But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up to the faith which should afterwards be revealed.…
Paul, in the present section, pursues the thought of the purpose of Law. It is the tutor to convey certain lessons to the soul and to secure thereby the soul's return to the Father and the home. Let us look at the interesting line of thought thus given.
I. THE LAW-SCHOOL. (Vers. 23, 24.) The idea was once entertained that the Law, as παιδαγωγός, meant the slave who was entrusted with the guidance of the child to the school of Christ. But this notion is now abandoned, and, as the superior slaves were often entrusted with the education of the child to a certain age, the idea which is now accepted from this passage is that the soul goes to the school of the Law, and learns from the Law the lessons which fit it for coming home to Christ. Christ is not the Schoolmaster to whom Law leads the soul, but is the elder Brother of the Divine family to whom the lessons of the schoolmaster, the Law, leads the enlightened soul. The Law-school is an institution of great strictness and severity. Hence we are represented here as "kept in ward under the Law" (Revised Version). Like one of the great barracks which are called euphoniously "public schools," and where, as in public prisons, the youths are for some hours daily confined, and out of which they are thankful to escape; so the Mosaic Law is meant to be the severe training-school which will make us relish ever so much the freedom and comfort of home.
II. THE BURDEN OF ITS TEACHING. (Ver. 24.) The lesson of the Law is personal unworthiness, the impossibility of our ever saving ourselves. The more we study the ten commandments, the more we enter into the spirit and meaning of the moral Law, the deeper must be our conviction that we cannot keep it perfectly, and so must be liable to its penalties. But the Jews, instead of holding hard to the teaching of the moral Law, turned their back upon it and betook themselves to the ceremonial Law as their hope of life. Their notion was that, though they might neglect the weightier matters of the Law, such as judgment, mercy, and faith, they were perfectly safe so long as they tithed the mint, the anise, and the cummin (Matthew 23:23). Instead of learning Law's lesson and being "shut up to faith," they mistook the lesson altogether and shut themselves up to ceremony. The Law was meant to defeat self-righteousness; the pupils allowed it to minister to self-righteousness. Instead of being shut up to faith, they remained in the school of Law for ever and never got home. Now, every well-conducted school impresses upon its pupils the desirability of their getting beyond its lessons and its confinement. The broad liberty of manhood and of home lies in supposed sunlight beyond it, and the school training encourages the vision. So with God's Law; it is designed to create a longing for the liberty in Christ and the larger opportunities that liberty implies.
III. THE HOME-COMING. (Vers. 25, 26.) If we learn the true lesson from the Law, we are carried by it to the feet of Christ, and we seek justification by trusting him. Faith is thus the home-coming of the soul; and undoubtedly no schoolboy ever came whistling so joyfully home, even when his home-coming was the final one, as the soul does which has learned to trust and love Christ. Then the sense of imprisonment and confinement gives place to a sense of freedom. As children of God in Christ Jesus, we rejoice in the abundant liberty of home. Our education is so far finished when we have learned to hope in our elder Brother only. Then do we know what it is to be "at home" with God. The prodigal son enjoyed himself greatly at the father's banquet, and so do all of us; for we are all prodigals by nature, when by faith and repentance we come home to God.
IV. UNITY IN CHRIST. (Vers. 27, 28.) The home-coming is attended by the entertainment of the Christian spirit. By that spirit all caste-distinctions die. Having put on Christ, we do not look contemptuously on any, but hopefully on all. The Jew and the Greek forget their national differences and separations; the bond and the free do not dwell despairingly or proudly on the accident of birth; the man does not tyrannize over the woman, and neither will the Christian woman, when she secures her rights, tyrannize over the man; but each and all will rejoice in their unity in Christ. Christ thus proves himself to be the unifying element in the human race. Coming near to each, he brings each near to all, and establishes around his person the brotherhood of man.
V. FAITH ALSO INTRODUCES SOULS TO THE PRIVILEGES OF THE ABRAHAMIC FAMILY. (Ver. 29.) Unquestionably the Jews were the heirs of magnificent promises. But is it carnal Jews that are to get them? is it men who are only descended from Abraham according to the flesh? Nay; Abraham has a spiritual seed, and all who are Christ's through faith become children of Abraham. Paul thus proclaims a chosen generation, whose fellowship may be entered by faith and not by circumcision, by the Christian spirit and not by Jewish ceremony. This is better than converting the world to Judaism, to convert it to Christ, and through relationship to Christ to count kindred with Abraham. "We are the circumcision," as he says to the Philippian converts, "who worship God in the spirit, who rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" (Philippians 3:3). The Law teaches us a precious lesson if it sends us for salvation to Christ, and enables us to find in fellowship with our Lord the privileges of the chosen people becoming ours. - R.M.E.
Parallel VersesKJV: But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.