The Purpose of the Law (Galatians 3:19-25)

The Purpose of the Law(Galatians 3:19-25)

Prepared and preached by Pastor Steve Rhodes for and at Bethel Friends church in Poland, OH on Sunday, February 24, 2019

I am going to be going to Galatians 3:19-25 in a minute, but let me introduce the passage by talking about lions and cages. Can you imagine keeping a lion as a pet? These people did and his name is Christian, watch this:

They kept a lion as a pet! Who would do that? When is that okay? Generally, we would all have no problem being around a lion as long the lion is in a cage, isn’t that correct? I like going to the zoo and looking at lions behind bars. I like watching lions on television, but not in my front yard.

Now, think about this: we are the lion and the Old Testament Law functions as bars of a cage to keep us from sinning. Now, if our lion nature changes there is no need for the bars. That is what this passage is about.

Paul has been writing about the Law. Paul has been saying that we are NOT made right with God by the Law. We are made right with God by faith. So, what is the purpose of the Law? That is what Paul jumps into in Galatians 3:19, let’s go there and talk about it.

My theme today is this:

The Law was our tutor until Christ came.

Let’s read Galatians 3:19-25:

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. 20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. 21 Is the Law 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. 22 But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

  1. “What, then, was the purpose of the law?” (vv. 19–20)
    1. These verses bring to a conclusion Paul’s long parenthesis which began in verse 10 and goes through verse 25. Paul has been talking about the purpose of the law.
    2. We must remember to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. As the New American Commentary points out, Paul seems to be writing in Theological shorthand. Paul will later expand on these themes in the letter of Romans. So, we must look to Romans for any problems interpreting these passages.
    3. Further, the New American Commentary points out: Paul’s meaning is essentially clear: the law is not on the same par with the covenant of promise not only because it was chronologically limited but also because it was handed down by angels with a man acting as a go-between.
    4. In Verse 19 we see that:
      1. The law was ordained by angels.
      2. Moses was the mediator.
  • Moses was less of a mediator than Jesus.
  1. Jesus would come.
  1. The verse says that we needed the law because of our transgressions. There are various views on the need for the law and transgressions.
  2. There are four purposes for the law:
    1. “to provide a sacrificial system to deal temporarily with transgressions,”
    2. “to teach people more clearly what God requires and thereby to restrain transgressions,”
    3. “to show that transgressions violated an explicit written law,” or
    4. “to reveal people’s sinfulness and need for a savior” (cf. 3:20: “through the law comes knowledge of sin”).
  3. All four senses are theologically true, but the last is probably uppermost in Paul’s mind.[1]
  1. One source points out the following: The preventive and provocative functions correspond to the civil and spiritual uses of the law as developed by Luther.95Clearly, Luther thought, God has ordained civil laws for the purpose of restraining evildoers. Just as a rope or chain prevents a wild animal from attacking an innocent bystander, so too the law with its “thou shalt nots” and penal code prevents sinful humanity from going on a rampage and completely destroying itself. Obviously without the civil use of the law, human society could not be sustained.
  2. So, we needed the law to show us that we are sinners in need of a Savior in addition to the other reasons listed.
  3. I think it is amazing that this verse points to Christ as the Seed, the Savior.
  4. By the way, we get the idea of angels involved in the giving of the law and this came from Acts 7:53: You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it.”
  5. Now, moving to verse 20:
  6. We have a lot of discussion about this idea of the mediator. I believe Moses was the mediator, but he was a fallen mediator and that also points to Jesus. That also points to the idea that the law was lacking.
  7. This verse is also attesting to the Shema from Deut. 6:4 that the Lord is One.
  1. “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God?” (vv. 21–22)
    1. Paul is totally opposed to this idea, he responds: “Certainly not!” Or, “May it never be.”
    2. The Greek expression Paul used, mē genoito, conveys horror and shock at the very concept under consideration.110Of its fifteen occurrences in the New Testament, thirteen are in Paul’s writings, invariably translated “God forbid!” by the KJV: “Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? God forbid” (Rom 3:6). “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid” (Rom 3:31). “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid” (Rom 6:1–2). “Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid” (Rom 9:14). “Is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid” (Gal 2:17).[2]
    3. Verse 21 continues with the point that the law could not impart life. Righteousness could not come from the law.
    4. Verse 22, notice how Paul uses the word translated as Scripture. He says everyone is shut up under sin. He uses the idea of a cage. John MacArthur shares: The Greek verb translated “imprisoned” means “to enclose on all sides.” Paul portrays all mankind as hopelessly trapped in sin, like a school of fish caught in a net.[3]
    5. The promise comes by faith in Jesus.
  • Now, we come to the concluding paragraph (vv. 23–25)
    1. We continue the thought of the second paragraph, summing up the function of the law in terms of a new metaphor, that of the paidagōgos. This is translated as tutor.
    2. We were kept in custody under the law. Think about that. This is like those bars that keep the lion inside.
    3. Verse 24 says that the Law became a tutor.
    4. Verse 24 says that we are justified, which means made right with God, declared righteous, by faith.
    5. We need to talk about this idea of the tutor.
      1. This is what I read about it:
      2. In ancient Greece and Rome wealthy parents often placed their newborn babies under the care of a wet-nurse who in turn would pass them on to an older woman, a nanny who would care for their basic needs until about the age of six. At that time they came under the supervision of another household servant, the paidagōgos, who remained in charge of their upbringing until late adolescence. The pedagogue took over where the nanny left off in terms of offering menial care and completing the process of socialization for his charge. For example, one of the functions of the pedagogue was to offer instruction in the basics of manners as this description from Plutarch reveals: “And yet what do tutors [they] teach? To walk in the public streets with lowered head; to touch salt-fish but with one finger, but fresh fish, bread, and meat with two; to sit in such and such a posture; in such and such a way to wear their cloaks.”124The pedagogues also offered round-the-clock supervision and protection to those under their care. In this regard Libanius described the pedagogues as guardians of young teenage boys who warded off unsolicited homosexual advances their charges regularly encountered in the public baths, thus becoming “like barking dogs to wolves.”125
  • No doubt there were many pedagogues who were known for their kindness and held in affection by their wards, but the dominant image was that of a harsh disciplinarian who frequently resorted to physical force and corporal punishment as a way of keeping his children in line. For example, a certain pedagogue named Socicrines was described as a “fierce and mean old man” because of his physically breaking up a rowdy party. He then dragged away his young man, Charicles, “like the lowest slave” and delivered the other troublemakers to the jailer with instructions that they should be handed over to “the public executioner.”126The ancient Christian writer Theodoret of Cyrrhus observed that “students are scared of their pedagogues.”127And well they might have been because pedagogues frequently accomplished their task by tweaking the ear, cuffing the hands, whipping, caning, pinching, and other unpleasant means of applied correction.
  1. Now, isn’t that interesting? I love that background information. We may translate that word as “tutor,” but it means so much more. The law was a very strong disciplinarian to lead us until Christ. Some translations say, “to” Christ. But it is probably better translated as “until” Christ.
  1. Let’s make some applications:
    1. The Law was important.
    2. The law is still important because it does give us bars, or guard rails for right and wrong.
    3. But the law does not save us, Jesus saves.
    4. It is all about Jesus.
    5. Our salvation was, and is, and always will be, all about Jesus.
    6. STOP trying to earn it.
    7. Our salvation is Jesus plus nothing.
    9. RELIGION is how we earn our way to Heaven.
    10. CHRISTIANITY is what Jesus has done to pay our way to Heaven.
    11. When we fall down spiritually, we can trust the grace of Christ.
    12. Christ paid for our salvation.
    13. More than that, Christ paid for our justification.
    14. Christ made us righteous.
    15. Give Him Praise and glory and serve HIM.


I like to run, but I do not like running on the treadmill. On the treadmill I always feel like I am not going anywhere. The scenery always looks the same. I have to look at the odometer to know if I did anything. That is what the Law was like, you don’t go anywhere, there is no salvation.

I am a terrible swimmer. I can swim enough to drown, and I realized that on a NJROTC trip in 1998. I was in Pensacola, Florida and we were visiting Navy bases etc. We then went to the beach. Everyone was swimming out to a sand bar. I started swimming and kept going trying to get there. However, the waves kept pulling me back. I kept swimming and I was not making any progress. I was starting to get worn out. I was swimming and not getting any closer. I was getting fatigued. I kept swimming and looking up over the surf and I literally was getting further away. Eventually, I called for help and one of them helped me out and then pulled me back in. I don’t know if I ever have been so tired in my life.

That is what the law is like. We get worn out trying to earn our way to Heaven. The law was a disciplinarian, a tutor trying to show us we needed a Savior in addition to giving us guard rails.

The law could not make us righteous. Jesus paid for our sins on the cross and Jesus gives us His righteousness.





110Note the various translations given to this use of the optative to express an emphatic negative wish: “certainly not” (Phillips); “of course not” (JB); “unthinkable!” (NAB); “no, never!” (NEB); “das sei ferne!” (Luther). For once, Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch translation misses the mark for being too weak: “not necessarily.” On the wider use of this term in the NT, see C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 23.

[2]Timothy George, Galatians, vol. 30, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 258–259.

[3]Excerpt From: Crossway. “The MacArthur Study Bible, ESV.” Apple Books.


124Plutarch, Mor. 439f–440, cited in Young, “PAIDAGŌGOS,” 160–61.

125Ibid., 159.

126This incident is cited by Alciphron in EP.3.7.3–5, quoted by Lull, “ ‘The Law Was Our Pedagogue,’ ” 489–90.

127Epistle 36; Young, “PAIDAGŌGOS,” 162, n. 138. Cf. Libanius’s likening of the pounding of the boat’s oars on the sea to the pedagogue’s lash upon a child’s back (Epistle 1188, 3–4; ibid.).

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