The Divine Lamp

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Father Joseph Rickaby on Galatians 3:16-22

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 21, 2010

The following notes are from Father Joseph Rickaby.

Gal 3:16  To Abraham were the promises made and to his seed. He saith not: And to his seeds as of many. But as of one: And to thy seed, which is Christ.

To Abraham were the promises made and to his seed. The promises referred to are: All the land that thou beholdest, I will give to thee and to thy seed for ever (Gen 13:15); and, I will give to thee and to thy seed the land of thy sojourning, all the land of Chanaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God (Gen 16:8).

The word seed in all this context is the exact Hebrew and Greek equivalent of the English word issue, which may be conveniently substituted for it. We do not speak of issues in the sense of sons, nor is the Hebrew word used in the plural in this sense. But the cognate Chaldee word is; and the Greek plural σπερματι (spermati), seeds, i.e. sons, is found in Plato, Laws, 853 C; Sophocles, (Ed. Col. 600; and approaches to that sense in Josephus, Antiq. viii. 7, 6, and in the apocryphal Fourth of Maccabees, 17. Still the argument from the non-employment of the exceedingly rare plural issues, instead of the usual singular form issue, is not of itself very strong. Its strength lies in its association with the tradition of the Jewish schools, of which it is an outcome. It is a Rabbinical argument, and points to the continuous belief of the Rabbis, who under the Old Law were the authorized interpreters of Scripture, that the seed, or issue of Abraham, to which the promises of the land were made, was not a multitude of separate individuals, but one person, Christ, the King of Israel. His was to be the land of promise, and His people’s, for that they were His people.

The land of promise, which is literally the country of Palestine, is taken by St. Paul in the spiritual sense for the kingdom of heaven (Matt 25:1), the Church on earth; and further for: –the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5:5), the Church in heaven (cf. Heb 4:8-11). So the descendants of Abraham, who share spiritually in the promises made to him, are not his mere carnal posterity, but the inheritors of his faith in Christ (3:9, 29).

Gal 3:17  Now this I say: that the testament which was confirmed by God, the law which was made after four hundred and thirty years doth not dis-annul, to make the promise of no effect.

The verse means that the law, given to Moses, does not dis-annul the testament, or covenant, made with Abraham. It is an application to Divine conduct of what is said after the manner of man in verse 15. God Himself cannot set aside His testament, or covenant, when made in the form of an express promise to Abraham and to his seed, Christ (cf. Ps 88:35, 36). Nor can He load His promise with conditions, which were not put in when the promise was first given and accepted. But the observance of the Mosaic law would have been the laying on of a huge condition (cf. Acts 15:10-11) to the promise, centuries after the pact was complete. Therefore the works of the law, its ceremonial observances, are in no manner of way to be brought forward as conditions for the fulfilment of the promises made of old to Christ, and to us in Christ, the promise of eternal inheritance (Heb. ix. 15). Such is St. Paul s argument in this place.

There is a difficulty, which however does not touch the argument, a chronological difficulty about the four hundred and thirty years, which seems to be all the time that St. Paul allows between the promise made to
Abraham and the giving of the law on Mount Sina (i.e., Sinai); whereas from the ages of the patriarchs it is manifest that some two hundred years must have elapsed between this promise and the going of the Israelites into Egypt;
while from Gen 15:3 ; Acts 7:6 ; Exod 12:40, it appears that their stay in Egypt was of four hundred, or in exact numbers, four hundred and thirty years. Why then does not St. Paul say six hundred and thirty years?

One solution of the difficulty is by correcting the Hebrew text of Exod 12:40 from the Greek of the Septuagint, where after in the land of Egypt is added
and in the land of Chanaan, thus reducing the sojourn in Egypt to some two hundred and thirty years. Another solution is suggested from Matt 1:9, where three generations are omitted between Joram and Ozias, as appears from 2 Kings 8:25; 11:2; 14:1, 21; and yet in v. 1 7 we read: From David to the transmigration of Babylon are fourteen generations. The Bible is an Oriental
book, written to Oriental, not European standards of historical accuracy. Understatement of itself is not falsehood. To an understated number our fastidious ears require the prefix of an at least, which St. Paul and St. Matthew and the people they lived with were very willing to forego, except perhaps in money matters (Luke 16:7). If four hundred and thirty years, the duration of the Israelites stay in Egypt, were abundantly enough for St. Paul’s argument of the law being at a much later date than the promise, why should we insist on his adding in the other two hundred years? They made nothing to his purpose.

It is also possible that the fact of the promise made to Abraham having been renewed to Isaac (Gen 26:3-5) and Jacob (Gen 28:13-15; 35:12;
48:4), may have moved St. Paul deliberately to omit these years in which these patriarchs and their race dwelt in the land of Chanaan.

Gal 3:18  For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise. But God gave it to Abraham by promise.

Read Romans 4 for another statement of the case here concluded. The conclusion now arrived at is that the inheritance promised to Abraham, the
promised land, taken for that which it spiritually represented, the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph 3:8, set forth in Eph 1-3.), was not of the nature of wages for the observance of the Mosaic law. Hence the question naturally arises, which is asked in the next verse:

Gal 3:19  Why then was the law? It was set because of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom he made the promise, being ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.

Why then was the law? The answer to this question takes us up to 4:7.

It was set because of transgressions, των παραβασεων χαρι literally, because of the transgressions (which were to take place) until the seed should come, i.e. Christ, verse 16: for where there is no law, neither is there transgression (Rom 4:15). The law then was to conclude all under sin, i.e. as St.Chrysostom explains, “to convict them and show them their own offences: for since the Jews did not perceive their own sins, and not perceiving them had no desire of the remission of them, He gave the law
revealing their wounds, that they might long for the physician.”

The law given on Sina (Sinai), being ordained, ordered, set forth in detail, by angels (Heb 2:2 ; Acts 7:53). The angels may have been the immediate authors of the prodigies on Mount Sina: nay an angel there may have spoken in the place of God (Exod 19:16, seq.).

In the hand of. A Hebraism for by the agency of. So Acts 7:35 ; Num 4:37, seq.

A mediator. Moses. Cf. Exod 20:19 ; Deut 5:23-27. A world of confusion has been created about this passage, by the commentators who have taken the mediator here to be Christ. The verse that follows has been explained in some four hundred different ways.

Gal 3:20  Now a mediator is not of one: but God is one.

Now a mediator is not of one, but of two contracting parties, whom he brings together, and who make through him what is called a bilateral, or two-sided contract, of the form, I do or give this, on condition that you do or give that, under which conditional form the parties are reciprocally bound.

The Mosaic Law was a covenant of this nature: he that doeth these things shall live in them (verse12): read the celebrated chapter, Deut 28. Consequently the Mosaic covenant might fail and come to nought, through
the infidelity of one of the two contracting parties, the Jewish people. Not so the promise made to Abraham, which was no bilateral contract, not a thing ordained in the hand of a mediator, bringing two parties together, and binding them on condition of mutual good faith; but there was only one contracting party in that promise, and He was God, promising gratuitously and absolutely. This is the significance of St. Paul s some what abrupt addition, But God is one.

The verse is a sort of last touch to the argument begun at verse 6, to show that the law, with its conditions of works, can be no substitution for the promise made to Abraham, simply for his faith. Rather it might seem that, such a promise having been made, the law ought never to have been superadded. This difficulty St. Paul proceeds to consider.

Gal 3:21  Was the law then against the promises of God: God forbid! For if there had been a law given which could give life, verily justice should have been by the law.

If there had been a law given which could give life eternal, justice, or supernatural holiness, should have been by the law, not by faith, and then the law would have been against the promises (Rom 4:13, 14). But, the
argument goes on, the law could not give life. This seems inconsistent with the text quoted in verse 12: He that doeth these things shall live in them: till we remember that this was just the weakness of the law, that it could not get itself kept (Rom 2:17-24; 3:9-20), it made no provision for securing its own observance; it was barren of grace, without which man cannot steadily resist sin, which grace comes only of faith in the Redeemer promised to Abraham, and since sent into the world.

Gal 3:22  But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise, by the faith of Jesus Christ, might be given to them that believe.

The Scripture, η γραφη, rather, the text: this word in the singular means, not the Scriptures generally (η γραφαí), but some special text. St. Paul may here refer, as in 2:16, to Ps 142:2.

Hath concluded all under sin. For the sense cf. Rom 3:9; and for the word concluded, συνεκλεισεν, Rom 11:32. The Scripture marks the fact, that all mankind are brought into and held under the category of sinners, as fish might be driven into and caught in a net, and, so to speak, concluded there.

That the promise, i.e. the spiritual inheritance promised to Abraham, might be given to them that believe, not for their observance of the Jewish law, which was powerless to justify, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, who is made unto us justice and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30). For the Jewish law substitute the exigences and decencies of modern civilised society, and St. Paul’s words have their application to this day. These decent
observances are all insufficient before God without faith, hope, and charity. And there is no faith without a creed: there is small hope and charity without sacraments; and creed and sacraments find no custodian except in a divinely preserved and divinely guided Church.

3 Responses to “Father Joseph Rickaby on Galatians 3:16-22”

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