This section is addressed to those “who want to be under the law.” In the context of the letter to the Galatians, this would mean those Galatians who had fallen under the influence of the false teachers, often called Judaizers. In our day it could be addressed to many who are legalistic or who follow various kinds of scripture twisters, who seek to put people back under the law. This includes a whole class of people that assume that the way to God is by the observance of various rules and/or rituals. It also includes those who think that their relationship with God “depends on a strict adherence to regulations, traditions and ceremonies. They are in bondage to them” (Stott).
Paul exposes the inconsistency of their position. “You want to be under the law? Really now, have you ever paid attention to what the law says?” (Observe the shift in Paul’s use of the word law from covenant to the Scriptures.) There are three stages in his argument in this passage.
I. The first stage: historical (4:22-23)
Observation: The early church used and knew the Old Testament Scriptures. The New Testament Scriptures were in the process of being written and distributed. Therefore, the Old Testament Scriptures were the Bible, along with the teachings of the apostles and new covenant prophets. So then, how much do you use and know the Old Testament Scriptures?
A. Paul gives an argument that is rooted in Old Testament history.
1. The facts of history were that God had made a covenant with Abraham and that the Jews were descended from him. However, the Jews (cf. John 8:1-59) and the false teachers afflicting the Galatians insisted on an interpretation of those facts that the Scripture would not allow. Therefore, Paul has to refute their erroneous interpretation.
Illustration: Rock formations and dinosaur bones are facts of science. But we disagree with the evolutionist’s interpretation of those facts. History, science, theology, and every area of knowledge suffer when wrong interpretations are allowed to go unchallenged. For an example of good historical interpretation, read Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, who is unafraid to challenge all ‘politically correct’ and postmodern views. Besides, it will be some good summer reading to stimulate your brain.
2. The point of Paul’s argument is that the blessing promised to Abraham comes only to his spiritual speed (believers in Jesus Christ), as he has already demonstrated.
B. Consider two facts from Old Testament history about Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
1. They were born of different mothers. Ishmael’s mother Hagar was a slave; Isaac’s mother Sarah was free.
2. They were born in different ways. Ishmael was born in the ordinary way—an act of human flesh. Isaac was born because of God’s promise overcoming human inability. His birth required a special act of God.
Point: No one could seriously dispute these facts. But the false teachers and the Galatians had not considered the true way to apply them, as Paul proceeds to do by the Holy Spirit.
II. The second stage: figurative (4:24-27)
A. The nature of the argument is figurative or allegorical.
1. What does this mean? This is commonly called typology: “a narrative from OT history is interpreted in terms of the new covenant, or (to put it the other way around) an aspect of the new covenant is presented in terms of an OT narrative. Typology presupposes that salvation-history displays a recurring pattern of divine action…” (Bruce).
Illustration: Christ as our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:9)
2. Note well that Paul does not tamper with the historical nature of the text. Instead, he uses the historical elements to set forth spiritual truth.
B. There are two covenants that regulate God’s relationship with people. The first was the law or old covenant given at Sinai, and the second is the new or better covenant. Notice the proper terms that we should use in talking about these covenants. Some teachers called covenant theologians hopelessly confuse the subject when they interchange biblical terms like old and new covenants with two covenants that they make up, which they call the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. For this reason, you must be very cautious and discerning when you read any Presbyterian or Reformed writers on various sections of the Scriptures like this section of Galatians or Genesis 1-3.
1. Hagar represents the law or old covenant. Notice the clear identification with the covenant made at Sinai. This covenant produces children with the status of slaves. A slave mother cannot do anything but bear children who are slaves. Paul identifies this covenant with the then present capital city of Jerusalem. (Capital cities often represent whole nations, in human language and biblical teaching, cf. Mi 1:5). This must have completely shocked Paul’s opponents! No one could look to the earthly Jerusalem for freedom, since it was in bondage. To go back to the law would be to enslave oneself.
2. Sarah represents the new covenant. The Jerusalem above (the New Jerusalem) is (and will be) our capital city. Sarah’s children are free. The status of the new covenant believer is one of liberty, since we are justified by faith and placed as adult sons in God’s family. We are free to serve the living God. The quotation from Is 54:1 is applied to the new covenant people, the church. Though the natural mother, Hagar, appeared at first to be more fruitful at first (the children of the law), Sarah, the mother of the promise, has produced more children by the Spirit (the children of the promise).
Apply: Much of the Christian life involves trusting God to work by the Spirit, instead of trying to make things happen by the flesh (human effort). People can strive by the law to be pious and become very outwardly moral. But true godliness is produced only by the Spirit using the good news of Jesus Christ.
III. The third stage: personal application (4:28-31)
A. As Isaac was mocked by Ishmael, so the sons of natural religion persecute the sons of supernatural Christianity.
1. Ishmael laughed at Isaac, and that laugh was indicative of his attitude toward Isaac. There is enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (cf. Gen 3).
2. Those with a religion of natural principles often lead the way in persecuting those who worship God in spirit and in truth. For example, who sought to kill Christ? The Pharisees and Sadducees. Who stirred up hostility against Paul? Those zealous for the law. Who persecuted believers during the Reformation? The established church.
B. As Ishmael was cast out and Isaac received the inheritance, so those who rely on the law are cast out and believers in Jesus Christ inherit God’s blessing.
1. Again, this must have shocked the Galatians! To get involved with the law covenant would not give them a place among God’s people, as the false teachers misled them. Instead, it would put them in the position of being cast-offs.
2. The promises made to Abraham are fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, and so those who are in Christ by faith inherit every blessing promised by God. We are right with God, adult sons and heirs, and have received the Holy Spirit.
3. What is a church? A church is not a place that you go to, but it is a people, who are born by the power of the Holy Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
Quote: “The religion of Ishmael is a religion of nature, of what man can do by himself without any special intervention of God. But the religion of Isaac is a religion of grace, of what God has done and does, a religion of divine initiative and divine intervention, for Isaac was born supernaturally through a divine promise” (Stott).
Quote: “Wherefore, whenever thou who believest in Jesus, dost hear the law in its thundering and lightning fits, as if it would burn up heaven and earth, then say thou, I am freed from this law, these thunderings have nothing to do with my soul; nay, even this law, while it thus thunders and roars, it doth both allow and approve of my righteousness. I know that Hagar would sometimes be domineering and high, even in Sarah’s house, and against her; but this she is not to be suffered to do, nay, though Sarah herself be barren; wherefore, serve it also as Sarah served her, and expel her out from thy house. My meaning is, when this law with its thundering threatenings doth attempt to lay hold on thy conscience, shut it out with a promise of grace; cry, The inn is taken up already; the Lord Jesus is here entertained, and here is no room for the law. Indeed, if it will be content with being my informer, and so lovingly leave off to judge me, I will be content, it shall be in my sight, I will also delight therein; but otherwise, I being now made upright without it, and that too with that righteousness which this law speaks well of and approveth, I may not, will not, cannot dare not make it my Saviour and judge, nor suffer it to set up its government in my conscience; for by so doing, I fall from grace, and Christ Jesus doth profit me nothing… The sum, then, of what hath been said is this—The Christian hath now nothing to do with the law, as it thundereth and burneth on Sinai, or as it bindeth the conscience to wrath and the displeasure of God for sin; for from its thus appearing, it is freed by faith in Christ.” [Bunyan, “Of the Law and a Christian”. Collected Writings, pp. 923-924]
Apply: Live as the children of the free woman, with the righteousness of Christ filling your heart with joy and peace as you trust in him. If you would be holy, remain in Christ, love Christ, trust Christ, follow Christ, and rejoice evermore in Christ!