Pastor Murray McLellan

Galatians 4:17-31

 

galatians-mclellanCommentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

This is the eleventh message in a series of studies by pastor Murray McClellan. It is our prayer that you are blessed through his labors in God’s Word.

 

Galatians 4:17-31

They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them.  But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you.  My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you, I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you.
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons:  the one be a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.  But he who was born of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic.  For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar – for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children – but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.   For it is written: ‘Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear!  Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor!  For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.’    Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.  But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.  Nevertheless what does the Scripture say?  ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.’  So then, brethren, we are not of the bondwoman but of the free. 

How often do we see, in God’s working out His eternal purposes, God’s divine order – “first that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual.” (1 Cor. 15:46)  From the beginning, we see God Himself and for His own glory make a physical creation.  He spoke and it was done.  “Let there  be light, and there was light!”  Afterward we see a spiritual reality unfold.  God, by Himself and for His own glory has established a new creation in Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:15, 2 Cor. 5:17).  He has spoken light into our dark hearts (2 Cor. 4:6) and  He has separated light from darkness.  He has called out a people for His name and made them children of light; that these brands plucked from the fire may proclaim the praises of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

There are children of the day and children of the night.

If you are a child of the day, praise His name forever with zeal and great devotion for we who sat in darkness have seen a great Light.  By the grace of God, He has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.  He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the Kingdom of the Son of His love.  (Col. 1:12-13)  Jesus Christ is that true light.  We who are children of light are to walk as children of light.  What communion has light with darkness?   It is this separation of the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ from the darkness of the fleshly attainments of Mt. Sinai, that Paul is calling for.  There is a great gulf fixed between the two that only Jesus Christ can CROSS!   (Play on words intended!)

Throughout God’s physical creation and its unfolding history, God has decreed physical events to correspond and foreshadow the great spiritual reality He had decreed to be fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ.  As we have described above, there is first the physical creation and after, the new creation in Christ.  There is the physical sabbath, to be followed by the spiritual sabbath rest in Christ.  There was the first natural ark , the place of refuge for 8 souls who found grace in the eyes of the Lord.  This was followed many years later by the Lord Himself who is the ark of refuge for souls who have found grace in the eyes of the Lord (1 Peter 3:20-21).  Then as we reach the time of Abraham, there is a promised seed.  First comes the natural – Isaac, the son of promise.  Afterwards comes the spiritual – Jesus Christ the Son of promise!  (Gal. 3:16)    It is to this natural/spiritual pattern that Paul hits home the great contrast of the flesh and promise – the work of men and the work of God – in this portion of his epistle, as he continues to exalt the grace of God and His God-glorifying gospel centered in the Lord Jesus Christ.   Let’s pick it up where we left off.

 They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them.  But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you.  My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you, I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you. (v. 17-20)

The Judaizers were not really interested in the Galatians eternal well-being.  They “court” the Galatians not for the good of the Galatians but for their self-exaltation.  The people are just a notch in their belt.  These false teachers of a false gospel “do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ. but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.” (Rom. 16:18)  One of the unfortunate things that happens when false teachers such as these get their legalistic doctrines into a local assembly of believers, is that the church’s zeal for evangelism and the joy of freedom is lost.  The focus becomes on “themselves” and the law.  The simple ones begin to look to the teachers instead of Christ for their marching orders.

Zeal is a good and necessary part of the Christian life.  However, our zeal is to be directed towards the Lord of hosts Himself and the glory He is to receive.  We are to be mindful of the things of God, not the things of men.

Paul cannot but have doubts about anyone who would turn to the law after seemingly understanding the gospel of grace.   He travailed greatly (like a woman in childbirth) in bringing them the true gospel.  Paul had cried out to God for their souls and they had made a profession of faith.  Now Paul has to wonder if they were ever really born  from above and if he needs to labor again for their birth.

Paul is not and will not be satisfied “until Christ is formed in” them.  The false teachers were self-seeking and wanted the prestige of numbers and followers who would feed  and stroke their egos.  Paul, as a true preacher, longed that Christ be formed in them.  His desire is that Christ would be worshiped and glorified – that  it would be the Head, the Lord, to whom they would be submitted.  A true shepherd is not satisfied with people attending all the meetings or even hearing and affirming all his words.  No, the one seeking God’s glory, and loving his neighbor as himself, is not satisfied until he sees Christ manifest in your life.  Paul does not have his eye on prestige and position.  He has and continues to be prepared to sacrifice himself for them – to direct them to wholly look to and rest in Jesus Christ.  Paul is not interested in developing followers of him but beholders and followers of Christ.   May Jesus increase and all his preachers become less!

Paul’s great concern in his “little children,”  is whether they are children of the flesh or children of promise.

 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons:  the one be a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.  But he who was born of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. (v. 21-24)

Once again Paul is going to pick up the theme of Abraham and his descendants.
First he questions their understanding of the law (the old covenant).  He knows that if they really understood the law, they would not be so eager to come under this ministry of condemantion!

Abraham had two sons that become the perfect foundational picture for Paul to illustrate his point.   Though both are sons of Abraham, there is a big difference between the two.  One “was born according to the flesh” and the other was born according to the Spirit.  These two, in Paul’s argument,  represent those who live by the law (works and flesh – depending upon themselves) and those who live by faith (promise and power of God – depending fully on God).

Flesh can do what Abraham did with Hagar (see Gen. 15-22 for the historical account).  To produce an “Ishmael” is within Abraham’s natural ability.  However, flesh cannot fulfill the promise of God to have the aged and barren Sarah bear Abraham a son.  God alone could fulfill such a promise.  Believe Him!

These two births are symbolic.  Anyone who attempts to enter into the blessing of God through his own ability and nature is represented by the birth of Ishmael.  Ishmael is a product of the flesh.  Isaac, the son of promise, however, was born through God’s power and ability and nature.

 For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar – for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. (v. 24b-25)

These two births contrast the two covenants.  The old covenant which was established at Mt. Sinai with the house of Israel was a covenant of works.  Blessings in this covenant were conditioned upon perfect and complete obedience.  God spoke on Mt. Sinai, ‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special  treasure to Me above all people.” (Ex. 19:5)  This covenant, based on externals was to be a tutor to lead to Christ, as we have looked at earlier.  Through the new covenant in Christ, one enters into the blessings through faith in the one Israelite who kept the first covenant and earned the blessings – Jesus Christ.  He has done it, we believe.

Going to Mt. Sinai (the works of the law) to be blessed by God is like going to Arabia (the desert) to quench my thirst.  It is attempting to find satisfaction and peace with God through my own efforts.  Stop looking to that old waterskin.  It is used up (Gen. 21:14-21).  Look unto God, who alone can cause a well of water to spring up in the wilderness!

Hagar is a slave and thus all her children are born into bondage.  Trying to bring about the blessing of God through the law and your own efforts only brings forth fruits of bondage and condemnation.   This is what Paul states corresponds to natural “Jerusalem which now is.”  Many of natural Israel continue to be justified by the law.  Thus natural Israel and her children are in bondage.  Though they may declare, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been in bondage to anyone.” (John 8:33) Yet, Jesus is clear – “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.  And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever.  Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”  (John 8:34-36)   These ones seeeking to establish their own righteousness have not submitted to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3).

 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (v. 26)

The word “but” has to be one of the most precious words in all the scriptures.  “But God!”  But for God who has established another Jerusalem.  “The Jerusalem above” are the people of God who are born from above.  These heavenly citizens are free from sin and death and hell.  This is free indeed!  This same contrast is brought out in Heb. 12:18-24!  We who are heavenly citizens have been born from above.  We are sons and not strangers.  “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6)   To be free, we must be miraculously born from above.  Freedom will never come about by doing something that we can accomplish in ourselves by the effort of our own flesh.

 For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear!  Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor!  For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.”   Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.  But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. (v. 27-29)

You who are of faith, can break forth and shout and laugh along with Sarah.  Though we were dead, yet He has made us alive together with Christ!  We’ve been born from above.  What a miraculous birth!   Glory to God, who alone has done this and is it not marvelous in our eyes?  We are born into Abraham’s family “as a result of promise, not by physical lineage or human effort.  John the Baptist rightly declared, “and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones’.”  (Matt. 3:9)   God has indeed done this.  He has taken Jewish and Gentile stones and granted them life that these living stones might be built up to God a spiritual household.  Each one of these stones given life that they might cry out to God, “Abba, Father!”

In the new covenant, there has been born more children to Abraham than he ever had mere natural descendants.  As John has foreseen: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  (Rev. 7:9-10).

Even as Ishmael mocked Isaac, so too, will legalistic religionists mock the true Christians.  Paul says to the persecuted saints in Thessalonica, ‘They “killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.”  That makes me shudder.  Oh how we need to make no compromise with a false, fleshly “gospel”.

 Nevertheless what does the Scripture say?  “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.'” So then, brethren, we are not of the bondwoman but of the free. (v. 30-31)

Get rid of the slave woman and her son.  (i.e. Expel the Judaizers and their false teaching from your midst!)  For their teaching leads to an ultimate casting out by God!  (See Matt. 7:22-23 and Matt. 25:41).

We’re not Hagar’s children, we are free!  We rejoice in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of promise – accepted as sons in Him by the sovereign grace of a merciful God.  There is no greater motive for holy living than the grace of God.  Such grace to hell-deserving sinners does not make me want to go out and live carelessly.  Does it you?  In truth, does it not make us fall down on our faces before our gracious Lord and in trembling humility and bowed submission, we ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”   We are free.  Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God.  Let us now glorify God and walk in the light that never was possible before when we were in darkness and were lovers of darkness.  Our hearts are free.  We long for righteousness.  We long for our Lord’s glory and honor.  We continually cry out, “The Lord be magnified!”

May we never take our eyes off of Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith!   Let us proclaim the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light!

~ Murray

 

Murray McLellan

Murray is the lead church planter and Bible teacher at Grace Fellowship Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife Cheryl have labored in the Gospel for many years despite the many discouragements along the way. Our brother is associated with “InDepth Studies”, the Acts 29 network of church planters, and more recently the uniquely Canadian C2C church planting network. In new covenant circles Murray is a long time contributor to new covenant thought and discussion.