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Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 3-4, Argument 3)

Section 3: Galatians 3:15-29

In Gal 3:7-14, Paul presented an initial argument from Scripture, based on the blessing of Abraham (to the nations); in this section, he offers a more extensive Scriptural argument from the wider context of the promise to Abraham. In so doing, Paul draws upon a range of passages in Genesis—principally Gen 12:2-3, 7; 13:15-16; 15:1-6; 17:1-11; 22:16-19; 24:7—summarizing them by a single concept: of God’s promise to Abraham regarding his offspring (“seed”, spe/rma in Greek), the blessing to the nations being just one benefit of the overall promise. The argument Paul develops in this section is framed by two main parts:

  • 3:15-18: An illustrative analogy based on the nature of a covenant/testament, by which the promise to Abraham is contrasted with the Law
  • 3:26-29: A declaration that the promise comes (to believers) through Christ

In between, there is a relatively extensive sub-section (3:19-25) which deals with the purpose of the Law. Since this represents one of Paul’s clearest statements regarding the Law (Torah), it will be discussed separately below. I will begin with the two framing portions, vv. 15-18 and 26-29.

Galatians 3:15-18—Each verse provides a distinct argument or point in the analogy:

Verse 15—Here Paul establishes the illustration based on the nature of a diaqh/kh, stating that he is relating this kata\ a&nqrwpon (“according to man”, i.e. a human way of speaking), that is, as an analogy from ordinary daily life. The word diaqh/kh in Greek literally means something “set through (in order)”, often in the technical sense of a will/testament; even in English idiom, someone planning for death might “set his/her affairs in order”, by preparing a last will, etc. It is in this sense that Paul uses the word here, along with three technical verbs: (1) kuro/w, “establish the authority (of something)”, i.e. “confirm, validate, ratify”; (2) a)qete/w, “unset, set aside”, i.e. “invalidate, (dis)annul”; and (3) e)pidiata/ssomai, “arrange/set in order upon (something)”, i.e. “appoint or establish in addition, as a supplement”. A testament which has been validated, cannot simply be set aside or have additions made to it without proper authority. In other words, a valid agreement or contract remains intact and binding. The word diaqh/kh can also mean an “agreement” in the more basic sense, and, as such is typically used to translate tyr!B= (“agreement, covenant”) in Hebrew.

Verse 16—Paul engages in a bit of clever (and seemingly superficial) wordplay, as the word indicating Abraham’s offspring/descendants (plural) is, in both Hebrew and Greek, singular (“seed”, Grk spe/rma). The argument appears to be facetious, for clearly “seed” is a collective, referring to Abraham’s future descendants together, and yet Paul takes it hyper-literally, in order to make a particular point:

“…he does not say ‘and to (your) seeds‘, as upon many, but (rather) as upon one, ‘and to your seed‘, which is (the) Anointed {Christ}”

This is Paul’s way of demonstrating that the promise comes to all people (believers) through Christ. At the spiritual level, it is certainly true as well, in the sense that, as believers, we are a single people—Abraham’s (spiritual) descendants together—in union with Christ (cf. the declaration in 3:26-29, below).

Verse 17—Here he returns to the illustration of the testament (diaqh/kh) from v. 15, applying it to God’s promise to Abraham, as contrasted with the Law; it may be paraphrased thus:

The Law (Torah) cannot invalidate the Promise, which God made 430 years prior, so as to make it cease working or be of no effect.

This argument, while historically correct, generally contradicts the understanding of Jewish tradition, whereby Abraham and his descendants were already observing the the Torah commands (i.e. they were already in force) before the Torah was revealed to Moses and recorded by him—as variously explained in Jubilees 21:10; Philo On Abraham §275; Mekilta on Exod 20:18; Genesis Rabbah 44 (27d), 61 (38f); cf. Strack-Billerbeck 3.204-26 and Betz, Galatians, p. 158-9. Paul, of course, emphasizes that Abraham’s righteousness was not the result of observing the Law, but was due to his faith in God (concerning the promise). There are three strands to Paul’s argument:

  • The promise of God (and Abraham’s trust/faith in it) occurred prior to the Law
  • The Law cannot invalidate the promise
  • The Law does not add anything to the promise

In other words, the promise is entirely separate from the Law.

Verse 18—Paul introduces here the idea of inheritance (klhronomi/a, spec. a “lot” which is partitioned out), tying it to the promise:

“For if the lot (one receives) is out of [i.e. from] (the) Law, it is no longer out of [i.e. from] a promise; but God granted (it) to Abraham as a favor through a promise.”

The separation between promise and Law extends to the very nature and character of a promise—it is given as a favor. The verb xari/zomai, used here, refers to giving/granting something as a favor, and is related to the noun xa/ri$ (“favor” or “gift, grace”). The theme of the grace of God is not as prominent in Galatians as in Romans (cf. Gal 1:6, 15; 2:9, 21; and esp. 5:4), but it is more or less implied in the idea of the blessing and promise given by God to Abraham. Inheritance is closely connected with sonship, and will be an important part of the arguments in chapter 4.

Galatians 3:26-29—This is Paul’s concluding declaration (to the Galatians) that the promise comes through Jesus Christ, and, in particular, through faith/trust in him. It can be divided as follows:

  • V. 26: Sonship through faith—”For you all are sons of God through trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”
    • V. 27-28: Religious identity in Christ (oneness/unity of believers)—Baptismal formula
  • V. 29: Inheritance through promise—”And if you (are) of (the) Anointed, then you are Abraham’s seed, (one)s receiving the lot [i.e. heirs] according to (the) promise”

In typical Pauline fashion, a Christological statement is central, embedded within the theological/doctrinal declaration, verses 27-28 referring to baptism, and probably reflecting an early baptismal formula (to be discussed in detail in a separate note; cf. 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11). The twin statements in vv. 26, 29 provide the conceptual framework:

Sonship–Faith–Jesus Christ (v. 26)
Inheritance–Promise–Seed of Abraham (v. 27)

In just a few short verses, Paul brings together all of the main strands of the arguments of chapter 3.

Galatians 3:19-25: The Purpose of the Law

In between the sections of 3:15-18 and 26-29, Paul includes a direct (and powerful) statement as to the purpose of the Law (“[For] what [purpose] then [is] the Law?…”, v. 19). Because these verses are among the clearest expressions of his view of the Law (the subject of these articles), and yet, at the same time, abound with interpretive difficulties, they will be treated more extensively in a series of separate (daily) notes. Here it will suffice to give a brief outline, along with some basic observations; this section can be divided into two (or three) components:

  • Vv. 19-20: Statement of two-fold purpose: (1) for “transgressions”, and (2) to serve as a “mediator”
  • Vv. 21-25: More detailed explanation:
    (1) to enclose all things “under sin” (vv. 21-22)
    (2) to function as a paidagogos (vv. 23-25)

The second of these purposes is closer to the role of the Torah in Jewish tradition—i.e., as a mediator and guide—though the ultimate declaration in vv. 24-25 represents a decisive break with Judaism, as will be discussed. It is the first purpose Paul ascribes to the Law in vv. 19a, 21-22 which is, by far, his most original (and difficult) contribution—namely, that the primary purpose of the Law was to bring about transgression and enclose/enslave all people under sin (ideas he also expounds in Romans). This, indeed, is a most remarkable teaching! I am not aware of anything quite like it in Judaism, and many Jews (and Jewish Christians) doubtless would have found the notion shocking. Even today, many Jewish (and non-Jewish) believers are troubled by the language Paul uses, and would like to interpret it in less offensive or striking terms.

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