Galatians 4:21-31

21Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23His 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. 24These 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. 25Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27For 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.”[a] 28Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30But 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.”[b] 31Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

We are going through Galatians in our Adult Bible Fellowship. Gal 4:21-31 contains a somewhat strange analogy.

Thoughts from NIV Application Commentary (NAC) by Scot McKnight: 

Paul’s audience would have thought in terms of themselves (law-keeping, God-fearing Jews) as children of Isaac, and the Gentiles as children of Ishmael. Paul turns that notion on its head. McKnight makes the following correllations:

Hagar Covenant   Sarah Covenant
Ishmael (“kata sarka”)   Isaac (“promise”)
Persecutor   Presecuted
Children-Slaves   Children-Free ones
Mount Sinai   (Mount Z ion? Heaven?)
Earthly Jerusalem   Heavenly Jerusalem
Judaizers   Paul
Old Covenant   New Covenant

The Law-keepers are both the persecutors and the slaves. Those who accept Christ alone are the presecuted and free ones.

McKnight’s application points to being willing to be persecuted. The early Christians accepted persecution as a way of life. We are often keen to avoid it, both personally and professionally.

Thoughts from Word Commentary by Longnecker:

v25 The Judaizers would have drawn a salvation-history line thus: Abraham,Sarah – Moses – Torah – Jerusalem. Paul redrew it thus: Abraham, Hagar – Ishmael – Mt. Sinai – Jerusalem = bondage. Working backwards, we have Heaven – freedom – (Mt. Zion) – Sarah = free. Jerusalem above, Zion, Our Mother all have rich traditions which Paul may working with (215).


A Hagar
B Mt. Sinai
C skavery
D present Jerusalem
D’ Jerusalem above
C’ freedom
B’ (Mt. Zion)
A’ our mother

v27 The barren woman (Sarah) has more children (Gentile Christians + Jewish Christians) than Hagar.

v28 Spirit-led Christians (not the Judaizers) are the children of promise. 

v29 kata sarka vs. kata pneuma. Living by the Law instead of living by the Spirit. Tradition was that Ishameal argued with Isaac over who was the most righteous. Here Paul is discussing this same phenomenon: the “slave” born according to the flesh is putting down the “free” as not being righteous by the Law.

There are two spheres: “The Flesh” and “The Spirit.”

From Experiencing the Grace of Christ by Stott:

I have been a little disappinted with the study by Stott. It may just be a difference between my expectations and the book’s intended purpose. I feel that sometimes the study guide asks questions on the surfact about facets of the passage that need further explanation and application. However chapter eight (covering Gal 4:21-31) is very good. It asks you to list the rules and regulations which Christians imaging will make them acceptable to God. The questions all seem to be designed to show a correlation between the Judaizers in Paul’s audience and legalistic tendancies today.

An excellent point on p42: not all persecution comes from outsiders. Sometimes religious people, our Christian half-siblings are the persecutors. They persecute true believers for not obeying the right laws. Right on!

Personal Thoughts 

The significance of this passage for me is the clash between flesh and spirit. For Paul, “flesh” indicates life outside of the Spirit (McKnight, 231, footnote 1). A strenght of conservative Christians is their fervor to hold to God’s truth. A weakness is the tendency to create rules and then shove those rules off on everyone else as requirements for the Christian life. Certainly, God can’t be happy with you if you — fill in the blank (drink beer, have a tattoo, have piercings, etc.) It is not bad to guard your conduct. It is not bad to observe guidelines to help you stay out of trouble. In fact, it may be necessary to some degree. The problem is when you substitute the guidelines you have formed for the Spirit’s leading in your life. We are not slaves to any set of laws. We are led by the Spirit. Worse than substituting rules for the Spirit in your life is forcing others to behave how you think they should behave. When you replace some set of behavioral markers for the Spirit’s leading in someone else’s life, you are doing the Judaizers’ work for them.

There is a difference between trying to please God in the flesh, and trying to please God in the Spirit. The flesh leads to the fruit of the flesh; the Spirit brings the fruit of the Spirit to your life (this is shown in Gal 5). One way to know that we are living in the flesh is when we control what, when, and how we live. If my life is under my own control, then even spiritual disciplines like reading the Bible and praying are actually efforts from the flesh. If I am yielded to the Spirit, then he may direct me to wash dishes or help someone instead of my normally planned Bible-reading at that moment. Of course, the Spirit desires for us to spend time in the Word and praying. So how do you know if you are reading and praying (or practicing any other spiritual activity) in the flesh or in the Spirit? One indicator is what we think we will gain from it. If we think that God will be happier with us for the effort we are making, then we are probably doing it in the flesh. If we think that God will be more likely to answer our prayers, again it is in the flesh. If we think that it makes us more spiritual than other believers, again: flesh.

So what does it look like when we act in the Spirit? Here is where I agree with Piper: do it as a Christian Hedonist. Worship God for the pure enjoyment of it. Pray to him because you need it. Give, and enjoy giving. There is a certain humility in doing something because we need it – not because God requires it or because it makes us better than others. Sometimes, we identify what we ought to do but then we are interrupted by someone else’s pressing need (as per Experiencing God). Do we put aside our plans and help where needed (in other words, who is in control of my time and energy: God or me?)?

 Finally, realize that we see today a graphic object lesson of the strength of the flesh. Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promise by taking control of the situation and doing something about it. What did he end up with? The entire Israeli-Arab conflict of today! Perhaps behaving in the flesh isn’t such a great solution.


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