photo by Laura Evans
Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
Galatians 4:25-26 ESV
Dear ICB family,
Two mothers. Two covenants. A mountain in Arabia. Two cities with the same name. And two sets of children. Paul moves through imagery quickly in Galatians 4:21–5:1, so it can be hard to keep up. Let's see if we can demystify what Paul is getting at.
Hagar, a slave = God's covenant with his people that he made on Mount Sinai = present Jerusalem
Hagar's children (that is, children of the Sinai covenant or children of present Jerusalem) are kept in slavery. They inherit nothing and are cast out.
Sarah, a free woman = some other covenant that Paul doesn't explicitly mention = Jerusalem from above
Sarah's children (that is, children of this unnamed other covenant or children of the Jerusalem from above) are free. They inherit everything from their father and are kept.
What is Paul getting at? Hagar's children (a.k.a. children of present Jerusalem) are Jews still living under the old covenant that God made with his people on Mt. Sinai. Ironically, Paul refers to the ethnically Jewish teachers from Jerusalem who were causing all these problems in Galatia as children of Hagar! He calls the physical descendants of Isaac children of slavery!
Sarah's children (a.k.a. children of the Jerusalem from above) are both Jews and Gentiles who are living as children of another covenant that Paul never defines, at least not explicitly—unless you know the context of Isaiah 54:1, the verse that Paul quotes in Gal. 4:27. Whenever you come across an Old Testament quote in the New, there's a good chance the author has the entire passage in mind when he quotes it. The quoted part should jog our memory to call up the rest of the passage.
And what do we find when we go back to Isaiah 54? Well, the most careful observers will note that Isaiah 54 comes right after Isaiah 53, the last verse of which reads, "[A]nd he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors." Then Isaiah 54:1: "'Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,' says the Lord." Singing is the only appropriate response to the one who poured out his soul to death, who bears the sins of many, and who makes intercession for transgressors.
In Isaiah 54 God goes on to say that even though his people have been disgraced for a while, they won't be put to shame forever. "For your Maker is your husband," he says (v. 5)! Yes, he was angry with his people for a while, "but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you" (v. 8). Then in verse 10 God promises his people, "For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed." On that day, God says, "All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children" (v. 13; cf. Jeremiah 31:33–34).
Who can enter into this covenant of peace that Isaiah mentions in 54:10? He says, "Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price" (55:1), meaning it's a gift for those who come and receive it. "Incline your hear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant" (55:3). This is no reference to God's covenant with Israel on Mt. Sinai. This is a reference to God's promised new covenant that he will make with his people.
Take in, then, the context of Isaiah 54:1: there's rejoicing on the heels of the death of one who bears the sins of many and makes intercession for transgressions (53:12), there's a covenant of peace with Israel's husband and Maker, who will have compassion on his people with everlasting love (54:10, 5, 8), and there's the offer to enter into this everlasting covenant by merely coming and receiving it freely with no payment whatsoever (55:1–3). With all that context ringing in our ears, Paul's quotation of Isaiah 54:1 at the end of Galatians 4 suddenly takes on new significance.
If Hagar represented the covenant on Mt. Sinai, then, of course, Sarah represents the new covenant that God promised to make with his people at several points throughout the Old Testament, including here in Isaiah 53–55. This is a radically different kind of covenant. Sarah's true children, then, are comprised of both Jews and Gentiles who have entered into this new covenant that God has made with his people.
It is hard to overestimate how explosive Paul is being here. He's saying that unless the children of "the present Jerusalem" (i.e., all those insisting on living under Mosaic covenant) turn and become children of "the Jerusalem from above" (i.e., those who have entered into God's new covenant made possible through Christ), they are going to be cast out right along with Ishmael and all his descendants. And many people without a single drop of Abraham's blood running through their veins will come and inherit everything right along with Isaac.
And you want to run back to the old covenant? You want to forsake your entire inheritance by returning to the status of slave? Don't go there, Paul pleads with the Galatians and with us today. We're children of the free woman and heirs of God. Therefore, Paul says, "Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).
No longer a slave,