Heirs of the Promise (Galatians 3:15-29)

|

This sermon is part of a series on Galatians titled “Justified.”

Big Idea: Those who have faith in Christ are heirs of the promise to Abraham.

Promises are only as good as the person making them. There is a fellow I’ve invited to church for years, and for years he’s told me he would come next Sunday. He’ll even text me on Sunday morning and ask me what time church starts. But he has yet to show up. Of course, things happen and what we said we would do, we’re no longer able to. Had we known that our loved one was going to be in the hospital, for example, we wouldn’t have said we would be there.

Any promise we make regarding the future is limited in at least two ways:

  1. Promises are limited by our knowledge of what else might happen that could interfere with our commitment.
  2. Promises are limited by our ability to do what we thought we could do.

But God doesn’t have these limitations, so when He makes a promise, there is no lack of ability or disruption of His schedule that can distract Him from making good on His promise. That’s what this passage is about: God making good on His promise.

Here are the points of the passage as we will examine them:

  1. The Individual of the Promise (3:15-16)
  2. The Inheritance of the Promise (3:17-18)
  3. The Immediacy of the Promise (3:19-20)
  4. The Intent of the Promise (3:21-22)
  5. The Imprisonment of the Promise (3:23-26)
  6. The Inclusiveness of the Promise (3:28-29)

The Individual of the Promise (3:15-16)

THE COVENANT RATIFIED

“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” (3:15). From Galatians 1:1 until Galatians 3:14, Paul has been almost alarmed at how quickly the Galatians have embraced false teaching. The climax of Paul’s emotional response was in 3:1 where he calls the Galatians “foolish,” as if to say, “How can you be so dumb?!”

But Paul has calmed down by now. Why? Because he’s gone from calling them “fools” (3:1) to calling them “brothers” (3:15). And now that he is calm, Paul gives a simple little illustration to make his point: when two parties agree to a contract and sign on the line, the contract can’t be changed. (Of course, it could if both parties agree, but Paul’s point is that contracts are intended to be binding and unchanging.)

One of my new, frequently-used lines is, “If it’s not in writing, I didn’t say it.” Why? Because children and students frequently think I said something that doesn’t sound like something I would say. “But you said ….,” to which I respond, “I said that? Is it in writing?” When something is agreed upon and it’s put in writing, it takes on a contractual nature. You can’t just go back on what you agreed upon, and you know what the agreement was because it’s in writing. To go back on it makes you untrustworthy. Similarly, a rental company usually requires a security deposit. Why? Because they know that the customer is not likely to forget that they have money invested in this agreement. 

When God made a covenant with Abraham, He put it in writing—well, sort of. He required Abraham’s signature, but not quite in the way we are accustomed to. It wasn’t a signature on a dotted line, but it was more of a sign as in a symbol. Abraham’s symbol was circumcision. Now imagine if God had changed his mind about the deal: Abraham would respond, “You made me do that and now you’ve changed your mind! What kind of cruel, sick God are you?” So you get the point of Galatians 3:15—the deal is done, a covenant has been made, and God has never changed His mind about it. Not even for a moment has God considered going back on His word to Abraham. A promise has been given, and on God’s honor, it will be fulfilled.

THE RECIPIENTS OF THE PROMISES

“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to your offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (3:16) So who are the beneficiaries of the promise to Abraham? Remember that God promised Abraham land—lots of it; the land of the Canaanites, flowing with milk and honey. So who gets to cash in on God’s promise? Abraham’s offspring. Who are they?

Nathan Brown, in his study on Galatians, notes that there are four “seeds” or groups of offspring of Abraham. They are as follows, reordered according to how they appear in time:

  1. Ethnic Israel
  2. Believing Israel – the Remnant
  3. Jesus Christ
  4. Believing Gentiles

Jesus Christ is the ultimate offspring of Abraham. He is the one in whom the promise of God and the covenant with Abraham is fulfilled.

Here Paul quotes from Genesis 12:7, but we should really read 12:1-7 to understand the significance of he is saying:

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

It is critical that we recognize what God is promising Abraham here: land—as in dirt, ground, fields, mountains, rivers, streams, forests—whatever it was he saw on that day. It was land currently inhabited by Canaanites, a relatively unknown group of almost barbarian-type people steeped in all sorts of devilish paganism.

But the promise doesn’t stop there. Land was merely the first step of the promise; that is, land for ethnic Israel. The second step was that there would be a faithful remnant who would retain the land after Israel’s exile. The third point in the progression is the most important—Jesus Christ. When Paul quotes the promise of land from Genesis 12:7, he means “land” in the sense of salvation in Jesus Christ. The promised land is no longer about dirt; it’s about people. In other words, we enter the Promised Land when we enter into union with Christ. Paul shows no concern whatsoever with dirt.

During Israel’s second war with Lebanon, Israel sent some earth movers across the border into southern Lebanon, then occupied by Israeli forces. They were removing dirt from southern Lebanon into northern Israel to fill in some low spots in order to give Israel a better defensive position in the future against attacks from the north. After the war, there was a big fuss within the United Nations about the movement of dirt. The Lebanese Muslims considered it sacred; but now, so did the Israeli Jews. In the end the U.N. required Israel to put the dirt back where they got it. Only with great difficulty could we make something up more absurd and childish!

Paul doesn’t care about who owns the dirt because although God used dirt at one time to show the truthfulness of His promise and the good benefits of being in covenant with Him, now it’s no longer about the dirt. It’s about faith in Jesus Christ. Who needs the dirt when you’ve got salvation in Christ? 

Jesus Christ is both the offspring of Abraham and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. It’s all in One (Cf. Rom 4:13-25) Furthermore, as Paul has said in Romans 4 and will go on to say again in Galatians 3:29, the promise includes all who are united in Christ by faith.

The Inheritance of the Promise (3:17-18)

“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” (3:17). “This is what I mean” refers to his statement in 3:15 that a contract that has been made cannot be changed. To what “contract” is he referring? He is referring to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15.

Interestingly, Paul distinguishes between the covenant with Abraham and the law given to Moses, which is also considered a covenant. Most often, it is thought that the covenant with Abraham was just the first part of a fuller covenant made with Moses. But here Paul distinguishes between the two. Where then lies the difference? 

“For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (3:18). The worst kind of gift is that one that someone gives you and then later asks for in return. Or, they give it to you and allow you to keep it as long as you meet certain conditions (e.g. “as long as you will loan it to me,” “as long as you need it then give it back to me.”). Giving a gift with conditions is fine as long as the conditions are known up front, then the recipient can determine whether or not the gift is worth taking. But it is blatantly unjust to give a gift and then later place conditions on it for the person to keep it. It’s a wholly different deal once conditions are slapped on it.

This is what Paul is arguing against. God didn’t make a covenant with Abraham then add conditions to it later when Moses inherited the covenant as part of Abraham’s biological offspring.

F. F. Bruce puts it this way: “If the inheritance of Abraham’s descendants were based on law – more specifically, the Mosaic law – then it would belong to the people of the law, i.e. the Jewish nation” (Galatians, 174). But the promise was given as a gift (“God gave it to Abraham”) and accepted by faith; therefore, the inheritance is also received by faith.

Neither was the law given as a condition by which God would keep His promise to Abraham—that is, the promise to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring. Notice something important here in Paul’s language. He has introduced the idea of “inheritance” in the sense of the promise fulfilled. Remember, the promise to Abraham was that his offspring would have a wonderful inheritance. In the Old Testament, the promise was the Land (Gen 28:4; Deut 1:39). But in the New Testament we find out that the land was just a shadow, a symbol, of the real inheritance. The real inheritance is the Messiah, Jesus. The Land was merely a symbol for the salvation that would come through Jesus Christ.

The fact that God “gave” the promise to Abraham shows that it is a gift, not something earned through rule-keeping. If it was that way from the beginning, it will continue to the end—no fine print, no conditions, no special qualifications, just simple faith just like Abraham had.

The Immediacy of the Promise (3:19-20)

THE NEED FOR THE LAW

“Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made …” (3:19a). Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course, asks a great question, “Why then the law?” Let’s review why this question fits here:

  • The law cannot justify (2:16; 3:2; 3:5).
  • The law brings a curse (3:10).
  • The law cannot confer the inheritance (3:18). So…“Why then the law?”

If the law does not nullify the covenant or serve as a condition for receiving the promised inheritance, then why did God give Moses the law?  In Romans 5:20, Paul also says the Law was “added.” The fact that the Law was added means that it had a purpose. God doesn’t just randomly add the Law. But we’ve already heard Paul say that the Law wasn’t added in the sense of new conditions on the promise of God. So what is the Law for? 

Paul says, “Because of transgressions.” Then, what is it about transgressions that makes having a written law necessary? Before we answer the question, notice this important fact: there were transgressions before the law appeared! So what purpose does the law serve? Paul gives a fuller answer in Romans 5:20, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass….” That is to say that the law came to increase awareness of one’s transgression.

I took two of my children to youth camp last summer. For some reason I wasn’t able to take them until the second day, so the teams were already competing. When we arrived, I observed one of the events called Wacky Sports. It was a combination of concepts from several sports and it was, well, wacky. I’m a competitive person, the kind of person that plays to win. Do you know what is most frustrating to someone with a competitive nature? When the rules are in flux, such as they were in this Wacky Sport competition. Mid-game the ref would change the rules or adjust them as he felt like it. I watched for five minutes and had all I could take. I walked away because the rules were always changing and my competitiveness couldn’t stand it. The rules just needed to be set in stone.

It is for a similar reason that  God added the law to the covenant He had made with Abraham. It wasn’t that God was having a difficult time being consistent, or that—like Wacky Sports—He was making it up as He went along. No, it was all part of His perfect timing. I like how Nathan Brown put it, 

The law provides the objective standard by which violations are measured. God gave the law in order for sinners to know how far they deviate from God’s standards and how sinful they really are. Before the law was given there was sin (Rom 5:13). But after the law was given, sin could be clearly specified and measured (cf. Rom 3:19-20; 4:15; 7:7). Each act or attitude could then be labeled as a transgression of this or that commandment of the law.

I was eighteen or nineteen years old when I was driving back to Frankfort from Youth Challenge (held in Cincinnati at the time). There were four or five in my car, all teenagers, and I may have been the only one over eighteen. It was late and we stopped to grab something to eat at a drive-thru restaurant. As I was about to pull into a restaurant, I saw blue and white lights flashing behind me. Sure enough, it was a local police officer. He approached me and asked if I knew why I was being pulled over. I had no idea. I wasn’t speeding, I hadn’t run through any stop signs, I was driving carefully; nothing in my mind gave me reason for being pulled over. So I told him I didn’t know what I did wrong. Then he revealed to me that the town of Harrison has an ordinance that anyone under eighteen cannot be out after 10 o’clock pm. “Really?” I asked. “I didn’t know that. You may have noticed that I’m from Indiana, not Harrison, Ohio.” Surprisingly, he didn’t care. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. When you’re in Harrison you have to live according to our laws.” I didn’t argue with him, but I was astounded that he would be so harsh with people from whom his little town was about to benefit by us spending money at a drive-through restaurant. He let me go, but not cheerfully. Was his harshness reasonable? I didn’t think so then and I don’t think so now. Why? Because there was no reasonable way in the world for me to know that particular ordinance in Harrison, Ohio.

God didn’t add the law because He was in a foul mood and feeling upset toward His people. Neither was He acting the part of a bad cop flaunting His power and authority. The law was a carefully-planned foreordained part of God’s self-revelation to His children who were ready to learn their next lesson from their loving Father.

THE GIVING OF THE LAW

“and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one” (3:19b-20). While there is no mention of angels having a role in the revelation of the law in the Old Testament, Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, draws from extra-biblical sources here. This is a reminder that neither the biblical writers nor the Holy Spirit are limited to the Old Testament as their source of understanding their own history. 

But that’s all really a minor point. The intermediary, the one who received the Law from God through the hands of angels, was Moses. Since then, the Law has been passed down from generation to generation, in other words, by intermediaries. But now God is revealed directly in Jesus Christ. The point of verses 19-20 is that Jesus Christ is a more direct—the most direct—revelation of God, superseding the Law itself.

The Intent of the Promise (3:21-22)

This leads Paul to the second question that his own instruction raises: “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” (3:21). In other words, if the Law and the Promise are in contrast in regard to the need for a mediator—that is, the Law needed a mediator whereas the Promise did not—does this mean that the Law is in contrast to the Promise as a whole? 

No, because the purpose of the Law is different from the purpose of the Promise. The Law and the Promise are not contrary because the Law never changed the condition for inheriting the Promise. That condition is faith, not the works of the Law. 

The second part of the verse describes the difference in purpose, at least by implication: The Law’s purpose was not to give life. By implication then, the purpose of the Promise was to give life. Secondly, the Law cannot produce righteousness. By implication, the Promise can produce righteousness. Remember that Paul has said that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Promise. So, the Law cannot give life, but Christ can; the Law cannot produce righteousness, but Christ can.

“But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (3:22). By “Scripture”, Paul means the written law. But the verb seems personal: how can a Law book imprison someone? It doesn’t; the Lawgiver does. God gave the Law in order for us to recognize our imprisonment to sin.

The phrase “faith in Christ,” or in Greek, pisteos Jesou Christou, can be translated either: “our faith in Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ”. I believe it is the former sense at use here. The Law revealed human inability to be justified by works.

The Imprisonment of the Promise (3:23-26)

THE COMING OF FAITH

“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming of faith would be revealed” (3:23). When did faith come? This is Paul’s literary way of describing the coming of Christ. So “before Jesus Christ came and lived a life of complete faithfulness to the Law,” we were held captive under the law. This is a very interesting image that Paul gives of the law, and one that illustrates the powerlessness of the Law.

Sinful humanity is like a lion; the Law like a cage. The bars may keep the lion from getting the lamb, but it can’t keep the lion from wanting the lamb. The Law may tell us where the bounds are, but it can’t make us want to stay in bounds. 

When was the “coming of faith” revealed? When Jesus Christ was revealed. This is clear in the next verse. 

THE ROLE OF THE LAW

“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (3:24). This verse is really key for understanding what Paul has said up to this point. When he calls the Law “our guardian,” it becomes clear that the Law is given at the time of Israel’s spiritual childhood. The point in salvation history when the Law entered was the point at which God’s people needed a babysitter because they were still young in spiritual age.

I had a number of babysitters as a child. Sis. Poe was one of them, my favorite one. One of my favorite memories at Sis. Poe’s house was listening to Oscar the Grouch sing on the Sesame Street record. But as good of a babysitter as Sis. Poe was, there was nothing like that moment when my mom arrived. Yet, the babysitter was necessary until the time when the real parent would show up. In much the same way, the Law is like a babysitter in that she keeps the child relatively confined until the parent arrives.

The Law is called our “guardian” or custodian. The KJV “the law was our schoolmaster” is misleading because it suggests that “custodians” were teachers, though they were not. No Roman would have a slave as a teacher for their children. This is the word that is used for a slave who is given the responsibility to be a babysitter for a free-born child. The custodian would watch over the child until the child was mature enough to care for himself. In the same way, the Law is for those who were immature in their understanding of salvation. Nonetheless, it served its purpose. The Law was never intended to be anything besides a temporary custodian over God’s people until Christ came.

Does this mean that people were not justified by faith before Christ came? No, it doesn’t mean that. It only means that they did not have the clarity of faith that we have. Neither does it mean that they couldn’t have faith; many of them did. They just didn’t understand as well. You don’t have to understand everything that happens in faith to have true faith.

THE COMING OF CHRIST

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (3:25-26).  Paul describes the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. Paul means: “Now that the Object/Hope/Reality of our faith has come ….” 

It is here that Paul’s use of the word “under” is especially clarified. When he says we are “under” something, he means that thing that we are under the care and control of. Thus, 

  •  “under a curse” (3:10)
  • “under sin” (3:22)
  • “under the law” (3:23)
  • “under a guardian” (3:25)

Opposite of these is one phrase: “in Christ” (3:25). 

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27). Baptism is viewed as the entrance into the Body of Christ. But this is not prescriptive. Paul, who clearly no longer accepted the old circumcision as a necessary sign of true faith, is certainly not going to turn to another sign, the new circumcision, as the necessary sign of true faith. To “put on Christ” means to be transformed. In the early church, the one who was baptized would be covered with a new garment as they left the water. 

The Inclusiveness of the Promise (3:28-29)

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). There is a clear pattern here. Paul contrasts groups of people who were viewed as superior and inferior religiously; namely, Gentiles, slaves, and females. Paul, like other little Jewish boys, was raised thanking God that he was born a Jew, not a Gentile; a freeman, not a slave; and a man, not a woman. But now he realizes that none of that matters. One’s ethnicity, social class, or gender is irrelevant in determining whether one is a child of Abraham or not. And lest we think God changed His mind about this, we should read Old Testament passages like Numbers 15:16, “One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you,” that is, there is no difference in the Old Testament between Jew and Gentile when it comes to walking with God in holy fellowship.

“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:29). This is the bottom line of the passage. 3:29 is parallel to 3:7, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” The promise of salvation is for all people—Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman. Christ died for all; all can be united with Him by faith. That is the glorious promise of God!

David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).