Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth [=gives birth to] to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.
E1.1 An allegory
In order to illustrate his point Paul cites an example from one of the books of the law! Although Genesis contains no law, in the sense of the Mosaic law, it was, with the other books of the Pentateuch, considered to be one of the books of the law. And Paul turns our attention to the incident of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, calling it an allegory.
Now we need, at this point, to put the record straight about what is an allegory. Vine in his expositional dictionary puts it thus:
Gal.4:24 “contain an allegory” (AV, “are an allegory”), formed from allos, “other,” and agoreuo, “to speak in a place of assembly” (agora, “the market-place”), came to signify “to speak,” not according to the primary sense of the word, but so that the facts stated are applied to illustrate principles. The “allegorical” meaning does not do away with the literal meaning of the narrative. There may be more than one “allegorical” meaning though, of course, only one literal meaning. Scripture histories represent or embody spiritual principles, and these are ascertained, not by the play of the imagination, but by the rightful application of the doctrines of Scripture.
So what we have in Gal 4 is Paul recollecting this incident in Abraham’s life, and uses it to illustrate the principle of being under the law and of the flesh. So let us consider the matter more closely.
E1.2 Ishmael – of the flesh
When God called Abram from Ur of the Chaldees, He promised him a Land to dwell in. It came out of the blue, Abram didn’t decide for himself to move away to a land he didn’t know. It was God’s initiative and His alone. Sometime later Abram was bothered about how his descendants were going to inherit, the land, for he had none!
After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward. And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. And he said unto him, I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.
Abram, in order to help out, suggested the son of his steward could be heir, but God said no, for He had given him the land and the heir would come from Abram’s own body. We then have the cutting of the covenant. Moving into the next chapter of Genesis we find that Sarai, seeing that she could have no children, enticed Abraham into having a child and heir by her handmaid, Hagar.
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
What Abram was thinking, we are not told, but we can imagine: “well the heir from Hagar, an Egyptian, would be from my body as God promised, and it is what the others in the world do anyway, there can’t be anything wrong I’m trying to help God out.” If he didn’t say that verbally his actions certainly did. Thus Ishmael was born of the flesh, and not as Isaac was to be, of promise.
Whilst this is not Paul’s direct point here, it is worth noting that this also illustrates walking after the flesh. Christians knowing God’s will, reason as to how it should be accomplished; so by carnal thinking employ the methods of the world (which is what Egypt, in type represents) and if necessary join themselves to handmaids (slaves) of the world. Instead of believing God and allowing Him to fulfil His will in His way.
Back to Paul’s argument: because Ishmael was born of a slave woman he too was a slave, as far as the promise of God was concerned. It was Isaac that was to receive the inheritance, and not Ishmael. We remind ourselves that this is an allegory of the Covenants, and in no way suggests that Ishmael nor his descendants are inferior as people.
E1.3 Under the law?
This allegory was a rebuke to those who wanted to be under the law. Already in this epistle Paul has established some basic things:
- The works of the law can not justify, only faith can do that. Gal. 2:16:19
- Receiving the Spirit is by faith and not the works of the law. Gal.3:2
- Ministry of the Spirit is by faith and not works of the law Gal. 3:5
- The law brings a curse, and Christ has redeemed us from it. Gal.3:10-13.
- The law was ADDED as an extra till Christ was come Gal.3:19
- The law was a ‘schoolmaster ‘ to bring us to Christ Gal.3: 24
Being under the law meant being on the same level as a slave, being in Christ means we have the position of sons Gal.3:26 – 4:7
So now Paul, in relating Ishmael and Isaac, one of the flesh and the other of the Spirit, shows the Galatians the foolishness of wanting to be under the law; apart from the previous things mentioned, he states that just as Ishmael was in bondage, being born of bondmaid, so they were, if they wanted to be of the law; for a son of a slave was slave and a son of a freewoman was free. The Galatians were showing by their actions that they were desirous to be slaves once more.
E1.4 The Covenants
So then what does the allegory represent?
Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth [=gives birth to] to bondage, which is Agar.
Paul states that it is the two Covenants: the old and new. The Mosaic, or old Covenant, was given at Mount Sinai. Let us consider what this Old Covenant actually was. We have already established that is was added as a temporary measure until the Spirit came. So what was it and its terms?
E1.4a The Old Covenant Ex.19:3-5
God gave the nation a set of laws, rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices for them to keep. All, as we know was external, but it was what God told them to do as their part in keeping the Covenant. As long as they kept their part God kept His, and they remained safely in the Land. But they couldn’t keep it! Reading the OT shows us clearly that the nation habitually broke the Covenant: despite God raising up Judges, prophets, righteous kings, the nation fell away. So much so that God had no alternative but to bring judgement on Israel.
The nation was divided and eventually, when there was no remedy, God sent judgement and exile.
Moreover all the chief of the priests, and the people, transgressed very much after all the abominations of the heathen; and polluted the house of the LORD which he had hallowed in Jerusalem. And the LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy. Therefore he brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Babylon. And they burnt the house of God, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof. And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: To fulfil the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years.
But God in doing so promised a new and better Covenant. The writer to the Hebrews puts it thus:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.
Heb.8:7-13 quoting Jer.31:31-34
E1.4b The New Covenant
It was not the Covenant that was at fault, but the people, for they had no power to keep it. So God promised the New Covenant, whereby God would place His laws in the heart, there would be a change of heart in the people Ezk. 36:26-30. This new Covenant would mean there would be no external law to keep, but, rather, it would be internal. We would have His Spirit by whom we would live. We would know God personally, and we would all learn individually from Him. By being born again and entering into the New Covenant we would be able to live as God intended us to live. Why then did the Galatians desire to be under the system that only brought bondage, and inability to please God?
E1.5. Of which son are you?
Two sons, two Covenants. One of promise, by the Spirit, one of bondage, by the flesh. Which are you of? We have already seen that if we are of faith then we are of the promised seed, and are blessed with faithful Abraham, and are his children. Gal. 3:7-15. We are therefore of the freewoman and are free, we are not of the bondmaid, Hagar.
If you are trying to be a Christian by an external code then you are not of the Spirit, and are not in the New Covenant. And therefore you are not of the freewoman but of the bondmaid. You cannot be of both sons, so which are you of? The promised seed, or of the flesh?
If you were once in the Spirit and are now living life by external laws/rules then you have fallen away. Sinai gives birth to bondage, just as James’ thought that once lust has conceived, the final outcome is death Jms.1:13-15, when followed through to its conclusion, so the same basic idea here is present: once you desire to be under an external law/works of the flesh you have given birth to an outcome that leads only to bondage. Flesh gives birth to flesh, Spirit to spirit Jn.3:6. If you are born again then you are of the Spirit and of the freewoman, why then desire to be under bondage once more in order to live by external rules? Why go back to that which is inferior?
If you are in one of these conditions then you are either, not born again in the first place, or were and have now returned into bondage; whichever the case then you need to repent and be renewed by God’s Spirit.