Galatians 3:23–24, “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.”
Most of us have probably been told to “grow up” at least once during the course of our adult lives. Even the most mature among us can easily lapse into childish patterns of behavior. Sometimes adults need to be reminded that they are, in fact, mature in order to snap them out of immature behaviors.
According to Paul, Christians who go back to a life defined by the Mosaic law, not Christ alone, are, spiritually speaking, like adults who revert to childhood. Continuing his exposition of the place of the Law in the history of redemption, the apostle again says that God’s people were imprisoned under the Law “before faith came” (Gal. 3:23–24), a reference to Christ’s advent. Until that point, the Law also served as a “guardian,” which translates the Greek term paidagōgos
In ancient Rome, the paidagōgos was a slave entrusted with the care of another’s child when the child reached age six. Until the child reached adolescence, the paidagōgos was like a nanny who watched over the child and ensured that he made it to and from school. The paidagōgos was not a professional teacher, but he did serve as a tutor who at home reviewed with the child the material learned in the classroom.
Additionally, the paidagōgos was the child’s main disciplinarian; he corrected bad manners and helped his charge learn etiquette. Depending on the individual, a paidagōgos might discipline the child harshly with canings and whippings or with greater tenderness and care. Some children hated their paidagōgos; others formed a strong, lifelong bond with him.
This background enriches our understanding of the purpose of the Law and why it is no longer the defining principle of the life of the believer. If the Mosaic law is like a paidagōgos, then by definition, it was not a permanent guardian since the job of the paidagōgos was over when the child was grown-up. Though the believing community learned much from the Law, just as a child learned manners from his paidagōgos, the Law had the more important job of “taking us to school” — of leading us to Christ who alone unfolds the depths of God’s will for us (Matt. 5–7; Col. 2:1–3). To think that Jesus is not sufficient to be the exemplar of the Christian life is to return to the age of immaturity.
Paul’s main point in Galatians 3:23–26 is to explain the Law’s role in salvation history, but the pattern of preaching in the New Testament indicates that God’s law must play a similar role in our individual lives. Whether we are disciplined by truths about our Creator seen in the creation or the commandments of the Mosaic law, we must all come to the point where we see our failure to live up to God’s standards and cast ourselves wholly on Christ.