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?


7 Answers 7


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.

  • 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. Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 23:23
  • Thank you for the effort. You've given me a lot to think about.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 23:33
  • That dog park analogy was golden. Clearly understandable.
    – Rap
    Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 14:30
  • @JonEricson Nice. Some comments: sin entered through Adam, so transgressions don't depend on Mosaic Law. Rather the Mosaic Laws were given because of transgressions as per Ezekiel 20 (idolatry in Egypt and in the wilderness). The emphasis on seed/seeds is important and traditional views of the promise to abraham to bless the world via Messiah (seed) and promise for many offsprings (seeds). Two different promises. The messianic (seed) promise was also given to Eve. This tension between the Promise (of global redemption from sin) and Law (of instruction for jews) is important.
    – Robert
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 9:51

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.”


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)

  • Welcome to BHSE! We're a little different here, please read our Site Directives as you ask and answer questions. Thank you!
    – Tau
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 5:01
  • 1
    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
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 5:08

Nothing wrong with the accepted answer, but I wanted to chime in:

Background: Law versus Promise

Paul in this passage is contrasting the Promise to Abraham: "Through your seed, all the nations will be blessed" with the Mosaic Law (note, this is not the first Law ever given).

The promise to Abraham is part of the promise to Eve in Gen 3.15:

"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."

This was the promise of redemption - a promise of Messiah. When Eve had Cain, she thought he was the seed. Over time, it was always the question as through whose bloodline would the Messiah come? This is now a question of inheritance. Now God made several promises to Abraham (a great name, many offspring, land) but especially that "through your seed (singular) all the nations will be blessed". Thus the Messianic promise passed to Abraham and is also a question of inheritance. Other promises also passed to Abraham, but just as there are many Laws but Paul focuses on the Mosaic Law here, so there are many promises but "promise" here refers to the Messianic one.

Interpreting the Gal 3.15-28

v.15 - Even if it were a covenant of just man, it couldn't be anulled

v 16 - The 'seed' of the Promise is Christ. E.g. Christ is the Messiah. Thus the Promise to Abraham refers to Christ.

v 17-18 - The Law cannot nullify the promise, because

a) Law came later

b) if the law could fulfill the promise, it would not be a promise.

v 19a. So why was the law added? Because of transgressions. This is explained in Ezekiel 20 - God wanted to destroy the Israelites in Egypt because of their idolatry, but decided to bring them out instead and give them some laws. Then they kept transgressing in the wilderness, and so God gave them more laws. Then they kept transgressing and God finally gave them laws that lead to death and not life. Note that the Mosaic Law was not the first commandment -- eating of the tree was the first. Then came Noah, etc. E.g. Moses did not create all Law, just the Mosaic Law.

v19b - the (Mosaic) law was created until the seed should arrive (this is explained later). It was ordained by angels to Moses (the mediator) but God is one and the mediator is not a mediator of one. That is, the Law was not an agreement by God to change the promise and convert to the Law as that would be a unilateral act and a mediator wouldn't be needed. Here the argument uses the fact that a promise is not an agreement between two parties whereas the Law is. Thus a promise does not need a mediator to change but the law does. The law was an agreement between God and the people with Moses as mediator, where the people agreed to follow the law -- they and their descendents (this is crucial).

v21 Is the Law then in opposition to the Promise (e.g. did God change his ultimate goal and decide that he wanted the law rather than promise)? No, because the law could give life, then righteousness would come from the law.

v22 - But we know that all are under sin, so that the Promise might be given by faith in Jesus Christ.

v23 - 24 but before faith came, the law kept us, sealed until the time when faith was revealed. This is the idea of the law protecting us, specifically protecting the seed (the bloodline) but also protecting and teaching the people (like a schoolmaster) to be ready to receive the messiah.

But now we have justifications for both the law and the promise, and we see that they do not conflict, and that the law neither replaces the promise, nor contradicts the promise, but supports the promise.

What remains to be seen is whether we are under both the law and the promise or whether there is some way we can "graduate" from the law and only be under the promise. This is the rest of the chapter.

v25 - But when faith is come, you are no longer under the schoolmaster. You have "graduated".


Here Paul makes several arguments as to why we are no longer under the law. These arguments are different elaborations of the same theme, but are brilliant:

  1. We are not under the law because we are dead, and the law doesn't apply to a dead body. Thus by virtue of baptism, we are not under the law. This is verse 3.26, but also in light of 2.20

  2. We are not under the law because we are sons of God, and in Christ we lose our jewish identity and thus the law no longer applies to us. 2.27-28 (remember the law only applies to those at Mount Sinai and their descendents)

Thus both of the above the considerations mean we are not under the law. But then do we also escape the promise? No, when we take on the identity of Christ as co-heirs and sons of God, we inherit the promise of the seed.

Thus it all goes back the cross and resurrection. It's a brilliant argument, as are all of Paul's arguments.

  • Okay I understand this perfectly Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 14:18

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.


Background on the phrase: "by the hand of angels":

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 appears to be saying that Moses actually received the law through angels he is defending "see God and die". But actually I think he is simply working from a Greek text that says that angels were in attendance:

KJV (based on the Hebrew): Deu 33:1  And this is the blessing, wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.  Deu 33:2  And he said, The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them.  Deu 33:3  Yea, he loved the people; all his saints are in thy hand: and they sat down at thy feet; every one shall receive of thy words.  Deu 33:4  Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. 

LXX Deu 33:1 And this is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death. Deu 33:2 And he said, The Lord is come from Sina, and has appeared from Seir to us, and has hasted out of the mount of Pharan, with the ten thousands of Cades; on his right hand were his angels with him. Deu 33:3 And he spared his people, and all his sanctified ones are under thy hands; and they are under thee; and he received of his words Deu 33:4 the law which Moses charged us, an inheritance to the assemblies of Jacob.

So because Paul's "Bible" was the LXX and not the Hebrew scriptures he believes that the law was given by the hand of angels.

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.


But why a mediator at all? Or why not? How does this contribute to his arguments?

"A mediator is not of one but God is one."

My take is that he is contrasting a law with a promise. The inheritance, he argues, is by promise and not by law:

Gal 3:18  For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.

So if the inheritance comes by a promise, why did God give a law? He gave the law in order to turn Israel's sins into transgressions:

Rom 4:13  For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.  Rom 4:14  For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:  Rom 4:15  Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.  Rom 4:16  Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,

The law was a deal. The deal was that if the People (the Jews) honored the terms of the Suzerain treaty by keeping its laws they would have his favor.

The promise was unilateral. There were no conditions. God promised something and so he needed no mediator and his seed needed no mediator.


The sudden mention of "God is one" is due to Paul's habit of a wordplay, which may have been some midrashic way of argumentation. The similar switch on the word is about the curse of the law due to disobedience; and Christ being cursed in the way of his death (Gal 3:11-13). Then the argument is about the superiority of the promise covenant than the Mosaic law covenant.

[ERV Gal 3:17-18] Now this I say; A covenant confirmed beforehand by God, the law, which came four hundred and thirty years after, doth not disannul, so as to make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no more of promise: but God hath granted it to Abraham by promise.

The promise covenant was made by God directly to Abraham, unlike the law given to Israel through Moses, as the mediator. So, the rhetoric about mediator implying two parties, not one, but God is one. This oneness of God (monotheism) is used to show a dual meaning of one party being in the direct covenant. 3:20 ESV Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

The inheritance of the covenant to become an heir of Abraham, no longer comes by the law, since the promised seed has arrived and given them the spirit as proof (Gal 3:2-3), thus they are foolish in going back to the dead law. The old covenant has been made obsolete, and the law is no longer the means for justification or righteousness of God.

Ellicott commentary on Gal 3:19:

In the hand of a mediator.—Through the instrumentality of a third person, distinct from the contracting parties—i.e., in this case, Moses. The term “mediator” was commonly applied to Moses in the Rabbinical writings, and appears to be hinted at in Heb. 8:6, where our Lord is spoken of as “a mediator of a better covenant.” Many of the fathers, following Origen, took the mediator here to be Christ, and were thus thrown out in their interpretation of the whole passage.

The writer of Hebrews is more articulate and modern in writing, and leaves no confusion and difficulty as with Paul. He mentions Christ as the superior mediator in the new covenant, giving a superior law and covenant than Moses. The laws in the minds and the hearts.

[ESV Heb 8:6-13] But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. ​For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.