A Bible Lesson on Galatians 3

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Galatians 3:1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

Paul calls the Galatians “foolish.” These are not people without mental firepower, but people who have allowed themselves to be led astray by bad doctrine. In verse 6 of Chapter 1, Paul calls the Galatians “traitors.”  Here he calls them fools. He loves them, but mincing words would be of no lasting help to them.

The doctrine spoken of here was doctrine for which the Judaizers could probably even have come up with proof texts. But because someone can isolate a few texts for you, take some things out of context, and build a case for some teaching does not make it true. The question is whether teaching fits with the whole of Scripture, whether it is consistent with the Biblical picture of who God is and what He has done in history in Christ Jesus. And the end result was not some small error, but serious heresy.

“Who has bewitched you?” asks Paul. Who has put the evil eye on you, you, before whose eyes the Lord Jesus was publicly placarded as crucified? Who indeed but the evil one working through the Judaizers? This is serious business and the Galatians should know better. In verses 2-5 Paul demonstrates that their own experience should tell them differently and in verses 6-9 he shows that the plain reading of Scripture should tell them differently.

2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Paul asks them a rhetorical question. Remember that these are specific real people that Paul loves that are getting this letter. Strong medicine is better than death, and Paul is giving them just that. Paul challenges the Galatians, and demands that they apply logic to their experience. They received the Spirit of God, not after they had kept some rules, but after hearing and believing the Gospel, the good news that God offers pardon to those who will trust in the work of the Lord Jesus. Now having started that way, does it make any sense that rule-keeping ought to be the means of finishing their salvation? Such would be absurd.

Luther said, “…the law says ‘do this’; the gospel says ‘Christ has done it all.’ The law requires works of human achievement; the gospel requires us to trust in Christ’s achievement.”

4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?

These were apparently people who had experienced persecution on account of their faith in Christ. Paul suggests that if they persist in pursuing the keeping of the Jewish law as a means of salvation, their suffering will have been for nothing. The possibility exists of falling from grace, but Paul holds out hope that they will come to their senses.

5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—

These people have had an authentic Christian experience on the basis of faith (as is all real Christian experience). But now they’re listening to heretics who are telling them that there is MORE that needs doing. Paul asks that they examine how they got to where they are, that they use their heads a little bit.

Next Paul argues from the plain reading of Scripture.

6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

Abraham was an old man without an heir and God took him out to see the nighttime sky and promised he’d have as many descendants as there are stars and that through him the whole world would be blessed. Abraham believed and was counted in right standing with God. He had no lifetime record of keeping the Law that had not yet been given, and no circumcision that had also not been instituted.

7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.

As it was with Abraham, so it is with all people.

8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

The blessing Abraham received by faith is that of justification. That same precious right standing with God comes to everyone who takes God at His word and receives mercy in Christ. And Paul now goes on to say that not only right standing, but life itself can come only through faith, not law-keeping.

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For you and me, only a curse and death can come on us by relying on our own keeping of God’s law, while real life comes through faith. The giving of the Law came with the promise of blessing for its keeping, but pronouncement of a curse for failing to keep it, ALL of it.

Deuteronomy 27:26 “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

Deuteronomy 28:1 “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.

It is obvious from both Scripture and experience that no human is capable of perfectly obeying God’s law. Those who are righteous have life with God, but that must come not by law-keeping, but rather by faith. Paul quotes Habbakuk 2:4b in this regard when he says “The righteous shall live by faith.” Counting on law-keeping as a means of being righteous is not faith. It is rather counting on

Leviticus 18:5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.

Galatians 3:12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”

Again, a route to life and righteousness that involves our personally perfectly keeping of God’s law is simply closed to us. We don’t keep it. In our natural state we hate it. It is a source of curse and condemnation for us. Leviticus 18:5 is true, but of no help to us if we must produce that obedience ourselves. We haven’t kept and won’t keep it all perfectly. In fact, we are under its curse. So how can there be any righteousness or life? Only through the great exchange of Christ bearing our curse and us receiving His righteousness by faith.

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—

The perfect innocent Son of God hanging on the cross for us is evidence/confirmation of His assuming our curse for failing to be fully obedient to God. Instead there is

14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

We who were under the curse of failing to fully obey God, receive real life through God’s Spirit as we believe in, cast ourselves upon, trust in, Christ alone. Stott put it this way, “Faith is laying hold of Jesus Christ personally. There is no merit in it. It is not another ‘work.’ Its value is not in itself, but entirely in its object, Jesus Christ.”

In Christ, we are blessed with justification/righteousness, eternal life/fellowship with God, and the regenerating and infilling work of God’s Spirit. This is all by faith, not by law-keeping (our failure at which would–outside of Christ–have eternally cursed us).

Paul now must bring together the facts that the God who gave the law to Moses is the same God who earlier gave the promise to Abraham. How do the two fit together? First he makes the point that God doesn’t go back on His promises, and the law can’t possibly cancel the promise of blessing made to Abraham because of his faith. Faith preceded law and can’t be made obsolete by it. (The Passover and deliverance of the Exodus also preceded the giving of the law!)

15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.

16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.

18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

There are human contracts and promises that cannot be altered. How much more a promise given by the Creator of all? If He makes a promise to Abraham and Christ to bless us through them, how in the world could it be that somehow the basis of inheritance of eternal life could become law-keeping? That would make no sense.

But then a natural question is “What then was and is the purpose of the Law?” Paul makes a partial answer to that question in the last part of Chapter 3. He concentrates here on its place in God’s plan of salvation.

19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.

It was “added because of transgressions.” Perhaps the meaning is “to restrain fallen human nature”? Or perhaps the intent is “to make wrong doing a legal offense” (NEB). The idea would be that it shows us the bankruptcy of our fallen nature. Our natural rebellion against God has always been sin. But when measured against the law of God, we can see our sin for what it is. It was given until “the offspring” should come.   It was given before Christ, “the” true offspring of Abraham, the true heir of the promise of God.

Paul is willing to grant the orthodox Jewish belief that angels were involved in the giving of the law at Sinai and that Moses acted as an intermediary. But it seems that he is saying here that rather than that somehow being a selling point or strength of the law, or reason to hold it up as superior to faith, that is instead a weakness. In dealing with Abraham, the father of all who have faith, God dealt directly.

20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

An intermediary or mediator stands between two parties. A law given through Moses and administered through priests puts a human between each of us and God. That is fundamentally weaker and less wonderful than a Gospel of faith that relates us individually to our Creator. It’s true that we have one Mediator/Intermediary, Christ Jesus. But that Mediator is Himself God. God is one.

It may also be that Paul here is thinking that any system of rule-keeping would depend upon two parties, the giver and the keeper. And we fail miserably in the part of a keeper. On the other hand, the gracious Gospel depends only on One, the Promiser.

21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.

So then, what is the place of the law? By it, none can possibly gain right standing with God. Paul’s just pointed out that it was mediated by a mere human. Is it therefore unimportant? Is it even somehow a mistake? Is God somehow confused, giving the law in opposition to His main plan? How stupid, how close to blasphemy! Of course not! IF the law represented a possible second path to justification before God, then there might be some reason to ask such a thing, but it doesn’t have any such function. If we see a contradiction here, it’s because we’re not seeing right. The proper place of God’s law is something else. God’s promise and God’s law are not at war. We set up a fundamentally false dichotomy when we put law in opposition to grace.

22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

The Scripture, in particular the Old Testament law, “imprisoned” or “grouped” everything under sin. It gave definition. It made clear that there is real moral guilt, that you and I are justly under the wrath of God. It opened our eyes so that we could see our desperate condition. Gut level, every person that is honest and paying attention knows there is trouble at the core of our beings. God’s law graciously gave us definition.

We have a wrong idea that “law” (even God’s law) is somehow arbitrary, probably because it seems that too often our human governments treat it that way. From that perspective, we think that anything would go, all would be the same, if God just wouldn’t forbid it. But that is not the way things are. This is a moral universe because God its Creator is a moral being. Whether the 10 Commandments are ever read to us or not, murder is wrong at the very essence of things. It is thus mercy, it is grace, that God gives us definition, gives us the opportunity/the tools to see clearly, to know right from wrong.

If I only have a vague/dull/uninformed understanding of what really is in the moral realm, I may be able to fool myself into thinking that perhaps I’m doing OK, that perhaps I’m not in such bad shape. But when the gracious merciful law of God comes and tells me “Thou shalt not covet!” I’m undone. I see my real condition and become a candidate for mercy, for promise, for faith in God.

Luther (as quoted by Stott) said, “The principal point … of the law … is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it sheweth unto them their sin, that by the knowledge thereof they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek grace, and so to come to that blessed Seed (sc. Christ).”

In verses 23 and 24 Paul uses two different pictures to tell us about the law.

23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.

The first picture is one of the law acting as a warden or keeping us confined. It is there, restraining us, keeping us not only from doing evil, but also from life as free people. As R. Alan Cole put it, we were in protective custody awaiting a pardon. Who Paul means by “we” is not absolutely clear. Perhaps it is Paul and the Galatians. Perhaps it is Paul and his brethren, the Jews.

24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

The KJV says that the law was our “schoolmaster.” Apparently that translation is not such a good one. The word really refers to a trusted slave that was given the responsibility of conducting the son of a person of wealth to school and having general charge of him until he came of age. Stott uses the description of a sort of “male nanny.” This person apparently had some responsibility for the disciplining of the boy. He was usually pictured in ancient drawings with a rod of correction in his hand. So overall, the notion is one of a caretaker, and perhaps an ethical teacher.

But the law was never intended as the means of bringing sinful man into right relationship to God. It was meant to show man his need for a Savior and to some degree restrain him until the coming of Christ.

25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,

Paul cannot mean by this sentence that faith was not present before the death of Christ. He’s already argued in Galatians (as well as in Romans) that even the Old Testament figures were made right with God by faith and faith alone. “faith has come” must instead mean that the true object of our faith, our Redeemer, has come. Since this is the case, the law is no longer our custodian. It has done its job, the situation has changed.

“we” may again be referring first to Paul and the Jews. Or he may be talking more broadly and including the Galatians. Regardless of which is meant, the next verse is clearly speaking of the Galatians.

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

Right standing with God that comes through faith in the person and work of Christ makes us all members of the family of God.

27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

You have “put on” or clothed yourselves in Christ. Paul may be thinking here of the toga of an adult male, that a Roman male was given and put on when he “came of age.” Kids, ones who would have been under the supervision of the “guide and guardian of the boys” wore a different toga than an adult male.

Note that in both verses 26 and 27, Paul uses the word “all.” He expands on the inclusiveness of God’s work in Christ. It extends to Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

It is significant that the typical morning prayer of a Jew of the day, one that Paul had no doubt prayed many times before his conversion, thanked God that “thou hast not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” Christ has turned that system on its ear. You are all one in Christ is literally “you are all one person in Christ.” It is not that those distinctions no longer exist, but that they no longer matter.

29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

In verses 10-18, Paul reviewed 2000 years of Jewish history and showed that in that history, the progression was promise->law->fulfillment of promise. He now is saying that such is the experience of every true Christian. He is saying that every believer has a part in the promise that was originally made to Abraham. You and I stand, not only reconciled to God and in unity with those Christian brethren alive today, but we stand in the long line of those through history who have placed their trust in God. We are properly related to the saints of all time. Christians are not misfits. We are presently related to both God and those believers alive at this moment and stand with those who have gone before.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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