Paul’s message was about the promise of God in the gospel: if you believe in Jesus you will be saved. That is God’s commitment; His guarantee; His ‘price-free promise’! (‘Price-free’ to you and me, that is. We just have to believe.) This is all of grace and received by faith. (To my mind, verse 22 is at the heart of today’s passage and provides a definition of Paul’s message.) But the Judaizers who dogged Paul’s steps, and who were particularly active in the churches of Galatia, taught that one is saved by law rather than promise. So in this section Paul shows that the promise came first and cannot be altered by the later appearance of the law. He writes about the purpose of the law and shows why it is inferior to the promise.
Paul begins with an illustration from ordinary life. People make various covenants with each other. Once one is ‘’established’’ it cannot be easily changed (15). Salvation began not with law but a promise (16). It was not a promise to the ‘’seeds’’ (i.e. all the natural children) of Abraham, but to Christ (and through Christ to all who believe). In (17) the apostle makes his main point. God gave the promise of salvation to Abraham long before the giving of the law at Sinai. So how could the Judaizers say that the law is necessary for salvation? The promise of salvation never depended on the law. It preceded it in time and importance. The coming of the law could not change that original covenant of God. When that covenant was ratified, Abraham was asleep (see Genesis 15). The covenant was all about grace and the promises God made to Abraham. ‘’This is the way I interpret this: A will, earlier ratified by God, is not annulled by an addendum attached 430 years later, thereby negating the promise of the will. No, this addendum, with its instructions and regulations, has nothing to do with the promised inheritance in the will.’’ The Message.
So what was the purpose of the law? (19a, 23-25) It was to prepare people for the coming of Christ; to show us that we are sinners in need of a Saviour. But it cannot save anyone. That’s not its purpose. (Someone has pointed out that the law does not contradict the promise, but it cooperates with it in fulfilling God’s plan. While law and grace seem contrary to one another, if you go down deep you find that they complement each other. They work hand in glove.) In Paul’s day wealthy families hired special tutors or custodians to look after their children. The children were under the authority of the custodian. Paul paints the picture of the law being a custodian to people in (24). Once we come to Christ, however, we don’t need the custodian’s supervision anymore (25). ‘’Until the time came when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.’’ The Message.
So that is the purpose of the law. Paul also points out that the law is inferior to the promise because a.) it is temporary (19, 23-25); b.) it was not given directly from God to man, but came third – hand, from God to angels to Moses (19b, 20), and because it cannot impart life (21). The law cannot save anyone, and that is why Paul stood his ground against the Judaizers. He knew the important place of the law. He knew what it could do. But he was also aware of what it could not achieve. To be saved we have to go back to the promise given to Abraham and not to the law given to Moses.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for your wonderful grace. Help me to never go back to a futile religion of self-effort.