Paul, Part 8: Purpose of the Law
Paul uses several illustrations to teach his readers about the intent or the purpose of the Torah (Law) in the book of Galatians. Let's go through this and see what Paul is trying to tell us. In Galatians 3:1-18, Paul had been rebuking the Gentile Galatians. Some men had come to them who were compelling the Gentiles to convert to Judaism through ritual circumcision, which these men believed was a necessary prerequisite for becoming joined to the promises that God had made to Israel (Acts 15:1, Galatians 2:3-5). Paul knew that since God had shown that the Gentiles' hearts had been circumcised by giving them the Holy Spirit, there was no need for them to become physically Jewish in order to be accepted by God (verses 2-3). Paul uses the phrase "works of the Law" to mean attempting to receive justification by becoming ritually converted to Judaism. It does not mean obeying God's commands out of a love for Him and a desire to do His will. Paul backs this up by explaining that God's promise to Abraham was through faith, and took place before the covenant at Mt. Sinai. The giving of the Torah does not change the way the promise was received. "Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made" (verse 19). God made the promise to Abraham that salvation for the nations would come through his seed, which Paul explains is Yeshua. To this promise He added the Torah to define and convict sin until the promised seed came through whom all nations would be blessed. After saying all of this, Paul wants to make sure we don't think the Torah contradicts the promise to Abraham: "Is the Torah then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Yeshua the Messiah might be given to those who believe" (verses 21-22). Because of our inability to be perfect, the only way we can achieve justification is through Yeshua. We also see that the word translated as "believe" here is actually a form of the Greek word for "faith." We don't have a word in English for "faithing," but the original word implies an active, obedient exercise of faith in God's promises.
Continuing, Paul makes another illustration about the role of the Torah: "Therefore the Torah has become our tutor to lead us to Messiah, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Messiah Yeshua" (verses 24-26). In English, Bibles often translate the word paidagogos as "tutor" or "guardian." A paidagogos was more than just a tutor in Paul's day. Well-to-do families in the ancient Greco-Roman world would hire a person to serve as a warden for their children. The full job of a paidagogos was to be a caretaker, to supervise, and to direct the child's conduct and moral behavior, as well as to serve as a type of bodyguard. Paul is saying that the job of the Torah is to do this same thing for us. "But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor," (verse 25). Does this mean that we no longer follow the instructions of that tutor? No, but the lessons which the tutor teaches us are learned more in depth as we mature. Once we have come to faith in Yeshua, we see the Torah in the light of His revelation. Every part of the Torah reveals Yeshua, for He is the Living Word, and therefore every "jot and tittle" within the Torah has something to teach us about Yeshua. Through the Torah, we learn that we are unable to keep it perfectly, which leads us to Yeshua. This is the sense in which we are no longer under our paidagogos, the Torah. The lessons it teaches us and the ways it expects us to behave are continued as we grow in knowledge of Yeshua: "For all of you who were baptized into Messiah have clothed yourselves with Messiah" (verse 27). One would not hire a tutor for someone who was not their child, and thus Paul tells us, "And if you belong to Messiah, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise" (verse 29). We as Gentiles, who once were afar off, have been brought near to God and to His people Israel through the Messiah of Israel and are counted as sons of Abraham through faith. As we see in Romans 11, Gentiles are grafted into the promises of Abraham. We know that Abraham is the father of many nations. Believers from the nations become the spiritual children of Abraham and become fellow heirs with the Jewish people when they put their faith in Messiah: "Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God" (Galatians 4:7).
When the Gentiles in Galatia previously did not know God, they served pagan gods and idolatry, and Paul says that they were enslaved to "weak and worthless elemental things." One part of the Gentiles' disobedience was falling back onto these practices, which included the observation of "days and months and seasons and years" (verses 8-9). No one is exactly sure what Paul meant by "elemental things," but he used it several times: in Colossians 2:20-21 in reference to ascetic practices, and here in this passage. The Greek word he uses is stoicheion, which in Paul's time had several meanings: the basic elements of the cosmos (fire, earth, air, water), spiritual forces such as angels, or the basics of something, as in elementary teachings. As far as the meaning of this passage goes, two main interpretations are frequently accepted: the Gentiles were observing Biblical days or they were observing pagan days. Would Paul really refer to the precepts of the Lord as "weak and worthless" or "of the world?" Psalm 19:7 says, "The Torah of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple." Paul himself says in Romans 7:12 and 14 that the Torah is holy, righteous, good, and spiritual. Because of how the letter to the Galatians has traditionally been interpreted, it is an easy succession from "the Torah is no longer important" to "the Biblical feast days are no longer important." In truth, however, the book of Galatians is not intended to dissuade anyone from keeping God's commandments as applicable to them, but was a correction on false teachings about conversion and justification. So how about the second theory ? Do the "elementary principles" refer to certain practices within paganism and idolatry? Galatians 4:8 says, "Formerly, when you (Gentile believers) did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods." Paul reminds his Gentile listeners of their previous life of idolatry. So, if they were raised in this idolatrous system, then it would make sense that the "weak and worthless elementary principles of the world" are not God's ways, but the idolatrous rituals and false religion they had been raised in. He was not telling them to avoid God's calendar, but was warning them not to revert to the pagan celebrations they had been raised in or mix them into their walk with God.
Paul continues his explanation in Galatians 4:21-31 by using an allegory. He likens Hagar to the covenant at Mount Sinai, what is often called the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant is not the Scriptures which we call the "Old Testament," and it is not the Torah. The Old Covenant was the agreement of the people of Israel to follow God's commands (Exodus 24:7), which they were unable to do. Paul says, "Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children," (Galatians 4:25). So long as obedience to God is done solely through human effort, sin, being the inability to fulfill God's commands, will hold in bondage. When Paul chastises the Galatians for wanting to be "under law," he is not condemning them for trying to walk in God's ways. Rather he is condemning their attempts to gain hold of the promise through the flesh, just as Abraham and Sarah did when they tried to bring forth the promised child through physical means alone (Genesis 16:2). Sarah's conception of Isaac, however, was much more miraculous. From a human point of view, it would appear impossible for Sarah to bring forth a child so late in life, especially after being barren up until that age; but with God, all things are possible. After Paul introduces Hagar as representing the earthly city of Jerusalem, he brings her into contrast with Sarah, who represents the heavenly city of Jerusalem: "The Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother," (verse 26). If Hagar is the Old Covenant, then Sarah is the New Covenant. The New Covenant is not a new set of rules to follow, but it is a miraculous and supernatural ability to do that which was previously impossible through the flesh (Jeremiah 31:33-34). From a human perspective, it is impossible to keep God's commands perfectly. If we try to keep them merely through our own efforts, we will be committing the mistake of Abraham and Sarah, becoming, as it were, a child of the bondwoman. But if we put our faith and hope in God through Yeshua (Jesus), walking in the Spirit, then He will be faithful to fulfill His promise in writing His commands on our hearts. It is only then when we will no longer be held in bondage to the sinful nature, but will be fulfilling our role as children of promise: "So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman," (verse 31).
What is Paul's main point about the Torah? "Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Messiah will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Torah... For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation." (Galatians 5:2-3, 6:15). If one undergoes conversion in order to become Jewish, then they are considered Jewish and therefore are obligated to observe some parts of the Torah that Gentiles are not. By converting they are essentially saying that salvation comes by being Jewish instead of by having faith in Yeshua. Paul is not condemning the Galatians for wanting to obey God or keep the commandments that apply to them, but he is condemning them for trying to earn their salvation by becoming converted. Remaining a Gentile believer in Yeshua does not mean that we are free to ignore God's commandments, however: "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (verse 16).
The Torah acts as a paidagogos, a tutor, in order to teach us the way we are to live and to lead us to Yeshua. As we grow in relationship with Him, we will find ourselves desiring to obey God, since His commandments do not change, and these commandments are being written upon our hearts. If we are led by the Spirit of God, we are not under the condemnation of the Torah (Romans 8:1, Galatians 5:18), and therefore, by the power of the Spirit, we will no longer be hostile toward God (Romans 8:7). Whereas before, because of the sinful nature, we could not submit to God's Torah, now by the Spirit we will be able to. The Torah still has purpose in the life of a believer.