Galatians 3:15-20: Abraham and the Covenant

Galatians 3:15‑20  •  17 min. read  •  grade level: 6
“Brothers, I speak according to man [or, I use a comparison drawn from human affairs, or, I argue from the practice of men]; even a man’s covenant having been ratified, no one sets (it) aside, or adds provisions to (it). But the promises were spoken to Abraham, and to his seed: he does not say, And to seeds, as concerning many, but as concerning one, and to thy seed, which is Christ. Now I say this, a covenant ratified beforehand by God, the law, having come four hundred and thirty years after, does not deprive of authority, so as to make the promise without efficacy. For if the inheritance (is) on the principle of law, it is no longer on the principle of promise; but God has freely given (it) in grace to Abraham by means of promise. Why then the law? It was added for the sake of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made, having been appointed by means of angels in (the) hand of a mediator. But a mediator is not on behalf of one, but God is one.” ch. 3:15-20.
“Brothers!” There is something very tender in this word. It comes right from Paul’s heart, and from this verse onwards in the epistle we will often find it. I think Paul uses it eight times, besides the time he used it in ch. 1:11, saying again and again, “Brothers, brothers, brothers” as though he would call them back from the path where they had gone astray. Ch. 6 begins and ends with this word “brothers,” and the last word in the epistle (except “Amen”) is “brothers.” It is very touching to see the severity and the love thus twined together.
Paul now uses a common example in daily life to illustrate what he wishes to teach the Galatians. If a covenant is made between two persons, and each puts his seal to this covenant so that it is fully ratified and completed—as we say in law terms, “Signed, sealed and delivered”—then nobody has the right to change it. Nobody can take away some of the provisions or add new provisions. The covenant is settled and confirmed, and may not be altered. This is a common practice in daily life which we all understand and agree to.
Now God had made a covenant with Abraham. God had given Abraham many precious promises. Some of these promises were to himself alone (as in Gen. 12:1-31Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee: 2And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: 3And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 12:1‑3), when Abraham left his native land in obedience to God’s command); some of the promises were given to Abraham’s descendants, his “seed” meaning the vast multitudes of descendants that God promised to give to him. If we turn to Gen. 22 we will see that in obedience to God’s word Abraham offered up his only begotten son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. You will remember that just as Abraham lifted up the knife to kill his son, God called to him and provided a ram to die instead of Isaac, so that in type Abraham received Isaac back from the dead in resurrection. This is one of the most beautiful pictures in the Bible of God giving His only begotten Son.
After Abraham had shown forth in this way his complete faith in God, God said to him: “By Myself have I sworn... because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed My voice.” Gen. 22:16-1816And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:16‑18). You will notice that this is a promise— a covenant— between God and Abraham. You will notice that it is, as Paul says, “freely given in grace.”
There are no conditions attached to it by which Abraham might lose the blessings God promised to him. There was no “IF” in the covenant to raise a doubt. It was certain. It was ratified and was “signed, sealed and delivered” by the Lord God Almighty and confirmed by God’s oath. Notice, too, it followed at once on the ground of the death and resurrection (in type) of Abraham’s only son whom he loved. (Gen. 22:22And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. (Genesis 22:2).)
Please notice also that there were two parts to this covenant. The first part spoke of Abraham’s seed becoming as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore. The second spoke of one “seed”—“In thy seed, shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 26:44And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; (Genesis 26:4)). The first part of the covenant ended with the words, “Thy seed [the vast numbers of descendants], shall possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:1717That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; (Genesis 22:17)). That speaks to us of the Jews, who are to have their blessings on earth and who are to be victorious over all their enemies. The second part of the covenant is in connection with the Gentiles, for it plainly says, “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 26:44And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; (Genesis 26:4)). The nations, as you know, are the Gentiles.
It is exceedingly important for us to clearly understand these things, if we are to understand the verses we have just read in Gal. 3:15-2015Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. 16Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. 17And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. 18For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. 19Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. 20Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. (Galatians 3:15‑20). At first it seems very strange that Paul should use the promise given in Gen. 22 as a foundation for his argument to show the importance of one seed. But when we see the difference between the promise which refers to the Jews and that which refers to the Gentiles, then it is all clear. Notice well, when God gives a promise, not of possessing the gate of his enemies but of bringing blessing to all nations, then he speaks of only one seed. There is no mention made of multitudes of seed as the stars or the sand. It is on this difference that Paul founds his argument. Notice also that the blessing to the Jews and to the Gentiles is all founded on the death and resurrection of God’s only begotten Son.
Let us turn again to the verses we have just read in Galatians. Paul first points out that even with an earthly covenant, after it is fully ratified, nothing can be taken from it or added to it. God has clearly given us the terms of the covenant— a free, unconditional covenant. Paul then points out that the promise to the Gentiles was made to one seed “which is Christ” (ch. 1:7). Four hundred and thirty years later the law came. According to law, nothing can set aside, or add to, the covenant given four hundred and thirty years before. So the law is powerless to interfere with the covenant God gave to Abraham; and the Gentiles, “all nations of the earth,” (Acts 17:2626And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; (Acts 17:26)) may put in their claim according to this covenant. God will surely bless Israel, and the Jews will surely be exalted, as well as converted, so that they will receive, and believe in, the Lord Jesus as their Messiah; they will be the head of the nations, and not the tail. (See Deut. 28:1313And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them: (Deuteronomy 28:13).) But in the meantime, under the good news, God is bringing blessing to all the nations of the earth through that one Seed, which is Christ. It may be that Abraham thought that one seed was Isaac; and indeed Isaac was a very wonderful type of the one Seed who should offer up Himself as a burnt offering and rise again from the dead. But now the true Seed, Christ, has come, and today all nations of the earth are receiving the blessing.
The day is coming very quickly when the other part of the promise will be fulfilled, and Israel will come into the most wonderful blessing: but this cannot take place while the good news is still going forth to the nations. We see already the fig tree putting forth its leaves (Matt. 24:3232Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: (Matthew 24:32)), telling us of Israel’s beginning to come to its position, not only as a nation in the earth, but as the head and chief nation. These things make those of us who are of the Church of God turn our eyes with more earnest longing to the heavens, watching and waiting for the Lord Jesus Christ to return and to take us to be forever with Himself, as He so often promises.
(See John 14; 1 Cor. 15:50-5850Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. 51Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 56The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:50‑58); 1 Thess. 4:13-1813But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. 16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13‑18); Rev. 22:2020He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. (Revelation 22:20).)
But if all the blessing of the nations is entirely on the ground of grace and only by faith, “why then the law?” (vs. 19). Does not this make very light of the law? We say the promise is everything, and the law can neither set it aside nor add other provisions to it. “Why then the law?” (vs. 19). It was added for the sake of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made. All the law can do is bring in transgressions. In the Greek New Testament we find many different words that tell us of wrongdoing. Each word has its own special meaning. The word translated “transgressions” comes from a word meaning “I step over,” or “I step across.” When I was a boy at school, our teacher used to make all the boys in the class stand around his desk while he asked us questions. He first drew a line with chalk on the floor, and every boy had to stand with the toes of his shoes touching this line. In this way we could not move, for if on the one hand we drew our feet back, or if on the other hand we put our feet forward, we did not have them on this line; then we received a punishment. The word “transgress” tells us of stepping across this line. The word transgression tells us of this line. When we transgress, we step across it. The law is this line. Before the law came, there was sin, there was wrongdoing; but until the line was drawn, until the law came, there was no transgression. “Where no law is, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:1515Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. (Romans 4:15)). So the law was given in order that sin might be shown forth in its true character as transgression: “that sin... might become exceeding sinful” (Rom. 7:1313Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. (Romans 7:13)). (See also Rom. 5:2020Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: (Romans 5:20).)
The man who puts himself under law is only drawing a line which will show forth how bad he is, because again and again he steps over this line, and it is manifest to him and to all others that he is a transgressor. He will never, never obtain righteousness in this way. He may labor as hard and as earnestly as he wishes, and all that he will gain will be transgressions; nothing more, nothing better. In ch. 5, 6, we will find a word which means “walking according to line.” I think the Apostle says by this word, You want to walk by a line? (They wanted the law for their line.) I will give you lines to walk by. “Why then the law? It was added for the sake of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” In other words, “It was added until Christ should come.” Before the law, there was promise which flowed freely from the grace of God. Then came the law to show forth transgression, but only until Christ came, and then once more the grace of God flows forth freely. So we may see that the law was only a parenthesis; it did its own work to show to all what was in the heart of man, for man is a sinner, and the law made this plain. The law showed forth the actual sins which every man commits. The law made it clear that the heart is only evil continually, and the law proved this by the transgressions. That is all the law can do. Then came the Seed, the one Seed, which is Christ. And in Him are fulfilled all the promises of God.
He came under the law for Israel, but He died and rose again, and so was free and able to bless all the nations of the earth. Now the Gentiles are as free as the Jews to receive salvation and blessing from Christ. For on the other side of the grave there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and Christ has come forth from the grave on the resurrection side. At the cross Jew and Gentile joined together to crucify Him; there was no difference there; one was as bad as the other. Now all must be grace, and again there is no difference. God’s grace flows out freely to all.
The law worked in two ways. In the first place, the sins which men committed became “exceeding sinful,” (Rom. 7:1313Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. (Romans 7:13)) because they not only practiced what was evil, but they did so after God had plainly forbidden it. In the second place, “sin in the flesh” (1 Cor. 7:2828But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you. (1 Corinthians 7:28)) (Rom. 8:33For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:3)), lust, the condition of man according to the flesh, was made clear to all. The flesh loves sin; and even a converted man who tries to conquer it in his own strength is led away captive by the power of sin which rules in the flesh. By the law is the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:2020Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)), that is, sin in the flesh; and through the law sin became exceeding sinful. (Rom. 7:1313Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. (Romans 7:13).) God showed to all that the fruit and the root were both bad.
If my child is accustomed to being idle and running about the streets, it is a bad habit: but if I forbid him to go out, and he does it again, it is a transgression and is much worse than a bad habit. It was for this purpose that God gave the law, in order to teach us what we really are. The law is holy, just, and good. (Rom. 7:1212Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. (Romans 7:12).) It shows to man his duty towards God, as a child of Adam. It was given to man, when he already was a sinner, not in order to produce sin, but to change sin into transgression.
Now we come to still another argument. The law was “appointed through angels in the hand of a mediator.” This mediator was Moses. It is plain that a mediator is not a mediator of one; there must be two parties if there is a mediator. As Job says, “Neither is there any daysman [mediator] betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both” (Job 9:3333Neither is there any daysman betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both. (Job 9:33)). Moses received the law “by angels.” Gal. 3:1919Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. (Galatians 3:19). He stood between God and man. In order to enjoy the result of blessing from the law, each of these parties must keep their part in the covenant. God is faithful; and He surely will keep His part. But alas, even before Moses came down from Mount Sinai, the people had broken their part of the covenant and made a golden calf. The covenant contained the clause: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Deut. 5:77Thou shalt have none other gods before me. (Deuteronomy 5:7)). Indeed this was the first clause of the covenant. God promised blessing, IF man (Israel) was obedient. But man immediately disobeyed.
But in God’s covenant with Abraham, it was altogether different. There was no IF in that covenant. “God is one.” It all depended on God. There was no mediator here. God spoke directly to Abraham. There was no question of Abraham’s obedience in order to obtain the blessing. It all rested on God’s faithfulness: and “God is faithful” (1 Cor. 1:9, 10:13). So that the covenant with Abraham is as strong and as steadfast as the Word of God. But the covenant with Israel, when Moses was the mediator, had no more strength or stability than the faithfulness of man in the flesh. This could not possibly succeed, just as the other covenant with Abraham could not possibly fail. The one depended on God and man: the other depended on GOD ALONE.
Notice also that this has nothing to do with Christ being our Mediator, to bear our sins and save us. The covenant with Abraham only spoke of the promised Seed (that is, Christ). The mediator spoken of in Gal. 3:19, 2019Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. 20Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. (Galatians 3:19‑20) was Moses, and he had nothing to do with this Seed. The covenant with Abraham was simply a promise that the Seed should come, and the Seed did come. But between the time that the Seed was promised and the time that the Seed came, God gave the law. He gave the law to prove man, and to show the weakness and sinfulness of the flesh. It was necessary that the law should come, because man’s pride and self-confidence must be shown forth in some way.
We needed a wall outside our house, and I called a mason to build it. He made a very poor foundation, and I said to him, “Your wall will not stand up.” However, he guaranteed it and insisted on his own way. Soon the wall appeared to me to be leaning, but I was not sure, so I got a plumb line. I found that the wall was more than a foot out of plumb. I called for the mason. He looked at the wall and said, “That wall is all right. It is quite straight.” I did not say a word, but hung the plumb line on it. The plumb line showed how far from true was the wall. The mason’s mouth was shut, he could not say a word; his pride and self-confidence were clearly shown forth. But it was necessary to use the plumb line in order to do this. Just so, it was necessary to use the law in order to show forth man’s pride and self-confidence. But the plumb line could not make the wall straight; it could only show how bad it was. So the law cannot make us righteous, but can only show how bad we are.
But there is one thing more we must consider before we leave these verses. The law was given by angels in the hand of a mediator. When God gave Abraham the promise, He gave it Himself. He said, “By Myself have I sworn... because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son...” (Gen. 22:1616And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: (Genesis 22:16)). He spoke directly to Abraham. He did not call an angel or a mediator to come between Himself and Abraham. When God has something to give to man that can never fail, He loves to appear in grace, and give it, or say it, Himself. But if there is something that can only bring distress on man, even though it is for man’s good, then God calls others to speak to man. With the law there are two that came between, both the angels and Moses the mediator. What a contrast with the simplicity of grace! In the law, man had to give. In the promise, man had only to receive.
Let us sum up the difference between the law and grace:
1. Instead of justifying, the law condemns. Instead of giving life, it kills. It was added to make manifest, and to multiply, transgressions.
2. It was but temporary. It was only brought in as a parenthesis, and when the Seed came to whom the promise had been given, the authority of the law was annulled.
3. It did not come directly from God to man. There was a double mediation, angels and Moses, between God and man.
4. It depended on two parties: God and man. Not so the promise, which depended only on God.
These four things very clearly show how infinitely higher is grace than law.