- Scripture Unpacked

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This is one of the most difficult passages in
the epistle to understand: not simply
because it is built upon a detailed
knowledge of the O.T. but because of the
way in which Paul uses the O.T. here. What
he is doing is drawing upon the facts of O.T.
history and then allegorising them.
This was a practice used in the Jewish
rabbinical schools of his day. Paul's reason
for using this method was probably because
those disturbing the church in Galatia were
particularly fond of employing this means of
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A Timely Warning
The message of these verses is right up to date
especially for those from a legalistic religious
background. According to v21 Paul is
addressing those who desire to live under the
law. People who imagine that the pathway to
God is through observing certain rules.
Such people need the inconsistency of their
position exposed. And so Paul is saying, "You
want to be under the law. Then listen to the
law. For the very law whose servant you want
to be will be your judge and condemn you”.
We are able to identify three stages in Paul's
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The Historical Background v 22-23
One of the proudest boasts of the Judaising
legalists of Paul’s day was, ‘we are descended
from Abram’- who was a man set apart by
God. God had revealed himself to Abraham
and made special promises to both him and
his posterity, [Gen. 12.3].
Because of this background the Jews,
Abraham's descendants, believed themselves
to eternally safe! But this presumption had
recently been shaken. In Matt. 3v9 we read of
John the Baptist saying, "don't presume to say
to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our
father; for I tell you that God is able from
these stones to raise up children to Abraham".
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The Historical Background v 22-23
Similarly, during his ministry Jesus had
challenged the core belief that physical descent
from Abraham could in some way guarantee
eternal security. On one occasion he said to the
Jewish leaders,
"If you were Abraham's children, you would do
what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill
me...this is not what Abraham did." Jn. 8v39-40.
Clearly implying that being a true child of
Abraham meant more than tracing ones’
physical descent to him. This is also where
Paul's argument leads in Gal. 3 v29.
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The Historical Background v 22-23
Abraham's true children are not those with
an impeccable Jewish genealogy, but those
who believe as Abraham believed and obey
as Abraham obeyed.
It is possible to be a physical descendant of
Abraham without being his spiritual
descendant. This double descent from
Abraham, the false and the true, the physical
and the spiritual, is something Paul sees
illustrated in Abraham's two sons Ishmael
and Isaac. Both had Abraham for their father
but there were important differences
between them.
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The Historical Background v 22-23
The first difference is that they were born of
different mothers v22... Ishmael's mother was
Hagar, a slave and Abraham's servant. Isaac's
mother was Sarah, a free woman and
Abraham's wife. Each boy took after his
mother. Ishmael was born into slavery but
Isaac into freedom.
The second difference is that they were born
in different ways. That is under different
circumstances. Cf v23. Ishmael was born
according to nature but Isaac's birth was
against nature. His father was 100 and his
mother ninety.
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The Historical Background v 22-23
Ishmael was born according to nature but
Isaac’s birth was according to God's gracious
promise and required God's special
As Paul unfolds these two differences
between Abraham's sons, he recognises an
allegory. Every one of us is a slave by nature,
until in the fulfilment of God's covenant
promise when we are set free. So everyone
is either an Ishmael or an Isaac, we either
remain what we are by nature - a slave, or
we become what we are by grace - free men.
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The Allegorical Argument
Having recounted the historical facts, Paul
now shows how they can be allegorised,
"the two women [Hagar and Sarah]
represent two covenants”,v24. A covenant
is a solemn agreement made between God
and men. We are told that Hagar is
associated with the covenant made at Sinai
where the stress is laid upon man's
obligations to God - the commandments.
We are left to assume that the covenant
associated with Sarah is that which
proceeded the giving of the law and which
was characterised by God's promises of
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The Allegorical Argument
In these verses not only are two covenants
mentioned but two Jerusalems. First, the
earthly Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, used here
to stand for the Jewish nation, which was at
that time bound to the law as a means of
gaining acceptance with God.
And then there is the "Jerusalem above" used
here to represent the Christian church. And so,
the two women, Hagar and Sarah, the mothers
of Abraham's two sons, represent two different
groups of people, the one seeking a
relationship with God based on law keeping
and the other enjoying a relationship founded
on God's gracious promises.
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The Allegorical Argument
Think in greater detail about these two women. Hagar represents
the bondage which pursuing law keeping as a means of gaining
God's favour brings. It is even more clear that children of the law,
just like Hagar's children, are slaves. Such people have a servile
attitude towards God. They are crushed in their efforts to reach
God's standards and gain God's acceptance.
Sarah was different. She was a free woman. Paul says to the
Galatian Christians, "She is our mother". If Hagar, Ishmael's mother,
a slave stands for the earthly Jerusalem whose children are the
product of legalistic Judaism then, Sarah, Isaac's mother, a free
woman, stands for stands for the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly
church whose children are a product of grace.
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The Allegorical Argument
Paul then quotes Is.54v1, which refers to two women, one
barren and the other with children. It is not a reference to
Hagar and Sarah, but to God’s people. Isaiah is addressing
exiles during the Babylonian captivity. He likens their state
in exile, under divine judgment to that of a barren women
deserted by her husband, and their future, after the
restoration from their captivity to that of a fruitful
mother with more children than ever.
God uses this imagery to convey a promise to his people
who will be more numerous after their return from
captivity than ever before. A promise that was fulfilled
by the growth of the Christian church - for Christian
people are the spiritual seed of Abraham.
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The Allegorical Argument
Summing up Paul's allegory; Abraham had two sons, born of
two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, who represent two covenants
and two Jerusalems. Hagar the slave stands for legalism and
the bondage which it brings, while her son Ishmael symbolises
the legalists from the earthly Jerusalem whose lives were
marked by fleshly exertion.
Sarah the free woman stands for God's covenant of grace. Her
son Isaac symbolises the church - heavenly Jerusalem, children
of promise, who have received spiritual life on the basis of
promise. While superficially similar, because both were the
sons of Abraham, the two boys were fundamentally different.
It is not enough to claim Abraham as father. The crucial
question is, “Who is your mother. Are we slaves or freeborn?
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Personal Application
In v28ff Paul concludes by way of personal application.
If we are like Isaac then we must expect to be treated as
Isaac was treated. The treatment Isaac received from
his half brother Ishmael [mockery and persecution] will
be the treatment which Isaac's descendants will get
from Ishmael's descendants. While the treatment Isaac
received from his father Abraham [consuming love] is
the treatment that the believer must expect to receive
from God the Father.
First of all we are told in v29 that Ishmael persecuted
Isaac. We know from Gen. 21v9 that Isaac became the
object of his brother's scorn and derision. Therefore
believers must expect the same.
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Personal Application
The persecution Abraham's spiritual heirs, the church,
does not always come from the world, who are strangers
and unrelated, but from our half brothers, religious folk,
nominal church people. It has always been so.
It was true of Jesus. He was bitterly opposed by the
religious leaders. Paul’s fiercest opponents were not
unbelieving barbarians but Judaisers, like those in
Galatia. Men bound to Judaism, who dogged his steps
and stirred up strife against him wherever he went.
The Reformers principal opponents in the C16th were
the religious prelates, sellers of indulgences and
advocates of earning ones way to heaven by good
works, churchmen who enslaved their hearers.
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Personal Application
Luther, the monk had been like a man in irons. Luther, the
justified man was a slave set free. A biographer describes his
early slavery when he was trying to earn salvation by law-works,
"His life is a long drawn out agony. He creeps like a shadow along
the galleries of the cloister, the walls echoing with his dismal
moanings and all the time he thinks of God as the One who
delights in these continuous torments".
Luther himself says of this period, "I was a good monk, and I kept
the rule of my order so strictly that I could say that if a monk
could ever get to heaven by monkery, I was that monk. All my
brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I
should have kept on any longer I should have killed myself with
my vigils, my prayers, my reading, and other work."
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Personal Application
In contrast with that listen to him after the light of
the gospel had broken in upon him.
"I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through
open doors into paradise."
Luther like Paul before him, had been released from
the slavery of the law with its legal prescriptions and
tasted the new wine of freedom in the gospel.
Luther had passed from the tyrannical tradition of
Hagar to the free sonship of Sarah. He had become
by faith an heir of Abraham, receiving his citizenship
in the heavenly Jerusalem.
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Personal Application
When we look at v30 we find Paul recalling the words
of Sarah to Abraham,
"get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave
woman's son will never share in the inheritance of the
free woman's son."
Although Isaac had to endure his brother's scorn, it was
Isaac who became the heir and received his father's
inheritance. So it is that the true heirs of God's promise
to Abraham are not his children by physical descent, the
Jews, but his children by spiritual descent. Just as
Ishmael was rejected so too will the unbelieving Jews to
be excluded from God's glorious inheritance.
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Personal Application
The fundamental difference between Ishmael and Isaac was
the same as that between the Judaisers and true believers.
The religion of Ishmael is a religion of nature, of what man
can do by himself without any special intervention by God.
But the religion of Isaac is a religion of grace, a religion of
divine intervention for Isaac was born supernaturally
through a divine promise. The Ishmael's of this world trust
in themselves that they are righteous. The Isaac’s trust only
in God’s provision of Christ as Saviour. The Ishmael's are in
bondage because that is where self-reliance leads. The
Isaac’s enjoy freedom because through faith in Christ they
have been set free. If we have become Isaac’s we must not
revert to being Ishmael's. Only in Christ can we inherit the
promises, receive grace and enjoy the freedom of God.
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