Law and Promise

Text: Galatians 3:15-22

Date: 03 Jun 2018


Please forgive me if I start this morning by being a bit flippant. Having read this passage over and over again I have to say that if this was a report on a football match it would be describing a score draw; you see, the word “promise” is mentioned seven times as is the word “law”. In the end though “promise” wins on a penalty shootout!

However, to be a bit more serious, these few verses are both interesting and complex. In just eight verses we pass through almost 2000 years of history. There is mention of Abraham by name, Moses by implication and Jesus by name as well. That is quite some time span but nothing compared with the importance of what Paul has to say here.

I began preaching about 14 years ago and over the years I’ve preached on many passages in Scripture a few of which haven’t always been easy to understand or expound. I have to say that today’s passage is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, that I have ever tried to preach on; it may not be very long but it isn’t terribly easy to see how it all hangs together and there doesn’t seem to be a flow of the sort that we see in many other passages. I’m not alone in thinking that since one commentator says of 3:20 in particular that it is: “probably the most obscure verse in Galatians, if not the entire New Testament.”[1]

As we work through the passage, Paul’s thoughts on the law given to Moses and the promise given to Abraham seem to be intertwined with one another making it rather difficult to pick out those thoughts in an orderly and easily understandable fashion. However, hopefully as we work through the passage we’ll be able to understand what Paul is saying.

The Argument

As we’ve moved through Galatians we have followed a huge argument between Paul on the one hand and the Judaisers backed up by Cephas on the other. This argument centred on how the people would or could receive their spiritual inheritance. That anticipated inheritance was the gift of being regarded as righteous by God and as a result of that receiving their salvation. Both issues related to what would happen to us when we die and, to quote Monty Python, leave this mortal coil. There can be little doubt that the vast majority of people want to know where they will go after they die; will they go to heaven or will they go to hell? That is assuming that people do still believe in heaven and hell!

The Judaisers had tried to convince the Galatians that they could only receive that inheritance; i.e. salvation; by also becoming Jews and following the rituals and customs of the Jewish faith, including being circumcised.

On the other hand, Paul argued, and as we surely know by now, believed, that righteousness and salvation could only come through faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Promised Inheritance

Before they die many people sit down and make out a Last Will and Testament, better known as a Will, detailing who will inherit their money and belongings after they have died. In UK law this can be changed at any time by the person making the Will right up to the time that they die at which point the Will becomes fixed and unchangeable. Under Greek law that operated during Paul’s time and which he knew, once made the Will could not be changed; it became an irrevocable agreement. Paul puts it this way in 3:15, “no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established.”

Paul uses that human example as a way of explaining the agreement that God made with Abraham when He gave Abraham some promises. It is important to remember that God’s promises always stand no matter what happens around them, and on top of that we also need to remember that God always keeps His promises.

That was the background to this next part of the argument between Paul and the Judaisers. Up to now Paul has explained in a variety of ways that righteousness and salvation may only be received through faith in Jesus Christ. The Judaisers on the other hand firmly believed that the Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus also needed to become Jews before they could be assured of salvation. They believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross wasn’t enough; more was needed.

In these eight verses we see Paul refer to God’s promise and promises on seven occasions. By doing that he is trying to emphasise just how important the promises given by God to Abraham truly were. We learned from 3:6 that Abraham “believed God” and as a result he was regarded by God as being righteous. That meant that Abraham’s salvation would come by faith; he didn’t need to do anything else whatsoever.

God also made promises to Abraham about his future. We learn about the first promise in Genesis 12:7 where we read that “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’" That promise applied both to Abraham and the people and referred to the land of Canaan. God went on from there and made a further promise to Abraham that applied to Abraham and his “seed”. Paul is at pains to point out in 3:16 that God’s promise was given to his “seed”, singular, and not his “seeds”, plural. Paul is obviously thinking of Genesis 22:18 where God says, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me”. The NIV footnote to that does say “seed” instead of “offspring”. Lest we struggle to understand just Who that “seed” is, Abraham explains in 3:16b that it means “one person, who is Christ”. Let me try and make that absolutely clear; Paul is saying that everyone will be blessed through Jesus Christ. That is the promise that God made and it is one that Paul regards as a covenant from God that cannot be set aside or added to.

We could also see that covenant as being a Last Will and Testament of the Son of God with the promised inheritance being salvation through Jesus Christ.

The Law

That may have all sounded very acceptable to the Galatians until the Judaisers arrived to stir things up. The Galatians seemed happy to accept Paul’s message that salvation came by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That message was the promises that God gave to Abraham and which we have just given some thought to. The Judaisers disagreed with that thought and argued that God’s first promise was superseded by the Law that God gave to Moses some 430 years later. Paul was having none of that and said quite firmly, “the law ... does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise” (3:17b). If that was to happen then God would be seen to be breaking His own promise; something that could never happen. Paul goes on to add in 3:18 that, “if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise”. Let me remind you that Paul believed that once a Will, or covenant, had been made it could not be changed, something that was especially true of a promise or covenant made by God.

If as Paul says in 3:11, “no one who relies on the law is justified”, then why was the law given? Paul has asked the question in the first half of 3:19 and now answers it himself in the second half of the verse. However, whilst the law was given to provide a standard for our behaviour and highlight our shortcomings, it didn’t provide any answers or a route to salvation. In previous verses in Galatians 3 Paul has taught four things relating to the law. In 3:1-5 he told us that the law couldn’t give the Holy Spirit. In 3:6-9 we learned that the law couldn’t give righteousness. Next, in 3:10-12, we saw that the law couldn’t bring about our justification, it could only condemn. And finally in 3:15-18 we saw that law couldn’t change the promise that righteousness comes only through faith.

In 3:19 Paul also uses that word “until” when he says, “[the law] was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” There are two things for us to notice from that verse. Firstly, the word “Seed” has a capital letter indicating that Paul is talking directly about Jesus. Secondly, the word “until” indicates that the giving of the law was a temporary measure only; it was never meant to be permanent or the final way to salvation. The law was of course finally fulfilled when Jesus came as He Himself told His disciples in Matthew 5:17 when He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Paul was anxious to show the Galatians that God’s promise to Abraham concerned faith whilst the Law concerned actions. One was all God whilst the other was all mankind. There is nothing we can do to receive righteousness or salvation; that can only come when we place our faith in Jesus. That is when we will receive the inheritance that God promised to Abraham.

The Mediator

We then come to a really difficult thought at the end of 3:19 and all of 3:20. Paul says, “The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.” What on earth is that all about?

Paul seems to be highlighting how the law was inferior to God’s promise because whilst God gave His promise directly to Abraham, the law was given to Moses via some angels. This latter thought is not mentioned explicitly in Scripture but was apparently a belief generally held by the Jews since they believed that the Ten Commandments had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai by angels. In Acts 7 we see Stephen talking to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, and in 7:53 he tells them, “you [who] have received the law that was put into effect through angels". From that we can deduce that the Law went from God to the angels, then on to Moses, and finally on to the people. In the case of the earlier promise that God made it went directly from God to Abraham, there was no mediator. We know that in the Temple there was a curtain between the holiest of holy places and the people. The people could never go into that place and had to “converse” with God through the priest who acted as a mediator. When Jesus died on the cross that curtain preventing access to the holiest of places was torn in two. Matthew tells us in 27:51, “At that moment [when Jesus died] the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”; direct access to God was provided in that instant meaning that a mediator was no longer needed.

Is there Conflict?

In 3:21 Paul asks the crucial question, “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God?” It’s a fair question to ask since if God’s promise to Abraham and the law are diametrically opposed surely that means there is some conflict between them? Once again Paul answers his own question when he says, “Absolutely not!” He then goes on to explain, “if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law” (3:21). As that may not be too easy to understand let’s look at the NLT version which says, “If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it.” As we saw last week when looking at 3:10-14, “no one who relies on the law is justified before God” (3:11). The NIV version makes 3:22 equally difficult to understand since it tells us that, “Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin”. Again it is made easier in the NLT which says, “the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin”. The only way that we can be freed from that prison is by believing God’s promise and coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

Sadly for them the Judaisers firmly believed that the law could give new life by being obeyed. Paul has been at pains to point out through all that he has said so far in Galatians 3 that that is patently not true. The only way to receive the new life that salvation brings is by coming to faith in Jesus; which is exactly what God promised to Abraham all those hundreds of years earlier.


As I said earlier in this sermon, this passage is not that easy to understand as Paul’s thinking about the differences between the law and God’s promise intersperse one another through the eight verses.

The basic lesson though is simple. God made a promise to Abraham that through his “seed”, that is Jesus Christ; all who followed Abraham by having faith in Christ would be blessed. The law was given approximately 430 years later and did not overrule or add to the promise in any way. Not only that but the law could not bring the new life of salvation; that can only come through faith in Jesus.

In these difficult but important verses, Paul has been telling us that the promise given to Abraham brings life, in and with Christ. On the other hand the Law of Moses brings a curse and does not bring life. Paul, like any Pastor, wants everyone to choose life, life in Jesus Christ.

[1] Boice, James Montgomery

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