The church in Galatia used to be slaves like Hagar and sons of slaves like Ishmael who came from Mount Sinai in Arabia. But now, they are free people, like Sarah and Isaac, having been brought by Christ from Mount Sinai to the heavenly Mount Zion in heavenly Jerusalem.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 21:1-14; Isaiah 54:1-3; Galatians 4:21-31 (text)
Rev. Nollie Malabuyo • October 17, 2010
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A “New Jerusalem,” described in Revelation 21:2 as “the holy city coming down out of heaven from God,” has always been a major focus of prophecy from the early church up to the present day. About 150 A.D., Montanus and his followers believed that the New Jerusalem will descend to earth in Phrygia in present-day Turkey. In the 18th century, a Swedish mystic named Emmanuel Swedenborg taught that a new church called The New Jerusalem will be established on earth through him. In 1790, a Quaker named Jemima Wilkinson founded New Jerusalem in the wilderness of New York, a community where Christian righteousness would prevail. In the 1830s, Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church tried to establish a millennial New Jerusalem they called Zion in North America. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that 144,000 of their followers would be kings and priests over a millennial New Jerusalem on earth.
The Philippines would not be left behind in this obsession with a millennial New Jerusalem. A cult leader named Apollo Quiboloy proclaimed himself as “The Appointed Son of God,” and his ostentatious headquarters in Davao City as the New Jerusalem and City of God. He claims to have a following of about six million Filipinos all over the world and thus wields great political clout in the country.
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Contrary to all these speculations about a coming earthly kingdom, the Apostle Paul tells the Galatian believers that they are citizens of “Jerusalem above,” and that their mother is Sarah, wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac. Thus, those who are justified by the same faith that Abraham had are “children of promise.”
Paul preached the gospel in Galatia in southern Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in his first missionary journey and established churches in the region around A.D. 46-47. But within a short amount of time after Paul left (Gal 1:6), the church was infiltrated by false teachers—those “who trouble you” (Gal 1:7) and “those who unsettle you” (Gal 5:12). These Jewish converts to Christianity believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Jewish Messiah. But they also persuaded the Galatians of a false gospel of faith plus works—ritual circumcision, dietary laws, ceremonial laws and Jewish feasts—to be justified or be righteous before God. They did not believe that the life, death and resurrection of Christ were sufficient to save them from sin and God’s wrath.
These troublers of the church, known to us today as “Judaizers,” probably wanted the approbation of Jewish religious authorities by showing that they are effective in converting Gentiles to a form of Judaism, “want[ing] to make a good showing in the flesh.” Paul also says that they are teaching Old Testament Judaism to the Galatians “in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” presumably by the Jews (Gal 6:12). These false teachers eventually created division in the churches, provoking Paul to warn them not to “bite and devour one another” (Gal 5:15).
Paul is more critical of the Galatians than in any of his letters to other churches, severely chastising them for being “foolish” and “bewitched” (Gal 3:1), and that the false teachers are “accursed” because they are preaching a gospel contrary to what the apostles have preached to them (Gal 1:8,9): “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).
Thus, the great question that Paul is answering in this letter is this: How are the Galatians—and all believers—justified and brought to a right standing before God?
Paul says that even while he and the apostles were Jews by birth, they knew that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” and that “by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 1:16). He then argues that the father of Israel, Abraham himself, was justified by faith and not by works, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal 3:6). Faith alone justifies!
So whether Jew or Gentile, all those who believe in Christ are children of Abraham (Gal 3:7). And all who rely on performing the commandments of the Law of Moses for their salvation are actually “cursed,” because no one can fulfill the whole law (Gal 3:10). For anyone who breaks even one law brings God’s wrath down on himself.
Paul then says that Christ has “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). The sacrifice of Christ is the price that he paid to buy us from God’s wrath. The Galatians, before faith came, were “captive” slaves “imprisoned” under the law. They had no hope of being released from slavery under the law. Only faith alone in Christ alone can release them from slavery in order to become adopted children of God. Thus, as Gentile believers, they are also “children of promise” (Gal 4:6, 7), the same promises that God spoke to Abraham: being part of God’s family consisting of a multitude from all nations; salvation from the curse of the Law; all the abundance and blessings in a heavenly Promised Land, the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.
As an example of what the Galatians were before faith, and what they are now after faith, Paul uses several contrasts between Abraham’s two wives, Hagar and Sarah, and two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. In pointing out these contrasts, he mentions two mountains: Mount Sinai and Mount Zion (although implicitly). The church in Galatia used to be slaves like Hagar and sons of slaves like Ishmael who came from Mount Sinai in Arabia. But now, they are free people, like Sarah and Isaac, having been brought by Christ from Mount Sinai to the heavenly Mount Zion in heavenly Jerusalem.
From Slavery to Freedom
When Abraham was 75, God promised him a covenant son. But after 10 years, the promised child did not come because Sarah was barren due to her old age. So Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands: Abraham was to have a son with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. So 11 years after God’s promise to Abraham, when he was already 86, Ishmael was born to Abraham by Hagar (Gen 16).
When Abraham was 99, God appeared to him and renewed his covenant with him, repeating his promise of a covenant son, multitudes of children and nations, and a land of promise for his children. God soon fulfilled his promise as Sarah was found with child.
Of course, what would be expected in a household—even God’s covenant family—with two wives and their two sons? Even before Isaac was born, there was already jealousy and rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, as Hagar laughed at and mocked Sarah. After Isaac was born, Ishmael also laughed in mockery of old Sarah and her son. So Sarah asked Abraham to throw the mother and child out of their household, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Gen 21:10).
Paul uses this situation to illustrate to the Galatians their foolishness in believing the false teachers. He says that the story of Hagar and Sarah is an “allegory” illustrating the distinction between slavery under the law and freedom under faith. Allegory is a method of interpretation in which Biblical texts are given figurative meanings from the literal sense. As in the medieval church, this figurative interpretation was often abused when Scriptures were given meanings that are often not to be found in their context. For example, nowhere in the Bible is it directly or implicitly taught that the red cloth that Rahab used to save the Israeli spies from death in Jericho foreshadowed the saving blood of Christ, as the second century church father Clement of Alexandria taught. In contrast, the Bible often alludes to God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt when it speaks of Christ’s greater redemption of God’s people from bondage to Satan, sin and death.
Although Paul uses the word “allegory,” Galatians 4:21-31 is more typological than allegorical. The Judaizers taught that Jews are the only true people of God by virtue of God’s covenant of grace with Abraham. But when God made a covenant with Moses at Mount Sinai, God required observance of the Law of Moses, in addition to faith, as the basis for receiving God’s blessings. Thus, even Gentiles have to be under the various obligations of the Old Testament law: circumcision, dietary laws, ceremonies and Jewish feasts.
When Jews think of Sarah and Hagar, and their sons Isaac and Ishmael, they assign themselves to the side of God’s chosen people, children of promise through Abraham and Isaac. They then think of the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael as Gentiles—people who are excluded outside God’s special covenant with Abraham and his descendants. In fact, Jews maligned Gentiles as “the uncircumcision” (Eph 2:11). Paul so explains to non-Jewish Ephesians, “remember that you were … alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).
Now Paul explodes this idea, even turns it on its head, to the shock and consternation of the Galatian troublemakers. Jews—the people of the Law—are now ranked among the descendants of Hagar the slave woman, and Gentiles who embrace the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone are classified as the descendants of Sarah the free woman! Jews who add the Law to faith are enslaved to the works of the Law, just as Hagar was a slave to Sarah, and are hopeless and without God. In contrast, Gentile believers are free from slavery under the Law because they rely on the same faith that Abraham had, and as such are counted righteous before God.
Hagar and Sarah also symbolized two covenants. Hagar stands for the covenant of grace administered under the old covenant of law mediated by Moses on Mt. Sinai. Under this covenant, God’s chosen people repeatedly vowed obedience to the covenant stipulations in order to receive God’s blessings and remain in the Promised Land, having been warned of God’s curses if they broke the covenant. Thus, Hagar’s children are Jews who were born “under the law,” and therefore in slavery of the law. This is why Paul tells the Galatians earlier that “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). They were like children under the guardianship of the law which reminded them of their sinfulness and need for a Savior, not as a means of justification.
In contrast to Hagar, Sarah is the free woman and therefore the mother of all who have freedom from the Law of Moses through faith in Christ. Sarah represents the covenant of grace administered under the new covenant mediated by Christ, a mediator better than Moses. In this covenant, God himself makes an unconditional vow to be God to his people, bestowing all spiritual blessings in Christ. But to those who reject the righteousness of Christ and instead depend on their own righteousness to be justified before God, the Law itself will bring God’s curse on them, since “a person is not justified by works of the law” (Gal 2:16).
We, like Hagar and Ishmael, used to be slaves—slaves of Satan and sin. Paul says in Romans 6 that all those who sin are slaves of sin, and all who are righteous are slaves of Christ and his righteousness:
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin…have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:16-18).
And if someone is a slave like Hagar, then is she free? No, she is not, because everything that she does is controlled by her master; she cannot disobey her master on pain of death or prison. This is exactly what Jesus told the same Jews, who were called Pharisees, who believed they were the only true children of Abraham, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). They are slaves of sin because their father is not righteous Abraham, but the devil who is a murderer and the father of liars,
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth… for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
Dear friends, make sure that you’re not under the Law. How? By believing in Jesus as Christ, Savior and Lord. If he is the Lord of your life, you will not be under the Law on pain of God’s wrath. Instead, because you love him, your desire and delight is to obey his commandments.
From Flesh to Promise
After ten years of waiting for their son of promise, Abraham and Sarah doubted God and so made a plan to help God fulfill his promise: he will bear a son through Hagar, a slave woman. The children produced by the union of a master and one of his slaves are not free, but remain as slaves. They are natural children, born “according to the flesh (ESV),” or “in the ordinary way” (NIV).
This is why Paul says that Ishmael “was born according to the flesh,” a child born of the natural reproductive process. This is the same description used by Paul in saying that Jesus descended physically from David (Rom 1:3). But he uses the word “flesh” more often to represent sinful human desires and principles that belong to the unbelieving world—the sinful nature that we inherited from Adam. It does not mean our sinful physical nature, because our whole being is sinful—body, heart, soul and mind.
Paul explains this later to the Galatians when he commands them to live according to the Spirit, and not according to the flesh, because the “works of the flesh” flow out of the desires and lusts of their sinful nature. Without the Spirit, they will always be enslaved by their fallen nature, represented by Hagar and Ishmael.
So to strengthen Abraham’s wavering faith, God reminded him again and again while he waited for his covenant son that he would fulfill his promise:
“In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations… He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Rom 4:18-20).
The promise is the absolute opposite of flesh, since it is God’s word, and his word is always true. Isaac was born by God’s miraculous work of producing a child from the union of a “dead” man and a “barren” woman decades past their childbearing years. Paul sees this as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the restoration from exile of disobedient Israel, a barren woman without children and without fruits. Israel was surely restored after the exile, but it was a short-lived restoration.
God will finally fulfill his promises to Abraham, not when the nation of Israel is restored in Palestine, not when a Temple is rebuilt, not when Christ reigns from a throne in Jerusalem for a thousand years. Fulfillment will come when, as Isaiah prophesied, hopeless and helpless barren people will bring forth fruits and children from “desolate nations” (Isa 54:1-3).
This fulfillment came “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:4-5). Like Sarah, the barren mother of Isaac, Mary was “barren,” bearing Jesus without the natural union with a human husband. Our Lord himself was born under the Law and obeyed the whole Law in order to fulfill all righteousness. And it is his righteousness that he will present to God when he presents the Church to his Father in heaven. By his righteousness, we have been redeemed from the Law and justified before God.
The final consummation of God’s promises to Abraham will be when all of Abraham’s children, those who belong to Christ, are gathered and brought to the spiritual Mount Zion in the heavenly Jerusalem.
From Earthly Jerusalem to Heavenly Jerusalem
Christ was born “so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father’” (Gal 4:5, 6). Paul says that all those who are united with Christ by faith are the children of Abraham, “heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29). Not all Jews are children of Abraham, but only those who belong to Christ, whether Jew or Gentile (Rom 9:7).
And because you have been adopted as God’s children, you are no longer slaves like Ishmael. You have all the privileges of true, natural born children, “no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4:7). This is why Paul says that you now have confidence to come to God and say, like Jesus, “Abba, Father!” or “My Father!” or “Our Father.”
Another privilege of a true son that a slave doesn’t have is an inheritance. And not just an ordinary inheritance—our inheritance is that of a firstborn. Because you belong to Jesus, God’s firstborn son, you who belong to Christ are also “firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:23). What does a firstborn son inherit? His inheritance is double that of other children in the family.
But your inheritance is not an earthly inheritance: not health and wealth, not earthly wisdom, not earthly power and glory. Not even “heaven on earth” in the millennium, where you will dwell in a home that will again be destroyed after a thousand years. Instead of these things, you will “receive the promised eternal inheritance” (Heb 9:15).
What is this promised eternal inheritance? Jewish converts in Galatia who still trusted in the works of the Law maintained that Israel was still God’s chosen nation, that Jerusalem is still God’s holy city, and that God still dwelt in their Temple. But Paul contradicts this teaching saying that the present Jerusalem, the Jewish religious system, is enslaved under the Law, just as Hagar was a slave.
On the other hand, those who are in Christ belong to the Jerusalem above, the true “Israel of God” (Gal 6:6), the true holy city, the city that Abraham looked forward to, a “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). Is this city a future rebuilt city of Jerusalem in Palestine today? No, not at all. It is the new heaven and new earth, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, Mount Zion.
The old holy city of Jerusalem used to be barren, without fruits, without children, and desolate because of Israel’s unbelief and disobedience. But now, the new heavenly Jerusalem will bear fruits and multitudes of children who “will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities” (Isa 54:1-3). The Jerusalem above will have citizens who will come from Gentile nations—Egypt, Babylon, Philistia,Tyre and Cush. Even if these people were born outside of earthly Jerusalem, they will be registered as citizens of Zion, “This one and that one were born in her” (Psa 87:4-6).
In this city, all the nations of the earth will worship God and Christ the Lamb of God. Where will you worship? In a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem? No, not at all. For the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem are but copies and shadows of the true things and are made with hands (Heb 9:24). But when you inherit the heavenly Jerusalem, there will be no Temple there, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22; cf John 2:19). We will worship the True Temple in the True Holy City designed and built by God.
This is also why Paul himself looks forward to a heavenly Jerusalem, not to an earthly Jerusalem. Because the present earthly Jerusalem represents the slave woman and her children, while the Jerusalem above in heaven represents the free woman and her children of promise.
Beloved friends, as children of God redeemed from the slavery of sin and Satan, how then are you to live?
Paul says that you “who belong to Christ Jesus have [to crucify] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24), meaning, you are to kill your sinful desires. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). You are to walk as free, not slave people. Live and walk then in the Spirit, bearing plentiful good fruits of the Spirit.
But do not use this freedom from the Law as a license to sin, but instead use your freedom serve God and your fellow citizens of Mount Zion in love (Gal 5:13; 1 Pet 2:16).
Live as children of heavenly Mount Zion. As our closing hymn says, we are to sing a song of joy and thanksgiving to God for graciously setting us free from bondage to sin. Daily, we are to pray for strength in resisting sin in our lives.
O Lord, refresh us by Thy grace,
Revive and quicken all our powers.
In this way, as our doxology says,
The praise of their Maker
His people shall sing,
And children of Zion
Rejoice in their King.