Much of what follows does so because of what Paul has insisted in regards to Jews, Gentiles, and God’s covenant. After this rebuke to some portion of the Galatian congregation, which has followed his dissertation on justification (focused on Jew, Gentile, and God’s covenant), Paul moves on to a discussion of Abraham, which is the same thing that happens to take place in the letter to the Romans when he deals with justification (which should be quite telling when we consider the nature of justification from Paul’s perspective).
Before analyzing those statements, a quick digression. Remember, when we look at Paul’s letters, we have to allow the narrative to build on itself, so we do not inject ideas from other letters into the interpretation of the letter, supplying a pile of isolated texts that will serve as proofs of our thesis. Rather, we explore the letter on their own terms, because this is what allows us to, with obvious limitations, climb inside the mind of the Apostle. Getting our minds around his thinking, as it is illustrated by his letters, is what allows us to grapple with other letters by Paul on their own terms.
This climbing, of course, takes place as we do our best to hear Paul as a denizen of the first century, thus extending our contextual approach beyond the context of the reading Scripture within Scripture, but also reading Scripture within its historical and cultural context, which equips us to make far more appropriate applications of the words of Scripture and the message of the Gospel to our own lives and times. Though we do not presume to limit the abilities of God to communicate by His Spirit, and for the Spirit to communicate through His apostles in ways that transcend time and culture, thus rendering context irrelevant, the reading of Scripture seems to be far more satisfying and appropriate when we attempt to hear what we now call Scripture as it was intended to be heard by its original audience; and then, because of the Spirit’s work that has inspired a loyal faith in the crucified and resurrected One, His Gospel, and the records of the early church (the letters of the New Testament) that saw the elect people of God attempting to work out the implications of that Gospel, becomes that which is transcendent and able to speak into any time and any culture.
Keeping in mind the essence of justification, which includes the spreading of God’s covenant to Gentiles, on new terms related to belief in Jesus as Lord, we hear Paul say “But the Scripture imprisoned everything and everyone under sin so that the promise could be given---because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ---to those who believe” (3:22). Here, Paul has built on everything that his listeners have previously heard, and especially words such as “yet we know that no one is justified by the works o the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16). In verse twenty-two of chapter three, the promise that is given is the promise of the blessings of the covenant. To whom is it available? It is available to “everything and everyone,” and it is experienced by those who believe in Jesus, as God has demonstrated His faithfulness to Israel and to all of humanity through Jesus, and as Jesus (God manifest) has demonstrated His faithfulness to Israel and to all humanity through His mission.
This faithfulness is paramount. This belief in the idea that Jesus is Lord, which represents God’s faithfulness to His covenant, is paramount. Paul writes that “before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed” (3:23). Indeed, before faith came---before entrance upon the covenant was able to be attained through a loyal trust in Jesus as Lord of all, participation in the covenant was bound to the observance of and adherence to specific covenant markers that served as walls to the promises and as walls to the people that observed these traditions. Paul seems to be communicating that even though the Jews saw the covenant markers as walls that kept Gentiles out, thus preserving their special status as God’s elect peoples, the fact of the matter is that those covenant markers that separated Jew from Gentile were actually walls that imprisoned God’s people and His covenant---keeping them from experiencing the full blessing that had been intended for them.
To that Paul adds, “Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith” (3:24). Prior to the coming of the Christ (the Messiah, the King), the covenant markers, which had been the means by which one could be identified as righteous, had been standing watch outside that prison that had been erected around the covenant and its people. With the coming of the Christ, however, a new covenant marker had come, with that covenant markers being, as we have stated so many times, belief in Jesus as Lord. Now, the declaration of righteousness---the means by which one is identified as being righteous (in right covenant standing), is faith’s confession of the lordship of that Christ, and a life of response suited to the realities and requirements of His kingdom and His rule.