On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by ‘added law’

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Galatians 3:19 records how the apostle Paul noted that there was an added law which was to last “until the Offspring should come to whom the promise had been made”. For believers, it is important to understand what that addition actually was, and what there was before that. This article takes a closer look at that passage and matter.

The law which came 430 years later.

In his letter to the saints in Galatia, the apostle Paul wrote about an “added law” which came 430 years after the covenant which the Lord had made with Abraham.

Galatians 3:16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. 17 My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, [a] so as to nullify the promise. [a] 18 For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise. 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. (NRSV, note signs added)

a In verse 17, the words “covenant previously ratified by God” and “promise” refer to the covenant which the Lord had made with Abraham, 430 years before the Old Covenant.

So, verses 17 and 19 mention an “added law”. Exactly what was the apostle talking about?

Some writers have claimed that the addition consisted of “extra rituals” that were added to the Old Covenant. Some have claimed that the burnt offerings were such an addition. But, that is not correct. The burnt offerings were not an addition to the Old Covenant; they were a part of it from the beginning. Regarding that matter, read Exodus 20:24 to Exodus 24:6, all through.

Now, there was a change to the Old Covenant, soon after it had been made by Mount Sinai. This was because of the golden calf provocation. The core of that change was that the Israelites’ first-born sons who were to serve the Lord, were replaced by the men of the tribe of Levi. But, that was not an “addition” but only a change in regard to who was to perform the burnt offerings and so on. Again: The concept “added rituals” is not correct.

In order to understand what the apostle Paul actually meant and referred to when he wrote about a law that had been added, Galatians 3:17 and 19, one must carefully consider the preceding verses. They will be quoted and discussed below, but first, a note regarding the word “law”.

In the Scriptures, the phrase “the Law” can refer to different things. Sometimes it refers to the Old Testament section which consists of the five books of Moses, but it can even refer to the Old Covenant.

The wider context in Paul’s letter to Galatia indicates that some of the disciples in that area had in one way or another begun to observe the Old Covenant’s rules and rituals, or that someone was trying to make them do that. That is the subject the apostle was discussing. We read:

Galatians 3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (NASB77)

Paul used strong language. The Greek text of verse 1 shows that he used such words as anoêtoi (anoêtos), “without a mind”, “senseless”, “stupid”, and ebaskenen (baskainô), “bewitched”.

Let us consider those verses in their context. Make sure to read all of the following scripture-quote, slowly and with thought. When one does that, it becomes easier to see what verse 19 refers to.

Galatians 3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 6 Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “all the nations shall be blessed in you.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. 10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.” 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “the righteous man shall live by faith.” 12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “he who practices them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. 15 Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 17 What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, [b] does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, [c] so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. (NASB77, note signs added)

b Verse 17, “the Law which came 430 years later” = the Old Covenant which was made by Mount Sinai.

c Verse 17, “a covenant previously ratified by God” = the covenant which the Lord had made with Abraham (including the promises), 430 years before the Old Covenant.

In other words, the 430 years of verse 17 were the time-period between the event when the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, and the making of the Old Covenant at Sinai.

For those who are able to read the above-quoted verses 1–18 without prejudice, the whole matter should be quite clear. Some people in Galatia had been “bewitched”, verse 1. That is, someone had deceived them, in regard to the matter of the two covenants, old and new. That is why the apostle wrote to them, “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” – and then he continued as is recorded in verse 3 and onward; see that passage as it is quoted above.

A note: This matter must not be misunderstood in any way. The New Testament makes it clear that much more was expected, in the way of just, righteous living, of the saints [d] who were under the New Covenant, than what had been demanded of the Israelites when they were under the Old Covenant. But, new-covenantal righteousness is not defined by the rules of the Old Covenant. The article ega086.htm has some notes on what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.

d In this article, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.

A side-note: Verses 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 14 mention faith. Here, it can be good to know more about the word and concept “faith” in the New Testament. The article eba098.htm has some notes on that matter.

Verse 19: The Old covenant was to last ‘until the Offspring would come to whom the promise had been made’.

A note: Abraham is mentioned nine times in that letter. Eight times in chapter three, and one in chapter four. The latter records how the apostle Paul wrote an allegory which included Abraham’s two wives and their sons – “throw out the slavewoman and her son”, Galatians 4:30. This was regarding the two covenants, old and new. There is more on Galatians 4:21–31, later in this article.

Regarding Galatians 3:17–18 and Abraham and the law which came “430 years later” – the ‘original deal’ was the covenant which the Lord made with Abraham (including the promises). The addition which came 430 years later, consisted of the covenant which was made by Mount Sinai. And again, that addition was to last “until the Offspring should come to whom the promise had been made”. Verse 19:

Galatians 3:19 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. (ESV01)

So, the Old Covenant was added because of transgressions, and it was to last “until the Offspring would come to whom the promise had been made”. That is, until Jesus came. When he came and then made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, it became possible to launch the New Covenant. And so, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and was set aside.

A note: Some people might have problems with the fact that the Old Covenant was only a temporary arrangement. This is because many translators have put into certain Old Testament passages wordings which make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”. The article eca136.htm sorts out that matter.

Verse 17 – what is it that was not annulled?

The apostle noted that the added law could not annul the agreement which had been made a long time earlier.

Galatians 3:17 And I say this: the law, which came 430 years later, [e] does not revoke a covenant that was previously ratified by God, [f] so as to cancel the promise. (HCSB, note signs added)

e “The law, which came 430 years later” = the Old Covenant which was made by Mount Sinai.

f “A covenant that was previously ratified by God” = the covenant which the Lord had made with Abraham (including the promises), 430 years before the Old Covenant.

Clarification: The “Law” (the Old Covenant) was in certain ways conflict with the promises which the Lord had given to Abraham. But again, the Old Covenant was only a temporary arrangement, and so, it did not annul the promises or make them void.

The promises were actually directed to Jesus. We read:

Galatians 3:16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. (NRSV)

But, even the saints became sharers of those promises, together with Jesus, because they were joined to him in a union which was in many ways similar to a marriage.

The New Covenant has a connection with the promises to Abraham. Those promises were not annulled. And, the New Covenant is lasting and permanent. – In the below-quoted 2 Corinthians 3:11, the words “what was set aside” refer to the Old Covenant, while the phrase “the permanent” refers to the New Covenant:

2 Corinthians 3:10 Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory; 11 for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory! (NRSV)

Some notes.

A number of writers have caused people to believe that the New Covenant is not really new but merely a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. But, that is not so. The article eca098.htm has more on this.

Many writers have talked about “the spirit of the law”, as if the Old Covenant was still in force but now in a “spiritual” form. But, the Bible does not contain such expressions as “the spirit of the law” or “the letter of the law”. The wordings in 2 Corinthians 3:6 are “the letter” and “the Spirit”. The phrase “the letter” refers to the Old Covenant with its written rules, while the phrase “the Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant. The article eca117.htm has more on this.

Earlier in this article, it was noted that the mention of an “added law” in Galatians 3:19 refers to the Old Covenant. Many people have been caused to think that the Decalogue was something separate and not a part of the Old Covenant. But, the facts are that it was an integral and inseparable part of that covenant. Here is one of the passages which mention the Decalogue, in a translation which correctly echoes the meaning of the Hebrew text:

Exodus 34:28 And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words. (JPS1917, highlighting added)

“The words of the covenant, the ten words” – that refers to the covenant which was made by Mount Sinai. The article eca058.htm has more on this, and on the matter of the Decalogue in general.

Important: These things must not be misunderstood in any way. The New Testament makes it clear that much more was expected in the way of just, righteous living, of the saints who were under the New Covenant, than was ever demanded of the Israelites when they were under the Old Covenant. The article ega086.htm has some notes on what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.

What about Galatians 3:21?

What should we make of this verse:

Galatians 3:21 Is the Law then against the promises of God? Let it not be said! For if a law had been given which could have given life, indeed righteousness would have been out of Law. (MKJV)

Casual bible-readers who view that verse out of its context, or in certain translations, might come to think that the apostle Paul meant that the rules of the Old Covenant are in harmony with the New Covenant, and that they still apply. But, those who have studied the New Testament in more depth, have probably noticed that Paul taught that the Old Covenant had come to its end, and that the saints were not under its rules. So again, what should we make of that verse? Let us consider this matter.

In verse 21, the word which many bible-translators have rendered as “against” or “opposed to”, is in the Greek text the preposition kata.

A check of how the apostle Paul used that word elsewhere in that letter, shows that most often, he used it in the meaning “according to”. So, should kata be translated that way, even in the case of Galatians 3:21? That is, “Then, was the Law according to the promises of God?” Maybe, or maybe not. Read on:

Some might say that when kata was followed by a word in the genitive form, it meant “against”. Now, that “grammar rule” was probably created a long time after Paul wrote that letter, but if we nevertheless take it that the preposition kata in the case of Galatians 3:21 means “against” – “Is the law therefore against the promises of God?” – in that case, we can assume that Paul was in a rhetoric manner asking whether the Old Covenant was “against” the promises in the meaning that it annulled them. And, the answer to that question is that no, the Old Covenant did not and could not annul the promises. For, the Old Covenant was only a temporary arrangement, in waiting for the New Covenant which is permanent.

The context shows that the apostle likened the Old Covenant to a “child tutor”, Greek paidagôgos, verse 24. And, he wrote as a Jew who had been under the Old Covenant.

Galatians 3:23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (NASB77)

Verse 25, “we are no longer under a tutor”. Simply: The Jewish saints were no longer under the Old Covenant and its rules. When Jesus the prophesied Offspring of Abraham, verse 19, came and then made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, that made it possible to launch the New Covenant. When that happened, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and came to its end.

And again: The New Testament shows that much more was expected of the saints who were under the New Covenant, in the way of just, righteous living, than was ever demanded of the Israelites when they were under the Old Covenant. But, new-covenantal righteousness is not defined by the rules of the Old Covenant.

Galatians 4:21 – 5:1, the allegory regarding the two covenants, old and new.

Keep in mind this passage:

Galatians 3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (NASB77)

As you can see, the apostle used strong language – “who has bewitched you?”

In the following chapter, we read:

Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, do you not understand the law? (NET)

What did Paul mean?

That verse contains one of Paul’s many word-plays. Clarification:

As was noted earlier, the phrase “the Law” could be used as a name for the Old Covenant, but also as a name for the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. In the first part of the above-quoted Galatians 4:21, the phrase “the Law” refers to the Old Covenant, but in its last part it refers to the Pentateuch. Paul asked those who wanted to be “under the Law” (under the Old Covenant and its rules), “Don’t you understand the Law?” That is, “Don’t you not understand what Moses’ books say?”

And then, he quoted from the first book of Moses the story of Abraham’s two wives and their offspring. He explained that in it, there could be seen an allegory regarding the two covenants, old and new.

Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, do you not understand the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 But one, the son by the slave woman, was born by natural descent, while the other, the son by the free woman, was born through the promise. 24 These things may be treated as an allegory, for these women represent two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai bearing children for slavery; this is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar represents Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written: ‘Rejoice, O barren woman who does not bear children; break forth and shout, you who have no birth pains, because the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than those of the woman who has a husband.’ 28 But you, brothers and sisters, are children of the promise like Isaac. 29 But just as at that time the one born by natural descent persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so it is now. 30 But what does the scripture say? ‘Throw out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the son of the free woman. 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman but of the free woman. Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. (NET)

Verse 30: The apostle Paul cited the words of Sarah, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10, ESV01.)

Paul used that allegory for helping people to understand that the Old Covenant had come to its end and was a thing of the past.

In the above-quoted verse 21, the words “Do you not understand the Law?” were directed to the “foolish Galatians” (see the earlier quoted Galatians 3:1 and 3) who had been “bewitched” so that they wanted to be “under the Law”, 4:21. Someone had tried to make them follow the rules of the Old Covenant which are recorded in “the Law” (the five books of Moses). Paul then asked those people if they did not understand what the Law (the books of Moses) actually says, and then he proceeded to show what it does say, in regard to Hagar and Sarah and their offspring. He showed that in the fate of those two women and their offspring, there could be seen an allegory concerning the two covenants, old and new.

Here, one must keep in mind that the New Covenant is not an “modification” of the Old Covenant. The New Covenant is something new – but of course, it can be said that for a part, it is based on the promises that were given to Abraham 430 years before the Old Covenant was made by Mount Sinai.

The article eca098.htm has more on the fact that the New Covenant is not a “continuation” or “modification” of the Old Covenant.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm

What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → ega086.htm

What does the word “faith” mean? What is true faith? → eba098.htm

On the word olam in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Many bible-versions render it in ways that make it seem that the Old Covenant was to be “everlasting”, but that is not correct. → eca136.htm

The New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. → eca098.htm

Many talk about “the spirit of the law” versus “the letter of the law”, but those expressions are not found in the Bible. On the meaning of the phrases “the Spirit” and “the letter” in 2 Corinthians 3:6–8 and Romans 7:6. → eca117.htm

On the Decalogue, “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. → eca058.htm

Other articles on the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → Look under the heading “Covenant, covenants” on the page key12.htm.


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