I recently watched a detective show. One character sat in a restaurant next to a British spy, a senior MI-6 official, who happened to be a traitor. A gun half concealed in his pocket, he asked the Brit why he’d done it. The spy calmly ate his food and smirked at the weapon as only British spies can do.
He explained that MI-6 was populated by posh types—the sort who went to the right schools, the best universities, who had the right connections. “I came up hard,” the spy rasped, resentment smoldering in his eyes. “They let me in the club, you see, but never fully …”
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out so well for the Brit. He was murdered by the NSA, as a result of a deal brokered by the other guy, who was framed for murder by the British guy, who was secretly working for the Iranians … It’s complicated! But, we can understand the British spy’s resentment. Americans often don’t like social class as a status marker. We like to believe anyone can earn a place at the table if he works hard. These two paths, class vs. merit, seem contradictory.
And yet, in a strange way, the dominant religious context in Israel in Jesus’ day held that both social class and hard work were paths to righteousness. If you were a Jew, then you were born with immense privilege. The popular sentiment was to really hate the Gentiles as the other, the inferior. The poor MI-6 spy wouldn’t have approved. And yet, the New Testament also shows us that former Pharisees kept pushing a “obey the Mosaic Law + Jesus” formula as the path for Gentile salvation (Acts 15:1-2; Gal 2:11-21). Secular Americans might appreciate this—if you work hard, you get your reward!
In this section, Paul tells us this is all a lie. Who is a child of God? The one who is born into the right class? Or, maybe the one who works hardest? Neither. I’ll let him explain …
This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 3:23 – 4:7. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:15-22, and Galatians 4:8-20, and Galatians 4:21 – 5:12.
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.
The NIVs translation might give the impression that, before Jesus came, believers were imprisoned by the Mosaic Law. It sounds negative, harsh—a terrible burden to be endured. But, we can also translate both phrases here (“held in custody” and “locked up”) in a positive sense (see the NLT translation here). If so, we have a statement that reads something like “… we were guarded by the law—hemmed in until the faith that was to come …”
Because Paul doesn’t see the Mosaic Law as an evil thing (when properly understood), he’s probably writing in a positive sense. The Mosaic Law was a guardrail that hemmed us in until the Messiah arrived with the New and better Covenant in hand. It was a positive thing, a protective shield.
- Its ceremonial laws told us how to maintain relationship with God, teaching us about Jesus’ coming sacrifice by way of repeated, living object lessons.
- Its moral laws codified principles of right and wrong.
- Its civil laws helped maintain social order in the messiness of real life.
In Galatians 3:22 (“Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin”) we saw Paul refer to Scripture in general as teaching no hope for “righteousness by works.” But here, he’s talking about something different. He’s saying that, because we can’t be good enough to earn salvation ourselves (cp. Gal 2:21), God gave us a guardian, a watcher, a custodian to protect us while we waited for the Messiah. That custodian was the Mosaic Law.
So, the law didn’t lock us away for a millennium while we pined away for Jesus to set us free—the Psalmist certainly didn’t feel that way (“the precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart,” Ps 19:8)!
What did the law do, then?
Well, just like parents do with their own children, our Heavenly Father set boundaries and standards to govern our lives until the time came for our childhood to end. It ended when Jesus revealed Himself and His mission—“until the faith that was to come would be revealed,” (Gal 3:23). Now, “faith in God” means faith in Jesus Christ and everything He came to accomplish.
It wasn’t a new thing in the sense of being a “bolt from the blue.” No—it was simply the fulfillment of all the old promises. This is why Jesus didn’t start at the beginning (“Hi. My name is Jesus. There is only one God, and lemme tell you about Him …”). He didn’t have to explain as if He were a Martian who crash landed in a flying saucer. Instead, He assumed His audience would understand Him when He said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15).
So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
The faith about Jesus has now been revealed. The law used to be our guardian, but its time has now passed. The word for “guardian” here was often used to describe a servant who led a boy to and from school—a watcher and guide. That was the Mosaic Law’s purpose—not a vehicle for salvation, but a set of guardrails to keep our brothers and sisters from the Old Covenant headed the right way “until Christ came.” It “kept us under discipline, lest we should slip from his hands.” This guardian’s purpose was to make us long for a better way to deal with our sinfulness, a permanent solution. And, “now that this faith has come,” the law can be put away.
We’d be wrong to think “this faith” means salvation as we know it didn’t exist before, or that “justification by faith” was a new concept. This is just Paul’s shorthand way of saying “explicit faith in Jesus as the agent of salvation,” (cp. Simeon’s words in Luke 2:30). Abraham was justified by faith, too (Genesis 15:6)! But, God has filled in the details about“this faith” more and more as the bible’s storyline has gone along.
Now that Paul has clarified what the Mosaic Law’s purpose was (to be a guide, a watcher, a guardian for us), he explains the implications of the New Covenant.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
If you are in union with Christ Jesus—bonded to Him, joined together by faith—then you are a child of God. Not just you, but you and everyone else who has done the same. As we saw earlier, Paul loves this metaphorical picture of “union,” and he deploys it in many ways. Now, he asks us to picture a baptism, an immersion under water, a submersion which joins us to Christ. It’s as if, by faith, we’re fused to Christ by way of this baptism which plunges us beneath the waves and joins us to Him. Now, as we emerge from these metaphorical waters, we’re clothed with Christ Himself. He is us and we are Him. We’ve been made new. Paul will elaborate at length about this same picture in Romans 6.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In Christ’s new covenant family, this world’s ethnic, socio-cultural, and gender barriers are breached and torn down. This doesn’t mean those distinctions cease to exist in real life. It just means the corrupted value markers these distinctions represent in our fallen world have no cachet in God’s kingdom family.
- If you’re a Jew who believes Jewish people are inherently superior, then you’re wrong. This was a common prejudicial assumption by some in Jesus’ day—but no more! Babylon’s culture is upended in Christ’s kingdom family.
- If you’re a slave who believes you’re somehow less than a free brother or sister, Paul wants you to know that’s all wrong. Those class markers are obliterated—God doesn’t care about them at all.
- If you’re a woman who is told patriarchal norms are the way things are supposed to be, then Paul says this is all wrong. Those cultural prejudices are gone—men and women are equal in God’s family.
The Judaizers would have the Galatians become their (wrong) kind of Old Covenant Christian as a pre-condition for entering the family—a “Jews vs. everyone else” kind of attitude. Paul says, “No!” For good measure, he tosses the socio-cultural and gender categories into the mix and says they’re also fake preconditions. The only thing which makes you a child of God is faith in Jesus—“the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (John 6:29). And, once a child of God, the racial, economic, and gender distinctions which this world abuses so much are relativized into proper proportion.
We are all one in Christ Jesus. Our collective diversity isn’t abolished but relativized and integrated into the one mosaic that is Christ’s family. “In other words, it is a oneness, because such differences cease to be a barrier and cause of pride or regret or embarrassment, and become rather a means to display the diverse richness of God’s creation and grace, both in the acceptance of the ‘all’ and in the gifting of each.”
In short, Paul shows us a radically re-shaped social world. “The unavoidable inference from an assertion like this is, that Christianity did alter the condition of women and slaves.”
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Who is a true child of Abraham? The one who belongs to Christ—the penultimate son of Abraham (Mt 1:1). Anyone who says Jewish people are the “real” children of Abraham are wrong. This has never been a genetic identity marker, but an ideological one—the true believer is the real son or daughter of Abraham and an heir according to the promise.
What promise is this? It’s the covenant with Abraham summed up as a single “promise bundle.” Once again, here they are:
Paul is saying that anyone who belongs to Christ is a child of Abraham and therefore an heir to all these promises. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” (Gal 3:26). There is no Jew v. Gentile distinction, now or forever. Elsewhere, Paul said a mystery that has since been revealed is that “Gentiles are heirs with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus,” (Eph 3:6). Jesus has made these two groups into one, creating “one new humanity out of the two,” (Eph 3:14, 19). Gentiles are “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” (Eph 3:19).
Why is Paul saying this? Because he wants his audience to know how wrong the Judaizers are. They don’t understand what the Mosaic Law is about. It was a guardian, a guide, a guardrail to keep God’s people true until the Messiah arrived.
What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.
Jesus has now come and gone, and so the training wheels can be put away. The time set by our heavenly Father has arrived—that’s what Jesus said (“the time has come!” Mk 1:15)! Any believer is a child of Abraham, an heir according to the promise, and it’s all by trust in Jesus—not by a legalist “checklist” view of the Mosaic Law.
So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.
The analogy is easy—an underage heir might be an heir, but he doesn’t have any of the rights until he actually inherits the estate. But, when he does inherit, the guardians go away. So far, so good.
Paul says it’s similar with us before Christ saved us. But, what he says here is hard to understand. It’s difficult enough that I’ll spill a few ounces of ink spelling it out. What does the phrase behind the NIVs translation “elemental spiritual forces of the world” mean? The word means “the basic components of something.” This could refer to anything—the physical world, physics, Star Wars, a decent espresso. It could also refer to the transcendent powers that control this world. So, for example:
- Paul warns the church at Colosse to not be fooled by hollow and deceptive philosophy, “which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces,” (Col 2:8). This seems to mean the components which make up the false teaching from which they ought to run away. Or, it could refer to the demonic forces which rule this present evil age.
- The person who wrote to the letter to the Hebrews said that by now they ought to be able to teach others about the faith, but instead “you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again,” (Heb 5:12). Here, the word means the ABCs of the Gospel—the rudimentary first principles they should have mastered long ago.
- Peter said that one day, when the day of the Lord arrives, “the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire …” (2 Pet 3:10). This means the components of the natural world will melt away to make way for the new creation.
But, what does Paul mean here? Because Paul hasn’t spoken about evil spiritual forces at all in this section, it probably means the “basic components” of some kind of teaching or doctrine. He’s been talking about the Mosaic Law—warning against a false understanding of it. His audience is the Christians in the various churches in Galatia—some are Jewish and others are Gentile. He seems to be talking to both ethnic groups as one body (see Gal 4:8). So, it’s probably best to see the NIVs “elemental spiritual forces of the world” as referring to the false teaching, axioms, and principles we believed in before we come to Christ.
As we see it, the passage has reference to definite principles or axioms, according to which men lived before Christ, without finding redemption in them … And since the apostle speaks of being held in bondage under these rudiments, we shall probably have to think of the prescriptions and ordinances to which religious man outside of Christ surrendered himself, and by means of which he tried to achieve redemption.
For the Jewish people, that false teaching was that wrong view of the Mosaic Law—the idea that God gave it as a vehicle for salvation. For Gentiles, it was whatever “spirit of the age” we followed. There are many teachings like this floating about today. Be true to yourself! Live your truth! Don’t let anybody tell you who you really are, inside! You do you! The times change, but the song remains the same.
So, Paul basically says (referring here to Jewish Christians like himself who have since seen the light), “so also, when we were underage, we were in slavery to this wrongheaded ‘follow the Law to earn salvation’ idea …”
For, even though the law itself was of divine origin, the use that men made of it was wrong. Those who lived under the law in this unwarranted way lived in the same condition of bondage as that under which the Gentiles, for all their exertion, also pined.
But now, Christ has come and set the record straight. He’s the light which brings revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to Israel (Lk 2:30-31)—sweeping aside all false teaching and wrong ideas and drawing a line in the sand. He’s made these two groups into one, “for through him we both [i.e. both groups] have access to the Father by one Spirit,” (Eph 2:18).
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.
The time came. Jesus arrived on Christmas morning. He was born under the authority of the Mosaic Law to rescue us from the law’s curse. The word “redeem” here means liberation from captivity in a slave market context. The idea is something like “rescued us from slavery for a really steep price.” Earlier, Paul said Christ had “redeemed us from the curse of the law,” (Gal 3:13). He means the same thing here. Christ came to set us free—all of us, Jew and Gentile—from the penalty of capital punishment that the Mosaic Law imposed because of our sinfulness. Jesus did this so we’d be adopted as sons and daughters in God’s family. Again, adoption has nothing to do with who your parents are. It has to do with faith in Jesus.
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
If you’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit, you’re a son or daughter of the King. You’re not a “slave” or underage heir waiting for title to the estate (see the analogy at Gal 4:1-2). Now you’re God’s child. The adoption metaphor is beautiful—an adopted child isn’t born into a family; she’s simply brought into it because the parents decide to show love. This is what God has done with we who are His children—we’re each adopted from Satan’s orphanage. And, because you’re His child, you’re also an heir—no matter who you are or where you’re from.
The Judaizers are peddling such a different message! They say, “do this, do that, follow these traditions, and you’ll be saved!” That’s why Paul called it “a different gospel,” (Gal 1:6). Our MI-6 spy might be confused, but he’s dead so I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s not by merit or class that you enter God’s family. It’s simply by faith.
 Galatians 3:22 refers to the Scripture as being condemnatory, but in Galatians 3:23 Paul depicts the Mosaic Law as supervisory (Richard Longenecker, Galatians, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 41 (Waco: Word, 1990), p. 145). This observation is more inspired by Longenecker than a direct attribution—he saw Galatians 3:22 as referring to the Mosaic Law (Galatians, p. 144), whereas I disagree and believe it is Scripture in general.
 Bengel, Gnomen, p. 4:30.
 The Greek is a purpose clause (ἵνα ἐκ πίστεως δικαιωθῶμεν), explaining why the guardian was what it was.
 If you’re interested in more about this attitude and how it shaped the actions of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day and the time period from the Book of Acts, see Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1876), ch. 2 (https://bit.ly/3Y4hmxH). There are more up to date and scholarly books available, but this one is available for free to anyone with an internet connection, is short, and is accurate.
 I mean “patriarchy” in this sense: “The predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural values and norms favouring men,” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “patriarchy,” noun, no. 3).
 Paul’s statement has obvious social implications for how Christian men and women ought to relate to one another in marriage, in the New Covenant family, and in a Babylon society. However, Paul does not elaborate on that here, so neither will I.
 James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1993), p. 208.
 Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition., vol. 2 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 343.
 See (1) Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker (et al), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), s.v. “στοιχεῖον,” p. 946, (2) Henry George Liddell (et al.), A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 1647; (3) Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 357.
 “… certainly what Paul has primarily in view here is the law, and that as an instrument of spiritual bondage,” (Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatian, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988; Kindle ed.), KL 2263).
 Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), pp. 153-154. See also (1) Henriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, p. 157, and (2) Hovey, Galatians, p. 52.
 Ridderbos, Galatians, p. 154.