6.8 Galatians -- the Role of the Law

Paul has the difficult task of explaining to the Gentiles how the Law can be good in itself, even of divine origin, and yet lethal in its effects.  His first point is that Jesus Christ is the heir to the promises God made to Abraham.  Second, these promises (which we looked at in detail in Genesis) predated the giving of the Law by 430 years (Gal 3:17).  Therefore the Law is subordinate to the Covenant promises.  And receiving the promises is not dependent on keeping the commands of the Law.  Third, the Law was not opposed to the inheritance, but was powerless to deliver it.  Instead, only faith in Jesus Christ brings the blessing of Abraham (Gal 3:22). 


All of this must have been startling, if not offensive, to a believer with a Jewish background.  He had been taught all his life that he was one of the offspring of Abraham by natural descent, and would therefore some day, in God's good time, fall heir to the blessings of Abraham.  But here Paul reinterprets the Covenant to apply not to legal heirs of Abraham, but to those who share the faith of Abraham (Gal 3:9).  This not only opens the doors wide to former pagans of all colors and shades, but also closes the doors against all traditional Jews who do not make the transition from Law to faith in Christ.  What a spiritual transposition this was!  


Then what purpose did the Law serve?  The Law served as a "custodian" (RSV), or we might say caretaker, until faith was revealed in the coming of Christ.  Paul uses the terms "guardian" or "trustee," as of a minor child (Gal 4:2).  This part of the analogy applies only to the Jews.  When Christ came, himself born under the Law, he redeemed those who were also subject to the Law and who transferred their trust to him.  They were then adopted as sons and heirs, sealed by the Spirit of God sent into their hearts (Gal 4:6).    


Gentiles did not know God, and were in bondage to "weak and miserable principles" (Gal 4:9).  (RSV reads "elemental spirits").  Paul does not describe the work of Christ in the hearts of the Gentiles, but we can infer his meaning.  Instead of saving them from the Law, God freed them from beings "who by nature are not gods."  But now Paul despairs that they are turning back to the bondage of superstitious observances.


Yet there is a difference between the Judaicized Greeks and the pagans, which Paul does not address.  The former had already been attracted to the Jewish religion prior to the preaching of Christ.  They knew about the Law, even though they did not observe most of it.  They already knew something of sacred history, and had read parts of the Old Testament in translation.  These people, once they accepted Jesus as the Messiah, would have as readily succumbed to the message of the Judaizers as the converted Jews themselves.  For they both alike believed that Jesus was a door of entry for the Gentiles into participation in the Law and the inheritance of Abraham.   


But the pagans had no such religious background.  Jewish Law and history were a mystery to them.  Their familiarity was with the myths of Greek and Rome, or even Egypt and Babylon.  The influence of the Judaizers on them would not be to move them towards Judaism, but to cause them to revert to their former rites.  If rituals were needed in addition to faith, or holy days and seasons to be observed, they would not adopt circumcision or the Jewish calendar.  More likely they would try to graft Christ onto their own upbringing, and evolve a syncretistic expression.  In fact, we have evidence that this occurred with the rise of the  gnostic cults.


What Paul is saying is something different from either the Judaizers or the pagans.  Jesus is not a back door for the Gentiles into Judaism.  Instead, he is the door for both Jews and Gentiles into God's worldwide plan of salvation.  But once you walk through the door, you must not go back.  And this is true as much for Jew as for Gentile.  You cannot combine God's work pre-Incarnation with that which is post-Resurrection.