Galatians 3:21–25 is often used to “prove” that since Jesus came in history, the Sinai covenant has no further application for New Testament/new covenant believers. Paul contrasts the two covenants in this passage in a unique manner, that one is applicable until the other becomes possible and available.
Most interpreters teach that the left-column characterizations apply to the Sinai covenant and the right column to the historical new covenant. Thus, after Jesus came in history and “instituted” the new covenant, believers are no longer “under” the Sinai covenant that is characterized in Galatians 3:22–25 as a “tutor” (NKJV) or “guardian” (NIV). Furthermore, if believers were “under the” Sinai law system, they would have been “confined . . . under sin” (NKJV), “locked up under the control of sin” (NIV), “kept under guard” (NKJV), “kept in custody . . . shut up” (NASB), “held captive . . . imprisoned” (ESV), “kept as prisoners” (NET Bible), “locked up” (NIV), and so forth, until the new covenant became available.
Now note the new covenant (right column) characteristics that do not occur even once in the old covenant (left column) list: “promise” (mentioned once, v. 22), “justified” (once, v. 24), “Jesus Christ”/“Christ” (twice, vv. 22, 24), and “faith” (five times, vv. 22, 23, 24, 25)!
If the left column represents the historical old (Sinai) covenant and the right column represents the historical new covenant after Jesus came in history, then “promise,” “justified,” “faith,” and “Jesus Christ” were absent from the Sinai covenant and were not available or possible until Jesus came in history. If, however, the left column represents an old covenant experience and the right column a new covenant experience, then everyone since Adam’s fall has been “confined under sin,” kept in custody/under guard/held captive/locked up/shut up . . . “under the law” which served as a “tutor” until they might accept the gospel appeal and be converted/“justified” through faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of the historical era they lived in.
Note the following additional observations:
- The Sinai covenant did not “annul . . . the promise” of the Messianic “Seed” to come through Abraham’s lineage; it protected it (Gal. 3:16–18). Additionally, the four new covenant promises were first explicitly given in the Sinai covenant (see lesson 3). So “the promise” came before Jesus came in history.
- The Old Testament believer who trusted in and served Yahweh was trusting in and serving the preincarnate Jesus Christ (Heb. 11:24–26).
- Paul’s statement, “The law is not of faith [Greek, pistis]” (Gal. 3:12) was not meant to nullify Jesus’ statement that “faith” (Greek, pistis) was one of “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23).
- Old Testament believers were justified by their faith in Yahweh/Jesus (Hebrews 11), not by the law, because the law by itself could not give life (Gal 3:21). The Old Testament believer’s faith in Yahweh was faith in the one and only true gospel (Gal. 1:6–9) as revealed in the Old Testament covenants from Adam (Gen. 3:15) to Sinai (Heb. 3:14–4:2); it was in every way vibrant faith, robust faith, faith in Yahweh/Jesus, and thus saving faith, justifying faith—even before Jesus came in history!
While these observations do not answer all the questions raised in Galatians, how should these biblical facts influence how we interpret the old and new covenants that Galatians 3:21–25 alludes to?