Avoiding confusion in Galatians

Sometimes it is almost painful to see what appears to be an attempt to walk through the raindrops when persons try to explain Paul’s message in the book of Galatians.  One simple clarification can assist us in avoiding confusion.

There is much confusion in the popular explanations that are given.  On the one hand, there is an assertion that Paul is teaching that New Testament Christians are no longer “under a schoolmaster”, where the schoolmaster in this case is “the law”.  But on the other hand there is an unwillingness to appear to be attributing to Paul the advocacy of lawlessness, which clearly would be erroneous.

So, what is the reason for the apparent conflict?  We are not under the law but at the same time we are not supposed to be lawless.

The answer lies in the perception of what Paul is speaking about when he refers to “the law”.  Many people say that Paul was speaking about the Ten Commandments law.  So, they use that interpretation to conclude that New Testament Christians do not need to keep the Sabbath – the fourth of the Ten Commandments.  Interestingly, they do not conclude that we are free to disregard any of the other nine.

Sabbath-keepers on the other hand (excepting the Seventh-day Adventist Pioneers), while agreeing with others that Paul was referring to the moral law or Ten Commandments, justify their Sabbath-keeping by saying that Paul was really speaking about a legalistic approach to keeping the commandments as a means to salvation.  They conclude that we are no longer under the schoolmaster in the sense that we do not keep the law to be saved.  Rather, we keep the law because we are saved.  The problem with that is that it gives the impression that before Christ came, people were saved in one way but since Christ came, the way of salvation has changed.  Further, since God was the author of the Old Covenant, He would have been the one to have instituted such a faulty approach to salvation by works – the schoolmaster arrangement, and then had to change it.

 The Jewish system

Some people will insist that they are not really saying that the way to salvation has changed, even though their argument seems to imply that.  So, they appear to be trying to walk through the raindrops.

The need to be trying to balance so delicately (or appearing to contradict oneself) is completely removed if one understands that Paul, in speaking of “the law” was not speaking about moral principles that are applicable universally, and neither was he speaking about the Ten Commandments.  Rather, Paul was speaking about the “book of the law” (Gal. 3:10) that summarized the entire system of the Jewish religion.  Paul was making a very simple point that the Jewish system was no longer the governing system.  The specific aspect of the Jewish system that was in question was circumcision.  But Paul went beyond the immediate matter of circumcision to make a general point that the unique elements of the Jewish system were not applicable to Christians as Christians were not required to become Jews.

This point was necessary because prior to Christ’s coming, Gentiles were required to become Jews (proselytes) if they accepted the God of the Jews.

Isaiah 56:3-7 explains that the Jewish religion was open to “strangers” and “eunuchs” but they had to become a part of the Jewish system.  This arrangement became a barrier to Jews and Gentiles being equals within that system because God’s purpose was not fully understood.  But it was the best arrangement that could have been made at the time because Abraham’s descendants at the time had the revelation of truth handed down to them from generations and provided the best nucleus that could preserve the truth and disseminate it to the pagans around them.  But, God revealed to Paul (Eph. 3:1-6) that He wanted Jews and Gentiles to be “fellowheirs” and “of the same body” – a new body, “the church” (verse 10).

Free from enforced system

Paul’s entire Epistle to the Galatians was an effort to correct the notion, which Jewish converts to Christianity were seeking to advance, that Gentile Christians needed to become Jews.  The arrangements governing the Jews were not only moral and ceremonial, but they were also civil and included penalties and punishments, even to the extent of the death penalty, for breaches of the legal arrangements.  If we understand this, the entire Epistle to the Galatians becomes easy to understand.  The Jewish system was “a schoolmaster” – a system of enforced practices that was put in place for a time until Christ should come.  After Christ came, there was no more need for an externally enforced system as Christ provided a better revelation of God than that which humanity, in their spiritual state as “children”, had previously been exposed to.

The bottom line is that when Paul speaks about “the law” in Galatians, he is speaking about the Jewish system as a whole, with its unique arrangements for enforcement.  He is not speaking about any specific moral principle that may have been a part of those arrangements and which may have been of universal significance.  He was not speaking about the seventh-day Sabbath, for example, which existed from creation and was established by God as a reminder that He is the Creator (Gen. 2:2, 3; Ex. 20:8-11).  Rather, he was speaking about such things as circumcision, which, in this case, was given specifically to Abraham’s descendants as a sign of God’s promise that God would multiply Abraham’s lineage and make of them a great nation (Gen. 17:4-16).

Within that context, it is easy to understand why Paul spoke of us being made “free”, whereas before, people were “shut up” and “kept under the law”.  Paul referred to the previous arrangements as “the law”, which was “added because of transgressions, till the seed should come” (Gal. 3:19).  The reference to “the law” was not addressing the matter of general moral principles or saying that obeying God is irrelevant to salvation.  Quite to the contrary, the New Covenant arrangements that govern the Church, has the moral law being written on our hearts, as opposed to being set aside or being enforced externally (Heb. 8:10).

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).

  • Zerubbabel (Zech. 4:6)

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