The Promise and the Law (3:15-29)

Bible Passage: Galatians 3:15-29

In Galatians, Paul is dealing with the threat posed to the gospel by those who insist that Christian believers are still required to adhere to the Jewish law. Because he is making this case strongly, the way he speaks of the law is mostly negative. He highlights the deficiencies in the law, its inability to save and its redundancy for those who have put their faith in Jesus. This might prompt the question of why the law was given in the first place. In this passage Paul answers that question, pointing out that the law did not nullify the promise made to Abraham centuries before, but it did serve as a disciplinarian (or guardian) for God’s people until the time came for the promise to be fulfilled.

The Promise Was of a Singular Seed (15-16): Paul starts this section by delving into the grammar of the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 17:7. The promise was made to Abraham and his offspring (or seed), and Paul notes that the word used here is a singular one, so we are not looking to see the promise fulfilled through a nation, as would be claimed by those who insist that the Gentiles get added into the Jewish people and adopt the law. Rather, it is a particular offspring of Abraham in whom the promise would be fulfilled, and this was Christ.

The point here is that it is and always has been all about Jesus. All of the Old Testament points to him and all of the promises find their fulfilment in him. This means that anybody who has put their faith in Jesus has full access to all of the promised blessing of God, and there is nothing more that they need to do to qualify them to be part of God’s people.

The Promise Pre-Dates the Law (17-18): Paul continues his comparison of the law and the promise, and he notes that the promise came first and it was more than four centuries later that the law was given. Just as a human contract or will stands unchanged once ratified, so God’s promise to Abraham and his offspring had already been ratified by God, and the law could not change it. The inheritance that we receive comes by way of the promise and not by the law.

This may seem a technical point, but it is such an important one as it speaks to what ground there is for us to be confident we will receive blessing from God. If we think it is based on the law then the determining factor is our own obedience, and we can never have any degree of assurance that our performance is good enough. On the other hand, as we recognise that the inheritance comes on the basis of the promise, then the grounds of assurance are in God’s own character and it is in his faithfulness to his own word that our confidence rests.

The Law was a Guardian For a Time (19-26): The fact that the law did not supersede the promise does not mean that there was no point in the law. The law was given by God, but it was given for a different purpose. Paul tells that the law had the function of a disciplinarian (or guardian), which was a role in some Roman households for a servant who looked after and taught the children until they reached maturity. In this case, the law was given to the Jewish people to lock things down under sin until the promised offspring came and justified us through faith.

This may seem a hard idea to understand. What Paul is saying is that the law gave awareness of what sin is, and also awareness of our incapability of achieving righteousness by our own efforts. It was never meant to be something that brought life and salvation itself, but something that showed our need for a saviour and led us to put faith in Jesus for our salvation.

There is Unity In Christ’s Body (27-29): Because salvation works in the same way for all people, the distinctions that might have previously led to a sense of superiority have been eradicated. There was an old Rabbinic prayer thanking God for not being born a Gentile, a slave or a woman, but in Christ there is no place for such thinking. Instead there is unity, with no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. This is not suggesting that these facts of our circumstances have no impact on our life, but rather that they have no impact on our standing before God or our place as heirs of the promise made to Abraham.

The implications of the new society in Christ are profound. These words were spoken into a culture where divisions on racial, socio-economic and gender lines were normal, and it challenges and eradicates those divides in the church. This should challenge the way we live in society and in the church today, and we should carefully reflect on what is looks like to live as God’s people in a way that does not re-construct these walls that Christ tore down.

Potential Applications:

  • Lead people into a time of Christ-focussed worship. He is the fulfilment of all of the promises and the one in whom all hope is found.
  • Invite people to reflect on what they are placing their trust in to receive God’s blessing – their own performance in obedience, or God’s own faithfulness to his promise.
  • Think about what oneness in Christ looks like across different dividing lines, and what we can do differently to champion, empower and receive others who are not like us.