What’s the point of the Law? It’s one of those questions I’ve always wondered. Why did God give the Law on Mt Sinai the way He did? Why waste the time?
If Jesus is the real solution, why spend a thousand years or so piddling around with a covenant that isn’t going to work? If the Law cannot provide salvation, why bother with it?
Was the Law (and all the Old Testament) just a waste of time? Or did it have a greater purpose, some real lasting value? If so, what is it? What was the point of the Law?
It’s the question Paul is wrestling with in Galatians 3. “What then was the purpose of the Law?” (Gal. 3:19)
What fascinates me is the answer Paul gives. In 3:24 Paul says something very enlightening. The problem is, all our English versions struggle with what to do with it. The KJV says, “The Law was our schoolmaster.” The RSV renders it “custodian.” The NRSV has “disciplinarian.” Other versions say “guardian” or “teacher.” You can feel our translations struggling to find adequate wording.
The problem is, Paul is describing something in his world that no longer exists in our world. What Paul writes in Greek is:
ὥστε ὁ νόμος παιδαγωγὸς ἡμῶν γέγονεν εἰς Χριστόν, ἵνα ἐκ πίστεως δικαιωθῶμεν
Rendered more literally, he says: “The Law has become our ‘pedagogue’ unto Christ so that we may be justified by faith.”
The key word is pedagogue. You’ll note the link to modern words like pedagogy and pedagogical. Words usually linked to the teaching profession. But, again, Paul is describing something in his world that no longer exists in ours.
In essence, imagine a nanny. But, more than that, a big burly man in the prime of life as a nanny. Take it a step further. Imagine this big burly male nanny as a slave, the most trusted slave in your house. And now imagine entrusting the life of your child to him, because that’s what this nanny does. He protects and cares for your child.
In Paul’s world, there are no public schools. If you want your child to get a quality education, you have to hire a private teacher. Teachers teach from the personal homes. So, you have to find a way to get your child to the teachers house every day and back home every night.
Of course, there is no public transportation, and the streets are more dangerous for children then than now. Kidnapping children is one of the best sources of new slaves. So what to do?
This most trusted slave, the pedagogue, is the one who takes your child to school every morning and leads him back home every night. Along the way, should anyone even lay a finger on your child, he will fight to the death for him. He will give his life for your child. In that sense, he is a guardian.
However, the relationship is deeper than that. This guardian is really more of a surrogate parent – a true nanny. This is the person who cares for your child like a nanny would. He gets your child up in the morning, makes sure he gets dressed and ready for school.
This is the person who makes sure your child sits up and pays attention in school, that he minds his manners and answers ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ and is polite. This is also the person who makes sure your child eats his vegetables, washes behind his ears, and goes to bed on time.
In every sense, this nanny is like a surrogate parent. And, often, children will love this nanny more than their own parents. Cicero always spoke very kindly of his. The old pedagogue lived as a freed man in a house on Cicero’s property and was honored as a father-figure. The old man would often meet him at the door and scold him for being out late partying all night as a young man. There is a depth of relationship here.
So, this nanny is a guardian and a surrogate parent. And Paul says, that’s what the Law is for us.
The Law is the big burly male nanny whose primary job is to lead us from our parents’ house to the master teacher’s house. That is, the Law is what leads us from Father Abraham to our Lord and Savior Jesus.
No, the Law cannot save. It was never meant to save. But, it does two things. First, it mothers us, teaches us the rudiments of right from wrong, good from bad, and enforces those basic rules in our lives. How would I know what is good and holy and pure in God’s eyes had the Law not told it to me? How would I know what sin is apart from the Law? The Law teaches those rudimentary lessons. The Law scolds us when we get it wrong. Like a nagging mother.
Second, though, having taught me what sin is and that only God can truly atone for it, the Law then leads me to the only one who can save: Jesus. And that was the whole point of the Law all along, to get us to our true Savior, the one who can truly put right all we’ve put wrong.
The Law wasn’t a mistake. The Law wasn’t a waste of time. The Law taught us right from wrong, holy from sinful, and then led us straight to the source of our salvation: Jesus Christ our Lord. That was the point of the Law.
The Law is our pedagogue. One tiny word, but packed with meaning.