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GALATIANS 3:19

What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. [Emphasis mine]

Which/what ‘transgressions’ is this verse referencing?

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  • Have you never read Deuteronomy 32:17-19? Sep 12 at 21:30
  • ‎@חִידָה I’m not sure how you make this connection? V19 reflects Gods response…. “And when the Lord saw He spurned them,”, so was the Law a response to the earlier verses? You may be able to reason that, but would have difficulty exegetically connecting this passage.
    – Dave
    Sep 12 at 22:17
  • 1
    Transgression = all transgressions, ie, all sin.
    – Dottard
    Sep 12 at 22:35
  • @Dottard If we accept the connection that transgressions = [all] ‘sin’, are you suggesting? that the reason the Law came was because of ‘sin’? Remember that John said transgressions only came once the Law came and ‘made’ sin a transgression - so (and I accept it may be just me) there is clearly a disconnect here, because this verse is saying the Law came because of transgressions? (Reference Romans 4:15)
    – Dave
    Sep 12 at 23:12
  • You are correct - the question might be better asked about the CONTRADICTION between Gal 3:19 and Rom 4:15. That will bring more focused answers.
    – Dottard
    Sep 12 at 23:22
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Paul explained in Romans 7:7-9 that without the Law people didn't recognize that they sinned. Paul mentioned covet because it was an internal sin of the mind and harder to avoid compared to keeping the laws through external actions. Transgressions is another word for sins. As Paul describes below, the Law was given so that people would know they sinned/transgressed. Transgression implies breaking a law. Sin implies missing the mark. So, they have different implications, but describe the same actions.

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. (Rom. 7:7–9, ESV)

To some degree people were aware of sin before the Law, but not to its fullest extent.

 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:14–16, ESV)

Remember Adam did violate one command/law, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The ten commandments were especially important for Israel from which the Messiah would come because, while the surrounding cultures might have do not murder and do no steal, they did not have worship the one God only and don't have any graven images. Israel was always in danger of loosing that distinctive; thus the captivity.

The other aspect of Gal. 3 is the παιδαγωγὸς, which has no equivalent to translate into English. It was a servant who went with the child to school to make sure the child behaved and accomplished his lessons. Thus, the other aspect of because of transgressions was to guard Israel from transgressions until Christ came. Not that they didn't transgress, but that they were absorbed into the idolatry of the surrounding nations. The concept of captive under the Law is Israel under a παιδαγωγὸς until Christ came bringing grace.

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 (παιδαγωγὸς) until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:23–24, ESV)

παιδαγωγός, οῦ, ὁ (..) attendant (slave), custodian, guide, lit. ‘boyleader’, the man, usu. a slave (Plut., Mor. 4A, B), whose duty it was to conduct the boy or youth (Plut., Mor. 439F) to and from school and to superintend his conduct gener.; he was not a ‘teacher’ (despite the present mng. of the derivative ‘pedagogue’ [cf. Murray, New (Oxford) Engl. Dict. -- Arndt, W., Gingrich, F. W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (1979). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature : a translation and adaption of the fourth revised and augmented edition of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schrift en des Neuen Testaments und der ubrigen urchristlichen Literatur (p. 603). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The captivity of the παιδαγωγός is the curses for not following the Law. These curses lead to the captivity of Israel and Judah. The remnant of Judah that returned after the captivity no longer worshipped idols.

“But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. (Deut. 28:15, ESV)

Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. 33 A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually, (Deut. 28:32–33, ESV)

 You shall father sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity. (Deut. 28:41, ESV)

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  • 1
    So if as you outline transgressions are ‘sin’ - then are you saying the Law was added because of ‘sin’? (You don’t actually say this, so I’m asking whether this implication is correct?)
    – Dave
    Sep 12 at 22:23
  • @Dave: Is my answer clearer after the edit?
    – Perry Webb
    Sep 12 at 23:25
  • Yes, clearer, thanks. I’ll consider that - but your line “people didn't know what sin was.” has me thinking. I appreciate that Paul seems to say that, but I’m not sure that the Bible pre-Law reflects this. And if? that’s why the Law ‘came’, then why did it take over 2000 years to come?
    – Dave
    Sep 12 at 23:35
  • I also added the aspect of the παιδαγωγὸς and will add a good reference when found.
    – Perry Webb
    Sep 12 at 23:43
  • Now my answer is more complete.
    – Perry Webb
    Sep 12 at 23:50
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The immediate context of the passage implies that it was the transgressions of the children of Israel who were the recipients of the law at Mt. Sinai. However, the text seems non-specific, and the larger context shows it could certainly apply to any or all transgressions.

Consider the passage in context.

KJV Promises to Abraham and to Us
Gal 3:16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
Gal 3:17 And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.
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.
Gal 3:19 Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
Gal 3:20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.
Gal 3:21 Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.
Gal 3:22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

Paul starts with the promise made to Abraham regarding his seed. At the time that promise was made, he had no son at all. He was 75 years old, and had just entered the land of Canaan (a part of Egypt at that time). Paul refers again to this promise, calling it a "covenant," and then speaks of the "law" which came 430 years later. Exodus 12:40-41 gives us that 430-year period of time, which had begun with Abraham and which concluded in the Exodus, at which time God had given His law at Mt. Sinai.

Clearly, then, "the law" referred to is the Ten Commandment law, and the "covenant" Paul references is what we call the Abrahamic covenant. If the law was given at Mt. Sinai, for whose transgressions would that be?

We might interpret those to have been the sins of the multitude which left Egypt. We might interpret it to address the sins of the people throughout the 430-year period from the time of God's covenant with Abraham. Or we might interpret it to refer to all sins generally, including those of all throughout the entire history of the earth--for certainly, God's law was for all people and all time.

I would submit that the word "transgressions" in this passage should be applied in its broadest sense, for God's law is also given broadly to all of us. Paul gives evidence of this broad application by paralleling the promise God made with Abraham to the promise we all receive by faith in Jesus Christ (vs. 22), despite the fact that "the scripture hath concluded all under sin." In other words, all of us are participant to transgression.

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  • A well laid out answer - thanks. But, you say the “context of the passage implies that it was the transgressions of the children of Israel, but then leave that out from your summary in the final paragraph? If? we just take the [apparent] context - which transgression(s) of the Israelites would/could have prompted the need for the Law?
    – Dave
    Sep 12 at 23:19
  • @Dave Perhaps you are zeroing in on a more specific part of your question, but please don't misunderstand my reference to the context. I have specified both "the immediate context" and "the larger context" in my opening statement. The former might include vss. 17-19, whereas continuing to vs. 22 we get a fuller picture. Based on James 2:10, I don't think it is generally helpful to seek a specific transgression as necessitating the law.
    – Polyhat
    Sep 12 at 23:24
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The people of Israel rejected a direct relationship with God.

In the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Israelite people came upon God as He sat upon Mt. Sinai in the form of a cloud of fire and thunder, and when He offered to make them a nation of priests who had a personal relationship with Him, they said "no", and told Moses to go up the mountain to get laws that they could follow instead.

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you[a] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

Exodus 19:3-6

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

Exodus 20:18-19

As a result of them refusing God's offer of a direct personal relationship and asking Moses to intercede with Him for them, they were instead given the Law to act as a way of guiding their actions instead of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

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  • Thanks Nick. So (IIUC) your arguing that the transgressions that brought about the Law was the reaction/behaviour of the Israelites. That is one of the reasons I have seen as well. It’s not the traditional view, so it’s nice to see others who also ‘see’ that as the possible ‘transgressions’ that brought about the Law.
    – Dave
    Sep 13 at 20:15
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From the tenor of the question and the content of the comments, I suggest that this question be best addressed as an apparent contradiction between two verses:

  • Gal 3:19 - Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the seed to whom the promise referred. It was administered through angels by a mediator.
  • Rom 4:15 - And where there is no law, there is no transgression.

Thus, if there is no law, how can transgressions exist to require the need for the law given at Sinai? Thus, there appears to be a logical absurdity between these two verses.

The problem is readily resolved by noticing two things:

  1. The moral law existed well before Sinai as the appendix demonstrates
  2. Transgression, ie, sin, existed well before the formal giving of the law at Sinai and thus created the need for forgiveness and the sacrificial lamb as noted in Gen 4.

Thus, the simple solution here is just that the giving of the law at Sinai (Gal 3:19) is clearly referring to the re-giving of the law, but in written form which had not previously existed. Further, the absence of the law (Rom 4:15) refers to those who are, for whatever reason, ignorant of the law (However note Rom 2:14-16, but that is a tangent for the present discussion.)

Further, as Rom 3:21, 7:7-9, 13 reminds us, the law is essential for defining what sin is. And the law, at least in oral form, always existed; but at Sinai it was first given in written form.

APPENDIX - Moral Law before Sinai

The following (far from exhaustive) list shows that people knew of the ten commandments well before the formal giving at Mt Sinai. Indeed, we have the very general comment –

  • Gen 26:5, because Abraham listened to My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.

Commandment #1 – Worship only YHWH:

  • Gen 22:5, 24:26, 48, 52 all describe worship of the true God of heaven, YHWH.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #2 – Idolatry prohibited

  • Gen 31:32-35 – Jacob clearly understood that idolatry was forbidden.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #3 –Cursing and taking the name of the LORD in vain prohibited

  • Job 1:5 – When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.

Commandment #4 – Sabbath worship

  • Gen 2:1-3 – Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. And by the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on that day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on that day He rested from all the work of creation that He had accomplished.
  • Ex 5:5 - And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest [שָׁבַת shabath] from their burdens!”
  • Ex 16 also records the incident with manna and that collecting manna on the seventh-day Sabbath was forbidden

Commandment #5 – Respect for parents, elders and authority

  • Gen 28:6, 7 tells of the story of Jacob following his mother’s advice. Respect for parents is built into the very fabric of the patriarchal stories in Genesis.

Commandment #6 – Sanctity of Human life

  • Gen 4:8-12, 15 records Cain’s punishment for the sin of murder
  • Gen 9:5, 6 records that murder was prohibited under the ancient Noahide covenant

Commandment #7 – Adultery prohibited

  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for almost tricking a pagan king into committing adultery
  • Gen 19 records the appalling events involving attempted pack-rape of the two angels
  • Gen 39:7-9 – Joseph calls Potiphar’s wife proposal “a great evil and sin against God”.
  • Gen 49:4 – Reuben is scalded for his sin of incest
  • Gen 34 – the story of Dinah records a heinous incident involving her defilement (plus murder and lying)

Commandment #8 – Stealing prohibited and respect for property

  • Gen 30:33 – Laban and Jacob discuss the problem of stealing of wages and property
  • Gen 31:32-35 – Laban is angry about the sin of stealing the household gods

Commandment #9 – Lying prohibited; insistence of honesty and integrity

  • Gen 4 – the story of Cain being punished, among other things for not being honest with Abel and God in his statements
  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for lying to a pagan king about their marital status
  • In the story of Jacob, he is pejoratively called Jacob = “deceiver”, Gen 27:36.

Commandment #10 – Coveting prohibited

  • Gen 3:6 – the woman is tricked by the serpent using the sin of covetousness
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  • As usual, a great answer! Thanks! I accept the apologetic outline regarding the possible contradiction,but don’t personally accept this as being an issue. The [written] Law came for, or because of a reason. The only reason given is ‘the transgression’. I’m after answers that present possibilities for that ‘reason’. The Law may of been there, albeit ‘orally’ - but this [written] Law put Israel into captivity - that required someone to ‘get them out’. Many (for example Abraham) didn’t need that. This ‘transgression’ didn’t [seem to] affect those pre Sinai. But/so what was this transgression?
    – Dave
    Sep 13 at 4:19
  • @Dave - that is the point - Israel needed a written code because of all the transgression (sin) - they had forgotten the law under slavery and needed a written code to remind them.
    – Dottard
    Sep 13 at 6:09
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The law is a teacher.

God chose to give written laws to the people of Israel.

Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory and the covenants; theirs the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. 5Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them proceeds the human descent of Christ, who is God over all. Romans 9: 4-5

It is being observed that even though they had all the special caretaking from the Lord God they were still unable to keep the law. For them to have life they had to keep the whole law.

Gentiles also had the law :

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but it is the doers of the law who will be declared righteous. 14Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15So they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts either accusing or defending them. Romans 2: 13-14<

The purpose of the law is to teach us something.

What are we to learn being under the tutor of the law?

We are all dead!

Death is the ultimate affect of the law, it's also the deliverance from the law.

The law was added so Jesus could fulfill the law, die to the law and then give us his life. It's God's way of doing things so that no man boast himself. It was all done to reveal our Savior Christ and it was through his faith, and his death, his burial and resurrection that life Is in Him.

The law covers any and all transgressions ever committed by anybody and everybody.

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  • What you outline contains some fair points, (so +1 for that), but, it doesn’t address the question. (Which was) The Law came because of transgressions - what were those transgressions.
    – Dave
    Sep 13 at 20:07
  • So Dave are you saying that the law was brought forth so transgressions would be made against it? In other words transgressions had not been made yet because where there is no law there is no transgression. Rom.4:15. It was a set up so man would fail and see their failure: for the Law being powerless in that it was weak through the flesh, God, having sent His Son in likeness of sin of flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
    – Sherrie
    Sep 13 at 23:40
  • Sherrie - I’m aware of the theological response for what the Law does, but Galatians 3 clearly says the reason it (the Law) came was ‘transgressions’. So these ‘transgressions’ can not be transgressions against the Law - so my question asks… then what we’re these transgressions? Many theologians (and some answers) say ‘transgressions = sin(s)’. But, The word “transgression” (παράβασις) is not the usual word for sin. But even if, … which ‘sin(s)? I’m (personally) not fully convinced/satisfied with the traditional ‘theological view’ here.
    – Dave
    Sep 14 at 0:09
  • Dave, Transgression is sin against a known command. It is rebellion against God. Ex.16:4 Talks about a test that he gives to see if they will walk in it or not. Then said the LORD unto Moses: 'Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in My law, or not. This is The only commandment that I see that was not kept before giving of the law . They failed the test. Ex 16:28. And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?
    – Sherrie
    Sep 14 at 3:20
  • …. Interesting you highlighted the ‘test’ in Exodus 16 - because that (and the complaining etc pre Sinai) could well be argued to be the transgressions that lead to the coming of the Law. (Which would have answered my Q). Because (pre Sinai) they (transgressions) were not ‘sin’. Example, they complained about no water, but got water anyway. Later after Sinai, (post Law, i.e. now the transgressions were ‘sin’) same complaint over no water and they (the complainers) died (as specified in the Law)
    – Dave
    Sep 14 at 3:40
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Lev 16:16: Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.

It pertains to all the sin that the Israelites could commit and did commit. The words describing Sin such as transgression imply crossing the line and missing the mark. Transgression means crossing the boundary or the fence that defines sin. Thus, the law is by definition the guideline that describes sin in detail. It shows what is sin and what is not.

The noun aveirah in rabbinical Hebrew derives from the verb avar, "pass over," which in a small number of uses in the Hebrew Bible can also carry the context of transgress, as in Deuteronomy 17:2 "in transgressing his covenant" (לַעֲבֹר בְּרִיתֹֽו la-'avor berithu). In Modern Israeli Hebrew, aveira is the word for crime. (wikipedia)

It can be said concerning the law of Moses that where there is no fence, there is no transgression. The saying can be applied to the Gentiles who without the revealed law of Moses (though obeyed the basics of moral law through conscience) Romans 2. Secondly, to the people of faith under the new covenant who have received the promise. The law is no longer valid after the coming of Christ, the seed of promise. Romans 4-7, and Galatians 2-3.

The lawgiver died, and the law is no longer binding. Romans 7:1; Hebrews 9:16-17. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise. The law was given because of transgressions temporarily, and it was in effect only until the coming of the superior and perfect. Heb 8:13 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

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One of the reasons the LAW was imposed upon the Israelites is because of their rebellion against the Gospel of God, the same Gospel David wrote about (Acts 2:29-31), Abraham believed (Gal 3:8), and Peter, Paul, and Jesus preached and the last thing this condemned world will hear via an Angel sent by God (Rev 14:6) to give everyone one last opportunity to believe and be saved. Unbelief is the transgression the passage is speaking of. And we find that unbelief to be the worst transgression of all, it condemns all. (John 3:18).

We find the truth in Hebrews 3:16-4:2, that Those at Horeb heard the Gospel and chose not to believe and apply faith to it. Moses presented to them the Gospel of God yet they rebelled [trangressed] against/rejected God by not receiving it by faith.

God decided that since they rejected His Gospel, They would be shown just how impossible it is for any man to meet His standards and they incurred His Judgment through the LAW.

Every violation of the LAW leads to death. Only belief in the Gospel of God, Grace through Faith in the redeemer (The Christ to Come), led to Life in the days before Christ. Today we believe in the Redeemer (Christ Who has come).

The transgression was unbelief and rebellion that led to the LAW.

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