A Commentary by John Stott
This is Paul’s second metaphorical description of the law. The Greek word is *paidagogos* and means literally a ‘tutor, i.e. a guide and guardian of boys’ (Grimm-Thayer). He was usually himself a slave, whose duty it was ‘to conduct the boy or youth to and from school, and to superintend his conduct generally’ (Arndt-Gingrich). The AV translation ‘schoolmaster’ is unfortunate, for the *paidagogos* was not the boy’s teacher so much as his disciplinarian. He was often harsh to the point of cruelty, and is usually depicted in ancient drawings with a rod or cane in his hand. J.B.Phillips thinks that the modern equivalent is ‘a strict governess’. Paul uses the word again in 1 Corinthians 4:15, saying ‘You may have ten thousand *tutors* in Christ, but you have only one father’ (NEB). In other words, ‘there are plenty of people to discipline you, but I am the only one to love you.’ Later in the same chapter he asks: ‘Am I to come to you with a rod in my hand (i.e. like *a paidagogos*), or in love and a gentle spirit (i.e. like a father)?’ (1 Cor.4:21, NEB).
What do these two similes imply? In what sense is the law like a prison gaoler and a child’s disciplinarian or tutor? The law expresses the will of God for His people, telling us what to do and what not to do, and warns us of the penalties of disobedience. Since we have all disobeyed, we have fallen under its just condemnation. We are all ‘under sin’ (verse 22, AV), and therefore we are all ‘under the law’ (verse 23). By nature and practice we are ‘under a curse’ (verse 10), that is ‘the curse of the law’ (verse 13). Nothing we do can deliver us from its cruel tyranny. Like a gaoler it has thrown us into prison; like a *paidagogos* it rebukes and punishes us for our misdeeds.
But, thank God, He never meant this oppression to be permanent. He gave the law in His grace in order to make the promise more desirable. So to both descriptions of our bondage here Paul adds a time reference: ‘*Before faith came*, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint *until faith* should be revealed’ (verse 23). Again, ‘the law was our custodian *until Christ came*, that we might be justified by faith’ (verse 24). These are two ways of saying the same thing, because ‘faith’ and ‘Christ’ go together. Both verses tell us that the oppressive work of the law was temporary, and that it was ultimately intended not to hurt but to bless. Its purpose was to shut us up in prison until Christ should set us free, or to put us under tutors until Christ should make us sons.
Only Christ can deliver us from the prison to which the curse of the law has brought us, because he was made a curse for us. Only Christ can deliver us from the law’s harsh discipline. because He made us sons who obey from love for their Father and are no longer naughty children needing tutors to punish them.