|Series Theme: Meditations in Galatians|
Meditation No. 15
Meditation Title: The Purpose of the Law
Gal 3:19,24 What, then, was the purpose of the law?... So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ
Over the years I have watched and listened and although there are a variety of things that appear confusing on the Christian radar, one of the most common seems to be the place of ‘The Law' in the life of the Christian. Now we have touched on this already in these meditations but it now comes right to the fore with Paul's questioning in today's verses. Paul has just been speaking about how there was a prior promise, or covenant from God, given to Abram before the Law came, and that prior promise still stands. He seems to be emphasising the promise over the Law, so now he anticipates the concern of the Jewish believers up in the churches in Galatia : “What, then, was the purpose of the law?” (v.19a). Good question! What was the point of the Law if the promise of blessing was already there?
He gives an answer: “It was added because of transgressions.” (v.19b) Now I've split the verse up because it is important to see it in bits. Yes, God may have given Abram this promise of future blessing, but that did not stop his future family and all those who became the nation of Israel, from getting it wrong, from transgressing or wandering from what is right. God had designed the world – including us – to ‘work' in a particular way, and when we lived or worked in that way all would be well, but if we decided to do our own thing and vary from God's design, by the way we decided we would live, then that would cause individual and social breakdown. So the first point to be made is that the Law was given to curb those transgressions and to lay down a blueprint of God's design for this nation living in relationship with Him.
But there is a second thing and a crucial thing to note. He continues, “until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” (v.19c) i.e. the Law would only be operative until Jesus (who we've seen was the fulfilment of ‘the seed' side of the promise) came. Once Jesus came and his work on the Cross became operative we, the new people of God, would no longer need a written code to follow because the Holy Spirit would be living within us and He will convey the will of God to us: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD . "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jer 31:33)
Now Paul continues to refer to this law: “The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one.” (v.19d,20). What is he actually saying? We know from Scripture that God spoke the Ten Commandments directly to Moses and the people (see Ex 19,20) but actually we don't know exactly how He spoke. Often in scripture there is an interchanging between the Lord Himself and His will being conveyed through ‘an angel of the Lord' where it is unclear as to the difference. Thus we find Stephen referring to these things being brought by angels (Acts 7:38,53) and also the writer to the Hebrews saying the same thing (Heb 2:2). So angels were used to convey the Law but Moses was the mediator or intermediary between God and the people. Thus the Law came through an intermediary, but when you look to the Promise (to Abram) it came directly from God (the one person only conveying it) and thus has greater significance. That also is one of the things that distinguishes the Promise from the Law.
Ah, think his listeners, he is making more and more distinctions between the Promise and the Law. Paul foresees their next question: “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God?” (v.21a) i.e. because you are making such strong distinctions between the two, are you saying the Law was against the Promise? What's Paul's reply? “Absolutely not!” (v.21b). It's like he says emphatically, “Oh my goodness, no!” Look, he goes on to explain, if the Law could do what the Promise could do, then indeed, righteousness would have come through the Law: “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” (v.21c) Was that possible? No! He reverts to his primary authority, the scriptures: “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” (v.22a). He doesn't make reference to them here but the Old Testament revealed again and again that mankind (including Israel) were bound or locked up in sin and couldn't escape sin and failure. Oh no, he says, the Law couldn't make people righteous, that's why we have the prior Promise: “so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.” (v.22b) i.e. the Promise was operative through Jesus and is received by all who believe in him and in what he's done.
He keeps on making the point: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.” (v.23) Yes, eventually there was a foundation for us to have faith – Jesus – but before he came we were locked into a sinful lifestyle which the Law only accentuated. Indeed, he goes on, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ” (v.24a). There is an alternative rendering, “ “So the law was put in charge until Christ came.” They both really say the same thing but from different angles: the Law was to reveal to us our sin and our need of a Saviour, and when Christ came he revealed a way of delivering us from our impossible slavery to sin. The outcome? “that we might be justified by faith.” (v.24b). It was our faith that meant we could be justified, not our following the rules. So, he concludes, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (v.25). Now we are people of faith and are not under the direction of the Law, only (implied) of the Spirit.
So, to conclude, the Promise of a coming Saviour was to be received by faith, and the Law revealed to us our need of that Saviour. Got it? Hallelujah!