Sons of Promise

Galatians 4:21-31

Paul argues that the promised sons of Abraham are those who are sons of God in Christ Jesus rather than by physical heritage or religion.

©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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 Galatians Series

   Throughout chapters three and four of this epistle, Paul has been documenting that the gospel revealed to him (cf. chapters one and two) was God's intent from the beginning, documented by repeated references to the priority of the promises to Abraham. Although the Judaizers were apparently appealing to the Galatian Christians to identify with the heritage of Israel as the People of God by submitting to male circumcision as initiated in Abraham (and thus to become true "sons of Abraham"), the predominance of their admonitions involved submitting to the performance regulations of the Mosaic Law. Utilizing his Jewish heritage and knowledge of the Torah, Paul attempted to direct the thinking of the Christians in Galatia back to the prior and superior promises of God to Abraham, indicating that the divine promises of blessing and inheritance were all fulfilled in Jesus Christ (3:14,16,22), constituting Christians as the intended "sons of Abraham" (3:7,29), "sons of God" (3:26), and the "heirs" (3:29; 4:1,7) of all that God intends for His people. In so doing, Paul employed a radical reinterpretation of the events of Judaic history which the Jewish peoples had always understood in the exclusivism of physical fulfillment in Jewish privilege. Having been taught the gospel of Christ by the revelation of the Holy Spirit (1:11,12,16), Paul abandoned all of the prejudiced, traditional Jewish interpretations in order to view all of history and all of Scripture from a Christocentric interpretation which regarded Jesus and His work to be the focal point of all God's activity. Challenging the foundational tenets of Jewish interpretation, Paul recast Biblical history as the prototypical prefiguring of the spiritual fulfillment of God's promises in Jesus Christ. As Abraham had responded to God's promises in faith, the blessing of God in Christ (Eph. 1:3) is received in Christians by faith, rather than by performance (3:6-14). The promises of Abraham take precedence in sequence, significance and supremacy over the performance standards of the Mosaic Law (3:15-22), which had a subsidiary purpose of custodial constraint until the reality of Christ's life was revealed (3:23-29). Christians, therefore, have the privilege of being the true "sons of God" and "sons of Abraham" who inherit all that God has for mankind in Jesus Christ (4:1-20). These previous reinterpretations that Paul had recorded would have been a bitter pill for the traditionalist Judaizers who had invaded Galatia to swallow, for they knocked the props from beneath their religious house of cards, but the argument that Paul makes in this final documentary portion of his letter (4:21-31) is the "clincher" that seals the case. The little Jewish lawyer "pulls out all the stops" as he builds his case to a climax that decimates all the arguments of his Judaizing opponents. James D.G. Dunn refers to this passage as Paul's "tour de force," his ultimate feat of ingenuity and strength.1

   Many commentators have complained that these verses are the most difficult or puzzling passage in Galatians, or even in the entirety of the New Testament. Such complaints are usually due to prior misconceptions based on faulty presuppositions which do not correspond with what Paul has written. Without a doubt this passage will be difficult and baffling to those unwilling to accept what Paul has written at face value, because they are attempting to protect invalid premises and impose a grid of biased theological interpretation upon the Scriptures. On the other hand, those who honestly accept what Paul writes will find his argument totally consistent with his Christ-centered emphasis throughout all of his writings. The Christocentric reinterpretation of old covenant history that Paul employs in this initial epistle becomes foundational for a proper understanding of all the rest of the Pauline literature, as well as for understanding the full spectrum and panorama of God's activity and intent in all of history and Scripture, contextualized as it is in Jesus Christ alone.

4:21 ­ Returning to the objective documentation of Old Testament Scripture, Paul challenges the Galatian Christians with another question (cf. 3:1-5; 4:9). "Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the Law?" The Judaizers, like many teachers of religion, probably utilized many Biblical quotations from the Old Testament to support their premises, and Paul knew that the best way to combat such was to respond with accurate Biblical exegesis that explains God's spiritual intent in Christ. Since the religious infiltrators were appealing to the Mosaic Law, Paul begins by asking the Galatians whether they have any spiritual comprehension of the Torah and the Old Testament Scriptures. As Spirit-indwelt Christians, they should have had spiritual discernment (I Cor. 2:10-16) to differentiate between legalistic conformity to behavior standards and the grace-dynamic of the Spirit of Christ in Christian living. By listening to, tolerating, and sympathizing with the Law-based message of the Judaizers, the Galatian Christians were evidencing how undiscerning they really were about the modus operandi of the Christian life. They were reverting back to that natural and religious tendency to desire prescriptive performance guidelines of legislated behavior, thinking that they could please God thereby and achieve the status of "sons of Abraham" or "people of God." Paul had already explained that the time of being "under law" was historically past (3:23) for Jesus Christ redeemed the Jewish peoples who were enslaved "under the law" (4:5), and the same was true experientially for the Gentiles who had become Christians and were no longer enslaved to "elemental things of the world" (4:3,9). To desire to be under legalistic rules and regulations was to deny God's all-sufficient grace in Jesus Christ.

4:22 ­ If the Galatians had been willing to listen to the Old Testament Scriptures with spiritual discernment, they should have been able to detect the Christocentric prefiguring of the historical events. As a case in point, Paul writes, "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman." Actually, Abraham had eight known sons, six additional sons from his wife, Keturah, after Sarah had died (Gen. 25:1,2), but these are not pertinent to Paul's argument.

   Let us review the pertinent historical narratives: God promised Abraham that he would have a son (Gen. 15:4). Abraham's wife, Sarah, was barren, so she suggested to Abraham that he do the next best thing (a logical alternative to trusting God's promises, that was culturally moral and acceptable), and take their Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, as another wife, in order to have a child. Abraham took his wife's advice, married Hagar, and she conceived and bore a son, Ishmael. Sarah was jealous (Gen. 16:1-4). God again promised Abraham that he would have a son through his wife, Sarah, but Abraham laughed because he was 100 years old and Sarah was 90 years old. Abraham appealed to God to accept Ishmael as his promised heir, but God refused (Gen. 17:15-20). Three messengers of God came to Abraham to confirm that he was going to have a son within a year. Listening through the tent-flap, Sarah laughed within, but subsequently denied that she had done so, and was corrected. "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" was the question asked of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18:9-15). As promised by God, Sarah conceived and bore a son despite her advanced age. They called his name Isaac, meaning "laughter" (Gen. 21:1-8).

   By returning to the events of Abraham's life, Paul retains the continuity of his documentary argument (3:6­4:20), wherein he addresses the question, "Who are the true sons of Abraham?" The Jewish peoples had always proudly considered themselves the true sons of Abraham through physical lineage and religious heritage. Reacting to their boast, John the Baptist had warned that such connection would not suffice, for "God is able to raise up sons of Abraham out of stones" (Matt. 3:9). Also reacting to their boast, Jesus explained that instead of Abraham being their father, they were "of their father, the devil" (Jn. 8:33-44). So Paul's denial of Jewish privilege through physical heritage had its precedents in earlier teaching, allowing him to assert that those who have received Jesus Christ in faith are the real "sons of Abraham" (4;7,29). The Judaizers, on the other hand, retaining certain ideas of Jewish privilege, were reluctantly allowing that Gentile converts who had received Jesus as the Messiah could somehow be identified as "sons of Abraham," provided the males received the physical mark of circumcision as was initiated with Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14), and they all conformed to the Mosaic Law of Judaic religion. Paul is now prepared to turn the tables on the entire issue of the "sons of Abraham" by arguing that the connection of physicality with either Isaac or Ishmael is irrelevant, for it is the spiritual connection with the sons of Abraham that determines the difference.

   Commencing to lay out his argument, Paul notes that one of Abraham's sons, Ishmael (meaning "God has heard"), was born out of the slave-girl, the maidservant, the Egyptian bondwoman, Hagar, who served in Abraham's household (Gen. 16:1). The other son, Isaac (meaning "laughter" ­ both incredulity and exultation), was born out of the free woman, Abraham's first wife, Sarah, who was thenceforth regarded as "the mother of Israel" in Jewish thought which stressed their physical linkage to Abraham through Isaac and Sarah. By portraying the two mothers in this manner Paul is constructing a variation on the freedom vs. slavery theme previously alluded to (2:4; 3:23; 4:1-9), which will be amplified more fully later in the letter (5:1-13).

4:23 ­ Proceeding to note the context of the births of the two sons of Abraham, Paul writes, "But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh..." Ishmael, born of Hagar, came into being "according to the flesh." The phrase "according to the flesh" has been variously interpreted. It cannot mean natural, physical generation, because both sons were born through Abraham's physical intercourse with a woman, and the subsequent conception, gestation and birth. Neither does "according to the flesh" mean "according to sexual desires," for we can safely assume that Abraham had sexual desires both for his wife, Sarah, as well as Hagar. The most feasible explanation, then, is to recognize that Paul was not referring to physical action or desire, but to the behavioral motivation that prompted Abraham to accept Sarah's suggestion and consent to the cultural capitulation of using a young slave-maiden as a proxy for child-bearing. God had made a promise to Abraham that he would have a son with his wife, Sarah. God keeps His promises; He cannot lie (Numb. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). And what He promises, He is quite capable of performing (Gen. 18:14; Lk. 1:37; Rom. 4:21). When man takes matters into his own hands and attempts to help God out by trying to bring about God's promises by the human means and devices of self-effort, then he has acted "according to the flesh." A promise from God is not a challenge to man to assist God in bringing the promise to pass, despite the abominable religious clichés that say, "God helps those who help themselves;" "Do your best, and God will do the rest;" or "Just do something, and God will bless it." Religion is always replete with such encouragement to human planning and performance; human activity and attainment. The hallmark of religion is utilitarian human productivity, instead of ontological receptivity of God's activity in faith. Abraham acted "according to the flesh" when he listened to his wife instead of God, and chose what W. Ian Thomas has called "the reasonable alternative to faith"2, by thinking that he could perform and enact what could only be accomplished by God in fulfillment of His own promise.

   By contrast, "the son by the free woman (was born) through the promise." Isaac was born to Sarah in fulfillment of God's promise, without any self-orchestrated assistance on the part of Abraham. God's promises can only be enacted by His own activity. To illustrate that truth God acted against all odds to bring about the birth of Isaac from Sarah. God took Abraham who was "as good as dead" (Rom. 4:19) at one hundred years of age and Sarah with the "deadness of her womb" (Rom. 4:19) at ninety years of age, and supernaturally caused them to conceive Isaac in accord with His own promise. God's work done God's way by God's grace is the only way that God is glorified in His creation. What God desires from man is simply the dependent and contingent reliance of receptivity to His divine activity, allowing Him to be and do what He desires to be and do in each person. This is the faith that Abraham exemplified as the prototypical "father" of faith (Rom. 4:16; Gal. 3:7,26) for all Christians. Abraham's receptivity of faith that allowed God to "bring life out of death, and call into being that which did not exist" (Rom. 4:17) in his son, Isaac, was a pictorial prefiguring of God's promised regeneration and restoration of mankind in Jesus Christ, which can only be effected by the receptivity of His activity of life and Being in the individual. So Isaac, as the promised son received by faith by Abraham, was the type of the Promised Son, Jesus Christ, in Whom all Christians become the promised "sons of Abraham" by faithful receptivity of the grace-dynamic of God in accord with His promise, which was intrinsic in the Abrahamic promises. Isaac was born "through the promise" as Abraham and Sarah were receptive by faith to the extraordinary act of God enacted through ordinary people and procedures.

4:24 ­ Paul now explains that "this contains an allegory," or more accurately translated, "this is being allegorized" (the verb is a present, passive participle). Paul takes the historical narrative of Abraham's two wives (Hagar and Sarah) and two sons (Ishmael and Isaac), and without denying or diminishing their historicity, he posits that the persons and events have instructional value and meaning beyond the particulars of the incidents themselves. There are truths that go beyond the prima facie (first view) reading of the historical facts. Under the surface and between the lines of the historical narrative there are spiritual truths which prefigure God's spiritual intent in His Promised Son, Jesus Christ, and His "promised sons," Christians.

   The legitimate use of figurative language and interpretation has been hotly debated. The linguistic word-doctors have attempted to define figurative, pictorial and illustrative language into rigid categories of allegory, analogy, typology, parable, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, etc. Based on their definitions, some commentators have alleged that Paul was not employing allegory but typology. Others have accused Paul of "spiritualizing" the historical events and the Scriptural text. Still others would charge that Paul used faulty rabbinical methods of hermeneutics, using the methodology of eisegesis instead of exegesis. Operating on the premise that Paul wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we must recognize the legitimacy of his figurative interpretation, all the while cautioning against additional allegorizing or spiritualizing that is not explicitly thus interpreted in Scripture. Men can take figurative images and make them apply to anything they choose, so the foregoing caution is necessary for human hermeneutics.

   The figurative comparison and contrast that Paul draws from the historical details is that "these women are two covenants." Hagar and Sarah, along with their two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, are illustrative or representative of two disparate covenants of God. They pictorially prefigure two contrasting covenant agreements or arrangements that God has "put through" (the meaning of diatheke, cf. 3:15,17) with mankind. The covenant of promise that God made with Abraham concerning his promised son, Isaac, has already been identified with the new covenant promise of Christ and Christians (3:15-19,29). The Jewish people, on the other hand, identified themselves as the "covenant-people" of God, based primarily on the Mosaic law-covenant given to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Paul's argument is that the promise-covenant given to Abraham finds its eternal fulfillment in the new covenant of Christ, while the law-covenant given to Moses found its temporary fulfillment in the interim period of the old covenant leading up to Christ ­ the external religious vestiges of which were disappearing (II Cor. 3:7-11) and becoming obsolete (Heb. 8:16) in Paul's world of the first century. Though arbitrary human interpretation of history has often attempted to divide time into numerous segments of covenantal arrangements, the Biblical perspective divides God's dealings between two primary covenants, the "old covenant" and the "new covenant" (I Cor. 11:25; II Cor 3:6; Heb. 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15-20; 10:16,29; 12:24; 13:20), which Paul has figuratively identified with the Abrahamic promise-covenant and the Mosaic law-covenant, respectively. This verse effectively serves as a negation of both the Dispensational theological thesis of Jewish privilege with its overemphasis on discontinuity of several covenants, as well as the Covenant theology thesis of singular covenant with its overemphasis on continuity of covenant, for Paul refers to the contrast of "two covenants."3

   The real bombshell of radical reinterpretation of Jewish history was dropped when Paul explained that the "one" covenant, the Mosaic Law-based old covenant, "came from Mount Sinai bearing children who are slaves; she is Hagar." This was the Hiroshima of Paul's battle with the Judaizers! Nothing would have been more unexpected and shocking to Judaic interpretation than to identify the old covenant Jewish religion with Hagar and her son, Ishmael. Jewish interpretation regarded the Jewish people as the chosen people of God, physically related to Abraham through Sarah and her son, Isaac; recipients of the Mosaic Law on Mount Sinai in a unique and special covenant with God; and thus properly related religiously with "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." The Jews were proud of their physical heritage and descent from Abraham through Isaac. They regarded the despised Gentiles, and more particularly the Arab peoples of the Middle East (Gen. 25:13-18), as the physical descendants of Ishmael and Hagar, having no viable relationship with God apart from the Law (cf. Ps. 147:19,20), but languishing in the bondage of ignorance and sin; enemies of God's people (I Chron. 5:10,19,20; Ps. 83:6). The Arab people accepted their identification with Ishmael and Hagar, at least from the seventh century A.D. onwards, after Mohammed identified Muslims and Islam as descending from Abraham through Ishmael in the Koran. The Jewish interpretation was clear-cut: A person was either a Jew with physical and religious connection with Abraham through Isaac and Sarah, or a person was a Gentile (or an Arab) with physical and religious connection with Abraham through Ishmael and Hagar.

   But Paul turns the tables, inverts the argument, and stands the Jewish interpretation on its head. He identifies the Sinaitic covenant of Law received by Moses, by which the Jewish peoples identified themselves as "the people of the Law," as having been brought into being in spiritual connection with Hagar and the context of her bearing Abraham's son, Ishmael. The Judaizers, who retained much of the physical and legal interpretations of the Jews, must have been aghast and appalled when they heard Paul's reinterpretation in the reading of the Galatian epistle. It was almost inconceivable that a person of Jewish heritage could or would promulgate the imagery that Paul develops in these verses. It was akin to denying one's heritage! Indeed, only by God's supernatural grace placing the "mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16) in Paul and giving him spiritual discernment by the Spirit, could Paul have jettisoned everything he had been taught about his background wherein the Jewish peoples considered themselves the unique, special, blessed and chosen people of God through Abraham and Isaac; repudiate the Jewish prejudice of exclusive privilege; and relegate Jewish religion with all of its regulations and rites to the realm of Hagarian bondage.

   In fact, Paul was dumping all human religion, whether Jewish religion, Arab religion, Chinese religion, Christian religion, etc., into the same hopper of enslaving performance. (It has already been noted that the English word "religion" is derived from the Latin word religare, meaning "to bind up," or "to tie back," thus enslaving a person to rules and regulations and rituals of devotion.) Hagar was a slave-girl in the household of Abraham and Sarah, with whom Abraham joined himself in performance "according to the flesh" (23). Slave-girls always gave birth to little slaves, delivered into the condition of slavery. In like manner, the Mosaic Law brought forth performance slaves to the Law, as the self-effort performance of religious bondage serves as "the logical alternative to faith."

   Paul's radical reinterpretation of Jewish connection is totally consistent with his previous statements in the epistle, identifying Christians as "the sons of Abraham" (3:7,29) enjoying the privileges of divine promise, and correlates precisely with all the rest of the new covenant literature. Paul interpreted everything from a Christological perspective rather than from the biological perspective of Judaism, from a spiritual perspective rather than from a physical perspective. But the religious belief of physical, Jewish privilege is still present today in the Zionist interpretations that posit an inherent right of Jews to occupy Palestine and to rebuild the dead Jewish religion.

4:25 ­ Paul goes on to make the figurative connection more explicit, stating, "Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia." "Now," either in the chronologic present point in time or in the logic of the present point of argument, Paul links Hagar with Mount Sinai. This is a connection that no traditional Jewish interpreter would ever have made. The Law given to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:1,2,19; Lev. 7:28; 26:42) was regarded as having set the Jewish people apart from all Gentiles as "the people of the Law." Hagar was regarded as the "mother of the Gentiles." So, Hagar and Mount Sinai had no connection, but were regarded as antithetical in Jewish thought. Paul, however, links Hagar and Mount Sinai in the commonality of slavery ­ Hagar was a slave-girl and Mount Sinai was the location where the slavery of Law-performance commenced. Some have attempted to avoid the religious link of bondage that Paul draws between Hagar and Mount Sinai by suggesting merely a geographical connection between Hagar and her Ishmaelian descendants and the Sinai wilderness (cf. Gen. 21:21), but such is to miss the express point of Paul's argument.

   That Paul locates Mount Sinai in Arabia creates an interesting geographical footnote. With Paul's previous reference to going away to Arabia after his conversion (1:17), these are the only two references to Arabia in the New Testament. There are numerous references in the Old Testament to the region of Arabah between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, as well as mention of Arabia, the general region to the southeast of Palestine now occupied by the countries of Jordan and the northwest part of Saudi Arabia. Several attempts have been made throughout history to locate Mount Sinai in this area, rather than in the traditional location of the southern part of what came to be called the Sinai Peninsula. Regardless of the geographical location of Mount Sinai, this does not alter Paul's argument connecting Hagar and Mount Sinai with the bondage of slavery.

   Even more explicitly, Paul continues by explaining that Hagar "corresponds to the present Jerusalem." This stands to reason because the city of Jerusalem was the capital of Judaic religion, the center of Law-observance, and the location of the Jewish temple and its worship. Mount Sinai and Jerusalem are inseparably linked by reference to Jewish Law. Paul even uses the Hebraic form of the Greek place name, Ierousalem, in this verse, rather than the Hellenized form, Ierosoluma, which he had used previously (1:17; 2:1), apparently in order to emphasize the religious significance of the Jewish capital. The physical "City of Peace" remains to this day as a focal-point of religion, having ironically become the site of violent religious conflict as Jewish religion, Christian religion and Islamic religion battle over the site for the external performances of their rites and rituals.

   But it was the identification of the first century capital of Judaism with Hagar, joining them in the context of slavery, that is the point Paul seeks to make as he concludes, "for she is in slavery with her children." "She" ­ both Hagar and Jerusalem are nouns of feminine gender. Paul is emphasizing the mutuality of the slave condition of Hagar and Judaism and their descendant peoples. Hagar and the Judaic Law could produce nothing but slaves ­ slaves to the "elemental principles" of performance "according to the flesh." The Jews adamantly protested that "they had never been enslaved to anyone" (Jn. 8:33), but at that very time they were physically enslaved in Roman occupation, religiously enslaved to Law-requirements, and spiritually enslaved to the Evil One (Jn. 8:44; II Tim. 2:26). Despite their disavowals of denial, those involved in Jewish religion were slaves in like manner as was Hagar.

   When Paul wrote that Hagar "corresponds" to Jerusalem, the Greek word he used means "to walk together with," or figuratively "to line up with," "to parallel," "to place in the same category or column." The related concepts that Paul is comparing and contrasting can indeed be placed in parallel linear columns to illustrate what Paul is picturing, and this is probably what Paul intended by the previous use of the word "allegorizing" (24) also:

Hagar (24,25)............................
bondwoman (22,23,30,31).........
son of bondwoman (23,30,31)..
born of flesh (23)......................
slave children (24,25,31)...........

slavery (24,25,31).....................
covenant of Law (24)................
old covenant (24).....................
Mt. Sinai (24,25).......................
Law (21)...................................
physical Jerusalem (25).............
Jews, Judaizers..........................
not heirs (30).............................
free woman (22,23,30,31)
son of free woman (23,30,31)
Isaac (28
born through promise (23)
free children
children of promise (28)
children of Jerusalem above (26)
freedom (26,31: 5:1)
covenant of promise (24)
new covenant (24)
Mt. Zion
Jerusalem above (26)
heirs (3:29; 4:30)

4:26 ­ With the "But" of contrast, Paul switches his correspondence to the other column to figuratively explain that "the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother." Paul envisions the ideal city or community of Peace wherein the "Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6), Jesus Christ, reigns as Lord. Jewish apocalyptic thought and literature (II Baruch 4:2-6; II Enoch 55:2; 4 Ezra 7:26; 8:52; 10:25-59; 13:36) had long anticipated a greater city and temple, recognizing that the physical city of Jerusalem and its temple were temporary, provisional and perishable. Prophetically and eschatologically they sought a "heavenly Jerusalem above" where God dwelt more fully (cf. Jn. 3:3,7; 8:23). But the external and physical emphases of popular Jewish religion in the first-century were so caught up in legal bondage and material place that they no longer sought spiritual and heavenly realities.

   Paul is advising the Galatian Christians that the spiritual reality of the heavenly City of Peace is already available as the community of Christians in Christ. He does not refer to a "Jerusalem that is to come in the future," but to "the Jerusalem above that is presently free." That city and land (Gen. 12:7; 13:15) that was promised and anticipated is now realized in Jesus Christ. The Abrahamic promises did not refer only to Middle Eastern geography, but to a spiritual geography of a spiritual city and land for spiritual inhabitants and descendants. Abraham was "looking for the city...whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10), for the "better country, a heavenly one" (Heb. 11:16), and such is now realized for Christians who have "come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,...and the church of the first-born who are in heaven, and to God..." (Heb. 12:22,23). As Christians, we have "citizenship in heaven" (Phil. 3:20), even though there is a "not yet" realized expectation of the consummation of such a new covenant community in "the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Rev. 3:12; 21:10). This serves to evidence that the "Jerusalem above" is not to be strictly identified with the physical, visible and institutional Church on earth.

   Paul wants the Galatian Christians to understand that "in Christ" they are already presently participating in the new covenant community of Peace. It is a spiritual and heavenly city that is not restricted by physical time and space. It is not a city of slaves, but a free city wherein Christians are free to function as God intended in the freedom of God's Grace, living in the "peace that surpasses comprehension" (Phil. 4:7) under the Lordship of the "Prince of Peace." The "Jerusalem above" wherein we live in the presence of God by His Spirit is not confined and restricted to physical parameters, nor is it bound up in religious rules and regulations. Paul's argument is aimed at convincing the Christians in the Galatian churches that Christ has set them free (5:1), and they should not cross-over in reversion to the religious column being advocated by the Judaizers.

   Whereas the Judaic religion regarded Sarah as the "mother of Israel" by physical lineage, and the physical city of Jerusalem on Mount Zion as the place that engendered and gave birth to their religion and nation (Ps. 87:1-6; Isa. 51:17,18), Paul switches the maternal identification from physical to spiritual, having already noted Hagar as the figurative mother of Judaic religion, and now indicating that "the Jerusalem above" (connected with God's intent through Sarah) is the engendering source of Christianity. Heaven has given birth to Christians in Christ!

4:27 ­ The corresponding imagery of the new Jerusalem on Mount Zion correlating with Abraham and Sarah in connection with the Messianic promise brought the passage in Isaiah 51-54 to Paul's mind (cf. Isa. 51:2,3). Immediately following the Messianic "Suffering Servant" passage of Isa. 53:1-12, Paul notes that "it is written, 'Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear: Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor: for more are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.'" To reconstruct Paul's connecting thoughts and rationale for citing this verse, Isa. 54:1, is not a simple task. The greater context of the Isaiah passage is dealing with the fruitfulness (51:3) of Zion, Jerusalem, the holy city (52:1), which Paul had just referred to in the previous verse. The peoples of the physical Jerusalem were held captive (52:2) and would be redeemed (52:3) by the Messiah who would bring good news (52:7), but be despised (53:3), oppressed (53:7) and die for the sin of many (53:12). The heavenly Jerusalem/Zion, the spiritual Israel of the real People of God, had not travailed in the labor of childbirth and had not borne a child ­ the Messiah had not yet come and was still anticipated in the time of Isaiah. So the "Jerusalem above" was still desolate ­ dry, unoccupied and lifeless ­ and barren. But when the promised Messiah would come the desolation would be turned to fruitfulness, the lamenting to joy, and the barrenness to innumerable progeny. Judaic religion which was "married" to external, physical relationships and the performance of the Law "according to the flesh" would be overshadowed by the spiritual sons of God in Christ.

   It is not difficult to see how Paul connected Genesis 11:30, "Sarah was barren; she had no child," with the similar statement concerning Zion in Isaiah 54:1. The passage readily, if not explicitly (cf. 51:2), allowed for the corresponding imagery. Zion, like Sarah, was not to feel humiliated or be disgraced (54:4), for with great compassion (54:7,8) God would call her, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit (54:6), providing redemption (54:5,8), and turning her sorrow into the joy of exultation (Gen. 21:6) by His divine action (54:5). According to His "covenant" (54:10; Gal. 3:17; 4:24) God would provide the "seed" (54:3; Gen. 13:15,18; Gal. 3:16,19,29) of descendancy within the heavenly city of Jerusalem (54:11,12; Rev. 21:10,11,18-21). Sarah's true child, typologically illustrated by Isaac as the "son of promise," was the "Seed" of Abraham in Jesus Christ, the Messiah (Gal. 3:19). Through Jesus Christ the heavenly city of Jerusalem, God's community of Peace, would eventually have more children than the old, physical Jerusalem whose Judaic religion of Law did not produce or accept the Messiah. Judaism produced many adherent sons "according to the flesh," Ishmaelian "alternatives to faith" preoccupied with the physical performance of self-effort in a physical city with its physical temple, priesthood and sacrifices, but the spiritual fulfillment of the heavenly Jerusalem in Christ would produce far more numerous descendants than were ever numbered in the religion of Judaism. Jesus Christ, the "first-born among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29) would "bring many sons to glory" (Heb. 2:10) in identification and union with Himself, creating a "holy nation, a people for God's own possession" (I Peter 2:9,10), and this would indeed be the intended spiritual fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham in the beginning when He promised innumerable descendants in many nations (Gen. 13:16; 15:5; 16:10; 17:5; 22:17).

4:28 ­ Bringing direct application to the Galatian Christians (and all Christians), Paul writes, "And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise." The promised children of Abraham are Christian peoples. Isaac and the ethnic Jewish people of Israel were the physical pre-figuring, the pictorial prototype of the "sons of promise," but Christians comprise the spiritual fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises as the sons (3:7) and offspring (3:29) of Abraham, the "sons of God" (3:26) born into the intimacy of God's family and community. Later, to the Romans, Paul would write, "It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants" (Rom. 9:8,9) in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. "As many as may be the promises of God, in Jesus Christ they are fulfilled and affirmed" (II Cor. 1:20). God's intent from the beginning was to have innumerable children in a spiritual community, a heavenly city, based not on physical acts "according to the flesh," but the spiritual action of His Spirit; not on biological connection, but on Christological connection with Christ; not by ethnicity, but by the eschatological acts of His own grace. Paul is driving home the point to the Christians of Galatia that they are already children of Abraham, children of promise, children of God by spiritual union with Jesus Christ, and they do not need the performance of male circumcision and Law-observances in order to become or attain such, as the Judaizers were encouraging.

4:29 ­ Paul also wanted to warn the Galatian Christians that the spiritual "children of promise" have not been promised a utopian existence without problems or persecution. "But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also." Recalling the interactions of Abraham's two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, Paul notes that Ishmael, the son born "according to the flesh" (23), persecuted the younger son, Isaac, the son born "according to promise" (23) by the work of the Spirit of God. Genesis 21:9 records that Sarah observed Ishmael "playing with" his half-brother, Isaac, who was fourteen years his junior. Many interpretations of this phrase have been proffered, from "making sport of," "mocking," "aiming his bow at as if to scare or kill," as well as more sinister Jewish interpretations of homosexual activity or the introduction of idolatrous practices. Whatever the activity, Paul identifies it as a form of persecution that usually implied some harassment or threat.

   "As at that it is now," Paul warns the Galatians. The historical incident alluded to serves as a prototype of two categories of people in spiritual conflict. Ishmael, representing Judaic religionists as Paul has already explained (24,25), engaged in the self-effort of performance and defending their physical privilege, persecuted Isaac, representing Christians (26,28). Much evidence exists of first-century Jewish persecution of Christians (Acts 4:1; 5:17; 7:57-60; 8:1; 12:3,4; 13:50; 14:2,19; II Cor. 11:24; Gal. 1:13; 5:11; 6:12; I Thess. 2:14-16), as well as the more indirect ostracism that disallowed Christian converts in Jerusalem and Judea the freedom of vocational enterprise that led to their poverty.

   In a more general sense, Paul's statement can be expanded to include the persecution that religion as a whole has brought against Christians. The religious half-brothers in their legalism and exclusivism are unwilling to tolerate those who view Christ as the singular Redeemer and who would live in the grace and liberty of the singular dynamic of Christ. It can be said generally that "all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (II Tim. 3:12).

   Particularly, Paul was warning the Galatian Christians that the actions of the religious Judaizers who had infiltrated their fellowship was a form of persecution that was "playing with," "making sport of," "mocking," and harassing the freedom they had in Christ to live "according to the Spirit" by the grace of God. We could, of course, note that the hostility of Jewish religion remains to this day in carefully coordinated offensives against Christians, especially Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah, but also in legal actions against Christian symbols and holidays, as well as the nation of Israel attempting to deny residency, citizenship and the right to worship to Christians in their country. "As at that it is now" still applies!

4:30 ­ Paul now comes to the point of the specific action that he is encouraging the Galatian Christians to take in response to the Judaizers. To do so he retains the allegorical imagery that he employs throughout this passage, and cites Sarah's response to the persecuting harassment of her son, Isaac, by his older half-brother, Ishmael. "What does the Scripture say?" Paul asks. Sarah's original response, as recorded in Genesis 21:10, was, "Cast out the bondwoman and her son." Sarah would not tolerate the persecution of her son, Isaac, and commanded that Hagar and her son, Ishmael, be thrown out of the camp. Jewish interpretation of this verse regarded Sarah's action as God's rejection of the Gentiles, maintaining the privileges of the physical people of God, the Jews. The Judaizers in Galatia might have used this verse as an encouragement to the Galatians to, "Cast off Paul, for he is not a true Jew anyway, because he does not advocate circumcision and the keeping of the Law." If so, Paul turns the tables 180 degrees, consistent with the imagery he has used throughout, encouraging the Galatian Christians to expel the Judaizing religionists from their midst: "Run them off!" Throw them out!" "Send them on their way!"

   As a general principle, this can be understood as an inculcation of imperative necessity for Christians to take deliberate and definite action that refuses to tolerate the religionizing harassments of those who reject the dynamic of God's grace in Jesus Christ alone. Though there is much latitude for diversity in Christianity as Christians "agree to disagree" over differing opinions, practices and styles, the singularity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, centering in the God's grace through the risen Lord Jesus and the dynamic of the Spirit of Christ, must be stood up for, just as Paul opposed Peter (2:11-14) and was now berating those who would distort the gospel (1:7) in this epistle. The bondage of legal performance and the freedom of God's grace in Jesus Christ are incompatible and at odds with one another. There are times, as previously noted in the exegesis of 2:11-21, when Christians are obliged to stand firm (5:1) in defense (I Pet. 3:15) of the singular gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.

   Sarah's continued response indicated that "the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman." Having been "cast out," Ishmael would not be regarded as a legitimate heir of the physical estate of Abraham, but Isaac would be the sole heir of the estate created by the union of Abraham and Sarah. In Jewish interpretation, of course, this was regarded as God's repudiation of the Gentiles to give exclusive privilege to ethnic Israel as the heirs of God's blessings. In Paul's inspired reinterpretation it means that Jews, Judaizers and religionists in general do not inherit the spiritual fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus Christ, because the singularity of the gospel demands the presence and dynamic of Jesus Christ alone. This would have been a major blow to the Judaizers, denying and excluding them from the inheritance of the promised blessings of God to Abraham. British commentator, J.B. Lightfoot wrote, "The apostle confidently sounds the death-knell of Judaism."4 But we must be careful to note that Jewish individuals (whether so designated by race, religion or nationality) are not excluded from being spiritual heirs of God's promises, anymore than peoples of any other race, religion or nationality. That would be abhorrent anti-Semitism or abominable religious exclusivism, whereas the Christian gospel is universally extended to all men who will individually receive the singular Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the sole basis of their standing and fellowship with God.

   Paul essentially denies the inheritance of any divine blessing to all religion (including Judaism), and asserts that Christians alone are the spiritual heirs of God's promises by the reception of Jesus Christ by faith. This is the basis of the designated sub-theme of this epistle: "The Gospel versus Religion." There is a definite dichotomy in the corresponding columns that Paul draws pictorially in these verses (cf. 25), positing that Christianity and religion are mutually exclusive. It must also be noted that this verse is an explicit denial of the Dispensational thesis of a divided blessing of double means and dual paths of salvation for Jews and Gentile Christians. Adherents of Jewish religion, identified as sons of the bondwoman (24,25), shall not be heirs with the sons of promise, the sons of the free woman, Christians.

4:31 ­ After lengthy documentation of his "case," Paul, the former Jewish lawyer, deduces and draws a summarizing conclusion, not only to this allegorical distinction of Hagar and Sarah, but also to the entire section of the letter that seeks to document Christianity as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham (3:1-4:30). "So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman." Identifying himself in the same spiritual family of God with the Galatian Christians, Paul reiterates that Christians are not related to the bondwoman, Hagar, in the slavery of religious performance. Therefore, they should not be listening to the Judaizers who would lead them back into the slavery of "elemental things" (4:3,9) and the slavery of Law-observance. They should not be "bewitched" (3:1), hoodwinked or mesmerized by the deceitful scheming of the Judaizers who would "shut them out" (4:17) from the blessing of grace in Christ and entrap them in religious dependency attachments. Paul wanted the Galatians to understand their true identity in Christ as "sons of Abraham" (3:7,29), "sons of promise" (4:28), "sons of God" (3:26), "sons of the free woman," Sarah, who bears children intended to operate in the freedom of God's grace activity. That is why this verse leads right into the next verse (5:1), where Paul begins the practical description of the behavioral implications of living by grace, by declaring, "It was for freedom that Christ set us free..." Paul was so keen that the Christians of Galatia should understand that they were free to be man as God intended man to be, by the dynamic grace of God's function within receptive humanity; i.e. by the life of the risen Lord Jesus living and reigning in them as Christians.

   This paragraph (vss. 21-31) serves as the culminating and climactic argument of Paul's case to document that Christians are the "sons of promise," the "sons of Abraham," thus giving a perspective of God's over-all intent for mankind from the beginning, centered in His Son, Jesus Christ. This passage is the very "heart" of the message of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, and it is utterly amazing that it is so often avoided, glossed over, or misinterpreted by those who would seek to protect Jewish sympathies and preserve exclusivistic religious tendencies.

   When this letter was first read in the Galatian churches, this portion was, no doubt, the most shocking part of the correspondence. What a shock it must have been, particularly for the Judaizers who were listening, to hear Paul's radical Christocentric reinterpretation of Hebrew history, which, in essence, stood all Jewish interpretation of those same events on its head. It was absolutely inconceivable for them to think that Paul could identify the Jewish religion, the Judaizing half-brothers, and all religion with Hagar and Ishmael. Paul was not singling out the Jewish religion for more severe censure than others, but since that was the context out of which Christianity emerged, and since the Judaizers in Galatia retained a variation of that religion's legal performance-orientation, Judaism and the Judaizers become the focal point, though indicative of all religion in general. When Paul, the zealous Jewish Pharisee (Phil. 3:4-6), was converted from Judaism on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-8; 22:6-11; 26:12-18), and the gospel of Christ was revealed to Him by the Spirit of Christ (Gal. 1:11,12), the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messianic fulfillment of all God's promises (II Cor. 1:20) demanded that he abandon all of his ingrained Judaic prejudice of divine privilege for the physical Jewish peoples, and all benefit of Jewish law-observance (Phil. 3:7-9). Paul saw and realized that Christians, those who are "in Christ" (II Cor. 5:17), regardless of ethnicity, economy or gender (Gal. 3:28), are the spiritual heirs of all the promises of God.

   In order to express the point in the most overt and obvious way, as well as the most striking and shocking way, Paul identifies the physical Judaic religion with Hagar and Ishmael, knowing full well that it was a major premise of Jewish interpretation that their enemies, the despised Arab/Gentiles, were physically connected to Ishmael. Paul was not referring to physical heritage, though, but to the spiritual connection of all performance-based religion "according to the flesh," in order to assert the spiritual connection of Christianity with Sarah and Isaac, "according to the promises" of God to Abraham. Without a doubt, Paul's denial of Jewish privilege and legal religious benefit would have been taken as a terrible insult, a slap in the face, by those Judaizing religionists who were without spiritual understanding (cf. I Cor. 2:14). But Paul felt compelled to make the point that the gospel is comprised of Jesus Christ alone; not Jesus Christ plus Jewish privilege, Jewish performance, Jewish sympathies, or Jewish expectations ­ a point that many Zionist religionists to this very day have failed to appreciate.

   Additionally, Paul notes that just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the one through whom the singularity of God's promise was to come, so the Jewish religionists persecuted Christians in the early centuries, as illustrated by the Judaizers' harassment of the Galatian Christians. Religionists, in general, are a prosecutive, persecuting bunch, accepting only those who conform to their predetermined parameters of thought and action. The history of the institutional Christian religion is, likewise, replete with crusades, inquisitions, persecution, ostracism, scorn and derision, even against Christians who simply wanted to live in the freedom of God's grace through faith (ex. Anabaptists, Puritans, Pietists, Evangelicals, etc.). Despite how sincere Christians might attempt to live in peace with traditionalists and religionists, the half-brothers of the religious "establishment" and the denominational hierarchy will inevitably resist the singularity of Jesus Christ as the basis of the Christian life, and insist that we live by their rules, conform to their traditions and ceremonies, and assent to their creedal belief statements. The religious Ishmaels cannot tolerate the Isaacs of God's promised grace. They never have! They never will! "As it was it is now."

   That does not mean that Christians are to "cave in" and capitulate to such persecutive religion. As Sarah "cast out" Hagar and her son, Ishmael, Paul urges the Galatians to expel the Judaizers, and in its broadest application this is a call to Christians of all ages to, "Repudiate and expel religion and its reasonable alternatives to faith!" Christians have an obligation to take resolute action in "standing firm" (5:1) in defending the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. This may involve exposing and opposing legalistic religious tendencies in our midst, as Paul did to Peter (2:11-14) and as Paul was doing to the Judaizers in this letter. This does not mean that Christians should ever take offensive violent action, but we must stand up in defense of our faith and freedom. If we will not affirm our right and desire to live in the freedom of God's grace, allowing the living Lord Jesus Christ to live out His life through us, then, in essence, we are saying that His action in setting us free on the cross of Calvary was not worth doing ­ "Christ died needlessly" (2:21). God forbid! "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject to a yoke of slavery" (5:1).


1    Dunn, James D.G., The Epistle to the Galatians. (Black's New Testament Commentary series). Peabody: Hendriksen Publishing. 1993. pg. 245.
2    Thomas, Maj. W. Ian, The Mystery of Godliness. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1964. pg. 20.
3    Fowler, James A., Dispensational Theology, Covenant Theology, or Christocentric Theology. Fallbrook: C.I.Y. Publishing. 1994. (To view this article click here.)
4    Lightfoot, J.B., The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1969. (first printed 1865). pg. 184.



 Galatians Series