23 “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.
24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.
25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:23-25
This series of texts seems fairly straightforward and yet people still misunderstand the meaning of these verses. So what is being said here?
First of all, we are told before the coming of faith we were held in custody under the law and locked up. The law is the Torah; this is used throughout Galatians, with the exception of where Paul speaks of the “law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) and one other place where the law refers to the Pentateuch. (Galatians 4:21)
I have heard people say that the law referred to in Galatians is the ceremonial law or civil law, but that is not right. Not one theologian in the over twenty commentaries on Galatians that I have consulted about these verses even considers that as an option. What Paul is talking about is the Mosaic Law given at Mount Sinai. This is more than clear from Paul’s allegory associating Hagar with Jerusalem and Mount Sinai in Arabia. (Galatians 4:25)
Secondly, the law locked us up and keep us in custody. This is because the law could not bring us life. (Galatians 3:21) The Law could tell us what was expected but it could never deliver the power to live a Christian life. The Law is not evil or anything like that, it is just that it cannot deliver us from the power of sin. In fact, in Romans 3 Paul tells us he wouldn’t have known what sin was if the Law hadn’t pointed it out.
Thirdly, the law was our guardian. The term translated here “guardian” is a much stronger word in the Greek. It is “Pedagogue”, a word that refers to a man, “usually an older slave” who had control of a young man from around the age of seven to late teens. His job was not to educate the young person but to control him and keep him on the straight-and-narrow. He would walk the boy to school and home again, make sure he did his lessons and keep undesirables (including young ladies) from distracting him.
These young boys were put under the supervision of these pedagogues by their fathers as a form of discipline and training for the day when they would be old enough to take their place in society. At that time the pedagogue’s work was finished and he would have nothing to do with the young man again of an official capacity. These pedagogues were not easy on the boys and pictures from that era show them carrying sticks or rods for beating the boys into being good. This was the laws relationship with Israel for a certain time in their history.
Fourthly, when the time came for the boys to be free from the sticks of the pedagogue they were truly free. That freedom from the law comes for us when Christ came. They were “locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.”
That raises the question – why were the Israelites locked up by the law? The law told Israel what they needed to do to be right with God—they needed to keep the law. That didn’t work out so Israel found themselves condemned under sin. But it goes further than that. Sin, when confronted with law and law-breaking, becomes transgression. A simple definition of transgression is being confronted by a specific law and then breaking the law. Regardless, Israel was locked up under transgression and sin until the coming of the Messiah—Jesus.
What we can say about the law is that it was for a particular people, Israel, and it was for a certain duration—until the coming of Christ. The point of Jesus coming is that we would be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)
Fifthly, the work of the law was to confine. It was the measure that separated Israel from the other nations. It was what differed Israel from the other nations. The signs of that distinction were seen in the waymarks of the nation. But, “now that this faith has come”, Paul says, “we are no longer under a guardian.” This is a distinct divide.
The law of Christ, love, is not a summary of the law or a rewriting of the Law. The law of Christ is new and distinct. The Law of Moses is finished and the law of Christ is now the basis of the Christian life. For all you people screaming I have thrown out the law it isn’t me saying it—it is Paul. He says concerning Hagar in Galatians 4:30, “get rid of her.” Or as it can be read “cast her out, get rid of her.” Hagar of course refers to the Old Covenant with its Law centered teachings. Also don’t forget the law is replaced with the law of Christ which is “love your neighbor as yourself.”
By the way, something that you might find interesting is that the basis of Galatians is trying to bring unity into a divided church. A number of Christians think they have to add law (in this case keeping food laws, circumcision, and celebrating days and months) to the gospel. Paul’s argument is that they are all one in Christ without works of the law. Anyway, with that in mind, “neighbor” is used in Galatians for your fellow believer. It can have a wider reach into the community but within the Galatian context it is talking about your fellow Christians.
The contrast is that law separates them and us. The law of Christ (love) unites us into one family based not upon our position, wealth, fame, or success, but upon our acceptance of the grace of God. For the Jewish Christians trying to get the Gentile Christians to take on the trappings of Judaism in order to be “real” sons of Abraham the mark was circumcision. For Paul the seal of God was the coming of the Holy Spirit that flowed through every believer when they came to Christ.
In summary, the law is replaced with (a) the example of Jesus given throughout the Gospel’s and (b) the Holy Spirit that transforms us through the fruit of the Spirit into loving people who are willing to carry each others burdens. (See Galatians 5-6)
Let me be as blunt as I can. Jesus came to save us from the curse of the law and free us to live love filled lives focused upon the promises of God. We are not under law but under grace.