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Galatians 3:23-29 Biblical Commentary:
Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, established churches in Galatia composed primarily of Gentiles who received the Gospel eagerly (4:14-15). He believed that they were “running well” (5:7).
But after he left Galatia, he learned that Judaizers (Greek: Ioudizo—those who live by Jewish practices, 2:14) had persuaded the Galatians to adopt Jewish practices—circumcision in particular. These Judaizers were Christians who believed that it was essential for Christians to adopt particular Jewish practices. They were not trying to persuade Christians to abandon the Christian faith in favor of Judaism.
In this letter to the Galatians, Paul has criticized the Galatians for their fickle turn away from the Gospel which they have been taught—and has pronounced a curse on those who have seduced them to observe Jewish practices (1:6-9).
In the earlier part of this chapter Paul asked the Galatians, “Who has bewitched you not to obey the truth?”(3:1)—and “Did you receive the Spirit by works of law, or by hearing of faith?” (3:2). He quoted Hebrew Scriptures to show that the purpose of the law was to guide Israel until the Messiah came. His point was that the law, while necessary, was intended to be temporary:
• He quoted Genesis 15:6 to note that Abraham, the father of Israel, was counted as righteous, not because of his works, but because of his belief (3:6)—and said, “Know therefore that those who are of faith, the same are children of Abraham” (3:7).
• He quoted Genesis 12:3 to show “that God would justify the Gentiles by faith,” citing God’s promise to Abraham, “In you all the nations will be blessed” (3:8).
• He blended Deuteronomy 27:26 and 28:58 to show that those who live by the law are under a curse, because no one is able to keep the law faithfully (3:10).
• He cited Habakkuk 2:4b to show that the righteous person lives by faith—not by the law (3:11).
• He quoted Deuteronomy 21:23 to support his argument that Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse for us (3:13).
• He cited the promises of Genesis 12:2-3; 15:5; 17:8; 22:17-18 to show that the promises that God made to Abraham have been fulfilled in Christ (3:16).
• He said that the law was given “because of transgressions, until the seed (Christ) should come” (3:19).
• He said, “If there had been a law given which could make alive, most assuredly righteousness would have been of the law” (3:21)—the strong implication being that, in fact, the law was unable to make alive.
• He went on to say that the promises to Abraham were fulfilled, not by the law, but “by faith in Jesus Christ…to those who believe” (3:22).
While the Galatians were, for the most part, Gentiles and therefore unfamiliar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the above points would serve them well in any encounter with the Judaizers.
GALATIANS 3:23-24: BEFORE FAITH CAME
23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, confined for the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24 So that the law has become our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
“But before faith came, we were kept in custody (Greek: phroureo) under the law, confined (synkleio) for the faith which should afterwards be revealed” (v. 23). The word phroureo means to keep or to guard. It could have a negative connotation such as being kept in custody by a prison guard, but that isn’t the sense of it here. In this context, it pictures a loving God acting as a shepherd, protecting his people from the lions and wolves that would otherwise have them for lunch.
The word synkleio means “shut up together” or “enclosed together”—as sheep would be shut up in a sheep pen for the night with the shepherd guarding the entryway to keep them safe.
Paul is saying that, before faith (in Jesus) came, God gave the law to keep people from straying into dangerous territory so that they would be prepared “for the faith which should afterwards be revealed”—faith in Jesus.
We have become so committed to doing what we want to do when we want to do it that we might find it unattractive to be protected in this way—but let me tell you a story. According to this story, a group of children lived near a cliff, and were afraid to go near the cliff lest they fall and be killed. But then the adults of the community got together and built a strong fence to keep the children from falling over the cliff. Then the children, who had been so afraid, were able to use all the ground for their games—without fear of falling or losing their ball over the cliff. Instead of restricting them, the fence liberated them.
So it was with the law. God gave it for the people’s protection.
“So that the law has become our tutor (Greek: paidagogos) to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (v. 24). The word paidagogos combines two words: pais (child) and agogos (a leader). A paidagogos is therefore a leader of children—a teacher, a scoutmaster, a coach, a mentor. Paul now softens the image of the law from a phroureo (guard) to a paidagogos (teacher, leader of children).
Paul is saying that God gave the law as a mentor to guide the people of Israel as a way of preparing them for Christ. The law gave them a framework for moral behavior, and the prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah.
When Christ came, he changed the emphasis from salvation by merit (an impossibility) to salvation by the grace of God through faith in Christ.
GALATIANS 3:25-27: NOW THAT FAITH HAS COME
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (paidagogos) (v. 25). Once a child has grown to maturity, a paidagogos (teacher, leader of children) is no longer needed. The mature person can go places and do things without a paidagogos to lead/guide/and protect him/her. Mature people will probably retain an affection for the paidagogos of their childhood, but wouldn’t want to revert to having the paidagogos hold their hand and constrain their movements.
So it is with the Christian faith. We respect the Jewish law, and perhaps even revere it, because we find great wisdom there. But we no longer look to the law for our salvation, but instead turn in faith to Christ.
“For you are all children of God, (Greek: huios theos) through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 26). Elsewhere Paul uses the word adopted or adoption (huiothesia, which combines huios (son) with tithemi (to place), so huiothesia literally means “to place as a son” or “to adopt”).
Note the similarity between hios theos (sons or children of God) and huiothesia (to place as a son—to adopt). Both point to a privileged and intimate relationship with God, which relationship comes “through faith in Christ Jesus.”
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on (enduo) Christ” (v. 27). The Greek word enduo (“put on”) means “put on a garment” or “clothe yourself” or “get dressed.” When Paul talks about putting on Christ, he uses this clothing metaphor to describe a transformation that God has wrought in their lives. While clothing might seem merely external, as contrasted with a change of heart, Paul uses this clothing metaphor to describe a truly changed person. People who have put on Christ are new people—redeemed people—forgiven people—people whose demeanor and actions (external) reflect the fact that God has given them a new heart (internal).
Paul traces this putting on of Christ to their baptism. He deals with this in more detail in his letter to the Romans:
“Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
May it never be!
We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?
Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death,
that just like Christ was raised from the dead
through the glory of the Father,
so we also might walk in newness of life.
For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death,
we will also be part of his resurrection” (Romans 6:1-5).
Keep in mind that a number of scholars consider Paul’s letter to Galatians became the rough draft for his letter to the Roman church. In Romans Paul often expands on ideas that he had written initially to the Galatian church.
GALATIANS 3:28-29: YOU ARE ALL ONE IN CHRIST JESUS
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to promise.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). In this verse, Paul mentions some of the many divisions that separate people—Jews vs. Greeks (Gentiles)—slave vs. free—male vs. female. These are hardly the only major divisions that keep people apart. Others include rich vs. poor—literate vs. illiterate—First World vs. Third World—black vs. brown vs. white—Asian vs. European—socialist vs. capitalist—the list goes on and on. See if you can think of other examples.
Paul doesn’t intend these three divisions (Jew vs. Greek, etc.) as comprehensive, but rather as illustrative. He is saying that, in Christ, all the barriers that divide one person from the other person are rendered null and void.
Jesus prayed that this might be true. He prayed, not only for his disciples of that day, “but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me…that they may be perfected into one” (John 17:20-21, 23).
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul said that “Christ Jesus…is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition…. For through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:13-14, 18-19).
At our best, we see this unity in our churches. In the congregation where I worship, we have a few (very few) wealthy people—people whose intelligence and education and work ethic have led them into management positions and have allowed them to enjoy significant financial success. Most members are people of modest means, and an occasional person is one step above being homeless. But when the Lord’s Supper is served (which it is at every worship service), all are invited and all drink from the same cup.
But at our worst, Christians are still seriously divided—into denominational camps and ethnic and racial camps. Someone has observed that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. And at the local level, we have divided ourselves into those who want red carpet versus those who want green carpet. The devil must be licking his chops!
“If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed (Greek: sperma) and heirs (kleronomos)according to promise” (Greek: epaggelia) (v. 29). The people of Israel were Abraham’s seed (his descendants) and heirs according to promise.” God promised Abraham:
“I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:2-3).
But now that the Messiah has come, Christians have become “Abraham’s seed and heirs according to promise.”
An heir (kleronomos) is a person who has the legal right to an inheritance. Jewish law regulated inheritances, giving two shares to the firstborn son and one share each to the other sons (Deuteronomy 21:17).
God’s first family was the nation of Israel (Romans 9:4-5). God said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22)—and “I will be (Israel’s) father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14).
The book of Hebrews says that God has appointed his Son “heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). Paul says that we have become “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17)—the result of God adopting us into his family (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 3:16; 4:4-6; Ephesians 1:5; Revelation 21:7).
The word epaggelia (promise) suggests a gift rather than something that a person can win by hard work. In that sense, it is akin to the word grace, which is the free gift of salvation—something that God bestows on us rather than something we have earned.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965)
Cousar, Charles, Interpretation: Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fung, Ronald Y.K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
George, Timothy, New American Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994)
Hays, Richard B., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 41 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1987)
Soards, Marion L., and Pursiful, Darrell J., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Galatians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, Inc., 2015)
Williams, Sam K., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Vol. 9 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
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