This is how the nations would be blessed through the Abrahamic Covenant. Hence God had in mind the New Covenant all along when He made the Promise through Abraham. In fact the Apostle Paul goes so far as to say: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel ahead of time to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed through you’” (Galatians 3:8). In other words, the Promise was already the Gospel—salvation through faith in Christ.
As we have highlighted in Announcing the New Covenant, this begs the question: Why then the Mosaic Covenant, which seems to interrupt the coming of the Gospel after the giving of the Promise, especially since God foreknew that it would be broken, resulting in Israel being exiled? Why would God thus delay the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world by another 1400 years?
The Function of Law
The Apostle Paul, having argued that God’s Promise through Abraham was fulfilled through Christ apart from the Mosaic Covenant, and that it is received by faith in Him apart from the Mosaic Law, anticipated the question: “Why then the Law?” (Galatians 3:19).
Paul’s own answer is two-fold. Firstly, the Law “was added because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19), “that is, in order that there might be transgressions, the conscious disobeying of definite commandments” (Bruce 1982: 175, citing Cranfield 1964: 46; as to whether it was the purpose of the Law to increase transgressions, see Esler 1998: 196-97, 240-43, who argues that even in Romans 5:20-21 the increase in transgressions is the result not the purpose of the Law).
In other words, the Law played a revelatory role in making Israel consciously aware that they were sinning against God by transgressing His revealed commandments and laws. For without the Law, though people are sinning against God, there is no (concrete) transgressions of God’s commandments (Romans 4:15), and so they may not be consciously aware that they are sinning against God. Without the Tenth Commandment, would people even realize that covetousness—intention to do wrong—is itself wrong, let alone a sin against God (cf. Romans 7:7)? Without a conscious awareness of sinning against God, people do not see the need for God’s forgiveness of sin.
This is not to say that without the Law people would have no awareness whatsoever that they have sinned against God. Paul himself said that even Gentiles who do not have the Law do know in their conscience that they have done wrong (Romans 2:14-16), and deserve to be punished (Romans 1:32). But the Law enabled Israel to become consciously aware of how they have specifically sinned against God. This was to cause them to repent and seek forgiveness of sins through the Sacrificial System, which was itself a part of the Mosaic Law.
Secondly, the Law served as a custodian that confined Israel under it until the coming of Faith, that is, salvation through faith in Christ (Galatians 3:23-24; Longenecker 1990: 145-48). In other words, it played a supervisory and thus regulatory role in a Law-centered nation, where national as well as personal life revolved around observing the Law (“nomism”). This was not meant to gain God’s favor or acceptance by works (“legalism”), but having received by grace God’s favor and become accepted as God’s people, they needed to be holy by observing the Law because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2; cf. 1 Peter 1:14-16).
Traditionally it has been understood that, as custodian, the Law also played a preparatory role, in educating and thus preparing Israel for the coming of the Messiah. The relevant clause has thus been translated, “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24a NASB). Recently most scholars reject this interpretation and translate the clause instead as, “the Law was our custodian until Christ (came),” which expresses only the temporariness of the Law as a custodian.
Granted that this may indeed be the case, we need to recognize the limited concern of Paul here. According to New Testament scholar Richard Longenecker (1990: 176-77), Paul was arguing against both legalism (observing the Law in order to gain God’s favor and acceptance) and nomism (observing the Law after freely receiving God’s favor and acceptance). Paul’s focus here is the temporariness of the custodial role of the Law, which has been terminated when Christ came. What he needed to make clear to the Galatians was this: now that Christ has come, even nomism (a legitimate purpose of the Law in the Old Testament), let alone legalism (not the purpose of the Law even in the Old Testament), should no longer be the way-of-life of God’s people.
This is not to say that the Ten Commandments, the heart of the Law, is no longer relevant to believers in Christ. In our exposition and application of the Mosaic Law we have shown how it is relevant to the Church as well as to the world today. But the relevance is not that Christian living is to be supervised or regulated by the Ten Commandments; that would be nomism. Christian living is not “Law-centered” but “Christ-centered” (adapting Longenecker 1990: 176).
This means, even though believers in Christ are being taught to observe everything Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20a), which covers the Ten Commandments (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-11; Matthew 22:37-40), their corporate and individual life still revolves around knowing Christ (Philippians 3:3-11)—who He is (“Lord”) and what He has done (“Savior”)—and living accordingly. It does not revolve around observing what He has commanded, which will be taken care of when their life is thus centered in Christ through the work of the Spirit, who manifests Christ and not Himself to the believer (see John 14:21-23 and 15:26; cf. Matthew 28:20b; Colossian 1:27b). First of all, if Christ is Lord who died for us who do not deserve it, we will want to love and trust in Him and thus wholeheartedly serve and obey Him. This is how the statement, “Christianity is not a religion of do’s and don’t’s, but a relationship with Christ,” should be understood.
And in the very context of stressing the temporariness of the Law as a custodian (“until Christ came”) and that believers “in Christ” are thus not “under the Law,” Paul highlights that they are “all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” with the Spirit dwelling in their hearts (Galatians 3:26; 4:5-7). Elsewhere Paul stresses that true “sons of God” are “led by the Spirit of God” (Romans 8:14). So when they are thus “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) and “walk according to the Spirit,” they will “fulfill the requirement of the Law” (Romans 8:4). And this requirement is “love your neighbor as yourself,” which sums up the whole Law (see Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-14; cf. Matthew 7:12).
This is because, insofar as the Spirit of God animates the Word of God in the life of the believer, being led by the Spirit also involves being guided by the Scripture (compare Ephesians 5:18-20 with Colossians 3:16-17; and Romans 15:4 with 15:13). In fact, what the Scripture says is actually what the Spirit says (see Hebrews 3:7-11; Psalm 95:7-11). Hence when believers thus “walk by the Spirit,” they will not yield to the “desires of the flesh” and so violate the Ten Commandments, but instead bear (through their Spirit-regenerated heart) “the fruit of the Spirit,” which is, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:16-26). This means, in a Christ-centered life, unlike in a Commandment-centered life, observing the Ten Commandments is a by-product of a Spirit-led life.
There is thus a world of difference between being supervised and regulated by the Ten Commandments, even when observing it from the heart in a Law-centered life, and being led by the Spirit in a Christ-centered life which fulfills the requirement of the Law from a Spirit-regenerated heart (cf. Romans 7:6, which is elaborated in 8:2-4). This difference follows from the difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant with respect to meeting the requirement of the Law: the “circumcision” of one’s own heart under the Mosaic Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:16) in contrast to God’s “circumcision” of one’s heart through the indwelling and empowering Spirit under the New Covenant (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27).
People who profess to be believers in Christ but do not understand the liberating truth of being led by the Spirit and thus fail to experience the freedom of a Christ-centered life may be tempted to swing from bothersome nomism, which readily degenerates into burdensome legalism, to antinomianism—the belief or practice that even the Ten Commandments has no more relevance.
We now pick up from where we left off on the custodial role of the Law. Due to Paul’s limited concern, he did not pay attention to the preparatory role of the Law, which we will now consider in view of our broader concern of why the Mosaic Covenant was necessary in the first place.
Actually Paul does allude to the preparatory role of the Law. For he spells out that the end result, if not the “ultimate purpose” (Longenecker 1990: 149), of God giving the Law is “that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22b), that is, “that we might be justified by faith” (3:24b). In other words, the Law somehow prepared the way for the coming of Faith.
Was it really necessary for the Law to prepare the way for Faith? Even Christians, especially those who accepted the Gospel message readily, may not realize how difficult it actually is for a person to come to genuine faith in Christ. For to do that he needs not only to acknowledge that he is a sinner and repent of his sin, but also to accept by faith that Christ is Lord (God) who died for him, which also means he needs to acknowledge that no amount of good works can save him.
The first part about sin and repentance may not pose a problem to religious people. But the second part, which requires one to believe that God was born a baby and died for him, and that salvation is by grace only and not by works at all, stumbles even religious people. Every non-Biblical religion teaches that we have to do good works to earn salvation; even cults of Christianity teach the same thing. People with no religion assume that they can solve their own problems. And what’s more, the idea that the man who died a criminal’s death on the cross was the Creator Himself is not only mind-boggling but also outrageous to the extreme.
So it is not surprising that the Jews, who were prepared by the Scripture for the coming of the Messiah, only asked for miraculous signs to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah; but the Greeks, who pride themselves in their “wisdom” (reason) and were not similarly prepared, asked for logical proofs (1 Corinthians 1:22). Like the Greeks, people today who trust in reason (unaided by God’s revelation) consider the Gospel “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
How then did the Law prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah, so that when He came sufficient people, enough to found a Messianic community (the Church) that would eventually become global, would receive Him?
The most obvious is the revelatory role of the Law, through which they learned that they could not obey God perfectly and hence recognize that they could not be accepted by the Holy God through their own efforts, and thus needed God’s forgiveness for their sins. Built into the Law is the need to offer sacrifices for sins committed. This would teach them that there is no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood on behalf of sinners (Hebrews 9:22). And the sinner must repent of his sin and the sacrifice must be offered with faith in God (Psalms 51). This would prepare them to appreciate and apply the message: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
As for the regulatory role of the Law, which confined them under bothersome nomism, which at least for some of them had degenerated into burdensome legalism (cf. Hagner 2012: 372-73), it would prepare them to welcome the Gospel and thus be freed from the confinement of a Law-centered way-of-life.
It was primarily to people wearied or burdened by the yoke of Law-centeredness (Galatians 5:1), especially “the unreasonable [legal and ethical] demands of the scribes with their excessive concern to regulate people’s behavior” (France 2007: 448), that Jesus said: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30; cf. 23:4).
This is not to say that the Law-centeredness under the Mosaic Covenant was meant to be bothersome, let alone burdensome. As the psalmists testify, to those who truly feared and loved God as taught in Deuteronomy and could see that the Law was indeed for their well-being (shalom), the commandments of God “are more precious than gold … [and] are sweeter than honey” (Psalms 19:10). However, such Israelites were a small minority. To most Israelites the confinement of Law-centeredness was at least bothersome. In contrast, the freedom of Christ-centeredness under the New Covenant is available to all believers (cf. 1 John 5:3). What is true of the psalmists is to be true of all believers in Christ.
The 850 years of living under the Mosaic Covenant culminating in the 70-year Exile shows how burdensome the Law was to the nation of Israel as a whole. But the Exile, which God foreknew would happen, also helped prepared Israel for the Messiah. It showed Israel that even nomism (Law-centeredness after having been accepted by God) will not work, what more legalism (Law-centeredness to become accepted by God). It is thus a powerful polemic against seeking salvation through good works.
Also the Exile provided the occasion for the Messianic prophecies we read in the Prophetic Books, which gave Israel the Messianic hope, and thus prepared them for the coming of Christ. We saw for instance how Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be more than human (Isaiah 9) and would die for sinners and be raised from the dead (Isaiah 53).
When Paul preached to the Jews most of them rejected the Gospel. But unlike most Jews, those in Berea were “more noble-minded …, for they received the word [Paul preached] with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed” (Acts 17:11-12; cf. 17:2-3). In other words, anyone, not just Jews, who would read the prophecies concerning the Messiah with an open mind could see that Jesus uncannily fulfilled them.
The Fullness of Time
Strictly speaking the Messiah could have come when Israel was restored to the Promised Land under the Persian Empire. In fact Isaiah 40-55 gives the impression the Messiah would come then, but we saw that Daniel clarifies that He would come during the Roman Empire. And Paul also says, “when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4; cf. Mark 1:15). This means God had pre-planned the time of the coming of Christ. But why did God in His pre-planning delay Christ’s coming by another 550 years?
We have seen how God used each world power for His purpose concerning Israel, beginning with Egypt (to enable Israel to grow into a nation), then Assyria (to exile the Northern Kingdom), Babylon (to exile the Southern Kingdom), as well as Medo-Persia (to restore His people from exile). How then did God use the last two, Greece and Rome, to prepare for the coming of His Kingdom in the Person of Christ?
We only need to highlight the major contributions of Greece and Rome. The Greeks unified the empire through the Greek language and culture, while the Romans unified the empire with a network of roads and brought peace to the Greco-Roman world (for a substantial discussion on the conditions in the first century AD favorable to the birth of Christianity, see Green 2004: 29-49; also Cairns 1996: 39-48). As David Lim (1997: 354) puts it,
Though maintained by military force, the pax Romana (“Roman peace”) provided an atmosphere of order, plenty and well-being. A network of roads was kept in good condition for fast and relatively safe travel and communication. The Greek language with its developed philosophical vocabulary was widely used in the Mediterranean region, thus facilitating communication across various ethnic groups.
For these reasons, unlike modern missionaries, Paul could travel safely throughout the relatively peaceful Greco-Roman world to preach the Gospel to the nations without having to obtain visas or learn new languages and understand new cultures. Thus, though Paul did face persecution from the Jews, it is difficult to deny that “no period in the history of the world was better suited to receive the infant Church than the first century AD” (Green 2004: 29).
In other words, God not only prepared Israel for the coming of the Messiah, but also prepared the Greco-Roman world for the spread of the Gospel to the nations. And even the Exile indirectly prepared the Gentiles to receive Christ. It was mainly because of the Exile that, “by the first century A.D. there were significant Jewish communities throughout the Greco-Roman world” (Trebilco 1997: 287-88). And a Jewish community would establish a synagogue, “the center of religious life where the sabbath service was held,” which involved “the reading and study of Scripture” (292). This enabled Gentiles to interact with Jews and encounter their faith in a way not possible before the Exile.
There were Gentiles who were thus converted to Judaism and became “proselytes.” But many Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism opted to remain “‘God-fearers’ who were formally associated with the Jewish community, were involved in at least some facets of synagogue life … without becoming proselytes” (292). Hence, like the Jews and the proselytes, they were taught the Old Testament; the key factor they lacked was circumcision—“a painful disincentive to conversion as a proselyte” (Barnett 1999: 271).
The initial spread of the Christian faith to non-Jews was thus facilitated by “the presence of a ready-made audience of some Gentiles in Jewish synagogues, and therefore their preparedness for examining the Christian gospel” (McKnight 1997: 390), which does not require them to be circumcised. And “for a Gentile God-fearer, who was uncircumcised and who did not offer sacrifice in Jerusalem but who heard the law read in the synagogue and praised the God of Israel, it was not a huge step to move to the ‘synagogue’ of Jesus the Christ” (Barnett 1999: 271).
The Book of Acts shows that there were many synagogues throughout the Greco-Roman world, and Paul used them as his base for preaching the Gospel (Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4; 19:8). Except in Berea, the response of most Jews was negative. The case of Thessalonica, where only some of the Jews, but “a great multitude of God-fearing Greeks,” accepted Paul’s message (Acts 17:4), confirms the relative readiness of God-fearers to accept Christ.
Certainly the spread of the Christian faith was not dependent only on Paul and the other Apostles, especially beginning with the late first century. When the Gospel spread widely to Gentiles other than the God-fearers, they eventually formed the majority of the Church and carried on the mission of preaching the Gospel to all nations.
The Jews’ rejection of Jesus as the Messiah specifically because He claimed to be God and died on the cross, in spite of Isaiah 9 and 53, confirms how difficult it is for human beings to accept the truth that God Himself was born a Man to die for their sins. How then was it possible that so many Gentiles who did not even have a prior exposure to the Old Testament, unlike the God-fearers, accepted Christ so readily?
As Church historian Alan Kreider (2008), puts it, “the church grew in its early centuries … because it was attractive” (170). What was it about the early Christians that attracted the non-Christians? In a nutshell (summarizing and adapting Kreider 2008: 171-76),
1) Non-Christians observed that the Christians, even at their weakest, embodied a spiritual power that could be construed as divine.
2) The Christians’ distinctive behavior, especially in the ways they addressed common and unusual problems of society, exemplified Christian integrity.
3) The Christians’ practice of community, which transcended race, sex, social status and geography, expressed Christian love.
In other words, the answer lies in the transformed life of the early Christians, who lived out the Spirit-led and empowered Christ-centered life under the New Covenant.
When there were no existing believers in Christ, it took God hundreds of years of Mosaic Law to prepare Israel for His coming, with the result that when He came enough Jews believed to found the Church. But when those who had believed began to bear witness to the truth by their transformed life, even people who were never exposed to the Old Testament, began to believe. In fact they received Christ more readily than those whom God had prepared to receive Him. People are more likely to believe who Christ is and what He has done for them when they could first see the Gospel lived out before them.
People who accept Christ readily usually do so because the life-witness of believers has affected them so that they are ready for the Gospel. So often we hear that someone who used to be resistant to the Christian faith accepted Christ because of a positive experience with professing Christians. Equally often, we hear that someone is resistant to the Christian faith because of a negative experience with professing Christians.
Hence in reaching the nations beyond Israel, the Spirit-empowered life-witness of believers not only replaces the hundreds of years needed to prepare Israel, it is in fact the more effective means in bringing people to Christ.