Studies in Galatians: 4:21-31

There are two types of people in the world: slave and free. That’s how Paul understand the dividing line of humanity. He is speaking, of course, spiritually, as Galatians chapter 4 reveals. What was true of the Galatians is true of all men, we are either slaves of religion or free in Christ.

Paul wraps up some major threads in this section of chapter 4 as he further develops his argument with the Judaizers. He makes a direct appeal to them in verse 21: Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? As he has done in previous passages, so here Paul is going to use the law they believe to expose the futility of their own thinking about that law. The law, he will argue, does not agree with them but with Paul. The “law,” here, refers essentially to the Old Covenant, and Paul turns specific attention to the identification of the “children of Abraham.” Israel argued for their relationship with God based on their ethnic identity and birth into the Covenant family. But Paul points out that Abraham had two sons. He uses the story of Abarham’s two sons, then, as an allegory (v. 24) to distinguish between those who are the true children of Abraham.

Genesis 16 records the story which Paul references. Abram was 90 years old and his wife Sarai was barren. So, in order to give her husband an heir, Saria insisted that Abram take her maidservant Hagar and conceive a child. Now, God had already promised Abram a son by his wife, but Abram took Hagar and acted out of disbelief in God’s promise. He wanted a greater guarantee and so Hagar bore him a son, and he called him Ishmael. Later on God fulfilled His word and Sarai became pregnant with their son Isaac. The two boys were both sons of Abraham, but God stated that since Isaac was the child of promise he alone would be the true heir. The distinction is important, and as Israel had descended from Isaac they believed themselves the true children of Abraham. What Paul does next, however, is to completely reverse their understanding and their identity.

Paul associates the children of Israel not with the Isaac but with Ishmael, with slavery. He states:

Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

We can only imagine how shocking, how scandalous these words must have seemed to the Judaizers. Such words are still a shock and horror to religious people. For, when we say to the legalistic and to the religious that they are slaves to their religion, not free in Christ they cannot fathom what we mean. In far too many minds religion, our rituals and practices are what make us righteous. It is our commitment to the law that saves us, they argue. But Paul says the exact opposite here in Galatians: your reliance on the law for salvation makes you a slave.

Paul has already exposed the impotence of law-keeping for salvation. He is not, of course, talking about the importance of obeying the law, but poking holes in reliance on the law for salvation. We ought all to strive to obey the law, and yet our obedience does not earn us brownie points with God. It does not save us. The religious person cannot be saved by their law keeping, they need an external savior. They will remain slaves so long as they depend on the law to do what it cannot do. They will find freedom only in submission to Christ’s saving work on their behalf.

In the remaining verses of chapter 4 Paul turns his attention to the true children of Abraham, those who are free in Christ. He says to the Galatians that they, like Abram, ought to drive out the “slave woman” from among them (v. 30). He means that they shouldn’t listen and associate with the Judaizers. Those who are free in Christ should never again submit themselves to a yoke of slavery. The law has its place in the life of the believer, but it’s not the place the Judaizers assign it. If they are free then these Galatians ought to live as free.

Religion is always slavery! Abraham acted with faith in himself, and it led to disobedience and chaos. The Judaizers were doing the same. Paul urges the Galatians, and all of us, to turn from ourselves to the only hope we have: Jesus Christ. Do not trust in your good deeds, your obedience to the law, your personal faithfulness. Trust in Christ! Religion is slavery; Jesus is freedom!

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