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Galatians 4:21-31: Abraham's children–one slave and one free!

Paul said in the previous verse, “I am afraid for you;” “I have doubts about you.” He was perplexed! Winston Churchill referred to the Russians in a 1939 radio broadcast as: “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That may be how Paul was feeling about the Galatians. People can be perplexing! I can identify with that! Having been a pastor for many years, I have found that people can be exasperating! I’ve heard pastors say, “the ministry would be great if it weren’t for people.” Paul may be perplexed about the Galatians, but he is not ready to give up the fight.

Most Bible teachers agree that this is the most difficult passage in the book of Galatians. This is the final section of Paul's argument for justification by faith. He has gone to great lengths to prove that a man is saved by grace, not law, by faith in Jesus Christ, not good works, using his every skill to convince the churches of Galatia.

Paul’s argument here is very Jewish, even Rabbinical, which means that his first-century readers probably had no problem understanding. He uses a method of teaching, not found in any of his other letters. He uses an allegory (a spiritual or symbolic interpretation of a literal story) from the book of Genesis to contrast law and grace. These Genesis events actually happened, Paul was a student of Bible history, but Paul’s allegory goes deeper into the literal and the symbolic.

Warren Weirsbe uses the illustration of John Bunyan’s “A Pilgrim’s Progress” (a 1678 Christian allegory), where the author traces Christian’s progress from the City of Destruction to Heaven, which is framed as a dream. He explains that he fell asleep in the wilderness and dreamed of a man named Christian, who was tormented by spiritual anguish. A spiritual guide named Evangelist visits Christian and urges him to leave the City of Destruction. Evangelist claims that salvation can only be found in the Celestial City, known as Mount Zion.

So this allegorical passage is unique, even though Paul has been refuting the Judaizer’s teachings since chapter 3, he now throws down the gauntlet, exposing the methods of the Judaizers.

Verse 21: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?”

“Tell me now, you who have become so enamored with the law: Have you paid close attention to that law?” (MSG).

“Tell me, you who want to live under the law, do you know what the law actually says” (NLT).

“Listen to me, you friends who think you have to obey the Jewish laws to be saved: Why don’t you find out what those laws really mean?” (TLB).

“Paul is arguing with those who want to go back to Judaism and take Jesus with them. He is addressing people who want a hybrid religion that is part Jewish and part Christian. They intend to believe in Jesus, plus they want to live under the law as a means of pleasing God and winning His favor. Everything in this passage is aimed at these confused believers who were sorely tempted to go back to the Law of Moses. His point is, Have you considered the implications of what you are about to do?” –Ray Pritchard

Verse 22: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.”

Just to familiarize us with this story, let me quote from Genesis 15:1-4 NLT, “Some time later, the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision and said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.’ But Abram replied, ‘O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliazor of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.’”

Genesis 16:1-4;15,16 NLT, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to bear children for him. But she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal. So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan.) So Abram had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant…So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born.”

God promised to take Abraham's offspring and make from it a great nation. (Genesis 12:1-3). So when Abraham was getting older he failed to trust God’s promise of offspring and decided that he would help God out by having a son by his wife's handmaid and Ismael is born. Ishmael grew to become a skilled hunter and archer. He fathered the Arab nations. He lived to 137 years old. He is considered a patriarch of Islam. Then God showed Abraham that He didn't need his help and Sarah became pregnant. She gave birth to Isaac. Instead of having no sons, Abraham now has two sons. And to make matters worse, they did not get along. Actually this is a picture of lack of faith, and that is precisely the problem in the churches of Galatia.

“This would have been a shocking statement to the Judaizers. They knew that Ishmael had given birth to the Arab nations. They were quick to look down upon the Arabs as being the people who were descended from a slave of Abraham and therefore of less position than themselves. But Paul points out that all who were under the Mosaic Covenant were in this same position of slavery.” –John Stephenson,

Sarah and Hagar illustrate the conflict between law and grace. These two women represent God's two covenants. The Mosaic Covenant, or the Law, which is represented by Hagar, the slave woman. The second covenant is the Grace Covenant, the free gift that God gave us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This second covenant is represented by Sarah, the free woman. Isaac was his son through Sarah, his wife and a free woman.

The allegory of Hagar and Sarah is written to persuade us (along with the Galatians) not to follow the Judaizers into slavery with Hagar and Ishmael, but to follow Sarah and Isaac into freedom.

Why would anyone choose bondage over freedom? And yet there are literally thousands of people today that insist that good works is what gets them to heaven. My dad was not a believer, in fact he was far from it! But at me dad’s funeral the pastor who spoke talked about what a good husband and father, and good man he was. This prompted one of my brothers to get mad at God and reject all preachers, he said, “I will never go to church because preachers are big liars.” The word says:

Titus 3:5, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”

Ephesians 2:8,9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Verse 23: “But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise…”

The fact that Hagar and her son, Ishmael were slaves, suggests that the covenant of law which she symbolizes allegorically, is one of slavery. Likewise, the fact that Sarah and her son, Isaac are free, and the result of God’s promise, suggests that the covenant of grace through Jesus Christ is one of freedom.

“There are seven main contrasts in this part of the Epistle. (1) Firstly, two sons; one of them born of a maid servant and one of them born of a free woman. (2) There are two different women, the maid servant and the free woman. (3) Then there are two different systems, the one connected with the flesh, the other connected with promise (v.23). Now Paul builds on that. (4) There are also two covenants, the first connected with God’s promise (ch.3). This promise cannot be annulled by the Mosaic covenant because that came later. This is connected with Mount Sinai, where the law was given. This corresponds to the Jerusalem which is now. (5) Two mothers: the Jerusalem at that time was like Sinai, ‘For she is in bondage with her children but Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother.’ The contrast is with Mount Zion, in Scripture connected with God’s grace (Hebrews 12, for example). (6) Then we have the two Jerusalem’s, the Jerusalem below as it is now in bondage over against the Jerusalem which is above. (7) Finally we have the seventh contrast, two conditions, a condition of bondage connected with the present Jerusalem and, contrasted with this a condition of liberty, of freedom, which is connected with the Jerusalem above, which is our mother.” –Alfred E. Bouter

Verse 24-26: “…which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar–for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children…but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

Paul now explains the allegory:

The old covenant: The Law, Hagar the slave, Ismael conceived after the flesh, earthly Jerusalem in bondage.

The new covenant: Grace, Sarah the free woman, Isaac, conceived miraculously, heavenly Jerusalem which is free.

Hagar represents the Mosaic Law which was given to the children of Israel on Mount Sinai. Sinai was in Arabia and outside the promised land and therefore outside of the place of blessing for God’s people. Law never brings blessing. Mount Sinai also corresponds to the earthly Jerusalem or the Jewish people who were not born of the Spirit but were living under the law. Physical Jews without Christ are in spiritual bondage and slavery to the law because they think by keeping the law they can have eternal life which in actuality is salvation by works. These Galatians were trying to identify with the Jerusalem already in existence but Paul says this would bring them only bondage. God has a different program for the Church.

There is a heavenly Jerusalem to which the redeemed of all ages belong. The New Jerusalem will be the eternal city for all the spiritual seed of Abraham who have accepted Christ by faith. This includes believing Jews in the Old Testament age and Christians in the New Testament age “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23 NLT).

So Paul begins with 2 sons, Ismael and Isaac, explaining how they

Picture our 2 births; the physical by which we are sinners, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5). “ Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12 KJV), and the spiritual birth making us God’s children, “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water (natural birth) and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5,6).

Now Paul introduces the two women, Sarah and Hagar. Here again he is contrasting law and grace. The believer is not under law, but is under God’s loving and accepting grace.

Hagar and Sarah are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sinai, that’s where God gave the law. So Hagar represents the covenant of law bearing children who are to be slaves. Sarah, in contras, is the mother of those born into grace. Remember, she’s the free woman. We’re part of the heavenly Jerusalem. Believers are the spiritual seed of Abraham, the new covenant, the covenant of grace, out of faith and not by the works of the law. Therefore we are the Jerusalem that is above, spiritual Jerusalem. The Judaizers, the false teachers who were born of the flesh, they were slaves along with the people they were deceiving. –This paragraph is synopsized from Dr. Bruce Barber,

William Barclay summarizes: “Hagar stands for the old covenant of the law, made on Mount Sinai, which is in fact in Arabia, the land of Hagar's descendants. Hagar herself was a slave and all her children were born into slavery; and that covenant whose basis is the law turns men into slaves of the law. Hagar's child was born from merely human impulses; and legalism is the best that man can do. On the other hand Sarah stands for the new covenant in Jesus Christ, God's new way of dealing with men not by law but by grace. Her child was born free and according to God's promise--and all his descendants must be free. As the child of the slave girl persecuted the child of the free woman, the children of law now persecute the children of grace and promise. But as in the end the child of the slave girl was cast out and had no share in the inheritance, so in the end those who are legalists will be cast out from God and have no share in the inheritance of grace. Strange as all this may seem to us, it enshrines one great truth. The man who makes law the principle of his life is in the position of a slave; whereas the man who makes grace the principle of his life is free, for, as a great saint put it, the Christian's maxim is, "Love God and do what you like." It is the power of that love, and not the constraint of law, that will keep us right; for love is always more powerful than law.”

Paul closes this section with a quote from Isaiah 54:1

Verse 27: “For it is written: ‘Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.’”

“The persecution of the true church of Christian believers is not always by the world, who are strangers unrelated to us, but by our half-brothers, religious people, the nominal church. It has always been so. The Lord Jesus was bitterly opposed, rejected, mocked and condemned by His own nation. The fiercest opponent of the apostle Paul, who dogged his footsteps and stirred up strife against him, was the official church, the Jews. The monolithic structure of the medieval papacy persecuted all Protestant minorities with ruthless, unremitted ferocity. And the greatest enemies of the evangelical faith today are not unbelievers who, when they hear the gospel often embrace it, but the church, the establishment, the hierarchy.” –John Stott

Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 and applies the aspect of rejoicing in this passage to Sarah (a barren woman). Isaiah 54:1 was originally written to comfort the Jews in captivity in Babylon. Just as Jerusalem would become the “mother of children” when the Jews returned from captivity, so Sarah will be able to rejoice because God's promise to her will also come to pass.

Just as Isaac was conceived and born under humanly impossible circumstances, so today people who believe the promise of God are children of promise. Paul identifies those pursuing justification by faith with Sarah and her descendants through the “son of promise.”

Verse 28-31: “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.’ So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.

“We are children of promise.” Paul also uses this same terminology in Romans 9:8 “That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise…”

You and I, who have trusted in Christ for salvation are the “children of promise.” And this has nothing to do with our human ancestry. We are “children of promise” based on obeying God's word and receiving Christ as Savior and Lord.

“Paul’s point comes from Genesis 21 where we learn that Ishmael mocked young Isaac, deriding him and trying to humiliate him. Religious people do the same thing today…Our greatest opposition comes from those who claim to practice religion but do it in the name of tolerance, diversity and pluralism. They hate us because we stand for the truth that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and he is the only way to heaven. John Stott points out that our chief opposition almost always comes from religionists, not from true pagans. No one hates God’s grace like the man who is trying to save himself by his own good works.”–Ray Pritchard,

Salvation is, simply responding to God’s great grace, and by faith accepting God’s sacrifice in giving His Son as an atonement for our sins. You cannot be born of both the Spirit and the Law. You are either born of the Spirit, saved by grace, united with Christ in his death and resurrection. If you think you can somehow be good enough to merit salvation or if you think that salvation is partly what God does and partly what you do, you are a child of slavery. You are still in chains.

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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