Summary of the text:
The Law: The ambiguous place of the law in Christian thought can be seen historically in battles between antinomians and legalists, each side finding New Testament support, and the present text would seem to provide ammunition to the antinomian (literally means “no law”, aka do whatever you want) side, or at least to those who would desire a sharp wedge between law and Gospel (although even Luther in his commentary on this passage described the law as a “good schoolmaster,” who was “only too anxious to drive us to Christ”).
The law in Galatians 3 assumes an intermediary position between God’s promise and the fulfillment of that promise in Christ. It also takes something of a middle position between sin and faith, which can account for the decidedly mixed appraisal that Paul gives to the law—when paired with sin (as in 3:19), the law is the protector; but when paired with faith (as in v. 23), the law’s limitations are revealed.
It is noteworthy that Paul uses that same word, “imprisoned,” to describe the action of the law (v. 23) and of sin (3:22). And, indeed, there is ambiguity also in various other English terms that convey this action—“in custody” and “guarding” can mean a benevolent protection or holding a prisoner captive. “Keep watch over” can be an act of sweet devotion (“Someone to Watch Over Me”) or the activity of a creepy stalker (“I’ll Be Watching You”).
Our daily experience is full of good things that become toxic when we make them ultimate, and useful intermediaries that begin to stake too great a claim on our devotion. Paul’s discussion of the law can help to make sense of that dynamic.
There is also an opportunity here to discuss the different uses of the law. Paul does not say that the law is now of no use whatsoever, but that “we are no longer subject to a paidagogon” (v. 25). Drawing in the law’s “third use” (norming the Christian life) can mitigate against the passage’s antinomian whiffs.
Word Study: paidagogos
The English cognate “pedagogue” is a bit misleading (a good reminder not to automatically equate Greek words with later cognates). Whereas a “pedagogue” describes one who is actually teaching (or perhaps attempting to teach but actually putting students to sleep) and “pedagogy” describes (without the same suggestion of dullness) a method for teaching, a paidagogos in its most basic sense was one who escorted a child to school—more a guide than an instructor.
One might think of Jiminy Cricket attempting to usher Pinocchio to school (and the law can also function as an external conscience, though you would be better off drawing on Romans 3:20 for that connection). Or you could imagine a crossing guard or a school bus driver.
Quite a number of English terms have been used to try to capture this aspect of the law, some of which might suggest too didactic a function, as “schoolmaster” (KJV), “tutor” (Darby), and “teacher” (CEV). “Guardian” (NIV, NASB), “custodian” (RSV), and “disciplinarian” (NRSV) convey better the sense of paidagogos, the last option highlighting the added responsibility of monitoring the charge’s conduct while en route. The most important piece to communicate is that this was an instrumental function, and not an end in itself. The law directs us to Christ.
Doubly Adopted!: While we don’t get the word “adoption” (huiothesian) until chapter 4, we have the concept clearly laid out in this preceding pericope. And Paul presents the logic of not merely a single adoption (as extraordinary as that would be)—but of a double adoption! As we are “in Christ,” we experience an adoption that corresponds to each of Christ’s natures.
In Christ Jesus, through faith, we are “children of God” (v. 26); and, as we belong to Christ, we are “Abraham’s offspring” (v. 29). The benefits of this double adoption are that we are heirs of the promises made to Abraham (and to his singular seed, Christ; 3:16, 29), and we can approach God as our own loving Father (4:6). Be sure not to express our adoption as “children of God” in a way, however, that could suggest that some of Christ’s divine nature rubs off on us in the process; we have in common with Christ only one of his natures, even as we experience adoptive benefits of both.
A Range of Prepositions: Paul uses a variety of prepositions (and implied prepositional relationships) here to depict the mystery of our union with Christ. We are “in Christ” (ev, vv. 26, 28). We are baptized “into Christ” (eis, v. 27). In addition, while the prepositions aren’t used in the Greek, the image of being clothed with Christ (v. 27) conveys the idea of putting “on” Christ, and the genitive of possession in v. 25 carries with it the notion of being “of” Christ or belonging “to” Christ. A single prepositional idea is insufficient to express the magnitude of this miraculous reality. A setting of the famous prayer attributed to St. Patrick would be appropriate for the service should you focus on this aspect of the text.
(…“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left…”)
Questions of Identity: Take care not to draw too much out of (or, rather, project too much onto) verse 28. Paul’s categorical rejection of categories in this narrow context has made this a favorite proof text for Christians on different ends of the political spectrum. One on the right might use “there is no longer Jew or Greek” to denounce discussions of racial justice as unbiblical “identity politics,” while one on the left might take “there is no longer male and female” to support the claim that all notions of gender are merely social constructs. Instead, develop this (still revolutionary—in fact, more so!) statement within the broader context of Paul’s argument.
1) While our adoption does not eradicate completely other aspects of our identity (think of the worship offered by every tribe, language, people, and nation in Revelation 5), it does radically reorient this diversity within the more central reality of being in Christ. That is the core, the center of who we are. This reordering has ramifications also for our interpersonal relationships, the human tendency to foster an “us and them” dynamic being resisted.
2) Removing these distinctions within the context of a discussion of inheritance also narrows the scope of the question to who can be a rightful heir. With the old legal impediments to inheritance removed—being a foreigner, being a slave, being a daughter—all those who are in Christ have an equal claim to God’s promises.
Opportunities to teach broader interpretive principles
This short passage contains two issues—the law and our identity—that risk being misread out of context…we are “no longer subject” to the law!…“there is no longer male and female”! This presents an opportunity to employ and explain the “analogy of Scripture,” whereby one text can be used to interpret another. You might draw in other scriptures that speak of the continuing utility of the law and of the diversity within the body of Christ, holding these texts together with this one to create a fuller picture.
Darren Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary. A graduate of UC Davis (BA in classics), Princeton Seminary (MDiv), and Calvin Seminary (PhD in historical theology), he lives in Temple City, CA, with his wife Ashley, two young children Charlie and Carter, and step-cat Fanny.
Darren is the author of Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics: Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). He has also been published in Jonathan Edwards Studies, Anglican & Episcopal History, and Word & World, and he contributed multiple entries to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).
After Christ and his family, Darren most loves crossword puzzles and Scrabble, Zion National Park, good coffee, passion fruit, and the hapless Sacramento Kings.
The image of “adoption” tells us that our relationship with God is based completely on a legal act by the Father. You don’t “win” a father, and you don’t “negotiate” for a parent. Adoption is a legal act on the part of the father — it is very expensive and costly only for him. There is nothing the son does to win or earn the status. It is simply received.
Timothy Keller, Romans 8-16 for You, The Good Book Company.
Key Sermon Illustration
We Need to Hear Our Names
In his excellent book Run with Horses, Eugene Peterson reminds us of many of the ways in which modern life de-personalizes and degrades us. We become a number and not a name. We are valued for what we do not who we are. This little excerpt is a powerful reminder that our worth and value come from God’s children, given names of significance that, in part, shape our identities.
If I am frequently and authoritatively treated impersonally, I begin to think of myself the same way. I consider myself in terms of how I fit into the statistical norms; I evaluate myself in terms of my usefulness; I assess my worth in response to how much others want me or don’t want me. In the process of going along with such procedures I find myself defined by a label, squeezed into a role, functioning at the level of my social security number. It requires assertive, lifelong effort to keep our names in front…
No one can assess my significance by looking at the work that I do. No one can determine my worth by deciding the salary they will pay me. No one can know what is going on in my mind by examining my school transcripts. No one can know me by measuring me or weighing me or analyzing me. Call my name.
Taken from Run with the Horses by Eugene H. Peterson. ©2009, 2019 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com