God’s Children are Children of the Free Woman (Galatians 4:21-31)
Prepared and preached by Pastor Steve Rhodes for and at Bethel Friends Church in Poland, OH on Sunday, March 24, 2019
We are going to be turning to Galatians 4:21-31, if you would like to turn there while I introduce it.
J.D. Greear writes:
Believe it or not, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the Apostle Paul agree on one thing: Religion can turn you into a really bad person. Religion caters to the worst parts of us—pride, self-centeredness, condescension, self-righteousness, and bigotry—which is why religious people can be (in the words of our generation) the worst.
Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, told a story about a man who dies and goes to hell. He doesn’t think he should be there, so he makes an appeal to the Apostle Peter, who is standing on the edge of hell.
Peter asks him, “Why do you think you don’t belong here?”
“Because I did so many good deeds in my life! One time I gave a carrot to a poor, hungry man.”
“OK,” Peter said. “Let’s see if that’s good enough to get you out of hell,” and he lowered a carrot over into hell by a fishing line.
The man took ahold of the carrot. Well, lots of other people in hell noticed what was happening and grabbed onto the line as well. The man was afraid the line was going to break, so he started kicking and punching other people, screaming, “That’s my carrot!”
This, Kierkegaard said, is a picture of religion.
When you do religious deeds to try to save yourself or exalt yourself, they’re actually done from self-interest. Religion done to distinguish ourselves from others or set us apart inevitably leads us to insecurity and cruelty.
The gospel teaches the opposite of religion. It teaches that God offers salvation not to those who earn it as a reward but to those who are unworthy and receive it as a gift.
This is Paul’s theme in Galatians as well as Romans and the rest of the New Testament. Actually, the whole Bible is about God’s grace.
Today, my theme is:
God’s Children are Children of the Free Woman
Let’s read Galatians 4:21-31:
Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 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. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For 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.”
28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say?
“Cast out the bondwoman and her son,
For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”
31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
- Listen to the Bible (law).
- Verse 21 is about this.
- Notice Paul switched back to a more accusatory tone. He says that they want to be under the law, but they don’t listen to the law.
- Paul used a play on the word translated as “law.” Law could mean the law of Moses, or the first 5 books of the Bible. In this case Paul means the first 5 books of the Bible. He is going to talk about Genesis.
- There are some strong applications from that one sentence.
- Do we listen to the Bible? Do we listen to the whole Bible, or just the parts we want?
- Do we surrender to the Bible?
- There is something called eisegesis. This is interpreting a passage to make it say what we want it to say.
- In contrast to eisegesis is exegesis. Exegesis is letting the Bible speak for itself.
- Sometimes we go around a table and we say, “What does the Bible passage mean to you?” That is not correct. What is correct is, “What does the Bible passage mean if you were not even born?” We need to let the Bible say what the author wanted it to say. We need to dig into the text itself for this.
- We must listen to the Bible.
- In listening to the Bible we must listen to the Lord.
- A few weeks ago I quoted Invictis. Today I quote a response written by Dorothea Day:
My Captain Out of the light that dazzles me, Bright as the sun from pole to pole, I thank the God I know to be For Christ the conqueror of my soul. Since His the sway of circumstance, I would not wince nor cry aloud. Under that rule which men call chance My head with joy is humbly bowed. Beyond this place of sin and tears That life with Him! And His the aid, Despite the menace of the years, Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid. I have no fear, though strait the gate, He cleared from punishment the scroll. Christ is the Master of my fate, Christ is the Captain of my soul.
- Isaac versus Ishmael
- Verses 22-23 are about the two sons of Abraham.
- verse 22: Paul now uses an allegory story.
- Abraham had 2 sons, 1 from the slave wife and one from the free wife.
- One source points out: As a matter of fact, Abraham had eight sons, six of them by Keturah (Gen 25:1–2), whom he married after Sarah’s death. Paul did not mention Abraham’s latter progeny because they were irrelevant to his present purpose. It does not follow, however, that Paul was not interested in giving “an historically accurate account of the Genesis narrative.Ishmael and Isaac represent the two lines of descendants that sprang from Abraham. According to Gen 25:13–18, Ishmael begot twelve sons who became the ancestors of the Arab tribes, which occupied the territory “from Havilah to Shur,” that is, the desert lands between Egypt and the Euphrates River.245In time the descendants of Ishmael became identified with the Gentiles in general, while the sons of Isaac were regarded as “a holy seed,” the unique possession of God and cherished above all nations on the face of the earth.The birth of Ishmael was the result of the outworking of the philosophy that God helps those who help themselves.Both Abraham and Sarah were childless in their old age, and it appeared that they would die that way. So they decided to “help God” fulfill his promise. The result was the birth of Ishmael, who was a source of contention and suffering for the rest of his life. Then fourteen years later God’s promise was at last fulfilled in the birth of Isaac, so called because of the laughter, first of unbelief and then of joy, which greeted his birth. Ishmael was Abraham’s son by proxy, according to the flesh; Isaac was his son by promise, a living witness to divine grace.
- In verse 23 I like how the NLT words it. The son of the slave woman was born from a “human attempt…”
- The son of the slave woman was born “according to the flesh,” that is, by the normal means of human procreation; conversely, the son of the free woman was born “through the promise,” that is, in direct fulfillment of God’s word to Abraham. Luther correctly observed that the principal difference here was the absence of the word of God in the birth of Ishmael: “When Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael, there was no voice or word of God that predicted this; but with Sarah’s permission Abraham went into Hagar the slave, whom Sarah, because she was barren, gave him as his wife as Genesis testifies.… Therefore Ishmael was born without the word, solely at the request of Sarah herself. Here there was no word of God that commanded or promised Abraham a son; but everything happened by chance, as Sarah’s words indicate: ‘It may be,’ she says, ‘that I shall obtain children by her.’”247
- The verse further says, the son of the free woman was God’s way (my translation).
- Abraham and Sarah tried to do things their way rather than wait on God.
- I am amazed at Abraham and Sarah, just because they were nearing 86 and 76 years old they doubt God. I mean, people of that age have babies all the time.
- No, really, we act before God can answer prayers too, don’t we?
- The explanation
- Verses 24-31:
- Verse 24: Hagar is Mount Sinai= the law and the law enslaved them.
- The NET Bible shares:Paul is not saying the OT account is an allegory, but rather that he is constructing an allegory based on the OT account.
- About allegory I have one source that shares:
- In its root meaning, to speak in an allegory means to “say something else.” Allegorical interpretation seeks to discern a hidden meaning in a given story or text, a meaning that may be entirely divorced from the historical referent alluded to in the narrative itself.
- A good example of an allegory in English literature is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. This famous story is a Christian fantasy that Bunyan said came to him “under the similitude of a dream” and in which he depicted the various stages of the Christian life through a series of coded characters, events, and places—Pliable, Faithful, Hopeful, Giant Despair, Doubting-Castle, Hill Difficulty, City Beautiful, and so on. Allegorical exegesis was a common form of literary analysis in the Hellenistic world.
- Verse 25: Jerusalem (Jewish people) are like Mount Sinai because they are enslaved to the law.
- Verse 26: Sarah is the Heavenly Jerusalem; what an application.
- Verse 27: Isa 54:1: a prophesy about gentiles in the covenant. Isaiah 54:1 looks to the millennial reign when the current barren women of Jerusalem will no longer be barren. This famous passage of Scripture likens the city of Jerusalem to a barren widow sitting at the gates of Jerusalem. She is covered in sackcloth and ashes because her husband has been carried away into captivity and she has no children to care for her in her old age. In the midst of this desperate situation, the voice of God breaks in: “Be happy, you childless woman! Shout and cry with joy, you who never felt the pains of childbirth! For the woman who was deserted will have more children than the woman whose children never left her.”
- In Verse 28: the Christians are like Isaac.
- Verse 29 has quite an application: The persecution of Christians by the Judaizers is compared to the persecution of Isaac from Ishmael. In Galatians 5:11 Paul referenced being persecuted for his preaching.
- There is only one short reference to Isaac being persecuted by Ishmael: The only biblical basis for this tradition stems from the statement in Gen 21:9 that Sarah saw Ishmael “playing with her son Isaac” during the festivities surrounding the weaning of the younger boy. The KJV gives a more sinister translation to Ishmael’s activity, “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian … mocking.” Later traditions identified Ishmael’s behavior as sexual immorality, the worship of false gods, and murderous sporting activities directed against his brother after the pattern of Cain and Abel.
- Verse 30 comes from Gen 21:10 and 12.
- Verse 31: we are free
A bazaar was held in a village in northern India. Everyone brought his wares to trade and sell. One old farmer brought in a whole covey of quail. He had tied a string around one leg of each bird. The other ends of all the strings were tied to a ring which fit loosely over a central stick. He had taught the quail to walk dolefully in a circle, around and around, like mules at a sugarcane mill. Nobody seemed interested in buying the birds until a devout Brahman came along. He believed in the Hindu idea of respect for all life, so his heart of compassion went out to those poor little creatures walking in their monotonous circles.
“I want to buy them all,” he told the merchant, who was elated. After receiving the money, he was surprised to hear the buyer say, “Now, I want you to set them all free.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“You heard me. Cut the strings from their legs and turn them loose. Set them all free!”
With a shrug, the old farmer bent down and snipped the strings off the quail. They were freed at last. What happened? The birds simply continued marching around and around in a circle. Finally, the man had to shoo them off. But even when they landed some distance away, they resumed their predictable march. Free, unfettered, released . . . yet they kept going around in circles as if still tied.
Until you give yourself permission to be the unique person God made you to be . . . and to do the unpredictable things grace allows you to do . . . you will be like that covey of quail, marching around in vicious circles of fear, timidity, and boredom.
- Let’s Apply
- In verse 21, Paul asks if they listen to the Law. We must listen to God’s Word.
- We must let God bring about His will. In verse 23 Paul refers to Ishmael as the way that Abraham and Sarah tried to do God’s job. We must trust God.
- We must not get ahead of God. We must trust the Lord and do what is right.
- This means that we must be ethical in business practices and moral in everything.
- We must have integrity and responsibility even when it does not make sense.
- We must not cheat numbers, or “cook the books.”
- We will trust and follow God’s promises.
- We must repent where we have not been trusting God. Have we rushed ahead of God like Abraham and Sarah did?
- We must recognize that these two covenants don’t fit together. Paul says that we are free. We cannot be free and slave at the same time.
- Worship God.
One of my good friends, Clayton King, has a guy on his pastoral team whose pregnant wife and young child were involved in a terrible accident. An EMT worker fell asleep at the wheel and hit them head on and killed the wife and her unborn child.
At the sentencing of the EMT, who was facing felony charges and harsh time, the pastor showed up and pleaded for a more lenient sentence. That gesture began a friendship between the two men that has lasted eight years. They meet every couple of weeks and have become like family.
I didn’t hear this story from Clayton. The story was carried on the Today show, and the pastor was asked why he did such a thing for a man who was responsible for the death of his wife and child. He said simply, “This is what Jesus did for me. After I wronged him, he brought me close. It just makes sense that I do this for others.”
Religion doesn’t do that to you. The gospel does.
—Dorothea Day, quoted in Hazel Felleman, The Best Loved Poems of the American People
245See F. F. Bruce, “ ‘Abraham Had Two Sons’: A Study in Pauline Hermeneutics,” in New Testament Studies: Essays in Honor of Ray Summers, ed. H. L. Drumwright and C. Vaughan (Waco: Baylor University Press, 1975), 72.