NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
By Dr. Robert R Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIANS
CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XLIII)
3:23 Now, before we found out anything about getting right with God through faith, Mosaic Law put us into protective custody. It kept us under guard until the day the Anointed One would come and set us free through faith.
The Syriac version reads this as, “the Law kept us shut up,” as in prison, the Arabic text reads the same way. This shows the state and conditions the Jews were in under the Law, and how they were treated by it. There are two ways of looking at this state of being held in isolation, so to speak: Was it for punishment or for protection?
As some scholars see it in a negative sense. Descendants of Jacob were not treated as good and righteous persons, but as persons in debt, as criminals and troublemakers. So, a prison was made, called the Law, for such persons. This was necessary because the Law saw them as sinners, as criminals convicted and condemned to die. The Law became the judge and jury by accusing, convicting, pronouncing them guilty, and sentencing them to eternal separation from God. They were detained as prisoners in a dark dungeon of hopelessness, with little expectation, if any, of being freed.
They were treated like Joseph by his brothers, thrown in a pit without food or water. There they laid as prisoners with no optimism of ever being released. This is a picture of the custom in the eastern nations in how they treated slaves and captives, who in the daytime used to grind grain at a mill in the prison yard, and at night-time were thrown down into a pit and a millstone placed over the mouth of the pit.
But other Bible scholars see it in a positive way. They were being protected from heathenism while waiting for the Messiah’s coming; who was to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, and to say to the prisoners, come forth, and to them that sit in darkness, come out into the light. So, the state of Jews being in bondage as servants differed from that of slaves. They were still God’s children tied to the Law, being kept safe until they could become children of God freed by faith. And in this uncomfortable condition, they continued, looking for the faith which would be revealed.
That is, until the Anointed One, the object of faith came, who was to be revealed or made manifest in the flesh. The one who, before His incarnation, not only rested on His Father’s shoulder but was, in large part, already hidden in the types and prophecies of the First Covenant. The prophets tried to give some hints about Him, yet did not describe His appearance in human form. That would come by the testimonies of His Father by a voice from heaven, of angels, of John the Baptizer, and others. His true nature as the Son of God would also become apparent through His teachings and miracles, and by the spirit of wisdom and omniscience revealed by His divine knowledge.
Apparently, Paul saw an excellent opportunity to illustrate the idea of Mosaic Law as being somewhat akin to a warden, and every potential believer was locked up in this garrison until they were miraculously freed. God used that time to speak to the prisoners about the coming Messiah. Fellow inmates like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and so on also spoke of a coming day of deliverance.
During their era, faith in God was expressed through the sacrifices, offerings, and ceremonial laws. But these only foreshadowed what was to take place. The writer of the Book of Hebrews explores this very well. He says that God honored that faith and credited it to them as accrued righteousness that would be validated when the Messiah, they believed in, arrived. It was, as we would say today, made retroactively.
Those imprisoned under Mosaic Law were not necessarily considered criminals but were sentenced by the Law because they were unable to produce the proper identification that showed them to be free citizens of God’s kingdom. They were, in fact, in protective custody. Yet, God in His mercy turned the confinement into homeschooling so that the coming full and glorious revelation of salvation by faith in the Messiah could be taught.
Mosaic Law was doing mankind a favor by keeping them anchored in a safe haven until they were redeemed and their ransom paid. Look at the heathen world and the mess they got into without God’s Law. Mosaic Law also condemned every other attempt to be justified in any other way by any other god. But the LORD designed a real purpose and reason for keeping mankind from finding any other possible way to get free. You see, God was planning to give humanity a pardon, not just let them out on parole.
It reminds me of how potential astronauts are taught to cope with weightlessness. They are put in containment, and the effect of weightlessness is artificially produced. Some of their training is in water tanks that give the feel of being weightless. Another training is done in simulators that reproduce one-sixth the pull of gravity. There is also the Micro-gravity Wall and Five Degrees of Freedom trainer. The one that qualifies as the closest emulator to weightlessness is the KC-135 Stratotanker that flies in a pattern similar to a car going over a small hill and produces 20 to 25 seconds of zero-gravity conditions. It is called the “trajectory maneuver.”
So, astronauts are not simply taken into space and turned loose. They must learn to cope with the sensation of floating free without the effects of gravity. So it was that God knew one day true believers would be free from the gravity of sin. But they needed training and learning how to cope without becoming disoriented and someone constantly having to rescue them because they were out of control. Don’t you think God is more pleased when we show Him how much we love Him of our own volition and by our free will, then finishing some demanding exercise or completing some difficult task to Him smile and make us proud?
No wonder when the Messiah came and spoke to a woman in Samaria, who told how some worshiped God in the mountains and some in Jerusalem, He told her emphatically that the day was not far away when true worshipers would not need the old methods of sacrifice and offerings on altars, either up in the mountains or down in the cities. Still, they will truly worship the Father in spirit, not by physical means. That’s the type of believer the Father is looking for.
Amazingly, others were not listening as carefully. To the Romans, who possessed little knowledge, experience, or involvement in the Jewish religion, Jesus was a zealot in a Jewish cult called “The Way.” To the Jewish leadership, Jesus was a rebel who spoke of doing away with their method of salvation and holy living, and they were not going to stand by and let that happen without a fight. And now, the believers in Galatia were having doubts about what constitutes true salvation and spiritual worship. No wonder Paul was so unyielding about getting the truth out.
Medieval Dutch theologian Jakob Arminius (1560-1609), was writing about whether or not the faith of Abraham by which he was justified, was faith in Jesus the Anointed One who was still to come? Arminius could find no proof of Abraham having understood the promises of God in no other way than that he should be the heir of the world. There are two factors to consider here. First, why should anyone be criticized for bringing up this point? Arminius was ready to debate anyone who challenged his right to do so. Secondly, faith in the Anointed One can be both direct and indirect. Indirect faith in the Anointed One, according to the promise of a seed who would come as Savior of the world, can be seen among the ancients of Israel put their trust in types, figures, shadows of words, and things that suggest such a thing.
On the other hand, direct faith is faith according to the Gospel of the Anointed One. There is little doubt that He is presented there as the Son of God and Savior of the world. So, the difference between the two is the differences between Jews and Christians. Here in verse twenty-three, Paul states clearly that before it was possible to be saved from the punishment of sin by putting our trust in the Anointed One, we were held under the Law. It was as if we were being kept in prison. We were kept this way until the Anointed One came.
And to the Corinthians, Paul explained that they can speak without fear because their trust is in the Anointed One. We are not like Moses. He put a covering over his face so the Jews would not see that the bright light was fading away. Even to this day, when the Law is read, there is a covering over their minds. They do not see that the Anointed One is the only one who can take that coverage away.
How true this proved to be true in the case of the Sanhedrin member named Nicodemus. When he came to Jesus to inquire about getting a better understanding of the Kingdom of God, Jesus said that it cannot happen until you are born again. It is sad to say, but now the Galatians could not see that after having their eyes opened because the Anointed One took off the veil, so to speak, that they could see His glory they are now putting the veil back so they can look at the Law instead. When Jesus came, the reason the Jews rejected Him was that He didn’t fit any of their types and figures they imagined Him to be. So how could the Galatians who now know exactly who He is, go back to putting their trust in rites, rituals, and regulations, forgetting what He looks like?
John Flavel (1628-1691), English Presbyterian pastor and puritan thinker, preaching about how Grace operates, made it abundantly clear that saving faith in the Anointed One is the only way to escape the horrible ending facing unforgiven sinners. When confronted with such a future with no power or ability to change course through one’s own effort, then self-despair from the total and absolute loss as to any way to escape or seek deliverance becomes a reality, it leads one to the cliff of despair.
Flavel then points to a message by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost about King David as an example. Despite all that happened to him, King Saul’s persecution for years, the rebellion of his son Absalom, his despicable adulterous with Bathsheba, the plagues that followed his ill-advised census, etc. Yet he never lost his trust in God. David testified: I can see the Lord before me all the time. He is on my right side so that I do not need to be troubled. I am glad, and my tongue is full of joy. My body rests in hope. You will not leave my soul in death. You will not allow Your anointed king to be destroyed. You showed me the ways of life. I will be full of joy when I see Your face.
Those are the words of a person who came out of the self-despair because they found an escape provided by God. Flavel then addresses what the Apostle Paul writes here in verse twenty-three. Paul said that before it was possible to be saved from the punishment of sin by putting one’s trust in the Anointed One, we were all held under the Law. It was as if we were locked up in prison. We were restrained this way until the Anointed One came. One can imagine a group of people on an island, locked in a small room while a terrible hurricane bears down upon them. The only way to be rescued is if a ship shows up and takes them off the island before the storm hits. Paul says here in verse twenty-four that the Law was being used to lead those who were in despair into realizing their need for a Savior.
 John 4:19-24
 John 3:1-12
 The Apology or Defense of James Arminius, Article 3, p. 244
 Acts of the Apostles, 2:25-28