February 2020

February 2020

Perplexing Passages of Scripture: A Mediator of One?

A few months ago, I mentioned in church that there was one verse that has been widely recognized as the most difficult in the New Testament. I didn’t tell what it was, though! So here it is: “Now a mediator is not of one, but God is one” (Gal. 3:20).

On first glance, this may not look all that difficult. We know that God is one. One of the most critical verses in the Old Testament, which formed part of ancient Israel’s basic “creed,” asserts the oneness of God: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). Most ancient peoples were polytheists, worshiping many gods, but Israel was unique in asserting that there is only one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who revealed Himself through Moses. We Christians, too, worship only one God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who, though three distinct Persons, are nevertheless one and the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. St. Paul is clear: “God is one.”

The other part of Paul’s statement doesn’t seem all that difficult either: “A mediator is not of one.” The ESV translates, “An intermediary implies more than one,” which is a clearer way of saying the same thing. And it’s true, isn’t it? If I tell you that I need a mediator, or an intermediary, or a go-between, what will you immediately conclude? That I need someone to mediate between me and someone else! There are two or more parties to an agreement or a conflict. If I’m all on my own, i.e., if I’m the only party involved, I don’t need a mediator. But if I have a disagreement of some kind, or if I have difficulty communicating, and if there are multiple parties involved, I do indeed need a mediator, someone who can help two different parties come to mutual understanding. “An intermediary implies more than one.” “A mediator is not of one.”

So both points are clear enough: There’s only one God, and no one has to mediate when there’s only one party. But how do those two points fit together? And how do they fit into the wider context of Paul’s argument in Galatians? That’s what has led to literally hundreds of different interpretations of this one verse, the most difficult in all the New Testament. Martin Luther offered his own interpretation in his great Galatians commentary—and I find it entirely unconvincing! (Nothing against Luther, of course.)

But I have my own interpretation, one that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’m hoping that someday I’ll stumble across some church father or recent commentator who comes to the same conclusion I have, so I know I’m not crazy. But for now I’ll ask you to indulge me as I share my own interpretation of this difficult verse…

In Paul’s argument, a mediator was required at the giving of the Law. God did not speak directly to the people of Israel. He spoke to Moses, who spoke to the people on God’s behalf. Likewise, when the people made their requests known to God, they didn’t do so directly, but through Moses. So God was one party, the people were another, and they needed a mediator to mediate between them.

But 430 years earlier, when God had given His promise to Abraham and his Seed (which is Christ), the promise that in Abraham’s Seed all the gentiles would be blessed, there was no mediator. There were not multiple parties to the promise. Why was there no mediator needed for this promise, the preaching of the Gospel to the Patriarchs? Paul’s answer is that “God is one.” What that must mean is that there is only one party to the promise of the Gospel. It is God who makes the promise, and it is God who receives the promise. One God, one party to the promise—no need for a mediator! And in fact the Seed of Abraham to whom the promise had been given would turn out to be God in the flesh, one God with the Father.

That is why, as Paul says shortly after our difficult verse, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), which makes us “Abraham’s Seed, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). Through our union with Christ by faith, the promise made to Him comes also to us! So “there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). We need Jesus to mediate God’s promise to us, but Jesus doesn’t need anyone to mediate the promise to Him, because He is one God with the Father.

Again, I don’t know for sure if this is really what Paul means. The fact that I can’t find anyone else who’s come to the same conclusion makes me seriously doubt that mine is the right answer. But it is an answer, and if you’re reading your Bible closely enough to be perplexed by a verse like this, I hope this can be of help to you in making sense of it all! God grant us a right understanding of His Word, and God assure us of His promise of salvation through faith in Christ.

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf