Galatians 4:21-5:1: Abraham's Two Sons

Galatians 4:21‑5:1  •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 6
“Tell me, the ones wishing to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one from the handmaid and one from the freewoman. But on the one hand the one from the handmaid was born according to flesh, but on the other hand the one from the freewoman (was born) through the promise. Which things are allegorized [or, contain an allegory]; for these (women) are two covenants, one indeed from mount Sinai, bearing (children) unto slavery, which is Hagar. Now Hagar is Sina mountain in Arabia; but corresponds to Jerusalem (which is) now, for she is enslaved with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, which is our mother; for it is written, Rejoice, barren (woman), the one not bearing. Break forth and cry, the one not travailing; because more numerous (are) the children of the desolate than of the one having the husband. But you, brothers, according to Isaac are children of promise. But just as then the one born according to flesh persecuted the one (born) according to Spirit, just so also now. But what says the Scripture? Cast out the handmaid and her son; for the son of the handmaid shall certainly not inherit [or, be heir] with the son of the freewoman. Wherefore, brothers, we are not handmaid’s children, but of the freewoman. With (this) freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not be held again in a yoke of slavery.” ch. 4:21-5:1.
The Galatians wished to go to the Old Testament; they wished to be under law; so Paul says, as it were, I will meet you on your own ground. You wish to be under law; will you listen, then, to the law? We must remember that in the Scriptures “the law” included all the five books of Moses. Then he tells them the story of Abraham and his two wives. (Gen. 16 and 21.) One, Sarah, was his own wife, a freewoman, on an equality with himself. The other, Hagar, was a slave whom he had taken as a concubine. God had promised to give him children from Sarah, but Abraham got weary of waiting and at Sarah’s suggestion took his slave so that she might give him a son. She did give him a son, but what bitter sorrow came with that son! Sorrow in Abraham’s own house, sorrow to Abraham’s descendants, sorrow that lasts to the present day, for the Arabs that have caused so much trouble and sorrow in Palestine are the children of Hagar. Abraham had used his own methods to help God fulfill His promise. Abraham’s faith had begun to give way; for faith and our methods cannot go on together. How often we fail in just this way! How often we grow weary of waiting for God, and think to help Him answer our prayers by our own methods! But it always ends in sorrow. This is not the lesson that Paul has for the Galatians in this story, but it is one we may learn as we read it.
One son, the elder, Ishmael, was born in the natural way. But his mother was a slave, and he was born to be a slave also. The other child, Isaac, was not born in the natural way, because not only was his father a hundred years old, but his mother was ninety and long before had lost the power to give birth to children. But God had promised that Sarah should have a son, and that from Sarah Abraham’s children should multiply as the stars and as the sand. God’s promises are always true. He is the faithful God. (Deut. 7:99Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations; (Deuteronomy 7:9).) So, in God’s own time He sent Abraham a son by Sarah his wife. This son was truly a “child of promise” (vs. 28). He was not born in the natural way. By the power of her own nature Sarah could not have born a son, but God Himself gave her this power because He had promised to do so. So the Apostle says, “The one from the handmaid was born according to flesh, but on the other hand, the one from the freewoman (was born) through the promise.” Then he tells us this is all an allegory. This does not mean the story itself is not true, for every word of it is entirely true; but it means that God arranged that this story should have a hidden meaning to teach us these truths of liberty and slavery: of grace and law.
These two women, Hagar and Sarah, the one a slave, the other a freewoman, represent the two covenants. The first covenant we find in Gen. 15:1818In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: (Genesis 15:18). This is the chapter in which the Lord had freely reckoned Abraham righteous (v.6), and in v.18 we read: “In that same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land.” There is no “IF”; there is no condition. God promises to do it all. In Gen. 17 we read again of the covenant: “I will make My covenant between Me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.... As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.” vv. 2, 4. We find the word “covenant” mentioned twelve times in this chapter. Again we can see that this was an unconditional promise of blessing that God gave to Abraham. God did everything, and Abraham received the blessing from God. This was the covenant of promise. In the allegory Sarah was like this covenant.
But in Ex. 19:55Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: (Exodus 19:5), when Israel had reached Sinai, we read: “Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people” (Ex. 19:55Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: (Exodus 19:5)). In this covenant there is an “if.” “If ye will obey” (Zech. 6:1515And they that are far off shall come and build in the temple of the Lord, and ye shall know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you. And this shall come to pass, if ye will diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God. (Zechariah 6:15)). The people of Israel must do their part, then God will do His part. But the people of Israel never did their part. They never did obey. They broke the covenant immediately. This was a covenant that put the people under slavery. Hagar, the slave woman, was like this in the allegory.
In just the same way Christ gives eternal life freely to everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus. There is no “if.” There is no condition. It all depends on God. He does everything, and we receive the blessing. This is like the first covenant of which we read in Gen. 15 and 17, and again in Gen. 22. But those who are under the law must keep the law in order to receive blessing. “This do, and thou shalt live” (Luke 10:2828And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke 10:28)). This is bondage and slavery; we must work and do in order to obtain, and we never can obtain this way. Those who are under this covenant are those who put themselves under law, and they are slaves, like the children of Hagar. They are from Mount Sina. God gave the law at Mount Sina (or Sinai); and so Mount Sina represents the law. “Now Hagar is Sina mountain, in Arabia; but corresponds to Jerusalem (which is) now, for she is enslaved with her children.” People think that Hagar went to Arabia when Abraham cast her out; and so Arabia seems to speak of the land of slavery, or the bondage of the law. In the same way Jerusalem in Palestine was the great center from which they taught the law. “So Sina mountain in Arabia corresponds to Jerusalem (which is) now.” They both speak of the law, and both are enslaved with their children.
We must notice that this is the second time Paul speaks of Arabia in this epistle. In ch. 1:17 Paul said that he went to Arabia. It may be that there he learned the bitterness of this slavery of the law. (See Rom. 7.) “Are ye ignorant, brethren, (for I speak to those knowing law,) that law rules over a man as long as he lives?” (Rom. 7:1).JND. “I see another law in my members, warring in opposition to the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which exists in my members” (Rom. 7:23).JND. But read all of Rom. 7 for Paul’s experiences with the law.
“But the Jerusalem above is free, which is our mother” (vs. 26). That is the heavenly Jerusalem. That is the land of promise. That heavenly city is free. There is no slavery there. We who believe in the Lord Jesus, and do not trust in the law, may truly say that that heavenly city “is our mother.” We are children of the freewoman. We are born to freedom, not to slavery; and no man has the right to enslave us now. There are many who would like to enslave us, and many who try to enslave us, but they have no right to do so; and we may reply to them in the words of Paul, “to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour” (ch. 2:5). Every rule and regulation made by man is part of this slavery. There is perhaps not a sect or a society of man that does not have its own rules; and all these are part of the bondage and slavery from which Christ has set us free. Alas, alas, most Christians, even true ones, are like the Galatians of old: they “wish to be under law,” and gladly take upon themselves the yoke of bondage.
“The Jerusalem above is free, which is our mother: for it is written, Rejoice, barren (woman), the one not bearing. Break forth and cry, the one not travailing; because more numerous (are) the children of the desolate than of the one having a husband.”
These words are quoted from Isa. 54:11Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord. (Isaiah 54:1). In a most remarkable way the Spirit of God uses these words of the prophet to claim as the children of Abraham, belonging to the true house of Israel, all the Christians from the day of Pentecost until the Lord comes again to take us home to Himself. During this time Israel has been set aside. About seventy years after the birth of Christ the Romans completely destroyed Jerusalem, burned the temple, and from that day until recently the Jews have been scattered to the ends of the earth. Their house has indeed been left unto them desolate (see Matt. 23:3838Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. (Matthew 23:38)), but, amazing as it will seem in that day, they will find far more children begotten from the gospel, in the time of their desolation, than they ever had in the days of their greatest prosperity. The children brought in by grace are “more numerous” than those ever were under law. But these children are not children of the earthly Jerusalem, but of the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem, which is free. For the heavenly Jerusalem “is our mother.” But God reckons them as Sarah’s children, “children of promise,” (vs. 28) “children of Abraham” (ch. 3:7).
The Christians of Galatia wished to leave their blessed place of freedom, to go under law. The Apostle clearly presents to them in this allegory the great difference between those under law, who were born to be slaves, and those under grace who are free. He might have closed this subject by asking the Galatians to examine themselves, and see whether they were children of Hagar or children of Sarah: but he does not. On the contrary he exclaims: “But you, brothers, after the manner of Isaac are children of the promise.” Oh the grace that throws his doubts of them to the winds and says to them, as it were, I know that in your hearts you do really only trust the Lord Jesus for your salvation. I know that it is only your heads, not your hearts, that have been led astray. I know you are really and truly Christians. I know that you are children of the freewoman, children of Sarah, children of promise like Isaac. Do you think that, after such an exclamation as that, they could turn to Paul and say, “No, Paul, you are mistaken. We are children of Hagar; and we want to be slaves”? No, I think the grace of God in that sentence must have melted their hearts; and one and all they must have cried out, “Yes, Paul, you are right. We are children of the promise, like Isaac; though we forgot for a while, and acted like children of Hagar.”
Dear reader, may I ask, Who is your mother? Are you a child of Hagar, or are you a child of Sarah? Are you a slave, or a freeborn son? It may be that in heart you are a child of the freewoman, but like the Galatians you have been acting as if you were a child of Hagar, under the rules and bondage of men, instead of walking in the liberty of the Spirit. If this is so, will you not even now turn away from slavery and all its miseries, and openly take your place with the children of promise?
Paul then reminds them that the one born after the flesh persecuted the one born after the Spirit. Nearly all Paul’s persecutions came from the Jews, those under law, children born after the flesh, children of the slave woman. They never wearied of persecuting Paul and all those who were the children of promise. Could it be possible that the Galatian Christians, Paul’s own children in the faith, would take part with these persecutors? Yet that is what they were doing.
Then comes the great climax, and Paul exclaims, “But what saith the Scripture?” And the answer is clear: “Cast out the handmaid and her son; for the son of the handmaid shall certainly not inherit with the son of the freewoman.” That is the end of those under law. “Cast them out.” There is no inheritance for them. The inheritance is all of grace, none whatever can be had by law. What a grand end! All could plainly see that they must take their stand on one side or the other, and who would be willing to take part with the one who was to be cast out?
This closes ch. 4, the end of the second division of our epistle. But the first verse of ch. 5 really belongs with it; and we can almost hear the Apostle’s voice as it rings out in a challenge that reaches to every one of us: “With this freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not be entangled [or, held in] again by a yoke of slavery.” May God grant that in our day there may be many of His saints who will hear this cry, and will give ear to it and obey. For, sad to say, there are few Christians today who are not entangled in the systems of men, who are not entangled with the rules and regulations made by men. Like the Galatians of old, they “wish to be under law.” The Lord may say today, as He did of old, “My people love to have it so” (Jer. 5:3131The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof? (Jeremiah 5:31)).
Let us then, dear brothers and sisters, hear and obey this cry of the Holy Spirit through the Apostle: “With this freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not be entangled again by a yoke of slavery!”
Free from the law, O, happy condition!
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission!
Cursed by the law, and bruised by the fall,
Grace hath redeemed us once for all.
Now we are free there’s no condemnation;
Jesus provides a perfect salvation:
“Come unto Me!”—O, hear His sweet call!
Come!— and He saves us once for all.
“Children of God!” O, glorious calling!
Surely His grace will keep us from falling;
Passing from death to life at His call,
Blessed salvation, once for all.
Once for all, O sinner, receive it;
Once for all, O brother, believe it;
There at the cross, the burden will fall;
Christ hath redeemed us, once for all.