2. The Purpose of the Law (3:19–22)
19 Then what of the law? It was added to make wrongdoing a legal offence. It was a temporary measure pending the arrival of the “issue” to whom the promise was made. It was promulgated through angels, and there was an intermediary; 20 but an intermediary is not needed for one party acting alone, and God is one.
21 Does the law, then, contradict the promises? No, never! If a law had been given which had power to bestow life, then indeed righteousness would have come from keeping the law. 22 But Scripture has declared the whole world to be prisoners in subjection to sin, so that faith in Jesus Christ may be the ground on which the promised blessing is given, and given to those who have such faith.
19 But if the law is something which, as Paul makes out, came later than the promise and has no power to make the promise ineffective, the question inevitably arises: “Why then the law?” (RSV) 35 This question about “the purpose of the law” (NIV) cannot be adequately answered without the place and significance of the law in salvation history being shown, 36 and the NEB rendering puts the question in a form which is general enough to accommodate this aspect as well. In any event, the question is one which Paul no doubt found it necessary to answer in responding to the Judaizers, but which also may have presented itself to Paul himself as something of an inner necessity. 37 The answer is given in vv. 19b-22, from which a number of points will be noted.
(a) The law was given “to make wrongdoing a legal offence” (v. 19a). This rendering rightly regards the Greek phrase 38 as indicating the purpose and not the cause (cf. AV, RV, RSV, NASB, NIV: “because of transgressions”) for which the law was given. The more precise meaning of the phrase has, however, been variously interpreted as: (i) “to check transgressions”; (ii) “to reveal transgressions,” that is, to bring them to light and to expose sin as transgression (cf. Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13); (iii) “to evoke and increase transgressions,” that is, to call them forth by stimulating latent sin into activity (cf. Rom. 7:7f., 13)—a meaning which logically includes (ii) and is therefore sometimes combined with it as “to reveal and provoke transgressions”; and (iv) “to awaken a conviction of sin and guilt” and thus of the need of a Savior. 39 Since in the context Paul is more concerned with the objective facts of salvation history than with the subjective development of faith in the individual (see on vv. 22ff. below), (iv) appears less appropriate. While (i) is in accord with the Jewish understanding of the law as a hedge against sin, 40 it is ruled out by Paul’s explicit teaching elsewhere. Between (ii) and (iii) it is difficult to choose: we may either regard (ii) as expressing all that is intended by Paul here, attributing to the law the simple function of revealing transgressions, that is, (as NEB suggests) of imparting to them the character of legal offenses, and see Paul as taking his description of the law’s function a step further in Romans, or we may regard (iii) as representing Paul’s thought here, the present phrase being “a crisp formulation of what he says elsewhere.” 41 In either case, the function of the law is presented as an entirely negative one.
(b) The law was “added … till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (v. 19b-c, RSV). Two thoughts are expressed here: (i) The law was an addition, having its beginning after the promise (v. 17); it was added (cf. Rom. 5:20), not “to the promise as a kind of supplement to it,” but “to the human situation for … a purpose totally different from that of the promise.” 42 (ii) The validity of the law ceased with the coming of “the Seed to whom the promise referred” (NIV), that is, Christ (v. 16). Thus the law here, as compared with the line of promise from Abraham to Christ, is presented as “an interim dispensation” 43 which was temporally restricted and only temporarily valid. 44
(c) The law was “ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator” (v.19d, RV). Again, two thoughts are involved here. (i) The law was ordained through the mediation of angels. The rendering “ordained by angels” (AV, RSV), 45 poses what must be regarded as a violent contrast between Paul’s estimate of the law here (even when due allowance is made for the polemical context of the passage) and that in Romans (cf. in particular Rom. 2:17f.; 7:12). The generally accepted view, represented by RV, NEB, NASB, and NIV, 46 is much more likely to be correct. The role of angels as God’s assistants in the promulgation of the law is employed in Jewish and early Christian tradition to enhance the glory of the law (e.g., Dt. 33:2, LXX; Acts 7:38, 53; Heb. 2:2). Here in Galatians, however, in a “specific Christianizing of the tradition,” it is used to show the inferiority of the law as that which was given not directly by God but only through angelic mediation. 47 (ii) The law was ordained also “through an intermediary” (RSV)—“by the hand of,” as a literal translation would represent the phrase, being a pure Hebraism for “by the agency of” (NASB). 48 The reference is probably to Moses, who clearly appears in a mediatorial role in the giving of the law (cf. Ex. 20:19; Dt. 5:5, 23–27). 49 The point of these two thoughts is that since the law was, on the one hand, proclaimed through angels and, on the other hand, communicated by the agency of an intermediary, “it had reached men only at two removes from God.” 50
20 (d) Of v. 20 it has been said that there are as many interpretations as the number of years between promise and law (cf. v. 17)! 51 Two of these may be singled out for special consideration. The first understands the phrase “not … of one” (AV, RV) as affirming that the party for whom a mediator acts must consist of a plurality of persons, so that the verse becomes a proof that the law was given not by God but by angels. The reasoning runs as follows: For God to give the law to the people of Israel there would be no need of a mediator, since a single person can deal directly with a plurality (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5); the very fact that the law was given through an intermediary implies that on both sides pluralities were involved; and the plurality on the heavenly side cannot have been God, who is one, but the angels. 52
The second view regards the plurality implied in “not … of one” as a duality of parties and understands the verse as emphasizing the one-sided nature of the promise. Here the thought is that while the very idea of mediation involved in the giving of the law indicates that it is of the nature of a contract between two parties, both of whom have to fulfill its terms for it to be valid, the promise is a unilateral disposition dependent solely on God’s sovereign grace. 53 As we have rejected that interpretation of v. 19d which makes the law stem from the angels, we follow (with NEB, cf. NASB, NIV) the second interpretation, which also appears the more natural one. 54
Thus far, then, in his answer to the question regarding the purpose of the law Paul has pointed to its negative function, its limited validity, its mediated communication and its conditional nature—all of which show, by implication if not by explicit statement, that the later dispensation of law is inferior to the original covenant of promise.
21 (e) The law’s inferiority to the promise does not mean that the law contradicts the promise (v. 21a). 55 Paul substantiates his emphatic denial of any such contradiction by referring again to the function of the law, but this time in a positive as well as a negative aspect. (a) The negative aspect is presented here. Paul’s statement has been understood in at least three ways. One view takes the verb “to bestow life” to mean: to give the ability to do what the law demands; in this view Paul is arguing from cause to effect. 56 But a difficulty is posed for this by the predominant meaning of the verb in Paul, as throughout the NT, which is: to impart life in the soteriological sense. 57 Another view regards the verb here as the causative of “gain life” (v. 12) and meaning in effect “to justify”; 58 but this makes the protasis (the “if” clause) say much the same thing as the apodosis (the “then” clause), whereas the former should provide some explanation for the latter. A third view seems preferable: Paul is arguing from the effect (“to bestow life”) to the cause (“righteousness”): if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness, which is the prior condition of life, would have come from keeping the law. 59 In any case, the point of the statement—cast in the form of a contrary-to-fact conditional sentence—is that the function of the law was not to provide the way of acceptance with God (“righteousness”). 60 The law’s inability to impart life is here simply stated, not explained; neither does Paul raise the question whether it is theoretically possible to obtain righteousness through the law. 61
22 (b) The positive aspect of the law’s function is stated with the help of the figure of a jail sentence, 62 with Scripture as the magistrate, 63 “all men” (NASB) as the prisoners, 64 and sin as the jailer who carries out the sentence (“in subjection to sin”—literally “under sin,” AV, RV, NASB). It has been maintained that “the singular graphē in the N.T. always means a particular passage of Scripture”; 65 Paul elsewhere in his epistles indeed seems to have maintained a clear distinction between the use of the singular (Rom. 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; Gal. 4:30) and the plural (Rom. 1:2; 15:4; 16:26; 1 Cor 15:3, 4), but the personification of Scripture here (as in v. 8) may warrant our seeing a departure from Paul’s normal practice and general NT usage. 66 Neither of the particular scriptures which have been suggested as being in view in v. 22—Ps. 143:2, quoted in Gal. 2:16, and Dt. 27:26, quoted in Gal. 3:10 67 —seems to prove Paul’s point that all are consigned under sin. We can, therefore, take the singular “Scripture” here as referring not to one specific passage but to the entirety of Scripture, which does, however, pronounce its verdict through individual texts, passages such as those reflected in Rom. 3:10–18, which declare the whole world to be sinners. 68
In Paul’s analogy no reason for which the magistrate consigns the prisoners to the jailer is mentioned, though in reality that reason is sin. But, expressing the facts of the case rather than speaking strictly within the terms of Paul’s imagery, we may say that God, speaking through the Scriptures, locks up all men under the condemnation of sin, providing them with no possibility of escape; 69 and his purpose in doing so is stated in v. 22b. Here the original word order 70 is against connecting “by faith in Jesus Christ” with “the promise” to produce “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ” (RV, NASB) and in favor of connecting the phrase (regarded as put in an emphatic position) with “may be … given,” so that “faith in Jesus Christ” is both the objective basis on which the promise is given (so NEB, cf. NIV) and the subjective means whereby the promise is received (by “those who have such faith”). 71 Interpreted in the light of v. 18, the promise may refer to the inheritance promised to Abraham, understood in its spiritual application as acceptance with God and all its attendant blessings; 72 interpreted in the light of v. 14 and our discussion thereof, the promise refers to the promise of justification by faith (after the manner of Abraham’s justification) and reception of the Spirit. Hence the promise has to do, at least partially if not exclusively, with justification by faith. This understanding is supported also by the connection between vv. 21 and 22: the law could not bestow righteousness (v. 21); what it did was to shut up all people under sin so that the promise might be received by faith (v. 22); thus the promise of v. 22 clearly has to do with the righteousness mentioned in v. 21.
Paul’s contention in vv. 19–22 may be summed up as follows: The law is an institution inferior to the covenant of promise and it does not bestow righteousness. Its “true effect … is to nail man to his sin. As the prison holds the prisoner … so man is shut up by the Law under sin… . Rightly understood, then, the Law prevents any attempt on man’s part to secure righteousness before God in any other way than … that promised to Abraham.” 73 There is no essential contradiction of the promise by the law, bcause, simply, the law is intended to serve the purposes of the promise, which has to do with justification by faith. 74
In this section (3:15–22) Paul has again demonstrated that justification is by faith and not by works of the law. He has done it in terms of the relation between the law and the promise, by showing clearly that it is the original covenant of promise which represents God’s intention in his dealings with men, and that the law is an inferior institution designed to serve the purposes of the promise. Hence the Judaizers were wrong, in the terms used in v. 16, to impose new conditions for salvation (“add a codicil”) upon the original covenant of promise, which cannot be rendered null and void (“set … aside”) in this way.
The entire passage is, in fact, an elaboration of the antithesis between law and promise already introduced in vv. 13f. As in that earlier passage (cf. especially vv. 13f. and v. 22), the doctrine of justification by faith is explained historically, that is, from the perspective of salvation history. 75 This perspective is continued in the next section (3:23–4:11). Before turning to that, however, we may briefly note again the nexus of ideas in which justification belongs: promise (vv. 16, 18, 22), inheritance (v. 18), and life (v. 21). If in 3:15–22 justification is treated primarily with reference to the promise, in the next section it is the notion of sonship (implied in the concept of inheritance) that will occupy the dominant place.
36 Cf. Schlier 151.
38 Gk. τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν. On the variants παραδόσεων (“traditions”) and πράξεων (“deeds”) Metzger 594 makes no comment beyond what may be implied in an exclamation mark.
39 E.g., (i) O’Neill 52, 78; (ii) Cranfield, “Law,” 162; Martin 112f.; W. Günther, NIDNTT III: 585; (iii) A. Oepke, TDNT IV: 618; J. Schneider, TDNT V: 740; Grundmann, “Gesetz,” 58; (iv) Hendriksen 140; Pinnock 45. For the interesting suggestion that what is in mind here is “a sacred and revised edition” of the law which “took into account the transgressions of the faithless and disobedient people,” see Stendahl, Paul, 19f.
40 Cf. Schoeps, Paul, 194f.; Betz 165.
42 Bruce 176.
43 Manson, Paul and John, 20. Note also the observation of Barrett, First Adam, 60f.
44 Cf., e.g., A. Oepke, TDNT IV: 618; C. Maurer, TDNT VIII: 168; Schlier 152, 155; Bammel, “Νόμος,” 123f. For the suggestion that the law here is to be understood as “not the law in the fullness and wholeness of its true character, but the law as seen apart from Christ,” see Cranfield, Romans, 2: 859.
48 Moule 184.
49 Betz 170 with n. 72 points out that in the LXX ἐν χειρὶ Μωυσῆ (“by the hand of Moses”) “has become almost a formula.” On the phrase ἐν χειρὶ μεσίτου (“by the hand of a mediator”) here cf. especially Callan, “Midrash,” 555–564, who suggests that the term μεσίτης/srswr is especially associated with two incidents in Moses’ career (Ex. 20:19; 32–34).
52 E.g., Schweitzer, Mysticism, 70; Clarke, NT Problems, 155f.; A. Oekpe, TDNT IV: 618f.
54 A recent suggestion identifies the “intermediary” (vv. 19f.) with the angel of the presence who accompanied Moses in the wilderness and spoke to him at Mount Sinai (Ex. 23:20f.; 32:34; 33:14; Acts 7:38) and regards this angel as the mediator of the angels as Moses was mediator on behalf of the Israelites (Vanhoye, “Un médiateur”). On the other hand, “perhaps the point about the law is that it `was negotiated not directly between the principals but through deputies’ ” (Bruce 179, quoting W. H. Isaacs, “Galatians iii.20,” ExpT 35 [1923–24] 567). A difficulty one finds with Vanhoye’s view is that the final clause “God is one” then seems to lose something of the climactic force in the argument which it has in the second interpretation above (which accords well with its final position in the sentence), and becomes merely a step in the logical reasoning which concludes that the mediator referred to here is not God’s mediator but (by implication) a mediator of the angels. Moreover, this concept of an angelic mediator would probably be less easy for Paul’s original readers to grasp, being less explicitly grounded in the OT Scriptures than the more familiar concept of Moses as the Israelites’ mediator with God. Vanhoye’s view, together with that of L. Gaston, who thinks Paul refers to the tradition of the seventy angels of the nations (“Angels ane Gentiles in early Judaism and in Paul,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 11 (1982): 65–75), is also rejected by King, “Tannaim,” 366f., n. 80.)
55 On the nicely balanced question whether τοῦ θεοῦ (“of God”) is part of the original text see Metzger 594f. The substitution of τοῦ Χριστοῦ (“of Christ”) for τοῦ θεοῦ is clearly inappropriate in the context, since the promises are obviously to be understood in the sense of v. 16.
57 Cf. R. Bultmann, TDNT II: 874f. (s.v. ζῳποιέω).
58 Burton 195. Cf. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 503, where “righteousness” is equated with “life.”
59 Ellicott 66.
60 Ziesler, Righteousness, 179 maintains that here “we must give `righteousness’ its full value; righteousness by the law is that which consists in law-fulfillment and therefore claims a favourable verdict.” But Paul does not actually say “righteousness by the law,” only that “righteousness would have come from keeping the law.” The emphasis does not fall on the conduct and character which, in the event of the condition being fulfilled, would form the basis of acceptance with God. It is, rather, on the acceptance itself. Cf. Burton 195, 469.
61 It would appear that the reason the law is unable to bestow life is not simply that “man does not in fact keep the commandments” (H. Braun, TDNT VI: 480; cf. W. Gutbrod, TDNT IV: 1072; Moule, “Obligation,” 394), but also that mankind, belonging to this age and standing under the dominion of sin and the flesh, inevitably perverts them into a means of meritorious achievement, of religious boasting before God, so that keeping the law becomes a sinful effort to be independent of God and his grace (cf., e.g., W. Grundmann, TDNT I: 308f., IV: 573; Klein, “Rechtfertigung,” col. 827; Vos, Eschatology, 274; Bruce, “Curse,” 29). As for the second question, if due emphasis is to be given to the word “theoretically” the answer is probably “Yes” (cf. Ridderbos, Paul, 134). But what is theoretically possible is not actually possible (cf. Kertelge, Rechtfertigung, 72, 205, n. 221); on the plane of reality the question of the possibility of obtaining righteousness through the law need not even arise: “It is not God’s purpose that any individual should attain righteousness for himself by keeping the Law; God’s purpose is to offer righteousness to all through faith in Jesus Christ” (Whiteley, Theology, 82).
62 For the following treatment of the imagery cf. Guthrie 107.
63 The same verb (συνέκλεισεν, “declared … to be prisoners”) is used in Rom. 11:32 (“making … prisoners”) with God as the subject, thus showing that here Scripture is identified with God’s own speaking (G. Schrenk, TDNT I: 754).
64 NEB “the whole world” is literally “all things” (RV, RSV); the phrase is “probably a generalizing neuter referring to persons” (Bultmann, Theology, 249; cf. BDF §138.1; G. Delling, TDNT VI: 292, n. 32). Rom. 11:32 has the masculine “all men” (NIV; i.e., as in NEB, “all mankind”); Betz 175, n. 116 rightly thinks that the two “must be identical.”
65 Lightfoot 147f. (emphasis in the original).
71 Cf., e.g., Schlier 165, over against Ridderbos 142. This construction also obviates the difficulty that “the promise itself, when made, contained no mention of the Messiah, let alone Jesus Christ,” on account of which O’Neill 53 would omit the words “Jesus Christ” as “an understandable but incorrect gloss.”
72 Schlier 145.
73 W. Gutbrod, TDNT IV: 1074.
75 As O. Michel, TDNT VII: 746 says of v. 22b, “This Pauline thesis is to be taken historically. It is thus connected with his apocalyptic doctrine of the aeons and is teleologically orientated to his understanding of salvation. In God’s plan of salvation one thing takes place in order that something else may result.”