Summary: A message in an expository series from the book of Galatians
Today we are about to encounter one of the most difficult passages in all of Paul’s writings. In these verses, he draws on the debating skills he learned from his rabbinic teachers. He is reasoning in our text in a way that is very characteristic of a first century rabbi. In the first century it was quite common for a rabbi to take a single word and build his whole argument on its specific and sometimes previously hidden meanings. In this case Paul chooses the word “seed” or “descendant”. From a modern perspective Paul’s reasoning does not seem to be too convincing, but its form would have satisfied the critics of his own day. Without a doubt if he had been writing this letter directly to us, he would have used more contemporary reasoning, but it is his conclusion, not his reasoning, that is important. As we go through our text today, I think we will find it more helpful to take the passage as a whole. As we do, you will discover that Paul presents four very important concepts. By arranging them according to chronology and importance, we can quickly arrive at the main point of his argument.
I. Everything Began with God’s promise to Abraham.
A. "Brothers" introduces a change of tone on the apostle’s part, in contrast to the somewhat distant and formal beginning of chapter 3.
1. It is as though he now invites the erring Galatians to reason along with him as he uses an analogy. "Let me take an example from everyday life" (literally, "I speak as a man,").
2. This statement shows that Paul is borrowing an illustration from human relationships.
3. In everyday secular life the Galatians had occasional opportunity to deal with legal wills. The Greek word for a “last will and testament” is the same word Scripture used when God makes a “covenant” with men.
4. What is true of the “will” in a secular sense is also true of the “covenant” in a religious sense: once ratified (or “probated”) no one can set them aside or add to them.
5. In Abraham’s day an oath was sometimes confirmed by a ceremony in which animals were cut into two parts along the backbone and placed in two rows, the rows facing each other across a space marked off between them. The parties to the oath walked together into the space between the parts and spoke their promises there.
6. This oath would be especially sacred because of the shed blood. It was this ceremony God enacted with Abraham. But it had this exception: In the case of God’s covenant with Abraham, God alone passed between the pieces of the slain animals, thereby signifying that he alone stood behind the promises.
B. Now that Paul has chosen the imagery of a legal examination of a will, it is necessary to identify the party or parties named as beneficiaries of that will.
1. Paul’s main point was that all of these promises applied not only to one man, Abraham, but also to his “seed.” Now here is the hairsplitting point: the word “seed,” he observed, is singular, not plural; therefore in its deepest and fullest meaning it refers to one person, not to many. And that one person, Paul contended, Abraham’s true seed, is Christ himself.
2. It was not uncommon in rabbinic exegesis for a theological argument to be based on the singular or plural form of a particular word in the scriptural text.
3. Paul may well have been responding here to the popular Jewish claim that they alone, along with a few proselytes, were the “true sons of Abraham.” Paul wanted to show that the greater fulfillment of the promise is not biological but Christological.
4. The essential point is that the promises made to Abraham cannot be considered fulfilled solely in the period prior to the giving of the law on Sinai and hence must be in effect eternally.
II. Abraham acted on God’s promises turning them into a two party covenant.
A. Paul here picked up and completed the train of thought he began in verse 15, applying it specifically now to the giving of the Mosaic law that occurred nearly half a millennium later than the original promise to Abraham.
1. By stressing the seniority of the Abrahamic covenant over the Mosaic Law, Paul was offering praise to the God who keeps his promises.
2. In the Judaizers’ view the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai marked the real beginning of Israel’s history in the sense that that event gave them a true national identity and established their unique role in the economy of salvation.
3. To this line of reasoning Paul replied, in effect: “Look! You say God made a promise to Abraham and then came along hundreds of years later and added to it burdensome requirements no one could fulfill perfectly anyway, thus radically altering the character of his relationship to his people.