Galatians 3 Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Galatians 3
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?
III.

(1-5) Whence this strange relapse? It is not as if you were ignorant of better things. The crucified Saviour, the one great object of faith, has been preached before you in a way too plain to be mistaken. It has been written, as it were, in large characters before your eyes. It could only be some kind of evil enchantment or fascination that has prevented you from looking upon it. You have given up Christ and gone back to the Law. Yet, let me ask you—and surely no other proof is needed—all this outpouring of spiritual gifts that you have enjoyed since you became Christian, to what do you owe it? Is that due to the Law and works, or is it due to Christ and faith in Him? The one system is spiritual, the other is carnal and material. Will you begin with what is high and descend to what is low? Will you by such a declension practically admit that all the persecutions that you underwent were undergone in a mistaken cause? (I can hardly believe it.) At this present moment the gift of spiritual grace and miraculous power still in some measure continues, and where it is seen, is it not in clear connection—not with legal observances—but with faith in Christ?

In the last section of the last chapter the Apostle had been gradually working away from the historical retrospect with which he had begun to the doctrinal polemic in which he is about to engage, and now he addresses the Galatians with impassioned directness and earnestness, upbraiding them with their shameful apostasy.

(1) Foolish.—The same word as that which is used in Luke 24:25, “O ye fools and slow of heart,” and in Romans 1:14, “wise and foolish,” 1Timothy 6:9, and Titus 3:3, but not the same as that which is used in Matthew 7:26; Matthew 23:17; Luke 11:40; Romans 1:22; 1Corinthians 1:20; 1Corinthians 4:10; 2Corinthians 11:19, &c. The combination, “fools and slow of heart,” helps to bring out its meaning. “Slow of heart” refers to deadness of the moral affections; “fools” and “foolish” to the absence or undisciplined condition of the reasoning faculty. The Gauls of Galatia were a people intellectually shallow and frivolous. A little reason and reflection would have kept them from so gross an inconsistency.

Bewitched you.—The Greek word for this is probably connected in origin with the Latin word from which is derived our own “fascinate,” and the idea prominent in both is that which is embodied in the popular superstition of the evil eye. This superstition lingers still, especially in some southern countries, such as Italy and Spain. In Italy it is well known under the names “jettatura,” “occhio cattivo.” In Spain its existence has been graphically illustrated by a picture of the late J. Phillip, R.A., now in the museum at Stirling.

The metaphor here is strikingly in harmony with that which follows. The cross of Christ has been “evidently set forth” (i.e., posted up in large and bold characters) before the Galatians, but some evil fascination (that of their Judaising teachers) has drawn away their eyes from looking upon it, and held them fixed upon another object (legal observances), as baneful as the cross was salutary.

That ye should not obey the truth.—These words are omitted by the best MSS. and by all recent editors. They were, without doubt, originally a gloss, put in to explain more fully the single word “bewitched.” As an explanation they are sufficiently right, but they certainly did not form part of the text as it left the hands of St. Paul.

Evidently set forth.—This hardly brings out the full force of the metaphor, which is that of a picture or writing conspicuously and publicly exhibited.

Crucified.—This word is emphatic: “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”

Among you.—If these words are to be retained in the text they must, of course, be taken, not with “crucified,” but with “evidently set forth.” They will then be a repetition, intended to enhance the force of the phrase “before whose eyes”—“before whose eyes and in whose very midst Jesus Christ was set forth crucified.” But the probability is that the words ought to be omitted altogether, as they are wanting in the four most ancient MSS., as well as in a majority of the oldest versions.

This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
(2) This only.—The Apostle considers a single argument enough. He will only place the present conduct of the Galatians in contrast with their past, and ask how they can possibly reconcile the two.

Received ye the Spirit.—The reference is to those spiritual gifts, described more fully in 1 Corinthians 12, 14—the gift of prophecy, the gift of tongues, the interpretation of tongues, the discerning of spirits, gifts of healing, &c.—which attended the first preaching of the gospel, and were poured out upon the first converts in a manner and degree since unknown. The Galatians, it seems, had had a share in this outpouring, like the other churches, though their fickleness prevented them from reaping the full benefit from it. But a spiritual effect, such as this outpouring was, could only have a spiritual cause; it could not come from a mechanical performance of legal obligations.

By the works of the law.—By works done in obedience to the Law. There is a certain emphasis on both words, for the main point in the contrast which the Apostle is drawing is between the Law, on the one hand, and faith, on the other. Still, faith is as much opposed to works (i.e., a spirit of literal and mechanical obedience) as it is to Law, and excludes both at once. It is to be noted, however, that the works here meant are those done, in a Judaising sense, as themselves the direct means of salvation—not Christian works, the natural product and outcome of faith.

By the hearing of faith.—These words correspond very nearly to a phrase which we should perhaps use more naturally: by the preaching of faithi.e., by that preaching or hearing (hearing on the part of the recipients, preaching on that of the missionary Apostles) which has for its subject faith. What the Apostle had taught the Galatians on his first coming among them was not any system of laborious observances, but the duty of faith. They at first responded to his teaching: and in answer to their enthusiastic impulse of adhesion to Christ the gifts of the Spirit were abundantly shed upon them. Now all this had ceased. For the use of the word translated “hearing,” see the Note on Romans 10:16.

Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
(3) Foolish.—See the Note on Galatians 3:1.

Having begun in the Spirit.—Begun your career as Christians in a manner so entirely spiritual—with the spiritual act of faith on your part, and with an answering gift of spiritual graces and powers.

Made perfect by the flesh.—Do you wish to finish and complete the career thus auspiciously begun under a system of things entirely different—a system carnal and material, narrow, slavish, and literal—the Law in place of the Gospel? By “the flesh” is here meant the Law, which, though described as spiritual in Horn. vii. 14, and though it really was spiritual in view of its origin, in another aspect—as imposing a system of literal obedience upon its adherents—was carnal, “earthly,” rigid, petty, and low. It had none of that sublime expansiveness and aspiration which belongs to faith. It was a grievous reversing of the whole order of progress—to begin with faith, and, instead of completing with faith that which faith had begun, to fall back upon a condition of things which was shared with the Christian by the unemancipated Jew.

Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain.
(4) Suffered so many things.—The Galatians, like other churches, were subjected to much persecution when first they embraced Christianity. The persecutors were probably their own Jewish countrymen, whose jealousy and rage they had braved in the name of the gospel as preached by St. Paul. Now they were abandoning that very gospel for the principles of those by whom they had been persecuted. Conduct could not be more fickle and “foolish.”

If it be yet in vain.If it be indeed in vain. The Apostle cannot quite bring himself to believe that it is, and he puts in this delicate qualification parenthetically, to show the Galatians that, much as appearances may be against them, he will not give up the hope that a lingering spark of their first joyous conviction, in the strength of which they had undergone persecution, yet remained.

He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
(5) The appeal by which the Apostle sought to check the defection of his thoughtless converts was not only an appeal to their past experience, when first they listened to his own preaching, but also to their present experience of facts that they saw actually going on among them. The first great outpouring of the Spirit, both in its miraculous and non-miraculous forms, though checked, had not entirely ceased; and the Galatians might thus see, simply by looking around them, that the channel which God chose for conveying His gifts was not that upon which the Judaisers insisted—the Law—but rather the preaching of faith. Where the faith implanted by the Apostle’s preaching still showed signs of vital growth, there the gifts of the Spirit were seen in connection with it; but not amongst the Judaisers and their party.

Therefore.—This word takes up again the question which had been started in Galatians 3:2, but brings it down, as it were, to the present time. The opposition between the effects of faith, on the one hand, and works, on the other, was conspicuous when the Galatians were first converted; it is as conspicuous still. The argument is the same, whichever standpoint is assumed.

Ministereth.—The notion contained in this word is not only that of “supply,” but of “liberal supply.” At Athens it was the custom for wealthy citizens to bear the cost of bringing out the chorus—which was practically equivalent to putting a play upon the stage—at the great public feasts. The word translated “ministereth” was the technical term for this. The same word is used in 2Corinthians 9:10; Colossians 2:19; 2Peter 1:5; 2Peter 1:11. In three out of the four places it is rendered by the same word “minister;” in 2Peter 1:5 it appears in the phrase “add to your faith virtue” (rather, furnish forth in your faith virtuei.e., “let your faith prompt you to abundant acts of virtue”). “He that ministereth” is, of course, God.

Worketh miracles among you.—The Greek means not so much “causes miracles to be wrought in your midst” as “implants in you miraculous powers.” The power to work miracles is regarded as a special faculty bestowed by God upon individual Christians. The means by which they become receptive of it is that enthusiastic condition aroused in them by faith. Mere formal obedience to a written law had no such efficacy.

Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
(6-14) These prolific results are due to faith, and not to the Law; just as it was faith which won for Abraham that imputed righteousness. Faith was the cause, blessing the consequence, which extends to all the spiritual descendants of Abraham. The Scripture distinctly foresaw this when it declared that the heathen too (i.e., those who believe from among the heathen) should be blessed in Abraham. The effects of the Law are just the opposite of this. Where faith brings a blessing the Law brought a curse. The Law never made any man accepted as righteous. This is a privilege reserved for faith. The Law demands a literal fulfilment, which is impossible. Hence the Law entailed a curse, which Christ has removed by taking it upon Himself. Thus the blessing promised to Abraham, and the outpouring of the Spirit included in it, have been opened out to Gentiles as well as Jews, and indeed to all who give in their adhesion to Christ by faith.

(6) Even as.—The argument is here very condensed. Ideas lie close together in the Apostle’s mind which are some distance apart in ours. He asks whether, in bestowing the gifts of the Spirit upon the Christian Church, God made use of the medium of the Law or of faith. The answer he assumes to be faith; and his thoughts fly at once to that crucial instance of faith—the faith of Abraham.

Abraham believed God . . .—Quoted from the LXX. version of Genesis 15:6. The same quotation is made, in the same words and with the same object, in Romans 4:3, where see the Note. Comp. also the Excursus E to that Epistle, on “Imputed Righteousness.”

Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.
(7) The main point of the Apostle’s argument in the present passage is the superiority of faith over the Law. He has, however, also in view the ulterior consequences of that superiority. Unlike the Law, faith is open to all Gentiles as well as Jews. The promise, therefore, being annexed to faith, contained the death-blow of all those exclusive privileges which the Judaising party in Galatia claimed for themselves, and of all those burdensome regulations which they were for imposing upon the Galatian Christians. This, too, the Apostle brings out by showing that the believers in Christ, whatever their nationality, are the true spiritual descendants of Abraham.

Know ye.—The verb here may either be in the indicative or in the imperative: “know ye,” or “ye know.” Perhaps, on the whole, the imperative, as in the Authorised version, is best.

They which are of faith.—Those whose principles of action are derived from faith; those whose master-motive is faith.

Children of Abraham.—This idea of a spiritual descent from Abraham is found also in Romans 4:11-12; Romans 4:16; Romans 9:6-8.

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.
(8) The universalism of the promise is accounted for by the fact that it is rested upon faith and not on works—thus showing a distinct prevision of a time when the whole world should be invited to claim a share in it by the exercise of faith.

The scripture.—Here, with a more decided personification than usual, the Scripture is said to foresee what God, by whom Scripture is inspired, foresaw.

Foreseeing.—It appears to have been a rather common formula among the Jews to say “What saw the Scripture?” (i.e., What had the Scripture in sight, or in view?) for “What did it mean?” Here the metaphor falls in naturally with the personification.

Would justify.—Literally, justifies. The use of the present tense implies that the justification of the Gentiles is regarded as forming part of the eternal purpose of God, to whom the future and the present are one.

The heathen.—It is to be noticed that the same word is translated indifferently by “heathen” (as here, and also in 2Corinthians 11:26; Galatians 1:16; Galatians 2:9), “nations” (as in the second clause of this verse, and frequently elsewhere), and “Gentiles” (as in Galatians 2:2; Galatians 2:8; Galatians 2:12; Galatians 2:14-15; Galatians 3:14 of this Epistle, and most commonly in other places where it occurs).

Preached before the gospel.—For this translation we might substitute, announced the glad tidings beforehand. The Authorised version, however, hardly involves an anachronism, as the promise is regarded as anticipating the gospel, inasmuch as it already contained the doctrine of justification by faith, in which the essence of the gospel consisted.

In thee.—The righteousness which was imputed to Abraham his spiritual descendants also could claim by virtue of their descent from him. What applied to him applied (potentially and prophetically) to them. In like manner it is said, in Hebrews 7:9, that “Levi paid tithes in Abraham.”

The quotation is a combination of Genesis 12:3 (“In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed”) and Genesis 18:18 (“All the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.”)

Be blessed.—With the bliss of the Messianic kingdom.

So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.
(9) They which be of faith.—The same phrase as in Galatians 3:7 above.

With faithful Abrahami.e., in company with Abraham. The same idea is presented in two different forms. Abraham’s spiritual descendants are blessed “in him;” they are also blessed “with him.” He is the head of a great company, in which they all are included.

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
(10) In this and the following verses the action of the Law is contrasted with that of faith, and the necessity of faith and the system of things to which faith belongs brought out into strong relief. The antithesis is: faith—blessing; law—curse. The “curse” was the penalty which the Law itself imposed upon all who failed to keep it. None really kept it, and therefore none escaped this curse.

As many as are of the works of the law.—An expression corresponding to “they which are of faith” in Galatians 3:7; Galatians 3:9. The meaning is, “Those who take their character from works done in obedience to law—the cast of whose lives is determined by the principle of legal obedience.

Under the curse.—Strictly, are under a curse; subject to a curse.

For it is written.—The Apostle proceeds to quote the clause in the Law by which this curse was entailed. The quotation is from Deuteronomy 27:26, where it forms the conclusion of the series of curses to be pronounced from Mount Ebal. The Hebrew text is, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them.” The word “all” is inserted in the Authorised version, probably from this passage. The Hebrew has also simply “he that” for “every one who;” so that the absolute and sweeping nature of the condemnation would seem to be much less marked in the original. It is not, however, clear that this character was first given to it by St. Paul. “Every one” is found in the Peshito Syriac, which may have been influenced by the language of St. Paul; “in all things” is found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, which certainly was not so influenced. The quotation is made by Justin (Trypho, § 95) in precisely the same words as by St. Paul. Justin, however, is not improbably quoting through the medium of this Epistle. (See Introduction.)

But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
(11, 12) The Law could not bring a blessing. It could not justify. For the condition of justification is faith; and the Law has nothing to do with faith. Its standpoint was entirely different—that of works.

(11) In the sight of God.—Standing as a prisoner before His tribunal.

The just shall live by faith.—The stress is on the word “faith.” It is faith (not law) which gives life. In St. Paul’s application of the passage, the word “just” must be taken in what is technically termed a slightly proleptic sense. A man is not just before the exercise of faith, but he becomes just by the exercise of it; and, in another aspect, the state of righteousness upon which he then enters is also a state of life. Strictly speaking, the order is—faith, justification, life. It would be possible to take the Greek in such a way as to bring out this more distinctly: “The just by faith” (i.e., he whose righteousness is based on faith) “shall live.” Some good commentators take the passage thus, but a balance of considerations seems, on the whole, to be in favour of the sense adopted in the Authorised version.

The quotation is from Habakkuk 2:4, where it refers to the preservation of the righteous Israelite amidst the general ruin caused by the Chaldean invasion. Though the wicked and proud shall be destroyed, the righteous man shall live “by his faith.” There is some division of opinion amongst commentators as to whether the word translated “faith” means, in the original, faith in the active sense or faith in the passive sense—“fidelity,” “faithfulness,” or “trust in God.” The sense in which the word is used by St Paul is most nearly related to the latter. It has the full-developed Christian meaning, which begins in belief, includes trust, and passes on to become an active energy of devotion. (Comp. the Note and Excursus on Romans 1:17, where the same quotation is made.)

And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.
(12) The law is not of faith.—The ruling principle of the Law is not faith, but something else—works.

The man that doeth them.—By “them” is meant the “statutes” and “judgments” mentioned immediately before in the verse (Leviticus 18:5) from which the quotation is taken. Just as the stress was upon “faith” in the last verse, so here it falls on the word “doeth:” it is a matter of works.

Shall live.—The idea of life receives an enlargement, corresponding to the fuller revelation of immortality in the New Testament as compared with the Old. In the Old Testament, “life is an existence upon earth, shortened by no judgment, reposing upon God, and delighting itself in God.” On the other hand, “death is the sudden and dreadful end, the destruction of this existence through a judgment of some special kind” (Schultz, Theology of the Old Testament, 2:163). Such a judgment would be the Chaldean invasion; and when the prophet Habakkuk says that the “just shall live,” he means that he should be saved from this calamity, and still continue to enjoy the divine favour and protection. The promise in Leviticus declares that he who keeps the Law shall be preserved from all judgments of this kind. With St. Paul, as in the Old Testament, the root idea is that of drawing support and sustenance from God; but with him this is not confined to the present life, or extended beyond the grave only in some dim and shadowy way: it begins in time and stretches on into eternity.

In them.—His life shall spring out of them and be nourished by them, just as a tree strikes its roots into the earth.

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:
(13, 14) The Law brought a curse, but the Christian is delivered from that curse. How? Christ has taken it upon Himself. The Crucifixion brought Him under the curse of the Law. At the same time, it abolished the dominion of the Law, and threw open the Messianic blessedness to Gentiles as well as Jews: in other words, to all who gave in their adhesion to the Messiah by faith.

(13) Christ hath redeemed us.—Better, Christ redeemed us. The opening of this verse without any connecting particle lends sharpness and emphasis to the contrast. The Law brought a curse. There it stopped short. That was all it could do. The first thing that Christianity does is to undo this result of the Law by deliverance from the curse.

This deliverance is represented under the form of a ransom. Christ “bought off” the human race from the penalty of its sins, the price paid being His death. Comp. 1Corinthians 6:20; 1Corinthians 7:23, “Ye are (were) bought with a price;” 2Peter 2:1, “The Lord that bought them;” Revelation 5:9, “Thou wast slain and hast redeemed (bought) us to God by thy blood;” Revelation 14:4, “These were redeemed (bought) from among men.” The word used in these passages, as well as in that before us, is the general word for “buying.” But that the “buying” intended is that more definitely conveyed by the idea of “ransom” appears from the use of the special word for ransom in Matthew 20:28 ( = Mark 10:45), “The Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many;” 1Timothy 2:6, “Who gave Himself a ransom for all.” The word commonly translated “redemption” (Romans 3:24; 1Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 1:14; Ephesians 4:30; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:15) also contains the same special idea of “a ransoming.”

Us.—In the first instance, “the Jews,” but not to be confined too strictly to them. The Apostle is writing to a Gentile (though Judaising) Church, and he does not wish to exclude any of his readers. Though the Gentiles do not come directly under “the curse of the Law,” they came under God’s condemnation. From this they were released, and the blessings of the theocracy hitherto annexed to the Law were thrown open to them by the death of Christ.

From the curse of the law.—From that curse which the Law pronounced upon all who failed to keep its precepts.

Being made a curse.—Being treated as if He were accursed. Comp. 2Corinthians 5:21, “For he hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin”—i.e., treated as sinful One who was not sinful. The idea is somewhat strengthened by the use of the substantive for the adjective. The curse identifies itself with its object: seizes, as it were, upon the person of its victim.

For usi.e., “on our behalf,” “for our sakes,” not “in our stead.” It is impossible to escape the conclusion that St. Paul, like the rest of the Apostles, regarded the sufferings of Christ as undergone in our stead. The idea is, indeed, distinctly expressed in this very passage; but it must be gathered from the context, not from the use of the preposition. The preposition which means “instead” is found in Matthew 20:28; 1Timothy 2:6. (See Note on Galatians 1:4.)

As it is written.—The way in which the curse of the Law fell upon Christ was through His death. The ignominious death by which He died was one to which the curse of God specially attached. The Law expressly declared that that criminal who died upon the cross or gibbet was an object of the divine wrath. Christ died as such a criminal, and so came under the curse.

It is to be observed, in considering the doctrinal bearings of this passage, that the curse which fell upon Christ was not the same curse as that described above as the consequence of human guilt in failing to keep the requirements of the Law. It is not the accumulated penalty for the whole mass of human disobedience, but rather an incidental defilement, contracted by an in-voluntary breach of a particular ceremonial precept. The death of Christ involved a curse because the manner of it was by suspension from a cross. Nothing more than this is said. Christ, the sinless One, died for sinful men. If He had not died they must have died. And His death acted (in some inscrutable way) so as to propitiate the wrath of God. But it is not said that the actual load of human guilt was laid upon Him. It is not said that His death was the actual punishment of that guilt. The death of Christ removed the necessity for the punishment of men, but it could not be regarded as a punishment in relation to Christ Himself. In this respect it would seem as if the symbolism of the scapegoat (which is sometimes adduced in explanation of the present passage) was imperfectly applicable. In the case of the scapegoat, the high priest was to lay his hands upon his head, and to “confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat;” and the goat was to “bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited” (Leviticus 16:21-22). No such process as this really took place in the case of our Lord; nor is it applied to Him even in 1Peter 2:24, otherwise than in vague and general metaphor. The literal application derives no countenance from the present passage, but is rather contradicted by it. It expressly distinguishes between the curse which fell upon Christ and the curse which was due to the sins of men, though the incurrence of the one led to the abrogation of the other.

Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.—From Deuteronomy 21:23. The Hebrew and LXX. insert “of God”—”He that is hanged is cursed of God”—which St. Paul instinctively omits. The reference in the original is to the exposure of the body upon a stake or gibbet after death.

That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
(14) The abolition of the Law, consummated upon the cross, involved the doing away of all the old restrictions which confined the Messianic inheritance to the Jews. Henceforth this inheritance, and the promised outpouring of the Spirit which was to accompany it, was open equally to the Gentiles. The one condition now was faith, and that intimate relation to the Messiah which faith implied.

The blessing of Abraham.—That is, the blessing pronounced upon Abraham and to be fulfilled in his seed.

Through Jesus Christ.—Through the relation into which they enter with Christ by embracing Christianity.

We.—The Apostle and his readers, whether Jews or Gentiles.

Receive the promise of the Spirit.—A special outpouring of the Spirit was to be one of the characteristics of the great Messianic manifestation. (Comp. Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:16-21.) The promise is said to be “received” by the generation on which it is fulfilled, not by that to which it is given. The same phrase occurs in Acts 2:33; Hebrews 9:15.

Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.
(15-18) To take an illustration from purely human relations. A covenant once ratified is binding. It cannot be treated as if it did not exist, neither can fresh clauses be added to it. Now the covenant and promise made to Abraham (by the terms in which it was made) could point to no one but the Messiah. That covenant remained unaffected by the Law, which was four hundred and thirty years subsequent to it in point of date. Law and promise are two totally different and mutually exclusive things. But the covenant with Abraham was given by promise. The Law, therefore, had nothing to do with it.

(15) I speak after the manner of men.—The figure that I am going to use is one taken from the ordinary civil relations between man and man, and therefore, it is left to be inferred, supplies an à fortiori argument in things relating to God, for men may change and break the most solemn engagements; God is absolutely faithful and unchangeable. The phrase translated “I speak after the manner of men” is found in the same, or a very similar form, in Romans 3:5; Romans 6:19; 1Corinthians 9:8, where see the Notes.

Though it be but a man’s covenant.—This is well rendered in the Authorised version. A covenant, even though it is only between two men—though it is regulated by the provisions only of human law—does not admit of alteration or addition after it has once been signed and sealed; much more a covenant which depends on God.

Covenant.—The word thus translated is that which gave its name to the “Old and New Testaments,” where a more correct rendering would be the “Old and New Covenants.” The word has both senses. It meant originally a “disposition” or “settlement,” and hence came, on the one hand, to be confined to a “testamentary disposition,” while, on the other hand, it was taken to mean a settlement arrived at by agreement between two parties. The first sense is that most commonly found in classical writers; the second is used almost entirely in the LXX. and New Testament. The one exception is in Hebrews 9:15-17, where the idea of “covenant” glides into that of “testament,” the argument rather turning upon the double meaning of the word.

Addeth thereto.—Adds new clauses or conditions. Such new clauses could only be added by a second covenant. The reason why the Apostle introduces this point is that the Law might be supposed to restrict the bearings of the promise. It might be thought to add certain new and limiting conditions, without compliance with which the blessings of the promise could not be obtained. This was the position of the Judaising party, against which St. Paul is arguing.

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
(16) A parenthetical explanation of the true object of the promise. That promise was shown by its wording to have reference to the Messiah. It did not speak of “seeds,” but of “seed”—not of “descendants,” but of “descendant.” And the Messiah is, par excellence, the “descendant” of Abraham.

The object of this parenthesis is to prove a point which the Judaising opponents of the Apostle would not contest—viz., that the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham was reserved for that Messianic dispensation to which they themselves belonged. The Law therefore intervened, between the promise and its fulfilment, but, inasmuch as it was itself later than the promise, could not alter the terms of its fulfilment. If the promise had been fulfilled before the giving of the Law, and if the Messianic dispensation to which the Apostle and his readers belonged was not a fulfilment of the promise, then the Law might have had something to do with it: the restrictions of the Law might have come in to limit and contract the promise: the Gentiles might have been saddled with the obligations of the Jews. But it was not so.

To Abraham and his seed were the promises made.—It was expressly stated that the promises were given “to Abraham and his seed.” The exact terms are worth noting.

The quotation appears to be made from Genesis 13:15, or Genesis 17:8. The word “promise” is put in the plural because the promise to Abraham was several times repeated—to Abraham first, and, after him, to the other patriarchs. The object of the promise, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, was, in the first instance, the possession of the land of Canaan; but St. Paul here, as elsewhere, gives it a spiritual application.

He saith not.—The “he” is not expressed. We must supply either “God” or the promise given by God—”it says,” as in quotations from an authoritative document.

And to seeds, as of many; but as of one.—The argument of the Apostle turns upon the use, both in the Hebrew and in the LXX., of a singular instead of a plural noun. Both in the Hebrew and in the LXX., however, the noun, though singular, is collective. It meant, in the first instance at least, not any one individual, but the posterity of Abraham as a whole. The Apostle refers it to Christ and the “spiritual Israel” (i.e., the Church, of which He is the Head), on the same principle on which, throughout the New Testament, the history of the chosen people under the old covenant is taken as a type of the Christian dispensation. We may compare Matthew 2:15, where an allusion to the exodus of Israel from Egypt is treated as a type of the return of the Holy Family from their flight into Egypt. Such passages are not to be regarded as arguments possessing a permanent logical validity (which would be to apply the rigid canons of Western logic to a case for which they are unsuitable), but rather as marked illustrations of the organic unity which the apostolic writers recognised in the pre-Christian and Christian dispensations. Not only had both the same Author, and formed part of the same scheme, but they were actually the counterparts one of the other. The events which characterised the earlier dispensation had their analogies—sometimes spiritual, sometimes literal—in the later.

And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.
(17) The fulfilment of the promise is thus to be seen in the Messianic dispensation now begun. The Law, which was given four hundred and thirty years after the promise, had no power to cancel it.

This verse contains the direct inference from the argument stated in Galatians 3:15. When a document has been sealed, no subsequent addition can affect it. The Law was subsequent to the promise; therefore the Law cannot affect it.

And this I say.—Now, what I mean to say is this; the inference that I intend to draw is this.

Confirmed before of Godi.e., confirmed by God before the giving of the Law.

In Christ.—These words are omitted in the group of oldest MSS., and should certainly be struck out. If retained, the translation should be: unto Christi.e., “with a view to Christ,” to find its fulfilment in Christ.

Four hundred and thirty years after.—The giving of the Law from Mount Sinai is thus placed four hundred and thirty years after the giving of the promise to Abraham. This would include the two periods of the sojourn of the patriarchs in Canaan and the sojourn in Egypt. According to another system of chronology, the sojourn in Egypt alone occupied four hundred and thirty—or, in round numbers, four hundred—years. Thus, in Genesis 15:13, Abraham is warned that his seed is to be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and to be afflicted “four hundred years.” In Exodus 12:40 it is expressly stated that “the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.” In Acts 7:6 the prophecy of Genesis 15:13 is quoted: the people were to be “entreated evil four hundred years.” It is noticeable, however, that in Exodus 12:40, which is the least ambiguous of the three passages, the L.XX. and Samaritan Pentateuch add, “and in the land of Canaan,” so as to make the four hundred and thirty years cover the whole of the two periods, in agreement with the present passage. It has been thought that an examination of the genealogy of Levi favours the same reckoning. It would seem, however, that there were two systems of chronology really current. Josephus adopts both in different parts of his writings (comp. Ant. ii. 15, § 2, with Ant. ii. 9, § 1; Wars, v. 9, § 4), and both are represented in other writers of the period, or not very much later. It is possible that the shorter reckoning may have arisen from difficulties observed in the longer, though it may be questioned whether it does not raise greater difficulties itself.

For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.
(18) The fulfilment of the promise is unaffected by the Law. For it is not dependent upon the Law, or upon the Law and the promise combined (the Law modifying the promise), but upon the promise alone. The Law does not come in at all. Law and promise—in other words, contract and free gift—are incompatible ideas. But the land of Canaan was promised to Abraham as a free gift, and as a free gift the spiritual Canaan is thrown open to his spiritual descendants.

The inheritance.—In the first instance, the temporal inheritance of the land of Canaan; but here understood of the spiritual blessings of the Messianic kingdom.

Gave it.—In the original a strong word: God hath freely given it. There is an antithesis to the idea of “covenant” or “contract,” in which both parties have to perform a part. The promise was given by God to Abraham freely, gratuitously, unfettered by any engagement on his side by the non-fulfilment of which it might be made void.

Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
(19, 20) If such was not the function of the Law—if it had no power to modify the promise—what was its true function? It was a sort of measure of police. Its object was to deal with transgressions. It was also a temporary measure, of force only until it should be superseded by the coming of the Messiah. Unlike the promise, too, it was a contract. It was given by a mediator—that is, a person acting between two parties. Two parties were involved, with rigid conditions binding them both. On the other hand, the promise was given unconditionally by the sole act of God.

In stating the true function of the Law, the Apostle brings out its inferiority to the promise in four respects. (1) It dealt with sins, not with holiness; (2) it was temporary and transitory; (3) it was given, not directly, but indirectly, through the double mediation of the angels and of Moses; (4) it was conditional, and not like the promise, unconditional. It depended upon the fallible action of man, and not only upon the infallible word of God.

(19) Wherefore then serveth the law?—Literally, What then is the Law? What is its object or function? If it did not affect the promise, what did it do? The Apostle proceeds to answer this question.

It was added.—It was not a part of the original scheme, but came in as a sort of marginal addition. It was, as it were, a parenthesis in the design of Providence. The direct line of God’s dealings with man ran through the promise and its fulfilment. The Law came in by the way.

Because of transgressions.—It has been usual to give to this one of two opposite interpretations, to make it mean (1) to check or put down transgressions; (2) to multiply and increase transgressions, as in Romans 5:20. The expression seems wide enough to cover both ideas. The Law was given “because of transgressions:” i.e., it had its object in transgressions. Its original purpose was to make them known, and by imposing a penalty to check them; its real effect was to provoke and enhance them. The expression “because of transgressions” leaves it ambiguous which of these points is meant, or rather, it includes them all.

Till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.—By “the seed” is meant, as above, in Galatians 3:16, Christ, the Messiah. The promise is said to have been made to Him in whom it is fulfilled, just as, in Galatians 3:14, Christians are said to “receive the promise”—i.e., the fulfilment of the promise “of the Spirit.”

Ordained by angels.—The idea of angels having had a share in the giving of the Law appears in Deuteronomy 33:2 : “The Lord came from Sinai . . . He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints.” For “saints” the LXX. substitutes, in the next verse, “angels.” Similar allusions are found at the end of St. Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:53): “Who have received the law by the disposition (as ordinances) of angels, and have not kept it;” and in Hebrews 2:2 : “If the word spoken by (through) angels was stedfast.” In this last instance, as in the present passage, the ministration of angels employed in it is quoted as showing the inferiority of the Law to the Gospel. In St. Stephen’s speech and in Josephus (Ant. xv. 5, 3) the same ministration is appealed to as enhancing the dignity of the Law. The different point of view is natural enough, according as the subject is regarded from the side of man or from the side of God.

In the hand of a mediator.—Through the instrumentality of a third person, distinct from the contracting parties—i.e., in this case, Moses. The term “mediator” was commonly applied to Moses in the Rabbinical writings, and appears to be hinted at in Hebrews 8:6, where our Lord is spoken of as “a mediator of a better covenant.” Many of the fathers, following Origen, took the mediator here to be Christ, and were thus thrown out in their interpretation of the whole passage.

Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.
(20) The mention of the word “mediator” implies a contract to which there are at least two parties. But where there is a contract there must be also conditions, and if these conditions are not observed the whole falls to the ground. Such was the Law. The Law was not kept, and therefore the blessings annexed to it were forfeited. On the other hand, the promise depends upon God alone. He gave it, and He will assuredly keep it, no matter what man may do. God alone is concerned in it.

This passage is a conspicuous instance of the advance which has been made in New Testament exegesis. It is said to have received as many as 250 or 300 (according to another estimate, even 430) interpretations, but at the present moment there is a tendency to acquiesce in that given above, which, it is hoped, will be thought satisfactory.

Now a mediator is not a mediator of one.—The very idea of a mediator involves two parties at least. The Law had a mediator, therefore the Law involves two parties. In other words, it is a contract.

But God is one.—On the other hand, God, the giver of the promise, stands alone: therefore the promise is not a contract; and, resting on God, it is indefeasible.

Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.
(21-24) If the Law was thus inferior to the promise, does it therefore follow that it is contrary to it? By no means. The Law could not indeed give life; it could not justify, or place in a state of righteousness. Its real result was rather to place all men in a state of sin. But by so doing it prepared the way for the fulfilment of the promise in all who put faith in Christ. The Law was a close and strict, yet salutary, discipline to make us fit for faith in Christ.

(21) The promises.—Here, as in Galatians 3:16, the plural, because the promise to Abraham was several times repeated, and afterwards ratified to his descendants.

For if . . .—The argument which follows begins with a concession. Though the Law was no substitute for the promise, it yet directly led up to it.

Given life.—This is practically equivalent to “justified,” or “made righteous.” He who is justified has life—both true spiritual life in the present and eternal life in the future. That the Law could not justify had been shown in Galatians 3:11 and in Romans 3:20.

But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.
(22) The scripture.—Slightly personified.

Hath concluded.—The same peculiar word occurs in Romans 11:32, with a similar sense. It means to “shut up,” “hem in,” “prevent from straying either to the right hand or to the left,” as a shepherd shuts up his flock in the fold.

All.—This is put in the neuter gender, but only to give a more complete universality to the statement. What is meant is “all mankind.”

The promise by faith of Jesus Christ.—The promise which originates in faith in Christ, which derives its fulfilment from faith, is due to faith.

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.
(23) Before faith came.—Before faith awoke into exercise, began to exist, or the preaching of Christ as its object.

We were kept.—Better, we were kept in ward, so as to bring out more clearly the force of the metaphor which runs through the verse. The Law was a kind of prison-house, in which we were kept shut up. It was a custody from which we were not permitted to escape—a stern guardian that we were made to obey.

Unto the faith . . .—With a view to the dispensation of faith which was in store for us. The object of this state of guardianship was to fit us for the dispensation of faith looming in the future.

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
(24) The law was our schoolmaster.—Not quite a satisfactory translation; yet it is difficult to suggest a better. The Greek word is that from which is derived the English “pedagogue.” Originally it meant the slave who was placed in charge of a child, and whose duty it was to conduct it to school. The idea is that of moral rather than of intellectual discipline. The care of the “pedagogue” ceased where that of the school-master began, but it was he who had more especially to form the character of the child. Horace notes as a peculiar advantage of his own that his father himself had taken the place of pedagogue to him (Sat. i. 6, 81, 82).

To bring us unto Christ.—The words “to bring us,” it will be seen, are supplied. They may be retained, provided that the metaphor is not pressed to the extent of supposing that Christ represents the schoolmaster proper to whom the child is led by the pedagogue slave. The work of Christ as a Teacher is not what the Apostle has in mind. It is rather a higher kind of guardianship, which is to succeed that of the Law, and to which the Law hands over its pupil. Once brought within the guardianship of Christ, and so made a member of the Messianic kingdom, the Christian is justified by faith, he receives an amnesty for his past sins, and is accounted righteous before God. (See Epistle to the Romans, Excursus E: On the Doctrine of Justification by Faith and Imputed Righteousness.)

But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
(25-29) But now the Law has been exchanged for the dispensation of faith. Henceforth the old state of pupilage is at an end. We are no longer like children, but adult members of the divine family—sons of God. We have entered into this relation by faith in Christ. For to be baptised into Christ is to enter into the closest possible relation to Him. It is to be identified with Him entirely. Nor is any excluded. The old barriers of race, status, and even sex, are done away. Through their relation to Christ, all Christians, as it were, unite to form a single man. They are a body animated by a single personality and will. And their relation to Christ stamps them as the true descendants of Abraham. In them is the promise of the Messianic blessing fulfilled.

For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
(26) Children of God.—The translation “children” here is unfortunate, as the point to be brought out is that the Christian is no longer in the condition of “children,” but in that of grown-up “sons.” The pre-Messianic period bears to the Messianic period the same relation that a childhood or minority bears to full age. The Christian, as such, has the privileges of an adult son in his Father’s house. He is released from pupilage, and has received his freedom.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
(27) For.—This introduces the reason why the Christian stands to God in the relation of an adult son. He is so by virtue of his relation to Christ.

Baptized into Christ.—To be baptised “into Christ” is something more than merely “to be baptised in the name of Christ.” It implies the contracting of a very close and intimate relation, the nature of which is expressed in the phrase which follows.

Have put on Christ.—The metaphor has been thought to be taken from the putting on of the white baptismal robes. It is, however, commonly used in the LXX., where it means “to adopt” or “cake to oneself.” The Christian, at his baptism, thus “took to himself” Christ, and sought to grow into full unison and union with Him.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
(28) This verse continues the proof that all Christians are, in the fullest sense, “sons of God.” Galatians 3:27 showed why this was so; the present verse shows that there are no exceptions, no inequalities. All Christians alike, no matter what their race, status, or sex, stand on the same footing of sonship before God. There is a unity or solidarity in the Christian body. What is true of one is true of all.

Greek.—The spread of the Greek race through the conquests of Alexander, their ubiquitous presence, and the use of the Greek language as a universal medium of communication, led to the name “Greek” being applied to all who were not Jews. “Jew and Greek” is intended to be an exhaustive division of the human race, just as “bond or free,” “male and female.”

This verse marks the immense stride made by Christianity in sweeping away the artificial distinctions which had been the bane of the ancient world, and prevented any true feeling of brotherhood springing up in it. Christianity, at one stroke, established the brotherhood and abolished the distinctions.

One.—The word “one” is masculine—“one man,” “a single person”—as explained in the paraphrase above.

And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
(29) Conclusion of the whole argument. The followers of the Messiah are the true seed of Abraham. The kingdom of the Messiah, which they possess, is the promised inheritance.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bible Hub
Galatians 2
Top of Page
Top of Page