Online Bible Commentary
The Purpose of the Law
Galatians 3:19 What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. 21 Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. 22 But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (NKJV)
The Apostle Paul is writing to believers in southern Galatia likely from his home city of Antioch, Syria in 49 A.D, prior to attending the Jerusalem Council meeting which occurred that same year. Paul has just completed his first missionary journey in which he and Barnabas planted churches in southern Galatia at Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. This letter is the first of Paul’s letters.
The churches in Galatia, influenced by Judaizers, have already turned from Paul’s Gospel to a false gospel of a mix of works and grace instead of grace alone. Judaizers claimed that Christians must also follow the Old Testament law, including circumcision. So Paul is writing to the Galatian believers to direct them back to the true Gospel of salvation by grace and not a combination of grace and works.
In this passage, Paul writes of the purpose of the law (v. 19a). The law was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai during the third month after the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The law is expressed in the first five books of the Bible, which were written by Moses.
The law was a two way contract between God and the Israelites. In return for God’s blessings, which included freedom from slavery, the Israelites were to show their love for God by obedience to God’s laws.
The law “was added” by God until the Abrahamic Covenant could take effect, some 1,500 years after the giving of the law (v. 19b). The law was added because of the presence of sin (v. 19c). The Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3) was a one party unconditional promise given by God to Abraham that said all the people of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s Seed with salvation by grace through faith. Abraham’s Seed, Jesus Christ (Mt. 1:1), would “come to whom the promise was made”, all the people of the world (v. 19d).
The law was delivered to the Israelites “through angels by the hand of a mediator” (v. 19e). The angels (Dt. 33:2, Ps. 68:17, Acts 7:53, Heb. 2:2) were messengers from God and the mediator was Moses (Dt. 5:5) who mediated between God and the Israelite people.
“A mediator does not mediate for one only”, so the Abrahamic Covenant did not need a mediator (v. 20a). “God is one” and was the only One involved in the Abrahamic Covenant since it was a one party unconditional promise made to Abraham (v. 20b).
Paul then asks if the law goes “against the promises of God”, meaning, in this case, the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant (v. 21a). The answer is “Certainly not” (v.21b)! Because if obedience to the law could have produced eternal “life”, the “righteousness” required for eternal life could have come from obedience to the law (v. 21c). Instead, for that 1,500 years between the giving of the law and the coming of Jesus the Jews proved that they could not obey the law over and over again. So the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant was still needed even though the law was added later.
The law “confined all under sin” (v. 22a). All have sinned and are in bondage to that sin so that “the promise” of the Abrahamic Covenant which is salvation “by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (v. 22b). Before this “faith (Jesus) came”, the Israelites “were kept under guard by the law” until such time as Jesus would “be revealed” (v. 23a).
So the purpose of the law was to be a “tutor” until, the Jews could be “justified by faith” in Jesus Christ (v. 24a). The non Jews, the Gentiles, were never under the law. Then, “after faith (Jesus)” came, the tutor (the law) was no longer needed (v. 25).
So today no one is under the law. It is given to us as a way to define sin, but it has no power over us. If we sin, and we all do, the only way to eternal life is through salvation by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.