I’m sure you have run across those who claim Paul was speaking to us in the present tense in Galatians 3:24 when he wrote that the law was our nanny until we came to faith in Christ. There is a two-fold problem with this understanding: First, the context from the middle of chapter 2 through chapter 5 aligns with the passage in chapter 3 which provides explicit language to clarify Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 19 of chapter 3: why, then, the law? Second, a misunderstanding of the answer to this question can lead to believing just what Paul argued against in this letter.
First, does verse 24 in chapter 3 tell us the law was our nanny until we came to faith in Christ? Here’s how the KJV reads: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” In case the formatting doesn’t show up, the phrase “to bring us” is in italics, meaning it was added in by the translation team. Read the verse without that phrase: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” The law did not, does not, bring anyone to Christ – the Spirit does that through the proclamation of the gospel! But that phrase was added to make it appear the law carried people to the Lord.
It is clear from the context that Paul is speaking of the Mosaic Law here. As is the case in all the New Covenant passages, the Mosaic Law is spoken of as a unit. We don’t read about this part or that division of the law. Simply the law. We read in Exodus that before Moses went up Mt Sinai to get the second set of tablets, he “came and told the people all the commands of the Lord and all the ordinances. … He then took the covenant scroll and read it aloud to the people.” (Ex 24:3 & 7) And in verse 12 we see YHWH telling Moses “Come up to Me on the mountain and stay there so that I may give you the stone tablets with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.” All the law and commandments, not just the Decalogue nor everything other than the Decalogue; all the law and commandments. This is what Paul was referring to.
The word interpreted “schoolmaster” is the Greek word from which we get our word “pedagogue.” While modern definitions, such as used by the KJV, claim that word means tutor, the ancient definition referred to one who was a slave guardian of his master’s child, to make sure the child was where he needed to be, when he was supposed to be there. He was NOT a tutor or schoolmaster, but one charged with the safety of his charge.
Here’s how several other translations render that verse: “The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith.” (HCSB) The law of Moses was “our guardian” – whose guardian? Go back to chapter 2 and verse 15: “We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”” The law of Moses was a guardian for the Jews by birth – national, ethnic Israel, and not to “Gentile sinners.” Some of the folk in the assembly of saints at Galatia wanted to retreat from the milk of the gospel and embrace the heavy yoke that the council in Acts 15 would overthrow. These were called “foolish Galatians” (3:1), followed up by “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?” (vs 3) If the law brings people to Christ, why would Paul call people foolish who wanted to live under it?
This brings us to verse 19 and the question – Why, then the law? And the answer: “It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come.” Even the KJV agrees with this. The law of Moses was given because of transgressions and only until the promised Seed came. Jesus came and did His work of redemption and is with the Father on high. The law as it was given to national Israel, as a binding legal code with sanctions for violations, was only until Christ came. Paul sums up the condition of his kinsmen of the flesh in verse 23: “Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed.” Some translations do not have “this” before “faith.” No matter – the apostle is restating his message from verse 19, explaining why and when the law was given.
The law was added – had not been given before this, not to Adam, not to Abraham – to remain in place until the promised Seed came. And until faith came, for the law granted faith to nobody, Jews were in chains under the law. But when faith came, when the Messiah was glorified, verse 25 tells the good news to those who were in bondage – “we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (verse 26)
Now back to verse 22: “But the Scripture has imprisoned everything under sin’s power, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” This verse does not say “the law has imprisoned everything under/in sin’s power” – it says Scripture has. Scripture tells us the entire creation was cursed when Adam fell. Scripture tells us there is no salvation except in Christ. Scripture tells us creation groans in anticipation of its new birth, when Christ returns to gather His saints on the new earth. We know that everything IS under sin’s power because of sin. Sickness and death stalk each of us. But the promise given to Abraham, that he would be the father of many nations, is incrementally consummated every time one of God’s elect is raised up to new life in Christ Jesus.
This message is given different views in chapters 4 & 5 but the message is the same: present day (in Paul’s day) Jerusalem represented the slavery of the Mosaic Law; freedom from sin comes only in Christ, the heavenly Jerusalem. The law was added until the promised Seed came. Hebrews tells us the religious rites given through Moses served as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things (Heb 8:5). When the fullness of time came, the promised Seed came and conquered sin and death and the shadows, those types found in the law, came to their end.
Why, then, the law? To show the nation of stiff-necked, loop-hole finding, law-loving Jews how wicked they were; to keep them as a nation to display God’s holiness to them and the pagan nations; to make sure they were around when the fullness of time came and the promised Seed arrived. The law was Israel’s guardian until faith came, because Israel could not keep itself. Their history shows that, if left themselves, they were every bit as wicked as the Syrians, or you and me before we were redeemed.
Once the promised Seed came, the guardian is no longer needed. Faith and the promise do not depend on fleshly procreation. By faith we become children of Abraham. Now that Christ has come, the Spirit keeps His people. The law fulfilled its role, its time is past. The covenant based on shadows and types, with fire and threats of punishment for violations of its law has ended. Faith has come in the person of the promised Seed. The law and all the other shadows of the Old Covenant no longer bind anyone with chains but, as the Spirit gives the light of understanding, serve to instruct us about our innate weakness and need for humility before God and fellow man. Just as we read with New Covenant clarity from Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John.
No need to “un-hitch” the Old Testament from our faith – all of it is from God for us. We belong to heavenly country which has different laws; given by the same God but intended for a people with hearts of flesh, not stone; people who, having been loved by God can and will love Him and one another. No need to tell one another, “know the Lord” for we all know Him. The Mosaic Law was chains for a people who needed to be told “know the Lord.” We in the New Covenant are not that people. We can see the law did not restrain national Israel from doing evil. So God gave His Spirit to will and equip us to do what is pleasing to Him.
Not under the yoke of law, which could not save nor can it lead us to Christ; it can only condemn. Therein is the danger of wrongly interpreting this passage.
New heart, new mediator, new priesthood, new covenant, new law from the new Lawgiver. That’s the difference being in the New Covenant makes.