Counterfeit Christianity ~ Galatians 3:15-25
Big Idea: God’s laws in the Old Testament are not God’s most important revelation. To read the Bible with an emphasis on how God expects us to behave is to misread the Bible completely. God’s most important revelation is the gospel – God’s gracious promise to Abraham fulfilled by Jesus – that sinful people can be loved by a holy God for all eternity.
Everyone is born with an appendix – a small worm-like pouch dangling from the end of our large intestines. But no one would seriously miss it if it’s gone. So why do we have it at all? Biologists say it’s probably a remnant of our human past. (Hint: google “human vestigiality.”) It was very important ages ago, but not anymore.
The Apostle Paul makes a similar point here about God’s laws in the Old Testament. This was essentially blasphemous to his critics. (It’d be like telling Muslims to ignore what Allah commanded in the Quran.)
To the Jews, these laws are the very words of God, spoken by angels and entrusted to the Prophet Moses (3:19). There would simply be no Jewish nation or Jewish identity apart from the Mosaic Law.
Without the law, it’d be impossible to have any relationship with God. It taught them how to worship, what to eat, who to avoid, so that God would accept them. So, it’s inconceivable that God would ignore his own laws – holy statutes he demanded his chosen people keep for over two thousand years – when he makes a new covenant with Gentiles.
But what’s inconceivable today doesn’t mean it’s impossible or wrong. Imagine, it was inconceivable once, to many, that planet earth revolves around the sun, until we gazed at the stars through Galileo’s eyes. After Galileo, our familiar night sky looked altogether different. What changed was not the stars but our perception.
Paul’s critics had been reading the Bible through the eyes of Moses as interpreted by the priests and Pharisees. Paul wants them to read the Bible through the eyes of Abraham as interpreted by Jesus and the apostles.
If they talked civilly to one another, it might sound like this.
Critics: You can’t set aside the law because that’s what God demands from all his people – from the very beginning. It’s indispensable. It sets out how we relate to God.
Paul: Our relationship with God is not built on his law, but on his promise. What’s found at the very beginning was not law but grace – an undeserved, unilateral, no-strings-attached promise made by God to Abraham to be fulfilled through one particular descendant from his lineage.
And this promise was less like a business contract, but more like a ‘last will and testament.’
As one commentator wrote:1
A will is not a contract. It does not set terms that various parties are obligated to fulfil. Instead, it simply declares what one party intends to do. A last will and testament is a legal arrangement in which one party bestows his or her estate on someone else. It is a grant rather than a bargain … Once it is signed, sealed, and delivered, it cannot be changed. There is no way to set it aside or add to it. It cannot be abrogated or annulled. It cannot be amended or adjusted. It is legally binding exactly as it stands.
That’s what Abraham had. A promise. There was no ‘law’ until 430 years later!
And the one descendant from his lineage who inherits this promise is Jesus. So if we have Jesus, we have the promise. If we don’t have Jesus, no promise. All we’re left with then is the law.
Critics: What’s wrong with that? Why would God even give us laws to obey if he didn’t want them to be kept permanently?
Paul: God gave us the law not because he thinks we could keep it. He gave it because he knew we would break it!
Critics: God gave us the law so he could purposely see us fail?
Paul: We don’t need the law to fail. We fall short all the time without it. But we wouldn’t even realise or admit it until we have something to measure it up against.
Critics: The law teaches us how to be good. Only good people can know God.
Paul: Laws can’t make people good. But it can stop people being less bad.
God’s laws gave his chosen people a fighting chance (3:22-23). Without it to restrain our worst impulses, we’d inevitably descend into anarchy and chaos. There would be nothing left by the time Jesus appears.
That’s why Paul says the law was “our guardian until Christ came” (3:24).
The Greek term [guardian] here refers not to a teacher but to the slave, assigned to watch out for the student on his way to school and help him with his manners and schoolwork.2
For generations, Jews saw the law as their revered teacher. Paul now sees it as their babysitter or chaperone. The babysitter’s job is limited. It’s to keep the children safe until their parents come home. And like any babysitter, eventually they won’t be needed anymore. Then it’d merely be a remnant of our sinful human past.
1 Philip Ryken, Galatians (Reformed Expository Commentary), (P&R Publishing: New Jersey, 2005), p. 120.
2 See note on guardian in NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2016), p. 2048.
Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
1. How do we now read the Old Testament laws with this perspective that “we are no longer under a guardian” (v 25)?
2. Our relationship with God is built on his promise and not on the law. How does understanding this motivate and encourage you in your walk with Christ?