Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.
Paul continues his discussion of covenants; I’m sure that you will recall that misunderstanding covenants was at the heart of the issue Paul is writing this letter to correct.
Paul’s “everyday” example is that of a covenant. When two or more parties enter into a covenant, you can’t just ignore it or make unilateral changes, once it is in effect. Now, he zeros in on the Abrahamic Covenant, pointing out that the parties are God and Abraham and Abraham’s “seed.” What was the promise? There were two actually, the land promise and the promise of descendants, through whom the entire world would be blessed, and that was fulfilled in Christ. It is not to be fulfilled by Israel, and it is not affected by the Law…
Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.
So, the Law was given because of the transgressions of the people; easy enough. Now Paul throws us a curve… this mediator business. The Law came through angels, OK, that isn’t hard to follow, angels are the messengers of God. A mediator is a go-between; who was the go-between in the Law? A priest is a mediator between Man and God, and the Law established a priesthood, the Levites. The Levitical priesthood, with its system of sacrifices and atonement served as the mediators of the Old Covenant (Law).
SIDEBAR: OK dear reader, this is a little bit tricky; hang with me and you’ll see in a minute.
OK, A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one. That’s the curve! Paul isn’t referring to the Law, he’s referring to God’s Covenant with Abraham; the Abrahamic Covenant and the Law of Moses are two different covenants. The context for this passage is set in 3:15-16, and it’s Abraham, not Moses under discussion. Thus, in verse 20 just repeated, Paul is making reference to Abraham’s covenant, and pointing out there aren’t multiple parties because God is one. This refers back to Jesus being the promise, and Jesus id the mediator of the New Covenant, having brought a better sacrifice, His own blood as opposed to the blood of animals, and is thus the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Law of Moses. (see Hebrews 4-8) Now, if you see that, then you can also see that this is simple! Jesus is the fulfillment of both covenants by having established the New Covenant, thus we go back to Paul’s original purpose for this letter: No, you cannot force someone to be circumcised a Jew before they can have faith in Christ. The old ways are over and done with!
Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Now, a little ‘housecleaning.’ Keep in mind that when he says “promises of God” Paul is talking about the promises God gave to Abraham. Look at what Paul says about this: The Law is not in opposition to God’s earlier promises because the Law cannot bring about either life or righteousness. Those things, promised through Abraham’s “seed” came only through Christ, and God’s promise was kept by Christ, and since the Father and the Son are one, the promise was kept by God.
Some people might be confused at this point and asking “What about the promises God gave to Moses?” God’s promises to Moses were fairly simple: If you keep the Law, you will have long life, many children, good crops and you’ll live in the Land God gave to Abraham. If you break the Law, you will lose all of that and be cursed. Obviously, God kept His end of the deal. Israel on the other hand, struggled, but even though their compliance record wasn’t the best, they are blessed in Christ also, for they can have faith in Him just as the Gentiles can.
We’ve reached the end of this passage. If you’ve followed it, pat yourself on the back; this is graduate level theology. If you haven’t quite gotten it, don’t worry! Paul isn’t done just yet, and I’m quite certain that you will have it completely before we are finished; this stuff is much easier to grasp than most people think it is!