Covenants New and Old, of Promise and of Flesh
Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law (writings of Moses)? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. . . . So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
Galatians 4:21, 22, 31
Of the entirety of Galatians, many find Galatians 4:21-31 to be the most difficult portion of the letter. But, certain keys will help us to unlock and unpack its true meaning. “One is that the central question dealt with by Paul in his use of both the example of Abraham in 3:6-9 and Hagar – Sarah story in 4:21-31 is one of self-identification: Who are Abraham’s true children? On this matter, the Judaizers and Paul were diametrically opposed!”
Flesh and Law Verses Promise and Grace
In Galatia, the Judaizers has their solution to that identity. “The true descendants of Abraham” for them, are the Jews who inhabit Jerusalem. Here are the true people of God; and it will follow that Jerusalem is the authoritative center of the renewed people of God, which is now called the church. Those who are not prepared to attach themselves to this community by the approved means (circumcision) must be cast out. For them, there is no hope of inheriting the promises made to Abraham and his seed.
As we have seen, Paul has quite a different opinion and in verses 21-31 he uses the Hagar-Sarah story to turn the Judaizers’ logic. To do so he will employ a particularly Jewish form of argumentation that some modern Christians may find difficult to follow. Remember, Paul was trained as a rabbi and Pharisee and thus he was quite skillful in utilizing rabbinic methods. First, we must realize that for the rabbis, any passage of Scripture had four meanings. These four meanings are: (1) the literal needing, (2) the suggested meaning, (3) the meaning that can be reduced by investigation, (4) the allegorical meaning.
In their thinking the allegorical was the high point of the various meanings. They would therefore take a simple Bible story and project various interpretations into it. While such meanings may not be convincing to us, they were to those trained in the rabbinic tradition.
It was in this way that Paul employs the story of Abraham and Sarah in a way that will have the Judaizers understand. Sarah, as we recall, was barren, and in line with the culture of her day, she suggested to Abraham that he have children by Hagar her maidservant. The result of that union was Ishmael. Meanwhile, God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child of their own. However, this seem ridiculous to them because Abraham was nearly one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety. As the book of Genesis describes it, they both laughed because the promise involved a human impossibility. But in spite of their doubts, God fulfilled his promise through the “gift” of Isaac.
This meant that Ishmeal was born in the usual way of the flesh, but Isaac through a spiritual promise. After the birth of Isaac, trouble erupted between the two women and their sons – with the older Ishmael persecuting Isaac. Eventually this led to Sarah’s insistence that Abraham banish Hagar (Genesis 16:1-16; Genesis 17:15-25; Genesis 18:9-15; Genesis 21:1-21; Romans 4:16-25; Hebrews 11:11,12).
In Galatians 4:22, 23 Paul gives the story in its historical context. These two texts repeat the essence of the Old Testament story about the two women and their two sons. Both sons had Abraham as their father, but two major differences existed between them. For one thing, they had different mothers who had different statuses. Since both took after their mothers, Ishmael was born into slavery, while Isaac was born into freedom. A second difference that Paul highlights is the birth of one as happening in the usual manner of the flesh while the second’s birth came about supernaturally through God’s promise.
On the second level of Paul’s teaching of the of Hagar-Sarah story is Paul’s allegorization of it in verses 24-27. In these verses he compares the two women to two covenants and two cities.
These two women or cities represent the two covenant which represent two ways of getting right with God. Frist: Paul links to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law from God. Those following that covenant are linked to Hagar and thus to the way of the flesh, the law, and slavery. The other he ties to Sarah and, by extension, to freedom and God’s miraculous promise. The implicit question thus far is Paul’s presentation is, since both had the same father, who is their mother? They are children of freedom or slavery?
This is why Paul introduces the concept of two cities. In a move that reveres the Judaizers’ understanding, he links the “present Jerusalem” to Hagar and Ishmael. Here Paul makes a major thrust at the Judaizers, who held that the way things were done in Jerusalem (circumcision and so on) was how Christians should do them in Galatia. Paul now contrasts the ‘Present Jerusalem” with the “Jerusalem above,” with the former being a place of slavery and the latter the abode of the free – the children of Sarah. Then in verse 27 he cites Isaiah 54:1 to the effect that the woman to receive the blessing was the barren one – that is, Sarah, the one who lived by the promise rather than by the flesh. In this context, of course, those who live by the flesh are those who rely on circumcision and the observance of law to get right with God, while those living by the promise are those who accept God’s justification through faith in His promise to bless all the world through Abraham (Galatians 3:6-9).
This then brings us to Paul’s third level of treatment in the Hagar-Sarah story – the personal (Galatians 4:28-31). Here he identifies the Galatian Christians with Isaac, the child of the promise. Thus, they were not to the follow those “missionaries” from the earthly Jerusalem but should stand with Paul on the promise of justification by faith made to the patriarch (Galatians 3:6-9; Genesis 15:6). But if they did so, they could expect persecution (Galatians 4:29) just as Paul himself was experiencing. On the other hand, they could also look forward to the blessing of Abraham. Meanwhile, the Judaizers and those who held that keeping the law was the way to get right with God would eventually get thrown out by Him (verse 30). Paul concludes with the resounding statement that the Galatians “are not children of the slave but of the free woman” (verse 31).
Verse 21-31, despite of all their obscurities to the modern mind, have extremely important lessons for those in twenty first century. For one things, the church is still divided into the camps of those who live according to the flesh in the spiritual matters and of those who rely on God through the promise – that is, those who would be justified by legal works and those who are justified by faith. But today the problems within the church are not the Jews or Judaizers to whom Paul was writing, but people whose religion is legalistic, who imagine that the way to God is by the observance of certain rules.
The plain fact is that every church member is either an Isaac or an Ishmael – that is, either they are clinging to God’s promise through faith or they are slave still needing to be set free.
The religion of Ismael is a religion of nature, of what man can do by himself without any special intervention of God. But the religion of Isaac is a religion of grace, of what God has done and does, a religion of divine initiative and divine intervention, for Isaac was born supernaturally through a divine promise. And this is what Christianity is, not “natural” religion but “supernatural.” The Ishmaels of this world trust in themselves that they are righteous, the Isaacs trust only in God through Jesus Christ. The Ishmaels are in bondage because this is what self-reliance always leads to; the Isaacs enjoy freedom, because it is through faith in Christ that men are set free. Or to put it another way, the Ishmaels spend all their lives seeking to master the law, while the Isaacs live their lives surrendering to the Master.