‘What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made’, Gal. 3. 19 NKJV.
In the opening sixty-nine chapters of the Bible, mankind was tested by God under various stewardships. Under innocence, conscience, government and promise, man failed.
In Exodus chapter 20 God introduced a brand-new administrative system, a means of regulating His dealings with mankind, specifically through the nation of Israel.
This stewardship, the dispensation of law, was given especially to Israel. Although it was a new system, it did not completely replace the three previous systems. The law was added to the promise which was still in effect, Gal. 3. 19-21. Nations still had governments and individuals still had consciences. The Lord said to Israel,
‘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 will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’, Exod. 19. 5, 6 NIV.
Despite His special choosing of Israel, God did not want to make it difficult for Gentile nations to worship Him, so He chose carefully where to place Israel – at the axis of three continents. The law, proclaimed and practised by Israel, was to be a witness to the nations of God’s holy standards, Deut. 4. 6-8. There was even provision in the law for Gentiles to be brought into the family of Israel and be counted among the chosen people, Exod. 12. 48.
However, the nations largely continued to reject God. A few individuals believed, like Rahab and Ruth. For brief periods, some nations recognized Israel’s pre-eminence, such as Tyre and Sheba in 1 Kings chapters 5 and 10. These examples prove the system was a good system – it could have worked. But most of the Gentiles did not respond as God required. They did not come to Israel to worship the God of Israel. They worshiped idols, and some nations actively opposed God’s people.
Not only did the nations fail, Israel also failed under the law. The ‘house-rules’ for Israel were very clear. The commandments were written out in great detail so that everyone knew exactly what they must do, Deut. 30. 11-14. The law codified God requirements, showing sin for what it really was.
God promised to bless Israel if they kept the law, but punish them if they disobeyed. The unconditional promises to Abraham were unshakeable, and will be fulfilled one day, but national blessing was conditional on obedience.
Israel failed again and again. Initially they failed by ignoring the law, flagrantly disregarding its commandments. And, instead of teaching the nations to worship Jehovah, Israel followed the gods of the nations! In response, God disciplined His people, sending them into Babylon.
But, after the exile, they failed again, this time by adding to the law, inventing rules and traditions of their own. Sometimes they obeyed the letter, but not the spirit of the law.
‘He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”’, Mark 7. 6, 7 NKJV.
But the Lord was merciful. Even though Israel deserved to be punished a second time, God sent His own Son to save them. But they rejected and killed Him, Luke 24. 20. During the period of the Acts, Israel continued to live under the law, 1 Cor. 9. 20, but in rejecting the One who is the fulfilment of the law, resisted the Holy Spirit, Acts 7. 51.
>The system of law did not work. The fault was not with the system. Romans chapter 7 verse 12 affirms that the law is holy, righteous and good. Rather, the problem was with the people, Heb. 8. 8.
So, God punished Israel for failing to do what He had required. This judgement took place in AD 70. Jerusalem was destroyed; the Jews scattered. The law administration was rendered obsolete. As the word ‘till’ in Galatians chapter 3 verse 19 makes clear, it was only ever intended to be temporary anyway.1
But God is gracious. He had already begun to establish a new and better arrangement.