Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Interpreting a difficult text: Galatians 3:20

Note:  I preached Sunday from Galatians 3:15-22, which meant attempting an interpretation of a notorious textus difficilis.  Here are some notes:
"Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one" (Galatians 3:20).
Paul’s comment in v. 20 is notoriously difficult to interpret.  The Puritan expositor Mathew Poole noted:  “This is a text acknowledged by all interpreters to be very obscure. “  John Brown in 1853 observed:  “Perhaps no passage in Scripture has received so many interpretations as this” (Galatians, p. 155).  He then cites a scholar of his day who traced no less than 250 different interpretations of this verse!  The Dutch scholar Hermann Ridderbos in 1953 said there are at least 430 interpretations of this verse (matching the 430 years of v. 17) (Galatians, p. 139).
Some immediate questions might be posed:  Is the mediator here Moses, or angels (v. 19), or Christ, or any mediator?  Is Paul making a positive, approving statement here, or is he quoting something his opponents have been saying?  Is he contrasting the promise to Abraham and the giving of the law through Moses?
Luther interpreted the verse as follows:  “God offendeth no man, and therefore needeth no mediator; but we offend God, and therefore we need a mediator” (as cited in Brown, p. 156).
If we are to attempt an interpretation we should look to the opening section of the verse:  “Now a mediator is not a mediator one....”  This seems to be simply making the obvious point that if there is a mediator he must be mediating between two conflicting or opposing parties.  Paul then adds:  “but God is one.”  This seems to point to the fact that there is no inherent self-contradiction in God.  He does not have self-contradictory motives.  He does not act inconsistently.  The larger point:  God did not enter into covenant with Abraham and justify him by faith, then later decide that he had a better idea and gave the law through Moses so that men could be justified by law keeping.  The giving of the law, then, does not contradict the unconditional covenant of faith that God made with Abraham.
This interpretation is supported by the next question in v. 21:  “Is the law then against the promises of God?”  Does the giving of the law contradict the promise given to Abraham (in Genesis 22:18)?  Paul’s answer: God forbid!  Me genoito!  Let not such a thing be even imagined or uttered aloud!


Mad Jack said...

This is a nice post. I looked up Galations 3 and gave it a read. My own opinion, which is worth exactly what you're paying for it, is that oftentimes it doesn't pay to over think or over analyze Scripture.

The law was given to angles (messengers) with the order to pass the law along to one or more mediators, regular folks like you and I. The idea being that the law didn't originate from said mediator or from the angels, but from the Lord alone. Note that the Lord includes Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

So there.

I read your blog on an irregular basis and generally enjoy it, although a few of your posts tend to have a lot more information than I can assimilate at one time. Thanks for keeping your blog up.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


I'm glad you "generally" enjoy reading the blog (smiles) and appreciate your comments and interaction.

I'm a bit hesitant fully to agree that "oftentimes it doesn't pay to over think or analyze Scripture." I think it is always fruitful to medidate on Scripture (cf. Psalm 1:2). I agree, however, with your statement, if you are saying that such study is fruitless when it only yields vain speculation and never reaches firm conclusions and assurances, being like those Paul described in 2 Timothy 3:7: "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth." I hope this reflection is not that.


Mad Jack said...

Hoy hoy, Pastor Jeff.

As my dear old Uncle Charley used to say, "Jackie, sometimes I sets and thinks and sometimes I jis' sets."

When Uncle Charlie sat and thought, he was meditating, which is a good thing to do when Scripture is involved. Praying is another thing I'll do when Scripture and I get involved.

Meditation isn't over thinking or over analyzing, as you point out. I particularly like your quote about 'vain speculation'. I hadn't come across that one and I like it - it's quite neat.

When Charley 'jis' set', he was loafing. It takes practice to just set. Some people never seem to really master it.


Mad Jack

AJ said...

Pastor Jeff,

I just recently enjoyed listening to this sermon. I find your interpretation very convincing and contextually meaningful.

Thanks for the hard work in the ministry!

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Thanks for the encouragement A. Some weeks I feel wholly inadequate (because I am)to handle the word and oftentimes I do not spend nearly the amount of time needed in prayer and preparation/study. The clock runs out. I told my children that being a pastor is like having two ten page papers due every Sunday at 11:00 am. Hope you'll come and visit the next time you're in the Old Dominion.