< June 20, 2010 >

Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29

 

In Galatians 3, Paul makes an intricate exegetical argument about the priority of God's promise to Abraham and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and about the provisional function of the law in relation to God's promise.

Since verses 23-29 bring this argument to its climax, it will be helpful to review briefly the groundwork Paul has laid earlier in the chapter.

Paul is distressed that Galatian (Gentile) believers are being persuaded to adopt circumcision and the observance of Jewish law as necessary to inclusion in God's covenant people. He reminds the Galatians that they received the Spirit by believing the proclamation about Christ crucified and not by doing works of the law (3:1-5).

Throughout his letters, Paul uses the term "law" (nomos) to refer both to Mosaic law and to the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. Paul reads the Torah primarily as narrative, with Christ as the decisive chapter to which the Torah is directed. He views the legal code within the Torah in a new perspective in light of the larger story culminating in Christ.1 Now in Galatians 3, Paul turns to the Torah as narrative to make his exegetical argument.

The Priority of the Promise
In Genesis 15:6, after God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." In Genesis 12:3 and 22:18, God promised Abraham that "all the Gentiles (ethnε) shall be blessed in you." Paul views these verses as evidence that God planned from the beginning to justify the Gentiles by faith, and "declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham." "For this reason," Paul asserts, "those who believe are justified with Abraham who believed" (3:6-9).

In 3:10-20, Paul makes a number of exegetical points to show that the law is provisional in nature and function:

1.The law cannot justify or bring blessing, for it declares cursed everyone who does not observe all that is written in it. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by taking its curse upon himself in his death on the cross (3:10-14).

2.The promise to Abraham has chronological priority, having been given 430 years before the giving of the law to Moses. The law cannot alter or annul the original promise, received in faith (3:15-18).

3.The law was given through angels by a mediator (Moses). It is a third-hand revelation from God, while the promise was spoken directly by God to Abraham (3:19-20).

The Law as Provisional and Temporary
"Why then the law?" Paul asks rhetorically. It was added "because of transgressions" but was only a provisional measure, "until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made" (3:19: Paul emphasizes the singular form of the collective noun, sperma, to argue that the "offspring" promised to Abraham refers to Christ).

While sin has been in the world since Adam and Eve, the law defined sin and made it known as such. The law served a custodial function with the authority to restrain sin, yet lacked the power to liberate us from sin (3:20-22). So Paul writes that "before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith." (3:23-24).

The word translated "disciplinarian" in the NRSV is paidagōgos. In wealthy Greek and Roman families, a paidagōgos was a slave entrusted with the care and discipline of a child when the child was not in school, until the child reached the age of adulthood. The metaphor suggests that the authority of the law is transitory, lasting only until the fruition of the promise -- "until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith."

"But now that faith has come," Paul continues, "we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (3:25-26). The word translated "children" in the NRSV is "sons" (huioi). Sons would enjoy full rights of inheritance from their fathers. Yet it is clear that Paul intends the meaning to be gender-inclusive by what follows.

Baptized into Christ
Now that Christ has come, the rite of entry into God's people is no longer circumcision (available only to males) but baptism, available to all. "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (3:27). Here Paul uses language from early baptismal liturgy, in which the newly baptized were clothed in a white garment, symbolic of the righteousness of Christ.

All who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with him, wrapped up in him, and incorporated into him so that Christ becomes one's primary identity marker. All other identifiers fall away, for "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" (3:28).

The Babylonian Talmud includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman (Menahoth 43b). While it is not certain that this prayer pre-dates Paul, it demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world. Paul's declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, is a radical dismantling of these primary identity and boundary markers.

Differences in ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status do not magically disappear, of course, but Paul declares them to be irrelevant in the body of Christ. For one to be baptized into Christ means being clothed with Christ and finding one's primary identity and value in Christ.

"And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (3:29; note that sperma is now interpreted corporately). All who belong to Christ share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and the call to live as God's children and heirs.

Preaching Possibilities
The categories that divide us today may be different than in Paul's day, but divisions persist in congregations and in the broader church -- divisions that run along lines of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and any number of other factors.

Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.

Recently a woman in the congregation I serve was questioned by a fellow member who was trying to pin down her stand on a particular issue -- to figure out whether she was "conservative" or "liberal." Refusing to be labeled, she responded by saying simply, "I am a child of God. That is what matters." Her interrogator was left flustered and speechless.

Our continued attempts to categorize and label one another in the church, and to diminish one another on the basis of those categories and labels, are signs of our spiritual immaturity. Paul reminds us that since Christ has come, we are no longer enslaved to those old divisions. All are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Through baptism into Christ, we belong to him and to one another. All share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and in the mission to which God has called us.

Might this perspective help us deal with contentious issues, which often have to do with interpretation of the law? Paul reminds us that the law is provisional and can never justify or save us. In fact, it can only imprison us. It is Christ who frees us from the curse of the law and makes us children and heirs of God.

This does not mean that "anything goes" in terms of how we live. Paul has plenty to say about how we are to live out our freedom in Christ, as we will see in Galatians 5 and 6.

Yet Paul's message to the Galatians cautions us against allowing the law to annul the promise and destroy the freedom, unity, and mission to which God has called us in Christ. God's mission to bless "all the families of the earth," begun with the promise to Abraham and bequeathed to us as children and heirs, takes priority over all human agendas.


1Charles B. Cousar, Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982) 82.