The lesson this week continues on the topic of the relationship between the law of God and the promises of God in the context of God’s covenant with Abraham found in Genesis 15:1-6. Some key questions raised after reading Galatians 3:15-20 include:
(1) If the law of God is so important, why did God wait to give it to the people He called to be in a relationship with Him—the children of Israel—four centuries after He made the promises to Abraham?
(2) Does the giving of the law to the Israelites nullify God’s earlier actions and promises?
(3) Does the fact that God gave His laws to people who had been enslaved in cruel bondage in Egypt and had limited freedom for centuries, nullify what God told Abraham he would do?
(4) Or did the law already exist prior to this time, and was merely spelled out and ratified when God made His covenant with the children of Israel?
While some of these questions go beyond the extent of this week’s lesson and will be picked up again next week, they point to the need for careful analysis to understand the basis of Paul’s ongoing argument in Galatians chapter 3.
In Galatians 3:15-20, Paul gives priority to the promises God made to Abraham as coming prior to the giving of the law. By law he is referring to the entire law, including the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses, and may include, the Old Testament writings in general, the Torah. The promises are significant because they point forward to the incarnational life, ministry, and sacrificial death provision of Jesus Christ to save the entire human race, held under the bondage of sin. God promised Abraham that he would receive a promised child—an heir, that his name would be great and that he would father a nation.
What has this to do with us today?
Why do we need to bother with the law as a seemingly later development, according to Paul, in effect until Christ came?
Understanding the relationship between these things is extremely important and is perhaps why the lesson writer keeps returning to this issue each week as it is central to understanding Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Waiting for the Baby: the Promise
Abraham and Sarah were childless. Like many people these days who cannot have children, they longed for offspring, a baby to love and cherish. Children are valuable. They continue the family name and inheritance. They provide joy as well as sorrow, and comfort in old age. Why were Abraham and Sarah so desperate for children? That’s a personal question and the answer can only be surmised. Aside from cultural pressures to have offspring, which continue today, it is a fairly normal human desire to procreate. Being unable to have a child can be a source of intense pain. But when God came to Abraham and called him out of his father’s house and his country to a land which he didn’t know, He said something shocking: Abraham’s children would number the stars in the heavens. “Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Gen. 15:5).
Not only would Abraham become a father, he would in effect, give birth to an entire nation. Can you imagine the impact of such news to an old childless couple? Not only would their desire for a child be fulfilled but Abraham was going to become a man of re-known. He was going to get land and his name would be great. But the ultimate icing on the cake would be this: the Seed would come through his family tree. Abraham and Sarah would be the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents of Jesus Christ.
There are some interesting parallels between them getting their baby and the long awaited Messiah. The promise to Abraham for a child was realized with the birth of Isaac, the son of the promise. Isaac represents a type of Christ. Jesus, the incarnate Messiah was also a son of promise. Jesus was the baby that Eve longed for, the Savior of the world who would crush Satan’s heel (Genesis 3:15). In a sense, He was also the baby longed for by Abraham and Sarah. For Christ’s birth had been prophesied and would come after humankind had waited for centuries for the promise of God to be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah are the proverbial parents waiting and longing for their progeny. The same longing that some parents have for children is not unlike the longing God has for His children to return to Him. Abraham and Sarah’s situation ultimately finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and His promise to bless the entire world through them.
Paul is arguing in Galatians 3:15-18 that God made the promise to Abraham and his Seed, not because he kept the law, but simply because God made a promise to him. It wasn’t anything he had done. This covenant was not between two equal parties. God is not man, and man is not God. It wasn’t even between a greater power and a lesser power. God made the promise because He is God. It was an outcome of His divine will. All Abraham did was believe. Receiving our inheritance, in our salvation in Jesus Christ and deliverance from sin, does not come through the law. It comes through the promise of God and the exercise of faith.
Example: A Human Covenant
Paul gives the example of a human covenant in Galatians 3:15 when he writes: “Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it.” This may be a reference to a person’s legal will. Nobody else can make a will for another person, right? Only the person who makes it can change it. No one else can come along and alter, revoke or annul a person’s will against their testament, or stated will. Now of course, under the modern law people challenge peoples wills all the time based on greed, their sense of right, or whatever. But the idea is that others cannot simply come along and annul or add to the legal will that a person produces in their lifetime.
The argument continues, so that when God made the promises to Abraham and his Seed (Jesus Christ) this cannot be annulled or altered by a later relationship God has with someone else. “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as or many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Paul is detailing a fine argument here. The promises do relate to Israel specifically because they are Abraham’s children. All the nations of the earth were to be blessed through Abraham. Jesus, the Seed mentioned in Genesis 3:15, the promised Messiah never made the promise dependent on the keeping of God’s law. Let’s keep in mind that the context for the argument Paul is making with the Galatians is primarily over circumcision. That is, whether the Galatians should be circumcised in order to follow Christ. Circumcision was regarded as an important entry point in joining the Jewish community in Paul’s day.
The law came 430 years after God made the promises to Abraham, according to Paul. Why does this matter? The false teachers in Galatia were giving such primacy to the law that they did not understand the promises God made to Abraham were not based on the works of the law, but simply because God promised He would do something. This promise still stands. This is God’s will and covenant that He made to Abraham and is also carried through Jesus Christ. “For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Gal. 3:18). Another way of saying this is, that God didn’t send His Son, Jesus Christ, based on any human attempt to keep God’s law. Rather, the promises come to us through Christ, the Seed of Abraham. This is relevant for us today. Without what Christ has done on our behalf, we could never be saved.
Purpose of the Law: Part One
What then is the purpose of the law? This is the next logical question. Paul goes into greater detail on this subject in the book of Romans. But in Galatians, he touches on the issue because it is pertinent to the disagreement he has with the false teachers who have bewitched the Galatians into thinking they needed to become Jews in order to follow Christ. Next week’s lesson will delve more deeply into this question (Gal. 3:23-24), but I would like to point out here that Paul says that the law was added because of transgressions. That is, the problem of sin was the reason the law had to be restated, so to speak.
The law came through the hand of a mediator, that is, from God via the angels, through Moses (Gal. 3:19). The purpose of the law is that it acts as a mirror, revealing sin. It defines a standard of right and wrong behavior. But the law is not the Savior. It focuses on the problem, the wrongdoing or sin in a person’s life. It does not and cannot create a clean heart or a pure mind. Focusing on the law rather than the promise of the Son, can lead to a misunderstanding of the gospel. The law points out our sin, but only Jesus can justify and cleanse us from our sin and all our wrongdoing.
What God did for Abraham He did by promise. God accomplished His promise to Adam and Eve, and to Abraham and Sarah, through Jesus Christ. By faith we look back at what He did by promise, living in the hope that the Son is coming again. Like Abraham and Sarah, we are waiting for the Son. The law shows us our great need of a Savior, which God has graciously provided in Jesus Christ.