An Appeal from Allegory - Page 1 of 4 (series: Lessons on Galatians)
by John Lowe
November 23, 2013
The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians
Chapter III.C.2: An Appeal from Allegory (4:21-31)
Galatians 4.21-31 (KJV)
The Historical Facts
21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.
23 His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
Perhaps the best way to understand this historical account is to go over briefly the biblical narrative of Abrahams experiences recorded in Genesis 12-21. We will trace the events which Paul is using as the basis for his argument for Christian liberty using his age as our point of reference.
Age 75—Abram is called by God and told to go to Canaan, and God makes him several promises, including the assurance that he will have many descendents (Ge. 12.1-9). Abraham’s wife Sarah is barren, but she and Abraham have been hoping and praying for children. Childlessness, particularly the failure to bear sons was a disgrace that caused sorrow in the home. God had not answered their prayers, because He was waiting until both of them were “as good as dead;” then he would perform the miracle of sending them a son (Rom. 4.16-25).
Age 85—Sarah seems to have given up hope, because the son God promised them had not yet arrived, and she was far past the age of for bearing children. Now this is shocking to us, she asks Abraham to marry her handmaid, Hagar, and to have a son by her; she would regret this later. This was a legal act in that ancient society; but it was not acceptable in God’s eyes. But Abraham did as she asked and married Hagar (Ge. 16.1-3).
Age 86—Hagar is soon pregnant, and, of course, Sarah becomes Jealous! There is friction and discontent within the household, which results in Sarah throwing Hagar out of the home. But the Lord intercedes on behalf of Hagar; He sends her back, and promises to take care of her and her son. The new son is born when Abraham is 86 and he calls him Ishmael (Ge 16.4-16).
Age 99—Once again the Lord speaks to Abraham and promises him that he will have a son by Sarah, and tells him to name the child Isaac. Later Got appears to Sarah and He reaffirms the promise He made to her as well (Ge. 17-18).
Age 100—The son of promise is born, and they name him Isaac (“laughter”), just as God had commanded. But, everything is not all happiness and joy in the home, because the arrival of the new child creates a new problem for this family—Ishmael has a rival. For fourteen years Ishmael had been the Abraham’s only son and Abraham loved and spoiled him. Ishmael views Isaac as a rival and his reaction to the new son threatens to split the home. The extraordinary thing in this Genesis story is that Sarah was over ninety years old when Isaac was born.
Age 103—It was customary for the Jews to wean their children when they were around three years old, and they made it a big occasion. At the least, Ishmael begins to ridicule Isaac (Ge. 21.8), and to make trouble in the home. There is only one solution to the problem, and it’s one that will be painful for all concerned; Hagar and Ishmael must go. Abraham sends them away, because that is what the Lord tells him to do; but it breaks his heart (Ge. 21.9-14).
On the surface, this narrative seems to simply picture a family with a problem, which is nothing unusual for any age. But when you scratch the surface you can see what lies just below the surface; implications that carry tremendous spiritual power. Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael represent spiritual realities; and their relationships teach us some important lessons.
The story of Abraham and Hagar, and the birth of Ishmael after the flesh is not a mere incident in the history of Abraham, but is recorded to teach a far deeper, more profound lesson. It is this—Ishmael was born of the will of the flesh, and revealed Abraham’s terrible failure and weakness in trying to help God fulfil His promise to give him a son. Abraham had given up hope that Sarah would give birth to a seed. But God had promised to give Abraham a seed, and so Abraham seeks to help God keep his promise by producing a seed through Sarah’s handmaid Hagar—symbol of bondage, failure and doubt. This act of Abraham, says Paul, is illustrative of Man’s attempt to please God by the works of the Law. Hagar corresponds to the Law. Ishmael is representative of the works of the flesh.
The Galatian converts defined themselves as children of Abraham; but Paul reminds them that Abraham had two kinds of children, one by a handmaid (Hagar), and one by a freewoman (Sarah). Those who desire to live under the Law, says Paul, are children of Hagar, while those who live in Christ are children of Sarah.
Hagar’s children go back to Sinai, while Sarah’s belong to the new covenant. These two women illustrate for him the old and new covenant. Even Abraham’s relationship with Sarah was different from his relationship with Hagar; therefore, only the children of the new covenant will be full heirs of their father Abraham. It would be shear tragedy for the Galatian believers to go back to Hagar and surrender to the Sinai covenant.
The Galatians had been talking about the Ten Commandments or some other legal system, but Paul said to them, “Tell me, you who want to be under the Law, are you not aware of what the law says?” They don’t know about the penalty imposed by the Law. They don’t present the Law in the full scope of its ministry of condemnation. If he were around today, he might have said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” It is true, the Galatians had not actually heard the Law. The giving of the Law was not cozy and beautiful, but terrifying. Notice what happened when God called Moses to Mount Sinai to give the Law: “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the LORD said to him, "Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish” (Ex. 19.16-21).
God told the people to stand back, actually to stand afar off, when He gave Moses the Law. Exodus 20.18-19 says, “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”
We cannot conceive of how holy God is. God is high and holy and lifted up, and He dwells in glory. You and I are down here making mud pies in the world, because physically we are made out of mud. We creatures walk about here on earth and have the audacity to walk contrary to the will of God! The carnal mind is enmity against God. That is man’s position in the world.
Paul says, “Listen to the Law. You haven’t even heard it yet.” It was true. The Galatians had not actually heard the Law. The giving of the Law was not beautiful and cozy, but terrifying. The Galatians were wanting to be under the Law so Paul was going to let them hear it.
The Galatians had not yet submitted to the bondage of the Law but they desired to. Paul desperately wanted to stop them and turn them back to a life under grace.