Scripture: Galatians 4:21–31
Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 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. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
This passage is an odd one in many ways. Taken on its own, it's like, "What is Paul talking about?" That is why it's always important to take passages in their broader context. What Paul's talking about here is the same thing he's been talking about throughout this letter. He's had one main message. That message is that misplaced faith leads to slavery, but faith in Christ leads to freedom.
This letter was written because the Galatians were trying to solve the problem of spiritual slavery, the problem of separation from God, by their own methods, in their own way. Instead of trusting God's plan for salvation, God's plan for freedom, they sought out another way. God had given them a way. He provided His Son, Jesus – the way, the truth, and the life. But they sought another way, another truth, and another path to life. This is something mankind has been doing all throughout history. We like to do our own thing. We go our own way placing our faith in anything but God. And where does that lead? It leads to slavery.
I may have shared this quote before, but in his book "Counterfeit Gods,” Tim Keller writes: “To live for anything else but God leads to breakdown and decay. When a fish leaves the water, which he was built for, he is not free, but dead." Freedom is a funny thing. God desires our freedom, but His idea of freedom and our idea of freedom don't always line up. We may think that freedom is the ability to do anything we want to do. Live however we want, with no restrictions.
This may seem like an odd question, but is water a restriction to fish? Yes and no. Geographically, there are places fish can't go because of the "restriction" of water. But what those fish may or may not know is that even if they managed to leave the water to try getting to some other place, they would die on the way. They could not survive without the water. Why is that? Because they were made for the water, in water they find life. In a similar manner, humanity was made for God. In God we find true life, true joy, and true freedom.
Freedom, biblically speaking, is living the lives we were made to live, living in the bliss of intimate, loving relationship with God. That's freedom while slavery is separation from God, which is brought about by sin. Sin, and the slavery that comes with it, keeps us from being who we were made to be.
Paul in Galatians 4 is writing to professing Christians. He's writing to those who, by all appearances at least, had been set free from slavery, been united with Christ. Yet they were beginning to place their faith not in Christ alone but in Christ and their own obedience to the Law. Their faith was being misplaced.
I think many of us struggle in a similar way to the Galatians in that we put too much faith in our own performance. We seek rest not in Christ's accomplishments but in our own. Others of us, maybe that's not our struggle, but we misplace our faith in a different way. We put our faith in that dream of obtaining "the good life," whatever that means to us. Maybe we dream of money, material things, a perfect marriage, perfect kids. We may have our faith in Christ, sure, but it’s in Christ and these other things. It's not wrong to have some level of desire for these things; what is wrong is when our hopes and dreams are tied up in these things rather than being tied up in Christ. This is misplaced faith, and misplaced faith leads to slavery.
As we see in the Galatians' example, church people are just as capable of remaining in slavery as non-church people. God knows this, therefore, through Paul, He points us to an Old Testament example to help us see the difference between living in freedom and living in slavery. This is how he starts, in verse 21:
Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.
Back in the book of Genesis, we learn that Abraham had been given a promise that God would multiply his descendants. The problem, though, was that Abraham didn't have any descendants. He and Sarah, his wife, had grown old, and they had no children. So rather than trusting God to work a miracle, they instead took things into their own hands. Abraham took his servant, Hagar, as a second wife, and she became pregnant with a child named Ishmael. About 14 years later, God again reiterates His promise to multiply Abraham's offspring – but He's going to do it in His own way, not Abraham's way. He's going to give Abraham and Sarah a child of their own who would end up being named Isaac. Picking up in verse 24, Paul says:
Galatians 4:24 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. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
Hagar is said to correspond with the present Jerusalem, while Sarah corresponds with the Jerusalem above. Paul doesn't name the name Sarah, but it's pretty clear who he's referring to.
Jerusalem, in Paul's day, was made up of a lot of religious people who did not know God. They had a reputation for knowing God. They memorized the Law, sought to follow the Law, and they knew of God through the Law, but they did not know God. Paul equates these people with those who were born "according to the flesh." He's saying that, like Ishmael, their lives were rooted in human effort. They were men and women taking things into their own hands rather than trusting God. It makes sense, then, that Paul would call Hagar Mount Sinai. Sinai is where God gave Moses the Law, and in this allegory, Hagar and Ishmael correspond to the people who were putting their faith in the Law, in their obedience to the Law. So these people, with their misplaced faith, they are "the present Jerusalem."
The Jerusalem above, however, is the group of people who truly did know God, who were joined with God, who were free in God – and they were all of those things because their faith was in Christ. These are Christians Paul's talking about. The present Jerusalem was doing things their own way, taking matters into their own hands. While the Jerusalem above put their faith in the promise and work of God.
Now, what's really interesting about this comparison is that both of these groups of people are called Jerusalem. They're very different, but both are named Jerusalem. One is the true Jerusalem, the Jerusalem above, while the other is not. And this is where we come in. Let's bring this back to our context today. There are many, many people in the world who bear the name "Christian" but do not know God. So many people live works-based lives, they are part of a church, they serve in the church, and do good things, yet they're not truly free. In their heart of hearts, they have not yet believed the gospel, so they don't know the God of the gospel. They know of Him, but they don't know Him. Why is that? Why does this happen?
There can be a number of reasons. In many cases, though, it's because these people have rejected God's Lordship in their lives. Jesus said in Luke 9, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." So many in the church want to save their lives, meaning they want to retain control of their lives, and in so doing they forfeit the true life that's found in Christ. They remain slaves, rejecting the freedom they could have in Jesus.
Christ doesn't call us to follow Him so He can make our lives miserable. He calls us to follow Him because following Him is what we were made for; it's the only way of real freedom. Proverbs 14:12 says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death." We can't trust ourselves to always know what's right. But we can trust Him; we can follow Him down the path that leads to life.
One stumbling block we might sometimes encounter is that due to the doctrine of election, we might think that the reason someone isn't saved is that God doesn't want them to be saved, so He hasn't chosen them to be saved. But Scripture so clearly refutes that idea. Listen to what God says in Ezekiel 18:23:
Ezekiel 18:23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
You see God's heart there. God wants you, wants us, to turn from our way and live. He wants us to turn from slavery and be free.
One question that came to mind as I was thinking through these things was what about Hagar and Ishmael? I know Paul's just using them allegorically here, but did God desire their freedom too? And the answer is yes. We don't have time to turn there, but Genesis 21 shows us God's compassion toward Hagar and Ishmael. He sends an angel to comfort them. God Himself was with them, and took care of them. In fact, He makes a new promise to Hagar herself that He will make a great nation out of Ishmael too. They're cared for, they're loved. We see all throughout the gospels Jesus' compassion toward other people, including those who were "the present Jerusalem." One such place is in:
Luke 13:34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Some may hear the gospel message, of God's love, of forgiveness and grace, and think, "There's too much working against me. I can't be loved by God. You don't know what I've done. You don't know my past, who I am." But to those people I would say, consider the words of Jesus which I just read. Even for those people who killed the prophets, who stoned the messengers God had sent, still Christ has the greatest love for these people. Still He longs to draw them close. But they were not willing. Are you willing? It's not about who you are; it's about who God is. It's about the promise God has made.
I think it's interesting how God chooses not to reference Sarah's name here, but He does bring to our attention to one detail about Sarah: that she was barren. And yet, despite her barrenness, through the promise and work of God she gave birth to a child. This is why verse 27 says:
Galatians 4:27 For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.”
In other words, whatever your barrenness, meaning whatever is causing you to lose hope, whatever that thing is that you think disqualifies you from receiving God's promise, God's grace, God, is not limited by those things. He desires your freedom, He desires that you live. This is the heart of God toward humanity. Yes we're all mess-ups who seek freedom in all the wrong places. We're like fish thinking we'll find freedom outside the water when all that awaits us is death. But this is why Jesus came. He came so that, no matter how caught up in sin and slavery mankind is, there could still be a way of freedom.
On the cross, Jesus endured being forsaken by God so that we would never have to. He endured the punishment for sin so that we would never have to. In John 10:9–10, Jesus says: "I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved...The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." On the cross He endured death, so that we could have life and have it abundantly.
Faith in Christ leads to freedom, while misplaced faith – faith in yourself, in others, in material goods, or whatever it may be – misplaced faith leads to slavery.
Abraham discovered this. He tried taking things into his own hands, and he made a mess of things. But the good news is that even for Abraham, thousands of years ago, God's promises rested not on him, but on Christ.
When God said that He would bless Abraham, that his offspring would be multiplied as the stars of heaven, and as the sand on the seashore, He wasn't just talking about the physical nation of Israel. God did multiply the physical nation of Israel. But the bigger picture of what God was doing is that He was at work creating a new nation – a Jerusalem Above – from among all the nations, from all peoples. And He would do that through a descendant of Abraham: the Lord Jesus Christ. We learn from the gospel of Matthew that forty-two generations after Abraham, his great, great, great, great, (and many more greats) grandson was a boy named Jesus, who would become a man named Jesus, who would save the world and bring it freedom.
One question I would ask you to consider today is: has your faith led you to freedom? Meaning, has it led you to life and joy in knowing God? Not that anything will be perfect here and now. This world is broken, and it longs to be made new, just as we long to be made new. Life won't be perfect here, but there is still freedom here. There is still life and joy in knowing and following Christ. And if you don't know that freedom, if you haven't been walking in that freedom maybe just lately or maybe ever, then maybe your faith hasn't been in Christ alone. Maybe it's been placed in something else lately.
It's an important thing to consider because God doesn't want us to live in misery. He wants us to have the joy of knowing Him, living the lives we were made to live. Like I said earlier, we can wrongly place our faith in a vast number of things. And we can't talk about them all this morning. But I do want to touch briefly on just one, before we close. It's one that's related to the last few verses of this passage:
Galatians 4:28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
Typically when we think about the idea of persecution, we think of it coming from those outside the church. But what Paul says here, and what he so frequently experienced in his life, is that persecution can also come from inside the church. It can, and sometimes does, come through those who profess Christ. And who may very well be true Christians – they're just not living like Christians in the way they relate to you.
I wanted to highlight this in the context of us evaluating where we put our faith, because I think too often we can put too much of our faith in other people – to the point that it causes us to lose faith in Christ. Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't trust each other. That's not what I'm talking about when I say we put too much faith in others. Trust is a key component of loving relationships, we need that. But sometimes – I've seen this in myself and in others – sometimes we can start to lose faith in Christ because the people who bear Christ's name can live in very anti-Christian ways. That may come through persecution, as Paul references, or it may come through professing Christians just living sinfully, living unchanged lives.
For example, we might see other professing Christians have a total lack of love toward other people, and that leads us to lose faith in Christ's love. Or we see professing Christians misuse Scripture to justify some horrific evil, and that leads us to lose faith in the goodness and truth of Christ's Word. It is a sad reality, but the people who bear Christ's name can sometimes be the worst representatives of Christ. Not all the time, praise God, but sometimes. And in light of that I want to urge you, as I urge myself: don't let a misplaced faith in others lead you to lose faith in Jesus.
Christians are supposed to represent Christ, to show the world who He is. But we all fail in that to varying degrees. So we need to be sure that our faith is fully in Christ Himself, not in people who may or may not represent Him well.
Just as Jesus was persecuted by religious people, so might we be. Just as He had people try to convince Him why their lack of love for others was okay, just as He had people twist Scripture and use it against Him, so will we experience those things today. But remember this: God remains faithful. His promises remain true. He remains who He is. Who He is, is what we must cling to. Who God is, is everything to us. He's everything.
So don't lose heart. Don't lose heart, no matter what other people may do. Misplaced faith leads to slavery, it leads to misery, and it leads to death. But faith in Jesus leads to freedom, because it leads us straight into the embrace of the one we were made for.