Two Covenants: Hagar and Sarah
What is freedom in the fullest sense of the word? Full freedom according to John Piper is “what you have when no lack of opportunity, no lack of ability, and no lack of desire prevents you from doing what will make you happiest in a thousand years. In order to be free in the fullest sense you have to have opportunity, ability, and desire to do what will make you happy in a thousand years.”
Suppose you have a desire to drive a car. You have the ability, that is, you have the experience and technical know how when it comes to driving a car, and you know that it would be a joy ride, because you’ll be driving in a freeway, and see beautiful scenery along the way, but you don’t have the opportunity to do so because you don’t own a car, or can’t borrow one. In that sense you are not totally free.
Or let’s take out ability. You own a car but don’t know how to drive one. You have the desire to drive, but you can’t. So that is not total freedom. You’re limited by your inability.
Suppose you have the ability and you own a car, but your parents just forced you to drive them to the city where there’s a traffic jam. No freeway, nor beautiful scenery, just slow traffic. You don’t have the desire to drive, and would rather be at home, therefore no total freedom.
But lastly and more importantly, you may have a car, ability to drive, and you have the desire because it’s a free way, with great views of the mountain range, but unknown to you, there’s a problem with the breaks. It went off, and as a result you drove off a cliff, and the crash caused severe injuries to you that you will never be able to drive again. Maybe you’re happy for a moment, but it didn’t last long. That is not total freedom.
To have a true total freedom therefore is to have the opportunity, the ability, the desire to do what will make you happiest for a thousand years, that is, you’ll have lasting joy, and you will not regret ever doing it.
Now the allegory in Galatians 4:21-31 was meant to convince the Galatians that to return to law keeping as our means of acceptance before God is to follow Abraham’s disobedience and his unbelief. Paul will show how Abraham by implication, through Hagar, resolved his lack of inability to produce an heir. He relied on his own ability, instead of relying on God’s promise and power, and as a result he had a son through the slave woman. But with Sarah, the barren, yet a free woman, God gave Abraham a son according to promise by faith alone. So those who are under the law are like sons to Hagar the slave, but those who are living by faith are sons of Sarah the free woman.
My primary aim in this exposition of God’s word is to strengthen our faith in God as we learn what freedom really is as demonstrated by the allegory. Second, I want us to learn how to view allegorical interpretation of passages, and ask the question; does it necessarily undermine a literal interpretation the Scripture. Lastly I want to show how to relate this freedom with the definition of true total freedom given by John Piper.
Are you listening to the Law?(vv. 21)
Paul begins this section with a challenge to those who desire to be under the law. He asked; “You who wants to be under the law, do you listen to the law?” Paul was employing a word play here. In the first instance of the word “law”, he’s referring to the Mosaic law, however in the second instance, it refers to the pentateuch as part of the Jewish Scriptures. Douglas Moo said that “Paul mostly uses νόμος (nomos, law) to denote the body of commandments given by God to Israel through Moses; but in keeping with Jewish usage, he also uses the word in a “canonical” sense, to denote the Pentateuch (as here; cf. also Rom. 3:21b; 1 Cor. 9:8, 9; 1 Corinthians 14:34), or sometimes the entire OT (Rom. 3:19a; 1 Corinthians 14:21)” So he’s not quoting from the Mosaic law, but giving a summary of a narrative from the book of Genesis. What Paul was essentially saying is that these Judaizers and those desiring to follow them, boast in their observance of the Mosaic law, but they don’t even listen to what the law, that is, the scripture, actually is saying. They knew the accounts, but they failed to draw right theology from it. Namely that those who submit themselves to the yoke of the law are not like Abraham in his shining moment, but they are like him in his unbelief, and reliance on his own natural ability.
Literal Interpretation(vv. 22-23)
Now before we go to the Old Testament accounts, we must take note first that Paul’s allegorical use of the two women in verse 24 does not undermine his literal interpretation of the Genesis narrative, instead he’s just reinforcing the same idea in allegorical way. So even without an allegory, Paul rightly interprets the narrative account to mean that the son of the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but the son of the free woman, was born according to promise even though they share the same father. So the Judaizers’ and the unbelieving Jews’ boast of their physical ancestry will not do them any good. Because Ishmael, although he’s Abraham’s son in the physical sense, he was not counted as heir, but was cast out. So blood relations will not give you any guarantee that you will become an heir.
Now let’s turn to Genesis 15 where God gave a promise to Abraham(Abram then) that he will be blessed with an offspring coming from his own flesh. In Genesis 15:1-6 Abram and Sarai still have no children, and therefore no heir to fulfill the promises of becoming a great nation in Genesis 12:2. There is only Eliezer the slave. But God says in verse 4, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.” God’s intention was for Abraham to trust only in God even if it is humanly impossible for him to have a son.
But in Genesis 16 Abraham and Sarah, out of their weakened faith for a time, devise a plan by which they will use their own ability to help God fulfill his promise. Sarah gives her handmaid Hagar, to Abraham so she can bear him a son in Genesis 16:2. And in Genesis 16:15 it says, “Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son whom Hagar bore to him Ishmael.” Therefore when Paul says in Galatians 4:23 that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh,” he meant that Ishmael was the product of self-reliance. Abraham failed to rely on God’s power alone to fulfill his promise, but instead relied on his own power and wits to get a son.
Then, after 14 years, in Genesis 17:16 God says to Abraham that He will fulfill His promise that Sarah will have a son. God intends to carry it out in such a way that removes all grounds for human boasting. Genesis 17:17-19 says, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O, that Ishmael might live in thy sight!’ God said, ‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.'” God rejects what Abraham was able to produce on his own, but God promises again that in spite of Abraham’s age, he will have a son by his own wife. So Genesis 21:1 says, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised.” Isaac was not born according to the flesh because his birth was the result of God’s supernatural intervention in fulfillment of his own promise. Therefore in Galatians 4:23, Paul rightly sums up the whole narrative: “The son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise.”
Now Paul says the same thing in Romans 9:6-8; “For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, nor are all the children Abrahamʼs true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted.” This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants.” It is not as though Jewishness is rejected, what’s rejected is human efforts to be accepted in God’s household. Thomas Schreiner pointed out that “Paul’s illustration is astonishing, for surely the Judaizers saw themselves as descendants of Isaac! Paul, however, identifies them as the descendants of Ishmael and sees the Galatian converts as sons of Isaac. Those who rely on the law and human effort to be right with God are not the children of the covenant, whereas those who rely on the free promise given in Christ Jesus are the true covenant children.”
Now an allegory as Paul was using it here, does not mean that there’s some hidden meaning behind the literal interpretation of the historical accounts. Rather, he’s just using the same account, and used it as an imagery to illustrate literal biblical truths. So the greek verb for “allegorizing”, can be translated rightly as “speaking allegorically” , instead of “interpreted allegorically”. There’s no deeper hidden meaning behind the original author’s intention. In other words, Paul’s use of the OT does not represent the kind of arbitrary allegory that we find in Philo or that we find later in Origen or Clement of Alexandria. So let us look at how Paul used the two mothers spoken of from verse 23 in verses 24-28 as an allegory.
Paul said in verse 24, “Now [even though] this is speaking allegorically, for these women represents two covenants: One [covenant] is from Mount Sinai.” After that he goes on to explain what he meant by it. Then the other covenant is in verse 26, “But [the other covenant from] the Jerusalem above”. I added the implied “other covenant from” in the translation, since Paul is talking about two covenants coming from two places. One is from mount Sinai and the other one from the Jerusalem above.
One final note before we move forward. Notice that I added in verse 24 the words “even though” in a bracket. Paul is granting that verses 24-28 is just an allegory, nevertheless, the application that one can take from it, still holds true in verses 29-30. Look at the conjunction “but” or “nevertheless” in verse 29. It more likely connects verse 24 with verse 29 in a concessive or adversative logical relationship, than verse 28 and verse 29. That is, Paul is highlighting verse 29-30 by granting that verses 24-28 is just an allegory. We can paraphrase it like this: “Even though this is just an allegory…,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..” Meaning, this maybe allegorical, but it represents facts, and it applies now in Paul’s day. Paul was just anticipating a possible objection to his allegory by the Judaizers who were familiar with the historical account.
So let’s move on. Paul explains in verse 24 that the covenant from mount Sinai is the one bearing children for slavery, and she is Hagar so to speak. Now there’s an irony here. Remember that for the Jews, mount Sinai is associated with their liberation from Egypt. And Paul was saying that instead of freedom, it subjected them to slavery. Then in verse 25 he said that “Now [although] Hagar represents Mount Sinai in Arabia; she [nevertheless] corresponds to the present Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.” Since this is an allegory, Paul was saying that though the location may differ, Hagar, Mount Sinai, still correspond to the current state of Jerusalem. And the reason that he gave is that she is in slavery with her children. According to Thomas Schreiner,” Hagar represents the covenant enacted at Mount Sinai, which is still operative in the Jerusalem of Paul’s day since Jerusalem remains in bondage to sin…The present Jerusalem, along with her children, is enslaved. The standard Jewish view was that the law is the pathway to liberation and freedom, but Paul argues that it ends up enslaving and captivating people, for the law demands obedience and does not grant any power to keep its precepts. It slays but does not grant life.”
Then in verse 26, Paul talks about the second covenant in contrast with the Sinai covenant. Verse 26 says” But [alternatively] [the other covenant from] the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” We are not told which covenant. Others have argued, based on the context of Galatians 3:15-18, that it is possible that the covenant made with Abraham is in view. But similar to Schreiner, I believe that the new covenant is in view here. Paul is contrasting the new covenant and the old covenant. The preposition “above” that modifies the word “Jerusalem”, tells us that this is the eschatological or the heavenly Jerusalem, therefore the new covenant is more likely in view here. But since the new covenant fulfills the Abrahamic covenant , we should not exaggerate the difference between these two options as Schreiner added.
God will require us to do things that is beyond our abilities, so that we will only rely on Him for strength to do what He commands in order for Him to receive all the glory.
Now Paul goes on to say that the free woman(as implied from the contrast), corresponding to the new covenant, is our mother. Meaning all true believers are children of the free woman. Then he supported this argument by quoting from the Old Testament as we can see in verse 17. He quotes from Isaiah 54:1. Paul is trying to show that the Gentile Christians are the children of the Jerusalem above, for they are the children of the barren woman from whom no children were expected. It is only by divine and sovereign intervention that she brought forth many children. So Isaiah’s passage and the previous verses is connected by the idea of Sarah’s barrenness, and God’s covenant keeping power. So in verse 28, Paul concludes that like Isaac, the Galatians(by extension all believers) are children of promise.
As we can see, there’s a clear and stark contrast between the two covenants. First, slavery and freedom, then second, flesh and the Spirit, and third, present Jerusalem, and Jerusalem above. The two are mutually exclusive. You either belong to one or the other. So in verse 29 ,even though it is just an allegory, Paul will apply it to their present situation. Just like how the son of the slave woman persecuted the son of the free woman, so also now. The Judaizers’ requiring of Gentile believers to obey the Mosaic law was nothing short of persecution. They are like Ishmael when he mocked Isaac in Genesis 21:8-9. But we are reminded in verse 30 that these people will not inherit with the son of the free woman. They will be cast out. So he concluded verses 21-30 in verse 31. Paul reiterated that we are not children of the slave, but we are children of the free woman.
We do lack true freedom, but what should be our response?
Now let’s look at how we can relate the definition of true freedom in light of what we’ve learned so far from Galatians 4:21-31. On a practical note, when it comes to serving God, we tend to say that what’s stopping us from committing into ministry is at least one of these reasons, or maybe more than one: we lack the opportunity, we lack the ability, we lack the desire, or that it doesn’t give us joy. Now it is how you deal with what’s lacking in you that will determine how free you really are.
Take for example opportunity. Opportunity to serve God is always there, but sometimes we just prefer a better opportunity(at least that’s what we thought of as better). Perhaps an opportunity where we can be comfortable in serving God. So if that kind of opportunity doesn’t show up, we either quit, or manufacture it. Instead of trusting God for the opportunity that’s right in front of us, we rely on our wits, thinking that there’s a better opportunity to choose from. So you’re not free because what dictates what you do is the lack of a “better and comfortable” opportunity, even if what would really give you lasting joy is the opportunity that is not as comfortable as you would want it to be.
Or take ability. You say, I don’t want to do this, not because I don’t have the opportunity and desire to serve but that I don’t have the ability to do it. It is easy if you have the ability, but most of the time God will require us to do things that is beyond our abilities, so that we will only rely on Him for strength to do what He commands in order for Him to receive all the glory.
Here’s the thing, the ability that you know that you have, and the ability that you think you don’t have, but you will eventually have or do have, all came from God. So who are we to think that God can’t ask us to do things that are beyond our abilities. Just like how Abraham and Hagar did what the natural man can do, and it displeased God, because it was not flowing from faith, but a reliance on the flesh, so also when we rely only on what we can do naturally, it is not flowing from faith, but from the flesh. Therefore we are not totally free in this sense.
How about desire and joy? You might say, I have the opportunity, and the ability, but I don’t or no longer have the desire and it doesn’t give me joy. I no longer find joy in serving God this way. So I would rather quit than pretend to like it, because in the first place, no one can really manufacture a desire. But then again, that means you’re relying only on the things that you have. Don’t you want to ask God instead to give you the desire and joy, and trust that he will give it to you? Human desires fluctuate. It’s not always the same. And if your grounds for disobedience, whether to the command to kill sin, love one another, read and study God’s word, pray, attend corporate worship, share the gospel to other people, is that you don’t desire, and no longer have joy in obeying God, for whatever reasons, then you are not totally free. Because you’re living your Christian lives by your ever changing sense of spirituality. You will not always have those spiritual highs.
You’ll notice that what ties these reasons together is our reliance to ourselves and not to God’s opportunity, ability, desire and joy to help us. We don’t seem to trust God’s promises, instead we trust our own manufactured opportunities, abilities, desires and joys. These things will always be lacking. You will not always have the opportunity that you expected to have, neither the ability, nor the desire, but we should always rely only on God. If you want freedom, believe in God the way a little child put his unwavering trust on his father. He can sleep tight in his father’s arms without any fear that he might fall. That’s very freeing! Brothers and sisters, for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.