By Christopher VanDusen
In Galatians 4:21-31, the apostle Paul says this:
“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“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.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”
In this passage, Paul concludes his teaching on God’s covenants with Old Testament Israel and Abraham. The main purpose of his letter is to show that the message of salvation that was being preached by false teachers in the churches of Galatia was a false gospel, and contradicted the Scriptures. The false teachers, known as “Judaizers”, were teaching these churches that, in order to have a right relationship with God, people not only had to trust in Christ, but also they had to observe the Old Testament Law for Israel. They were saying that, in order to be a spiritual descendant of Abraham, and a child of God, one had to become a Jew by observing this Law.
In response to this false teaching, Paul has been showing that Scripture teaches the exact opposite — that being under the Law of Moses — in the sense of observing it to earn God’s favor — brings damnation, and that those who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham and the children of God are those who rely only upon Christ, His death, and resurrection as the only grounds of their right relationship with God.
In the passage we’re considering, Paul ends his whole correction of the false teaching with a climactic illustration of the contrast between the Law of Moses and the new covenant that God has established to bring about the final fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. This passage is one of the most important in the entire Bible, since it illustrates some of the most important elements of the Bible’s story line in a way that can easily be understood and remembered.
The passage is really a series of contrasts that shows the slavery of those who are seeking to be right with God by law-keeping, and the freedom of those who rely only upon Christ for their right relationship with God. It can be broken up into 7 sections:
- The Chastisement (v. 21)
- The Two Conceptions (vss. 22-23)
- The Two Covenants (v. 24)
- The Two Cities (vss. 25-27)
- The Two Children (vss. 28-29)
- The Two Conditions (v. 30)
- The True Children (v. 31)
First, Paul chastises those in the Galatian churches who had at least outwardly accepted the false gospel of works:
“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?”
With this question, Paul is calling into question the straying people’s understanding of “the law”, which he uses in two senses here. He begins by calling these people those “who desire to be under the law”. By that, he means that they want to be obligated to observe the Old Testament Law for the nation of Israel, so as to be true Christians. However, when he asks them if they “listen to the law”, or if they understand it, he’s using “the law” in a different sense.
The Jews had at least two different ways that they used the term “the law”. The first, as we’ve already seen, was the Law that was given through Moses to the nation of Israel for them to observe. This Law was a covenant, or a contract that God made with them, which prescribed the terms of His blessing and cursing of them. On the other hand, the Jews also called the first five books of the Old Testament “the law”, since the Old Covenant Law of Moses, the other one, featured so prominently in it, and was its high point. In fact, of the five books, only Genesis doesn’t have much to do with the Law.
So, when Paul asks the straying Galatians if they listen to “the law”, he means the first five books of the Old Testament, as he makes clear in the second verse. So, what is he doing by asking the trouble-makers if they listen to the Law? He’s implying that they in fact don’t listen to the law properly.
From here, Paul begins to explain a series of contrasts between the condition of those who are under the Law (the false teachers), and those who are free from the Law (the Galatian Christians). He starts by contrasting two conceptions:
“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.”
First, why does Paul begin this section with “for”? Because he’s implying that those who “desire to be under the law” don’t understand what they’re desiring, and that they ought to have no desire to be under it. His illustration is going to show exactly that.
The contrast that Paul chooses is the contrast between the two conceptions of Abraham’s wives. The first conception was through a slave woman, named Hagar, and the second was through a free woman — Sarah.
Paul then gets to the actual contrast that he wants to show between them. He says that the conception by the slave was “according to the flesh,” while the conception by the free woman was “through promise”. What does he mean by these?
By “according to the flesh”, Paul means that the first conception was accomplished only through human means. Genesis 16:1-4a describes this for us:
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived.” (ESV)
God had promised Abraham that he would have a son who would obtain his inheritance from him, and be the means by which the promises given to him in God’s covenant with him would be brought to pass. However, Sarah was infertile, so she couldn’t conceive children. Yet, God had determined to bring the son into being through supernatural means, not through merely human means, and had required that Abraham walk by faith, and not by sight. His and Sarah’s act of taking matters into their own hands, and trying to bring God’s purpose to come to pass, was a solely human act.
The other conception, however, was “through promise”. That is, it was through God’s promise to Abraham, and not through merely human means. Genesis 21:1-7 describes this for us:
“The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”” (ESV)
This conception was through God’s promise, and not according to the flesh because, not only was Sarah infertile, but Abraham was, as Paul puts it in Romans 4, “as good as dead”. Thus, the conception had to be accomplished through God’s miraculous power.
The second contrast that Paul describes is the contrast between two covenants:
“Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.”
The use of the term “interpreted” is actually not literally what Paul said. He literally used the term “allegorically speaking” (NASB). He’s not giving an interpretation so much as an illustration.
So, what does he mean when he says he’s speaking allegorically? Well, technically, the official definition of “allegory” is a fictional story that is purely symbolic, or is an extended metaphor. However, obviously Paul isn’t saying that the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah, is fictional. He’s just saying that he’s using the story as a symbolic illustration of the contrast between the slavery of those under the Law, and the freedom of those who are free from it.
So, first, Paul says that he’s using the women in the story to symbolize two covenants. What are they? Well, the first is “from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery”. Obviously, this first covenant is the covenant that God made with Israel when He manifested Himself on Mount Sinai, a mountain in the desert, near the Red Sea. Second, it bore “children for slavery”. That is, the “children”, or descendants, of those who were first put under this covenant, were enslaved to it. However, Paul isn’t mainly thinking of the covenant itself, but of the picture of that covenant, since he says that this “woman” “is Hagar”. In other words, he’s saying that this covenant is a “slave covenant”.
In the next section, Paul is going to give away what the other covenant is. In this section, he contrasts two cities:
“Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“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.””
The first city that Paul uses as an illustration is “the present Jerusalem”. He begins to describe this picture by saying that Hagar in the conception story symbolizes Mount Sinai, or the place where the Law was first given to Israel. Then, he transitions from the place where the Law was first given to the place where the Law at that time was most enslaving people — Jerusalem. In Jerusalem at that time, the temple was still standing, and every day people were trying to observe the Law by making sacrifices and offerings in the temple, in an attempt to earn God’s favor. This is what Paul means when he says that “she is in slavery with her children”. “She”, meaning Jerusalem, and “her children”, or its Jewish inhabitants and citizens, were in slavery to the Law.
However, in contrast to this city, Paul says that “the Jerusalem above is free”. What is this city? The author of Hebrews tells us:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . .” – Heb. 12:22-24a (ESV)
Just as Jerusalem was the city which represented the community of the nation of Israel, so “the Jerusalem above”, or “the heavenly Jerusalem”, is the city that represents the community of the church, the New Covenant people of God. Consequently, the two covenants that Paul is thus contrasting are the Old Covenant of the Law and the New Covenant.
So, the second city is the heavenly Jerusalem, and Paul says that “she is our mother”. That is, the church gave birth to Paul and the Galatians in the same way that Sarah gave birth to her son — through a miraculous conception. Paul proves that the present Jerusalem is enslaved, and that the heavenly Jerusalem is free by quoting Isaiah 54:1-3:
“For it is written,
‘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.'”
In order to understand this passage, we must take Paul literally. He’s saying that what he says about the two Jerusalem’s is the fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah. First, Isaiah says that the “barren one who does not bear” should “rejoice and “break forth and cry aloud”. Which of the two cities is Paul taking this to refer to? Well, it has to be the one that doesn’t bear children and isn’t giving birth. Which of the two cities is likened to an infertile woman? If we follow Paul’s illustrations, it is the city that is free, like Sarah, the free woman. Hence, the woman “who does not bear” must be referring to the heavenly Jerusalem, the church.
Second, Isaiah says that the reason for the command for the church to rejoice is that “the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband”. Again, who is the “desolate one” in Paul’s illustrations? It is Sarah, who represents the church. Therefore, Isaiah is saying that the children, or offspring, of the church, will be more than “the present Jerusalem”, or the physical nation of Israel, and Judaism.
If we read all of Isaiah 54, Isaiah makes it clear that this interpretation is in line with what he’s saying:
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.
“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer.
“This is like the days of Noah to me:
as I swore that the waters of Noah
should no more go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you,
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
“O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted,
behold, I will set your stones in antimony,
and lay your foundations with sapphires.
I will make your pinnacles of agate,
your gates of carbuncles,
and all your wall of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by the Lord,
and great shall be the peace of your children.
In righteousness you shall be established;
you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;
and from terror, for it shall not come near you.
If anyone stirs up strife,
it is not from me;
whoever stirs up strife with you
shall fall because of you.
Behold, I have created the smith
who blows the fire of coals
and produces a weapon for its purpose.
I have also created the ravager to destroy;
no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed,
and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.” (ESV)
So, in what sense was the church infertile? In the same sense that Sarah was infertile. This doesn’t mean that the church didn’t have children, or reproduce more Christians, but that the means by which these children were produced was through miraculous, supernatural, means.
And in what sense did Jerusalem have a husband at that time? In the same sense that Hagar had Abraham as her husband when she was forced to have a son by him. It was under the “marriage contract” of the Law covenant, and had God as its “husband” in that sense only. However, the number of its children ended up being far less than the number of the children of the church, which is still awaiting her Husband — Christ.
After contrasting the two cities, Paul next contrasts the two children in his illustration:
“Now you brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.”
To begin, Paul says that the Galatians are “children of promise”. What does this mean? It means that they were conceived spiritually through the promise of God given to Abraham. This promise has to be one that involved Isaac, since Paul says that the Galatians are children of promise “like Isaac”. What was this promise? One of the promises is found in Genesis 17:15-16:
“And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”” (ESV)
Even though Sarah was infertile, God promised that He would make sure she conceived a son by His power. In the same way, Paul is saying that the Galatians were miraculously conceived based on God’s promise to Abraham that He would have descendants.
Next, Paul contrasts fleshly children with spiritual children by saying that, like the son of the slave woman persecuted the son of the free woman, it was the same with the Galatians. What is he implying? That the Galatians were being persecuted by those who were “born according to the flesh”, since they were “born according to the Spirit”.
What exactly is Paul saying about these two groups? The first group are those, like Ishmael, who were born by human means into the family of the Law and Judaism. Obviously, this refers to Jews, who at that time, were intensely persecuting Christians. On the other hand, the Galatians were children born by God the Holy Spirit, or born again, and made children of Abraham by the power of God. Hence, Paul is saying that Ishmael’s persecution of Isaac in Genesis, which is hinted at when it says that Ishmael was “mocking” Isaac (Gen. 21:9), is a foreshadow of the persecution that the Christians at that time were suffering from the Jews.
After this description of the two children, Paul now explains their two conditions:
“But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.'”
Why does Paul begin with his question? Because he’s about to show that, although the Judaizers and Jews were persecuting the Christians then, they would be cast out of God’s kingdom in the end. He proves this by quoting something that Sarah told Abraham — to cast out the slave woman and her son, since her son wouldn’t inherit with Sarah’s son.
What does Paul intend for this to mean? Well, by “slave woman and her son”, he has to be referring to Judaism, legalism, and its followers. He says that these things and people ought to be cast out of the Galatians’ midst. Why? Because they won’t inherit with the Galatians. And what won’t they inherit? All that was promised to Abraham’s descendants to inherit. Paul says that Abraham and his offspring were promised to be “heir of the world” (Ro. 4:13). That is, they will “inherit the earth”. Paul implies that this includes the Galatians, who are “children of promise” and sons “of the free woman”.
Finally, Paul describes the true children of spiritual freedom:
“So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”
With this sentence, Paul concludes his teaching on the freedom of the Galatians from the Law, and the slavery that being under the Law entails. Because the Galatians are heirs of the world to come, and the kingdom of God, Paul implies, they are not the children of the slave woman, or of the Law and Judaism, but of the free woman, or grace and Christianity.
So, if you are trusting only in the Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection, as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of your sins, then this is what this passage says about you:
- You’re a spiritual descendant of Abraham.
- You were born through God’s promise to Abraham.
- The heavenly Jerusalem is your spiritual mother.
- You are a child of promise like Isaac.
- You were born according to the Spirit.
- You are liable to suffer persecution from fleshly legalists.
- You ought to cast out fleshly legalism from your life and church.
- You will inherit the world.
- You are a child of a free woman.
As Paul says:
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” – Galatians 5:1 (ESV)
If you aren’t trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of your sins, then you are:
- born according to the flesh
- enslaved to law, sin, death, and damnation
- bound to be cast out of the new earth into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth
God sent His eternal, divine, Son to earth to become a man, to punish Him for our sins by suffering and dying on a cross, to rise from the dead, and to make Him the King of the universe. He’s now commanding you to change your mind and to trust in Christ, His death for our sins, and resurrection as the only terms of peace with Him because He will soon send Him to earth to judge people like you according to everything you’ve ever done, thought, and said, and to cast them into hell to be punished forever for their sins against Him. Please repent and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and be reconciled to God, and He will forgive all of your sins.
ESV Scripture references taken from:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.