Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:21-31)
This passage is a little complicated because it draws some unnatural parallels with Sarah and Hagar in an effort to show the difference between the Old and New Covenants.
In the Old Testament Abraham was promised a child, from which all of Israel would spring, by his wife Sarah. When Sarah became old Abraham, at Sarah’s prompting, had a child through the slave Hagar. The child’s name was Ishmael. Then Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, and from that time on there was trouble.
From an historical standpoint, Paul’s readers would have known Isaac was the child through whom the promise of God would pass, all the way down to the birth of Jesus. Yet, he connects Hagar, the slave, to Jerusalem and the giving of the Law at Sinai. Why?
Paul is using allegory to pick up on the idea of “free” and “slave.” For the moment, we have to overlook the fact that Isaac, the child of Sarah, would have been associated more closely with the giving of the Law at Sinai (His son Jacob would become “Israel”.) The comparison here isn’t between Isaac and Ishmael, but rather, between free and slave.
The new reference point that changes everything is the “Jerusalem above” where God’s people are free. This Jerusalem stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem of Paul’s day, which was oppressed by the Romans. You see, Paul’s audience knew history, but they were better able to relate to the present reality. And the present reality was something both Jews and Gentiles could understand. Just as Hagar was a slave and Jews in Jerusalem were oppressed, so the Law is oppressive for those who try to pursue self-righteousness. But just as Sarah was free, there is a place where people are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. They do not obtain righteousness, but received it from Jesus.
I don’t know that we want to say much more. This allegory alone should keep us busy today as we try to orient it in our mind. But the bottom line is we can free in Christ. Anyone can be a child of Abraham by faith. If this is true, then it makes no sense to return to try to save ourselves.
Dear God, help me live by faith. In Jesus’ name, Amen.