09k. Excursus: Additional "Tough Phrasing" (covers 3:19)

09k. Excursus: Additional "Tough Phrasing" (covers 3:19)

3:19 - What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator.


By this point in my commentary, it should not be difficult to comprehend the massive differences between the prevailing Christian opinions and the prevailing Messianic Jewish perspectives, particularly in regards to the Law of God.  In a word, historic Christianity does not embrace the Torah of Moshe as an everyday lifestyle the way historic Messianic Judaism and the current Torah Movement of today does.  This is what we call an in-house debate.  Both groups of people profess belief in Yeshua as Messiah.  In my experience, much of the differences between these two “saved people” organizations lean towards one or two key verses, rather than carefully reasoned examinations of a whole book the likes of Galatians.  Put another way, your average Bible reader—on either side of the debate—tends to formulate their strongly held opinions based on a single passage or two, rather than on whole chapters, etc.

With that in mind, I have decided to lift a key passage out of my Excursus and include it in the main body of topics for discussion here.  For this exercise, I shall start with the prevailing Christian, then move to the views of a well-known Messianic Jewish author, before providing my own contrasted opinions at the end.  The section here provides a nice sort of teaser into Section Ten below, entitled “Conclusions - Torah: Negative, Neutral, or Positive?” with our Summary discussion sandwiched in between the two.

Here is Galatians 3:19 in six random, yet well-known, Bible versions:

Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. (King James Version, KJV)

What then is the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise hath been made; and it was ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator. (Authorized Standard Version, ASV)

Why, then, the law? on account of the transgressions it was added, till the seed might come to which the promise hath been made, having been set in order through messengers in the hand of a mediator. (Young’s Literal Translation, YLT)

Why then was the Law given? It was imposed later on for the sake of defining sin, until the seed should come to whom God had made the promise; and its details were laid down by a mediator with the help of angels. (Weymouth New Testament, WEY)

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. (English Standard Version, ESV) 

So then, why the legal part of the Torah? It was added in order to create transgressions, until the coming of the seed about whom the promise had been made. Moreover, it was handed down through angels and a mediator. (Complete Jewish Bible, CJB) 

The first commentary I would like to quote represents the historic Christian interpretation and application of this chair passage.  The comments have been lifted from a well-known and well-respected online Bible-reading website:

1. According to Paul, the law has a negative purpose: It was added because of transgressions (v. 19). Paul has already demonstrated what the law does not do: it does not make anyone righteous before God (v. 11); it is not based on faith (v. 12); it is not the basis of inheritance (v. 18). So if the law is divorced from righteousness, faith and inheritance of the blessing, to what is law related? Paul says that the law is related to transgressions. A transgression is the violation of a standard. The law provides the objective standard by which the violations are measured. In order for sinners to know how sinful they really are, how far they deviate from God's standards, God gave the law. Before the law was given, there was sin (see Rom 5:13). But after the law was given, sin could be clearly specified and measured (see Rom 3:20; 4:15; 7:7). Each act or attitude could then be labeled as a transgression of this or that commandment of the law.

Imagine a state in which there are many traffic accidents but no traffic laws. Although people are driving in dangerous, harmful ways, it is difficult to designate which acts are harmful until the legislature issues a book of traffic laws. Then it is possible for the police to cite drivers for transgressions of the traffic laws. The laws define harmful ways of driving as violations of standards set by the legislature. The function of traffic laws is to allow bad drivers to be identified and prosecuted.

2. The temporal framework for the law is clearly established by the words added . . . until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come (v. 19). Paul has already emphasized that the Mosaic law was given 430 years after the Abrahamic promise (v. 17). The word added implies that the law was not a central theme in God's redemptive plan; it was supplementary and secondary to the enduring covenant made with Abraham. As the word added marks the beginning point for the Mosaic law, the word until marks its end point. The Mosaic law came into effect at a certain point in history and was in effect only until the promised Seed, Christ, appeared. There is a contrast here between the permanent validity of the promise and the temporary nature of the law. On the one hand, the promise was made long before the law and will be in effect long after the period of the law; on the other hand, the law was in effect for a relatively short period of time limited in both directions by the words added and until.

As we shall see in our study of the next few sections of the letter (see 3:23-25; 4:1-4), Paul's presentation of the temporal framework for the law is a major theme of his argument for the superiority of the promise fulfilled in Christ over the law. This theme differs radically from the common Jewish perspective of his day, which emphasized the eternal, immutable nature of the law. But Paul's Christocentric perspective led him to see that Christ (the promised Seed), not the law, was the eternal one.[1]

The comments on the verse are so straightforward and easy to understand that I hardly need to add additional thoughts to them at all.  Instead, lets compare this Christian view with a well-known Messianic Jewish author for now before providing my own contrasting views.

Concerning this verse (3:19) Stern seems, in some ways, to take the popular Christian view as noted above just a step further.  While not casting the Torah in a negative light, he nonetheless seems to not fully capture the intended meaning of Paul’s point there in verse 19.  Because of his widespread acceptance among many messianic believers, his view is worth critiquing.  Moreover, his popularity in the Messianic Community has far-reaching influence in the way the Movement forms their view of the Torah.  Writing in his Jewish New Testament Commentary we read (all emphasis, his):

So then, why the legal part of the Torah (see v. 17N)?  Why was it needed at all, if the promise (v. 18) is independent of it?  It was added to the promise—and to the environment of Jewish history in particularly and human history in general—in order to create transgressions, literally, “because of transgressions.”  The latter could mean, “in order to contain and limit transgressions,” in order to keep the Jewish people from becoming so intolerably sinful that they would become irredeemable.  But instead of this, I think it means, as Sha'ul explains in Romans 7, that a key purpose of the commandments was to make Jewish people ever aware of their sin—not that Jews were more sinful than Gentiles, but that, like Gentiles, Jews too “fall short of earning God’s praise” (Ro 3:23).  The Torah “creates” transgressions by containing commandments which people break, indeed, which rebellious human nature perversely wants to break (Ro 7:7-12&NN).  But at least in some cases the guilt they feel causes them to despair of ever earning God’s praise by their own works, so that they come to God in all humility to repent, seek his forgiveness, and trust in him (see Ro 3:19-20&NN, 4:13-15&NN, 5:12-21&N, 7:5-25&NN).

            Until the coming of the “seed,” Yeshua (verse 16), about whom the promise had been made.  From the time of Moshe until the coming of Yeshua, the Torah had a “conscious-raising” role towards sin.  The Torah still exists, is still in this force (see Gal. 6:2), and for those who have not yet come to trust in Yeshua it still has this function.  But for those who do trust in Yeshua and are faithful to him, the Torah need no longer serve in this capacity.  Sha'ul explains why in verses 21-25.

            It, the Torah, was handed down to Moshe on Mount Sinai through angels, a point made three times in the New Testament (see Acts 7:53) and through a human mediator, Moshe.  An often-heard Jewish objection to the New Testament’s teaching is that Jews don’t need Yeshua because they don’t need a mediator between themselves and God.  This verse refutes the claim with its reminder that Moshe himself served as such a mediator—as, for that matter, did the cohanim and the prophets.  See Hebrews 8:6, 10:19-21; 1 Tim. 2:5; Exodus 20:19; Deut. 5:2, 5; and this citation form a Pseudepigraphic work dating from the first or second century B.C.E:

“Draw near to God and to the angel that intercedes for you, for he is a mediator between God and man…” (Testament of Dan 6:2)[2]

I believe that as important a contribution as Stern has made to the Messianic Movement (I currently endorse his Bible translation), with regards to his commentary on this particular verse, this “neutral” view—as opposed to the blatant “negative” one that Christianity holds—that the Torah was given to Isra'el to make her ever aware of her transgressions misses the point of Paul’s argument at this point in his letter.

In a sort of combination of both BibleGateway and Stern, David Guzik, Christian commentator, adds his contribution to the Galatian dilemma:

What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions: Part of the reason the law was given was to restrain the transgression of men through clearly revealing God’s holy standard. God had to give us His standard so we would not destroy ourselves before the Messiah came. But the law is also added because of transgressions in another way; the law also excites man’s innate rebellion through revealing a standard, showing us more clearly our need for salvation in Jesus (Romans 7:5-8).[3]

True, the Torah does posses a sort of“conscious-raising” role with regard to sin, as correctly stated by Guzik and as correctly noted by Stern in Romans chapter 7, but, given the immediate context of the following complimentary verses[4], it seems more likely that this is not the Apostle’s intended meaning here.  Instead, Tim Hegg seems to uncover Sha'ul’s true, “positive” intentions with his well-written comment to his Galatians study, quoted at length here:

            The language of our present verse would indicate that we should read it positively, not negatively. "Why the Torah? It was given (added to the revelation already given in the Abrahamic covenant) to reveal the divine method of dealing with transgressions,” i.e., “for the sake of transgressions.”  Already prejudiced against the Torah, the typical Christian exegesis misses the fact that a great deal of the Torah centers upon the Tabernacle/Temple, priesthood, and sacrifices.  How were the covenant members to deal with the inevitable presence of sin in their personal and corporate lives? The Torah gives the answer: by repentance and acceptance of God’s gracious gift of forgiveness through the payment of a just penalty exemplified in the sacrifice.  It was the Torah that revealed in clear detail the method which God had provided for transgression, and it was this method—the sacrificial system and priesthood that pointed to Messiah, the ultimate sacrifice and means of eternal forgiveness.

            Thus Paul adds: "until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.”  In the Greek, this clause follows second, immediately after "it was added because of transgressions.”  The ESV has the order correct: "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.”  The Torah was given in order to reveal God’s gracious manner of dealing with transgressions, i.e., through the death of an innocent substitute.  Paul therefore immediately makes this point by adding, "until the seed would come…." Here, as often, the word “until,” achri; Hebrew, ’ad) has the primary meaning of "marker of continuous extent of time up to a point, until.”[5]  The point is that the revelation of the Torah regarding how God provides redemption in the face of transgressions has its focal point in Yeshua.  Once Yeshua had come and offered Himself as God's eternal sacrifice, the ultimate revelation to which the sacrifices pointed had been given.  This is Paul's consistent perspective: the Torah leads to Yeshua (cf. Ro 10:4 and the continuing context of Gal 3).[6]



[2] David H. Stern, The Jewish New Testament Commentary-Galatians (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p. 550.

[3] David Guzik, Galatians 3-The Christian, Law, and Living by Faith (David Guzik, 2001) http://enduringword.com/commentaries/4803.htm

[4] The presence of angels and a mediator are not pejorative marks against the Torah, as many Christian teachers presume.  Rather, in the 1st century Jewish worldview, theses elements are signs that God regarded his Torah as high and lofty enough to warrant accompaniment by angels, and to be safeguarded by the great Moshe, the one who delivered our people from Egypt.

[5] BDAG, achri.

[6] Tim Hegg, A Study of Galatians (torahresource.com, 2002), p. 121.

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