“Faith” (v.23) is just believing what God says, and men have always had faith (Heb.11:4). So when Paul talks about a time “before faith came” (v.23), he must be talking about a different kind of faith—and he is! He’s talking about “the faith” that he mentions again at the end of verse 23. That’s a reference to the body of truth revealed to Paul, the one he told the Corinthians to “stand fast” in (I Cor.16:13).
Before that body of truth came, we were kept under the law, “shut up unto” the faith, meaning we had no contact with it, as we see in how that phrase is used in II Samuel 20:3. That’s because the body of truth revealed to Paul was a mystery.
But why would a Jew like Paul say to Gentiles like the Gala-tians that “we” were under the law? It’s because if a Gentile wanted to be saved under the law, he had to go see a Jew, who would teach him how the law said he could be saved by getting circumcised, and keeping the law’s offerings, sabbaths, and feasts, etc. So Jews and Gentiles were under the law, shut up to the faith “afterward” revealed to Paul.
This wasn’t to deprive us of that faith. We just weren’t ready for it. When God heard the Jews say they would keep all the things in the law (Ex.24:3), it showed they thought they could keep it well enough to be saved. They had to be taught they couldn’t, so God sent them to school for 1500 years.
You see, “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal.3:24). A schoolmaster was a teacher, but also a disciplinarian who spanked a student if he was bad, as all teachers used to do. The law was a schoolmaster because it taught God’s rules, but spanked the Jews with things like bad crops and bad health, etc. And you’d think that after 1500 years of being spanked for being bad, they would have learned the lesson that they couldn’t be saved by being good!
But they didn’t. And men still need to learn this lesson. So Paul says we should use the law to teach them. That’s the lawful “use” of the law (ITim.1:8,9). It wasn’t given to righteous (saved) men, it was given to unsaved men to teach them they need righteousness. But after you use the law to teach a sinner that lesson, the law should “perish with the using” (Col.2:20,22), for after we are “justified by faith,” we are no longer under the schoolmaster of the law (Gal. 3:24,25).
The legalizers were telling the Galatians they had to keep the law to be saved, but Paul told them they were “children of God by faith in Christ” (3:26). God made us His children by baptizing us into the Body of Christ (v.27 cf. I Cor.12:13). When that happened, we “put on Christ” (v.27). The legalizers were telling the Galatians they had to “put on righteous-ness” as Job did (Job 29:14) by doing righteous things (12-17). Paul says if you received “the gift of righteousness” (Rom.5:17), you’ve put on Christ, God’s righteousness (ICor.1:30; II Cor.5:21). Even under the law, saved Jews knew God clothed them with righteousness (Isa. 61:10).
The legalizers were telling the Galatians they had to become Jews to be saved, for that’s what the law said (Ex.12:48). But Paul says there’s neither “Jew nor Greek” in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Under the law, Gentiles were servants to Jews Lev. 25:45,46) and always will be, even in the kingdom of heaven on earth (Isa. 14:1,2;61:5) when men will be back under the law. But there’s “neither bond nor free” in Christ (Gal.3:28). Under the law, women couldn’t be priests (Deut. 21:5), and priests brought God and men together with sacrifices. But there is “neither male nor female” in Christ, so even women can be “ambassadors for Christ” (IICor.5:20) who can bring God and men together by offering them Christ’s sacrifice.
Christ was Abraham’s seed (Mt.1:1), so if you’re in Christ, you are too (Gal.3:29)—his spiritual seed, the one God promised eternal life to (Gen.13:15 cf. Rom.4:13-16). Study Romans 4:13-16 to find out more about how that works!