To reach the God of the Bible, there is only one way through faith in Christ and grace alone.
Galatians 4:12-20: Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (ESV)
Last summer, we had a car wash outreach here at FBCM. I spoke to a few people from Hindu, Muslim and non-religious backgrounds who came by. They all believed that there are many ways to reach God. They truly believe that because, in their worldview of God, there are many ways to reach God. Therefore, they prescribe to all sorts of rites, rituals, and regulations.
But in the Christian worldview of God, to reach the God of the Bible, there is only one way through faith in Christ and grace alone. Essentially, all people, whether religious or not, fall into one category of living, “living according to the flesh,” which does not lead to the God of the Bible.
Perhaps you do not believe that there are many ways to reach God, but if you still live according to the flesh, you are not living according to the spirit by faith in Christ and grace alone. Jesus, in Matthew 7:14, said, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
In today’s passage, Galatians 4:21-31, Paul described these two different ways of living through the illustration of Abraham. Those who live according to the flesh live under the law as slaves, and those who live according to the spirit live under grace as free. One relies on human efforts and religious systems, and the other completely on the grace of God. He taught the Galatians that only by living according to the spirit through grace would they have access to God or be acceptable to God.
Though everyone has the option of these two ways of living: law and grace, only grace leads to God and is acceptable to God, and even a hint of human effort or a religious system made to earn God’s favor can spoil the function of grace in our lives.
Are you living under the law or grace? Are you living entirely under grace or mixing law and grace, meaning the flesh and the spirit? In our text we see the consequences of mixing the two in the illustration of Abraham.
By grace, Abraham received the promises of a blessing, inheritance, children, and nations because he believed God and was justified and thus declared righteous. But then he and his wife, Sarah, got impatient and took the matter into their own hands. They thought that they could help God out a little by putting some human effort into fulfilling God’s promises. When we get impatient, we give into eisegesis, that is importing the preferred meaning into the word of God. Eisegesis is contrasted with exegesis, to draw the meaning out.
Abraham and Sarah chose to live according to the flesh and not the spirit. There are consequences for that. In verse 29, Paul says, “he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit,” contrasting Isaac and Ishmael.
This conflict has not stopped since then in the Middle East and beyond. If only Abraham and Sarah had waited patiently a little longer.
Let’s look at two illustrations Paul gives us here.
Historical Illustration of Law and Grace
In verse 21, Paul’s tone is lively and commanding: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” He challenges and questions the Galatians’ attraction to the law. He knows they do not understand what the law is telling them. He has made it clear in previous sections that the purpose of the law was to expose us to our sinfulness. No doubt, the law of Moses could identify sin, but it was incapable of doing anything about it. It could not correct it or forgive it. Still, it was God’s merciful and gracious gift to show the fallen humans that they could do nothing to be saved but wait for the Messiah Jesus to redeem them.
Paul uses the term “the law” in verse 21 in two ways. When he says, “you who desire to be under the law,” he is talking about observing the law that Jewish people observed—the law of Moses. But, when he says, “do you listen to the law?” he is expanding the term to the first five books of the Old Testament. His rhetorical question in verse 21 proves neither the Galatians nor their false teachers listen to the Old Testament. So, Paul goes to the Old Testament, pulls Abraham’s historical account as an illustration, and contrasts different elements of his life story to make his point about law versus grace. Why? Because that account is the basis of everything the Jews believed about God: choosing the Hebrew people as His own, establishing promises to them through Abraham, giving them the law and the land, and even the promise of the Messiah Jesus.
He starts with the conception of two sons, which is the continuation of Paul’s discussion in Chapters 3 and 4 about the true heirs of the promise of the inheritance, and their adoption as children of God. Then in verses 22-23, he says, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.”
Paul refers to this story in Genesis 21:9-12 to draw some spiritual implications regarding the two ways of living, one by the law and the other by grace. The point he wants the Galatians to understand is the natural vs. supernatural conception of the two boys, one according to the flesh and the other according to the spirit through the promise of God.
I have shared with you how I started a non-profit in Pakistan, Resources and Aid Mobilization Foundation. The organization mainly works with women. In the past, the staff there have received cases where husbands throw their wives out of the house because either they cannot bear children or cannot bear sons. In Eastern cultures, shame is involved when a woman cannot bear children or produce a son. It is so awful that in many parts of the world, women are condemned even today for not bearing children or not bearing sons when medically, many times, it is the husband who has the problem.
In the case of Ishmael, yes, the problem was with Sarah. Genesis 16:1-4 tells us that she gave her slave Hagar to her husband to be his wife (an acceptable cultural practice then) and Hagar birthed Ishmael. But in the case of Isaac, both of them could have been the problem. Abraham was advanced in age, and, in Romans 4, Paul indicates he was as good as dead. Either way, it was a supernatural conception.
What is the takeaway here?
a). Trust in the Lord, and do not lean on your own understanding.
b). Be patient and do not force your will on God’s plan for us, or else we will end up creating more trouble for ourselves.
c). Don’t read your desires into the scriptures. Sarah and Abraham impatiently stepped out of God’s plan to help God to fulfill His promises.
d). Do not try to interrupt God’s plan and promises for you because of cultural norms and expectations from you.
Biblical Interpretation of Law and Grace
In verses 24-28, Paul contrasts the two ways of living, the flesh and the spirit, with law and grace by interpreting the historical narrative of two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, with two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, representing two covenants, the Old Covenant of law and works and the New Covenant of grace and freedom in Jesus.
Paul writes, “Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”
Verse 24 has generated much debate over how to interpret the scriptures. People have taken this verse to argue that we see Paul interpreting the scripture allegorically, so we should too. What is allegory? Let me say this, an allegorical interpretation of the scriptures is dangerous because it seeks hidden deeper spiritual meaning, whether the text warrants it or not. Since the real meaning is a mystery, completely unknown to man, the allegorical method allows all sorts of interpretations. This is how cults and heresies are born. This text is a fantastic example of why historical, grammatical, and literal interpretations should be followed because that allows us to see what the text is teaching and what it meant to the original audience.
When Paul says that he will interpret the story of Abraham allegorically, it does not mean that he does not believe in the literal interpretation. So then why does he do that? A few thoughts:
Allegory was the common method of interpretation during Paul’s time. This practice was started by an Alexandrian Jew in Egypt who seemed to be around during Paul’s time. In his allegorical interpretation of Genesis 21, Abraham “represents the soul journeying toward a true knowledge of God. Hagar symbolizes the preparatory training of secular learning to which the soul must apply itself before the union Sarah (i.e, divine wisdom) is fruitful.”
So, Paul’s style and approach to interpreting the text are according to the rabbinic traditions of his time. It might be a bit weird for us, but for his immediate audience, it was completely acceptable, and perhaps he is countering the false teachers’ allegorical interpretation of Genesis 21 that caused the Galatians to buy into the false gospel of works.
It is noteworthy here that Paul’s allegorical interpretation of our text Gal. 4:22-31 is also a midrash, a Jewish commentary on Genesis 21:9-12. He makes a clear point in his commentary on Genesis 21 that if both Isaac and Ishmael were circumcised according to Abrahamic tradition, then why is only Isaac the heir. He concludes that he was the promised son.
One of the applications here is to be careful how you interpret the Bible. When studying a passage, never start with the question, “What does this mean to me?” Instead, start with the question, “What did this mean to the original audience?”
Personal Application of Law and Grace
Each of verses 29-31 has an application of law versus grace. First, verse 28, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.” Second, verse 29, “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. Persecution is inevitable. Third, verses 30-31, “But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” Like Sarah, we ought to cast out the false teachings and teachers who enslave us to law.
Paul took a literal and historical account of Abraham in Genesis 21:9-12, as an illustration, to show the Galatians how human solutions always take us away from freedom and God. Paul showed that a performance-based, law-keeping way of living is according to the flesh and not of the Spirit. Sarah and Abraham’s solution to conceive a child through Hagar, Sarah’s slave, was a culturally and legally acceptable practice of the time, but it was according to the flesh, therefore against God’s plan and God’s timing. Ishmael’s conception was natural, therefore, according to the flesh, but Isaac’s conception was supernatural, therefore, according to the Spirit.
The natural always struggles and fights against the supernatural. Human efforts to earn God’s favor according to the flesh and, therefore, the natural, will never get anyone to God, but faith in Christ alone through grace is supernatural and according to the Spirit.
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