What do you think of when you hear the word, “custody”? We use the term “custody” in a couple of ways these days.
The one that comes to my mind first is when parents are separated and must determine who gets to spend time with their children (and when). In other cases, parents voluntarily choose to place their children in the custody of others: I remember leaving my children with their grandparents when my wife and I went on a vacation years ago, and I think of those in England during the second World War, who sent their children away from the dangers of London as it was being attacked.
The other definition of “custody” is when police officers or the courts detaining someone. This usually involves some metal bracelets and a special room to stay in. When someone is guilty of a significant crime, we generally expect them to remain in that custody until their debt to society has been paid. While the phrase “locked up” in the passage below might sound more like this case, I like the translation “confined”, which comes with different implications.
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Galatians 3:23-25 NIV
This passage also indicates a slightly different concept of custody, describing how the law was a “guardian”. A commentator [Sproul] says, “A ‘guardian’ was a slave responsible for a child’s training, especially for pointing out and punishing misbehavior. Like a guardian, the law pointed out sin and punished it. Another important function of guardians was to separate and protect the child from the influence of outsiders. The law functioned in a similar way to separate Israel from the Gentiles.”
The Israelite people were given the law of Moses, which obliged them to obey laws and make sacrifices when they broke the law (i.e., sinned). The law served as a “guardian”, commissioned by God the Father to take care of his people for a period of time.
The law of Moses – like a legal arrangement where the child can’t access an inheritance until an appropriate age – was fairly constraining. There wasn’t really an “out” for those who lived underneath its influence (if they wanted one). They could abandon the law – along with the God who gave them this law – but the consequences were significant. Whether they liked it or not, they were in the custody of the law.
However, the law wasn’t all about keeping them down: it had a purpose. Where we are, at this stage of history, we understand that the law showed them (and us) that we couldn’t be saved by keeping the law. Before Jesus fulfilled the law, God the Father had put His people under the care of the Law (kind of like an earthly father putting his children into the care of someone else).
The law was also productive for God’s people, providing them practical instructions for living as healthy individuals and a well-functioning society. In addition, it gave them spiritual insight and purpose.
The way I see it (and this is hardly original to me), the law of Moses showed the Israelites what it meant to live like God’s chosen people. Whether they followed it or not, it identified them as a special group, and it served as their guardian. Their heavenly Father hadn’t left them alone with the Law (like a parent going away and entrusting their children to someone else), but He was using the Law temporarily until more of His plan became known, when the time was right.
And, the law prepared the people for Jesus’ coming, both through prophecy and teaching. Books like Hebrews show how Jesus was the fulfillment of what had been written, whether in the law or the prophets.
If you think of a child put under the care of a guardian (or even a felon held in custody by the police), this custody is ideally a temporary situation, though. Whether the person in custody is a child or a convict, they should look forward to the end of their time in custody: the child wanting to be reunited with his or her parents, and the convict wanting to be free from prison. It wouldn’t make sense for either of these examples to remain under custody (whether by a guardian or a jailer) once their time under “guardianship” was up.
However, even with temporary custody, there’s still a purpose for both kinds of custody described at the start of this article: preventing either of these people from making bad choices until they are – hopefully – ready to make wise decisions with their lives and their possessions.
In the same way, as verse 25 points out, once faith arrives, there’s no more need for the guardian (i.e., the law). Believers in the Galatian church were free in Jesus Christ, but those who claimed that they had to remain under the constraints of the law were trying to put them back under the guardianship of the law. This just didn’t make sense. Why would an adult be compelled to remain under the care of a steward when they are quite capable of making good decisions on their own?
So, how about you? Are you tempted to live under the custody of a law whose time as a guardian has passed, even though you should be living in the freedom that Jesus Christ brings to those who accept Him? Or, are you still stuck in the custody of sin, having given your life over to selfish choices without repenting (turning around) and looking back to God for a way out, which He offers to all who accept it?
I hope that neither of these is true for you, and that you are living as a member of the family of God, having been brought into that family through accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, and trying to live up to the standards of this auspicious family (but not looking to your good works as the reason why you got to be part of it).
If not, though, I encourage you to step out of the guardianship of structures that were meant to be temporary (or avoided entirely), and embrace living in the family of God as His child.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for August 15, 2021
- The Lookout, August 15, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- ESV Reformation Study Bible, R.C. Sproul, editor, © 2015 Ligonier Ministries, via BibleGateway.com