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“Pursuing Freedom”

Galatians 4:21-31
Bob DeGray
April 22, 2018

Key Sentence

Freedom is found in pursuing only the promise and power of God.


I. Rely on divine initiative (Galatians 4:21-23)
II. Rejoice in God’s power (Galatians 4:24-27)
III. Reject what enslaves (Galatians 4:28-31)


It may not be obvious on first reading, but here in chapter 4 Galatians has begun to turn a corner from a focus on how the law is the wrong way to salvation to a focus on the freedom of those who have been saved by grace through faith. Chapters 5 and 6 have some of the most wonderful guidance for living as believers in all of the New Testament. It turns out that while the Judaizers were looking for ritual behavior change, circumcision and kosher food laws and the like, the Spirit was looking for heart level behavior change, love, joy, peace, patience and the like. Chapter 4 is the transition between the ineffective bondage of the law and the life-changing freedom of the Spirit, and here at the end of chapter 4 Paul give three practical ways to make that transition.

But he does so in one of the more obscure passages of his writings. He uses an Old Testament story from Genesis and a reference to a Isaiah in an admittedly allegorical way to address very specifically the battle of Spirit freedom and law bondage in Galatia. I’ve said for years that when we study commands or counsel from Scripture that seems to be addressed to somebody else, we can apply the principles behind the command to our lives. We find the principles that are being applied in that situation, and then apply those principles to our situation. This is an application technique. We still have to understand the text in context, but then we apply it through the principle. As a result it’s not authoritative. The text speaks with authority but the application is personal. It allows us to bring seemingly difficult texts like this one into our lives.

The three principles I’d like to distill from this text are first, the principle of relying on divine initiative in our lives. Second the principle of rejoicing in God’s power to do what we cannot. And third, the principle of rejecting anything in our lives that enslaves us to something or someone other than God. Bottom line: freedom is found in pursuing only the promise and power of God.

The passage will be more clear if we remember a Bible story before we start. Once upon a time there a man named Abraham was chosen by God to leave his homeland and move to a promised land, now known as Israel. He was given tremendous promises by God. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. In other words God intended to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and to rescue humankind from slavery to sin and death through one of those descendants. Only one problem: Abraham had no offspring. He had a wife, named Sarah, but they had been married for a long, long time and had no kids.

Rather than wait for God to solve this problem Sarah decided to solve it. She gave Abraham one of her slaves, a woman named Hagar as a concubine or slave-wife and Hagar had a son, who was named Ishmael. Later God stepped in and said “no, the son born to the slave woman doesn’t count. I’ll bless him because you love him, but I’m going to give you a son, with Sarah.” At the impossible old age of 100 for Abraham and 90 for Sarah, that happened. They named him Isaac. He was the child through whom God’s promises would be fulfilled.

But we have to take the story one step further. There are now two children in this household. Ishmael, the child of the slave woman, is older, by several years. But Isaac, the child of Abraham and Sarah, is by God’s word and the custom of the time, the heir of Abraham. Naturally the two come into conflict. We’re not told much, except that when Isaac was weaned, Ishmael laughed, apparently mocking the little heir. So Sarah asks Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. God tells Abraham to comply with this demand, but he promises Abraham he’d protect the slave woman and her son, and make Ishmael also the father of a great nation. Both of which he did.

Paul refers extensively to this story in today’s text, taking it as an allegory, and first showing us that God’s free people wait for his initiative. Galatians 4:21-23 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.

Paul doesn’t think the Galatians, despite their current allegiance to the law of Moses are being half as Biblical as they should be. In fact, from Paul’s perspective the Galatians have failed to see the heart of the Bible’s message. So Paul launches this new section with another rebuking rhetorical question: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” The Galatians are ready to embrace circumcision in order to be more faithful to Scripture, yet they fail to grasp the essence of the Bible’s teaching. Paul is going to show that the Bible is not quite so much on their side as they think.

Verse 22. Paul starts with his usual introduction to a Bible quote, “for it is written,” but instead of a quote he summarizes even more briefly the account I just told. “Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.” Paul assumes that these Galatians, whether Jewish or Gentile, had a deep knowledge of the Genesis accounts. He talks about five people in this verse; Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Hagar and Sarah, but he only mentions Abraham by name. One has to assume that either Paul, his opponents, or the Jews in Galatia had spent time bringing the Gentiles up to speed on Biblical history.

It may be that like Stephen in the book of Acts, Paul and the other Christian teachers framed the story of Christ in the larger story of God’s promises to his people. That would naturally include the account of Abraham and Isaac. But Paul’s main point is in verse 23: “the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.” Ishmael is the result of human initiative, which Paul associates with “the flesh.” Isaac is the fruit of divine initiative, which Paul associates with “promise.”

Paul sees in this story a picture of how God begets spiritual children, how a person can become a part of God’s family, the people of God. Under the old covenant you could become a part of the people of God simply by taking on circumcision and the Law, something done in the flesh, by human initiative. This is what the Judaizers are telling the Galatians: “Get circumcised, for only then will you truly be a part of the people of God!” But here’s the problem: human initiative will only get human results. You get physical change but no heart change. To change a human heart requires divine initiative.

Here’s where we, you and I, can take a principle from Paul’s teaching and apply it to our lives. True change and freedom only comes through divine initiative. We wait for God to act by trusting in the promises of God, what God himself has pledged to do for us. Spiritual freedom means relying on God’s promises, not our own ingenuity, resourcefulness, or power. In fact, the extent to which we take matters into our own hands is the extent to which we forfeit freedom in Christ. On the other hand, the extent to which we trust in God’s promises and entrust ourselves into his hands is the extent to which we walk in freedom.

How do we rely upon divine rather than human initiative? By looking to the promises of God. But how do we know we’re relying upon God’s promises? By how well we wait. Patience is our barometer of success. Todd Wilson gives a good example here. “Consider the temptation to retaliate. Someone has wronged us, and we want to get back or get even. But the Bible expressly forbids it. Why? Because vengeance is God’s job not ours. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” We don’t have to bear the burden of vengeance on our backs. Instead we lay it down at the foot of the cross and entrust ourselves to our faithful Creator, trust his divine timing and perfect justice.”

That’s a good word to me and to all of us. But waiting for God’s divine initiative can also create positive change. I remember when we bought this building, over fifteen years ago. We were discontent in Brook Center, the storefront facility we’d had for years. Like Abraham waiting for an heir, we were waiting for an opportunity to grow. But just as Abraham was too old, we were too poor.

We were tempted to try to get a mortgage to buy a piece of land. In fact we looked at several, but they were expensive. Cooler heads prevailed and we decided to wait for God to take the initiative, to reveal an opportunity. That’s when the Church of Christ put this building on the market. They could have sold it for a good price as land, but they really wanted it to go to a church and so they were willing to give us a great price. That was God’s provision. We might not even have a building, we might not even have survived under the burden of a huge mortgage taken just to get land. God had a better plan. Freedom comes as we wait for God’s divine initiative by trusting in God’s promises.

But freedom also comes, to our hearts, as we rejoice in God’s power. Verses 24-27 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27For 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.”

This is the most difficult part of today’s text, mostly because, as Paul admits, he’s using the two women and their two sons allegorically. Boice says, “This does not mean that Paul's exegesis is fanciful, as some have implied, but only that he uses the story for the sake of its major principle, which he then quite properly applies to the struggle between Judaism and Christianity.” That’s the same approach we are using today to apply this passage to our lives.

Paul says the women represent two covenants. One is the covenant of law at Mount Sinai. The other is probably the covenant of faith as represented by Abraham’s faith and the covenant of grace introduced by the death and resurrection of Jesus. But where Paul goes with this is completely at odds with what the Jews would have expected. He says that Hagar and Ishmael represent the covenant at Mount Sinai, the covenant of law. The Jews embraced the law, but despised Ishmael. Why would Paul put them together? Because Hagar was a slave. Her son would inherit the same status. In the same way Paul saw the law enslaving the Jews. He describes the law as their guardian, manager or steward until Christ came. We’ve talked for weeks about the fact that the law had positive virtues, but because of human fallenness, no one could keep from sinning, and the law then served to highlight the sin and the guilt and shame of the sinner.

Verse 25. Paul makes the further assertion that the role of Hagar in this allegory is the same as the role of Jerusalem in the lives of the Jews of Paul’s day. In other words he sees present day Jerusalem as the enforcer of the law’s slavery.

For believers he says, verse 26, there is a different Jerusalem, the ideal heavenly city that the author of Hebrews describes when talking about Abraham and Isaac. That city is mother to all believers and is free. Paul is convinced, and I think we should be too that God’s grace poured out on those who believe is true freedom, but trying to live by law or moralism is slavery.

So, to summarize the allegory: Hagar, the slave woman, stands for the law given at Sinai. Her son, Ishmael, stands for Judaism with its center at Jerusalem. On the other hand, Sarah, the free woman, stands for the new covenant enacted on Calvary through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Her son, Isaac, stands for all who become part of the heavenly Jerusalem through faith in Christ's sacrifice. Isaac and Ishmael were both sons of Abraham, but Paul is saying it’s not enough merely to claim Abraham as one's father. The allegory asks “Who is our mother and in what way were we born?” If Hagar is our mother, then we were born of purely human means and are slaves. If our mother is Sarah, then the birth was by promise, and we are free.

Verse 27 takes the whole thing one step further, and gives us a second principle to apply “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.” This is a quote from Isaiah 54, which is Isaiah ‘redemption’ section. In fact it responds to Isaiah 53 where the suffering servant redeems God’s people by bearing their sin. Isaiah pictures this rescue as a return from exile. During the exile Jerusalem was barren, but God has redeemed his people and now they rejoice. Isaiah 54 says they will became the center of the nations and a blessing to many nations. In Isaiah’s imagery the barren woman is the nation of Israel, seemingly abandoned by God, and the woman who has a husband is the other nations with their false gods. But God will bring his people back and they will rejoice.

So do you see how this fits? The principle is rejoice in God’s power. When God provides supernaturally, don’t just take it for granted, certainly don’t explain it away, but be people who rejoice to praise him. Again, Todd Wilson has a great illustration – and we’ve seen situations just like this. He says “God has a remarkable way of bringing something out of nothing. My brother and sister-in-law struggled for years with infertility. Eventually, with the help of fertility technologies, my sister-in-law was able to give birth to a pair of twins. But would you believe that just a year later she conceived again, entirely naturally. When I talked to my brother, I hardly needed to tell him that this pointed to the power of God. He was already there and understood that fully. But I did encourage him to rejoice in it. God can bring into existence that which does not exist. And what is impossible with man is possible with God.”

Our building also illustrates this principle. Those who were here will remember that we had quite a party when we moved in, a celebration of what God had done, bringing something out of nothing. Which is about what we had in the bank when the whole process started. Several times since then God has provided in unexpected ways when we’ve had nothing. Ike came through and we got a new roof on the other building, paid by insurance. Harvey has come through and we’re getting pretty much a complete rebuild on that building, paid for by generous donors and Samaritan’s Purse, and the labor of countless volunteers. But the principle is that we respond to these displays of God’s provision and his faithfulness with praise. We’re still in the midst of recovering from Harvey and we know the storm has been and will be a hardship on many people. But that’s now reason not to praise God for bringing something out of nothing.

The third principle, directly tied to what Paul’s been teaching, is to reject anything that enslaves us. Verses 28-31 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29But 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. 30But 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.” 31So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

In verse 28 Paul addresses them warmly, as brothers and sisters, and speaks of them as children of promise like Isaac. Despite the fact that Abraham and Sarah did not entirely trust in God’s promise and wait for God’s initiative, still the child of promise was eventually given. And we as believers are children of the same promise. When people put their trust in Christ they are born into God’s family and become his adopted children. Paul is assuming that his readers will see themselves as belonging with Isaac, not Ishmael, and thus accept the freedom Paul describes, not the bondage to which the Judaizers would confine them.

Verse 29. Being born according to the Spirit is a great blessing, but it is not an unmixed blessing. Paul points out that Isaac was not well treated by Ishmael. The persecution in question should probably be understood as the mockery recorded in Genesis 21:9. “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.’” The Hebrew verb that usually signifies 'laughing' can mean 'mocking'; this meaning explains Sarah's anger on an occasion meant to honor the child Isaac. Jewish tradition says there were other occasions of conflict between the two. Paul sees in this the kind of opposition that invariably occurs. Those whose lives are according to the flesh are always opposed to those born according to the Spirit.

In verse 30 Paul quotes Genesis 21:10. From Abraham's point of view both Ishmael and Isaac were his sons, and he was unhappy that Sarah had demanded that Ishmael and Hagar be sent away. But while Sarah's action may be viewed as less than kind, in the providence of God it opened the way for it to be made plain to everyone that it was Isaac and not Ishmael whose descendants were to be the people of God. Ishmael would indeed be the ancestor of a people, but those of Abraham's descendants in whom the divine purpose would be fulfilled were to be those descended from Isaac.

But remember, this is an allegory. So what Paul is really saying is don’t embrace the Old Testament law with its inevitable enslavement and imprisonment. The reason Paul gives here for rejecting the law of Sinai is that the inheritance we’ve talked about for the last several weeks, this adoption into God’s family, is not through the law and the flesh but through the promise and the Spirit. Believers in Jesus, verser 31, are not children of the slave woman but of the free one. Christians are born to be free. Freedom from the bondage which the apostle saw in keeping all the commandments in the law meant a great deal, and Paul wants his readers to find that liberty.

Barclay makes the point that anyone who makes law central 'is in the position of a slave; all his life he is seeking to satisfy his master the law'. But when grace is central, the person 'has made love his dominant principle ... it will be the power of that love and not the constraint of law that keeps us right; and love is always more powerful than law.' Paul is going to address this for the next two chapters. In fact chapter 5, verse 1 is both conclusion and transition, and we ought to read it before we close: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Freedom is found in pursuing only the promise and power of God.

But to wait for God to initiate the fulfillment of his promises and to rejoice in seeing him we’ve got to get beyond enslavement to other things. We’ve talked about this a lot in the last few weeks, these idols and addictions. These are things like alcohol and drugs to be sure, but also anger and lust, bitterness and pride, selfishness and greed, materialism and comfort, and all kinds of brokenness. These things enslave, and it is for freedom from these things that Christ has set us free. Moreover it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to walk in this freedom. Paul is going to tell us so much about that in these next few chapters, and I’m not going to give that away. But I want to close with a verse from Romans that says the same thing, a verse that more than any other in Scripture has empowered me to lose the chains of enslavement. Romans 8:6 “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Spirit of God by the grace of God gives freedom.

God’s way is promise. God’s way is power. God’s way is freedom. Reject anything in your life that is a scheme to make God’s promises happen now, to force God’s hand. Reject anything in your life that relies on human power or institutions. Reject anything in your life that is slavery to something other than God. It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. So I encourage you, my friends, to consciously rest in his promises. Has he spoken and will he not carry it out? And I encourage your to rejoices when you see or feel him at work. He is still bringing beauty out of ashes and life out of death.