If it is any comfort, this passage is not quite as difficult as it seems when you first hear it. Admittedly Paul does not make theology an easy task. This passage requires careful thinking.
This is the Apostle’s last argument in the second phase of his defense of his gospel. It is Paul’s non-Mosaic gospel that has come under fire. The first phase, chapters 1&2, was Paul’s defense against the accusation that Paul received his gospel from the Jerusalem Apostles but then adjusted it so that he would gain a following among the Gentiles. In his second phase, chapters 3&4, Paul is defending himself for preaching that we are not under the Mosaic Law anymore. And in his third phase he will deal with the charge of antinomianism, that there are no imperatives for the people of God, where he will offer a better understanding of the fruit of the Spirit.
Our first question as we approach this passage is; what is Paul doing with the Old Testament? This question has garnered much attention over the years. It seems that Paul is using what is known as an allegorical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar. Hagar represents Mt. Sinai? Hagar symbolizes a covenant?
Is Paul agreeing with Origen? Origen was the second century church father who introduced the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture. Origen believed that there were different levels of meaning to each Scripture text, and the most unimportant was the literal meaning. One must peel away the literal to get at the spiritual meaning. So for example, it would not be important to Origen that Sarah and Hagar were literal persons, but that you discern the spiritual meaning behind these OT stories.
With this understanding of Origen it would hardly be fitting to label Paul’s method “allegorical.” It is crucial to Paul’s argument that Sarah and Hagar are historical persons. It would be better to label what Paul is doing typology than allegory. Paul sees in these two persons two lines, two peoples that will play itself out in the history of salvation. These two people, Hagar and Sarah, bear children in two distinct manners, one by the power of the flesh, and one by the power of the Spirit. It is these two principles that will come into play in the line of Ishmael and the line of Isaac.
Now it is important to understand that at the time of this epistle being written, there were two missionary enterprises going on simultaneously in the Western world. One was Paul’s advancement of the gospel. The other was the Judiazers’ advancement of their gospel. Both were seeking to gain converts and plant churches. The Judiazers were claiming that Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Apostles were the home base and support for their mission, while Paul had no such support. The Apostles in Jerusalem of course supported Paul, but that is not what the Judiazers would have affirmed.
Paul was aware how the Judiazers had been using the Old Testament to support their gospel. He wrote Galatians because someone from Galatia had come and reported to Paul what was happening there. From Paul’s use of the Sarah and Hagar episode we can discern how the Judiazers would have been using these two Biblical persons as they tried to persuade the Christians there against Paul’s gospel. They would say something like:
“Brethren of Galatia, Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman, Hagar. Hagar and her son were cast out from the children of God. Their descendants became the uncircumcised Arabs, Gentiles outside of the Law and outside of the covenant between God and His people. These Gentiles, being lawless, do not know how to serve God, but are bound in their sin. They have no father, who is God, nor mother, which is the Jerusalem church. But Isaac was the blessed child, the child of the covenant. It was through Isaac that the nation Israel came, and God only gave Israel the Law. Thus to be a child of the promise you must be circumcised as Isaac and join those who obey the Law of Moses. This will ensure that you are truly the people of God. Then you will be free from the desires of the flesh because you will have the Law of God to guide you. And you will have as your mother the church in Jerusalem that has sent us to plant Law-observant churches. So are you going to follow Paul and be children of Hagar and be cast outside the people of God for ignoring the Law of Moses, or will you be children of Sarah and come fully into God’s covenant by obeying the Law of Moses?”
Unfortunately, it seems most of the young Christians in Galatia had become swayed by this thinking. So Paul will also use these two Old Testament figures to set the record straight, but his interpretation will prove far different from the Judiazers’ interpretation.
He begins with a question for the people in v. 21: Tell me you who want to be under the law, do you not hear the law? Paul will not say the law is irrelevant, but that the law, and here he includes Genesis; the law rightly understood points to Christ. They are not really hearing the law as it was intended. In vv. 22&23, Paul lays out for them the facts of the story. Abraham had one son through his slave Hagar, and the other through his wife Sarah. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, came about naturally, by the power of the flesh. But Sarah’s son, Isaac, came about supernaturally, by the power of the Spirit. Remember Isaac was born because of a promise of God to open Sarah’s dead womb.
Now that he has laid out the facts, the Apostle offers the correct interpretation of the facts. Paul writes that these two births are symbolic or typological, and they represent the two covenants. What are the two covenants in Scripture? The covenant of works and the covenant of grace. One leads to bondage, and the other leads to freedom. One produces life, and one produces death. One can only be fulfilled by your works, the other is fulfilled by Christ.
Here is the shocker. Paul teaches that Hagar the slavewoman, she who produced a child according to the flesh, corresponds to Mt. Sinai and the Law. The one in slavery, like Hagar, is the one under the Mosaic Law! Do you see how different Paul’s interpretation is from the Judiazers’?
The Judiazers linked the Law with Sarah the freewoman. Paul links the Law with Hagar the slavewoman. To the Judiazers, the Law of Moses set them free; to Paul, it brought them into bondage. Just as Hagar and Ishmael were slaves and children of bondage, those who seek to be under the Law are children of bondage, and thus have Hagar and Ishmael as their spiritual forbearers.
In v. 25 that he brings this contrast into the present. There is still a slavewoman in the line of Hagar, and she is the present Jerusalem. And there are still children being born into slavery from this woman, and these would be the churches that the Judiazers were planting. The term “Jerusalem” in v. 25 is used to refer to the center of the Judiazers’ operation. The Apostle correlates Mt. Sinai, which was in Arabia, with the present city, Jerusalem. The Judaizers’ gospel is issuing forth from present day Jerusalem, which is still enslaved. It would be like us saying that an edict was issued from Rome. What we mean by that is that an edict came from the leaders of the Catholic Church who are centered in Rome.
So Paul places on one side of the equation Hagar and Ishmael, the Law from Mt. Sinai, bondage, the Judiazers, and their center of operations, Jerusalem. But what does the Apostle place on the other side of the column? V. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. There are two distinct sources for the existence of these two types of churches being formed. The law-churches of the Judiazers find as their source the earthly city of Jerusalem. Their churches are formed through fleshly means, the circumcision of the flesh and the obedience of the flesh. These “churches” place people under bondage. If they look to the Law to grant them acceptance with God they will be enslaved to keep the whole Law, and the Law is powerless to enable them to live lives pleasing to God.
But the churches Paul was planting found their source in the Jerusalem above, which is heaven. The power of the gospel to save and sanctify sinners comes not from the works of the Law, but the power of God in heaven through the work of Christ, received by faith alone. We may not have an earthly center for our churches, but as Paul says in Philippians 3, our citizenship is in heaven.
Think of the pressure brought to bear on these Galatian Christians when they were told that Jerusalem supports the Judiazers, but was angry with Paul. Paul says, do not to worry about what those leaders of the Judiazers in Jerusalem are saying; Jerusalem is not the seat of God’s presence anymore.
Of course the Judiazers would point to all the OT prophecies that speak of Jerusalem as the seat of God’s power in God’s eschatological kingdom. But those prophecies were not speaking of any earthly city. So in v. 27 the Apostle quotes from the book of Isaiah to support his contention of what the true Jerusalem really is.
This prophecy is given to the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 586 BC who would witness their city destroyed by the Babylonians. Isaiah exhorts them not to lose heart; Jerusalem will rise again. The city seems empty and barren now, but there will come a day when you will rejoice because Jerusalem will be overflowing with children. Paul is claiming that this prophecy is being fulfilled in the expansion of the church through his gospel. The Jerusalem that is bearing abundant children is the heavenly Jerusalem, not the Jerusalem in Israel.
Paul is drawing the Galatians into the sweet and glorious truths of the gospel. The Judiazers may move you by threatening that you will be cut off from the mother church if you do not come under the Law of Moses, but you are already connected to your mother, which is the Jerusalem above. And this Jerusalem is free. Paul’s conclusion is found in v. 28 and repeated in v. 30. So we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. We are the true Israel, born not through circumcision or the works of the flesh, but by the power of the Spirit.
Paul has again turned the teaching of the Judiazers back on their heads. They cannot look to Sarah and Isaac as their heritage, for Sarah bore a child by the power of the Spirit through the promise of God. It was Hagar who produced children by the flesh. They cannot look to the free child Isaac as their heritage, for Isaac wasn’t a slave, but they are. They may look to Mt. Sinai as the source of their covenant with God, but we look the heavenly Mt. Zion, and the new covenant sealed with the blood of Christ. They may look to the earthly Jerusalem for their source of their existence, but our Jerusalem is from above.
Now, Paul is not satisfied with simply offering a correct interpretation of these Genesis births. In v. 28 Paul begins applying this understanding to their situation. Paul explains that these two distinct peoples are always in hostility with one another. Did God not promise Adam and Eve that the children of the serpent would be hostile to the children of the promise? The Galatians were children of Isaac, children of promise, and those who seek to place them under the Mosaic Law were their persecutors.
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. Ishmael the child of the flesh mocked and persecuted Isaac the child of the promise. And it has been that way ever since. The Judiazers are the children of the flesh, those who believe in the power of the law and the efficacy of their own lawkeeping. As with Ishmael these children are mocking Paul and persecuting the churches Paul has planted. These Ishmaelites were discrediting Paul and his gospel. Nothing has changed.
The Galatians might have thought, “OK, Paul, we understand your interpretation of Genesis verses theirs, but so what?” The Galatians won’t get off the hook so easily. If you really believe what I am saying you will respond the same way Sarah responded. Sarah recognized the dangers posed to the child of promise if Ishmael was allowed to stay. Ishmael must be cast out, as these Judiazers must be cast out of the people of God.
What shall we do? What does the Scripture say to do? Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freedwoman. Yes, the Galatians may give their assent to Paul’s theology, but will they respond in obedience. That is the test that you truly believe in the words of God. Faith without works is dead.
As the Apostle’s letter is read in the presence of these intimating Judiazers, will the Galatians have the courage to obey the Apostle and stand for the true gospel? From church history we do not know the answer to that question. We do know since the source of the church’s life comes from Christ Himself who is in heaven; all the strength they needed to do this difficult task was theirs. This was a test to reveal if they really believed the gospel. Every church is given the same test. Do we have the courage to stand for freedom and cast out the Judiazers? There is only one gospel, and it is always the gospel that is at stake between these two peoples, and it is always a fight within the church. Will you heed the Word of God and fight for the gospel?