A Commentary by John Stott
In Galatians 3:15-22 the apostle Paul reviewed 2,000 years of Old Testament history, from Abraham through Moses to Christ. He also showed how these great biblical names are related to one another in the unfolding purpose of God, how God gave to Abraham a promise, and to Moses a law, and how through Christ He fulfilled the promise which the law had revealed as indispensable. For the law condemned the sinner to death, while the promise offered him justification and eternal life.
Now Paul elaborates his theme and shows that this progression from the promise through the law to the fulfilment of the promise is more than the history of the Old Testament and of the Jewish nation. It is biography of every man, at least of every Christian man. Everybody is either held captive by the law because he is still awaiting the fulfilment of the promise or delivered from the law because he has inherited the promise. More simply, everybody is living either in the Old Testament or in the New, and derives his religion either from Moses or from Jesus. In the language of this paragraph, he is either ‘under law’ or ‘in Christ’.
God’s purpose for our spiritual pilgrimage is that we should pass through the law into an experience of the promise. The tragedy is that so many people separate them by wanting one without the other. Some try to go to Jesus without first meeting Moses. They want to skip the Old Testament, to inherit the promise of justification in Christ without the prior pain of condemnation by the law. Others go to Moses and the law to be condemned, but they stay in this unhappy bondage. They are still living in the Old Testament. Their religion is a grievous yoke, hard to be borne. They have never gone to Christ, to be set free.
Both these stages are depicted here. Verses 23 and 24 describe what we were under the law, and verses 25-29 what we are in Christ.
1). What we were under the law (verses 23,24).
In a word we were in bondage. The apostle uses two vivid similes in verses 23 and 24, in which the law is likened first to a prison, in which we were held captive, and then to a tutor, whose discipline was harsh and severe.
a). A prison (verse 23).
*Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint…* Let us examine the two verbs. The Greek word for ‘confined’ (*phroureo*) means to ‘protect by military guards’ (Grimm-Thayer). When applied to a city, it was used both of keeping the enemy out and of keeping the inhabitants in, lest they should flee or desert. It is used in the New Testament of the attempt to keep Paul in Damascus: ‘The governor under King Aretas *guarded* the city of Damascus (presumably by posting sentries) in order to seize me.’ Paul himself wrote (2 Cor.11:32). And Luke describes how the Jews ‘were *watching* the gates day and night, to kill him’ (Acts 9:24). Thus confined to the city, his only possible means of escape was the undignified procedure of being smuggled out by night through a window in the wall, and being lowered to the ground in a basket. The same verb is used metaphorically of God’s peace and power (Phil. 4:7; 1 Pet. 1:5), and is here applied to the law. It means to ‘hold in custody’ (Arndt-Gingrich). The verb ‘kept under restraint’ (*sungkleio*) is similar. It means to ‘hem in’ or ‘coop up’ (Liddell and Scott). Its only literal use in the New Testament comes in Luke’s account of the miraculous catch of fish, when ‘they *enclosed* a great shoal of fish’ (Lk. 5:6).
So both verbs emphasize that God’s law and commandments hold us in prison, and keep us confined, so that we cannot escape. The NEB translation is that ‘we were close prisoners in the custody of the law.’