One of the overarching themes of the book of Galatians is that the Law of Moses was necessary for a time but now is no longer necessary. In chapters 1 and 2, Paul gave several examples of situations where the Law of Moses was continuing to be practiced in an ungodly way: circumcision and Judean restrictions on eating with foreigners. Judean Christians had come to the Galatians and taught them that it was necessary to perform certain ritualistic acts in accordance with the Law of Moses. This was the opposite of the liberty that Paul had originally taught the Galatians. Paul did not want the Galatian believers to succumb to this false teaching. In Galatians chapters 3-5, Paul sets forth some powerful arguments about the end of ritualistic obedience to the Law of Moses (legalism). Let’s begin by looking at a few verses from the end of chapter 2.
Galatians 2:15-16, 21 (ESV)
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;
yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Paul introduced the doctrinal section of the book of Galatians with some key ideas. Even though he readily admitted that the Judeans had an advantage to the Gentiles in having the Law of Moses and a history of at least understanding righteousness to some degree (see also Romans 3:2ff), justification could not come through the Law of Moses. Justification only comes via faith in Christ. If the Law could have provided for righteousness and justification, then Christ would have died for no reason at all.
It is with this context that we can begin to approach Galatians 3-5. We will study this section chapter by chapter to see the themes of law, liberty, sin, and freedom develop. As we do so, we will pay close attention to when Paul quoted from the Old Testament. We will find some very surprising truths reexamined and retaught by Paul. Let’s begin with chapter 3:
Galatians 3:1-6 (ESV)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
Paul opened this section of the book of Galatians by making some strong points relating to salvation and receiving the holy spirit. Does salvation come by the Law? No! Does the spirit come by the Law? No! The word “perfected” means “to bring to an end.” Think about a woodworking shop. Imagine that you started making a table. And you started by working with real tools. But later on, someone came in and said, “You should really be working with these toy tools that my two-year-old uses. They’re great!” Paul had given the Galatians real tools: the holy spirit, the witness of the Scripture, and a relationship with God. The Galatians had turned in those real tools for the “toy tools” of legalism. No wonder Paul sounded incredulous! He loved them and asked them questions to get them thinking, to get them moving back in the right direction. He quoted Genesis 15:6 to get their attention. Remember, these were Gentile believers who were being swayed by Judaizing Christians (legalistic Christians) to put the Law of Moses above what Paul had taught them about grace. So quoting the Old Testament would have been a move to get their attention that the people teaching them were doing so without a full understanding of the new applications of the Old Testament. This leads us into a section with a flurry of Old Testament quotations.
Galatians 3:6-7 (ESV)
just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
As we mentioned before, Paul quoted Genesis 15:6 in verse 6. Interestingly, Abraham lived before the Law of Moses was given and before Christ came. Thus, any appeal to the Law of Moses as a savior of sorts is misplaced. Paul proved emphatically that the Law was not the savior of the Galatians, but rather Christ was. It is also important to notice that Paul reapplied this verse to the new situation of Gentile Christians. The ancient Hebrews would have looked at this verse as supporting their national interests and the Hebrew faith. But in verse 7, Paul clearly applied the lineage of Abraham to the Gentile Christians! What a surprising reapplication of Scripture! But Paul was not finished yet.
Galatians 3:8-9 (ESV)
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
After quoting Genesis 12:3 and 18:18 together, Paul argued that the Gentiles were always going to be blessed and justified through Abraham’s covenant! Everyone who is of faith is to be blessed along with Abraham. In a parallel passage, Paul called Abraham the “father of all” who believe (Romans 4:16).
Galatians 3:10-11 (ESV)
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
In verse 10, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 27:26. Paul attempted to show that, if you believe that the Law is required for justification and complete righteousness, then you will be cursed unless you perform the entire Law perfectly. This is impossible for anyone besides Christ Jesus! And that was precisely Paul’s point. So in verse 11 Paul utilized yet another Old Testament quotation to prove this point—Habakkuk 2:4. The context of that record in Habakkuk 2:4 is fascinating. The Chaldeans were threatening the nation of Israel. Habakkuk was tasked with writing down some prophetic words. Those who obeyed and responded were going to see positive results. Those who did not respond were not going to see the same positive results. Thus, the just, upright, and moral Hebrews were going to be saved from the coming judgment by the Chaldeans through their faith in God and His faithfulness. The just, by their faith, would live. The unjust might not make it. Rote religious observance would not save the Hebrews. Only obeying the spirit working in prophets would save the Hebrews. Similarly, Paul’s point here is to say, “Even in the time of Habakkuk, the just avoided judgment by faith. Why do you think it’s different now?”
Galatians 3:12-14 (ESV)
But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—
so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Paul continued his comparison of faith and the Law by quoting Leviticus 18:5. The Law is not driven by faith but by works. The pronoun “them” in verse 12 refers to the statutes and laws in the context of Leviticus chapter 18. Paul’s point is that those who would choose the Law over faith must practice the Law. But verse 13 declares practicing the Law is unnecessary. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law (one such curse quoted earlier in verse 10). In pointing out that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, Paul (you guessed it) quoted from the Old Testament. This time, Paul cited Deuteronomy 21:23. The reason that Christ became cursed for us is established in verse 14—so that the blessing upon Abraham would be conferred upon the Gentiles! That blessing was specifically enumerated as “the promised spirit,” which is gained “through faith,” not works of any kind. This thought parallels what Paul had previously shared in verse 2.
Galatians 3:15-18 (ESV)
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.
Now 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.
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.
For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
God made a covenant with Abraham prior to His covenant with Moses. Thayer defined covenant as “a disposition, arrangement, of any sort, which one wishes to be valid, the last disposition which one makes of his earthly possessions after his death, a testament or will.” So a covenant is an arrangement or an agreement made, in this case, between God and men. Verse 16 indicates that the blessing was to come through the seed of Abraham. The original understanding of this verse would have been that “the seed of Abraham” meant the nation of Israel. Paul, however, reinterpreted this idea and tied the promise of Abraham to the specific Blessing of Israel—Jesus Christ. The Law of Moses, which came after God’s covenant with Abraham, did nothing to disannul the previous covenant. And even though the Judeans believed that the Law was their way to salvation, Paul reminded the Galatians that the inheritance and the blessings (yes, all the way up to salvation) come to Abraham and his children by promise, not Law.
Galatians 3:19-20 (ESV)
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.
Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
Verse 19 indicates the purpose of the Law—to take care of transgressions. First, it served to warn the people of what was to be considered sin so that they could avoid sinning. Second, the Law multiplied transgressions (see Romans 5:20). However, grace abounded even more than the transgressions, because the offspring (Jesus Christ) came to fulfill the promise given to Abraham and his children. Verse 19 also declares that the Law was given to the people by angels through the hand of an intermediary (Moses). Verse 20 has caused much difficulty over the years. One explanation, which I found helpful, is to read verse 20 this way: “Now an intermediary implies more than one, which allows for a contract. But the Law was not kept by the Israelites, so the contract was voided. God is the only One Who has to fulfill His end of His covenant with Abraham. Thus, the promise entirely rests upon God and cannot be disannulled by human misbehavior.”
Galatians 3:21-22 (ESV)
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.
But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
If any Law had been capable of giving life, it would have been the Law that God gave Moses. However, no law was ever going to be good enough to give life. Any truly just law would always judge humans as guilty. This is one of the main reasons that the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, had to come. In verse 22, the Scripture has declared every man a sinner. But the good news is that the promise of Abraham is now extended to all of those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3:23-29 (ESV)
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
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.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
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.
And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
The Law of Moses was designed to be the guardian of the heir. In ancient times, the heir was kept under guardians and tutors until he or she was old enough to reign (more on this in Galatians 4). God’s plan led to Jesus Christ and the redemption of all mankind. The Law was designed to protect the children of Israel—to keep them alive until the Redeemer could come. Now that we can experience the fullness of faith, we no longer need a guardian. We no longer need the intricate details of the Law of Moses. We have salvation by faith! Christians are the grown heirs—rulers in God’s kingdom waiting to be revealed on the Earth. All Christians who are born again have put on Christ. Our identity is with Christ. And since no one was able to live up to the standard of the Law and since Christians now are saved by faith, there is no distinction between Judean and Gentile, male or female, slave or free. Everyone’s identity is in Christ—we all comprise his Body (Romans 12:5, I Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 3:6). And if we are identified in Christ, then we are the sons and daughters of Abraham, fully grown and mature heirs, ready to receive our place in God’s kingdom.
What can we take with us as we move forward? In chapters 4 and 5, Paul continued to develop the ideas of law, faith, freedom, and bondage. We will see that Paul believed in liberty. On one hand, we have religious observance with its details and regulations (legalism). On the other hand, we have licentiousness and sin (hedonism). Neither of these options is for the free Christian. We have been bought with a price (I Corinthians 6:20). We have been given everything that we need to be successful in walking with God: we have the holy spirit, the Bible, each other in the Body, and a relationship with the Creator God. We are the heirs of Abraham, heirs of promise, heirs of the Most High!
 See Thayer’s Lexicon.