Who's Your Mama?
Who’s Your Mama?
The people of Kilgore Bible Church love the Bible. (Can I get an “amen”?)
We love the Bible because we hear God’s voice in the Bible; he speaks to us through the words on these pages.
We love the Bible because we love Jesus, and we see Jesus in the pages of this book.
We love the Bible because the Holy Spirit produced this book through human authors, and that same Spirit of God lives in each one of us, giving us ears to hear the voice of God and eyes to see the Son of God throughout the pages of this book.
Because we love the Bible, we take it seriously and we seek to understand it rightly. We recognize that God has communicated clearly in ordinary human languages, so that we can understand the Word of God.
However, we also recognize that God has not communicated all things with equal simplicity. Some things in the Bible are hard to understand. (How ‘bout another “amen”?)
Nevertheless, we believe that there are right ways and wrong ways to approach the Bible. For example, we’d say that you’re off to a poor start if you assume that what you’re reading in the Bible is just a fairy tale, or that the historical details aren’t necessarily true. On the contrary, we believe that the human authors had messages they intended to communicate to real people, and we believe that it’s possible for us today to understand what these human authors intended to communicate.
But we must go further. As Christians, we believe that God himself was working in and through these human authors to communicate a unified message across the ages, not only to the original audiences of those days, but also to his people scattered across the globe and through the generations. Because we believe this, we seek to interpret the Bible in line with its author’s intentions, and because the Bible is literature—a collection of documents, texts—we approach God’s Word fundamentally as a book. This means we work to understand the meanings of the words the authors used, the grammatical structures the authors used, the literary genres or types of literature the authors used, the figures of speech the authors used, and the historical and cultural world the authors were living in. Some folks call this method “grammatical-historical interpretation.” More simply, we could call it “contextual interpretation” or “reading in context.”
Why do we do this? Why do we think this method is the best method for interpreting the Bible? I’m going to let that question hang in the air, while I raise a related, and possibly more important question: Does the apostle Paul interpret Scripture this way?
In our passage this morning in Gal. 4, this question becomes very important, as Paul comes to the climax of his theological argument against the false teachers in Galatia. Paul is going to take a look at the story of Sarah and Hagar, originally told in Genesis chapters 16, 17, and 21, but he’s going to suggest that the story is an allegory, in which Sarah represents one covenant and Hagar represents a different covenant. Commentators of every theological persuasion have looked at this passage and concluded that Paul certainly is not engaging in “grammatical-historical” or “contextual” interpretation. I’d like to address this before we get into the details of the text, because how we understand the first phrase of verse 24 will shape everything else we have to say this morning. So, look at Gal. 4:24.
After summarizing the story of Sarah and Hagar, without even mentioning their names, in verses 22-23, Paul transitions to his explanation of this story. In the ESV, we read “Now this may be interpreted allegorically.” You can see several alternative translations in your sermon notes and on the screen.
• Now this may be interpreted allegorically (ESV)
• This is allegorically speaking (NASB)
• Which things are an allegory (KJV)
• I’m going to use these historical events as an illustration (GWT)
• These things may be taken figuratively (NIV)
• which things are symbolic (NKJV)
None of these are what we might call a “literal translation” of what Paul has written. The King James Version is truly paraphrasing here, but, of the available options, it best captures the sense of what Paul has written. But it’s still not clear enough.
The KJV rendering indicates that the events Paul just described are an allegory, and by saying that, Paul is not saying that the events described in Genesis did not actually happen, and neither am I. I would translate Paul’s phrase in Gal. 4:24 “These things are written allegorically,” which would be a more literal translation than any of these options. Look at this chart on the screen; it’s also in your sermon notes.
This entire passage is shaped by Paul’s reading of Scripture and his call to the Galatians to go back and read the Scriptures. Paul has placed this statement about allegory in the very center of a series of references to what is written in the Scriptures. So, the very shape of this whole passage suggests that we should expect in verse 24 a focus on what is written in Scripture, rather than how Paul interprets Scripture, as the ESV seems to imply. And, this is what the verb Paul uses actually means: to speak or write allegorically.
Thus, Paul is suggesting that the author of Genesis—and he’s probably referring particularly to the divine author, God—intended the story of Sarah and Hagar to be understood both as a historical narrative of events that actually took place, as well as an allegory with some greater significance. If that’s the case, then we have 2 questions to answer: how did Paul recognize the allegorical significance on top of the historical meaning, and why did he appeal to this to argue against his opponents in Galatia? The details of our passage, I believe, will provide the answers.
So, back in verse 21, Paul addresses the false teachers directly, as well as any of the Galatians who are tempted to follow them: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” It seems that these false teachers came in after Paul had planted these churches in the region of Galatia, and they were saying something like, “Yes, trusting Jesus is good, but, if you want to be counted truly righteous, you must also obey the Mosaic Law.” Paul takes them head-on here, and he points them to a portion of “the Law” that undermines their position, when understood the way Paul does.
Paul uses the word “law” with 2 different senses in this verse, as a sort of play on words. Addressing those “who desire to be under the law,” he’s pointing to these false teachers and referring to them as people who insist on earning God’s verdict of “righteous” by obeying the Mosaic Law. He condescendingly asks them, “Don’t you listen to the law? Don’t you know what it says?” When he asks this question, he’s referring to “the Law” as in the written Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. He’s referring to Scripture. Paul’s using a tactic that Jesus often used in the Gospels; Jesus would get into arguments with the religious leaders who opposed him, and he’d ask them, “Have you never read...?”
With this statement, Paul takes them back to the book of Genesis, but he doesn’t quote a particular verse; instead, he summarizes the story of Sarah and Hagar. Look at verses 22 and 23: “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.” Why does Paul refer to this story?
Throughout Galatians 3 and 4, Paul has focused on Abraham; in fact, the questions, “Who are the true sons of Abraham?” and “What does it mean to be a son of Abraham?” have been central to the discussion in these chapters. Why? Probably the false teachers in Galatia were claiming that they were the true sons of Abraham, and they were suggesting to the Galatian Christians that if they wanted to be the true sons of Abraham, they had to be circumcised and submit to the entire Mosaic Law. But Paul reminds these folks here that Abraham actually had two sons, with two different women, in two different sets of circumstances.
Do you remember the story from Gen. 16? God had made a promise to Abraham back in Gen. 12, and then he reaffirmed that promise as part of a covenant relationship with Abraham in Gen. 15. God had promised, among other things, that Abraham would have descendants that would outnumber the stars. However, there was a problem: Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was barren; she could not have children. And they were old. And they were getting older. In Gen. 16, Sarah becomes a bit impatient and she instructs Abraham to take Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave, as a second wife. So, 86-year-old Abraham obeys the voice of his wife, and Hagar and Abraham have a son, named Ishmael. According to the laws of the day, Ishmael would have “counted” as Sarah’s son. Hagar would have been viewed like a surrogate mother.
Abraham and Sarah seemed to be under the impression that Ishmael would serve as the offspring God had promised to Abraham to begin the line of descendants. But, in Gen. 17, God speaks to Abraham again and clarifies that Ishmael does not “count” as the promised offspring; God insists that Sarah will bear the son God had promised to Abraham, even though she’s already 90 years old at this point, and Abraham is 99. The next year, Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac.
So, what does Paul see in this story? If you look up at the screen, or down in your sermon notes, you’ll see the main connections Paul wants us to see in this story. The false teachers in Galatia can claim all day long that Abraham is their father, but Paul is beginning to show them that, even if that were true, who their mother is is even more important.
Hagar was a slave; her son Ishmael was born according to the flesh. Paul seems to be commenting here on the fact that Ishmael’s birth came about because Abraham and Sarah decided to “help God” along. They wanted to fulfill the promise by their own efforts, and in this they were not trusting God. By putting it just this way, Paul is already connecting the Galatian false teachers with the slavery associated with Hagar. The whole story highlights Abraham and Sarah’s faltering faith; they had begun trusting God’s promise, but, over time, they decided they needed to engineer a creative solution that would bring God’s promise into effect. Similarly, the Galatians were being tempted to be “perfected by the flesh,” as Paul had said in Gal. 3:3. Paul connects the false teachers with Hagar because they are trying to get the Galatian Christians to rely on their own efforts to obey the Mosaic Law in order to be justified by God, rather than trusting Jesus Christ alone.
Sarah, on the other hand, was free; her son Isaac was born through promise. This not only highlights Isaac’s miraculous birth, but it also, and more importantly, highlights the fact that God is completely responsible for fulfilling his own promises. He is not dependent on our efforts or our creativity. God is capable of putting his promises into effect, and he does it in his own way and in his own time. God patiently and graciously taught Abraham this very thing, even in the face of Abraham and Sarah’s unbelief.
Now, what does Paul do with this story? As we discussed earlier, he seems to recognize that, on top of the historical events being described in Genesis, there is an allegorical significance to the women in the story. Let’s read verses 24-27: “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.’”
Two mothers become two covenants, which are then connected to two mountains, which are then related to two cities. The key to understanding these connections and the answer to how Paul recognized the allegory in Genesis is found in his quotation of Isa. 54:1. I believe Paul was reading Isaiah 49-54, and he saw Isaiah taking the story of God granting a son to the barren woman Sarah and suggesting that it pointed forward to how God will grant children to the barren Jerusalem in exile.
Turn with me to Isaiah 49. I just want to show you a few passages throughout this section of Isaiah 49-54, which seems to be a unit in Isaiah. In these chapters, Isaiah is addressing God’s people in exile, and he’s telling them how God is going to rescue them from exile and restore them as a people, more glorious than they were before. Look at Isa. 49:19-21; God is announcing to the exiles what they will experience when he restores them: “Surely your waste and your desolate places and your devastated land—surely now you will be too narrow for your inhabitants, and those who swallowed you up will be far away. The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears: ‘The place is too narrow for me; make room for me to dwell in.’ Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and baren, exiled and put away, but who has brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; from where have these come?’” The people in exile are being compared to a barren woman, a woman who has no children. Yet, when God restores Israel, the abundance of the people will burst the borders of the land; the land of Israel will not be able to contain the people of God, and her astonishment will be like the astonishment of a barren woman who suddenly has children!
In Isaiah 50, we get a picture of the exile as God divorcing his wife, but, we also see the faithfulness of an unnamed figure, perhaps Isaiah himself, perhaps the servant referred to so many times in this section, perhaps the remnant. But, in chapter 51, we find the only specific mention of Sarah in all of the Old Testament outside of Genesis. See verses 1 and 2, as God addresses the faithful remnant: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek Yahweh: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him.” The Galatian false teachers were focusing on Abraham as their father, but Paul questions whether Sarah is their mother. And in the rest of Isa. 51, the focus is on addressing Jerusalem, announcing that restoration is coming. Look at verses 17-20, where Isaiah addresses the people: “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of Yahweh the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering. There is none to guide her among all the sons she has borne; there is none to take her by the hand among all the sons she has brought up. These two things have happened to you—who will console you?—devastation and destruction, famine and sword; who will comfort you? Your sons have fainted; they lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net; they are full of the wrath of Yahweh, the rebuke of your God.” The exiled people are portrayed as a barren woman; the city of Jerusalem is desolate because her people have tasted the wrath of Yahweh.
Isaiah 52 then begins with another announcement of Jerusalem’s salvation, Yahweh’s return to Zion to reign victoriously over his people. And then we read Isa. 52:13-53:12, what we refer to as the Song of the Suffering Servant. There is a very curious note in the midst of this mournful song; look at Isa. 53:10: “Yet it was the will of Yahweh to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of Yahweh shall prosper in his hand.” The Servant’s death has just been described, yet here it is written that “he shall see his offspring.” What could this mean?
Immediately following this famous song, we read Isa. 54:1, which Paul quotes in Gal. 4:27. You see, the suffering of the Servant is described as the means by which God is going to restore his people from exile. From Isa. 49 through Isa. 52:12, God has been announcing to the exiled people that he will restore them from exile. Isa. 52:13-53:12 then melodically describes the substitutionary suffering of the Servant, and then Isa. 54 calls for rejoicing and singing because they have been delivered from exile! Isa. 54:1 says, “‘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 Yahweh.” Who is the barren one? Most plainly, it’s Jerusalem, but he describes Jerusalem this way probably because he connects the city’s barrenness back to the prototypical barrenness of Sarah. Who are “the children of the desolate one”? Those whom God rescues from the exile, but, more particularly, it’s those whose sin the Suffering Servant bore. Look back at Isa. 53:11-12: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” The Hebrew word translated “many” in verses 11-12 is the same word translated “more” in Isa. 54:1. Also, in Isa. 54:3, the barren one’s “offspring” are referred to as possessing the nations and populating the formerly abandoned cities. It could be that these are the offspring of the Servant as well, mentioned in Isa. 53:10.
Now, who is the one “who is married” in Isa. 54:1? I think it’s a reference to Israel married to God by means of the Mosaic Covenant. If you remember back to Exodus 19-24, the covenant Yahweh cuts with his people is portrayed as a marriage ceremony, and throughout the Old Testament, Israel is depicted as Yahweh’s wife. Thus, this verse is saying that the people of God after being restored from exile will be vastly more numerous than the people of God before the exile. If that’s so, we might be able to understand a veiled reference to Hagar here. If the barren one who gives birth to lots of children is connected back to Sarah, then the other woman here could be connected back to Hagar. Paul’s going to connect Hagar with the covenant at Mt. Sinai, which is what Isaiah is probably referring to primarily.
Ultimately, Paul’s able to look at the whole chapter of Isaiah 54 and recognize that Isaiah is referring to the New Covenant, which Isaiah mentions specifically as “my covenant of peace” in Isa. 54:10, and he’s showing how the New Covenant fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant, by providing the true offspring of Abraham and Sarah; surpasses the Mosaic Covenant, by establishing a marriage between God and his people that will never be broken; and eclipses the Noahic Covenant, assuring that his wrath will never be poured out on his people again.
The chapter ends with verses 11-17 describing the life of God’s people relating him on the terms of the New Covenant and beginning a description of the New Jerusalem. The final line of the chapter is important: “This is the heritage of the servants of Yahweh and their vindication from me, declares Yahweh.” We could also translate this sentence, “This is the inheritance of the servants of Yahweh and their righteousness from me, declares Yahweh.” Paul probably would have seen in Isaiah 54 the New Covenant realities of justification and the inheritance that he’s been talking about in Galatians connected back with the lineage of the barren woman, Sarah, so that he is able to use the story of Sarah and Hagar as a way to show that the false teachers and all who think they can earn God’s favor by works are actually children of Hagar and will have none of God’s inheritance.
Now, let’s go back to Gal. 4 and see the specific connections Paul makes here. Paul recognizes the allegory in Genesis because of the connections Isaiah made back to Sarah in light of the theme of barrenness. You can see on the screen or in your sermon notes the connections depicted visually.
Paul sees Hagar as representing the Mosaic Covenant, which is connected with Mt. Sinai. Let’s talk about that for just a moment. This would have been shocking to Jewish readers, and surely it would have been initially shocking to the false teachers in Galatia. It seems clear that the people with whom Yahweh cut a covenant at Mt. Sinai as narrated in Exod. 19-24 were clearly descendants of Isaac. But, because of Isa. 54:1, because of the demeaning reference to “the one who has a husband” as arguably applying to that Mosaic Covenant, Paul suggests that the false teachers have not read Scripture properly. We’ll come back to this point momentarily.
We notice that Paul states that the two women are two covenants, but he only goes on to mention explicitly the Mosaic Covenant as connected to Hagar. So, what covenant does he see Sarah representing. Some have suggested the Abrahamic Covenant, but I think it’s the New Covenant, established in the death of the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, because of Isa. 54. Then, Mount Sinai is specifically mentioned, but no other mountain is mentioned. I speculate that the contrast would be appropriate with Mount Zion, again, because of Isaiah 54 and the preceding chapters, but ultimately Paul’s focus is not on these points, so I’m not going to press what’s not in the text. What is most important is that Paul suggests that the Mosaic Covenant produces “children for slavery.” Thus, “you who desire to be under the law” are desiring to be enslaved, which was Paul’s argument in Gal. 3:23-4:11. He doesn’t mention the alternative, “children of promise,” until verse 28, when he applies this to the Galatian Christians who are not following the teaching of these false teachers.
Then, Paul contrasts the “present Jerusalem,” which he says “is in slavery with her children,” with the “Jerusalem above.” We might have expected the contrast to be between the “present Jerusalem” and the “Jerusalem to come” or “the future Jerusalem,” but he mixes his metaphors a bit, comparing time—“present”—with space—“above.” But, in fact, the “Jerusalem above” is the future Jerusalem, but if he had written “the Jerusalem to come” or something like that he would have implied that this Jerusalem doesn’t exist now. But it does.
The “present Jerusalem” represents all who seek to earn God’s verdict by obeying the law—the Mosaic Law or any law, ultimately. The “present Jerusalem” includes the Jews of Paul’s day, these confused false teachers in Galatia and their followers, and ultimately, by implication, all non-Christians. Anyone who thinks they can be right with God in any other way besides trusting Jesus Christ alone is enslaved in “the present Jerusalem.” At the end of the day, “the present Jerusalem” is another way of speaking of “the present evil age” (cf. Gal. 1:4). However, Paul’s focus is squarely on those who were seeking to relate to God on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant, all Jews and those who insist that Gentiles must become Jews before they can receive the inheritance. The present Jerusalem stands to this day.
Paul flourishes with the contrast in verse 26: “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” This connects clearly back to Sarah the free woman. The heavenly Jerusalem is our mother, our “mother city,” as it were, but it points back to the fact that Sarah is our mother, and not Hagar. We are sons of Abraham and Sarah, and the fact that Sarah is our mother makes all the difference to Paul. This makes us citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. As Paul writes in another letter, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). It is easy for us to get distracted by the benefits of our citizenship in the cities and nations of this world. Every nation, including the good ole’ U.S. of A., is a part of “the present evil age,” and we need to remember that. Our rights as citizens of earthly nations and states and cities should not be more important to us than our rights as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, the “Jerusalem above.” What are some of those rights? Well, we could start with the Beatitudes:
• You have the right to be spiritually poor, to acknowledge your constant neediness.
• You have the right to mourn, to grieve over your remaining sinfulness, and to mourn when the great enemy death visits.
• You have the right to be meek, to restrain yourself when everything in you says to lash out or lose control.
• You have the right to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to earnestly desire right and good and just things in your heart and in this world.
• You have the right to express mercy to the needy.
• You have the right to remain pure in a dirty world.
• You have the right to maintain peace in your relationships, peace in your homes, peace in your offices, yes, even peace in your churches.
• You have the right to endure persecution when you stand for what Jesus defines as right.
Do you care to exercise these rights as much as you care to hold onto the right to bear arms, or the right to speak freely, or the right to a fair trial? That’s what citizens of the kingdom of heaven, of the heavenly Jerusalem, of the “Jerusalem above” look like.
As we’ve seen, Paul quotes Isa. 54:1 in Gal. 4:27, and he seems to have the whole of Isaiah 54 in mind, and he’s suggesting that Isa. 54:1 provides the proper perspective to view Genesis 16-17 and the story of Sarah and Hagar. He’s actually suggesting that the false teachers have misunderstood the significance of the story because they are not reading it in its full context. Going back to our opening question about how and why Paul applies this allegory to the Galatian situation, it seems that Paul is, in fact, reading the Genesis story “in context,” but he’s reading it in the context of the whole Old Testament, taking into account what Isaiah has done with the story. The false teachers surely thought they were the children of Abraham because they were circumcised, and so any Gentile who wanted to become a son of Abraham must also be circumcised. Paul is saying that this story points to the fact that the determining factor for who are sons and heirs of Abraham is not circumcision, for Ishmael was also circumcised but he will not inherit; rather, the determining factor for who are the true sons of Abraham is who your mother is.
Whether applied to Jerusalem in exile or to barren Sarah herself, Isa. 54:1 is amazing as it depicts the miraculous overcoming of an impossible situation. God’s promises cannot be thwarted, even by barrenness! The way the second line is worded might imply that the children born to the barren one are not born naturally; “break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!” Well, if she’s not in labor, how are babies being born? Supernatural regeneration. When Jesus has his famous conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, he refers to being born again, but that phrase in Greek has a double meaning. It can just as easily be translated born from above, which explains why Jesus goes on to speak of being born of the Spirit. That’s what Isaiah was talking about, and that’s what Paul’s talking about here. The children of Abraham are not born the natural way; they are born according to the Spirit. He actually says that in verse 29.
Let’s see how Paul applies all of this to the Galatian Christians; he’s been addressing the false teachers and those who might be following them, but now he turns his attention to those who haven’t strayed. Verses 28-30: “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 will not inherit with the son of the free woman.’” We said earlier that the birth of Ishmael was an attempt to “help God along” to fulfill his promises to Abraham. But Isaac was born to Sarah just as God had promised, and he was the one to carry on the inheritance. Likewise, the Galatian Christians have been born according to the Spirit, just as Jesus once said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63). So, if the Galatian believers are “children of promise,” then they are also the “children of the desolate woman” from Isa. 54:1; Paul is saying that the restoration promised through Isaiah has begun, and Jews and Gentiles alike who trust Jesus are the true children of Abraham and Sarah, citizens of the “Jerusalem above.”
But Paul goes further to apply the conclusion of the Sarah-Hagar drama to the situation of the Galatians. He notes how Ishmael persecuted Isaac, which is probably a reference to Gen. 21:9, which the NASB translates, “Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking.” Paul says that nothing’s really changed since those days in Genesis: those born according to the flesh still persecute those born according to the Spirit. And you’ve got to wonder if he isn’t painting the picture of the Galatian churches right there, with the false teachers depicted as the persecutors and the Galatian Christians holding faithfully to the gospel Paul preached being depicted as those being persecuted. Jesus argued similarly concerning the religious leaders, didn’t he? “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs” (Luke 11:47). Jesus suggests that they’re acting just like their ancestors in opposing the purposes of God.
Paul then quotes Sarah’s words to Abraham in Gen. 21:10 as instruction for the Galatians: “Cast out the slave woman and her son.” Some have seen this as telling the Galatian church to excommunicate the false teachers, and I think that’s possible. But it seems more likely that he’s focusing on the larger picture as he brings his argument to a close. Thus, “cast out the slave woman and her son” means the Galatians must reject the teachings of the false teachers; they must reject going back to slavery under the Mosaic Covenant, and they must not let anyone persuade them to abandon the gospel he preached to them.
The second half of the quotation of Gen. 21:10 is important also, because it gives the reason the Galatians must utterly reject going back under the law: “for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” Ishmael was not to get the inheritance promised to Abraham and his descendants through Sarah. Only true sons of Abraham and Sarah will receive the promised inheritance that Paul has been talking about since chapter 3. Thus, if you want the inheritance—which includes justification, the Holy Spirit, the blessing of Abraham—you cannot go back to the Mosaic Covenant to get it. But it also says more than that. This statement also implies that, ironically, the Jewish people will not inherit with Christians, as long as they continue seeking to relate to God on the terms of the Mosaic Covenant, as though they could be justified by obeying the Law. Citizens of “the present Jerusalem” must become citizens of “the Jerusalem above” in order to receive any inheritance from God. There are not 2 inheritances; there are not 2 peoples of God.
Finally, Paul concludes by reaffirming the identity of the Galatian Christians and reiterating his primary charge to them in verse 31 and verse 1 of chapter 5: “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Chapter divisions can be really unhelpful, and this is one of the worst. Gal. 5:1 is a kind of transitional thought; it concludes what he’s been saying in chapter 4 and it introduces what he’s going to say in chapter 5.
Christians are true sons of Abraham and Sarah. We are no longer enslaved. Whether Jew or Gentile, everyone was once a slave. Enslaved by the law, whether a Jew imprisoned by the Mosaic Law, or a Gentile enslaved by the foolish desire to earn God’s acceptance by “being a good person”; enslaved to Sin, being completely unable to please God; and enslaved to Satan, blindly following the demonic “course of this world,” just going with the flow. In order to be truly free, the Son of God must set you free (cf. John 8:36). Paul reminds us Christians: Christ has set us free, and he did that by suffering in our place. He died for us, ransomed us from the slavemasters we have willingly followed throughout our lives. And he has set us free “for freedom,” Paul adds, meaning, Christ has set us free so that we can experience true freedom, freedom in Christ.
Isaiah was painting a picture of restoration from exile, but it seems that he wasn’t merely talking about the restoration of physical Israel to the physical land. No, Isaiah was actually painting a picture of the restoration of humanity—including Israel, but also specifically including the nations, the Gentiles—from the original exile, the exile from the garden of Eden, and Paul is saying that this restoration has begun in Christ. Thus, the freedom Christ has set us free to experience is the freedom of life in the presence of God as Adam and Eve experienced in the garden, but even better. God had told Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 2:16, NRSV), and that expansive freedom permitted to Adam was surely only a small part of the freedom Adam had to enjoy life with God and all of God’s creation in appropriate ways. The freedom that characterizes citizenship in the “Jerusalem above” is the freedom of the New Creation, pictured for us as the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven onto a renewed earth in Revelation 21. We experience this freedom in a limited way already, now, but we look forward to the full freedom of our citizenship, when the creation itself will be set free from its bondage (see Rom. 8:18-25).
But what does this mean? What does our freedom look like now? Does it mean we’re free to do whatever we want? No more restrictions? No limits? No more consequences? No, I don’t think it means any of those things. And, anyway, if Christian freedom were all about these things, what a boring picture that paints? Sub-biblical, at best. We need to be re-captivated by the biblical picture of freedom in Christ.
Yes, we must sing, “free from the law, O happy condition, Jesus has bled and there is remission, Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall, grace hath redeemed us once for all.” We must revel in what Christ has set us free from.
• From the penalty of sin (Rom. 6:7; 8:2)
• From the power of sin (Rom. 6:18, 22; Titus 2:14)
• From the overwhelming influence of the present evil age (Gal. 1:4)
• From the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:15)
• From the demands of the law (Gal. 4:5)
• From the condemning wrath of God (Rom. 5:9; 8:1)
But Galatians 5 is going to give us a glorious picture of the other side of freedom, what Christ has set us free for. Just to give you a taste, a preview, we are free to:
• serve one another through love (Gal. 5:13)
• love our neighbors
• experience joy in all circumstances
• experience genuine peace in our relationships
• exercise patience toward others
• show kindness to others
• do genuinely good deeds
• remain faithful to God and your neighbors
• be gentle with people, especially hurting people
• restrain your passions
Christ has set us free for true freedom. You were not free to do any of these things before you met Jesus Christ. If you’re not a Christian, however good a person you think you are, you are enslaved. Your best efforts cannot free you from your chains; your best efforts are not pleasing to God. Jesus has done all that is necessary to set you free. Trust him; believe that his death paid your ransom; his resurrection shows that the payment was good and that he is more powerful than death. Give your life to him, and he will give you the freedom you could never have imagined or won for yourself.
He sets us free to become more like him, to become more Christ-like. You’re not free to do whatever you want to do you in your fleshly desires; you’re not free to do whatever you think is most fun. Well, actually that’s kind of not true; he sets you free to do what is truly the most fun and enjoyable, and that is becoming more like Christ. If you think watching a television show, or playing soccer outside, or playing video games, or going to a movie, or riding horses, or getting a Master’s Degree, or selling insurance, or shopping, or eating, or playing guitar, or crocheting a sweater, or looking at Facebook....if you think any of these things are more fun or more enjoyable or more important than becoming more like Christ, you need to check your pulse. And if you think these are the things Christ has set you free to do, you have really misunderstood what Christ has done for you. Our highest purpose in this life is to live out our freedom in Christ, being the disciples he has called us to be and helping others grow to be more like Christ as well.