Galatians 3:23-29 (The Circumcision and Name of Jesus)
“Free from the Guardian”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
January 1, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The text today is the Epistle lesson from Galatians 3:
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
It is the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. Happy 2023! Our thoughts may be on the past year and its joys, sorrows, accomplishments, and sins, or on the year ahead and our hopes for it. It doesn’t matter that this date is somewhat arbitrary for reckoning a new year, or that calendars have changed in human history. At least this day reminds us of the passing of time. Pagans come to this day, and sometimes lament and curse the year past for their unhappiness, and they hope to be happy in the year to come. Christians, however, should use this day to remember that their days and years are in God’s hands, to give thanks for His blessings in the past year, to repent of their past sins, and to pray for God’s future blessings. It is a good day for us Christians.
Today’s Epistle has nothing to do with the New Year. It does, however, say something about today’s festival, the Circumcision and the Name of our Lord. On the eighth day after his birth, our Lord was given the name Jesus and was circumcised, in order to fulfill the Law of Moses, particularly the ceremony of circumcision. Is circumcision still an obligation for Christians? If so, are Christians obligated to obey the Law of Moses in all its aspects: the Ten Commandments, the dietary laws, circumcision, and the like?
The false apostles in Galatia had a pretty strong argument. Jesus was circumcised, after all. And God commanded circumcision to Abraham and had it written down by Moses. Circumcision was the sacramental sign of God’s people. So if the non-Jewish people, the Gentiles, wanted to be saved, they would have to join God’s people, and that would mean they have to become Jewish and be circumcised. They would have to keep the Law of Moses. That’s how the false apostles’ argument ran. It’s an attractive argument, and even in our day, some Christians think the same thing. But it’s completely wrong. It makes salvation dependent on our performance of the Law of Moses, and takes away salvation as God’s free gift. So Paul argues against the false apostles, and Galatians is Paul’s masterpiece, in which he demotes the Law of Moses and proves that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, not through works of the Law.
“The Law of Moses” is what I’ve been saying. That’s the phrase. When Lutherans say “Law,” they usually mean the eternal will of God for our behavior, which functions as a curb, mirror, and guide, and which is written in the hearts of mankind. That is, we usually mean the moral law of God, which is also the natural law. But in the Bible, “Law,” often means the Law of Moses in the broad sense—the first five books of the Old Testament. “Law” in the broad sense is how the false apostles at Galatia were using the word: everything that God spoke to Moses, that’s the Law. It includes the eternal, moral law, the ceremonies of the tabernacle, and the civil ordinances of ancient Israel. And that brings us to Paul’s main point.
The Law of Moses is not the way of salvation. Instead, it points you to the way of salvation. Paul’s main point was in Galatians 2:15-16, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
In chapter 3, then, he proves what he said, both from Scripture and from the experience of the Galatians. But the false apostles had a strong argument: “The Law of Moses was given by God; therefore, you have to do it.” Yes, says St. Paul, God gave it, and it is holy and good, but only if you use it the right way. The Law of Moses was never meant to be a way of salvation. Instead, it points you to the way of salvation through faith in Him—His life, death, and resurrection. Second, the Law of Moses has the moral law, such as the Ten Commandments, which reveals our sins, and curses and damns all sinners. It shows our need for Christ the Savior. So indeed the Law points to Christ, both by prophesying and by condemning.
This is shown by the example of a “guardian” or disciplinarian. In our Epistle, Paul gives this example of the right use of the Law. “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (vv 23-25). The Law of Moses was our guardian, or disciplinarian. The Greek word used is where wet get our word “pedagogue.” It doesn’t mean a teacher of children, though. A pedagogue was a slave in charge of disciplining the sons. He would lead them to school and make sure they behaved, and if they didn’t, he would punish them. A pedagogue, a guardian, a disciplinarian—that’s what the Law was. It’s good. It’s given by God. But it was never meant to be a way of salvation for sinners. God set forth the Law through Moses to do the opposite: not to save, but to discipline, reveal sins, rebuke, curse, and condemn. By doing so, all our excuses are removed, and all we can do is confess ourselves guilty before the holy God and pray for forgiveness. We cannot be saved by obeying the Law of Moses, because we cannot obey the Law of Moses perfectly.
Thanks be to God, you are now free from the guardian. Faith has come, that is “the word of faith that we proclaim” (Rom. 10:8). This proclamation has gone out into all the world. The message of Christ’s person and saving work has come to you, and through it, the Holy Spirit has created faith in your heart. So you are now free from the guardian. You’re not a little kid anymore; you have grown up in Christ. You are no longer under a guardian.
What does this mean? Two things. First, the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel are not applicable to Gentiles. They have served their purpose and are no longer in effect, now that faith has come. Second, even though the moral law, such as the Ten Commandments, is still God’s will for our behavior, as it always has been, its curse as haven removed through Christ. Christ obeyed the Law perfectly, loved God perfectly, and shed His blood as an innocent sacrifice—the first blood of which was His circumcision. Yes, today in Jesus’ circumcision, we see a prefiguring of His blood being poured out on the cross. So you are no longer under the Law, under its curse. Instead, with the Holy Spirit within you, you now walk in the Law of the Lord (1 Cor. 9:21), and in His Law, we are drawn and called to meditate day and night (Ps. 1:2).
Through Christ, we are free of the ceremonies, civil ordinances, and condemnation of the Law of Moses, but we as Christians do not set aside God’s commands but walk in the Law of the Lord. Not under the Law, but in it, because you are in Christ, were baptized into Christ, and have put on Christ. You are free from the guardian, for faith has come.
In this new year of the Lord, be comforted by the kindness of Him and give thanks to Him, who became your Brother in the womb of the Virgin Mary and fulfilled the Law for you, including circumcision, in order to establish your faith securely. To Him be glory forever. Amen.