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

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