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I think I understand the argument in Galatians 3:19a about the purpose of the law. But then in the second half of the verse, Paul begins, "The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one." (NIV)

What argument is Paul making in bringing up a mediator/intermediary and then countering that God is one? Or is this just a side note he's adding?

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It's related to the Trinity. Jesus is the mediator. I don't have time to post a full answer now, though. – Richard Oct 12 '11 at 22:30
@Richard: I'd love to see your answer since (as I just answered) I think it isn't related to the Trinity as much as I'd like it to be. ;-) – Jon Ericson Oct 12 '11 at 23:10
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Galatians (like all of Paul's letters) contains long strings of argument that overlap and merge. So it's difficult to know where to start. For the sake of argument, let's start with Galatians 3:15-18 (ESV):

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

Ok, so Paul is asserting that strict adherence to the law of Moses isn't necessary since the promise came before the law. The example here suggests that once both parties sign a contract, neither party can go back and change the contract, so God cannot go back and change the promise He made to Abraham. Paul also makes a bit of a leap to say that the promise of Genesis 12 refers to Jesus and not just Issac or the children of Abraham. (This could be the subject of another question.) The connection is especially important since in verses 7-9, he makes a case for a Gentile claim on that very promise. The idea is that the promise is fulfilled thought Jesus.

Moving onto Galatians 3:19-20 (ESV):

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

Now Paul anticipates the question, "Why then the law?" The answer is "because of transgressions". Maybe you know what that means, but to me that's not really answer. It seems to me that the law would need to be in place before someone could transgress against it. Let's put aside the "intermediary" for a moment because Paul elaborates on the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:21-22 (ESV):

Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Paul here anticipates another question. This time he's pulling in a thread he started in verses 10-14 about where we can expect to receive righteousness from. His point here is that the blessing comes via the promise to Abraham inherited by Jesus who passes it onto Gentiles. The function of the law is "imprison everything under sin". Again, it isn't exactly clear how that works since usually we are imprisoned because of a law and not by it. Galatians 3:23-29 (ESV) elaborates:

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, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

The "we" pronoun must refer to Jews since the Mosaic law didn't extend to Gentiles. Remember that the law was given just as Israel left Egyptian captivity and were finally able establish their own nation. Paul shifts from the image of the law as prison to the law as guardian. So the law binds or protects Israel, the conduit of the Abrahamic promise to Jesus, from abandoning God.

At the risk of confusing things with yet another analogy, consider the process of taking your dog to a dog park. Once he's there, he'll have the freedom to run around, sniff other dogs' butts, play fetch, and so on. But in order to get him safely to the park, you have to put him on a leash. Otherwise he might run off and get run over by a truck or something. The law is a little bit like a leash.

So back to the intermediary, at last. Galatians 3:19b-20 (ESV):

[The law] was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

The person who put the law into place was Moses. It's appropriate to call Moses an intermediary, since in when he comes down the mountain and sees the people worshiping a golden calf, it's Moses who convinces God not to destroy the people and start over. As Paul argues, the Mosaic law continued to mediate between God and Israel until Christ. But what is our intermediary after Christ, and between Gentiles and God?

The obvious answer is Christ, who fulfills the promise to Abraham. (Other New Testament texts take this position: 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24.) But the thrust of the argument of Galatians, which continues into chapter 4 and 5, is that the mediator isn't needed anymore. Galatians 5:16-18 (ESV) suggests the relationship has changed:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Instead of two opposing parties, the image Galatians proposes is cooperation or working together as a family. Instead of being enslaved by the law, we are bound to God via our gratitude to Jesus and the guiding of the Spirit. (To use the analogy of the leash, we don't need to be physically tied to God anymore because we are tied by love and devotion.)

There are two ways to read "but God is one":

  1. It's solely to highlight the need for Moses and the Law to provide an intermediary before Jesus.

  2. It also asserts a proto-trinitarian theology.

The support for the first is strong in Galatians (as I've already laid out) and weaker for the second. Assuming Paul claims we no longer need a mediator, I don't think #2 really applies.


The function of the law according to Galatians is to be a mediator or guide for Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus. It stood between God and his people so that the promise to Abraham could be passed onto the Gentiles.

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I'm sorry for the extreme length. (I just reread the answer and I barely slogged through it.) It's really a tricky question that gets at the heart of Paul's argument. – Jon Ericson Oct 12 '11 at 23:23
Thank you for the effort. You've given me a lot to think about. – Soldarnal Oct 12 '11 at 23:33

Moses received the Old Covenant on Sinai, and was therefore the mediator of the Old Covenant to the Israelites.

Four hundred and thirty years earlier, Abraham had received the promise that “all nations will be blessed in you” (Gal 3:8 & Gen 12:3). This promise was later fulfilled through the New Covenant, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles (Gal 3:14).

When God made the promise to Abraham that “all nations will be blessed in you” this promise was also given by extension to Abraham’s seed (in the singular), who was of course Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16 & Gen 22:17-18). In other words, the promises made to Abraham applied to the Promised Seed. Therefore it is not Abraham who is the mediator of the New Covenant, but Jesus Christ, who is the Promised Seed of Abraham.

In other words, the blessing of Abraham is given to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, who mediates the New Covenant, which is the explicit statement of Gal 3:14. Thus the promise of Abraham (“all nations will be blessed in you”) is fulfilled in the New Covenant, and the mediator is the Promised Seed of Abraham (Jesus Christ). The word “mediator” by definition means someone who mediates between two parties – in this case, the one who is blessing is God (who is “one”) and the other party are the “all nations will be blessed in you.”

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According to Strong, χάριν (charin) (in v19) means "through favor of, that is, on account of". YLT reads "on account of the transgressions." The CLNT has it, "On behalf of transgressions" - it is as though "Transgressions" were one party in relationship to the other party, the Jews.

Strong also suggests χείρ (cheir) can mean "the hand (literally or figuratively [power]; especially [by Hebraism] a means or instrument)." So "by the hand of a mediator" could perhaps be translated "with the power of a mediator".

Putting these together to modify YLT we have

"Why, then, the law? on account of the transgressions it was added..... with the power of a mediator." or just "The Law was added as a mediator".

[The "messengers" in v19 who set up the Law would presumably include Moses. But "messangers" is plural - so who else was involved in the giving of the Law? One answer is God Himself.]

I will, therefore, suggest the possibility that the "mediator" in v19 is the Law itself, given to "mediate" between the People and Transgressions. This perspective continues the Pauls unveiling of the Law as a mixed blessing at best. Although the Law is from God yet cannot save (in fact, it kills the spirit - 2 Cor3:6,7); and the very Law which limits the sin of the people does itself prompts them to sin (e.g. Rom 7:9 - law revives sin; 1 Cor 15:56 and Law gives sin its strength)! So Law does not just benefit Israel - it "benefits" Sin as well! Paul seems to be personifying Sin (cf Rom 7:13-23): Sin is a "party" that "benefits" from the Law, separate from the people, who also benefit. Hence the Law can be described as a "mediator" "added on behalf of Transgressions" in v19.

In v20 then, Paul seems to saying there is no need for the Law as a mediator once everything is "all in the family." "God is One" is a principle that includes us as "sons (children) of God" (v26)- cf. John 10:34! In living under grace, We are One Family - there is no need for a mediator.

But then what of 1 Tim 2:5, where "the man Christ Jesus" is the one Mediator between God and Humanity? The context of the Timothy passage is clearly the reconciling of Humanity to God, for which Jesus is the one mediator. However, in the Galations passage, Paul is talking about those who have ALREADY been reconciled to God, for whom there is no longer any need for a mediator. Hence, Jesus says,

"In that day, in my name ye will make request, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father for you, for the Father himself doth love you, because me ye have loved, and ye have believed that I from God came forth;" (Joh 16:26-27 YLT)

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Welcome to BHSE! We're a little different here, please read our Site Directives as you ask and answer questions. Thank you! – Tau Mar 9 '15 at 5:01
This is actually a good answer, although I had to read it a couple of times to see your point. A point of contention(FYI) is the use of Strong's in the place of a Lexicon. I have no problem w/Strong's, as long as one knows it is meant as a concordance, and is incomplete as a Lexicon. The other issue is Strong's only references King James; if you use another text you may not find it in Strong's. There are some more 'militant' than I on this subject, but be advised. – Tau Mar 9 '15 at 5:08
Got it - thanks. – John Wallace Mar 9 '15 at 10:59

In the overall context of the Apostle's letter to the disciples in Galatia the main point is: No one is ordained to put himself between God and the ones he has chosen according to his promise to bless the Nations by the seed of Abraham. Neither angel nor Jew is in a position to play mediator adding any conditions to what God has decreed when he stated the promise. That is why the Apostle asserts: God is one.

The disciples are called to be alert against anyone who tries to question God's promise by means of any conditions given afterwards, neither by Law nor angel nor any other revelation.

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The notion of "if you see God you die" is taught in some places in the scriptures:

Joh_1:18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

1Jn_4:12 No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

But in other places God interacts directly with people with no disastrous effect:

Gen_3:8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

Gen_18:1 And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;

Paul seems to be affirming "see God and die" by suggesting that even though the Torah indicates that Moses saw God face to face at Sinai in reality it was angels that administered the giving of the Torah to Moses:

Exo_33:11 And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.

Num_14:14 And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou LORD art among this people, that thou LORD art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night.

Deu_5:4 The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire,

Deu_34:10 And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,

So by Paul saying that Moses actually received the law through angels he is defending "see God and die".

I have read in a commentary on To the Hebrews that said that the idea that Moses received the law through angels and not face to face was a Samaritan staple and, among other things suggests that Stephen was coming from or addressing Samaritans and thus defended the idea that Moses got the law through angels.

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