The law and the Seed

Scripture scrollGod made a lot of promises to Abraham, including a key promise to him and his posterity, or literally in Hebrew, his seed. These promises became the foundation of the Jewish nation, but before Abraham’s posterity could inherit the land, they suffered slavery in Egypt. On the way to the promised land, they received the law.

According to the New Testament, no one can ever be good enough for God by obeying the law. So what’s the point? Paul raised that question and answered it in Galatians 3, beginning with verse 19. His answer comes in the context of explaining that the promise to Abraham and his seed is greater than the law, and that the law did not supersede it.

Who was the Seed?

Abraham's Departure / Molnár

Abraham’s Departure / József Molnár (1850)

God made Abraham an unbelievable promise, and Abraham believed it, anyway. It was reckoned to him as righteousness. If you look at Abraham’s behavior in Genesis, you will see not only a man of faith and trust, but also a liar and a coward. He was not by nature or behavior a righteous man!

It did not take long for faith and trust to seep out of the family entirely. Isaac was a chip off the old block. Jacob paid lip service to God, but acted as if his prosperity depended on his own deceptive cleverness. Most of Jacob’s sons were so wicked that, at their best behavior, they hardly lived up to Abraham at his worst.

Then they went to Egypt, where Joseph had become prime minister. The family must have had exalted status from being his relatives. At least until a new dynasty came along that considered them a threat. The slavery began and lasted nearly half a millennium. The ragtag band that finally left Egypt had so little regard for God that even the most spectacular supernatural acts in the entire Old Testament could not overcome their peevish rebelliousness.

God gave the law. The Israelites basically ignored it or even mocked it until finally they were driven from the land and suffered captivity in a foreign land. After they returned, they began to venerate the law. Unfortunately, the most observant of them contented themselves with ritual purity and one-upmanship in obedience to little details. They became proud, loveless, and so hard hearted to the things of God that they didn’t recognize him when he appeared bodily in their midst.

Throughout his epistles, Paul insisted that the faith of Abraham, not the law-keeping of the strictest Pharisees, was the path to right standing with God. Unrighteous Abraham was accounted righteous because he believed the promise made to him and to his seed.

In Galatians 3:16, Paul nitpicks a little with a point of Hebrew grammar. God promised Abraham that his offspring would be as numberless as the stars, but the promise to his offspring is to seed (singular), not seeds (plural). (See Genesis 12:7; 13:15.) In other words, Paul says, the promise in the scriptures is not to Abraham’s numberless descendants, but to one descendant in particular: Jesus.

The law as a tutor

Moses / Michelangelo

Moses / Michelangelo

God made a promise to Abraham and to Jesus. Salvation would be granted to the undeserving on the basis of faith. It would be a gift of grace. The law, which came later, could not annul the promise and make salvation contingent on doing something to earn it.

And so in Galatians 3:19, Paul says that the law was added “because of transgressions.” In Romans 5:13, he says that death reigned from Adam to Moses, but the transgression did not amount to sin until the coming of the law. The law came, in other words, not to make anyone righteous, but to provide a basis for judgment against sin.

In other words, the blessing of Abraham is that he could be declared righteous as a gift of grace, having declared his faith by believing God. Through Jesus, everyone in the world can be declared righteous according to the same grace by professing the same faith.

In the mean time, the law, says Paul in Galatians 3:24, was given as a tutor. In Greek civilization, a tutor was a household slave given the responsibility for the safety, training, and discipline of the children of the household. The tutor did not perform the necessary teaching himself. His job consisted largely of conducting children to and from school. And he certainly had the responsibility to set expectations and punish misbehavior.

Once schooling was complete, the children had outgrown their need for a tutor, but still held him in great respect for the rest of their lives. In the same way, the law conducted the children of Israel to Jesus. Along the way, they learned that they could not earn righteousness. Their best efforts would always fall short.

In Jesus, the promised Seed of Abraham, the blessing of Abraham came not to his physical offspring (the Jews), but to his spiritual offspring (anyone, Jew or Gentile who believed Jesus’ message of salvation.

The coming of the Seed

Adoration of the Shepherds / Murillo

Adoration of the Shepherds / Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650

Throughout the entire time the Jews seriously tried to follow the law, they also remembered the promise to Abraham. Then the angel Gabriel appeared to a young peasant girl in an obscure village and promised that she would bear a son without the involvement of a man. She would name this son Jesus. He would be not only her son, but at the same time the Son of the Highest. And she believed the promise.

At the end of her tremendous song of praise (Luke 1:54-55), she noted that God had always helped Israel, his servant, as he had spoken “to Abraham and his Seed,” the very Seed that she bore in her body. Because, as promised to Adam in Genesis 3:15, Jesus was also the only Seed of a woman.

Jesus has come into the world. Jesus lived a sinless life. Jesus died a sinner’s death and took all human sin to hell, where he left it and rescued everyone who was trapped there.

It is time for us to leave our tutor, the law, with greatest respect and believe the promise of Abraham’s (and Mary’s) Seed—that he has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us in the presence of God. When we believe that, it counts as righteousness. We can stop trying to be good enough on our own power—and thereby live more like Christ by accident than we ever could before by sheer force of will.

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory—gives it to us and does not make us fight to earn it—through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Photo credits:
Scripture scroll. Source unknown
Abraham’s Departure. Public domain
Michelangelo statue. Some rights reserved by ideacreamanuelaPps.
Adoration of the Shepherds. Public domain

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