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“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
No More Lines – Really?
Laws can be good: society would be chaotic without them. Some laws, however, have questionable usefulness.
Did you know that in Mississippi, using vulgar language in front of two or more people could land you in jail for up to 30 days?
In North Carolina, some organizations are banned from holding bingo games that last more than five hours.
A Texas statue prohibits any religious test for public office – except for atheists: all candidates must acknowledge the existence of a “Supreme Being.”
Since 1969, “Virginia is for lovers” has been a popular marketing slogan – but lovers who aren’t married to each other can be charged with a Class 4 Misdemeanor in the state, subject to a $250 fine.
In the book of Galatians, Paul had a lot to say about the Jewish law. He didn’t consider the law to be strange or unfitting, for he had lived by it for most of his life. He did, however, appear to believe that Christ’s work had introduced a revolutionary means of relating to God that rendered the Jewish laws – especially as expanded by the rabbis – no longer applicable.
Many Jewish people who had trusted Christ continued to follow the dietary restrictions and other rules associated with their ethnic heritage, and Paul did not criticize that. When some traveling evangelists told the Gentile Christians in Galatia that they should add Jewish law to their faith in Christ, however, Paul had a different reaction: he was furious.
Paul had been trained as an expert in the law, which had dominated Jewish life for centuries, and which was puzzling the Galatians. In today’s text, Paul sought to explain the proper purpose and function of the law, even as he argued that its day had largely passed.
The law as a guide(3:19-22)
Earlier in chapter 3, Paul had marshaled multiple arguments against requiring Gentile believers to follow Jewish law. He had first asked the Galatians to trust their experience: the Holy Spirit had come upon them without benefit of the law, so why should they turn from life in the Spirit to the burden of the law (vv. 1-5)?
The legalists in Galatia had probably talked much about God’s covenant with Abraham in making their case, emphasizing God’s command that Abraham should walk in obedience and begin practicing circumcision (Genesis 17). Paul also appealed to Abraham, but argued that God had promised to bless all peoples through Abraham long before the law was given (vv. 6-14). As a person’s last will and testament could not be changed, Paul said, the addition of the law had not negated the earlier promise that the Gentiles would be blessed through Abraham’s seed, which Paul interpreted in a singular sense as a prophetic reference to Jesus (vv. 15-18).
“Why then the law?” Paul asked. What was its purpose? Paul saw the law as having a provisional function “until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made” (v. 19a). In his mind, the life and work of Jesus, “the offspring … to whom the promise had been made,” had rendered the law obsolete. Thus, there was no reason why the new believers should be required to take it on.
Paul’s claim that the law “was added because of transgressions” suggests that the first function of the law was to define the proper limits of human behavior. In a later letter to the Romans, he argued that sin was in the world before the law, but not transgressions. In other words, people could have acted sinfully before the law was given, but only after the law laid down a standard of proper conduct could they knowingly transgress it (Rom. 3:19-22, 4:15, 5:13-14).
Paul’s language is difficult to translate and interpret, but clearly seems intended to downplay the status of the law, which he described as “ordained by angels through a mediator.” This implied that the law did not come directly from God, but from angels, through the mediation of Moses (vv. 19b-20).
The law was not opposed to God’s promises, Paul insisted, but limited in what it could accomplish. It could guide one’s living, but not bring one to live in a state of rightness with God (v. 21).
“But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin,” Paul said. Paul’s use of the singular word “scripture” suggests that he had a particular text in mind. He was probably referring to Deut. 27:26, which he had previously cited in v. 10: “Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them.” In other words, those who fell short in observing the law were condemned.
Paul’s picture of the law as locking up the world in a prison of sin is not an appealing image, but he was not saying that God created sin or forced humans to live in it. Rather, the law made it clear what sin was, “so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (v. 23).
The law, then, had a provisional and preparatory function: to name sin for what it is and to set the stage for Christ, who alone could bring our sinful lives into a right relationship with God.
The law as a custodian(3:23-26)
Paul compared the function of the law to two situations familiar to Greeks: a schoolboy guided by his paidagōgos (3:23-28), and a young heir under the authority of a guardian (3:29-4:7).
Boys from well-to-do Greek families were assigned a servant who served as a paidagōgos, from which we get the word “pedagogue.” The word is often translated as “tutor,” but the paidagōgos was a minder rather than a teacher. He accompanied the boy to and from school, presided over study time, and generally controlled his activities prior to adulthood. The paidagōgos had authority to discipline the young man within limits and to teach him proper morals and decorum. He was a constant and demanding companion whose purpose was to be helpful, but whose presence could be stifling.
So it was with the law, Paul suggested. It was given to provide both moral guidance and discipline, taught the people of Israel how they should live, and prescribed consequences for violation of those standards. The law’s purpose was positive, but its pervasiveness could be oppressive.
In its function as a custodian, the law accomplished its purpose. “But now that the faith has come,” Paul said, “we are no longer under a paidagōgos” (v. 25). Paul emphatically said “the faith,” as in v. 23, even though most translations do not include “the.” The article served an emphatic purpose, meaning “this faith,” that is, “the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
Paul was not suggesting that persons could not trust God in faith before Christ came – after all, his whole argument was based on Abraham’s faith leading to his righteous standing with God (Gen. 15:6). What he was saying is that, since the revelation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, it had become evermore evident that this faith – the faithfulness of Christ and the believer’s faith in Christ – was the only sufficient and effective way of becoming right with God. For many centuries the Hebrews had considered themselves to be the only true people of God, but now, Paul said, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (v. 26).
The law as a relic(3:27-29)
This thought led Paul to pen some of the most powerful and liberating words in the New Testament. Through Christ, we do not relate to God as slaves of the law, but as the very children of God – all of us:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (vv. 27-29).
For Paul’s day, this was an incredibly radical statement. Jews and Gentiles, men and women, free persons and slaves could all relate to God on the same level, all “one in Christ Jesus.” Trusting God through faith, as Abraham did, makes all believers “Abraham’s offspring,” regardless of their genealogy.
A traditional Jewish prayer going back to the Talmud invited each man to offer thanks every morning that God had not made him a woman, a Gentile, or a slave. It is likely that legalistic infiltrators in the Galatian church had exploited some of those same sentiments, but Paul insisted that all such distinctions are void in our relationship with God.
In the marketplace, we may still be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, black or white, native or immigrant, man or woman. In the church, however, we are all together the children of God – free children who are no longer under the constant restraints of the law, but heirs to all the promises of God.
To suggest another metaphor: we may be a bag of mixed nuts, but we are all nuts. We may look different and taste different. We may come from different places. We may be easy to shell or hard to crack – but through Jesus Christ every believer can claim to be Abraham’s offspring, all from the same tree, the tree of faith. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for June 19, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Galatians 3:19-29
Paul begins a passage in Galatians with a question: Why then the law? I’m guessing you have heard your students ask the same question: Why the rules? This statement is usually followed up by a series of statements: “I’m old enough”or “Their parents let them.” You have to find the balance as a parent between providing boundaries to protecting your student and allowing them to discover who they are. One way to do this is to have your student be part of setting the rules. Discuss with them what rules they think need to be in place and why. If they get to be part of the decision making process, they will have a better understanding of, and more likely to follow the rules that are set in place. Also remember to praise them when they follow the rules as much, if not more so, than when they break the rules.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Unity” from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Galatians 3:19-29