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Freedom and the Law
Spring Quarter: God Frees and God Redeems
Unit 3: Liberating Letters
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 15, 2022
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Galatians 3:18-29
Key Verse: Galatians 3:29
- Summarize what makes a person a child of God through faith in Christ.
- Compare and contrast life under the law with a life of faith in Christ.
- Write out the promises God has made to him or her as an heir.
If you have ever been to a roller-skating rink, you know they have special designated times for various categories to skate: boys, girls, parents, couples and so on. After a few minutes of the designated skate, the announcer proclaims over the loudspeaker, “It’s all skate time, everybody is invited to participate and skate!” At this point, no one feels left out.
In this week’s lesson, the Apostle Paul makes a sweeping declaration. This declaration invites all people to hear and experience the promises of God’s transforming good news.
The Galatian Christians were a community of believers in the region of Galatia, located in modern-day Turkey. Paul’s missionary journeys took him through this region and its cities. Depending on whether “Galatia” is understood in a political sense or a demographic sense it was during either Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13-14) or his second (Acts 16:1-8:22) that he first taught the gospel message to the Galatians (see 4:12-13).
The year Paul wrote the Galatian epistle is unknown. Some research has proposed that it was written as early as AD 48 or as late as AD 57/58. The latter would imply that Paul wrote this epistle after the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15. If this were the case, part of Galatians includes Paul’s retelling of the council’s key concern: circumcision as part of adherence to the Law of Moses (Galatians 2:1-10; see Acts 15:5). These same concerns were of importance among the Galatian churches.
The Galatians had received the gospel messages from Paul (Acts 16:6; 18-23; Galatians 1:11-12), but there were some among them who tried to add to the message. These individuals taught that circumcision as part of adherence to the law of Moses was a requirement for salvation. But Paul declared to be “a different gospel” (see 1:6; 2:14). Advocates for this approach were known as “Judaizers” because they called for Gentile believers to adhere to the distinctions of Jewish law. And the Judaizers’ beliefs were understandable. From their point of view, Israel was and continued to be the distinct people of God. It was to Israel that God had revealed himself given his law and prescribed circumcision as a mark of his covenant (Genesis 17:7-14).
Paul urged the Galatian churches to reject the Judaizers’ addition to the gospel message (1:7-9). Paul reflected on his own “extremely zealous” experience in Judaism (1:14) as he highlighted his inability to follow the law to the point of justification (2:15-21). Through Christ, the promise of salvation was to be revealed to the whole world (3:6-9). And Paul went on to show the unifying nature of that salvation for all who would believe in Christ.
- Inheritance (Galatians 3:18-19a)
The fact that Paul begins with “for” indicates a continuation of his preceding discussion on “the inheritance” from God (Galatians 3:15-17). This inheritance implies eternal life and being counted righteous by God – for those having faith in Jesus (see Acts 20:32; Hebrews 9:15). Paul’s great concern was the means by which the inheritance was received.
If the promised life and righteousness came via “the law,” then God’s promises – especially his promises to Abraham – would be of little value. Simply stated, the law’s role was not to provide entrance into God’s “promise.” The Law was given to Moses 430 years after God’s promise (3:17). This fact provides a hint for God’s relationship with his people, He desires relationships, not regulations. If God’s inheritance was received by following the law, then his promises would be of no value and faith would be irrelevant (Romans 4:13-16).
The “promise of God,” made “to Abraham” centuries prior, designated a blessing (Genesis 12:1-3), a reward and heir (Genesis 15:1-6), and a guarantee of descendants (17:1-8). In contrast to the demands of the law, God’s gracious act was in giving the promise. And ultimately, God’s promises would be fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3:16).
Now, this observation led to Paul’s essential question: “Why then, was the law given at all? Here, Paul anticipates the Galatians’ response regarding the promise. If God’s inheritance came through his promise then why should people of God continue to rely on “the law for salvation?” This question is Paul’s way of addressing their (assumed) concerns since he couldn’t be with them in person.
- Law (Galatians 3:19b-21)
Scholars tell us that the covenant (promise) is permanent: the law is temporary and provisional till the seed should come. The law is something added; it is not in God’s original plan. It is limited in purpose because of transgressions. No matter how profoundly significant transgressions may be, the handling of them is only a part, not the whole, of Christian life.
The word “transgressions” indicates a violation of a boundary. In this instance, the boundary transgressed is the law (see Romans 2:23). The law “was added” to reveal the nature and extent of human transgressions (5:13, 20). As a result, people became conscious of their violations (Romans 3:20; 7:12-13). Through the Law of Moses, the Israelites had common language for understanding their transgressions and enforcing discipline. However, the law’s application was limited as it served to reveal, rather than heal, transgressions.
The law would apply “until” a specific time ordained by God. Galatian Judaizers required obedience to the Law of Moses to become an heir of Abraham’s “promise.” However, Paul nullified their argument by noting a temporal aspect: the law was fulfilled by the coming of Abraham’s “Seed,” Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:16).
The law was foreign to the nature of God and so could not be transacted directly between God and his people. It was “mediated” (v.20) through angels and through Moses. The law’s inferiority was due, in part, to its mediated nature. While scripture never calls Moses “a mediator,” God gave him the law and entrusted it to his care. Other scriptures indicate a belief that “angels” served a role in revealing “the law” (see Acts 7:53; Hebrews 2:2). However, God’s promise is without angels’ mediation. Therefore, it is more enduring.
That the law was given through a “mediator” did not strengthen its influence. In fact, the opposite occurred. The mediated nature of the law differed from God’s direct interactions with Abraham (Genesis 12:1). For believers, Chris Jesus serves as the mediator between God and humans (1 Timothy 2:5). As a result, there exists a new relationship between God and humanity, mediated through the “better promises” of Christ Jesus (example, see Hebrews 8:6). The law differentiated Jew and Gentile. “But God is one” and his people are one through faith in Christ (Romans 3:29-30).
In verse 21, Paul again anticipates a rebuttal, so he cites a possible concern for the Galatians. The “law and the promise” are not against each other. Both are of God and both are holy (Romans 7:12; 1 Timothy 1:8). However, each serves a different purpose.
One other thing in verse 21, the “law” was never intended to give eternal life. This is why Paul emphasizes that the giving of the law came years after God’s covenant and Abraham’s faith (Galatians 3:17). If righteousness could come by the law, then the work of Christ, particularly his death, would be “for nothing” (2:21). As the law shows humans their sinful ways, it follows God’s holy intention (Romans 7:7-10).
- Faith (Galatians 3:22-25)
Because Paul declared that all were guilty under the law, all were unfit to receive life on the basis of the law. This serves to contrast the law’s condemnation with the life provided by “what was promised.” Only those who believe will be counted righteous. And the righteous person will be considered a recipient of the promise (Romans 4:3, 13, 16), conveyed by the “seed” of Abraham, Jesus (3:16,19).
God’s plan never depended on the law. It was and is through faith in Jesus Christ and his faithfulness to follow the call of his Father that Jew and Gentile can experience the blessed promise of redemption. “Those who believe” become God’s children, regardless of their ethnic identity (John 1:12,13).
For Paul, this “faith” was more than a person’s mental trust or a deep-seated hope. Instead, he attributed faith to God’s way of dealing with humanity. Jesus’ faithfulness in following his Father was the way God revealed his righteousness to the world.
Before Christ’s arrival, “the law kept humans in custody.” This might imply that the law served as a restraint, showing the extent of sin through scripture.
Paul envisioned a new era of God’s working among humanity. This era was one in which God’s promise was “revealed” through “faith.” So Paul drew demarcations between the era of law and the era of faith with Christ’s faithfulness in his work being the moment of transition.
In verse 24 and 25, Paul’s next metaphor softens the description as he describes the law “as our guardian.” The illustration refers to the duties of certain servants in ancient Greco-Roman culture. These servants supervised the education of the household heir, keeping a close eye on the heir’s behavior, character-formation and discipline. Eventually the heir would mature and no longer need this guardian.
In a similar way, the law was only needed for a time. It served its purpose “until Christ came” and brought an end to the law’s power for justification (Romans 10:4). The law could only do so much for humanity in regard to the promises of God. Consequently, humans could never be “justified” by the law (see Acts 13:39).
Now, in the Galatian understanding, justification required both following the law and expressing faith in Christ. To that end, Paul highlighted the superiority and finality of “faith” in bringing justification. Since “this faith has come,” the law – serving as a guide – is no longer needed. The reason is that the law has been fulfilled in Christ. What the law could not accomplish, God accomplished through Jesus.
Question? Are we seeking life by our law abidance – trying to be “good enough” by our own efforts – or are we finding life in the One who fulfills the law (see Matthew 5:17)?
In his sermon, “Finding Faith,” John Wesley declared, “The faith I wanted was a sure trust and a confidence in God … Like Paul, I wanted a faith which would enable me to say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me!”
- Unity (Galatians 3:26-29)
In “Shepherd’s Notes” by David R. Shepherd, editor-in-chief, points out that in this section, Paul makes these astounding statements about the new status of “all” true believers: (1) you are all children of God, (2) you are all children of God through faith and (3) you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s “you…all” included every believer in his Galatian audience, Jew or Gentile. The Judaizers’ insistence on adherence to the Law of Moses was great concern for Paul. Regardless of whether a person followed the law, all people would be considered the “children of God.” This was a phrase first used to describe the biological descendants of Abraham, those who were given the Law of Moses (see Deuteronomy 14:1-2). However, a new era had arrived, one in which God’s children were no longer marked by their observance of the law. Instead, they were marked by their expression of “faith” in Christ Jesus.
Therefore, Paul reminds these Galatian Christians that they had been “baptized into Christ.” Baptism unites the believers with the death of Christ and the glory of his resurrection. Further, baptism brought unity and a transformation by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jew or Gentile. The result was that Jewish and Gentile believers would become unified. “To have clothed yourself with Christ” implies putting to death the sinful nature and being renewed with a new nature, transformed by Christ.
The result of baptism into Christ is the formation of a new self in Christ. And this resulted in unity with others also in Christ. Paul then reinforces this reality by upending notable social structures of a first-century audience.
One’s racial heritage is not the last word for a Christian; there is neither Jew nor Gentile. One’s social status, including even imprisonment, is not the last word; there is neither bond nor free. One’s sex is not the last word; the Christian cause rests not upon gender but upon personality; there is neither male nor female. Paul deals with these profound problems on the deepest basis: “Ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the person who grips these matters in Christ is on the way to freedom.
Having confirmed the diverse yet unified nature of God’s people, Paul explores the implications of this diversity. All people who express faith can belong to the body of Christ. And as a result, the promises made to Christ are applicable to all people who have faith. The promises made to Abraham’s seed are fulfilled through those people in Christ as they become heirs with him (Romans 8:17).
Thus, being in Christ implies having full access to the promise of his blessing. Further, it means his Spirit will be present in the lives of believers.
In his book “Porch Talk,” Phililp Gulhey summarizes all this in a beautiful way. He says, “There is a certain transcendent joy in creating a thing of beauty. But even more fulfilling is to become a thing of beauty.” To become a thing of beauty – in Christ!
Resources for this lesson
- How do God’s people live differently in light of God’s promises?
- In what ways do Christians use good behavior to earn favor with God and with others?
- What steps can believers take to ensure that they identify with Christ?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2021-2022 NIV Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 313-320.
- “The Interpreters Bible, Volume 10, by Raymond T. Stamm and Oscar Fisher Blackwelder, pages 512-520.
- “Shepherd’s Notes” by David Shepherd, pages 45-52.