Paul is completing his argument about the freedom we have in the gospel in the remaining part of Galatians chapter 4. This section is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, it assumes a lot of Old Testament knowledge. It references Abraham Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, Mount Sinai and Jerusalem. The other reason this passage is hard is that Paul is using a line of argument common among Jewish rabbis of his day, but which is foreign to us today. We will try to work through both of these hurdles as we study the text.
In Gal 4:21-31, Paul refers to a well-known Old Testament story about Hagar and Sarah. He then draws theological implications from the story, and finally applies it to us today. He says that in a manner of speaking, all of mankind can be classified as spiritual descendants of one of two mothers – Hagar and Sarah. He then goes on to talk about the implications of this in Gal 5:1-12. We who believe the gospel are the ones who are Sarah’s spiritual descendants, and it means we are completely free in Christ. However, if we try to earn favor with God, we automatically forfeit all the benefits of the gospel. The gospel is exclusive. We need to either accept it as a free gift from God in Christ Jesus, or we would be “fallen from grace” and “severed from Christ”. The implications are very serious. This is the main reason Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians.
The Example of Sarah and Hagar (Gal 4:21-31)
He starts off by facing the false teachers directly. “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you listen to the law”? (Gal 4:21). We can ask: who are those “who desire to be under the law”? Certainly it applies to Jews, and to the Judaizers who had infiltrated the church. But it also applies to every person alive today who thinks we need to do something to earn favor with God – basically every one of us, before we knew Christ. So let us see what Paul has to say!
To make his point, Paul first looks at the historical situation, then makes a theological argument, and finally applies it to us today.
The History (Gal 4:22-23)
Paul is drawing extensively on Old Testament History here. This was well known to the Jewish readers in Galatia. However, for those who are not familiar with the Bible, this can be very confusing. So let us walk through the Old Testament story of Abraham that is being referenced here. We will look at the incidents of Abraham’s life according to his age at the time they occurred.
Abraham at 75: God calls Abraham to go to Canaan, and promises him many children – too many to even count. At this time, Sarah is barren (Gen 12:1-9). In obedience, Abraham packs his bags and leaves, trusting God in faith (see Heb 11:8).
Abraham at 85: 10 years later, the promised son still hasn’t arrived. Sarah becomes impatient, and tells Abraham to have a child through her Egyptian slave maid Hagar. Abraham agrees and thus they both take matters into their own hands because they do not trust that God will fulfill His promise without some help (Gen 16:1-3)!
Abraham at 86: Hagar gets pregnant, and Sarah becomes jealous. We may think we can do things better than God, but the outcome may not turn out the way we planned, and it can be painful. It gets so hard for Hagar that she runs away. God intervenes and sends Hagar back, promising to take care of her. Then she bears a son, who Abraham names Ishmael (Gen 16:4-16).
Abraham at 99: 13 years later, God appears to Abraham and promises him a son through Sarah and tells him to name that son Isaac (Gen 17:15-19)! Sarah is past the age of child-bearing at this point. Later God makes the same promise to Sarah (Gen 18:9-11). She laughs at the thought, but lies about it when confronted by God (Gen 18:12-15). Sarah laughed, because she knew that it would need a miracle for this child of promise to be born. Things got even more complicated at this time when Abraham again acts in fear and lies to King Abimelek that Sarah was his sister. Abimelek takes Sarah to his harem, but God graciously intervenes and prevents the king from touching Sarah, and warns the king to return Sarah to Abraham immediately (Gen 20:1-18). Do not miss that fact that God waited 24 years after he made his promise to Abraham. In fact, God waited until Abraham and Sarah were “as good as dead” (Rom 4:19).
Abraham at 100: Exactly as promised, Sarah bears a son, who they call Isaac (Gen 21:1-3). He was the son of promise, and God accomplished this promise through humanly impossible odds.
Abraham at 103: There is a celebration after Isaac is weaned at age 3. At this time Ishmael who is now 17, mocks Isaac. Sarah sees only one solution to this problem but this is a costly one. Both the slave Hagar and her son Ishmael should be cast out of the family. This breaks Abraham’s heart, but God confirms that Abraham should do this and both Hagar and Ishmael are “cast out” (Gen 21:8-14).
Reading this, it just appears to be the story of a family problem. However, beneath the surface are meanings of tremendous spiritual implications. Abraham, the two mothers Hagar and Sarah, and the two sons Ishmael and Isaac, represent two different spiritual realities, as Paul will go on to explain.
One of the things that caused Jews most pride was that Abraham was the father of their race. God had made a divine covenant with Abraham and his descendants, so Jews thought they were eternally and irrevocably safe. This is why John the baptist warned them: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’. For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Similarly, when Jesus taught the Jews: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), they responded: “Abraham is our father, and we have never been enslaved to anyone” (John 8:33,39). Jesus then said that their actions proved that spiritually they were not children of Abraham, but children of the Devil (see John 8:39, 44).
Paul elaborates on what John the Baptist and Jesus had taught. He said that true descendants of Abraham could be either a Jew or a Gentile. “If you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:14).
So there is a double-descent from Abraham. The false and the true. Paul sees this illustrated in Abraham’s two sons Ishmael and Isaac. Both had Abraham as their father. But there are two important differences between them.
- One was the son of a slave, the other of a free woman. Ishmael and Isaac took after their mothers. So one was a slave, the other was free.
- In a sense Ishmael was born “of the flesh”. His birth was done completely apart from God in a totally natural way. On the other hand, Isaac was born because of God’s promise. His father was 100 years old, and his mother who was barren, was 90 and past the age of child-bearing. Ishmael was born according to nature. Isaac was born against nature, supernaturally, because of an exceptional promise of God.
Allegorical interpretation (Gal 4:24-27)
Although this was a human story, there is a deep spiritual meaning to it. The two women Hagar and Sarah, stand for two covenants – the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
It is hard to understand the bIble without an understanding of the two covenants. After all, the bible is divided into two parts – the Old and the New Testaments, meaning the Old and the New Covenants. A covenant is a solemn agreement between God and men. God established the Old Covenant through Moses, and the New Covenant through Jesus. Remember how Jesus said during the last supper: “This is my blood of the New Covenant …” (1 Cor 11:25). The people under the Old Covenant were Jews, but the people under the New Covenant are Christians. The law was given at Mount Sinai in Arabia representing the present Jerusalem (Gal 4:25), but Christians worship in the “Jerusalem from above” (Gal 4:26), or the New Jerusalem that the book of Revelations talks about (Rev 21:2).
Let us see what the apostle writes about the two women Hagar and Sarah.
Hagar is the mother who bore her son in slavery, and this stands for those under the Old Covenant of the Mosaic law. She also represents the present Jerusalem, for “she is in slavery with her children” (Gal 4:25).
Sarah is different. She is our spiritual mother, representing those from the “Jerusalem above” (Gal 4:16). As Christians we are under the New Covenant. Our citizenship in this New Jerusalem is not bondage but freedom.
Paul then goes on to quote from Isaiah: “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband” (Isa 54:1). This prophecy was made to the Israelites who had been driven away from their land in exile. The prophet likens them to a barren woman whose husband has turned away. He says that the future state will be a restoration to a fruitful mother with more children than ever. In other words, God promises that his people will be more numerous after their return than they were before. This did not happen when the Jews returned from exile. Paul is saying that the real fulfillment was spiritual. He is saying that the growth of the Christian church is the true fulfillment of the promise, and that Christians are the true spiritual descendants of Abraham.
I would like to make a small, but important digression here, so that we can spend some time digesting the significance of this quote from the Old Testament. God is promising to add children into His family from the far reaches of the world. This means that there is something far more significant than bearing physical children. If we are believers, then sharing the gospel and adding new “children” into God’s family is better than having physical children. Paul, for example, called the Galatians “my little children” (Gal 4:19), and the apostle John says: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in truth” (3 John 1:3). This is good news for married couples who have not been able to have children and also for single men and women, including those who are divorced or widowed. They also can play a significant role in God’s Kingdom by adding spiritual children or by discipling them. This is why Isaiah says: “Rejoice, O barren one” (Isa 54:1). Everything radically changed after Jesus came. Remember that when his family came to take him home thinking he was mad, he looked around at his disciples and said, “here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister” (Mark 3:34-35). In a sense our “real” family is no longer our physical families, but our eternal, spiritual one. As adopted children of God, we have a much larger group of brothers and sisters – and they constitute our “real” family. If you struggle because you have not been able to have children, or if God has called you to be single for whatever reason, or if you are still waiting for God to show you the right person to marry, take heart. Invest your lives in fulfilling the Great Commission, and your lives will be truly significant and fulfilling. Jesus was single and was the most complete human being who ever lived. We don’t know if the apostle Paul was ever married, but we do know that he was single when God called him, and that he remained single for the rest of his life. Yet God used him in such a powerful way spread the gospel in the first generation, and 2000 years later we are also the fruit of his labor.
Anyway, let us get back to Paul’s argument. Paul has used the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate freedom in Christ and bondage apart from Christ. Both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham, however they were very different. Similarly, Paul is saying that the real question spiritually is: who is our mother. Is it Hagar or is it Sarah?
Practical Implications (Gal 4:28-31)
Having drawn the parallel between the historical story of Hagar and Sarah with Jews and Christians, Paul goes on to elaborate on the consequences by way of application.
Namely, if we are Isaac’s descendants, we can expect to be treated the way Isaac was treated. The treatment that Isaac got from his half-brother Ishmael is the treatment Isaac’s descendants can expect from Ishmael’s descendants. And the treatment that Isaac got from his father Abraham is the treatment that Isaac’s descendants can expect from God (Gal 4:28).
We must expect Persecution (Gal 4:29): Isaac was weaned and was a boy of 3 years old. Ishmael was 17. We do not know the details of exactly how Ishmael persecuted Isaac, because we only read that he “laughed” or “mocked” Isaac (Gen 21:9). Yet it is clear that Isaac was the subject of Ishmael’s scorn and derision.
We must expect the same. The persecution of the true spiritual descendants of Abraham is not always from the world, who are strangers and unrelated to us. It can come from our half-brothers – religious people, those who are just nominally in the church. Jesus was bitterly opposed and ultimately killed, by His own people the Jews. The fiercest opponents of the Apostle Paul also came from the Jews. The greatest enemies of Christians today are not unbelievers. Many of them embrace the gospel when they hear it. The greatest enemies often come from within the church itself. So let us not be surprised when we experience such things, but rather as Jesus said, let us “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:12).
We will receive an inheritance (Gal 4:30-31). There was a time Abraham wanted Ishmael to have his inheritance, but God said it would be Isaac (Gen 17:8-21). Paul quotes the verse: “Cast out the slave woman and her son” (Gal 4:30, quoting Gen 21:10). Jews had traditionally interpreted this as God’s rejection of the Gentiles. However, Paul boldly asserts that in reality it is “the law rejecting the law”. i.e., the exclusion of unbelieving Jews from the inheritance.
This then is the double-lot of the Isaacs. The pain of persecution on the one hand, and the privilege of an inheritance on the other. This is the paradox of the Christian experience, that Paul describes elsewhere that our lives are “through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:8-10).
For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free (Gal 5:1-12)
Paul summarizes the entire section of chapters 3 and 4 of Galatians with this comment: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). If you think about Paul’s teaching so far, it echoes the words of Jesus: “The slave [i.e., those apart from Christ] does not remain in the house forever; the son [i.e., those in Christ] remains forever. So if the Son [Jesus] sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:35-36). As often happens, you see a seed in the teaching of Jesus, and it is expanded and explained when we read the rest of the New Testament! After making this statement, Paul reminds his hearers that this freedom is exclusive. We cannot have one leg on both sides. He gives his warning in three ways
Slave: Don’t Lose Your Freedom (Gal 5:1)
The freedom Paul is describing is not so much to set us free from the bondage of sin (at least, not yet), but to set our conscience free from the guilt of sin. It is not freedom from sin, but freedom from legalism. It is freedom from the dreadful struggle of trying to be good enough to be accepted by God. So he is encouraging his Galatian readers as he is encouraging us today – don’t lose your freedom and become enslaved again.
Debtor: Don’t Lose Your Spiritual Wealth (Gal 5:2-4)
As we have seen, the false teachers were insisting that Christian converts needed to be circumcised. Why is Paul making such a big deal about it? Circumcision is a pretty superficial, minor surgery. However, it has deep theological significance. The issue represented a particular type of religion, namely – salvation by good works. Thus they were declaring Jesus to be insufficient for salvation. So Paul says that if they did this, then “Christ will be of no advantage to you” (Gal 5:2). He goes on to say that to rely on good works brings them back to square one. They would need to keep the entire law perfectly (see also James 2:10). They will be “severed from Christ” and “fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:4).
You cannot have it both ways. It is impossible to receive Christ and thereby acknowledge that you cannot save yourself, and then go back to circumcision, thereby claiming that you can. You have to choose between a religion of law and a religion of grace.
So what is the true gospel? Paul summarizes it in Gal 5:5-6. It involves faith given to us by the Holy Spirit, that enables us to trust God’s promises that the death of Jesus is sufficient payment for all of our sin, and for our acceptance before God. That is our hope. It is a “hope of righteousness” (Gal 5:5) – a hope that even as today we have a right standing before God, one day we will be completely cleansed and holy and stand in God’s presence forever. Therefore Paul says that this salvation has nothing to do with whether we are circumcised or not, but involves faith that works through love (Gal 5:6).
Paul makes it clear that the freedom in Christ does not give us a license to live any way we please. Our lives are lived “through the Holy Spirit” (Gal 5:5), and it is “working through love” (Gal 5:6). What he is saying is that our righteousness is not obtained by external controls and rules, but by something God does inside us.
Runner: Don’t Lose Your Direction (Gal 5:5-12)
He starts this section by saying “You were running well. Who hindered you … “ (Gal 5:7)? The picture is that of a great race. They started well, but someone had cut into their lane, and they started running in a different direction.
Here are 3 things Paul says about the false teaching:
- Its origin was “not from Him who calls you” (Gal 5:8)
- Its effect was that they were being hindered in their race (Gal 5:8). Also, Paul describes it as the false teachers were “troubling” them (Gal 5:9), and that they were being “unsettled” (Gal 5:12). Paul also said that this false teaching was contagious. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal 5:9).
- Its end: There would be punishment. The false teachers would “bear the penalty, whoever he is” (Gal 5:10).
Paul then turned to them. It appears that the false teachers had dared to even say that Paul was supporting them in what they taught. Paul denies it. “If I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted” (Gal 5:11)? He has already pointed out that the true children of promise would be persecuted. If Paul was preaching circumcision, he would be saying that people could save themselves by their own good works. If that were so, why was the cross even necessary? “In that case, the offense of the cross has been removed” (Gal 5:11). If there was nothing offensive, he would not be persecuted, so clearly the false teachers were misrepresenting Paul. So he finally says”I wish those who unsettle you will emasculate themselves” (Gal 5:12).
Persecution or opposition is the mark of every true Christian preacher. As we saw in chapter 4, the “Isaacs” of this world are always persecuted by the “Ishmaels”. The Old Testament prophets experienced it, and so did the apostles. To this day, Christian preachers who refuse to dilute the gospel have had to suffer for their faithfulness.
The good news of the “cross of Christ” is still a scandal. It is a deep assault against the self-sufficiency of man. It tells people that they are sinners and rebels, under the wrath and condemnation of God, and that they can do nothing to secure their salvation. However, Jesus came to die and to take that condemnation on Himself, and only through Christ crucified can they be saved. The only way to be popular and avoid offending people would be if we preach “circumcision”, i.e., if we teach morality rather than the gospel. This is often tempting, because morality is never offensive and has universal appeal. On the other hand, if we preach the gospel, we will arouse ridicule and opposition.
Today we are living in an age of tolerance. We love to have the best of both worlds. However, the gospel forces us to choose. We have to be decisive. Is it the free salvation offered by God through Jesus Christ or is it us trying to add our own good works and merit to gain acceptance before God? The one represents human achievement, while the gospel speaks of divine achievement. The one means bondage, while the gospel means grace, faith and freedom. Each of us must choose. It is impossible to try to do both. By attempting to add good works, we are forfeiting all that we could have gained through Jesus Christ.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything
Jesus + Anything = Nothing
Behind all of this is our attitudes and motives. Under the law we flatter and praise ourselves for our goodness. Under Christ we humble ourselves in our helplessness.