"Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith." (Gal 3:27)
I don't know how many times I have seen or heard this scripture misapplied from the pulpit, in Bible classes, in articles, and even in commentaries. The usual statement goes something like this: "The Old Testament was intended to teach us about Christ." Sometimes the person goes on to say that the main failing of the Jews in respect to the Law is that they failed to recognize the Messiah when he came. While many did fail to recognize him, Paul hardly implies that that was the main, or even a significant, failing of the Jews.
One reason this passage is so misunderstood is the word, in the King James Version, "schoolmaster." A transliteration of the Greek word used is our word "pedagogue." The word has come to mean a teacher, particularly one who teaches by rote without paying attention to the needs of the students; thus its use in the sense of a teacher by those who give the explanation above. Unfortunately, that is not what the word meant when Paul used it.
A second reason the passage is so misapplied is that it is often wrestled out of its proper context. Let us look at both of these reasons in order to come to a proper understanding of what the passage really means.
What is a Schoolmaster?
Contrary to our modern usage the pedagogue is not a teacher. Vine defines the word,
A "child-leader." The paidagogos was not the instructor of the child; he exercised a general supervision over him and was responsible for his moral and physical well-being. To understand it as equivalent to 'teacher' introduces an idea entirely foreign to the passage, and throws the Apostle's argument into confusion. (Vine, New Testament Words, p. 329)
The schoolmaster was a slave, possibly even one who was illiterate. His job was to get the student to school and home, and possibly to make sure that he attended to his studies. He did not teach the student; that was the job of the teacher.
How does this relate to the function of the Law of Moses? It is specifically the Law of Moses that Paul referred to as a pedagogue, not the period before the Law in which Abraham and others lived. The Law was our pedagogue. There are several implications from the true meaning of the word in question.
First, the Law was not meant as a teacher. This in itself means several things. The Law of Moses, which applied specifically to the Jewish people, was not intended to teach them about the Messiah. The Law and the Prophets did teach about Christ, but that wasn't the primary purpose of the Law. In some cases it was a purpose of the prophets, but even then not usually the primary purpose. If some of the Jews did not recognize the Messiah, the Law was not at fault. The Law was not to teach about the Messiah, so a failure to learn about him can not be attributed to the Law, but (as we will see) failure to follow the Law.
Nor was the Law intended to bring non-Jews to Christ. Since most Christians today are not, and have never been, Jews, either religiously or ethnically, the Law was not directly intended to bring them to Christ. Note Paul's use of the words "our," "us," and "we." Whenever he uses those words in Galatians, he is frequently talking about the Jews, of which he was one. It is true that the Jews were to be "a light unto the nations", and therefore the Law may have been an influence indirectly on the Gentiles, but it was not intended to teach the Gentiles anything directly. This is not to say that the Law of Moses, or the Old Testament as a whole, has no value to those of us who are not Jewish. All of the Old Testament, not just the Law, "was written for our learning." (Rom 15:4) We can, indeed must, use it to understand the New Testament. But again, that was not the primary purpose of the Law, as stated by Paul in Galatians.
Second, the Law's true function was as a disciplinarian. It was, in Paul's phrase, "to bring us to Christ." In that sense it was to prepare the Jews for the Messiah; it was to take them to the Messiah so they could learn from him. Earlier in the chapter Paul had further expressed the thought. "Wherefore then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made." (Gal 3:19) Because the son needed discipline, because in Egypt they had almost sunk as low as they could go, God gave the Law to the Jews "until the seed should come." However, even the chosen people misunderstood the meaning of the Law. "But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law." (Rom 9:31-32)
The Schoolmaster In Context
This second implication of the meaning of the word goes directly to the context in which Paul refers to the law as a pedagogue. Even if we did not have scholars of the Greek language to tell us what it meant during the first century, one would think people would have gotten the message from the context.
As pointed out above, the function of the schoolmaster was to "bring" to Christ. Why are the Jews God's chosen people? For what were they chosen? There is a Midrash (teaching/story) in the Oral Law that says God offered the Law to all other nations before the Jews, but none would accept it but them. Why were the Jews destined to accept the Torah and not everyone else? One idea, and a concept taught by Paul in the verse in question, is that the Jews were chosen to be the line through which the Messiah came. The Law was instrumental in keeping that line pure.
Another thought is that it was the Jews who were to be brought to Christ, specifically and independently of the rest of the world. Why were the Jews to be brought to Christ? Why not the entire world? Again Paul explains in this same book, Galatians. It has, in part, to do with the last part of the verse. Justification by faith is one of Paul's recurring themes. It appears here in Galatians, and in Romans and Hebrews. (See "The Just Shall Live", September, 2000) The reason the Jews were chosen to accept the Law of Moses was so that they, specifically, might be made just by faith, as was our father, Abraham. It seems almost contradictory; I will give you a law so that you may be made just in spite of the law. Actually, though, that may be what is meant. The Law tends to make legalists out of people, or it makes anarchists. Either one tries to live by keeping the law in detail or one gives up on keeping the law altogether. In either case, justification comes through one's own efforts, if at all. It also shows, though, that one can not keep any law perfectly. That should bring about the third option, faith in the mercy and grace of God. That was the purpose of the Law of Moses for the Jewish people.
But how does that relate to the rest of us? After all, God's mercy and grace are available even to those not under the Law of Moses. Paul found it significant that Jesus was Jewish. "But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." (Gal 4:4-5) Why is this significant? For the same reason that the Law was to bring the Jews to Christ. Jesus lived under the law to prove that justification by faith was possible under the Law. If he had been born a Gentile, then it would be possible to argue that salvation came through him only to the Gentiles, but the Jews could be justified by legalistic works of the Law. Paul says Jesus came as a Jew so the Jews could also receive the adoption that was to be offered to the whole world. If Jesus could save those under the Law, through faith, how much more so can he save those of us who were never under the limitations of that law!
The Law of Moses was not an instructor, but an escort. It disciplined God's people until they could learn the meaning of justification by faith that had been originally expressed to their, and our, father, Abraham. Because it served so well as an escort and disciplinarian, even those of us who are not bound by that law may have the adoption as sons, just as those who had been accompanied by the Law of Moses. We are both taught, not by the Law, but by the lawgiver, the Messiah of God.