Due to other responsibilities these notes are late and abbreviated.

Notes for teaching on Galatians 3:15-4:7, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 4.

Notes on the Text

(Quotations taken from the NIV)

15 Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” w meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Remember that Paul in the first part of chapter 3 has been arguing that the law is insufficient for right standing before God. He has done so by (1) appealing to the Galatians’ own experience, (2) scriptural appeals to the story of Abraham, and (3) scriptural proofs that show the insufficiency of the law for righteousness and Christ’s dealing with that insufficiency on the cross. Now, Paul returns to his piece on Abraham. In 3:6-7 Paul focused on Abraham’s faith, which preceded circumcision and the Law. Here, he focuses on God’s promise, which also preceded the Law and encompasses all who have faith in Christ.

To make his point about God’s promise, Paul sets for the example of a “human covenant,” which is binding once it has been established. How much more would this be true of a covenant made by God? This divine covenant, Paul argues, was given to Abraham and his seed (see Gen. 12:1-3 and Gen 15). According to usual Jewish interpretation, “seed” would be a collective noun that referred to the Jewish people. Paul, however, takes a different tack by appealing to the singular form of the word. As Robert Rapa explains, “…Paul uses the inherent singularity of the collective noun … to make reference to one individual, Jesus Christ. Christ is the authentic son of Abraham, the true Seed through whom all the nations would be blessed.”[1] While Paul’s use of a collective noun as referring to an individual may seem like a stretch, Rapa’s stress on Christ as the “authentic” son of Abraham is key to the argument. Paul can make this move because of the uniqueness of Jesus, who alone was able to fulfill God’s plan for Israel to bless the Gentiles. Moreover, as we will see presently, the reference to Christ as the seed will again be used collectively.

Having argued that the God’s inviolable covenant was made with Abraham and Jesus, Paul then argues that the Law, which appeared relatively late on the scene, does not alter the original covenant. The covenant was based on God’s promise, he argues, and not on human performance of the Law.

19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

Now we come to an important point in Paul’s argument. He has spent so much time arguing against the Law as determinative of one’s relationship to God is insufficient that his audience, and especially the Jewish members of that audience, might think that he has negated the Law entirely. If the Law is so insufficient, they might say, then why would God give it in the first place? To answer this question, Paul gives a surprising interpretation of the Law. It was given “because of transgressions” until the time of Christ. Scott McKnight offers a good discussion of this idea:

Scholars here are divided: Should we translate “It was added because of transgressions,” or “It was added for the purpose of revealing transgressions”? Put differently, which came first: sin or the law? Did God add the law because the people were sinning, or did the people suddenly learn that they were sinning because God gave the law? Later Paul states that the law does not give life (vv. 21–22) but is a teacher (v. 24); elsewhere he says that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20; cf. 7:7) and that when there is no law there is no sin (4:15; cf. 5:13). Romans 5:20 states that “the law was added so that the trespass might increase” (cf. 7:13). Thus, I conclude with many who see the purpose of the law as being that it was given in order to reveal certain kinds of behavior as sinful. The law, then, was a judging instrument for the people of God; through its written code they learned that certain behavior was contrary to God’s will.[2]

The second part of Paul’s explanation – that the Law was given until the time of Christ – puts a time limit on the Law’s authority. Paul then argues that the giving of the Law came through angels and Moses (the mediator). The covenant made with Abraham, however, came from God himself. In making this argument, Paul is once again showing the superiority of the promise over the Law.

21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Now Paul has to further clarify his view on the Law. Is it somehow opposed to the promise since it has now been superseded by Christ? Paul’s answer is an emphatic no. Once again, he shows that the Law was not a life-giving entity. As a sin-identifying entity, though, it served its purpose. As Rapa explains: “As it is, all humanity is condemned by the law, in order that all humanity may potentially be made heirs of the promise that comes by faith.”[3] The Law, then, served the promise even in its condemnatory role.

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

In v 19, Paul argued that the Law was temporary. Here, he makes the same argument with the metaphor of a guardian, or more literally from the Greek – a pedagogue. A pedagogue a custodian of children. NT Wright compares them to modern-day babysitters. The pedagogue was a slave who had charge children. Babysitter, however, may be too positive a description though. Rapa explains that the pedagogue was often viewed in a negative manner: “With regard to Paul’s use here, the pedagogue has been understood as one who is rude and insolent or as an ‘imprisoning jailer’ … this is no doubt due to the caricature of pedagogues found in Greek literature.”[4] Think of the pedagogue, then, as an ill-tempered nanny. The Law had a supervisory role in Jewish life until the time of Christ. In that supervisory role, the Law condemned and imprisoned its charges. Now that Christ has come, though, the time for the Law’s guardianship has passed. Faith justifies, and the Law must fade into the past.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Now Paul ties all of this talk about the Law and faith back to his original argument that the Galatians need not be circumcised. Faith in Christ means: (1) Christians have been baptized into Christ; (2) Christians have clothed themselves in Christ. The point here is that Christians are “in Christ,” a concept that proves to be extremely important as the passage unfolds. “In Christ,” Paul says, “[t]here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” This is so because being in Christ means becoming a part of Abraham’s family. McKnight explains this well: “Since the Galatian believers are “in Christ” and since Christ is the Seed of Abraham (v. 19), then it follows that the Galatian believers are also Abraham’s seed. And if they are Abraham’s seed, then they also inherit Abraham’s promise—a relationship with God that entails his blessing and goodness.”[5] This idea of one family/people in Christ was underscored earlier in v 26, which speaks of Christians being children of God in Christ. One Father, one family, one inheritance/promise shared by all in the family.

Note how one’s new location or identity in Christ supersedes all other identifiers. People did not stop being Jews, Gentiles, free people, slaves, men, or women when they accepted Christ. These dividing identifiers (culture, social standing, gender) were subsumed under a more important identity.

4 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. e Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. [6]

Paul now returns to his pedagogue metaphor. The underage heir is like a slave, without rights. Like a slave, the heir is subject to authority figures (guardians and trustees) until the time for graduation into adulthood set by the father is reached.

Paul takes this state of affairs as a metaphor for Christians, who:

  • Were enslaved to the “elemental spiritual forces of the world”
  • Redeemed by Christ from the Law
  • Through that redemption, adopted as children of God (the son language is important because a son had greater privileges than a daughter – all Christians, whether men or women, share in those same privileges)
  • Because of that adoption, filled with the Spirit
  • Because of the Spirit, enabled by the Spirit to cry out “Abba Father” (Recently, scholars have debated whether Abba actually means “daddy” as we have so often heard. The key here, though, is not the term itself but that we are calling God the same thing that Jesus called him.)

All this to say, in Christ, adoption to sonship means adoption into maturity, without the need for the pedagogy of the Law. Gentiles are heirs to God’s promises by faith in Christ, as are Jews. In Christ, there is no distinction.

One interesting note has to do with “the elemental spiritual forces of the world.” This term in the Greek is stoicheia, and it can have a variety of meanings. The NIV chooses a meaning that refers to spiritual forces that control the world. Another possible translation is “the elemental principles of the world.” This, of course, carries a very different meaning. As Rapa explains: “Paul’s point here seems to be that the Mosaic legislation given by God to his people living in the previous era of redemptive history represents elementary teachings that prepared Israel for the coming of Christ.”[7] Because Paul seems to interchange stoicheia with the Law in this passage, “elementary principles” seems to be the better translation. At the same time, one might argue that humanity before Christ was enslaved to spiritual forces (as described in Ephesians 6) that made humans unable to fulfill the demands of the Law. Faith in Christ frees one from these powers and leads to an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. While compelling in some ways, this interpretation strains Paul’s metaphor. Up to now, he has been speaking of guardians. “Spiritual forces,” though, wouldn’t fit that description.

Notes for Teaching

Paul and the Law is a hard subject. In fact, it has been one of the most hotly debated points in New Testament studies for the past few decades. These verses in Galatians have been a part of that debate. I bring this up to point out that these verses are difficult for commentators. I find them difficult as well. In teaching, then, I would cut to the chase. Rather than dwelling on the Law, what does faith in Christ mean? Here are answers supplied by the text:

  • Adoption to sonship
  • Being filled with the Spirit
  • Being empowered by the Spirit to call God the same name that Jesus called him
  • Heirs of the promise
  • A new identity that supersedes race, social status, and gender

These are great blessings that are worthy of much discussion!

Resources Consulted:

Robert K. Rapa’s Galatians in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition series

Scott McKnight’s Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary series.

NT Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians

Timothy George’s Galatians in The New American Commentary series

Explore the Bible Curriculum


[1] Rapa, 598.

[2] McKnight, S. (1995). Galatians (p. 179). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] Rapa, 601.

[4] Rapa, 602.

[5] McKnight, S. (1995). Galatians (pp. 202–203). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[6] The New International Version. (2011). (Ga 3:15–4:7). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] Rapa, 605.