Thursday, February 17, 2011

Galatians 3:15-20, The Law and the Promise (The Study of Galatians)

     15 Brothers, to take from a human analogy, I say1 : even if it is a man’s covenant2 that has been ratified3, no one can annul4 it or can add to5 it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and his descendant6. It7 does not say “and to descendants8” as in many people, but as in one person, “and to your descendant”, who is Christ9. 17 Now I say this; the law, which came10 after 430 years, does not cancel11 the covenant12 that had been established earlier by God13, in such a way as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance14 is based on15 the law, then it is no longer a promise; but God has bestowed16 it to Abraham through a promise.
     19 What is the purpose of the law then? It was added for the purpose17 of transgressions, having been ordered18 through angels19 by the hand of a mediator20, until the time when the descendant21 came to whom it22 has been promised. 20 Now the mediator is not of one party, but God is one.23 


As we learned in the Greek class, there are a few difficult passages to interpret in this.  The one thing that must be in view here is that Abraham's "descendant" was not the nation of Israel, but Jesus Christ himself.  Paul uses this to differentiate the law from the promise.

1 κατὰ ἄνθρωπον λέγω (To take from a human analogy, I say)

Greek: “according to man, I say”. Paul is about to compare the spiritual things that he has been writing about to an everyday human event.

2 A covenant between two people.

3 or “put into effect”.

4 or “break” it or “reject” it.

5 Thus changing it.

6 σπέρματι αὐτοῦ (his descendent) 

Greek: “his seed” “Seed” referring to a descendent. Here, seed is in the singular.

7 “It” is Scripture.

8 τοῖς σπέρμασιν (to descendants)

Greek: “to seeds” in the plural. Paul is making a point that the promise was made to a singular descendant and not the plural descendants.

9 In other words, Christ is the descendant of Abraham spoken of in the Scriptures.

10 γεγονὼς (came) 

Greek: “having come”.

11 ἀκυροῖ (cancel) 

or “to refuse to recognize the force or power of something” Louw & Nida Lexicon.

12 The covenant between God and Abraham.

13 The most striking thing about the passage is where Paul places the words “law” and “covenant”. In Greek, if a writer wanted to draw attention to something or make something more important, they would put it at the beginning of the sentence or clause. In this case, “covenant” is at the beginning of the passage while “law” is at the end. “The law” is the actual subject of the sentence while “covenant” is the direct object of the verb “does not cancel”. I have highlighted the words below.

διαθήκην προκεκυρωμένην ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὁ μετὰ τετρακόσια καὶ τριάκοντα ἔτη γεγονὼς νόμος οὐκ ἀκυροῖ

This indicates just how little Paul thought of the law as compared to the covenant between God and Abraham.

14 The inheritance is the salvation that is provided by Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ.

15 ἐκ (based on) 

Greek: “from”.

16 κεχάρισται (has bestowed) 

or “has graced”. In other words, it was given to Abraham by grace or 
favor. Abraham only had to believe God for it.

17 χάριν (for the purpose)

or “the bring them about and into the open”. Paul is saying that the law was put into effect in order to bring on “the conscious disobeying of definite commandments” (C.E.B. Cranford, “St. Paul and the Law”.

18 διαταγεὶς (having been ordered) 

or “having been given (detailed) instructions as to what must be done”.

19 “through angels” possibly means that the law was inferior to the promise because it was ordered through angels while the promise came directly from God. It is a very difficult passage as there are not many references to it in the NT. The closest reference occurs in Acts 7:38 where Stephen says

“οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ γενόμενος ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ μετὰ τοῦ ἀγγέλου τοῦ λαλοῦντος αὐτῷ ἐν τῷ ὄρει Σινᾶ καὶ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν...”

“This one (Moses) is the one who was in the assembly in the desert with the angel who spoke to him on the mountain of Sinai and with our fathers...)”

Apparently, it was believed that angels had worked as representatives of God during the giving of the law to the people of Israel by way of Moses.

20 The mediator must be Moses as he was the mediator between God and Israel.

21 The “descendant” is Christ.

22 or the inheritance.

23 This may be the hardest passage to interpret in the whole discourse. The obvious, of course, is that it does take two parties in order for a mediator to mediate. With the promise to Abraham, there was no mediator as God promised it directly to Abraham. According to Paul, angels represented God when the law was presented to Moses to present it to the Israel. Moses acted as the mediator between the angels and the people of Israel. Perhaps what Paul is trying to do here is to show that the promise was far more important since it required no representatives and no mediator. Since God is one God, he didn’t require representatives or a mediator when he made his promise to Abraham. That would have placed the promise at a higher level than the law.

The Greek

Γαλάτας 3·15 Ἀδελφοί, κατὰ ἄνθρωπον λέγω· ὅμως ἀνθρώπου κεκυρωμένην διαθήκην οὐδεὶς ἀθετεῖ ἢ ἐπιδιατάσσεται. 16 τῷ δὲ Ἀβραὰμ ἐρρέθησαν αἱ ἐπαγγελίαι καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ. οὐ λέγει· καὶ τοῖς σπέρμασιν, ὡς ἐπὶ πολλῶν ἀλλ ̓ ὡς ἐφ ̓ ἑνός· καὶ τῷ σπέρματί σου, ὅς ἐστιν Χριστός. 17 τοῦτο δὲ λέγω· διαθήκην προκεκυρωμένην ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὁ μετὰ τετρακόσια καὶ τριάκοντα ἔτη γεγονὼς νόμος οὐκ ἀκυροῖ εἰς τὸ καταργῆσαι τὴν ἐπαγγελίαν. 18 εἰ γὰρ ἐκ νόμου ἡ κληρονομία, οὐκέτι ἐξ ἐπαγγελίας· τῷ δὲ Ἀβραὰμ δι ̓ ἐπαγγελίας κεχάρισται ὁ θεός.
Γαλάτας 3·19 Τί οὖν ὁ νόμος; τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν προσετέθη, ἄχρις οὗ ἔλθῃ τὸ σπέρμα ᾧ ἐπήγγελται, διαταγεὶς δι ̓ ἀγγέλων ἐν χειρὶ μεσίτου. 20 ὁ δὲ μεσίτης ἑνὸς οὐκ ἔστιν, ὁ δὲ θεὸς εἷς ἐστιν.


  1. If we are in Christ, we can take comfort in the promises for we are one with Him and each other. We are many in the body of Christ.

  2. Would you be willing to field a NT Gr. question? If so, how might I email you? Thanks


  3. WA,

    Thanks for your interest. You can go to you profile and email me from there. I will try to answer any question you may have.