by men that came from the church headquarters in Jerusalem and taught that, unless you (Gentile Christians) are circumcised, you cannot be saved.

On this basis a threefold sequence is proposed:

      1. First an informal visit to the leaders in Jerusalem,
      2. Followed by the public dispute in Antioch,
      3. which was resolved through a formal Council decision in Jerusalem.

Since the letter to the Galatians does not mention the Jerusalem decision, it must have been written before that decision, therefore somewhere in AD48-50.

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE

To prepare for a discussion of the early development of the church, this page reconciles events in Jerusalem and Antioch, described in Acts, with the events in the same cities, described in Galatians.  This will help to determine where the letter to the Galatians fits into the early development of the church.

DATES

See here for a table with dates for key events in the early church.  As indicated by this table, chronologists do not always exactly agree on the dates, but they more or less agree.  For that reason, the dates in this article are all approximated.

LETTER TO THE GALATIANS

The letter to the Galatians mentions:

  • A visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (2:1-10)
  • Followed by a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch (2:11-24)

ACTS OF THE APOSTLES

Acts mentions the two cities in the opposite sequence:

      • First a dispute between Paul and other Christians in Antioch (15:1-2)
      • Followed by a visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (15:4-30)

TWO DIFFERENT VISITS TO JERUSALEM

Some argue that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-10 is the same as his visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15.  There are similarities, such as:

      • The key issue in both visits is whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised (Gal 2:3; Acts 15:5).
      • In both Barnabas went with Paul (Gal 2:1; Acts 15:2).

DIFFERENCES

However, the details of the two visits are too different to refer to the same visit:

      • In the letter to the Galatians, Paul took Titus along as an example of the work he does under the Gentiles (Gal. 2:1, 3), but there is no mention of Titus in Acts 15.
      • According to Galatians, Paul went to Jerusalem “because of a revelation” (Gal 2:2), but in Acts it was because of a decision of the brethren in Antioch (15:2).
      • In Galatians, Paul visited “those who were of reputation” “in private” (Gal 2:2). According to Acts, “they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders” (15:4), and the entire church council, consisting of the “apostles and the elders” (15:6, 22) decided the matter.
      • Galatians indicates that “those who were of high reputation” (Gal. 2:6, 9) simply “gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (2:9). In Acts there was a formal church council decision, where-after leading men from the Jerusalem church were chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas with a formal letter explaining the decision “to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles” (15:23).

OTHER INDICATIONS

Further indications that the visit to Jerusalem in Gal 2:1-10 cannot be the council decision in Acts 15, include:

    • If the visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as in Acts 15, then the council decision was taken before the incident in Antioch in Gal. 2:11-24 and therefore before the letter to the Galatians was written. But this is very unlikely because Paul would then have mentioned the Jerusalem decision in the letter to the Galatians because the entire purpose of Galatians is to argue against the circumcision of Gentiles.
    • If Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as the Acts 15 church council meeting, then James would not have sent men afterward to Antioch to preach the circumcision of Gentiles (Gal. 2:12).  Also, Peter and the other Jews would not have responded in Antioch the way they did (Gal. 2:12-13).

It is therefore proposed that these two visits to Jerusalem were not the same.

ONLY ONE DISPUTE IN ANTIOCH

It is rather proposed that the two disputes in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21; Acts 15:1-2) are the same.  Both disputes were caused by “men (that) came down from Judea” (Acts 15:1) (“from James” Gal. 2:10) and taught “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1) (“the party of the circumcision” – Gal 2:12).

SEQUENCE OF EVENTS

On that basis the following sequence of events is proposed:

      1. Knowing that a dispute would burst out in the open, the Spirit first led Paul to informally visitthose who were of reputation” (Gal 2:2) in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10).
      2. This is followed by the dispute in Antioch, described in both Galatians 2:11-24 and Acts 15:1-2.
      3. This is followed by the more formal visit to Jerusalem, to resolve the dispute through a formal Council decision (15:4-30)

WHEN WAT THE LETTER TO THE GALATIANS WRITTEN?

We are now able to date Galatians relative to these three events.  Since Galatians mentions the dispute in Antioch but does not mention the Jerusalem decision, and since that decision is critical for the topic in Galatians, namely whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised and live like Jews, it is proposed that Galatians was written by Paul while on his way to Jerusalem after the Antioch incident.  Since the Jerusalem council decision is dated to AD48-50 (about 20 years after Christ’s death) it means that Galatians was written during those same years.  It would make Galatians the earliest of Paul’s letters.

This conclusion corroborates with the information in Gal. 2:1-10, namely that the first visit to Jerusalem was “after an interval of fourteen years” (Gal. 2:1).  The key event mentioned in the previous chapter is Paul’s Damascus-conversion (1:16) in AD35.  It is, therefore, possible that the first visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was “fourteen years” after AD35, which will bring it to AD49.  On the assumption that the Antioch-dispute and the Jerusalem church council decision happened within a year or two after the first visit, the Jerusalem council meeting could have been in AD50.

NEXT: Building …
TO: Galatians Table of Content

Overview of Galatians Chapters 1 to 3

This is a summary of the various articles on this website that discuss Galatians chapters one to three.  Please refer to these articles for more detail.

GOSPEL DISTORTED

Paul himself founded the churches in Galatia (1:8), but after he left, some people, probably Jewish Christians from the church in Jerusalem (2:17), arrived and preached a dangerously distorted gospel (1:6-9).  Their intention was to force Gentile Christians to be circumcised (2:3, 12) and to live like Jews (2:14).  They reasoned that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  To use terminology from Galatians, they argued that man is justified by the works of the Law (2:16).

Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to correct this distortion and to prevent the circumcision of Gentile Christians.

IN VAIN

Paul was concerned that the Galatian Christians suffered so many things “in vain” (3:4; 4:10). This implies that the Christians that complied with the demands of the Jewish Christians, were at risk of losing their eternal inheritance. 

THE REAL DANGER

The battle was around circumcision, but circumcision, in itself, was not the danger.  The real danger lies in the thinking that people are put right with God through their own efforts (3:3).  People who try to earn their salvation will soon realize that they are not able to keep God’s law. They will, therefore, add a large number of demanding rules and regulations to God’s law to force themselves to obey God’s law.  But such a system of laws turns the mind away from God to self.  It kills love for God, and when love for God dies, love for fellow beings also perishes.  It leads to selfish and narrow-minded criticism of all who fail to comply, and this kills compassion. 

TRADITION OF THE ELDERS

The Judaism of Paul’s day was a good illustration of such a system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation. Christians that become trapped in such a system are at risk of eternal loss.  This is the danger that could cause the Galatian Christians to suffer so many things “in vain.”

PAUL’S DEFENSE

Paul opposes this dangerously distorted gospel in a number of ways:

      • He received his message directly from God.
      • The Church Leaders accepted his message.
      • There is no need to circumcise Gentile Christians.
      • People are justified through faith; not by the works of the Law, and
      • Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses.

FROM GOD

In the first two chapters, Paul defends the supernatural source of his message.  He claimed that:

He is “an apostle” (1:1), which means to be sent by God.

He was set apart even from his mother’s womb and called through God’s grace to preach Him among the Gentiles (1:15-16; 2:7-8). This gives Paul the right to prescribe to the Gentile Christians what they must do and not do.

He received his message from God, not from men (1:1, 11-12, 16-19; 2:6).

ACCEPTED BY CHURCH LEADERS

The church leaders in Jerusalem accepted his message (2:9).  This acceptance is illustrated by Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile, whom he took along with him on his visit to the church headquarters in Jerusalem, where the church leaders did not compel Titus to be circumcised (2:3, 9).

ISRAEL IS NO LONGER THE CHOSEN NATION

Paul concludes chapter 3 with the statement that, in Christ, all people are equal.  He wrote, “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (3:28).

Judaism made a sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile.  It viewed Israel as God’s special chosen people (Romans 11:1), but Gentiles as “sinners” (2:15).

Jewish Christians, by arguing “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:3; 6:13, 12), and by compelling “Greeks”, such as Titus, “to be circumcised” (2:3; 6:13), attempted to maintain the difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised Christians.  This caused a rift in the church and tension between circumcised and uncircumcised Christians.

It is this rift that Paul was trying to heal by stating that people that, in Christ, all people are equal.  It is a correction of the distortion that argues that there remains a difference between circumcised and uncircumcised Christians from God’s perspective.  What Paul effectively is saying is that there remains no need to circumcise Gentile Christians.

It is rather strange that Paul does not use the Jerusalem church council decision, as recorded in Acts 15, to support this position.  The issue on the table was whether Gentiles must be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 3, 5), and the church council agreed with Paul that Gentiles must not be circumcised (Act 15:19-20).  Perhaps the church council took place only after Galatians was written.  One person proposed that Galatians was written while Paul was on his way to Jerusalem for the church council.

JUSTIFICATION

In 2:16 Paul states that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus”.  In doing so, he attacks the foundation for the demand that Gentile Christians be circumcised.

This statement not only explains that “man is not justified by the works of the Law” (2:16), but also provides the correct method of justification, namely “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16; 3:10).  The question in Galatia was therefore how one is justified.  To be justified means to be put right with God.  It does not mean to become without sin.  The question is how a sinful human being is put right with God:

By arguing that one is justified by the works of the Law of Moses, the Jewish Christians from the church in Jerusalem argued that man is put right with God by performing the external deeds required by the Law of Moses, seeking to thereby earn justification.

By arguing that one is justified through faith in Christ Jesus, Paul argued that man is put right with God by what goes on in his mind.  “Faith” is the internal mind-set that trusts God and relies on His merciful-kindness (grace).  To summarize Romans 7 in a single sentence, there is no condemnation for one that wants to do what is right, even though he continues to sin.

Many people see the statement that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” as the key message of the letter to the Galatians, but it is merely the reason why Gentile Christians must not be circumcised.  The key issue in the letter is whether Gentile Christians must be compelled to be circumcised and to live like Jews.

Many people interpret the statement that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” as a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith.  However, this argument was used to oppose the error that links salvation to the Law of Moses, and it should not be applied out of context, as if somebody would be saved merely on the basis of the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, while persevering in the lusts of the body.  The faith that saves is not mere conviction that Jesus is the Messiah.  Faith that saves wants to act in accordance with God’s Law; not the Law of Moses, but God’s Law as explained by Christ.

How Justified

After recounting certain historical events in the first two chapters, concluding chapter 2 with his speech to the Jewish Christians at Antioch, chapter 3 shifts the focus to the Galatians specifically.  The first two chapters define the key issue, concluding with the statement that “man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus”.  Chapter 3 provides support for this statement in a number of ways:

Paul provides various arguments in support of justification through faith.  He argues as follows:

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (3:6; Gen. 15:6).  If this was true for Abraham, it should also be true for all Christians (3:7), because they are his children (3:29, 7).

God promised to Abraham that “all the nations will be blessed in you” (3:8), which means that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (3:8).

Even the Old Testament confirms that “the righteous man shall live by faith” (3:11; Habakkuk 2:4].  “Live by” is an Old Testament expression that means to be justified (to be right with God).

Paul interpreted the promise to Abraham, that “all the nations will be blessed in you“, as that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (3:8), and adds that this promise was received hundreds of years before the law, and therefore the law did not invalidate the promise (3:15, 17-18).

The promises, which God made Abraham, were actually received by Christ (3:16, 19).  Thus everything belongs to Christ.  The only way that people can become “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29) is “in Christ Jesus” (3:14), which means that they “belong to Christ” (3:29).

Some of his arguments support both the view that man is not justified by the works of the Law and the view that man is justified through faith:

The Galatians did not have to perform “the works of the Law” to receive the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit (3:2, 5).  All they had to do was to believe what they heard (3:2, 5).

The Galatians began their lives as Christians in the power of the Spirit, but now they are trying to “perfect” their lives by their own power (3:3), which is illogical.

Unless one does “everything written in the Book of the Law”, one is “under a curse” (3:10, quoting Deut. 27:26).  Scripture has shut up everyone under sin (3:22), which means that the Old Testament declares that all people sin (Romans 3:9, 23).  Therefore the law is not “able to impart life” (not able to grant “righteousness”) (3:21).  Therefore (note the words “so that” in 3:22) the promise (to impart life) is “given to those who believe (3:22).

Not subject to the Law of Moses

Another important argument used by Paul against this distortion is that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses.  Chapter 2 contains three veiled indications of this.  Both the reference to Christ as “a minister of sin” (2:17) and the reference to something which Paul “destroyed” (2:18) are interpreted above as implying that the Law of Moses is not binding on Christians.  Furthermore, Paul’s statement that he died to the Law (2:19) means to be released from serving by the letter the Law.  Chapter 3 states more directly that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses:

Paul wrote that the Law was “added” (to the promises – 3:18), but only “until the seed (Christ) would come” (3:19, 16).  The law served as a “tutor … to Christ” (3:23-24), “but now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (3:25).

But this does not mean that Christians are lawless.  Paul taught that Christians are subject to the “law of God”, but not in the form given to Moses.  Rather, Christians are subject to the “law of Christ” (6:2).  Christ did not interpret the Law given to Moses; Christ actually replaced it with His own laws.

Israel in prophecy

Large church groups still today maintain a future special and separate role for Israel in God’s plan.  This view is opposed in articles on Romans 9 and 11 on this website.  Galatians confirms that literal Israel no longer exists as a separate entity in God’s plan:

  • Circumcision is “the sign of the covenant between Me and you (Abraham)” (Gen.17:11), but Paul argued “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision” (6:15; 5:6). Since circumcision has been annulled it seems to stand to reason that physical Israel, as a separate entity in God’s plan, has expired.
  • God gave to Abraham both the promises and circumcision (Gen 17:10). Paul sets aside circumcision, but Paul does not set aside the promises.  These promises remain valid (3:29).  To the discomfort of many Jewish Christians, he taught that Gentiles are now regarded as “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29; 14), even without circumcision. They share in the “inheritance” (3:18) promised to Abraham.  This is another way of saying that they are justified (3:7-8; Romans 4:13, 16). However, the statement that “those who are of faith … are sons of Abraham” (3:7, see also 3:16, 29) also means that non-believing Jews are no longer be regarded as “Abraham’s descendants”.       They have no claim to be “heirs according to promise”, which also implies that physical Israel, as a separate entity in God’s plan, has expired.

    >>> Galatians Table of Contents

Galatians 3:26-29 – All believers are heirs to the promises which God made to Abraham.

SUMMARY

In Christ Jesus, all believers are sons of God and heirs to the promises which God made to Abraham.  In Christ Jesus, there is no distinction between the chosen nation and other nations or races: We are all equal.

Some Jewish Christians of Paul’s day demanded that Gentile Christians be circumcised. Circumcision was the sign of the Jewish nation. The thinking of these Jewish Christians was the notion in Judaism that Israel is God’s special people on earth and that, through circumcision, Gentile Christians become part of the chosen nation.

Paul responded and wrote, “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” He, thereby, indicated that ethnic Israel is no longer God’s chosen nation or superior to the other nations, from God’s perspective.  Circumcision of Gentiles would be to acknowledge the erroneous notion of Israel’s superiority. For that reason, there remains no need to circumcise Gentile Christians into the chosen nation.

God gave both the promises and circumcision to Abraham. Paul set physical circumcision aside but interpreted the promises spiritually and still valid.  But he taught that ALL Christians, including uncircumcised Gentile Christians, are heirs of the promises made to Abraham, while NONE of the non-believing Jews are heirs to the promises.

Since circumcision has been annulled, and since non-believing Jews no longer are regarded as Abraham’s descendants, ethnic Israel no longer has a special role in God’s plan.

GALATIANS 3:26-29

3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 3:28
– There is neither Jew nor Greek,
– there is neither slave nor free man,
– there is neither male nor female;
– for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.


IN CHRIST, BELIEVERS ARE SONS OF GOD.

The phrase “in Christ” appears in both verses 26 and 28.  Verse 26 reads, “through faith in Christ Jesus.” This is often understood as to believe in Jesus. However, in verse 28, and in many other places (e.g. 2:14), the phrase “in Christ” appears without a reference to faith. As explained in the article In Christ, the phrase “in Christ” has a special meaning. It indicates a mysterious unity between Christ and the believer. The current verses reflect this unity as follows:

      • Baptized into Christ
      • Clothed with Christ;
      • In Christ; and
      • Belong to Christ

Since the phrase “in Christ” means to be united with Christ, the phrase “through faith in Christ Jesus” can be understood as consisting of two parts:

      • Through faith (in God) we become united with Christ.
      • In Christ, since He is the Son of God, we are sons of God (v26). And since He is the true seed of Abraham, if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Verse 29).

ISRAEL IS NO LONGER THE CHOSEN NATION.

The main purpose of the current verses is to say that, in Christ, all believers are equal.  Differences, such as “Jew … Greek… slave … free man … male … female” (3:28), no longer exist.  Obviously, physical differences remain. They are different but equal. To understand this, we need to appreciate the context:

Judaism made a sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile. It thought of Israel as God’s special people (Romans 11:1) and regarded Gentiles as “sinners” (Gal. 2:15). Jews were not even allowed to associate with the uncircumcised. Judaism allowed Gentiles to join Judaism, but only if they are circumcised and observe the Jewish customs.  However, even then the converted Gentiles were regarded as second-class citizens of God’s kingdom.

Jewish Christians argued, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; Gal. 2:3; 6:13, 12). They, therefore, maintained a distinction between the circumcised Christians and uncircumcised Christians. By implication, these Jewish Christians attempted to maintain the notions of Israel as God’s chosen nation and they demanded that other people must submit to circumcision to share in the privileges of the chosen nation. 

In this context, Paul stated that all believers are equal. Paul’s purpose in writing the letter to the Galatians was to resist the pressure on Gentile Christians to be circumcised, but on a deeper level, what Paul effectively was saying is that ethnic Israel is no longer the chosen nation. For that reason, there remains no need to circumcise Gentile Christians.

HEIRS ACCORDING TO THE PROMISE

God gave to Abraham both the promises and circumcision (Gen 17:10). God called circumcision “the sign of the covenant between Me and you (Abraham)” (Gen.17:11).  By calling it nothing (6:15), Paul set physical circumcision aside.  But he did not set the promises aside.  He interpreted them spiritually (3:8) and still valid (3:29).  However, to the discomfort of many Jewish Christians, he taught that only people who belong to Christ are now regarded as “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29; 14). This excludes non-believing Jews (Rom. 2:28) but includes believing Gentiles, even without circumcision.  As stated by Ephesians:

“My insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known … that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:4-6).

CHOSEN NATION

Large church groups today maintain a future special but separate role for ethnic Israel in God’s plan. This view is opposed by articles on Romans 9 and 11 on this website. Galatians confirms as follows that literal Israel no longer exists as a separate entity in God’s plan:

Circumcision is “the sign of the covenant between Me and you (Abraham)” (Gen.17:11), but Paul stated, “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision” (6:15; 5:6).  Since circumcision has been annulled, physical Israel, as a separate entity in God’s plan, has expired.

Christian Gentiles are now also “Abraham’s descendants” (3:29), while non-believing Jews are not (3:16, 29).

NEXT: Overview of Galatians Chapters 1 to 3
TO: Galatians – List of Articles
TO: Romans – List of Articles

 

Galatians 3:19-25 – God gave the Law of Moses to Israel to serve as their guardian.

Excerpt: God gave the Law of Moses to Israel to serve as their guardian to keep them on the right path. The Law was never able to impart eternal life: Eternal life is granted those who believe. This was true before Christ came and is still true today. When Christ came, He became our Tutor, and we no longer need the Law to keep us on the right path.

GALATIANS 3:19-25

3:19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels (cf. Acts 7:53) by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. 3:20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one.

3:21 Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. 3:22 But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
3:23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.  3:24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ,
so that we may be justified by faith. 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE LAW OF MOSES?

In the previous verses, Paul explained that Christ, as the true seed of Abraham, inherited the covenant-promises. Furthermore, “in Christ” the Gentiles also share in the promise. This is why Paul now raises the question, “why the law then?” What is the purpose of the Law?

He starts his explanation by stating that the Law “was added” to the covenant 430 years after the covenant was made. Perhaps the point is that the Law came much later.

Paul continues and says that the Law was added “because of transgressions” (3:19). After hundreds of years in Egypt, Israel has strayed far from God.  For that reason, God added the Law. Verses 23 and 24 explain the purpose of the Law further:

We (Jews) were kept in custody under the law” (3:23).
The law has become our (the Jews’) tutor to lead us to Christ” (3:24).

(“We” and “our” in Galatians often refer to the Jews. For example, “We are Jews by nature” (2:15).)

The Greek word that is translated “tutor” (v24) refers to a person who takes children to school. The NIV translates it as “guardian.” In other words, the Law was added to guide Israel on the right path.

The Law, which includes the Ten Commandments, therefore, must not be understood as prohibitions, but as mercy; as a wall of protection against sin. The real destroyer is sin.

THE COVENANT PROMISES ETERNAL LIFE.

Paul’s second question in the current section is: Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God?” (3:21)

The “promises” refer to the covenant which God made with Abraham. 

This question is, therefore, about the relationship between the Covenant and the Law. If only the covenant matters, as Paul stated in the previous section, what is the purpose of the law?

Paul explains that the Law does not contradict the covenant because the Law and the Promises have different functions. Paul contrasts the Law with the promises and says that the law cannot “impart life” (v21), which implies, as Paul understood the covenant, that its promises do “impart life.”

(“Life” refers to “eternal life” (Gal. 6:8), which is the opposite of “corruption” (Gal. 6:8; cf. Rom. 6:23). See Eternal Life and Eternal Torment for a discussion of these concepts according to Paul, Jesus and the book of Revelation.)

Paul, therefore, thought of the covenant promises as a promise of eternal life.

THE LAW CANNOT IMPART LIFE.

Verse 21 states that the Law cannot impart “life” or “righteousness” (v21). To give “righteousness” is a synonym for to justify; to put people right with God.

Verse 22 explains why the Law cannot save: “The Scripture has shut up everyone under sin.” This means that the Scriptures declare all people to be sinners.  For that reason (note the words “so that), “the promise” (of the covenant) is “given to those who believe” (v22). In other words, nobody can be saved on the basis of their deeds. Therefore, God saves people by what goes on in their minds; that which they wish for and admire; and their trust in God.

This is the main theme of the letter to the Galatians:

      • Man is not justified by the works of the Law,
      • But through faith in Christ Jesus (2:16).

CHRIST SET THE LAW OF MOSES ASIDE.

The Seed … to whom the promise had been made” (3:19) is Christ (3:16).

The statement that the Law was “added” (3:18), but only “until the seed would come” (3:19) means that, when “the seed” came, the Law has served its purpose and has been set aside. This is stated categorically in verse 25:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”

This idea, that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses, is already contained in earlier statements in Galatians 2:

Died to the Law” (2:19; cf. Rom. 7:6) means that obedience to the Law is no longer required.

That which Paul “once destroyed” (Gal. 2:18) is the “dividing wall,” which is “the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Eph. 2:15).

The Acts 15 Church Council agreed that Gentiles are not subject to the Law, but Paul’s point is that even Jewish Christians are no longer “under the law” (3:23).

PAUL SERVED THE LAW OF GOD.

Some people might argue that Christians must comply at least with the moral aspects of the Mosaic Law and that Galatians 3:19-25 is a warning against the wrong use of that Law. They might quote Romans 3:31 and similar verses, for example, “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God” (Romans 7:25). 

However, Galatians is rather clear that the Mosaic Law has been set aside. This includes circumcision and even the Ten Commandments. Also, consider the wider context of the letter. Paul is resisting the circumcision of the Gentiles and people that compel Gentiles to live like Jews. This also confirms that the Law of Moses has been set aside. 

PAUL SERVED THE LAW OF CHRIST.

To Christians who want to retain the Law of Moses, I would like to say that Paul did teach that Christians are subject to the “law of God,” but not in the form given to Israel through Moses. Rather, Christians are subject to the “Law of Christ:

Paul said of himself that he was
not being without the law of God
but under the law of Christ
” (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby
fulfill the law of Christ
” (Gal. 6:2).

SERMON ON THE MOUNT

A reading of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-) will show that Christ did not interpret the Law given to Moses, but replaced it with His own laws, for instance:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ …
But I say to you that … whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
” (Mat 5:21-22)

Here Christ replaces one of the Ten Commandments with His own version of that commandment. In this way, Christ replaced the entire Law of Moses with the fundamental principles that existed ever since creation, of which the laws given to Moses were adaptations suitable for the specific time and place and people.

DID CHRIST TEACH THE SABBATH?

It is, therefore, not possible to justify the Sabbath (either on Sunday or on Saturday) simply on the basis of the laws given to Moses.  One has to find the Sabbath in Christ’s teachings.  He probably even said more about the Sabbath than about the other nine commandments put together. If we want to retain the Sabbath, we will have to retain it on the basis of Christ’s teachings, and, perhaps even more important, in the format presented by Christ.  See, Jesus taught a different Sabbath.

SUMMARY

What is the purpose of the Law? 430 years after the covenant was made, the Law “was addedbecause of transgressions.” After hundreds of years in Egypt, Israel has strayed far from God.  For that reason, God gave them the Law as a guardian to guide them to and on the right path.

The Law does not contradict the covenant because the Law and the Promises have different functions. The covenant-promises “impart” eternal life. Because all people are sinners, the Law cannot save.  For that reason, God saves people by what goes on in their minds (their faith).

The statement that the Law was “addeduntil the seed would come” means that Christ set the Law aside. Verse 25 confirms this: ”But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.”

Paul did serve the law of God, but not in the form given to Moses. He served the law as given by God through Christ, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul referred to Christ’s teachings as the “Law of Christ.” These are God’s fundamental principles that existed ever since creation.  Now that we have Christ’s teachings, we no longer need the Law of Moses.

TO: Galatians Table of Contents
TO: Summary of Galatians chapters 1 to 3
NEXT: Galatians 3:26-29