Many today assume that belief in any sort of higher being is oppressive, limiting, and unhealthy. Paul reflects on his early experience of religion in ways which suggest that he can relate to this. Whether or not he fully knew this at the time, in retrospect he realised that his early relationship with God was very much focused on keeping the law. This wasn’t by any means all bad for this young man because he was pretty good at it. He felt he had an edge over his contemporaries when it came to keeping the law.
But he talks about the law differently now. In other places he still acknowledges that there is something good and wonderful about God’s law but there is a dark side to the way God’s law worked out for God’s people. The apostle compares the law to a prison guard and a ‘disciplinarian’ which at that time was the slave who saw to the care, protection and discipline of the youngster, making sure that the youth went to all his lessons etc. Disciplinarians fulfilled an important role but they were about as popular as strict governesses at a later time.
But all this was, Paul writes, “before faith came”. Now, he obviously doesn’t mean to say that there were no believers at an earlier time. After all, he makes much of Abraham as the father of all who believe and Abraham lived a long time ago. What he means is faith in Jesus Christ apart from the law.
Jesus Christ came – lived a life in perfect obedience to the law – died to reconcile us with God – and was raised to new life. Everything changed. A new era had dawned, the old regulations had run their course. In Christ the people have God had reached the age of maturity. Who would want to go back to the days when a disciplinarian controlled one’s every move?
If our experience of God is oppressive, limiting, and unhealthy, it must be an experience outside of Christ, an experience that belongs to the old age of bondage from which Christ has liberated us.