the Christian life

Mosaic Law: Galatians Overview

by Carol Berubee; adapted from the book, A Primer on Pauline Doctrine: Revealing the Mystery of the Body of Christ

In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul is addressing both Jews (who had been under the Law) and Gentiles (to whom the Law was never given), but he often addresses the two groups separately. If we keep in mind to whom each particular section is addressed, we will more easily understand the teaching. 

In Galatians 2:1-10, Paul says that his trip to Jerusalem in AD 51 was "by revelation," but it may be more accurate to translate it "with revelation." At the Jerusalem Council, Paul met with James, Cephas (Peter), and John, and explained to them the Gospel he preached among the Gentiles. Paul says that he had given no place to the men who came to Antioch (Syria) to spy out the liberty the Christians had there, a liberty in Christ apart from the Law. He says, concerning the aim of the spies, 

Galatians 2
4 …that they might bring us into bondage: 5 to whom we gave place in the way of subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you [in Galatia].

If Paul had not been so insistent that the Gentiles not be put under Israel’s Law, then Christianity would have, in effect, died its own death right there in Antioch with the false teachers. The false gospel that the Judaizers were teaching was that Gentiles needed to proselytize to Judaism if they wanted to be saved. The Gentiles needed to believe that Yeshua was the Messiah, He died and rose again, but they also had to be circumcised and observe the Law. If they would do all of those things, then they would be saved. But the Law enslaves; it is not the road to freedom from sin, nor is it the path to righteousness and justification. 

Galatians 2
11 Now when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I withstood him to his face because he was to be blamed [had incurred reproach]; 12 for before certain men came [to Antioch, sent] from James, [Cephas] would eat with the Gentiles; but when they [the men sent by James] came, [Cephas] withdrew [from the Gentiles] and separated himself, fearing those who were of the Circumcision [the Jews sent by James]. 13 And the rest of the Jews [Jewish believers in Antioch] also played the hypocrite with [Cephas], so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.

Cephas had gone up to Antioch to have fellowship among the Christians there and when he did, he behaved hypocritically. He knew that it was now okay for Jews to eat with Gentiles and he did so, but when some Jews came from Jerusalem by the authority of James, Cephas stopped eating with the Gentiles out of fear of what these Jerusalem believers would say. 

Galatians 2
14 But when I saw that they [Cephas, Barnabas, and the other hypocritical Jewish believers] walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live as do the Gentiles and not as do the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" 15 We being Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law save through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; because by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified. 17 But if, while we sought to be justified in Christ, we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ a minister of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I build up again those things which I destroyed, I prove myself a transgressor. 19 For I through the Law died to the Law that I might live unto God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, and yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 21 I do not make void the grace of God; for if righteousness is through the Law, then Christ died for nothing.

Here is a paraphrase of verses 14-21: “First of all, don't put Gentiles under Jewish Law. Second, why do you keep yourself under the Law knowing that no one is justified by the Law? Why are you adding works of the Law to grace? If it's now right to put yourself under the Law by separating from Gentiles, then you were wrong earlier when you did eat with the Gentiles. So then, according to your rationale, when you ate with the Gentiles (under grace), Christ must have been promoting sin. Perish the thought! If you were right to be under the Law (by separating from the Gentile believers), then you must have been wrong earlier when you ate with Gentiles (under grace). If that’s the case, then Christ, Who was your Lord when you ate with Gentiles, must have been the minister of sin. If you were wrong to eat with Gentiles, and if you’re now putting yourself under Law, then you are adding the Law to grace. If, however, you recognize that the middle wall of separation has been torn down, why do you seek to build it again? If you once again erect the Law, you will once again be a transgressor of the Law. I (Paul) died to the Law; therefore, it now has no more power over me. You, Cephas, have frustrated the grace of God by reverting to the Law, making Christ's Death vanity (worth nothing). You cannot live by both Law and grace.” 

Many Christians view Galatians as a letter only about justification, so that when Paul speaks of the Law not justifying, he merely means that no one is saved by the Law, but that this does not preclude the Christian from then going on to live his life by means of the Law. But if the Law cannot justify, then it is also of no help to sanctify. You cannot bring the Law back in after you've been set free from it. The Law is not our means of sanctification. The Law kills; it is a ministration of death (2 Corinthians 3:7). Paul had recognized that he was dead to the Law and alive to Christ because he died with Christ at the Cross. 

Galatians 3
2 This only would I learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by the hearing [message] of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now perfected [are you now making yourselves complete] in the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain? if it be indeed in vain. 5 He therefore Who supplies to you the Spirit and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the Law, or by the hearing [message] of faith?

The Galatians experienced suffering because they believed the Gospel message by faith. Was this all for nothing? They received gifts from the Spirit that now worked in them. Were these gifts the result of law-works or the message of faith? 

Galatians 3
10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse: for it is written, "Cursed is every one who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the Law, to do them."

Those Gentiles who would seek to be justified by the Law are under the curse because "cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the Law..." (Deuteronomy 27:26). Jews had sought to be justified by the Law but were actually cursed because they did not, nor could they, obey all of the Law. The Jews sought salvation but not by faith (Romans 9:30-32); therefore, Israel was under sin just as the rest of the unbelieving world. And so the question must be asked: Why would the Gentiles want to add the curse of the Law to faith? 

Galatians 3
11 Now that no man is justified by the Law in the sight of God is evident: for, "The righteous shall live by faith;” 12 And the Law is not of faith; but, "He who does them shall live in them." 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us…

No one is righteous by works of the Law, for by faith shall the righteous live (Habakkuk 2:4), and the Law is not of faith! If you want to rest on the Law, then you are not resting on faith, but only faith justifies and sanctifies. The Lord Yeshua redeemed Jews from the Law, having become accursed for them (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

Galatians 3
17 …A covenant confirmed beforehand by God, the Law, which came 430 years after [the Abrahamic Covenant], does not disannul so as to make the [Abrahamic] promise of none effect. 18 For if the inheritance [of life] is of the Law, it is no more of promise: but God has granted it to Abraham by promise. 19 What then is the Law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed [Christ] should come to Whom the promise has been made; and it [the Law] was ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one; but God is one. 21 Is the Law then against the promises of God? Perish the thought! for if there had been a law given which could make alive, righteousness would have been of the Law. 22 But the Scripture has shut up all things under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Why was the Law given to Israel? It was added alongside Israel's sin, on the one hand, and the Abrahamic promise on the other. The Law was brought in alongside Israel’s sin to show them how sinful they were; the Law makes sin apparent through the occurrence of transgressions. The Law came through the ministration of angels (Acts 7:53) through Moses. There were two parties: God, through His angels, on the one side, and Israel on the other with Moses as the mediator. But God is One and there’s no other party to carry out His previous promise that was made to Abraham. The Abrahamic Covenant of promise is unconditional and all “of God,” and this is certainly better than the conditional covenant of Law, the blessings of which were dependent on men. When men failed, the blessings were lost. Romans 4:16 says that the promise is of faith that it may be according to grace so that it may be made sure to all the seed. 

So then, does the Law contradict or abrogate the promises given to Abraham? No. If the Law could have given life, that new life would have kept the Law and would have been pleasing to God, so that righteousness and the promise would have been through law. But the Law did not give life, nor was it a means of righteousness. What the Law does do, however, is show people that they are sinners (Romans 3:20) who are weak through the flesh and unable to “measure up.” If Israel, with all of its privileges and blessings, couldn’t keep the Law, then who can? And in this way, the Law has an effect on all people, not just Israel in Biblical times. Now that Christ has come, those who believe in Him -- in the efficacy of His Death, Burial, and Resurrection -- receive the spiritual blessing first promised to Abraham, that through him would all nations be blessed. This promise is fulfilled in Christ; believers are heirs of the blessing of eternal life through Christ Who came through Abraham. 

Galatians 3
23 But before the faith [Christianity] came, we [Jews] were kept in ward under the Law, shut up unto the faith which should afterward be revealed. 24 So that the Law has been our tutor to bring us [until] Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that (the) faith is come, we are no longer under a tutor.

Before the faith came the Jews were confined under the Law until the faith (Christianity) was revealed. In this way, the Law was like the household slave who led the child to the schoolmaster. The Law led Jews until Christ came, to show them their need for the Savior, so that they would be justified by faith, apart from the Law that could not give life. Now, after the faith had come, the Jews were no longer under the Law. 

Galatians 4
8 [However] at that time [while still in bondage to idols, before you were saved], not knowing God, you were in bondage to those which by nature are no gods, 9 but now that you have come to know God, or rather are known of God, how do you turn back again to the weak and beggarly rudiments, whereunto you desire to be in bondage over again? 10 You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years. 11 I am afraid of you, lest by any means I have bestowed labor upon you in vain. 12 I beseech you, brethren, become as I am for I am as you are…

And now, turning to the Gentiles, Paul asks, “If you are no longer slaves to the world, why do you return to the things of the world?” Gentiles turned from idols and the ways of heathenism to find liberty in Christ but were then turning back again to the “weak and beggarly principles of the world,” which Paul here identifies as the ordinances of the Law. The principles of the world are suited to the flesh. We often think we need to see and touch, to physically experience God, or our conception of God, but God seeks true worshippers, who worship in spirit and truth (John 4:22). They would argue that they are going to God's Word, the Scriptures, His Law; therefore, they must be doing it right. How can it be wrong to keep the Law? But the bondage of the Law is just as bad as the bondage of paganism. Christ had bought Jews out from under the Law, and now Gentiles, who were never under the demands of the Law, want to put themselves in bondage to it. Paul beseeches these Galatians to become as himself. He had been set at liberty, no longer enslaved to sin or the ordinances of the Law. Paul was no longer resting in circumcision and the ordinances; he had become as the Gentiles – without law – by casting away any boast of circumcision or Law-keeping. 

Paul then presents an allegory from the text of Genesis concerning Hagar and Ishmael in contrast to Sarah and Isaac. To sum up Galatians 4:21-31, we may say, “For those of you who want to partake of the Law, don’t you hear (understand) the Law?” Ishmael and Hagar represent the flesh and the bondage of the Law. Isaac and Sarah represent the promise and freedom. Believers are like Isaac, the children of promise; we must cast out the bond-woman, Hagar, and her son, for Ishmael will not be heir with the children of the free woman, Sarah. Law and grace do not mix and must not be mixed. Therefore, “stand fast…and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). That yoke of bondage is the Law, for Paul says to the Gentiles, 

Galatians 5
2 …if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 Yea, I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is a debtor to do the whole Law. 4 You are severed [Gr. katargeo] from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you are fallen away from grace. …9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump.

Those who trust the Law do not trust Christ. These Gentiles were being persuaded by false teachers to put themselves under the Law, but Paul is now pleading with them to see the utter futility of this false gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). The false gospel against which he is contending is that we must believe that Christ died for sins and rose from the dead, plus something, such as circumcision, or baptism, or church membership, or tithing, or “making a decision,” or “coming to the altar,” or anything that we can do by our own efforts. No one is saved by believing the Gospel, plus something. If someone thinks he has been saved by believing the Gospel, plus something, he has been severed from Christ and has fallen from the grace that had attended the Gospel message: he is not saved because he has believed a false gospel. If circumcision or some other work is proclaimed in addition to the Cross as the way to salvation, then the offense of the Cross is removed and it is a false gospel (Galatians 5:11). 

Those who seek to be justified by being circumcised are now obligated to keep the whole Law, but in so doing they are now severed from Christ and have fallen from grace. To be severed (katargeo) from Christ is to be cancelled from Christ, to utterly lose all connection. Circumcision, or any attempt to keep the Law, binds that person to keep the whole Law in every minute detail. The “little leaven” of circumcision, or observance of the sabbath or feasts, leavens the whole lump. The Law-keeper will then be condemned by the Law, for this is all the Law can do. Those who trust Christ, plus the Law, for justification do not trust Christ. Law and grace do not mix; they are diametrically opposed. And if the Law cannot justify, why would we turn to the Law after we are justified? The Law can only condemn. Any attempt to live the Christian life under the Law requires the Law-keeper to keep the entire Law; failure to do so results in guilt and separation from Christ.

The purpose of the Law was to make sin evident (Romans 7:13), but now the Christian has the indwelling Spirit who convicts us through our conscience made tender by His Word. The Law could only condemn (Galatians 3:10; 2 Corinthians 3:7a, 9a), but in Christ, there is no condemnation because there is no Law (Romans 8:1). The Law could not give life, but Christ is our life (Galatians 2:20).