Hagar and Sarah
“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. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.” Galatians 4:25-31
Paul has stated that the history of Sarah and Hagar recorded in the book of Genesis is an allegory. In verses 21-24 he showed us that their sons, Isaac and Ishmael, represented the two covenants revealed in Holy Scripture. Ishmael represented the covenant of works (law) and Isaac the covenant of grace. Here he continues to explain the allegory, showing us the difference between the two covenants. As Isaac and Ishmael represent the two covenants, their mothers represent two Jerusalems.
“For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children” (4:25). There are but two religions in the world: works and grace. The one system declares that salvation is obtained by what man does for God. The other declares that salvation is obtained by what God does for man. Theses two systems are here represented by two Jerusalems.
Hagar signifies Mount Sinai, or is a figure of the law given on that mount. She represents the covenant revealed and given to Israel on Mount Sinai. Therefore, Paul tells us that she “answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.”
Being a bondwoman, she represented that state of bondage the Jews were in at the time. They were, at the time, in a state of civil, moral, and legal bondage. They were in civil bondage to the Romans. They were in moral bondage to sin, to Satan, to the world and the lusts of it. And they were in legal bondage to the law, “the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). John Gill described their state very clearly.
“They were in bondage under the elements or institutions of it, such as circumcision, a yoke which neither they, nor their forefathers could bear, because it bound them over to keep the whole law; the observance of various days, months, times, and years, and the multitude of sacrifices they were obliged to offer, which yet could not take away sin, nor free their consciences from the load of guilt, but were as an handwriting of ordinances against them; every sacrifice they brought declaring their sin and guilt, and that they deserved to die as the creature did that was sacrificed for them. And besides, this law of commandments, in various instances, the breach of it was punishable with death, through fear of which they were all their life long subject to bondage. They were also in bondage to the moral law, which required perfect obedience of them, but gave them no strength to perform; showed them their sin and misery, but not their remedy; demanded a complete righteousness, but did not point out where it was to be had. It spoke not one word of peace and comfort, but all the reverse. It admitted of no repentance. It accused of sin, pronounced guilty on account of it, cursed, condemned, and threatened with death for it, all which kept them in continual bondage.”
Though there were exceptions, on the whole, the Jerusalem that then was sought righteousness before God by their own works, by their “obedience” to the law of God. This only aggravated their bondage. Their obedience was a mercenary obedience, not the obedience of a son, but of a slave. It was not the obedience of love, but of fear. Such people, whether they acknowledge it or not, are in bondage. Hagar represented Jerusalem, not the geographic or political city Jerusalem, but that which it portrayed ― Judaism, the religious system of legalism, self-righteous, works religion. Paul is telling us here that the covenant of works gives birth to a people who live continually in spiritual bondage. Hagar represents all legal religion, all self-righteous works religion.
Sarah, on the other hand, represents all true religion. She represents the covenant of grace. ―”But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (4:26). Here Paul describes the covenant of grace and life in Christ our Mediator, Representative, and sin-atoning Savior. The kingdom of Christ is from heaven above, not from Sinai. The righteousness set forth and given in this covenant is found in his obedience, not in ours. Redemption is found in his sacrifice and his satisfaction, not in legal obedience and religious ceremonies. In the covenant of grace we have access to and acceptance with the holy Lord God through Christ, our great High Priest, not through an earthly priesthood or by our own merit (Heb. 10:10-22). This covenant is free from the curse and bondage of the law and is the mother of every believer, Jew and Gentile. “Jerusalem which is above” (the church of Christ) is “the mother of us all” in the sense that she embraces all who trust Christ. We are born of grace. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
“Jerusalem which is above” is the church and kingdom of Christ. Christ’s church and kingdom lives by covenant grace. The apostle John uses the same imagery in describing God’s church in Revelation 21. He writes, “I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal…And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. (And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
The church is called Jerusalem because the name signifies peace. The church and kingdom of God is under the government and rule of Christ the Prince of peace. God’s saints are children of peace. We have been given peace and called to peace, and by faith in Christ enjoy peace with God. The gospel of Christ is the gospel of peace. And the covenant of grace, of which Paul is speaking, is the covenant of peace. Jerusalem, the object of God’s choice, the palace of the great King, the place of divine worship, was compact together, and well fortified. As such, it stands in Scripture as a picture of the church and kingdom of our God.
As Hagar and Sarah gave birth to two distinct sons (a slave and an heir), the covenant of works and the covenant of grace give birth to two distinct nations (a nation of bondmen and a nation of free born sons). It is impossible for anyone to belong to both nations at the same time. Edgar Andrews writes, “We cannot simultaneously be under the law and under grace. We are either children of the earthly Jerusalem, in bondage to a fruitless religion of works; or we are children of the heavenly Jerusalem, and enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. We are either slaves like Ishmael, or heirs like Isaac.”
Paul tells us that Hagar “is in bondage with her children.” What is this bondage? How are all who seek righteousness by the law brought into bondage? How are men brought into bondage by the law? They are in bondage because they set about to do that which cannot be done. They pursue righteousness by the works of the law, but never attain it. The law requires men to work for reward; but they can never do the work. The law demands both righteousness and satisfaction for sin, but man can produce neither. Everything man does, both regenerate men and unregenerate men, is tainted by sin and can never satisfy the law, which requires perfection (Lev. 22:21; Gal. 3:10). Being ignorant of God’s righteousness, they go about to establish their own righteousness, refusing to trust Christ, refusing to submit to the righteousness of God in Christ. They simply cannot grasp the fact that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 9:31-10:4). Consequently, they can never rest. They can never cease from their work. They are doomed to endless bondage and slavery.
Every religion that teaches sinners to perform works of any kind to obtain righteousness is a prison. Again, to quote Edgar Andrews, “This is true, even if the work required is to ‘believe’, or ‘trust’, or ‘commit’, or ‘surrender.’“ Such things are just as truly ‘works’ as circumcision, sabbath keeping, penances and pilgrimages. Legalism tells sinners to work for grace. The gospel of Christ declares that grace comes freely. Good works follow God’s operations of grace. They do not cause them (Eph. 2:8-10). “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). He does not wait for you to do something for him.
Do not make the mistake that most do in thinking that the bondage of legalism refers only to those who seek justifying righteousness by works. It also applies to those who seek righteousness and holiness in sanctification by their own works. In fact, that is precisely what Paul is dealing with in Galatians 3 and 4 (Gal. 3:1-3, 10). Sanctification, like justification, is the free gift of God’s grace in Christ, enjoyed by faith, without works (1 Cor. 1:30-31; Heb. 10:10, 14).
Even true believers can bring themselves into bondage by such ignorance, as is evidenced by this epistle. Throughout the six chapters of this book Paul treats the Galatians as believers, as we have seen (3:1-3, 26-29; 4:6-9; 5:7-10, 13; 6:1). He regarded them as believers who were being confused and led astray by false doctrine, the false doctrine of works righteousness. We seek to honor God our Savior in all things, ever striving against sin, not to attain righteousness before God, but because our great and gracious God has made us righteous in Christ (1 Cor. 6:9-11, 19-20; 10:31).
“But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (4:26). The heavenly Jerusalem, the church of Christ, is founded on the covenant of promise, which has its fulfillment in the new covenant ratified by the blood of Christ. “For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband” (4:27).
Paul here quotes from Isaiah 54:1, promising the continual enlargement of God’s church and kingdom in this world until all Israel (all God’s elect) is saved in fulfillment of his covenant purpose (Rom. 11:26-27). Sarah’s inability to give birth to Isaac was no hindrance to God fulfilling his promise. Rather, her inability was the very thing that demonstrated that God alone could fulfil the promise. So it is with us. If the Lord God left salvation, in any measure, to us, none could ever be saved. But that which is impossible with man is possible with God. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds (Rom. 5:20). By God’s free and sovereign grace “Jerusalem which is above” shall be a city fully inhabited (Rev. 21:10-17).
“Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise” (4:28). Believers are the children of promise, as Isaac was. As Isaac was promised to Abraham, we were promised and given to the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3, 4; John 6: 37-39). As Isaac was conceived and born by the power of God, we are born spiritually by God’s omnipotent grace (John 1:12,13; Eph. 1:19-20; Col. 2:12). As Isaac was the heir of Abraham, we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16,17).
The inhabitants of this city of grace, “Jerusalem which is above,” are “the children of promise,” being born of God in fulfillment of the covenant of promise in Christ. We are free from the law, no longer subject to its requirements or its penalties. That does not mean that God’s saints are a lawless people. We are under a new law, the rule and law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). It is written in our hearts (Jer. 31:31-33). In all things we are motivated by the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14). The Son of God has made us free; and we are free indeed (John 8:36).
Ishmael the Persecutor
“But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now” (4:29). Ishmael, the son of the flesh, mocked and persecuted the son of promise. Nothing has changed. False prophets, teaching righteousness by works, trying to bring God’s saints back under the yoke of legal bondage, mock and deride, slander and persecute all who trust Christ alone for righteousness. Salvation by works and salvation by grace are mutually exclusive. Legalists are threatened by grace, just as Ishmael was threatened by Isaac. He was not threatened by anything Isaac did, but by the mere fact that Isaac lived as Abraham’s free born son. And legalists are not threatened by anything God’s people do. Believers do not mock and persecute others. Legalists are threatened by the mere fact that we live in this world as God’s free born children, walking in the liberty of grace.
Ishmael Cast Out
Grace and works, as stated above, are mutually exclusive. Therefore Paul writes, “Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman” (4:30). This was God’s command to Abraham (Gen. 21:10-12). Ishmael, the child of flesh, the fruit of Abraham’s works, had to be cast out along with the mother who produced him, and cast out by Abraham. God would not allow Ishmael to be an heir with Isaac, the true son. He will not allow any mixture of works and grace (Rom. 11:6). We must cast aside the filthy rags of our own righteousness, if we would wear the righteousness of Christ. All systems of works and human merit must be forsaken from our hearts. Works religion must be cast out of our churches. We must have “no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11). The heirs of God are the children of grace in Christ Jesus. The self-righteous, those who seek righteousness by works, those who are “part Christ and part flesh,” “part grace and part works” advocates, cannot be heirs with children of promise.
“So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free” (4:31). There can be no marriage of law and grace. Believers are not hybrids or mongrels. We are the children of free grace and heirs of all that God promised his sons and daughters in the covenant of grace before the world began, “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.”