“Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made…” (Gal 3:19).
“But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (vv. 22-25).
Galatians. Romans. Hebrews. These books are filled with demonstrations and statements indicating that the Law given by Moses was incomplete, weak, and a temporary means of bringing the people to Christ. Of course, the problem wasn’t just the Law; the people whose attempts to keep it were also weak. Law cannot justify, and people invariably break it (all have sinned).
Does this mean that God made mistakes? Not at all. “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be!” (Rom 7:7). God’s intentions with the Law were indeed perfect. That is, the Law accomplished exactly what He intended for it to accomplish. However, the Law itself was never intended to be the final arbiter of God’s revelation. If it was intended to be so, then 1) it failed, and 2) there would never have been a need for Jesus.
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal 2:20).
Why do we need reminding of this now?
One reason is that because appeals to the laws found in the Law as representing God’s ultimate desires and purposes can be misleading, if not also leading to terrible consequences. People will often conflate the Law with what God has always wanted, and this just isn’t true. Think, for example, of how Jesus responded to the question about divorce in Matthew 19, where Jesus went back to the beginning for God’s real desires. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (vs. 8).
What this tells us is that there are matters covered in the Law as concessions based on the hardness of hearts. I believe that, in addition to divorce, we can also see how this applies to issues like polygamy, slavery, and others. God regulated some matters because of circumstances in the ancient world that were not what He originally intended for His creation.
What God did intend, however, is that the Law would show people the problem of sin in a much greater way so as to prepare them for the solution to be found in the coming of Jesus.
“I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom 7:9-11).
“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:3-4).
There were ideals built into the Law regarding loving God and loving neighbor, but the intent of the Law as a whole was not to be a full revelation on all of God’s ideals and desires. It was meant to show sin. It was meant to be incomplete. It was meant to be a “child-conductor” to bring His people to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment and solution to the problem of sin (Gal 3:23-25).
This is also why appeals to the Law in order to argue that God must accept something in worship or practice fails. If the Law had it, then it must be what He wanted all along? That misses the point.
We must also understand that the Law is a unit that stands or falls as a unit. Justifying ourselves by part of the Law while ignoring the rest is serious business.
“And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal 5:3-4).
Let’s be reminded, then, of the purpose of the Law relative to Jesus Christ. It wasn’t meant to be the end. It was meant to show sin for what it was and to bring people to Jesus.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).