Why the Law was Given, and by Whom

At the beginning of the story of salvation, God made promises to Abraham.  These promises were really a reaffirmation of the purpose for which humanity had been created in the first place before the coming of rebellion, sin, and death.  The story of Abraham begins in Genesis 12, following on the three rebellions, the three “falls” of Genesis 1-11.  Once mortal life ending in death had achieved its purpose, Christ would defeat it and release humanity from its hold.  In the same event, his rising, he would also defeat the evil powers and principalities who had dominated the nations since Babel.  Death and the hostile powers stand as opposed to humanity’s destiny in Christ as spoken to Abraham.  Those promises, therefore, included the promise that his seed, Christ, would be victorious over them so that Abraham’s descendants would become glorified sons of God.  Both of these enemies, however, stood external to and opposed to humanity.  They ruled over and enslaved him.  A third enemy, however, posed an ongoing enmity and threat, namely sin.  Sin, as exemplified by Cain, is both the means by which death and the hostile powers enslave humanity and a continuous, ongoing rebellion by man against God.  Sin materially corrupts and destroys the human person and the creation around him.  Sin is a sort of anti-theosis.  Sin makes human persons less human, less like God, and brings shame and the curse rather than glory and blessing.

St. Paul directly answers the question as to how the ongoing corruption of sin was dealt with.  It was dealt with through the giving of the Torah.  This answer may be surprising to many contemporary people who have been taught, falsely, that St. Paul somehow opposed, set aside, or abolished the Torah and its commandments.  The truth, however, is quite the opposite.  St. Paul does not abolish the Torah but rather establishes it (Rom 3:31).  In the third chapter of his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul explains the function of the Torah, why it was given and by whom, and how it continues to function in the life of the Church.

St. Paul identifies the promises made to Abraham with the gospel of Jesus of Christ (Gal 3:8).  Salvation is the glorification of the saints as partakers of the divine nature.  But the promises to Abraham also include that Christ would accomplish this through his incarnation and the defeat of the hostile powers whom the saints in glory, the descendants of Abraham, would displace.  Everyone who hears the gospel of Jesus Christ, the report of his identity and the victory of his glorious resurrection and enthronement and responds with faithfulness and loyalty is the descendant of Abraham and heir of these promises (v. 7-9).  Key to St. Paul’s understanding, however, is that it is Christ as the unique seed of Abraham who achieves these things for all of Abraham’s faithful descendants (v. 16).

Because the apostle consistently sees a direct continuity between the promises made to Abraham and his response in faithfulness and loyalty (cf. Rom 4:1-16), the Torah then has the appearance of a sort of interruption or interjection.  This has led to a modern line of interpretation that sees St. Paul’s project as removing this interruption and restoring a more original state of relationship with God.  This corresponds to the interpretation that the covenant with Moses was in some way a bad thing.  St. Paul says repeatedly and avowedly, however, that the Torah is a good and pure thing (eg. Rom 7:12; 1 Tim 1:8).

Why, then, the law?  St. Paul himself asks this question rhetorically and then proceeds to answer it (Gal 3:19).  The law was added because of transgressions.  The commandments given to Moses were given as a direct response to human sinfulness and the domination of sin and corruption in the creation.  The patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-50, in addition to displaying the faithfulness of Yahweh to his people as he drew near to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve patriarchs, also display their consistent lapses into sin with horrible consequences in corruption and death within their own families.  In much the same way that the book of Judges reveals the need for the Davidic king, the patriarchal narratives reveal the need for the rest of the Torah.  The sinfulness of Cain’s line and its corruption of the earth would culminate in the cleansing of creation by the flood.  But immediately afterward, Ham would commit an act of utmost immorality and rebellion.  The sinfulness of man culminated again at Babel.  Though Yahweh is creating a new people through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they are not free from the corrupting influence of sin and its effects.

The Torah, then, was given as a response to human sinfulness.  St. Paul also identifies the one who gave it.  He preserves the tradition that the Torah was given through angels (Gal 3:19; cf. Heb 2:2).  He also, however, refers to it being given by a mediator or intermediary.  While one might be tempted to conclude that this is a reference to Moses, v. 20 makes it clear that it is not.  St. Paul’s need to reassert the oneness of God demonstrates that St. Paul is here, rather, thinking of Christ.  This is in keeping with the presentation of St. Stephen in Acts 7:38.  Moses stood in the assembly, the divine council, in the wilderness and spoke to the Angel of Yahweh who delivered to him the Torah.  This understanding of the mode of reception of the Torah is consistently found in Jewish literature of the time as well as in the fathers.  St. Irenaeus, for example, states, “But one and the same householder produced both covenants, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke with both Abraham and Moses” (Adv. Haeresies, 4.9.1).  The Torah is, therefore, for St. Paul additional to the promises to Abraham and related to a different purpose, but proceeds from the same Christ and therefore one cannot be opposed to the other.

Likewise, St. Paul is clear that the Torah is not a sort of amendment to the existing promises to Abraham nor an alteration of that covenant (Gal 3:15).  Nor does it replace those promises with something new.  The Torah does not add new terms for the fulfillment of the promises, nor change the content of those promises (v. 17-18).  As has already been established, St. Paul does not see the law as directed toward overcoming the power of death or the defeat of the principalities and powers (v. 21).  These will happen through Christ, the unique seed of Abraham.  The law functions in reference to human sinfulness and the corruption which it produces.

Exactly how the law functions over against sin and corruption is seen through St. Paul’s understanding of the time period of the Mosaic covenant.  The law, says the apostle, served as a guardian of the people of God until Christ came (v. 23-24).  The written code of the Torah imprisoned everything under sin (v. 22).  This included us (v. 23).  The entire law is aimed at identifying, preventing, and containing sin.  The commandments delineate what sin is.  The penalties of the law are aimed at undoing the damage and corruption which it causes.  The ritual life of Israel and later Judah was aimed entirely at maintaining the purity of sacred space so that Yahweh, the holy God could dwell there and of the people so that they could draw near to him.  It served, from Moses to Christ, as a sin management system for the people of God to allow for repentance and restoration.  It did this until Christ, through his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement made us sons of God just as Abraham had been promised (v. 26).

St. Paul understands Christ to have fulfilled the Torah by having fulfilled its purpose, dealing with sin and corruption once and for all.  He describes this in Galatians 3 in terms of an eschatological Day of Atonement.  The Torah was concerned with controlling the curse, the consequence of man’s sin in creation (Gen 3:17; 4:11).  In the annual Day of Atonement of Leviticus 16, both sin itself and the corruption which it produced were dealt with on a repeated basis.  They were managed.  But the way in which the Torah also identified sin meant that all were constantly struggling against sin and falling under this curse (Gal 3:10).

In the Day of Atonement ritual, two goats were selected.  One was given by lot to Azazel.  This demonic spirit was seen to dwell in the wilderness, the realm of death, and to also be the leader of the rebellious angels who had corrupted Cain’s line.  The sins of the people were placed upon this goat by the high priest.  This goat was now seen to be accursed.  The one who led it out into the wilderness was considered unclean because of his contact with it.  It was sent out into the wilderness to return sin to its source.  St. Paul sees Christ fulfilling this function once and for all.  In this way, through the mode of his death, the cross, Christ became a curse for us (v. 13).  It is in this sense, bearing our sins in his body (1 Pet 2:24) that Christ condemned sin in his flesh (Rom 8:3).  This is why Christ dies outside the city (Heb 13:12).  Christ is not punished for these sins as if they were crimes.  Rather, rejected by his own people he bears their sins to the realm of death and returns them to their source, the devil and his angels.

St. Paul also here sees Christ fulfilling the function of the second goat.  This second goat, the goat for Yahweh, was sacrificed and its blood was taken to purify the physical sanctuary, the tabernacle, and later the temple.  Christ’s blood, however, purifies the entirety of creation again, once and for all.  As St. Paul wrote his Epistle to the Galatians, the temple in Jerusalem still stood.  It was divided into concentric courts, for women, for the Gentiles, for the priests based on distinctions between clean and unclean.  Christ’s sacrifice, however, has cleansed the creation such that now all who are in Christ, who have been purified by baptism, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, are able to come to the holy place together (Gal 3:27-28).

St. Paul’s understanding, then, frames the ongoing function of the Torah within the Church.  Christ has fulfilled the purpose of the Torah in that a system for managing sin is no longer necessary and all who are in Christ are recipients of the promises to Abraham (v. 29).  We are already sons of God and therefore heirs and fellow heirs with Christ (Rom 8:14-17).  This brings to us the downpayment of these promises, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:14).  The Spirit does not replace the law but rather writes it upon our hearts (Ezek 11:19; 36:26; Jer 31:33; Heb 8:10).   The atonement of Christ purifies us to allow the Spirit to dwell within us and perform this function (Gal 3:14).

The Torah, then, in its entirety, continues to operate within the Church as fulfilled in Christ.  It continues to identify sin and wickedness.  The commandments continue to teach us the way which leads to life.  The keeping of the commandments continues to be the means by which we demonstrate faithfulness and loyalty to Christ (John 14:15).  Though Christ has accomplished his victory once and for all, we as human persons come to participate in this victory in time and space.  We struggle with sin and repentance and healing in real-time.  We continue to draw near to the Triune God in worship, though now with knowledge rather than ignorance (John 4:23-24).

This application to human persons, namely justification, will be the subject of next week’s post.

4 comments:

  1. Father, I am a new reader of your blog and I have found much here to encourage me in the faith. In fact, what I read here has begun to allow me to connect to the teachings of the Church in a deeper and more full way. You explicate the Scriptures in a way that takes them out of the linear and academic and re-enlivens them for me. It also gives me a way into the Scriptures for myself that I have never had before.

    Thank you.

  2. The wealth of information in the last several posts is remarkably enriching.
    Thank you so very much, Father Stephen.

  3. Father, this reflection on Galatians 3 makes more sense of the text than any commentary or teaching I have ever read or heard. Thank you!

    It does lead me to a question, however, regarding John 1:17. John speaks of the law being given through Moses; but grace and truth came through Christ. John seems to juxtapose the giving of the law by Moses with the grace and truth given by Christ, which would seem to suggest the law was not given by Christ.

    Could you comment on the this distinction in John and Paul?

    1. Thank you for this question because what you cite here is a very common misperception fueled by many English translations. A couple of notes on John 1:17 in the original Greek. First, John 1:17 begins with the word ‘because’, which links it back to the preceding verse(s) in terms of meaning. It is telling us why something else is true. John 1:16 begins with the same word, ‘oti’. This takes us back to 1:15, in which St. John the Forerunner identifies Christ as the one who comes after him, but is greater than him. John 1:16 is then telling us why he who came after is nonetheless greater, because from Christ’s ‘fulness’ we have all received ‘grace upon grace’. John 1:17, then, stands parallel to 1:16 in the construction of the verse. St. John has already introduced in 1:16 the idea of Christ as fulfillment, as the one who fills to overflowing, and described that fulfillment as receiving abundant grace over and above already received grace. English translations often insert the word ‘but’ in the middle of 1:17 between the law being given through Moses and grace and truth coming through Christ. In Biblical Greek, there are two main words for ‘but’. One is a ‘hard’ but, indicating a definite contrast. The other is a ‘soft’ but, used to join two non-parallel clauses. Neither words is found in John 1:17 so the word ‘but’ should not be inserted. John 1:17 further explains what the ‘grace after grace’ of v. 16 refers to. The law is given, and the word ‘grace’ used in these verses has a primary meaning of ‘gift’. Meaning the first clause of v. 17 is establishing the law as a gift, then grace and truth come through Jesus Christ. Grace after grace as Christ fills the law, and its purpose, to overflowing.

      There is a contrast in v. 17, but it is brought out through the verbs in the two clauses. The law was given through Moses. Moses was not its author but its recipient. Grace and truth, to take the verb very literally, ‘come into being’ or ‘come to exist’ through Jesus Christ. The language here presupposes the idea that Christ is the author of the law and that, as 1:18 will state directly, the God to whom Moses spoke face to face on the mountain is Christ himself.

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