Two Mothers, Two Sons, Two Covenants, Two Cities
—to which of each do you belong? part 1
Law or Grace? Galatians 4:21 to 5:1–part 1, 4:21-27
There are only two religions in the world. The first religion is trust in human effort. Those who adhere to one of the forms of this religious system think you gain salvation through a set of requirements–actions you take, words you say, places you go, or worship you make. It is up to you. The second religion is a faith in divine grace. Adherents of this religion forsake their own efforts and rely exclusively on the gracious provision of God, which is not based on what you’ve done, but faith in what God has done for you.
You might think the religion of grace would be swelling with converts. You might guess the religion where God does all the work is more popular than religions that teach you must do your part–but you would be wrong. Chuck Swindoll says, “There are vastly more people who are eager to work for their salvation than there are those who will trust Christ for it.” The age-old belief that “there ain’t no free lunch” dominates their thinking. Everyone distrusts giveaways. You and I live in a “get what you deserve” culture—and that flies in the face of Christianity’s “receive what you don’t deserve” theology.
This is why Paul is extremely disturbed in his letter to the Galatian churches–it is not that they were stuck in a works religion mentality. No–they had already tasted of God’s grace. They had embraced the good news of God’s grace. They were taught and welcomed a salvation that came only from the Word and work of Christ. But now some of them had decided to shift back to a salvation of works. Like every church, the tares were moving away from grace to adopt works. The wheat were confused and Paul is so exasperated he says in verse 20, “I am perplexed.”
In Galatians 4:21 to 31 and 5:1, Paul presents his closing arguments against the legalistic false teachers, called Judaizers. And today, like a masterful attorney who has never been beaten, Paul uses the Judaizers’ own methods of argument to disprove their position. After setting the stage for this text, Paul opens with a cutting question in verse 21. Next he provides some historical background in verses 22 to 23. Then he nails the false teachers with a familiar style of argument in verses 24 to 27. And finally, he gives some practical application in verses 28 to 31 (and 5:1?). Then he rests his case against these corrupters of the Gospel in chapter 4.
We will study these twelve verses total—seven this week and five next, and watch Paul destroy these false teachers by using their own style of teaching. As he does so, he will impact you and me. Paul will ask you and your family and friends, “Which system do you actually follow?” It doesn’t matter what you call yourself—Christian, Calvinist, or Bible-believing. The key question is, which one of the two religious systems do you live by?
Paul will ask you, “Are you free in Christ? Do you obey to earn God’s favor, or because you’ve been given God’s favor do you obey?” Paul will ask, “Do you live by the Spirit, or are you living by your flesh?” Paul will ask, “Do you interpret the Bible normatively, then obey it lovingly?” Paul will ask, “Are you more at home here, or would you rather be home in Heaven?”
The apostle divided the whole world into two groups–slaves and free. The slaves are under the Law and outside of Christ, while the Christian is free in Christ and no longer under the Law, because they live by faith. This contrast between Law and faith–between religious bondage and spiritual freedom–runs through the entire Galatian letter. Why? Paul wrote this epistle to help the slaves of religion find true freedom in Christ.
Galatians is the letter for any family or friends enslaved to false religion. In these verses, Paul will pit grace against Law by pitting Sarah against Hagar, Isaac against Ishmael, the Abrahamic covenant against the Mosaic covenant, and the heavenly Jerusalem against the earthly Jerusalem. Paul will convince you there are only two religious systems to live by—one is faith in Christ’s divine accomplishment, or two is following after any type of human achievement.
Read aloud with me part 1, verses 21 to 27, “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27For it is written, ‘Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; for more numerous are the children of the desolate than of the one who has a husband.’”
Look at setting the stage for these verses. Verses 21 to 31 happen to be one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. To understand this complicated text, it helps to first travel back to Galatia. The apostle Paul himself had traveled to the Galatia region found in modern day Turkey, preaching the good news about Jesus Christ. There he proclaimed the Gospel of the cross and the empty tomb. He invited the Galatians to receive eternal life through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By grace, through faith, in Christ alone.
As a result of Paul’s evangelistic efforts, a bunch of new churches were planted throughout the region. Yet shortly thereafter, a group of Jewish-Christian missionaries arrived in Galatia to correct Paul’s Gospel. These men, who came from Jerusalem, were known as Judaizers. They preached a legalistic form of Christianity. They wanted Gentiles to become Jews in order to become genuine Christians. Thus, they were trying to add the Law of Moses on top of the Gospel of grace in Christ. Same grace cake, but let’s add a second layer of Law.
Under the influence of this false teaching, the Galatians began to surrender their newfound freedom in Christ. They began keeping Jewish traditions that were unnecessary for Christians. Some of them got circumcised. Others pursued the Passover and other Jewish festivals. In their effort to prove they were authentic Christians, some became enslaved to all kinds of Old Testament expectations.
We often do the same thing. We forget being a Christian means liberty, not slavery. Students will reduce faith in Christ to a list of rules. Empty nesters will evaluate their spiritual health by what they have done for God, rather than by what God has done for them in Christ. Sadly, every one of us here are all recovering Pharisees, and in constant danger of forgetting to live only by faith and choosing instead to go right back under the Law. So in order to persuade the Galatians, they were free from the Law–free in Christ, free to obey the Word, free from bondage to sin, free from earning approval from God. Then Paul uses a legal argument and opens with . . .
#1 THE CUTTING QUESTION Verse 21
Sarcastically, Paul begins with this pointed question in verse 21, “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?” This could be paraphrased, “So you want to be under the Law, do you? Well, do you have any idea what the Law really says? Because if you did, you’d realize the Law itself tells you not to be under the Law.”
Paul speaks to those who are still unconvinced. Many were still holding on to the Law with white knuckles, unwilling to let go out of principle or pride. So Paul asks, “Okay, you Judaizers and all you Galatians who are listening to them–pay attention. You think living by the Law is the way to go? Great! Then hear what the Law itself says!” For the sake of argument, Paul grants his opponents’ premise–which is, as a Christian you’re obligated to follow everything the Law says. Then Paul turns this premise against them.
In truth, Paul is about to rub their noses in their own errant works view. To argue with these legalists on their own terms, Paul takes an example from the book of Genesis. His example is Abraham, who is mentioned eight times in this epistle–why? Abraham is the Judaizers’ hero. So before Paul could restore the Gospel of grace to the Galatians, Paul had to correct their errant interpretation of Abraham. And Paul uses a Jewish style of argument to convince the Galatians not to become more Jewish.
#2 THE HISTORICAL SETTING Verses 22 to 23
The Judaizers were probably saying this about Abraham, “When God first made all his covenant promises, He said they were only for Abraham and his children. We are Abraham’s children, because we Jews are his direct descendants through Isaac. But you Gentiles–you can receive the promise, too. All you have to do is become a child of Abraham in the Jewish way, by getting circumcised and by keeping the Law.” So what does Paul say? Verses 22 and 23, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.”
Turn to Genesis 16 and following–Genesis tells us God promised to make Abraham into a great nation. But Abraham still didn’t have any children. His wife Sarah was barren, and Abraham wasn’t getting any younger. At this point, Abraham was already in his eighties with an old wrinkled face and white beard. As hard as this was on Abraham, it was tougher for Sarah. Year after year she prayed for a baby, but remained childless. Finally, in bitter desperation, she said to her husband in Genesis 16:2, “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.”
The maidservant, an Egyptian woman named Hagar, conceived and gave birth to a son named Ishmael (verse 15). Turn to Genesis 17 to see that God had not neglected His promise–the Lord came to Abraham again and said in verses 15 and 16, “’As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations.’” Because of God’s promise, Sarah shockingly conceived at the age of ninety and gave birth to a son named Isaac in Genesis 21.
There are many similarities with Ishmael and Isaac. They’re both sons of Abraham–both had had the same biological father. They were both circumcised. They both grew up in the same home. But they also had some crucial differences between them. One difference was their status in the eyes of the Law–although the boys had the same paternity, they each had a different maternity. From their respective mothers, they inherited two different legal standings. Ishmael’s mother was a slave, so Ishmael was born a slave. Isaac, on the other hand, was born free–the heir of a free woman.
Another crucial difference between the two half-brothers was the manner of their births. Each son was born a different way. In Galatians 4:23, Ishmael “was born according to the flesh.” The phrase, “according to the flesh” is repeated in verse 29, telling us that Ishmael was procreated in the ordinary way. But Isaac was not born “according to the flesh”–his birth itself was ordinary enough, but the circumstances surrounding his conception were extraordinary. According to Galatians 4:23, he was “born through promise,” or verse 29, “according to the Spirit.”
This is what distinguishes Isaac from Ishmael–Isaac’s birth was the result of God’s supernatural intervention (see Genesis 18). When God promised Sarah a son, she thought it was just about the funniest thing she’d ever heard—the best joke ever. After all, the woman had already been through menopause. Look over at Genesis 18:11 and 12, “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. 12Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’”
The answer to her question was, “Yes!” Sarah may have been worn out, and her husband may have been old, but God is always faithful to His promise. Through the supernatural work of His Spirit, Abraham and Sarah produced a child born by God’s promise. Go back to Galatians 4 as I read Hebrews 11:11. It says, “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.”
So now Galatians 4:23, “But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.” “According to the flesh” means Ishmael’s birth was motivated by Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith in God’s promise and fulfilled by sinful, human means. But “through the promise” means God miraculously enabled Abraham and Sarah to have Isaac when Sarah was well past childbearing age and had been barren her entire life.
The story of Isaac and Ishmael is more than sibling rivalry. When Abraham got Hagar pregnant, he was operating on the principle that “God helps those who help themselves.” He was trying to take the blessing rather than waiting to receive it. Isaac was a gift–Ishmael is what Abraham got for trying to do things his way instead of God’s way. From the very beginning, there was a fundamental spiritual difference between the two sons. One son was born by proxy, the other by promise. One came by works–the other came by faith. One was a slave–the other was free. Thus, Ishmael and Isaac represent two entirely different approaches to religion–law against grace, flesh against Spirit, self-reliance against divine dependence. One) Faith in Christ’s divine accomplishment, or Two) Following after any type of human achievement.
#3 A FAMILIAR STYLE of ARGUMENT Verses 24 to 27
The spiritual distinction between Isaac and Ishmael is a part of Abraham’s story–it is literal history. But Paul wants to use these differences to prove the fallacy of salvation by human religious effort. And the apostle will prove it in a powerful way. Imagine if you were a false teacher and the only way you taught others was by using a chalkboard. Then what Paul would do is use a chalkboard your way to prove that the errant instruction you’ve written on your chalkboard is wrong.
Imagine the false teachers only teaching with the use of poetry. What Paul would do would be to use better poetry, to poetically prove your position is not biblical. “Works are red, the Law is blue, if you keep teaching this, then in eternity–you’re through.” Well, the rabbis for centuries taught using allegory–through their imagination, they’d discovered things in the Word that are not there. We call it preaching the white spaces. Here is how it went—a rabbi might notice someone’s name is repeated in a narrative, like when God calls to Moses by saying, “Moses, Moses.” He will also notice that Moses and others whose names are repeated are also called perfect elsewhere. Therefore, the rabbi will interpret the word perfect to mean circumcised. What? How? Allegory.
Coming from this school, the false teachers would teach this same way. So Paul, without violating the normal understanding of the Scripture, writes not an allegory of fiction, but an illustration in their teaching style to prove them wrong on their own turf. In verse 24, this is allegorical speaking, for these women are two covenants–one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves. She is Hagar. Notice the word allegorical–this is a Greek word used to describe a story that conveys a meaning beyond the literal sense of the words.
In this passage, Paul uses the style the rabbis and Judaizers from Jerusalem used–but Paul here is different. Paul uses historical people and places from the Old Testament to illustrate spiritual truth. It’s an illustration from history, using real people. This is not an allegory, because there is no secret meaning, no understanding beyond the literal sense of the words, nor a violation of the historical people and places referred to. There are no allegories in Scripture—why?
An allegory is a fictional story where the real truth, the real lesson is a secret, mysterious, hidden meaning. The most famous allegory is The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. The characters in this tale have names like Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful. They travel to places like Doubting Castle and the Hill of Difficulty. Rather obviously, Bunyan was not writing a history or a geography–he was making up a fictional story to make a spiritual point. But the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac is actual history. These verses have no secret, hidden meaning–Paul uses it only as an illustration to support a normal, literal contrast between Law and grace.
Maybe you’re asking me, “Chris, should I look for allegorical meanings in my Bible?” My answer is, “Yes–but only if you are an apostle and have been inspired by the Spirit to record Scripture. Otherwise, no. Never. Stop it.” We don’t have the right to mess with God’s Word. Every passage has only one correct meaning and that is discovered by determining the author’s intended meaning using sound rules of interpretation–normal, literal, context, history, original languages, agreeing with the rest of Scripture.
What does Paul say in verses 24 to 26? “This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.” Are you picking up what Paul is putting down?
Two covenants–Paul uses the two mothers, their two sons, and two locations as a further illustration of two covenants. Hagar, Ishmael, and Mount Sinai (representing the earthly Jerusalem) represent the covenant of Law. Sarah, Isaac and the heavenly Jerusalem represent the covenant of promise. Paul is not contrasting these two covenants as different ways of salvation–one way for Old Testament saints, then another way for New Testament saints. That’s an assumption that Paul has already clearly denied in Galatians 3:14. “In Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
The purpose of the Mosaic Covenant, the Law, was to show all who were trying to follow it, of their desperate need for salvation by grace alone–the Law was never intended to portray a way of salvation. Paul’s point is that those Galatians, like the Judaizers, who attempt to earn righteousness by keeping the Law receive only bondage and condemnation. While those who embrace salvation by grace–the only way of salvation since Adam’s sin in the garden, are freed from the Law’s bondage and from all condemnation.
Paul continues on with his chalkboard illustration with verse 25–Mount Sinai. Again, a simple and appropriate symbol for the old covenant, since it was at Mount Sinai that Moses received the Law in Exodus 19–the way of salvation by self. Then Hagar is the perfect woman to represent the old covenant. Since The old covenant meant slavery to the Law, and Hagar herself was a slave. Furthermore, all of her children were slaves, like Ishmael, and they both are tied to Mount Sinai since Ishmael’s descendants settled there. So anyone who is still in bondage to legalism/Law-keeping is one of Hagar’s spiritual children. Anyone who reduces Christianity to a list of “dos and don’ts” is a slave like Ishmael. Are you following Hagar, the slave woman, and Ishmael her son, born the ordinary way? Mount Sinai is where that old covenant was given.
The punchline comes next–verse 25 and 26, “Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.” When Paul mentions Jerusalem, he was speaking not only geographically, but also spiritually. Jerusalem stands for God’s people. In this case, it refers especially to the Jews and to the Judaism of Paul’s day–the institution of Jewish religion.
Paul may also have mentioned Jerusalem because this is where the Judaizers came from. The Jewish legalists who come from the mother church in Jerusalem wanted the Galatians to add the Law to the Gospel. And in verse 25, when Paul said that Jerusalem corresponded to Hagar, he was saying that although the Judaizers were Jews, they were really Ishmaelites, spiritually speaking. This is a bold, hard shocker–Paul is in their face right here. It’s like calling a Jew a Gentile, or an Israeli an Arab.
The Judaizers prided themselves on being the true sons of Abraham. Paul admits they are Abe’s children physically, but he’s saying they were spiritually illegitimate. He reasoned if they give up the Gospel to go back to live under the Law, they are proving themselves to be the sons of Hagar rather than children of Sarah. And this meant they were still in spiritual bondage. By contrast, the other side of this illustration shows Sarah never was a slave. Abraham’s wife is a free woman. The son born to her by promise was Isaac, who was also free. Sarah represents the new covenant, which is not a covenant of Law, but of promise–the promise of salvation by grace through faith. Abraham was reckoned righteous by faith.
In this new covenant, God does not say, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” Instead He says, “I will”–“I will be your God,” “I will redeem you from your sins,” “I will give you the free gift of eternal life.” The new covenant is the Gospel, which gives salvation by grace through faith, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This new covenant does not match up with the present city of Jerusalem of verse 25. No, verse 26, “But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.”
This is because the New Jerusalem is not just for the future. God has already started to build his eternal city. The new Jerusalem has replaced the “now” Jerusalem. The spiritual Jerusalem has superseded the earthly Jerusalem in the plan of God. The promises of the Old Testament were not for the Jews only, but they are fulfilled in the Church of Jesus Christ. Anyone who receives Jesus as Savior and Lord is a son or daughter of Sarah, a true child of Abraham. If we belong to God’s family in this way, we are free in Christ. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem and enjoy the freedom of that eternal city.
Those who are citizens of Heaven are free from the Mosaic Law, works, and bondage, and free from trying endlessly and futilely to please God in their flesh. “She is our mother” means believers are children of the heavenly Jerusalem, the mother-city of Heaven. In contrast to the slavery of Hagar’s children, believers in Christ are now fully free. Are you free–truly free in Christ? John 8:36, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Romans 6:18, “And having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”
To review, there are two mothers, two sons, two covenants, two cities, and two families. Look at the comparison of the two systems–one based on human achievement, and one based upon divine accomplishment.
Hagar–a slave woman Sarah–a free woman
Ishmael–born according to the flesh Isaac–born through God’s promise
The Mosaic/Sinai covenant of Law, based upon works The covenant of promise, based on faith
The present Jerusalem–Judaism The Jerusalem above–those in Christ
Children of the present Jerusalem are legalists Children of the Jerusalem above are lovers
Righteousness by Law Righteousness by faith
The illustration in these verses shows the difference between spiritual slavery and spiritual freedom. Those who try to justify themselves by keeping the Law are the slave children of Hagar, but those who are justified by faith in Christ are God’s free sons and daughters. Whenever Paul thought about the joy of freedom in Christ, he burst into song, as he does here in verse 27 from Isaiah 54:1, “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.”
This quotation from Isaiah is doubly appropriate, because it relates both to Sarah and to Jerusalem. The connection with Sarah is obvious. She was a barren woman God blessed with a rejoicing multitude of sons and daughters. Yet when Isaiah prophesied about the barren woman, he was not thinking primarily of Sarah, but of the city of Jerusalem. The now Jerusalem of his day was barren because her children had been carried away into exile by Babylon.
But Isaiah promised that one day God would establish a new Jerusalem which would be filled with far more children than the old Jerusalem could ever contain. Isaiah’s happy promise is being fulfilled at this very moment–not in an earthly city, but in a spiritual one that spreads across the globe. As men, women, and children come to faith in Jesus Christ, they become citizens of the New Jerusalem, to the praise and glory of God.
A What is your approach to the LAW?
One commentator makes this comparison, which I have clarified.
Are you . . .
1 SMUG–Law-obeying, law-relying
These people are under the Law, and are usually very smug, self-righteous and superior. Externally, they’re very sure they are right with God, but deep down, they have a lot of insecurity, since no one can truly be assured they are living up to the standard. This makes them touchy, sensitive to criticism and devastated when their prayers aren’t answered. These people have much in common with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
2 INSECURE–Law-disobeying, law-relying
These people have a religious conscience of strong works-righteousness, but they are not living consistently with it. They are more tolerant of others, but they are also much more guilt-ridden. Some of these people go to church, but they stay on the periphery because of their fear and insecurity of others.
3 VAGUE–Law-disobeying, not law-relying
These are the people who have thrown off the concept of the Law of God. They have a vague spirituality. They largely choose their own moral standards, then insist that they are meeting them. They are usually happier than groups 1 and 2, but they are earning their own salvation by feeling superior to others, self-righteously.
4 SPIRIT-FILLED–Law-obeying, not law-relying
These are Christians who understand the Gospel and are living out the freedom of it. They obey the law of God out of grateful joy that comes from the knowledge of their sonship, and from a heart that is free from fear and free from the selfishness false idols generate. Spirit-filled believers want to obey the law, but do not rely upon the law and don’t rely on their performance to define their relationship with Christ.
Which one are you? God’s Word might be exposing a heart that needs to be born again, or a heart that needs to repent and pursue Christ and His Word.
B Are you encouraged by the example of SARAH?
Sarah is a huge encouragement for those who see themselves as failures. In ancient times, a woman’s worth essentially consisted entirely in her ability to bear children. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. Even in our modern society, single or childless women often feel stigmatized or useless without children–as if they’ve failed in some way. But the Bible shows us here we should not make children our life, any more than we should make career or money or power or approval our identity.
The Gospel screams at you–you are massively loved, your life is under His perfect leadership and guided by His unending wisdom. Your heart, your joy, your identity will not be found in having more, getting what you want, that relationship, or different circumstances. But it’ll be as you find your satisfaction in your Lord. And those who do will bear great fruit and know great joy as they live filled with the Spirit, following God’s Word, serving others, sharing the Gospel.