One thing that may puzzle some people, is why, after the fall of Adam, God waited for literally thousands of years to provide the remedy to our sin problem. We know that Christ is the only remedy for our fallen state — and yet, God waited for so long to provide this solution. Why did God do this?
Why the long and arduous history of Israel? Why the law? Why the sacrifices? Why the priests and Moses and the tribes and all that stuff?
This is actually a really good question, and one that requires an answer from Paul himself! In Galatians 3-4, Paul is combatting a teaching that the Mosaic law, with all of it’s ceremonial and civil commands, gives life, or saves. Paul repudiates this pretty harshly, explaining that it is only Christ who saves, and to lean upon the law is to reject Christ himself.
Of course then, the question arises as to the reason or purpose of the law. “If the law can’t save, then why would God give it?”, an opponent of Paul might ask. This question is directly related to our question: why this whole history of Israel (which includes Moses and the law and sacrifices etc), if only Jesus saves?
Paul gives a profound answer. And in essence, what Paul says, is that law, and the history of Israel, was God’s means to preparing and tutoring mankind for the coming of Jesus. It was a sort of like a preparatory school, to get humanity ready, as it were, to receive Jesus. In Galatians 3:24, Paul calls the law a “pedagogue”, or a tutor, which taught basic principles to humanity. He also compares mankind to children in Galatians 4:3 (“in the same way, when we were children…”). And what Paul is attempting to explain here, is that post-fall humanity, was not only in a state of fallenness, but also in a state of infancy, or immaturity, and had to be “schooled”, as it were, in order to understand Christ.
Frank Sheed says of Paul’s explanation here, that “by [Adam’s] sin, mankind threw away the maturity God had conferred upon it, started it off with, so to speak. It had gone after a childish dream and must now go through all the pains of growing back to the maturity it had lost” (Theology and Sanity, pg 187).
So mankind was in a sort of childish, immature state, after the fall. And God could not send Christ at that time — why? — because they would not have received him, nor would they have understood him! With that in mind, Paul says that God gave the law to Israel, with all of it’s civil and ceremonial rules, to teach mankind divine principles, which would in time prepare them for the coming of Christ, with the end goal that mankind “might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5).
How did the law teach mankind? Paul says that the law was a sort of “ABC’s”, or basic building blocks, for relationship with God. The law taught the moral character of God. The sacrifices taught the penalty of disobedience. The priesthod taught the principle of mediation, and so on. In other words, the law was, in essence, elementary school. Philip Ryken explains further:
To follow [Paul’s] analogy through, the Old Testament law was like elementary school for the people of God. The Jews had specific rules to govern their conduct, what the writer of Hebrews called “regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:10). When it came to worship, the Jews had to go to a particular place and offer particular sacrifices in a particular way. Keeping all these requirements was like being in grammar school, tracing the ABCs that were first written by the hand of God.
Eventually, schoolchildren outgrow their elementary education. They master the alphabet and move on to composition. In the same way, God raised his people on the law to prepare them for the gospel. The Puritan William Perkins thus described Israel as “a little school set up in a corner of the world; the law of Moses was, as it were, an ABC, or primer, in which Christ was revealed to the world…
Those Judaizers had been telling the Galatians that the law was a graduate school for the gospel. But Paul insisted that being under the law was actually a sign of spiritual immaturity. For the Galatians to go back to the law would be like a Ph.D. repeating kindergarten to work on his alphabet. (Galatians, pg158)
The law, then, was a pedagogue, or a tutor, which gave context and prepared Israel (and the watching world) for Christ! And apparently this divine pedagogy took thousands of years. And, as Paul says, “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5). Paul says, that there was a fullness of time, a time when God’s tutelage was complete — and that was the right time to send his Son.
Frank Sheed explains this verse further:
Mankind did, in some way clear to the eye of God and half-clear to the eye of man, grow up. The fullness of time came… We seem to see, though it would be absurd to pretend in such a matter that we could be certain, that the Law had done for the Jews all that it had in it to do. Trained by the Law and hammered by their enemies, they had come to a splendid point of development…
But the preparation was not only of the Jews, nor the fullness of time only a matter of their coming to maturity. For the Gentiles, too, the time was at the full. The history of the human race is one story from end to end, not a collection of unrelated short stories. The history of the race, says St. Augustine, is the story of one man. It was the race that fell in Adam, it was the race that was to be redeemed: in between the race had to be made ready… For Jew and for Gentile [then], it was the fullness of time. Christ came that all things might be re-established in Him. (Theology and Sanity, pg 188, 205-06, 209-10)
So then, we might say the mankind had matured (if we keep the imagery Paul gives), or graduated, and was ready to understand Christ. God was, as St. Irenaeus says, a Divine Pedagogue, a Divine Tutor. He says in his Against Heresies,
[In the time of the OT, God] took His people in hand, teaching them, unteachable as they were, to follow Him. He gave them prophets, accustoming man to bear His Spirit and to have communion with God on earth. He Who stands in need of no one gave communion with Himself to those who need Him. Like an architect He outlined the plan of salvation to those who sought to please Him. By His own hand He gave food in Egypt to those who did not see Him. To those who were restless in the desert He gave a law perfectly suited to them. To those who entered the land of prosperity He gave a worthy inheritance. He killed the fatted calf for those who turned to Him as Father, and clothed them with the finest garment. In so many ways He was training the human race to take part in the harmonious song of salvation.
God, the great trainer, the great tutor, prepares mankind to receive Christ!