Menu Close

“The Promised One”

Galatians 3:15-22
Bob DeGray
March 4, 2018

Key Sentence

The law points to my sin, but in Jesus I receive the promise.


I. The promise points to the Promised One (Galatians 3:15-18)
II. The law shows our need of the Promised One (Galatians 3:19-22)


I’m sure you’ve all seen it – a plant or a tree pushing up through concrete or asphalt or even rock. A plant can grow right through, making a small crack or taking advantage of one, and reach the stage of flowering right there in front of your eyes. A tree can push aside a concrete sidewalk and reach full growth. Or grow around an obstacle and engulf it. In the extreme even the best built structures will fail after not too many years under the relentless pressure of a seed that becomes a plant that becomes a tree. If I can dwell on this for another moment, imagine what might be happening to make this phenomenon occur. A seed is dropped in the soil: it falls from a plant, blows in the breeze, gets buried by an animal. Then while that seed lies dormant, a sidewalk or a driveway is laid over it, or a rock falls, effectively blocking it. I’m sure that most of the seeds, even if they germinate, die under the obstacle. But the life of one seed is so strong even without sun and rain, that it germinates, grows and infiltrates some crack or defect in the rock, pushing it aside, pushing through to the light.

I think that illustrates, in a limited way, the relationship between God’s promise to Abraham and his later giving of the law. The promise is that Abraham’s offspring, literally his seed, would be blessed and bless many nations. But 430 years after the promise the law comes, and it’s the concrete, blocking the growth of the seed, the fulfillment of the promise and bringing death. But Paul tells us that the seed promise is singularly fulfilled in Jesus. He is the seed that pushes through the concrete, pushes through the law and brings life and beauty. Dropping the metaphor what Paul clearly teaches us in Galatians 3:15-22 is that the law points to our sin, but in Jesus we receive the promise.

Let’s read the first half of the text, which tells us that the promise points to the Promised One. Galatians 3:15-18 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

Paul allowed his strongest feelings to show at the beginning of chapter 3 when he addressed his readers as “O foolish Galatians!” But he’s writing to turn around their foolishness. He hopes his labor among them has not been in vain, and he still thinks of them, verse 15, as brothers, a warm relational term in the Greek.

He tells them he’s going to “speak as a man,” giving a simple human example. “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.” We think of covenants as a thing between God and man, because that’s what we see in the Old Testament. But in those cultures, covenants between men or nations were common, and were the model God used for his formal covenants. Paul uses these man-made covenants as his example, using a Greek word that also indicated a person’s will, their last will and testament.

The point Paul makes about these covenants is that once ratified, that is sworn to by the party or parties making the promises, the agreement could not be annulled and it could not be added to. This is true of a “last will,” and it was certainly true of God’s covenant with Abraham. In his day, the covenant was confirmed by a ceremony in which animals were cut into two parts along the backbone and placed in two rows. The parties to the oath walked together into the space between the parts and spoke their promises. It was this ceremony God enacted with Abraham in Genesis 15. But there was one difference: in God's covenant with Abraham, God alone passed between the pieces of the slain animals, thereby signifying that he alone stood behind the promises.

The author of Hebrews captures this sense of the covenant by saying, "When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, `I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.' Paul's point is simply that these promises, and the blessing of justification through faith is permanent. If a human will or covenant can’t be added to or annulled, how much less can there be additions to the promises made to Abraham by the living God and sworn by him alone.

Verse 16 adds that these unconditional and unchangeable promises were made to Abraham and his offspring. We have no problem with that statement since we know that the promises were repeated to Isaac and Jacob, and through Jacob to Joseph and his brothers, who were the fathers of all the Jewish people. But then Paul adds that “It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” It’s fortunate that modern English has a word like offspring, which is a singular word which often has a plural meaning. The same thing is true of the word seed in Greek.

As an example, imagine that I walk up to David Jackson and say “tell me about your offspring?” Well, he would talk about multiple people, thirteen people if I had enough time. But let’s change the scenario. Let’s say Nathan Jackson fulfills his sometime dream of becoming the President of the United States. A reporter comes to David and says “tell me about your offspring.” If David starts talking about all the other kids, the reporter will say “no, tell me about Nathan.”

The reporter was using the word in its singular meaning, not its collective meaning. In the same way, Paul says, the word ‘seed’ in God’s promises to Abraham can be understood to mean Isaac, Jacob and the others but the deeper meaning, the overriding one, is singular. One seed will come to redeem, that is, Christ. If we were to reread the Abraham sections of Genesis we would find some places where the word seed or offspring is clearly plural. Genesis 15:5 “And [God] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” But just before, singular. Genesis 15:3, Abraham says “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” I’d settle for one, Abraham says to God. When God speaks to Abraham after the near sacrifice of Isaac he uses it both ways: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” That singular offspring, the prominent offspring among the offsprings is the Messiah, Christ.

James Montgomery Boice says that this distinction is essential for Paul’s argument. “If the promises made to Abraham were made only to Abraham and his immediate descendants, they might well be considered fulfilled even before the giving of the law; the law would simply inaugurate a new era in God's dealings with mankind. But the promises were not fulfilled in the period before the giving of the law, Paul argues. They were embodied in the coming Redeemer, and that Redeemer was Christ. Consequently, God's blessing of justification by grace through faith spans the ages; and the law, whatever else one might think of it, must be seen to have served only an interim function.”

Verse 17: “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” Don’t miss this: the law came after the promise. Paul says 430 years, which is hard to pinpoint. Some commentators say that when Scripture talks of 430 years in exile it is beginning with Abraham. Others think that the exile in Egypt itself lasted 430 years, but that Paul is dating from the last time God promised the offspring, which was toward the end of the life of Jacob.

The point is that the law came long after the promise was made to Abraham, long after the same promise was made to Isaac and Jacob. Many generations had lived and died secure in the knowledge that God's covenant with Abraham was true. People had lived their whole lives in reliance on what God had done and in the certainty that the promises made in the covenant would be fulfilled.

The law was something quite different from the promises of God and didn’t show up for hundreds of years. When it came it did not void the covenant; a law subsequent to the covenant cannot make it void. The Jews were emphasizing the law’s divine origin and insisting that believers must be obedient to it in order to truly be part of God’s people. Paul's counter is that God had already made his covenant with Abraham and that covenant had stood for 430 years before the law was given. It was not voided by that law. Paul isn’t denying the law. He’s not saying Jews ought not to take it as their guide, showing them how to live. But he’s firmly saying that laws do not give a path by which we can merit salvation. The promise of God in the covenant must not be set aside.

So, verse 18, Paul claims again that to embrace the law is to devalue the promise. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” The apostle's opponents were insisting on the importance of God's law. Let them realize that God has made a promise that does not depend on people keeping the law. The relationship between God and Abraham was not that of a judge and a law-keeper. It was a great God making a promise to one of his people. That promise, Paul says, stands.

Before we leave this section, we need to circle back and remind ourselves who this promise was about. God promises, Genesis 22, that “in your offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Paul tells us that’s offspring singular, that is, in Christ all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. Paul’s opponents want the nations, the Gentiles, to buy into the law. But the law was not given to the nations, it was given to Israel. Jesus was given to the nations, and the nations take hold of that blessing the same way Abraham did, by faith, the same way Habakkuk did, the same way the Psalmists did. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the use of the work ‘trust’ in the Psalms. It’s used about fifty times, and it means to believe on a heart level, to have confidence and hope in God. It is through such confidence, such hope in God’s promises that the people descended from Abraham were saved. But even more, it is through trust and belief in the Promised one that people today are saved.

The promise points to the Promised One. The law, on the other hand, shows our need of the promised one. Verses 19-22 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 21Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Why then, the law? There is no doubt that for most Jews of Paul’s day the essence of religion was law. God had given the law through Moses and the duty of the people of God was to obey it. But there is also no doubt that Abraham was given a promise, not a law. The patriarch could not follow a divine law that would not be given for hundreds of years. So the question is “Why then the law?” If God always intended to give the blessing by grace, as he had done with Abraham and promised to do with Abraham's descendants, why did he later give the law to his people? Paul says it was added; it was something extra, something in addition to Abraham’s covenant, not a substitute for it.

It was added, Paul says, because of transgressions. Paul doesn’t explain this. It may mean the law gave directions which steered people away from transgressions. And it may signify that it made provision for sinners to make offerings to God to 'make atonement' for transgressions. But it also enabled sinners to see sin for what it is. One paraphrase says “It was added to make wrongdoing a legal offence.” Oh, that’s good; without the law sinners would not fully recognize that they were sinners in God's sight. This is what Paul will say when he writes to the Romans. “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” As Boice says “The point is that though sin was in the world before the giving of the law, sin was not always known as such. The law reveals sin as sin. Hence, it may be said that it is the law that turns sin into transgression—a breaking of the law. In this act, law performs the function of showing man's need of a Savior.”

This late addition of the law did not indicate a permanent change. Paul says it was there only until the offspring, the seed ... should come. He has already said that the promised offspring is Christ. ‘Should come’ points to the incarnation. The function of the law was to point people to Christ, not to provide, as he did, the way the people of God would be saved. The Galatians who set such store by the law, Paul is saying, were missing its central function. It was never meant to show the way of salvation. It was to point people to the Son of God.

Paul adds that this law was given through an intermediary. He is almost certainly referring to Moses who was God’s agent in bringing the promises to the people, in contrast to Abraham, to whom God made promises directly. The role of angels in the giving of the law is suggested in Deuteronomy 33:2 and Psalm 68:17 and is referred to explicitly in Acts 7:53 and Hebrews 2:2. We won’t pursue those verses this morning except to say that Paul is right, the angels had a role in the law that they didn’t have in the promise, but even that did not make it the way of salvation. Verse 20: “Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.” There have been a multitude of opinions and interpretations on this. One commentator estimates 300 different opinions. I like the way Leon Morris deals with it, so I’m just going to give you his words:

“We should accordingly maintain a reverent reserve in our search for its meaning. But Paul appears to be saying that when there is mediation going on, there must be two parties in dispute before there can be a place for mediation. Human sin had made a gap between sinners and God, thus bringing about a situation where mediation was needed. Paul, however, does not follow this up; he goes on immediately to say, but God is one. God is not divided. There is only one God and in all Israel's relationship to God that is clear.” There is one God and his law is a real expression of his character, given to guide people away from sin, to expose their failure and to picture his sacrifice. But it does not nullify his promise through which, by grace, he lavishes love on sinners.

In verse 21 Paul asks a second question: “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” Paul turns to the question whether there is a contradiction between the law on the one hand and the promises on the other. Are we to say that at one time God accepted Abraham on the basis of that patriarch's faith, but that later he led Moses to reveal that people must earn their place by keeping the law? Are we to say that the coming of the law altered the whole scheme so believers can no longer rely on God's promises?

The apostle's answer is an emphatic “Certainly not!” The idea that there should be contradictions in what God does is preposterous. In Paul's thinking the law could not possibly be in contradiction of the promises of God. If a law had been given that could give life, righteousness would be obtained by keeping the law. But the law given in the Old Testament, like every other law, was unable to make people righteous. It was evidently accepted by the Galatians, as by most people at most times, that people become righteous by doing righteous deeds. But it was basic for Paul that nobody can do righteous deeds all the time. All people slip from even their own standards from time to time and because they commit sins they are sinners, not righteous people. The law can keep telling them to do right, but it cannot give them the power to do it.

Several years ago I saw a video by Ray Comfort. One of his key emphases has been presenting the Gospel by showing people how they had failed to keep the moral law of the Ten Commandments. I always said of this particular video that it showed the presence of the Holy Spirit as this young man’s face went from flippant to dead serious. Comfort says “Can you name any of them?” “Yes. Thou shall not murder. Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not commit adultery. Thou shall not . . . oh, hold on, I know.” “You know a few.” “Yeah.” “Now, do you think you’ve kept those ten commandments.” “Um, yes.” “Have you ever told a lie?” “Well, at some times, most every human does.” “You broke that one. And so what are you called if you tell a lie?” “A liar.”

“Have you ever stolen?” “No sir, I haven’t.” “Even something really small. Be honest before God.” “Well, I guess a little stuff. Maybe like a piece of gum or something.” “What does that make you.” “A stealer, I guess. Thief.” “Now Jesus said if we look at a woman and lust after her we commit adultery with her in our hearts. Have you ever done that?” “Uh, no sir, I . . .” “You’ve never looked at a woman with lust?” “Um, well.” “Your friend over there is laughing at you. He doesn’t think you’re speaking the truth.” “Well, I mean, yes I have looked at a woman.” “So you’ve told another lie?” “So you’ve really blown it, haven’t you? You’ve broken three commandments, and we’ve only looked at three. We haven’t looked at the other seven. Have you ever used God’s name in vain?” “Yes, sir.” “Instead of using a four letter filth word to express disgust you’ve taken the name of the God who gave you life, and used his name as a curse word, which is called blasphemy. So on judgment day when God judges you by that standard, are you going to be innocent or guilty of breaking his commandments? And you’ll go to heaven or hell?”

If you want to see the rest of that, it’s on YouTube. Verse 22: But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Scripture as a whole makes it clear that we are all sinners. It excludes every other possibility. It is not just that people sometimes do what they should not, but they are the prisoners of sin, shut in by sin. They may also do good, but they cannot break free from all evil. We are all sinners. It is crucial to Paul that the saved are saved by the grace of God, never by virtue of their own ethical achievements.

This is the promise of the promise and the role of the promised one. The promise, given originally to Abraham, comes to us now by faith in Jesus Christ, or by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and is given to those who believe. Not only is the promise grounded in faith; it is also dispensed only to those who believe. Paul leaves no room for the acquiring of merit by keeping the law that seems to have meant so much to the Judaizers who were leading his flock astray and to the converts who followed them. As we have seen before, faith is one of the great topics of this letter. The term occurs 22 times. The addition of ‘by faith in Jesus Christ’ makes it clear who is the object of the faith, and also whose faithfulness is at work. But in the end it is “given.” It is entirely by grace, given as a free gift to those who believe.

So what have we seen? That the promise to Abraham points to the promised one, Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. And we’ve seen that the law, while having many purposes, is ultimately given to show us that as sinners we must look to the promised one, the offspring who was given as a sacrifice to rescue us, and who redeems us from sin by grace though faith.