Exploring Galatians: The Strength of a Promise

Every December, our local paper publishes the new laws going into effect in the new year. Those laws could be a new wrinkle for laws already on the book or something completely new. It’s funny or perhaps not so funny, but laws are rarely repealed. This experience leads to an assumption that the newest is strongest. That the new always supplants and replaces the old. While that is often the case, it is not always the case. In our next exploration of Galatians, Paul shows the importance of an old promise.

Paul is continuing to teach the Galatians in order to pull them back to the path of faith and grace. Paul writes:

Dear brothers and sisters, here’s an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or amend an irrevocable agreement, so it is in this case. God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. This is what I am trying to say: The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise. Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. Now a mediator is helpful if more than one party must reach an agreement. But God, who is one, did not use a mediator when he gave his promise to Abraham. Is there a conflict, then, between God’s law and God’s promises? Absolutely not! If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:15–22, NLT)

The promise to Abraham which Paul references, occurs at that pivotal dramatic moment when Abraham raises a knife to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar. The angel of God promises, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:18, NASB95) In Galatians, Paul is making a distinction between the plurality of Abraham’s descendants and the one seed or child (as the NLT phrases it) who will change everything.  While the Law of Moses came 400 plus years later, Paul’s point is that the Law doesn’t replace or supersede the promise given to Abraham. The fulfillment of that promise is Jesus Christ.

Why then was the Law even given? If the Law can’t produce righteousness, if it isn’t a part of the promise to Abraham, then what is the point? Paul maintains that the Law is there to teach us our utter and complete sin before God.

Are the Law and the Promise in conflict? “Absolutely not! If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ.” The Law doesn’t replace the promise; it amplifies it.

In Biblical interpretation there is a rule of progressive revelation. That God’s later revelations provide more insight, more granularity, or are more perfectly understood than that which was previous. For instance, Christians have long categorized God’s Word as the Old and New Testament (or Covenant). In this section of Galatians, Paul reminds us that God’s Word is God’s Word from beginning to end. But Paul also shows us that the parts all move towards the same purpose, albeit in different ways. To take anything away from God’s Word distorts the meaning of what remains. To misuse any part twists understanding into uselessness. While the Law cannot lead us to righteousness, its importance is teaching us our true condition and our need for Jesus.

I find that Christ-followers either completely ignore the Law (especially those parts we find troublesome, inconvenient, or old-fashioned), embrace it in some way such as the Galatians were trying to do, or we create our own newer version of the Law. Some use parts of the Law to beat on others. Rarely, however, do we authentically apply it to ourselves. But that is the point of the Law; it is a mirror reflecting our own sin back at us. It blatantly reveals our sin without any concern for our self-created justification or feelings. Neither is the Law there to control others, although that is all too often how it is used. The Law IS there to reveal the chains of sin we willingly bind ourselves with. Keeping the Law doesn’t lead us to righteousness, but it does confirm our utter lack of righteousness.

Yet, the promise of God revealed to Abraham is fulfilled in Christ. God did indeed provide the sacrifice just like that moment in Abraham’s life. Christ is our righteousness. Our freedom is only found in Him—a freedom obtained not by works or deeds but by believing in Jesus Christ.  Through Him, the chains of our sin are shattered, and the guilt of our sin is forgiven. That is the strength of God’s promise given to Abraham.

Dale Heinold
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