A Study of Galatians 4:21-26
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he [who was] of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman [was] by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. [Gal 4:21-26]
Here Paul goes back again to Abraham written in “the law”, or the books of Moses known to the Jews as the Torah. He is here making a point for them to hear what the law says, and in this regard, he is using this event in Abraham’s life to make a point. He calls it here an allegory.
Paul’s use of this real historical event in Abraham’s life to relate this spiritual truth is Holy Spirit inspired. (2Tim 3:16) He has the sanction of the Holy Spirit to do so. He also never says that these things did not actually happen and really mean something else, but he is stating here that these things tell another story as well. When the so-called church fathers began to allegorize scripture and “spiritualize” the words of the prophets, it was the wrong use of allegory. Paul had the Spirit’s sanction to do so. They did not. He never claimed that the words of scripture meant something that they did not, and did not mean what they said. This allegory is a real historical event that also tells another story.
That Abraham had two sons is a historical event. Abraham and Sarah (Abram and Sarai at the time) thought they would help God out in keeping His promise. It did not start out well.
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name [was] Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong [be] upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee. But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid [is] in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face. [Gen 16:1-6]
Now the LORD had promised Abram an heir, one that would come forth out of his own bowels (from himself, his actual son, his flesh and blood). (Gen 15:4) That it did not happen immediately seems to have caused them to think that they needed to step in and help. This may be similar to what the Galatian believers were experiencing regarding their “perfection” (Gal 3:3). The false apostles may have convinced them that they needed to help God out in their sanctification. Maybe they thought this among themselves first and then the false apostles came in and convinced them. Whichever is the case, Paul is teaching from the law (the Torah) that to go to fleshly means to help God fulfill His promises will not yield good results. The LORD reconfirmed to Abraham that He would indeed fulfill His promise:
And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, [and] with his seed after him. [Gen 17:19]
The LORD’s work would be completed by Him without intervention. Abraham’s seed would be a great nation. In Isaac shall thy seed be called. [Gen 21:12]
So now Paul uses this to speak of liberty in Christ vs. bondage to the law. Now the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. [Rom 7:12] The problem though, is that the law gave a command to a people who were carnal, sold under sin (Rom 7:14). Israel as a nation, and the people individually, proved time and again that they were also the sons of Adam and as such unable to keep the law. The law brings bondage to all of us because we are unable to keep it, and it becomes the law of sin and death. It carries with it a curse. But praise God that
[There is] therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. [Rom 8:1-4]
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed [is] every one that hangeth on a tree: [Gal 3:13]
For Christ [is] the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. [Rom 10:4]
The first covenant in our passage is the law, given by God through Moses to the Israelites. This is the one given from Mount Sinai and Paul here wants us to think about Hagar the slave when we think of this covenant. This covenant from Sinai “gendereth”, or gives birth to bondage. The Jerusalem “which now is” refers to the Jewish religion as such, and the city itself is witness of that. That city has been in bondage since they were carried away to Babylon. In John 8:33, the Jews who seemingly believed on the Lord Jesus had a real problem with Him saying that they would be set free. They claimed that they were Abraham’s seed, and that as such they were never in bondage to anyone. Yet they were under gentile rule even then. At this late date (2016) the “sovereign” nation of Israel created by the U.N. cannot even protect its own people without condemnation from just about all of the United Nations. Jerusalem today is still in bondage.
But Jerusalem which is above, the city of Abraham’s heirs according to the promise is free. This “mother of us all” is free, and gives birth to free children. This seems to be a figurative city to contrast the literal Jerusalem that now is. There will be a literal new Jerusalem someday, as described in Revelation 21:2.
The other covenant is that which is in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (1Cor 11:25, Mat 26:28) and this covenant gives birth to freedom. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. [Jhn 8:36]
There is indeed also a new covenant that God will make with Israel, as mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:22-32. This new covenant will be fulfilled to the houses of Israel and Judah. This new covenant can only be fulfilled on the basis of the death of Christ for sin. The new covenant that is in Christ’s blood now blesses those that have put their faith in Him because of God’s grace. This is true whether they are Jew or Gentile.
And speaking of this new covenant (or testament), the work of the law is again contrasted to the work of the spirit in context of this new covenant:
Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. [2Co 3:6]
Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord [is], there [is] liberty. [2Co 3:17]
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. [Gal 5:1]
Charles Miller View All
Husband, father, engineer...Enjoys fishing, archery, guitar, running, and lifting, but most of all reading and studying God's Word.
Since the Jerusalem that “now is” is real, cannot we believe that the Jerusalem which is above, that which is in heaven and will come down from heaven, is also real and not figurative?
Good point that both Jews and Gentiles are under the New Covenant even as Paul wrote in II Corinthians 3.
I can’t think of any other way to think about the Jerusalem which is above other than it being real, just like the Jerusalem that now is. This is the same as the prophetic Scriptures that spoke of the first coming of our Lord were all fulfilled as written, so we can expect that the Scriptures not yet fulfilled will still be fulfilled as written. I think sometimes that when people try to place a “spiritual” meaning (whatever that may mean), or as I have heard some say, that we have to interpret these “Christological”, rather than literal, that they are doing the same thing that Abraham and Sarah did, and that is to try and help God out with keeping His word. The Lord told the disciples on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection that they were slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken about His suffering and then entering in to His glory. Too many have been and are still slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken as well. Only now they have a hard time believing the entering in to His glory part as it is written.