According to the Flesh or Through the Promise
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.
Sin makes us illogical. It muddies our mind, causing us to choose things contrary to the right path. Paul highlights this lack of logic in selecting the law over Christ. This passage is difficult to understand because Paul is using allegory. He’s looking back into the Old Testament and finding the hidden meaning in this story. Hagar was an Egyptian slave of Abraham. Sarah was the rightfully married wife of Abraham. There is a stark contrast between the two sons they bear.
“According to the flesh” “Through the promise”
Old Covenant New Covenant
Mount Sinai Mount Zion
Present Jerusalem Heavenly Jerusalem
In these contrasts, Paul is showing the difference between associating ourselves with the law vs. the gospel. Hagar was part of Abraham’s house as a slave, not as a recipient of the law. Sarah, however, was Abraham’s wife, one flesh with Abraham in the promise and, as the mother of the Jewish race, the eventual recipient of the law through her progeny. It is Hagar, however, whom Paul associates with the law rather than Sarah. Why is this? Paul aims to show the spiritual reality that lies underneath our attempts to take matters into our own hands. Paul’s point is less about the persons of Sarah and Hagar, or even Isaac and Ishmael. It is more about the calamity of what results when we take the reigns of our life. When we step into the promise God has made, hurrying it along to fulfillment, we undercut the glory and birth tragedy.
Remember the story. God promises Abraham and Sarah a son. But it feels to them as if God is taking too long. Rather than patiently waiting, as they’ve been doing, they decide it’s time to help God bring about the promise. Their mindset is, as Timothy George has pointed out, “the result of the outworking of the philosophy that God helps those who help themselves.”
Paul is showing us that whenever we believe we must help God achieve his promises, we ruin them. Whenever we step in with our ability, we step out of the place of blessing and into the place of destruction. We trade freedom for slavery. We must be careful how we treat the promises of God. We may treat them like a grand potential rather than a divine grace. This isn’t a slight deviation from faith, nor is it a truer definition of it. Rather, it is the repudiation of faith altogether. It’s our prideful conclusion that God needs us to bring about his divine purpose.
But God doesn't need our assistance to fulfill his promises. Abraham and Sarah's interference resulted in Ishmael, a child of the slave, the father of the Arab race, the opponent of God’s people. When Abraham and Sarah decided they’d help God do what God said he’d do, they undercut the promise and birthed a problem.
Therefore, when we believe adding our works to God’s grace gives us extra credit on his salvation test, our perfect score turns into a failing one. The gospel, if it shows us anything at all, proves God needs only himself to fulfill the promises. The only thing we add to the salvation story is the sin that makes it necessary, not the remedy that makes it achievable.
The false teachers in Galatia stand in a long line of works righteousness soldiers. They believed the same thing as the Jews in the days of John the Baptist. When John the Baptist appeared to prepare the way for Christ, he confronted the Jews, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” The Jews rested in their lineage, thinking an association was enough to save when it took a new birth altogether. It’s not physical lineage but spiritual lineage that matters. These Jews, thinking they were Isaac’s brothers were, in fact, Ishmael's.
The truth is, we are all either an Ishmael or an Isaac. We are either a child of slavery or a child of freedom. How we relate to God’s word determines which we are. If we, like Paul, hold to the gospel message as God himself first proclaimed it in the person of Jesus Christ, we are Isaac. But if we, like the false teachers, believe the gospel needs our works to gain full righteousness before God, we are Ishmael.
In Galatians 4, however, Paul isn’t talking primarily to the false teachers who were unwilling to throw off the law for grace. He was talking to the Isaacs of the church. The emphatic word in verse 28 is you. Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. Their identification with Isaac runs the full gamut. Not only are they inheritors of the promise, but they are also persecuted by those who aren’t. Ishmael troubled Isaac when he was a child. In adulthood, his progeny continued the persecuted. All the way down to the present day, Ishmael’s pestering influence is felt. But we know how the story turned out. We know where the place of blessing resides. It’s with the child of the promise, not the slave. We can expect the same treatment from Ishmael that Isaac received. Even so, we can also expect the same treatment from God Isaac received. We can live according to the flesh or through the promise. One is less costly here on Earth, but it houses all the promises of God for eternity. The world will hate us, but God will love us. Are we ok with that?